Campaign of the Month: October 2017

Blood and Bourbon

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Master Logs Page

“You want to know how it starts? The same thrice-damned way it always starts. Somebody wants something. Bad. Bad enough to shell out clams, bullets, or blood. Maybe all three.”
Louis Fontaine, retired NOPD detective

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This page contains links to all of Blood & Bourbon’s posted adventure logs. Newcomers to the site often want to know: where should they start reading?

For readers who want a taste of what the chronicle is like, the GM recommends beginning with Story 10, which chronicles the journey of Celia Flores from sheltered college student to ruthless vampire. The GM considers Story 10 to have some of the game’s best, tightest writing, and considers Celia to be one of the game’s most compelling PCs. Story 10 includes characters and references events from previous adventure logs, but reading those isn’t necessary to understand Story 10.

For readers who then want to continue Celia’s story, you can read the rest in numeric order—Celia Story 11, Celia Story 12, etc. The GM does not recommend (immediately) reading the logs of other PCs in Stories 11, 12, etc. It will be an inferior reading experience without the context of their preceding story arcs.

For readers who want to continue reading Emmett’s story after the taste they get in Story 10, the GM recommends reading them in the following order: Emmett Story 3, Emmett Story 8, Emmett Story 9, Emmett Story 12. As with Celia, the GM recommends not reading the logs of the other PCs in Stories 3, 8, 9, etc.

For readers who want to catch up on the entire chronicle, the GM recommends reading the logs in their posted chronological order, starting with Story 1. This order gives the fullest and most complete picture of the chronicle’s events. However, it’s not for the faint of heart! B&B’s posted logs are thousands of pages long in Word/Office and can take quite a while to read through.

Narrative Order vs. Character Order? Readers will notice that the end of adventure every log has links which read “Next/Previous by Narrative” and “Next/Previous by Character.” What are these? Essentially, they let you pick whether you want to cut between different characters as you read through chapters, or stick with a single character for many chapters. It’s like how in ASoIaF, you can read chapters in the order of Arya I, Sansa I, Tyrion I, Bran I, Arya II, etc… or you can just binge through all of the Tyrion chapters.

Reading the logs by Narrative Order will give you a more immediately comprehensive picture of broader events. Reading the logs by Character Order will let you zero in on the story of a particular character. Neither way to read the logs is better or worse than the other. I do recommend reading all of the chapters in a given Story before moving on to the next Story, but this isn’t absolute. The chronicle’s overall narrative is bigger than any single PC’s, even if some of them have bigger roles in that meta-narrative than others.

Why don’t some of the links work? Links in green are for logs not posted to the site yet. Links in purple are for posted logs.


Story One



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Chronicle Prologue: An accounting of what has come before.
Amelie I: Fresh off the plane from Canada, Amelie touches down in New Orleans to make a new life in the home of a distant aunt.
Alice Prelude: Alice lights a candle in the dark.
Amelie II: Amelie settles in to her new home and makes an auspicious purchase.
Alice I: Alice attempts to answer an impossible question and investigates several purported hauntings.
Amelie III: Amelie attends her first day at McGehee, the so-called “Southern belle West Point,” and sets her eye on a purportedly haunted house for a research project.
Alice II: Alice plans for a party, fends off a petty thief, and makes a potentially lucrative book sale.
Amelie IV: Amelie attempts to fit in among her privileged peers.
Alice III: Alice attends a strained family dinner.
Amelie V: Amelie sets out to explore the Big Easy’s historic attractions and gets a taste of its equally storied corruption.
Alice IV: Alice attempts to help a restless shade pass on while making a move on a long-held crush.
Amelie VI: Amelie receives a dire prophecy.
Alice Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.
Amelie VII: Amelie makes plans for an overnight stay in one of New Orleans’ most notorious paranormal hot spots.
Victoria Prelude I: Victoria gets shuffled through the foster system.
Caroline Prelude: Caroline claims her birthright.
Amelie VIII: Amelie eavesdrops upon a cruel truth.
Victoria Prelude I: Victoria finds a family.
Amelie IX, Caroline I: Stripped of illusions by her furious aunt, Amelie takes a hard look at the Big Easy’s hidden ugliness; Caroline covers up an embarrassment to her aunt’s alma mater.
Victoria I: Victoria makes a friend and receives an unusual job offer.
Amelie X, Caroline II: Still determined to get ahead in the city, Amelie attends a privileged lunch; Caroline gives a newcomer some helpful advice.
Victoria II: Victoria finds out just what she’s capable of.
Amelie XI: Past and future converge as Amelie braves a night in the infamous LaLaurie Mansion.


Story Two


George Prelude: George plots his rise to power.
Julien Prelude: Julien tries to make a difference in an uncaring world.
Clea Prelude: Clea pledges her service to the loa.
Emil I: Emil receives a mysterious package and responds to a distressed phone call.
George I: George deals with frenzying guests in his hotel and receives an invitation to visit his exiled clanmate John Harley Matheson from the enchanting young Becky Lynne.
Caroline I: Caroline gets a 3 AM phone call to bail some family friends out of trouble.
Clea I, Julien I: Clea and Julien compete for their sires’ favor and possession of a mysterious artifact.
Caroline II: Caroline frantically works to save two lives as new disaster strikes.
Clea II, George II, Julien II: Clea cuts a deal with George; George and Julien pay a visit to the Midnight Bayou and its proprietor Sundown.
Emil II: Emil learns the way things are done among NOPD.
George III: George searches for companions to entertain Matheson in his exile, but finds not all of the candidates are what they seem.
Julien III: Julien returns to the French Quarter to tie up loose ends, only to receive a lesson in the nature of friendship from Antoine Savoy.
George IV: George violates a new victim, pays his respects to two primogen, and swallows his pride for a miserable trek through Clan Nosferatu’s sewers.
Caroline III: Caroline pays a hospital visit to friends old and new.
George V: George smooths over a grudge with the Mafia, trades truths with an insightful Malkavian, and bears witness to another grim example of Vidal’s justice. -
Julien IV: Julien investigates rumors of hunters hunted, seeks atonement for his sins, and calls in a favor from the despicable Doc Xola to set up tentative peace talks between the Baron’s followers and the Tremere.
George VI: George receives a warning from an old flame and deals with unforeseen trouble on the road to Matheson’s.
Caroline IV, Emil III: Caroline keeps an eye out for a potential new ally; Emil receives an auspicious visitor.
George VII: George races the rising sun back to the Windsor Court, only to face a second foe he cannot so easily avoid: his own Beast.
Caroline V: Caroline deals with an unexpected fly in her family’s ointment.
Julien V: Julien meets with one of the Baron’s lieutenants to negotiate a truce between their covenants, only for events to spiral far out of control.
George VIII: George convenes a meeting of Clan Ventrue’s elders to flush out a traitor within the ranks.
Caroline Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.
Emil IV: Emil begins a new investigation into an old mystery.
George IX: George confronts not one traitor, but three—to explosive results.


Interlude

Cletus I: Cletus deals with a trespasser on his land.


Story Three


Louis I: Lou descends into the Crescent City’s seedy underbelly to find out who is murdering its prostitutes.
Caroline I: Caroline finds new troubles trying to forget old ones.
Emmett I: Em picks an ambitious new mark to con.
Louis II: Lou witnesses a murder through a dead woman’s eyes, reunites with an old failure, and puts a name to a killer.
Caroline II: Caroline plunges headfirst into her new existence among the Damned.
Emmett II: Emmett tries to abort a soured heist while making a few bucks.
Louis III: Lou turns to the Holy Mother of Church for aid and attempts to pawn off an old keepsake.
Caroline III: Caroline fights for her unlife when an intruder breaches her daytime haven.
Emmett III: Concerned he’s in over his head, Em chances a meeting with a crooked cop and walks into a trap of his own devising.
Louis IV: Lou cases a double homicide and calls up an loa to obtain sorely needed answers.
Caroline IV: Caroline navigates a tense reunion with her mortal family.
Emmett IV: Em faces truth.
Louis V: Lou picks up the pieces of a broken world.
Caroline V: Caroline faces the Lancea et Sanctum’s judgment for her unsanctioned Embrace.
Emmett V: Em awakens from his nightmares in the hospital and faces a horrifying loss.
Louis VI: Lou teams up with a new partner.
Caroline VI, Emmett VI: Caroline attends a tediously necessary social function; Em remembers back to better times.
Caroline VII, Louis VII: Caroline enlists some desperately needed help in tracking down her sire; Lou takes on a case that makes him question everything he’s ever done.
Emmett VII: Em gets into further trouble with NOPD.
Caroline VIII: Caroline takes a wrong turn in a bad neighborhood.
Caroline IX, Louis VIII: Caroline covers up an inconvenient sin; Lou offers guidance to a fledgling in need.
Emmett VIII: Beset with crushing medical and legal debt, Em strikes a devil’s bargain with the Dixie Mafia.
Louis IX: Lou reunites with an old flame and confronts a wrathful loa.
Caroline X: Caroline swears a desperate oath and meets a friendly face among the Damned.
Emmett IX: Em faces sentencing for his latest misdeeds.
Louis X: Lou races against time to save a stubborn mambo’s life.
Caroline XI: Caroline deals with a home invasion, learns an abject lesson in how little her pride sells for, and witlessly crosses a perilous boundary.
Emmett X, Mouse I: Em pins his trust on a desperate hope; Mouse helps out a ‘friend’ in need.
Louis XI: Lou recovers from his previous night’s ordeals and delivers a soul-wrenching apology.
Adelais I, Caroline XII: Adelais gives a neonate some lessons in etiquette; Caroline faces a regent’s wrath.
Emmett XI: A lifetime of lies comes crashing down as Em grapples over whether to do the unthinkable: tell the truth.
Caroline XIII: Caroline frantically tries to stop the Masquerade from unraveling as her mortal loved ones grow too curious for their own good.
Louis XII: Bereft of allies and options, Lou agrees to a reluctant meeting with the enemies of his enemies.
Adelais II, Caroline XIV, Lavine I, Rocco I: Caroline acts fast to protect her loved ones from their exposure to the Kindred world, but finds the price of their safety may be all-too high; Adelais and Lavine puts in appearances at Elysium; Rocco cleans up a neonate’s Masquerade breach.
Emmett XII: Em accepts his fate.
Louis XIII: Lou seeks out a long-dead fortune teller for counsel over his ominous new affliction.
Caroline XV, Rocco II: Caroline sacrifices a friendship to save a life; Rocco helps teach a neonate a needed lesson.
Louis Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.
Emmett Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.


Interlude

Mouse I: Mouse witlessly crosses a perilous line.
George I: George shares a devastating secret with Antoine Savoy.


Story Four



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Micheal Prelude: An accounting of what has come before.
Caroline I, Louis I: Caroline tempts a witless soul into damnation; Lou tells off a high-profile client.
Micheal I: Micheal rallies support against an elder who’s gone too far.
Caroline II, Louis II: Caroline repeats an awful sin; Lou settles for losing slowly and stalks a witless pawn.
Micheal II: Micheal barters with Clan Nosferatu for secrets.
Annabelle I, Caroline III: Annabelle plays hostess to some neonates; Caroline clashes with a rival coterie through mortal proxies and shares a bitter drink with her mortal brother.
Micheal III: Micheal makes an impossible choice between his family and his ideals.
Caroline IV: Caroline orchestrates a two-pronged hit to reclaim a kidnapped friend, but finds she may be no less a monster.
Micheal IV: Micheal attempts to sway an intransigent Malkavian.
Caroline V: Caroline saves a servant and loses a friend.
Cletus I, Micheal V: Cletus tests the loyalties of Antoine Savoy’s new ‘ally’; Micheal goes on an alligator hunt with Cletus, only to find his remaining humanity may be the Giovannini’s true quarry.
Caroline VI: Caroline watches a budding romance bloom full flower.
Cletus II, Micheal VI: Cletus and Micheal go hunting for the biggest alligator in the swamp: the Great Honky.
Caroline VII: Caroline clashes with some twice-slighted rivals for a final time—and the hands behind them.
Cletus III, Micheal VII: Micheal attends a birthday party thrown by Cletus’ cannibalistic redneck descendants; Cletus shows his guest the full measure of Southern hospitality.
Caroline VIII: Caroline interrogates an unexpected captive and tempts a second soul into damnation.
Cletus IV, Micheal VIII, Rocco I: Micheal loses more than time at the Boggs’ hands; Cletus celebrates some unexpected nuptials; Rocco issues a warning to a defiant Anarch.
Caroline IX, Louis III: Caroline severs another tie to her mortal past; Lou sets out to bring a criminal to justice.
Rocco II: Rocco passes on some unexpected news to an elder Brujah.
Micheal IX: The Boggs cross a red line with Micheal.
Caroline X, Louis IV: Caroline gets drawn into a perilous game of cat and mouse with her sire; Lou gambles centuries of anonymity over a secret that could change everything.
Rocco III: Rocco plays a game of cat and mouse with an intransigent harpy.
Cletus V, Micheal X: Starving, wounded and out of options, Micheal turns to a seeming friend for aid—only to set and spring a trap of his own making; Cletus exacts vengeance upon a treacherous guest.
Caroline XI, Louis V: Caroline faces apprehension for her crimes; Lou takes a once-inconceivable risk.
Cletus Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.
Louis VI: Having exposed his centuries-hidden identity on Caroline’s behalf, Lou withdraws deep into hiding and seeks out an old teacher’s aid.
Caroline Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.


Interlude

Louis I, Rocco I: An old man tries to save a young boy from sin.
Micheal I: Bested but not broken by his captors, Micheal holds out for as long as he can.
Cletus I: Cletus disciplines a wayward childe.


Story Five



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Cletus I, Micheal I: Cletus strikes a new accord with Antoine Savoy; Micheal attempts to make right past wrongs.
Jacob Prelude I: Jacob suffers for a forbidden love.
Lavine I: Lavine plumbs the centuries-old journals of Pierre d’Iberville, founder of New Orleans, to uncover an even older mystery.
Cletus II, Rocco I: Rocco baits a trap to ensare his new foes; Cletus defends his domain from a dangerous intruder.
Jacob Prelude II: Jacob makes a devil’s deal for vengeance.
Lavine II: Lavine runs into several unpleasant reminders of her mortal past and butts heads with a dogged cop.
Cletus III, Rocco II: Cletus interrogates his new prisoner; Rocco holds out for as long as he can.
Jacob I: Jacob comes to New Orleans and receives an unfriendly welcome.
Lavine III: Lavine journeys beyond New Orleans to seek the wisdom of kowi anukasha, a native spirit of her people.
Cletus IV, Rocco III: Cletus continues to enjoy himself; Physically and mentally broken by torture, Rocco entertains a duplicitous offer to yet serve his prince.
Jacob II: Jacob tries to find a place for himself in a friendless city.
Lavine IV: Lavine receives a chilling reminder why her race keeps to the cities.
Cletus V: Cletus prepares a lavish party to host the Camarila’s diplomats, but discovers several flies in his ointment.
Jacob III: Jacob deals with some hunters.
Annabelle I: Annabelle approaches the Ventrue elder John Harley Matheson over a matter of mutual aid, only to find she has struck a devil’s bargain and must immediately pay its price.
Jacob IV, Lavine V: Lavine faces arrest by mortal authorities and assumes a grave new responsibility; Jacob welcomes a new addition to his ‘family’.
Cletus VI: Reeling from a series of new disasters, Cletus shows his mortal descendants the terrible price for disobedience.
Baptiste I, Lavine VI: Baptiste offers succor to a wounded soul; Lavine searches for sacrifices to placate a demanding spirit, only to make one of herself as well.
Annabelle II, Louis I: Annabelle seeks out an unlikely source of aid; Lou goes against his better judgment to help out a lady in trouble.
Baptiste II: Baptiste perfects Clan Nosferatu’s underground defenses and trades secrets with his overly affectionate sire.
Cletus VII, Jacob V, Lavine VII: Seizing advantage of the conflict among the Circle’s Acolytes, Cletus puts his own pawns into play; Jacob gets in over his head rushing to a distressed ally’s rescue; Lavine turns to the despicable Doc Xola for help with a kidnapping, only to rapidly find his monstrosity too much to bear.
Baptiste III: Baptiste offers salvation and damnation to a wayward soul and commits himself to a grave new mission.
Jacob VI: Jacob pleas for his wife’s existence before a pitiless audience.
Annabelle III, Louis II: Annabelle plots revenge against those who have wronged her; Lou cases an old murder for new answers.
Baptiste IV: Baptiste puts into motion a bold plan: the infiltration of Perdido House, seat of Prince Vidal’s power.
Cletus VIII, Jacob VII: Cletus receives an early guest to his soiree; Jacob is called upon to provide a sorcerous consultation.
Baptiste Epilogue: Baptiste faces the consequences of his actions.
Annabelle IV, Cletus IX, Jacob VIII: Annabelle presents Cletus with an unorthodox gift; Cletus graciously receives his soiree’s guests and shares an enlightening carriage ride with a disembodied elder; Jacob summons a restless spirit to learn of an ominous intrusion.
Annabelle V, Cletus X, Jacob IX: Annabelle searches for allies among the soiree’s attendees; Cletus plies his charms upon his guests and pits the Camarilla against Clan Giovannini in a game of symbolic egg paquing.
Annabelle VI, Cletus XI, Jacob X: Annabelle attempts to thwart an assassin’s attack; Cletus moves to conclude his prolix diplomatic deal with the Camarilla, but looming specters threaten to throw all into chaos; Temporarily banished from his domain, Jacob makes provisions for the care of his children and witlessly invites a monster into his home.
Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.


Interlude

George I: George dreams.


Story Six


George I: George enlists legal counsel for his upcoming trial.
Mouse I: Mouse enlists dubious help to navigate New Orleans’ criminal justice system.
Caroline I: Caroline deals with a truculent prisoner.
Mouse II: Mouse faces sentence for his inadvertent crimes.
Caroline II: Caroline deals with a long-postponed threat to her personal Masquerade.
Mouse III: Mouse finds himself in dire new financial straits.
Caroline III: Caroline confronts a dangerous intruder in her haven.
Mouse IV: Mouse becomes a MeVid sensation.
Caroline IV, Mouse V: Caroline punishes a wayward sinner; Mouse endeavors to prove his innocence before two stone-hearted judges.
Mouse VI: Less than twenty-four hours after his release from jail, Mouse witlessly lands himself in further trouble with the Big Easy’s police.
Caroline V: Caroline loses a friend and entertains a cautious offer from a powerful new patron.
Mouse VII: Mouse faces judgment and sentencing for his newest and even more inadvertent crimes.
Caroline VI: Caroline receives some sorely-needed lessons in Kindred etiquette.
Mouse VIII: Mouse arrives in his new home.
Caroline VII, Louis I: Caroline discovers a damning secret; A wanted man braves too-familiar danger to aid a fledgling in need.
Mouse IX: Mouse hits rock bottom.
Caroline VIII: Caroline is called to account for her actions and learns a shattering revelation.
Mouse X: Mouse makes his final stand.
Caroline IX: Caroline grants a faithful servant her final reward.
Mouse Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.
Caroline X, Cletus I, George II, Rocco I: Caroline comes face to face with her true maker; Cletus makes a trip out to the big city; George betrays two clanmates; Rocco pulls some strings to acquire a new pawn.
Caroline XI, Cletus II, George III: Cletus hatches a plan to avenge past slights; George is charged with blasphemy against the Lancea et Sanctum.
Cletus III, George IV: Cletus develops a newfound appreciation for the arts; George clashes with New Orleans’ dreaded scourge and pledges loyalty to a new cause and patron.
Caroline XII, Jacob I, Rocco II: Caroline presents herself before her clanmates; Jacob and his fellow accused face Prince Vidal’s final judgment for their crimes; Rocco invites a neonate to a party.


Story Seven


Caroline I: Caroline reminisces over what might (and could never) have been.
Isa Prelude: Isa tries to save two brothers.
Caroline II: Caroline receives a rude awakening and enjoys the hospitality of a powerful new patron.
Isa I: Isa dies in a bathroom.
Caroline III, Rocco I: Caroline attends a tediously necessary social function; Rocco entertains a party of neonates.
Caroline IV: Caroline faces a bitter preview of her Requiem ahead.
Isa II: Isa walks a social tightrope at Elysium.
Caroline V: Caroline attends a family funeral.
Isa III, Rocco II: Rocco raids a lawbreaker’s haven; Isa sells out a faithless ‘benefactor’.
Caroline VI: Caroline works to engender herself to her discerning clanmates.
Rocco III: Rocco collects an owed debt and receives a concerning warning about his new tenant.
Caroline VII: Caroline sees to her mortal affairs and attempts to set right some old wrongs.
Milo Prelude, Louis I: Milo loses a brother.
Caroline VIII: Caroline attempts to mend relations with a former adversary.
Rocco IV: A gathering of old friends goes awry as Rocco plays a game of scopa for answers as to a former coterie-mate’s past.
Caroline IX, Emmett I: Caroline frames an old patsy for a new crime; Em takes a trip outside the Farm.
Milo I: Milo deals with a bizarre home invasion.
Caroline X, Rocco V: Caroline and Rocco look into a missing neonate.
Milo II: Milo attempts to brighten his spirits among friends and strangers.
Caroline XI: Caroline attempts to help an amnesiac solve her own disappearance to make inroads with the city’s Anarchs.
Milo III: Milo pays a visit to what’s left of his father.
Caroline XII: Caroline investigates the circumstances of her still-mysterious Embrace.
Caroline XIII: Caroline displays the fruits of her agoge before Clan Ventrue.
Arthur I, Caroline XIV: Arthur prepares a lavish banquet for some demanding patrons; Caroline attends a celebratory dinner.
Caroline XV: Caroline receives a mother’s gratitude—and rich rewards long overdue.
Milo IV: Milo receives a warning from an anonymous benefactor and braves the darkness to take the fight to his tormentors.
Caroline XVI: Caroline discovers a terrible danger waiting in the wings.
Caroline XVII, Rocco VI: Caroline navigates a perilous web of diplomacy and deceit; Rocco deals with an attack upon his domain.
Caroline XVIII: Caroline learns the truth of her Embrace at long last.


Interlude

Caroline I: Caroline gets into a bitter family argument.


Story Eight



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Caroline I: Caroline celebrates a birthday.
Arthur I, Emmett I: Arthur dances an evening away; Emmett sets his eye on a new conquest.
Adelais I: A heartless art critic discovers her true calling.
Emmett II: Emmett snares the object of his lusts with sweet words—and finds himself ensnared in turn.
Emmett III: Emmett resolves to make a movie and gets in over his head.
Arthur II, Emmett IV: Arthur hits on a new acquaintance; Emmett makes a long-planned romantic move.
Emil I, Emmett V: Emil auditions for a movie; Emmett reviews a script that cuts too close to home.
Adelais II: Adelais reaches an accord over a prosperous new domain.
Emil II: Emil digs up old graves for answers into his father’s past.
Emmett VI: Emmett meets the girl he deserves.
Adelais III: An icy-tempered harpy enjoys her Requiem’s spoils.
Emil III, Emmett VII: Past becomes present as Emil relives a horrific memory; Emmett helps a man in need.
Emil IV: Emil deals with inquisitive police—and parents—in the hospital.
Emmett VIII: Emmett gets even like never before.
Emil V: Emil foretells a dire prophecy.
Emmett IX: Emmett walks into a lion’s den.
Emil VI: Emil’s parents try to outrun his past.
Emmett X: Emmett comes to a final understanding with his parents.
Emil VII: Emil peers upon a foreboding future.
Adelais IV: Adelais places a “friendly” wager with her brutal paramour.
Emil VIII, Emmett XI: Emil places his faith in a faithless man; Emmett gets some much-needed legal representation.
Emil IX: Emil comes home.
Emmett Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.


Story Nine



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Jon I: Jon touches down in Vienna and receives a new mission.
Emmett I: Emmett is executed for his crimes by the state of Louisiana.
Amelie I: Amelie awakens from a coma into a nightmare.
Emil I: Emil’s troubles follow him to L.A.
Jon II: Jon uncovers an alarming security breach among Clan Tremere’s secret police.
Amelie II, Emmett II: Amelie explores new realms beyond her darkest imaginings; Emmett faces his afterlife.
Emil II: Emil accepts a devil’s bargain.
Jon III: Jon plays an unseen game of cat and mouse with a justicar’s agents.
Emmett III: Emmett faces judgment for his past sins.
Amelie III: Amelie reunites with an old enemy.
Emil III: Emil settles in to his apparent new life.
Jon IV: Jon reminds a long-time servant of her place.
Emmett IV: Emmett trades a tale for a tale.
Amelie IV: Amelie gets in trouble with the law over a falsified crime.
Emil IV: Emil erects the first block in his transyphysical tower.
Jon V: Dark wings alight upon Jon’s trans-Atlantic plane flight.
Emmett V: Emmett shares a bitter reunion with his living kin.
Amelie V: Amelie endures.
Emil V: Emil journeys into Houston’s labyrinthine underground.
Jon VI: Jon says a bittersweet farewell.
Emmett VI: Emmett faces imprisonment by an altogether different manner of gaoler.
Amelie VI: Amelie begins her jail sentence in Orleans Parish Prison.
Emil VI: Emil meets a fellow seeker in his quest for knowledge.
Jon VII: Jon collects his childe and sees to remaining affairs in Seattle.
Emmett VII: Emmett gets to know his cellmates.
Amelie VII: Pushed and provoked beyond all endurance, Amelie snaps.
Emil VII: Emil witensses a hidden wonder.
Jon VIII, Rocco I: Jon receives a poor welcome in New Orleans; Rocco greets a new arrival to his prince’s city.
Emmett VIII: Emmett risks all to defy his gaolers.
Amelie Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.


Story Ten



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Celia Prelude I: Celia regrets a wish.
Celia Prelude II: Celia learns to pretend.
Celia I: Celia takes her first step outside her sheltered life.
Celia II, Emmett I: Celia tries to introduce her boyfriend to her parents; Em submits to his latest indignity.
Celia III: Celia resolves to stop suffering in silence.
Celia IV, Emmett II: Celia sacrifices her dignity to provide for her family; Em fans a spark of rebellion.
Celia V: Celia meets her boyfriend’s family and goes looking for a new father.
Celia VI: Celia finds some unexpected financial help.
Celia VII: Celia dares to challenge her father.
Caroline I, Celia VIII, Emmett III: Caroline helps her father clean up a mess; Celia works to extricate her family from their father’s grasp; Emmett makes a helpful introduction.
Celia IX, Emmett IV: Celia looks for love in all the wrong places; Em tries to do the right thing without it backfiring.
Celia X, Emil I, Emmett V: Celia tries to keep her family safe from an abuser; Em tries to give some good advice for once; Emil cultivates an investment.
Celia XI, Emmett VI: Celia chooses between a mother and friend in need; Em plans to take down a bastard in need of taking down.
Celia XII, Emmett VII: Celia makes a devil’s bargain; Em finds no good deed goes ununpunished.
Celia XIII, Emil II, Emmett VIII: Celia watches a loved one pay the price for a fateful choice; Emil and Emmett try to offer what comfort they can.
Celia XIV: Celia comes face to face with the monster under the bed.
Emil III, Emmett IX: Emil and Emmett run for their lives with a tape that may decide everything.
Emil IV: Emil flees from an unstoppable foe.
Celia XV: Celia decides between fortune and family.
Celia XVI: Celia confronts her sire.
Celia XVII, Emmett X: Celia reaches a bitter accord; Emmett tries to just go home.


Story Eleven


Caroline I: Caroline comes to a reckoning with her mortal family.
Jon I: Jon reunites with an old friend and colleague.
Celia I: Celia settles in to her existence among the Damned.
Caroline II: Caroline deals with her disownment.
Jon II: Jon and another old friend educate a fledgling.
Celia II: Celia runs into some unexpected reminders from her old life.
Caroline III: Caroline celebrates a Christmas Eve unlike any other.
Amelie I: Free from Orleans Parish Prison, Amelie reckons with her all-too abrupt damnation.
Celia III: Celia celebrates a cheerless Christmas.
Caroline IV: Caroline sees to her myriad affairs.
Celia IV: Celia allows herself to be used.
Adelais I, Caroline V, Isa I, Jon III, Rocco I: The city’s Kindred converge upon Elysium—and find much spectacle in a disorderly guest.
Celia V: Celia breaks a defiant soul and makes a new ally.
Rocco II: Rocco nurses his wounds and plots a comeback.
Caroline VI, Isa II: Caroline looks for a long-found missing person; Isa learns a brother’s fate.
Celia VI: Celia tries to rekindle an old flame.
Amelie II, Caroline VII: Amelie makes a grisly sacrifice for a new benefactor; Caroline deals with a disobedient servant.
Jon IV: Jon investigates a traitorous clanmate’s haven.
Amelie III, Caroline VIII: Amelie comes to a second rude awakening; Caroline curries favor with a primogen.
Celia VII: Celia confesses to an old betrayal.
Jon V: Jon twists a seeming faux pas to his advantage and pays a visit to an old friend’s childer.
Amelie IV, Caroline IX: Amelie tries to learn more about what she is; Caroline shows a new fledgling the ropes.
Celia VIII: Celia takes an auspicious spa client.
Jon VI: Jon plumbs a renegade clanmate’s secret journals.
Amelie V, Rocco III: Amelie is presented before the seneschal; Rocco takes an interest in an abandoned fledgling.
Caroline X: Caroline seeks out lost souls and tries to appease an affronted elder.
Amelie Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.
Caroline XI: Someone close asks Caroline to cover up an unspeakable crime.
Jon VII: Jon investigates a clanmate’s attack and a faithful ghoul’s more esoteric discoveries.
Caroline XII: Caroline prunes a poisoned tree and looks for love where she can find it.
Jon VIII: Jon agrees to perform the surgery of a lifetime.
Caroline XIII: Caroline comes to a final reckoning with her mortal mother and a long-hated foe.
Celia IX, Jon IX: Celia plies her charms upon a potential new patron; Jon tests a promising neonate.
Caroline XIV: Caroline settles in among her new family.
Celia X, Estrellado I: Estrellado finds a new lover.
Caroline XV: Caroline crosses her Rubicon.
Jon Epilogue: A final accounting of what has come to pass.
Caroline XVI: Caroline confronts her sire—her true sire—and meets her destiny.


Story Twelve



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Caroline I: Caroline brings a dead woman back to life.
Emmett I: Em gets acquainted with his band of fellow escapees.
Celia I: Celia reminds her servants of their place.
Caroline II: Caroline deals with another disobedient servant.
Emmett II: Em catches up with an old girlfriend.
Celia II: Celia drinks from the wrong vessel before a poorly-timed family dinner.
Caroline III: Caroline attempts to enjoy a peaceful day with her new family.
Emmett III, Lamarck I: Em spies on a vampire and encounters a helpful soul in the Underworld; Lam finds some rubes to con.
Celia III: Celia takes up the Nosferatu on a dare.
Caroline IV: Caroline balances her new duties with increasingly unanswerable personal demands.
Emmett IV: Emmett grapples with his Shadow and spies on his ex-lover.
Celia IV: Celia tries to smooth things over with her mortal family.
Caroline V: Caroline contends with the sheriff to sway her sire’s increasingly unstable rule.
Emmett V: Weary of fighting his dark side, Em strikes an accord with an even greater evil.
Caroline VI: Caroline stages a mother’s death.
Celia V: Celia wakes up kidnapped.
Caroline VII, Emmett VI: Caroline evaluates a new asset; Em forgives an old sin.
Celia VI, Emmett VII: Em and Celia dance through a shared dream.
Celia VII: Celia interrogates a truculent prisoner.
Ayame Prelude: Ayame suffers under a cruel domitor.
Celia VIII: Celia lets her hair down at one of the French Quarter lord’s infamous revels.
Emmett VIII: Em hunts for souls.
Celia IX: Celia says a surprisingly easy goodbye.
Caroline VIII, Celia X: A children’s playdate turns perilous as Celia reveals her true identity to a dangerous party.
Celia XI: Celia digs into the past with her mortal mother.
Ayame I, Celia XII: Ayame tries to avert a massacre of the city’s thin-bloods; Celia tries to lure an older lover back into her arms.
Caroline IX: Caroline travels beyond the Crescent City to meet one of the rare few Kindred to enjoy its seneschal’s trust.
Celia XIII: Celia reconnects with her one-time paramour.
Ayame II: Ayame reaches an arrangement with an unexpected contact.
Celia XIV: Celia receives a dire mission from her sire.
Caroline X: Caroline battles a Sabbat pack.
Celia XV, Emmett IX: Celia deals with some unexpected daytime intruders; Em collects a few more souls.
Caroline XI: Caroline seals a pact in blood.
Celia XVI: Celia runs into an unwelcome figure from her past.
Emmett X: Em hits a potential jackpot.
Celia XVII: Celia deliberates what to do about hunters and her mother’s new infatuation.
Caroline XII:
Celia XVIII, Emmett XI: Celia seeks advice over a soul-eater; Em halfheartedly hopes for forgiveness.
Celia XIX: Celia puts in an appearance at Elysium.
Emmett XII, Lamarck II: Emmett commits his greatest transgression yet.
Caroline XIII: Caroline considers a marriage proposal.
Celia XX: Celia shepherds a fledgling into the night.
Caroline XIV: Caroline’s mother teaches her a horrifying lesson.
Emmett XIII: Emmett prepares to receive his heart’s desire.
Celia XXI: Celia hears the last words she ever expected to from an estranged relative.
Emmett XIV: Emmett battles his Shadow to the death for the ultimate prize.
Caroline XV: Caroline faces an assassination attempt aiding a clanmate in need.
Celia XXII: Celia breaks some surprising news to her family.
Emmett XV: Emmett is reborn.
Caroline XVI: Caroline interrogates a prisoner and attempts to secure new swords in her upcoming battle.
Celia XXIII: Celia takes a new lover.
Ayame III:
Celia XXIV: Celia weaves new intrigues with her grandsire.
Celia XXV, Emmett XVI: Emmett gets a new face.
Caroline XVI, Celia XXVII: Caroline and Celia share a moment with one of the few Kindred to understand them.
Celia XXVIII: Celia flees a madhouse.
Emmett XVII: Emmett decides how to spend his new unlife.
Celia XXIX: Celia her tries to win her sire’s approval and stop the Masquerade from unraveling around her mortal family.
Emmett Epilogue: A final accounting of all that has come to pass.


Story Thirteen



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Celia I: Celia picks up the pieces of a broken Masquerade.
Genevieve I, Sterling I: Genevieve finds a new domitor; Sterling finds a new conscience.
Celia II: Celia prepares for possible war.
Celia III: Celia reunites a brother and sister.
Genevieve II, Sterling II: Genevieve does her best to please her new master; Sterling rewards and punishes his new conscience.
Celia IV: Celia breaks in a new ghoul and walks back from a terrible mistake.
Celia V: Celia attempts to win back an aggrieved friend and cover up a new weakness.
Genevieve III, Sterling III: Genevieve gets even with an old tormentor; Sterling makes up with his ghoul.
Celia VI: Celia deals with a spy.
Celia VII: Celia feeds an alien hunger.
Genevieve IV, Sterling IV: Genieve urges her domitor to do the right thing; Sterling takes his conscience on a date.
Celia VIII: Celia prepares to seduce an ex-prince with her new lover.
Celia IX: Celia meets the luckiest man in New Orleans.
Genevieve V, Sterling V: Genevieve tries to do the right thing; Sterling pushes the limits of his new conscience.
Celia X: Celia tries to reconcile two quarreling siblings.
Celia XI: Celia learns and regrets new truths about her mother and a doll long in her possession.
Jean-Marc Prelude: Jean-Marc’s sins catch up with him.
Celia XII: Celia slums it in Rampart Street to question a Quarter rat.
Celia XIII: Celia takes another lover and gets caught up in a Mafia hit job.
Jean-Marc I: Jean-Marc entertains an offer to commit his first murder.
Celia XIV: Celia shatters her paramour’s world with a truth he never wanted to face.
Celia XV: Celia attempts to comfort a father in his loss.
Julius I: Julius expels an intruder from his landlord’s domain while grappling with the Beast within.
Celia XVI: Celia tries to forestall her sire’s wrath with a heart-wrenching sacrifice.
Celia XVII, Julius II: Celia taunts a sister and seeks out a Malkavian for answers; Julius acquits himself in Elysium despite his clanless blood.
Louis I: Lou gets back in the game.
Celia XVIII: Celia’s lover takes charge of their relationship.
Louis II: Lou torches a vampire and tries to help a weary ghost find peace.
Celia XIX: Celia searches for answers among licks who can’t or won’t share them.
Celia XX: Celia dons a familiar mask as she submits to another abuser.
Louis III: Lou inducts another hunter into the Vigil.
Celia XXI: Celia helps her mother forgive her other personality’s misdeeds.
Celia XXII, Cletus I, Julius III:
Louis IV: Lou takes a trip up to the Farm.
Celia XXIII, Julius VI:
Louis V: Lou asks forgiveness for a mother’s accidental death.
Celia XXIV: Celia faces kidnapping and torture at the Guard de Ville’s hands.
Caroline III: Caroline weighs a marriage proposal in her newfound mission to destroy the sheriff.
Celia XXV: Celia heals a divided soul.
Celia XXVI: Celia clashes with the hounds in Elysium to unmask a spy.
Caroline, Celia XXVII: Caroline takes an unpleasant phone call; Celia brings another family member in on her secret.
Caroline II: Caroline attempts to reach an accord with her sire’s archrival.
Celia XXVIII: Roderick gives Celia one last chance to fix their relationship.
Celia XXIX: Celia and an ex-lover get even with one another.
Celia XXX: Celia tempts a once-good man into the blackest of sins.
Caroline VI, Celia XXXI: Caroline deigns to help cover up a Masquerade breach; Celia tries to hold her family together against everything tearing their lives apart.
Celia XXXII: Celia tries to safeguard her sister from exposure to the Kindred world and helps her mother reach an understanding with her other personality.
Caroline VII, Louis VI: Caroline braves a death trap to retrieve a dead hunter’s secrets; Lou pays an old “friend” an unexpected visit.
Celia XXXIII: Celia takes out her frustrations on someone weaker after an unfortunate lapse of control.
Celia XXXIV: Celia tries to patch things up with a furious sister.
Caroline VIII, Louis VII: Lou and Caroline attempt to reach an accord as a seemingly unstoppable foe bears down.
Celia XXXV: Celia searches for a thin-blooded alchemist.
Caroline IX, Louis VIII: Lou and Caroline risk all in battle against the deadliest adversary they have yet faced: Donovan, sheriff of New Orleans.
Celia XXXVI: Celia runs into an old abuser.
Caroline X: Caroline fights a second battle against treacherous allies after a fragile coalition crumbles.
Celia XXXVII: Celia plumbs her sire’s haven for secrets.
Celia XXXVIII: Celia awakens in a sister’s care and receives a chilly homecoming.
Epilogue: A final accounting of all that has come to pass.


Story Fourteen


Caroline I: Caroline forges a despicable alliance.
Celia I: Celia investigates her mortal parentage.
Jon I: Jon receives a lucrative job offer.
Nylea Prelude: An accounting of what has come before.
Celia II: Celia looks into her new sister-in-blood’s buried past.
Zoe I: Zoe gets kicked out by her family.
Caroline II:
Celia III:
Zoe II: Zoe finds a place to sleep.
Isadora I: Isadora checks in on a child’s welfare.
Celia IV:
Zoe III: Zoe finds herself forced into sex work to make ends meet.
Caroline III:
Zoe IV: Zoe gets in trouble with the NOPD after an academic advisor pushes her too far.
Celia V:
Caroline IV:


Tall Tales & Might-Have-Beens


The following logs are not canon. They weren’t played out and are speculative fiction written by the game’s players. Nevertheless, truth may be found in lies, and lies may be found in truth: the “real” logs have misinformation and falsehoods aplenty, while the below logs may contain valid insights into characters’ true selves.

At the end of the night, vampires are a race of liars. Find your version of the truth wherever you can.

By Emily
Whore: Celia learns her place. Sequel to Celia 10.4.
Capes: Celia waits for her sire. Sequel to Story Ten.
Gravestones: Celia pays respects to her lost love. Sequel to Story Ten.
Monsters and Maidens: Celia’s love takes her as a ghoul. Sequel to Story Ten.
Wrists: Celia mourns a wedding that can no longer be. Sequel to Story Ten.
Midnight: Celia celebrates the new year. Sequel to Celia 11.4.
Rescue: Celia prays for deliverance. Sequel to Celia 12.5.
Roof: Celia is too late to rescue a loved one. Sequel to Celia 12.14.
Corrected: Celia’s lover trains out her misbehaviors. Sequel to Celia 13.21.
The Key: Celia saves herself from an abuser. Sequel to Celia 13.36.

By Sam
The Tax: Some hapless tourists hope to win big at the casino.


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Story One, Victoria Prelude II

Tuesday night, 13 June 2000

Victoria: Sylvie is a beaten dog. She cries in that solitary box until the tears run dry, then she heaves hollow sounds. She hugs her knees, rocking back and forth on the floor.

Sylvie is a bad girl.

A bad, bad girl.

The dreams remind her of that. She sees her parents, burning in the willow tree, needled and jabbed by faeries and dragons and goblins. They don’t mind if Sylvie sees them as long as they have her parents.

GM: Sylvia languishes in solitary for hours, eventually crying herself to sleep. She’s hungry when she wakes up.

She’s just as bald, when she wakes up.

She can feel her bare skin under her fingers. The cuts and nicks from the cruel scissors still sting.

She waits for what feels like hours before a staff member finally unlocks the door. He’s got all of her things in a cardboard box that he shoves into her hands. “You screwed up,” he tells her. She’s now at negative points.

He leads her through the group home’s hallways. Every kid stares at her and her bald head.

All of them laugh or sneer.

Victoria: Her feet are too heavy to move. She can’t help them. She can’t help anyone.

She doesn’t even respond to the staffer, her eyes counting the myriad speckles in the floor. One trillion and one, one trillion and two…

She loses count once they start walking.

GM: The staffer leads her out to the home’s reception area. Sylvia’s latest case worker is there, along with a short, gray-haired, and middle-aged woman with clear blue eyes and lines along her face, although they aren’t harsh lines. A silver crucifix hangs from her neck. She’s dressed in a dark button-up and clogs.

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She gives her name as Mary St. George and says she’s Sylvie’s new foster mother. Sylvie is leaving the group home to come live with her.

That’s good news, at least, though the rest of the woman’s words likely don’t leave much impression.

How long will this foster parent last?

Victoria: ‘Foster parent’ doesn’t mean much positive to her anymore. Foster parents just rent kids and do what they want with them, then toss them back.

“Hello…” she answers when Mary gives her name.

GM: Mary offers to carry Sylvie’s box of things to her car, if she wants.

Victoria: She doesn’t accept the help. No, Sylvie can carry her own things. People take them when others touch them.

She does make sure her Gameboy is inside.

GM: Sylvie has her Gameboy.

There’s not much else in the cardboard box. Just a few changes of clothes and toiletries, really. It’s not a heavy box.

Victoria: It’s the only possession in the world that has value to her. One of a kind, despite millions of others.

This one has her name on it.

GM: Mary’s car is a white minivan. After they load in Sylvie’s things and she fastens her seat belt, Mary turns to her and says,

“You have been treated very badly. That stops today. From this day forward you will be loved, cherished, and cared for. No one will be allowed to hurt you. I know you don’t believe me, you have every reason not to. That’s okay, you will when you are ready.”

Victoria: “Anything is better than here,” is the only answer Mary gets on her promise.

GM: Mary just nods at her answer and drives.

“Would you like to get a hat?”

Victoria: She nods.

GM: “Do you want to come with me into the store, or would you like me to find you something?”

Victoria: “I don’t have any money… I don’t like when they steal.”

“They stole from Jacob, and he didn’t care. I still didn’t like it.”

GM: “I don’t like that either,” says Mary. “And that’s fine, I don’t expect you to have any. I’ll pay for your clothes.”

Victoria: She begins to cry again.

GM: They’re driving, so Mary can’t take both hands off the wheel. But she reaches over and rubs a hand along Sylvie’s shoulder, lightly at first, as if testing whether she’s okay with the physical contact.

“I’m so sorry, Sylvie… they’ve all been so cruel to you… so cruel…”

Victoria: She can’t stop crying. She wants to be brave, and obedient, and quiet, and go to school, but she can’t stop the tears.

She can’t stop crying because she doesn’t believe a word this woman says.

GM: Mary pulls over the car and asks if Sylvie would like to hug her.

Victoria: She isn’t sure. Is it a trick?

She does want a hug, and she’s so desperate for any shadow of the affection she got in the year she spent with a loving family that she doesn’t care if she’ll be hit for it.

GM: Mary leans over and puts her arms around Sylvie. The stoutly built woman is a lot for the thin and gangly preteen to hug. She’s warm and soft. Sylvie has few memories of being hugged like this, as though by a mother. The closest was the family who wouldn’t take pictures of her, then got rid of her without saying goodbye. So many of her foster parents haven’t wanted to touch her. Rules at the group home strictly prohibited all physical contact between residents and staff, other than, apparently for the latter to hit the former. The full weight of all those years without physical affection seems to fall in on her as Mary holds her close.

Victoria: The closest she’s come to this was when she hugged her dog; the only creature who loved her, unconditionally and unmitigated.

It doesn’t help the tears stop.

She clutches into Mary’s shirt, soaking it through to the skin with her crying. She doesn’t care if this woman will bring her back tomorrow. She doesn’t care if she tosses her out, or calls the police. She just wants this contact.

GM: It’s anyone’s guess what tomorrow will bring. Sylvie’s least of all.

Mary holds the 11-year-old against her, sometimes running a hand along her back. She says things, every so often, that Sylvie doesn’t really hear. All she makes out is that Mary’s voice is soft.

Sylvie isn’t sure how long passes. The woman doesn’t let her go.

Victoria: Nothing could break that hug. It’s tried.

She hugs the woman, and hugs her, and hugs her, not because she’s fond of the woman, or because she took her from that horrid prison, but because it’s human contact. How long has it been since Sylvie had a real, unconditional hug?

Eventually, her heaving sobs lessen to hiccups, and she sits back.

GM: Sylvie is hard-pressed to say when, if she leaves out the dog.

Does the foster sister she had for a day count?

Mary resumes driving and asks again whether Sylvie would like to come into the store with her. If not, she can just say what kind of hat she’s looking for and let Mary get something.

Victoria: She just shakes her head.

“I don’t want people to see me…”

She gets a choice in the type of hat? She can’t remember the last time she’s been given a choice by an adult, either.

“…my favorite color is purple.”

GM: “I didn’t think you would,” says Mary. “What about a purple bucket hat, or beanie?”

Victoria: “What’s a beanie?”

“I don’t like beans.”

GM: Mary smiles. “They’re made from wool or cloth, usually. They fit your head closely and don’t have a brim like a baseball cap.”

Victoria: “Oooooh…”

She thinks about it.

“I think I like that.”

Then she thinks about it some more.

“Won’t it be hot?”

Then again, she doesn’t have hair. She’ll get a sunburn without something.

GM: “People wear them when it’s cold out, though also when it’s not,” says Mary. “Since they’re tighter on your head than a bucket hat or baseball cap, they’re usually warmer.”

“But your head will feel colder anyways, without hair.”

It’s the strangest sensation, how cool she feels up there. Sylvie always took her hair’s insulation for granted. Her head feels naked without it.

Though there are ways way to feel in a stiflingly hot and humid New Orleans summer than naked.

Victoria: The simple nature of Mary’s explanation vexes her. Why is she answering her questions so straightforwardly?

“Oh.”

A pause.

“Okay.”

GM: “Okay, a purple beanie. Do you have any other colors you’d like if I can’t find purple?”

Victoria: “Pink. Or blue. I guess green is okay. Or white?”

GM: “I’ll see what I can find,” says Mary.

She drives a little while longer before stopping outside a hat store. She shows Sylvie how to change the channels on her car radio, if she wants to listen to music. She says that her two favorite channels are 89.7 Wake Forest and 95.9 The Fish. The former plays classical music. The latter plays Christian music. Star 101.5 and 103.7 The Mountain play modern rock, if Sylvie would prefer that.

Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t touch the radio station, despite being allowed to.

She doesn’t trust it.

The radio remains untouched, exactly on the current station—The Fish—and at volume 13.

GM: After Mary’s gone, Sylvie sees another family with a kid, a girl, walking into a nearby store. The girl points at Sylvie and laughs. The parents smile, say something, and head into another store with her.

The radio music continues to play.

“All I know is I’m not home yet.
This is not where I belong.
Take this world and give me Jesus.
This is not where I belong.”


Victoria: This is not where she belongs.

But anywhere else makes her feel worse.

She sinks down low in the seat, waiting for the air conditioning to short circuit and leave her to bake.

One serving Sylvie: Leave in car fifteen minutes on 140F.

GM: For better or worse, the AC doesn’t give out before Mary returns with a beanie hat.

“I couldn’t find purple, sorry, but you can see they had blue.”

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Victoria: She really did buy her a hat.

How will Sylvie be paying her back?

Such a cute shade of blue, too!

Sylvie appears confused.

GM: “You should put it on,” smiles Mary, handing it to her.

Victoria: She takes the beanie, staring.

It’s a long moment before she puts it on.

GM: The wool is soft and fits snugly around her head.

“It looks good on you,” says Mary. “While we’re out, do you have any other things you’d like to get?”

Victoria: “I… I don’t know.”

It’s less a sadness and more a statement of fact. She doesn’t know what ‘having much’ feels like.

GM: “Our house has a lot of toiletries, so things like toothbrushes won’t be an issue. What about things like clothes or books or food?”

Victoria: “I have three shirts, and two pairs of underwear. Two pairs of pants. Some socks…”

She paints it as if it’s enough.

GM: “That’s not enough, even if we want to do laundry every two days,” says Mary. “Let’s get you some clothes, then. Come on.”

Victoria: “They made me do laundry at another house!”

House, not home.

“I don’t mind. I can do it.”

Perhaps she sees a little bit of a good thing here. She expects the tricks to come. She knows the pain will start, but if she can prove that she’s a useful girl—a good girl—then maybe they’ll treat her just a little better.

GM: “That’s good you know how to, though you shouldn’t have had to do all of it yourself,” says Mary. “We have laundry nights where we sort and fold everything together.”

She takes Sylvie to a nearby thrift store. The woman doesn’t seem like she’s operating on as large a budget as her last family, but she browses the racks in the children’s section with Sylvie and asks her to pick out things she likes.

Victoria: She doesn’t complain when Mary actually does take her to a store.

Sylvie picks out a single shirt and a single pair of shorts. That’s enough, right?

GM: Mary nods at her two choices and asks what else Sylvie wants to get.

Victoria: “Oh.”

She doesn’t fully get it.

“This is fine.”

She doesn’t need anything else.

Or does she?

GM: Mary shakes her head.

“You should have something different to wear each day of the week. So, we need three more shirts, and four more pants or dresses. Plus socks and underwear.”

“You should also have a nicer dress to wear for church and special occasions.”

Victoria: “What’s church like?” she asks, thumbing through a rack of dresses.

As they talk, she picks what seems nice—her taste, without looking too expensive.

GM: Expensive, at least, seems less of an issue in the thrift store. Her last family took her to a department store.

Those clothes are long gone, pilfered by roommates and staff in the group home.

“Church is wonderful,” says Mary with a serene expression. “The priest will give mass in Latin. You won’t understand the words, but it’s very beautiful. Then he’ll talk about God, and how much He loves us all. The choir will sing, and that will also be very beautiful. We’ll talk with people about stories and lessons from the Bible. All sorts of things, like the life of Jesus or Noah’s ark, or Daniel in the lion’s den. Everyone will be very nice to you. We’re all there to rejoice in how much God loves us.”

“And He does love you, Sylvie,” smiles the woman, resting a hand on her shoulder. “He loves you very, very much.”

Victoria: She’s heard of God before—in people passing on the street, in school, in stores. She’s heard His name a million times, but no one ever really stopped to explain God to her.

Sylvia winces at the declaration of love, and it’s immediately apparent she’s trying not to cry.

“I don’t like when a man loves me, or my foster family…”

GM: Mary pulls Sylvie into a fuller half-hug with her free arm.

“God isn’t just a man, Sylvie. He’s so much more than a man. He is greater and bigger than the whole wide world. And His love is deeper and bigger than any kind of love you can receive. His love will never hurt you, make you feel bad, or touch you in places where you shouldn’t be touched. His love will fill you like a big meal after you’re hungry, a long drink of water after you’re thirsty, and so much more. You won’t even realize how hungry and thirsty you are, until you realize how much He loves you. It’ll fill your heart and shine through your eyes, and everything in your life will be better. You will feel warm and safe and never, ever alone, because God is always with you, and will always love you. No matter what happens, no matter what you do.”

Victoria: She doesn’t entirely understand, nor does she entirely believe Mary, but maybe if she attends Church she’ll have a better idea what it means.

“I don’t get how someone can always be loved, but okay…”

She continues rifling through clothing. All in all, she picks out four more pairs of pants, two shorts, three dresses, five shirts, and enough underwear and socks to last.

GM: “That’s okay,” nods Mary. “That’s what church is for, to help you understand God’s love.”

She shows Sylvie her crucifix up close. It’s silver and shows a man with his arms spread and a crown of thorns.

“My father gave this to me, when I was around your age. He’s in Heaven now, and with God all the time. So when I look at it, I’m reminded of how much they love me, and how I’m never alone. Just like you aren’t ever alone, Sylvie. God thinks about you all the time, and how special you are to Him, and how much He loves you.”

Victoria: She shudders again.

“Am I gonna go to Heaven too? How do you get there? Why do we go to meet God?”

GM: “If you want to be a good person, you go to Heaven,” says Mary. “You go there when you die. But death isn’t really the end, Sylvie. Death just means you get to be even closer to God.”

Victoria: This is all very confusing to Sylvia. She prefers looking at pretty dresses.

“Okay.”

Death isn’t the end, but that is the end of the conversation.

“I think this is enough?”

GM: “I think that’s enough clothes,” nods Mary, once they have enough for seven basic outfits and a nicer dress.

She casts a glance at Sylvie’s well-worn pair of converse. They were new when her last family got them, but months in the group home have left them in pretty sorry condition.

“Do those have any holes in them? Or your socks?”

Victoria: She nods sheepishly.

GM: “Let’s get you some new shoes, then. We don’t want your feet to get wet when it rains.”

She lets Sylvie pick out another pair for everyday wear, and a second nicer pair for church. Along with extra socks.

Victoria: She’s much too old for light-up sneakers, and so she skips those. She finds a simple pair of converse, much like those she has on but with different coloration and patterning.

Her shoes for church are black; formal and to the point.

GM: Mary compliments her fashion sense and pays for the purchases. She asks what Sylvie’s favorite foods are on the way out.

Victoria: “Uhm. Pizza.”

It doesn’t take her long to answer that one. It’s a simple answer, though, as everyone likes pizza. Even Sylvia is aware enough to know that she may learn to like many more foods, if she had the family to experience them with.

GM: “That’s a classic,” says Mary as she opens the car trunk and loads in bags. Sylvie’s expected to do so too. “Any others?”

Victoria: She shrugs her shoulders.

“Pasta. Fried chicken. Candy.”

She expects to receive none of that.

“Mac and cheese.”

GM: “Let’s see, I think we have everything on hand for pasta,” says Mary as she sits down in the driver’s seat. “You don’t need too many ingredients. How does that sound for dinner tonight?”

Victoria: She nods.

“Thank you, ma’am,” she answers.

“Are there… others in your house?”

“Kids.”

GM: “You can call me Mary, Sylvie. Or Mom, whenever you feel ready,” she says as she starts the car.

Victoria: “Okay. Mary.”

Sylvia has a mom. She doesn’t like when she visits.

“Is it far?”

GM: “Not too far,” she says as she drives. “We live in the Irish Channel. My mother and I are Irish and very proud of it.”

“And yes, I’m taking care of five other children besides you. Julius, Leslie, George, Brian, and Hannah. My mother, Beth, also lives with us and helps take care of everyone.”

Victoria: “Oh.”

Another group home. Great. She’ll have to find a place to hide her things.

“Are they nice?”

It’s a test.

GM: “They are nice. Like you, they’ve all been hurt. They won’t hurt you or steal from you.”

“It’s okay if you don’t believe me. We’ll all have to earn your trust.”

Victoria: She isn’t sure whether Mary means it or not.

“Okay.”

It’s become a common answer; a lie.


Wednesday afternoon, 14 June 2000

GM: Mary’s house looks old. It’s big enough to comfortably house a normal-sized family, which means that Sylvie shares a room with Leslie and Hannah. Leslie’s a redhead who’s a little younger than her. Hannah is black and looks several or more years younger. She seems nervous around Sylvie, but Mary assures her that Sylvie isn’t going to hurt her.

There’s not much privacy, but the rooms are clean and there’s no locks on the doors or bars on the windows. Laundry is done weekly. They’re doing laundry today, in fact. Sylvia’s new and old clothes can get a washing.

Victoria: She shares a room with other kids, none of whom push her, shove her, or call her names. Not that she takes off her hat—she isn’t going to give them a reason to change.

Sylvie reassures Hannah that she isn’t going to hurt her, too.

Laundry is done weekly. Together. As a family. Talking, and laughing, and making chores fun. Or so she comes to believe, from how the rest of her first day goes.

GM: Dinner on the first night is spaghetti and meatballs. Mary and Beth oversee the cooking and have Sylvie participate, so she can also learn how to cook. Everyone bows their heads, prays, and thanks God for providing their meal before they eat. Sylvie gets a few glances when she doesn’t remove her hat with dinner, but no one remarks.

Victoria: She isn’t the best cook in the world, but she’s also 11; but, she participates, and she gets to know her new mother and elder sister.

She even uses the bathroom on her own without asking, after being told she didn’t have to ask the first time.

GM: Mary teaches Sylvie to say the Lord’s prayer alongside Leslie and Hannah before they go to sleep. She also gives her pajamas. They used to belong to another girl who stayed with Mary, but they’re clean and only a little big. Mary says she’ll grow into them.

Victoria: She moves her lips during prayers, but doesn’t speak the words she doesn’t know, and doesn’t pray in her head. Who would she pray to?

Sylvie asks what happened to the girl who owned the pajamas.

She already knows the answer.

GM: Mary says that the girl’s grandmother assumed care of her. That’s what foster care is supposed to be, Mary explains: temporary, pending either adoption into a new family, or reunification with an old family. The girl had no pajamas when she came to live with Mary. Her grandmother got her new ones, and said Mary should keep at least some the old clothes she’d bought her granddaughter; Mary looks after a lot of kids, after all, and clothes are expensive. Not to mention kids go through them fast.

That approach seems characteristic of the St. George household: Mary doesn’t seem to have a lot of money, but she provides. Leslie and Hannah are likely going to wear her hand-me-downs after she outgrows them, if they stay with Mary.

Victoria: Temporary. Exactly as it always has been. Forever and always temporary. How long will this one last?

GM: Mary says that Sylvie can stay with her forever, if she wants to. She knows Sylvie doesn’t have any biological relatives in the picture. George and Julius don’t either, so Mary’s adopted them.

Sylvie also doesn’t need to decide right away. She can take some time to see if she likes living here.

Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t believe her. The only forevers are being temporary and being unwanted.

GM: Those thoughts may long occupy Sylvie’s mind as she drifts off to sleep. Her beanie falls off during the night. Leslie sees in the morning.

“What happened to your hair?” she asks.

The question sounds curious rather than mean.

Victoria: When her beanie falls off, she freezes. The abuse never comes, just curious questions.

“I—I… some mean girls swapped my shampoo with hair remover…”

GM: “Oh,” says the younger girl at her answer.

“I’m sorry.”

“What’s hair remover?”

Victoria: “Uhm. It removes hair. Like mine. I hope it grows back. No one said that it would…”

GM: Leslie asks why it wouldn’t. Hair grows, right?

Victoria: The next day, Sylvie decides on a test. She finds Mary.

“Can we take a picture? Like, all of us.”

GM: “Of course,” says Mary. “Here, or somewhere else?”

“We could go on a picnic for it. The weather is just right.”

Victoria: “A picnic?”

She’s seen those before.

“I’ve never been on a picnic. I’d love that. Do you have a camera?”

GM: Sylvie’s last family went on some picnics. She stayed behind in their house, though they left her with food.

Mary says they’ll go on a picnic, then, and shows her a handheld Kodak.

Victoria: She holds the camera up to her eye, looking at her foster mother.

“What will we bring on the picnic?”

GM: “We want things we can carry in a basket,” says Mary. “So solid foods, rather than liquid ones. We don’t want anything that’s too messy, because we’ll only have what napkins we bring with us. We also want things that can stay fresh and not spoil after a while in the sun, in case there’s leftovers.”

Victoria: “Like sandwiches? And rice?”

She can’t think of much else that fits.

GM: “Those are good ideas,” says Mary. “Fruit and potato salads are also popular.”

Victoria: “But fruit has juice!”

GM: “That’s okay. It comes in whole pieces, and we keep it in a container.”

Victoria: “Okay.”

Containers are allowed.

“What about vegetables?”

The other kids made fun of her for liking vegetables.

GM: “Vegetables are good to eat at picnics, and good to eat any time,” Mary says approvingly.

“Oh, you also want them to be things that taste good cold, since we’ll walk for a little while to get to the park.”

Victoria: “But won’t the cold things get warm? So they have to taste good in the middle.”

GM: Mary nods. “That’s right, Sylvie. That’s what I should have said. You’re very smart.”

Victoria: She is? She can’t help but smile.

“Can I help pack…? Are we going now?”

GM: “We need to make the food first,” laughs Mary. “So, we can go for dinner. Or we can go tomorrow for lunch.”

Victoria: “Lunch tomorrow!”

She’s almost forgotten about the whole trick of a picture. For the first time in a long time, Sylvia feels a spark of excitement.

GM: “Lunch is the most popular time,” says Mary. “Dinner second. I’ve never heard of a breakfast picnic.”

They make things for the picnic, later in the day. Sandwiches. Potato salad. Fruit salad. Veggie salad. Chocolate chip cookies. Juice boxes and water bottles. The next day, they load everything into the family’s two cars, along with blankets, and drive up to City Park. It’s the biggest park in the city, and one of the biggest in the country.

Lots of other people are there that day, having picnics of their own, walking dogs, or just strolling through the park. Mary and Beth also bring Frisbees for the kids to play with.

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There’s also ducks to feed. Mary and Beth bring a bag of old bread and show the kids how to tear it into clumps and toss to the ducks. They noisily squawk and descend en masse wherever the scattered bread bits land.

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Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t ask for a cookie, but it’s plain on her face that she wants nothing more than just a nibble. Or the entire plate.

Sylvie is good while they pack, helping pick out food, pack it into boxes, bring it to the car, and participating in conversation while they drive there. It’s only been a day, but she feels as if she belongs. It’s almost akin to how she felt in the family with her dog, but there’s no subtle exclusion. No exclusion at all. She’s there. She’s welcome. She’s wanted.

Sylvie is wanted.

For now.

She’s never had more grins than feeding ducks with her new family.

GM: Sylvie can’t have the entire plate of cookies, because her foster brothers and sisters want cookies too. But she can have multiple ones, not just nibbles. They’re there to be eaten.

Mary brings the camera, too, and asks where she’d like to take pictures.

Victoria: If God comes and takes her to Heaven tonight, she won’t complain. Not after cookies. And kindness. And smiles. And family.

“Right here!” she says, pointing to the blanket. “All of us.”

GM: Mary asks a passerby if he can take some pictures of them, so they get in everyone. He snaps several of the family gathered on the blanket. Mary and Beth take some individual photos of everyone, after that. Mary drops the camera off at a drug store on the way back, to get the pictures developed. That’ll take three to five business days.

Victoria: Sylvie feels something bubbling up inside her that she can’t identify. It’s a positive feeling, but bitter. Unknown. Uncertain. She can’t place her finger on what it is, because—at least in part—she’s never felt it before.

GM: Four pass before Mary picks them up. She finds the one she likes most, of everyone on the blanket, and frames it and hangs it on a wall.

There are other pictures on the house’s walls too, Sylvie notices. Some feature her foster siblings. Some feature kids she doesn’t recognize. Some are mixes of both. Some kids appear in lots of pictures, others in only one. Mary points out each of their names to Sylvie. There are even more pictures in a photo book, where she puts the others.

“Some of them stay with me for a long time,” says Mary. “Some only stay for a little while. God doesn’t give forever to anyone. That’s how He teaches us to treasure the moments we have, and the people we share them with. Whether it’s for a long time or just a little while.”

Victoria: Days later, she sits in front of the portrait, marveling.

There are no tricks. There is no deception. There is no cruelty, or mean words, or thrown punches. There is no theft, nor leaving anyone out. No willow trees. No burning parents. No faeries. No goblins. No dragons. No locks. No doors that can’t be opened. No barred windows. No broken air conditioners.

And there are pictures; pictures of her, and her family.

For now.


Tuesday morning, 20 June 2000

GM: “For now” stretches into one week, then two, then three, then four.

Then one month becomes two, then three, then four.

Then more.

Some of the kids come and go. Hannah and Brian are replaced with a Kelly and Robert. Kelly’s replaced with a Maria. Robert’s replaced with a Shawn.

Victoria: Every time a kid leaves, Sylvia asks where they went. Whether they were there for a day, a week, or a year, she cares; if not for them, the poor soul cast back into the system, then for the principle. She doesn’t forget them. Not like she was forgotten for so much of her life.

GM: It’s almost always because they’re reunited with their biological relatives, Sylvie picks up from Mary’s answers. Sometimes the children go to live with relatives other than their parents. No child leaves their parents’ custody unless there’s a serious problem. Some of these parents get their lives back together, and eventually regain custody of their children. Others don’t. There’s not always a happy ending. Some parents only get their lives together enough to satisfy minimum court requirements, and will probably lose their kids again. But the kids who leave aren’t just shuffled off to new foster homes where they’re abused. Mary often thinks it’s for the best, when a child leaves.

“Goodbyes can be happy, too.”

Victoria: It’s a world that Sylvie’s never encountered. Foster children being returned to their real families? Why were they taken in the first place? Why are they returned? Why does it take so long? What if their parents are bad again? Sylvie asks, and Mary answers. Over, and over, and over, and over again.

GM: Sylvie goes to St. Rita’s School. It’s a Catholic school, where the kids wear uniforms. The suburban school with her old family was nice, but there are no metal detectors at the doors or fights in the halls. Her foster siblings go to the school with her. The ones in her grade share her classes, so she has an in to make friends.

Victoria: She’s thankful for having foster brothers in the same year. She isn’t sure she’d be able to make friends without them—though, maybe so. The Sylvie of today isn’t the Sylvia of yesterday, thanks to Mary St. George. She’s more outgoing. She’s happier. She talks more. She smiles. She engages with others. She’s even learned to trust; to expose her vulnerable insides to others, and hope that they don’t rake them raw.

GM: Church is every week at Saint Alphonsus. It’s much as Mary described. Lots of singing and talk about God, along with Sunday school. Mary asks if she wants to be baptized, so she can receive the eucharist—the body and blood of Christ. Some of her foster siblings do, others don’t.

They volunteer afterwards, cooking meals for the homeless and other families, who Mary calls “the less fortunate.” The people are poor and need their money for other things, or don’t have any money at all. Some of them smile gratefully and say thank you. Others look embarrassed to be there. Mary tells Sylvie that helping others helps herself, and brings her closer to God. She’s fond of the Feeding of the 5,000, the story where Jesus feeds everyone with five loaves and two fish. She’s also fond of the story where He washes the feet of His disciples—even Judas, the one He knew would betray Him.

Mary’s faith is everything to her. She’s something called a consecrated virgin. She is married to Christ, having vowed to take no other husband, she loves Him that much. She thought about becoming a nun, when she was younger, but she also wanted to raise a family. She thinks fostering and adopting children is the best way to do both—to raise them and commit herself to God.

Victoria: She isn’t really sure what happens when someone is baptized, but it seems to be what her mother wants. She listens to the priest talk for a while, and then she agrees—and over time, she becomes a dutiful, Christian daughter.

She isn’t sure she wants to marry Jesus, though. She doesn’t want to think about virginity and how it disappears. Other kids have talked about sex. It doesn’t really interest her.

The story of 5,000 intrigues her in the same way as fairy tales do: they’re fun, and they’re interesting, but she knows that they aren’t real. Much as she has become invested in her own expression and self with respect to God, the story—and many others—delegitimizes that relationship to her. Why does God need to share fairy tales? It seems that his other teachings are good enough. Now he’s just embellishing.

GM: Baptism is a way you declare your faith in Christ. It shows how much you love Him and want to go to Heaven.

Mary says that most girls don’t marry Jesus like she does. They marry normal husbands. Pledging yourself to Jesus without becoming a nun is a very rare choice.

Mary says that the Feeding of the 5,000 isn’t a fairy tale, though. It’s real and actually happened. That’s what’s so miraculous about God—things that would be fairy tales to Sylvia are real to Him.

Victoria: “I hope I have a nice husband one day,” she muses one day. She pictures marrying an astronaut.

She asks Mary to make Jesus do a real fairy tale again, like feeding all the foster children in the whole world. She promises baptism if he does.

GM: Mary says that she will have a wonderful husband. “If you have love in your heart, you will find someone with love in his. Love begets love.”

Mary says that Jesus will feed all of the foster children in the world when he comes back. He will feed them and clothe them, and do more than Mary has ever done (or is capable of doing) for any of the children in her care. They will want for nothing, their suffering will end forever, and they will know His boundless love in all of its richness and fullness when God establishes His kingdom on earth.

When asked why God doesn’t do this yet, Mary reads Sylvie a quote by C.S. Lewis, which she says explains why God doesn’t just wave His hand and make everything better.

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a French-man who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over.

God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.

Victoria: Sylvie wants to see it happen now. She wants to see every foster child happy today, and fed today, and clothed today. Not tomorrow.

But the quote helps her understand. A little.

She gets baptized anyway. It makes Mary happy.

GM: Mary is glad when Sylvie gets baptized and takes communion. She says it’s good for her, even if she doesn’t understand everything yet or believe everything yet. It can take people a very long time to come to an understanding with God. The author of that quote only did when he was 30.

Victoria: She doesn’t know that baptism involves dunking your head. She’s old enough to appreciate symbolism, but it’s hard for her to understand the connection between bobbing for apples and God. Still, she does it. It makes Mary happy.

GM: Life is stable and predictable. School, after-school activities, chores, homework. Everyone is busy. There’s always chores to do at a house with six kids. The kids are expected to contribute to the house’s upkeep, and taught the value of hard work, though Mary and Beth do more work than they do. Mary most of all. Beth is retired, and spends her time at home. Mary also has a job as a social worker. She still finds time for things like picnics and trips to Audubon Zoo, or Lake Pontchartrain, or the museum.

Sylvie is fed and clothed. She gets cake and a modest amount of presents on her birthday. There are movies to watch on TV, since Mary doesn’t have cable (or want it). Mary takes everyone to an animal shelter, at one point, to get dogs—her last one “crossed the rainbow bridge” a little while before she fostered Sylvie. The kids are expected to help walk them, clean up their poop, and take care of them.

No one hits or molests or insults or steals from Sylvie.

Her hair grows from bald to a peach-like fuzz to full enough that she no longer needs the beanie.

At first, Mary says things like how much she appreciates Sylvie. How much she enjoys having her in the family. How much she likes her laugh. She talks about saying “I love you” and what it means, outside of God’s love. She says there is no pressure for Sylvie to say those words herself.

Eventually, she asks if Sylvie is okay with Mary saying them to her.

Victoria: The concept of love is foreign to Sylvie. She’s never had a mother say it. She’s never had a father say it. She can imagine what love is from movies and stories of princesses and books—she loves reading—but she doesn’t know what love feels like.

Maybe that’s the strange feeling burrowing up lately?

Maybe.

She flushes a light tinge of crimson at Mary’s question, and nods silently.

“If you want.”

GM: Her foster mother hugs her close, after she answers yes, and then says,

“I love you, Sylvie.”

Victoria: Her pause is long, and she’s not immediately sure her heart can speak the words; words, she realizes, that she’s never actually spoken. When they come, they project that uncertainty.

“…I love you, too.”

GM: Even getting baptized doesn’t seem to make Mary so happy as Sylvie’s answer does. For all its uncertainty, her foster mother’s face is radiant as she hugs Sylvie again and asks,

“Would you like me to adopt you, Sylvie? You can stay until you’re grown up. And past when you’re grown up, if you ever need to.”

“It will mean that you’ll always have a home here, that no one can take away. Your social worker will close your case.”

Victoria: Sylvie has been in the foster system her entire life. She’s seen the rare child get adopted. They disappear, as all the others do. Where they go, and what happens to them, is beyond her knowledge and sight; however, it’s always spoken of in the positive.

She isn’t really sure what being adopted fully means, either, but Mary’s promise of staying until she’s an adult—and then beyond—lights up as if all the Christmas tree lights and all the birthday candles in the world ignited before her. She’ll have not just a house, but a home, and a mother, and a future!

She’s never had a future before.

Sylvie begins to sob, and nods emphatically.

GM: So it happens.

Mary’s already a foster parent, so she doesn’t need to go through the process of being certified there. All that’s left to do is submit the petition, involving some paperwork, and then attend a finalization hearing with a judge. Sylvie’s birth certificate will be amended to list Mary as her mother. Sylvie can also have her last name changed to St. George, if she wants to. Her original surname of Banks, she knows, was given to her by social workers. She’s not sure why they decided on Banks.

The day of the hearing, Mary and Beth attend with Sylvie and the family’s other children. Sylvie and the others dress up in their church clothes: Mary says it’s important to present yourself well when you see a judge. Going to court is a special occasion.

The whole process takes maybe an hour. Once the judge signs the adoption decree, and smiles, “Congratulations, young lady,” it’s official: Sylvie is a legal and permanent member of the St. George family. There’s much crying and embracing.

It’s to no one’s surprise when they take pictures.

Sylvie is in the front and center.


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Story One, Victoria Prelude I

Saturday night, 24 October 1998, PM

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GM: Sometimes, at night, she hears them.

Her parents.

Her real ones. Not her foster ones. Her latest foster ones treat her like she is invisible. They talk about her like she is not there. The whole family seems like they are plastic with their perma-grins—the mother, the father, and their real kid. Sylvia is not sure what to expect or how long she is going to be there. The family walks around her like she is an alien. Sometimes they say they are leaving and will be back later. She has no idea where they go or when they will come back home.

There’s food in the fridge, at least. She has a room to herself, though not anymore since the other two girls arrived today. She’s nine. She’s not how sure old they are. No one tells her. They’re smaller than she is, for what that’s worth. They don’t talk to her. They don’t talk to anyone. Maybe they’re wondering when this will be over and what will happen to them. Sylvia has wondered the latter, but never the former. Foster care is all she has known. She’s heard about families that fight to get their kids back. Families who leave their kids with phone numbers. Maybe the girls would talk if they had those.

Sometimes Sylvia thinks back to the parents who gave her up. Who were they? A child’s mind wonders, and in the dark, she sees them.

“I’m a magic princess, Sylvie,” says a beautiful woman in a shimmering gown. “That makes you a princess, too!”

“I’m a magic prince, Sylvie,” says a handsome man in a knight’s shining armor. “I’d kill a dragon to keep you safe!”

“I’m a doctor, Sylvie,” says a kindly-eyed woman in a white coat. “I’m gonna make you better.”

“I’m a firefighter, Sylvie,” says a rugged man with a yellow helmet.

A veterinarian. An astronaut. A cowboy. A president. Her parents are all sorts of things, and they always love Sylvie.

That happens less often than it used to. Fantasies like those are for little kids.

No, as she’s gotten older, her parents have told her they are other things instead. Words some of her other caregivers have used.

“I’m a deadbeat, Sylvie.”

“I’m a bum, Sylvie.”

“I’m a whore, Sylvie.”

“I’m a junkie, Sylvie.”

She doesn’t understand what all of the words mean. But she understands enough.

Sometimes, though, they don’t say anything at all.

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Sometimes she just sees their faces, rising up like shadows from under the bed and engulfing her. She tries to scream, but nothing comes out past the weight suffocating down on her chest.

She can’t breathe. She can’t see. She feels everything. Sweat stains her sheets as her heart pounds. It feels like someone is looking at her in the room, but when she opens her eyes, there’s never anyone there.

A social worker talked to Sylvie once, about how she slept. She referred Sylvie to someone else, who said she suffered from night terrors and gave pills for her to take. Pills with a long name that started with ‘k.’ They made her feel dizzy and weak, and sometimes gave her headaches.

But she stopped seeing her parents.

That was worth it.

Sylvie knows what it’s like, to have the night terrors.

It’s how she recognizes the expression on her new foster sister’s face.

It’s hard to make out faces in the dark. But she recognizes the silent crying, .

She recognizes the contours of the mouth, pulled into an unmistakable whimper.

And, above all:

She recognizes the dark figure looming over the frozen girl, hands descending over her small body.

Victoria: Always, at night, she hears them.

“Mama’s got her sweets, just like you, baby. You want a cookie?”

She always wanted a cookie. She still does.

“If you’re good while mama has her treat, you’ll get as many cookies as you want.”

She doesn’t trust offers of cookies anymore. Not unless she can see them. Promises just bring disappointment. They bring disappointment.

Every mama and papa brings disappointment. Her last mama said that the girls that get the most mamas become the smartest. It makes sense. She gets new a new mama every few months ‘cause she’s got nothin’ left to learn from ’em.

So Sylvia was a good girl, just like mama asked. She thought about those cookies. Would they be chocolate chip? Mocha almond fudge? Vanilla glazed?

She wondered why mama had bruises on her arm. Maybe that’s why she had a shot next to her. Shots fix everything, including bruises! Sylvia doesn’t like shots. She doesn’t like doctors either. She doesn’t remember seeing a doctor around the house. She was probably too busy thinking about her cookies.

Mama never gave her those cookies. The men with flashing lights on their cars never gave her cookies. The wrinkly woman in the doctor place never gave her cookies.

She doesn’t trust offers of cookies anymore.

Her parents visited her that night.

“You got no cookies? Then you weren’t a good girl. Good girls get cookies. Are you going to be a good girl, Sylvia?”

Sylvie is always a good girl. She slides out of bed, her small feet touching the dingy, carpet floor soundlessly. Her sister won’t be giving her any cookies, but she knows that look; those whimpers, and that blank, fearful stare.

Brandi’s mom is visiting her.

Sylvia doesn’t like when her mom visits. Brandi must not either. Brandi hasn’t spoken to her, but Sylvie wants her new sister to like her. People like when you help them, right?

She sees the figure standing over her sister, beady eyes glinting in the darkness like her third mama’s jewels. The jewels didn’t scare her. The beating when she took them did. The man reminds her of her mama’s anger.

Her eyes well up. She didn’t do anything wrong! Brandi didn’t either!

“You leave her be!” she hisses, eyes darting to the bedroom door. Her feet hit the frayed carpet soundlessly as she creeps toward her sister.

“She ain’t want to talk to you!”

GM: The figure turns to Sylvia.

Tall and dark, it fairly towers above her, a monolith in the gloom.

Up close, she can see one of its hands sticking down the pants of Brandi’s PJs.

It stares at her for a long moment. She feels so small beneath its gaze.

Silently, the thing lifts a finger towards where a face should be.

The universal sign for:

Shhhh.

Just go back to sleep, Sylvie.

Victoria: She shivers as if the figure poured ice water down the back of her nightgown.

It’s just a bad dream. Just a bad dream. Just a bad dream. Just a bad dream.

She stomps her foot in impish anger and throws her pillow at it.

GM: The pillow hits the looming figure square in the face.

It stumbles backwards as it raises its hands.

Its back his the light switch.

Light floods the gloom.

Sylvie’s looking up at her foster father’s face, absent only its plastic perma-grin.

Brandi, her PJ bottoms still pulled down, stares dully up.

Victoria: The cub’s resolve wavers, confusion plain on her face.

She isn’t sure whether to hide, to cower, or to stand up to him.

GM: For several moments, her foster father doesn’t look sure what to do either.

Krista stirs in bed next to Brandi.

“Go back to sleep,” says their foster dad.

Then he turns off the light, walks out, and closes the door behind him.

Brandi starts quietly crying.

Victoria: Sylvie purses her lips, counting the creaks in the floor until she’s certain he’s gone, then crosses to Brandi’s bed.

She pauses, wrapping her arms around Brandi’s twiggy body and murmurs, “It’s okay. You get used to it.”

Sylvie never has. She probably never will. She doesn’t want any foster sister to have to, but she lies because the alternative is worse: to be tossed back into the machine. She’ll probably be back there tomorrow.

Or tomorrow night will be her turn.


Sunday morning, 25 October 1998

GM: Sylvie’s first guess is the correct one.

Tomorrow morning, her foster mother drops her off at the now-familiar DCFS building. She tells the social workers that Sylvie was “too problematic” and “completely out of control.”

Just like that, she’s tossed back into the machine.

Again.

Victoria: Sylvie looks around. This is life. This is all there is. No good deed rewarded. No cookie. They even kept her stuffie.

She huffs.

She wonders what life will be like for Brandi. How long until they tire of her? Will she even fight back?

GM: Sylvie will probably never know.

She overhears from one of the social workers, talking to her co-worker, that foster parents aren’t actually supposed to do this. They’re supposed to call their assigned social worker and try to work things out within a week, or within the day in an emergency situation where the child is causing or threatening violence or sexual assault. You’re not supposed to just drop the kid back off.

No one does anything. The social workers are all overworked, and foster families are all-too few. Sylvie knows how this whole process works by now. She sits somewhere out of the way. A harried-looking social worker spend the next few hours running through the master bed list, of all the available families who can take in a child on emergency notice. Usually they are temporary, and Sylvie gets bounced to another home, or two, or even three, before another family takes her in. Maybe they will be good. Maybe they will be bad. Eventually, they’ll get rid of Sylvie too.

Then she’ll be right back here in the DCFS building, with a social worker on the phone.

No one wants Sylvie.

Victoria: And Sylvie wants no one.

She hops off the plastic, orange chair, wandering across the room. She stops in front of a vending machine, aglow inside. So many treats, just out of reach. They didn’t even feed her before they got rid of her. That’s common.

She huffs.

GM: Maybe if she had parents who loved her and wanted her, she’d get to eat as much as she wanted from vending machines.

Several hours later, Sylvie’s case worker drives her to a new home. The woman there has three of her own children and another foster child, a boy. She blatantly puts her real kids first. Sylvie and the boy eat boiled hot dogs and potato chips on paper plates almost nightly. The woman’s real kids come home with O’Tolley’s that Sylvie and the boy aren’t allowed to have. Sylvie and the boy do all sorts of chores like pulling weeds and vacuuming. The woman’s real kids don’t have to do anything. Sylvie and the boy aren’t allowed to watch TV. The woman’s real kids steal Sylvie’s clothes and the few belongings she’s brought from her previous home.

Victoria: Sylvie punches the boy in the mouth when she catches him stealing.

GM: And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.


Wednesday morning, 28 October 1998

GM: The foster parents let their sobbing boy keep everything of Sylvie’s that he wants. She’s left with nothing but the clothes on her back. Sylvie’s case worker drives her to a home outside of the city that has a basement, a rarity in New Orleans proper. The foster mother is a super couponer. The shelves are stacked from floor to ceiling with cereals and cleaning supplies. Sylvie sleeps on the cold, hard basement floor with some blankets and pillows with two other girls. When she wakes up in the morning, she’s covered in red and angry-looking bug bites.

Victoria: Sylvie shrieks.

Her foster mother learns that Sylvie has quite a sailor’s dictionary. She’s usually smart enough not to use it, but the panic of her bite-ridden skin throws all caution to the wind.

GM: Sylvie’s foster mother tells her to stop telling lies, and to stop swearing or she’s going back.

Victoria: “I’m NOT lying!”

She holds out her arms.

“They’re EVERYWHERE! Those little niggers bit me!”

She doesn’t know what it means, but that man sounded real angry when she heard him say it the other day. Whatever they are, they’re not a good thing.

GM: And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.


Thursday morning, 29 October 1998

GM: Sylvie’s next home is in a nice-looking suburb. The foster parents are nice. They’re kind and gentle and generous. There’s no other kids. Sylvie has a room of her own, with a real bed, and the mom makes spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Sylvie can eat as much as she wants.

“Things are going to be better for you here, okay?” the foster mom smiles as she applies disinfectant over Sylvie’s bug bites. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t believe them. It’s never going to be better. Never has. Never will.

She eats her dinner, but only half the plate.

At her foster mom’s words, she nods, but it doesn’t touch her eyes. She doesn’t believe her.

GM: Her foster mom smiles sadly and pats her off. The rest of the day passes pleasantly. Sylvie gets to watch a lot of TV. She goes to school on Friday. She’s used to being the new girl, and being the outsider looking in. But it feels like everyone points and laughs at her partly-healed bug bites. They ask her if she’s poor.

Victoria: She punches the one who asks if she’s poor, too. Punching is the easy answer to bullies.

GM: The bully runs off, crying. They never seem to want to stick and fight.

When Sylvie gets off the school bus, on a typically rainy afternoon, a gang of kids chase after her. They hold her face-down against the wet earth and beat her bloody, kicking her in her sides until she wants to curl up and die. They steal her backpack and leave her clothes caked in mud.

They don’t say why. They don’t say anything.

They just hurt her and leave.

Victoria: Maybe that’s why they beat her while she walks home. She screams, and whimpers, and whines, and covers her face. She doesn’t fight back. She doesn’t have a chance. They don’t give her one.

She walks in the door to her foster home, sobbing.

GM: Her foster parents freak when they see her. The mom leaves the room. The dad recovers after a moment. He’s nice. He hugs Sylvie, despite the mud she gets on his clothes. He listens to her choked story, says how sorry he is, and asks for the kids’ names so he can call the school about them. He takes Sylvie up to the bathroom, where she can have a long, hot bath or shower, and applies band-aids like his wife applied disinfectant. He applies some of that again, anyway, and says they should probably have a doctor look at Sylvie. When was the last time she had a checkup? He lets her watch TV and eat ice cream.

Victoria: The shower is bliss, but the heat of the water stings her bruises, cuts and bug bites. Still, she feels better after than before.

The disinfectant burns.

She doesn’t like doctors. Except the one who gave her a lollipop.

GM: That night, while she’s sleeping in her bed, Sylvie hears voices arguing.

The next day, the foster mom tells her that she’s leaving.

The dad looks sad. He tells her that he’s sorry.

And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.


Saturday morning, 31 October 1998

Victoria: And just like that, she’s back at DCFS.

She sits in front of the vending machine, looking up at it.

Still locked. Still beyond her. Still above her.

Nobody wants Sylvie. Nobody ever wants Sylvie. Not her mom. Not her dad. Not any of her foster parents. Not her foster siblings. Not her schools. Not her teachers. Not her classmates. Not her social workers. No one.

Sylvie is used goods; a callous on the foot of the foster system, abused, toughened, and ugly.

She wonders here and there if it’s her fault. Maybe she’s a little too aggressive sometimes, but only when others push her to it. She’s not the smartest. She’s not the prettiest.

This one felt a little different for the first few days. Her foster mom was kind. She got along well with her foster dad. He even tended to her when she was attacked by those kids from school.

They yelled. Not at her, but it’s still her fault.

It would be easier if they yelled at her. Maybe she’d still be there.

GM: All she wants is someone to love her.

For a little, it seems like she even did.

It would be easier if they just yelled.

Used goods.

That’s a phrase that will stick in Sylvie’s head.

Sylvie’s next home is another one out in the suburbs. The parents have one real kid, a younger boy, and another foster kid, an older girl. She’s nice and lets Sylvie play her Gameboy. She’s very sympathetic, if Sylvia shares her story about her last home, and says how sorry she is. She says she’s been in the foster system for a while and “gets it.” She says she’s been with this family since she was 12. She’s 17 and turns 18 tomorrow, she says. She says that Sylvie can have a home here.

Victoria: Sylvie has never held a Gameboy before! She’s absolutely terrible at it, but the time she spends with her foster-sister is valuable.

Kindness goes a long way with used goods.

GM: On the girl’s birthday the next day, the parents bake her a cake. Double-layered chocolate. Sylvie sings happy birthday along with their real kid, and gets a big slice with a vanilla ice cream scoop.

Later in the night, the parents tell the girl she needs to move out because she’s 18. She doesn’t say a word in response. Later, Sylvie hears her sobbing herself to sleep.

Sylvie’s had temporary foster siblings before. She thinks this one sets a new record. Just one night.

Victoria: Upon hearing the sobbing, Sylvie crawls into bed with the girl, hugging her. She doesn’t say anything to her.

GM: The girl is inconsolable. She squeezes Sylvie like a teddy bear and sobs into her hair. She doesn’t say anything either. She just sobs and shakes for what feels like hours. Sylvie will remember that, the sensation of her trembling like a leaf in the wind. She remembers how her hair is still wet from her foster sister’s tears when she wakes up.

She hopes it does the girl some good, to know that someone else cares.

She’s gone the next morning. The parents complain about how she didn’t give them “a very loving goodbye” and just left her key.

Then they serve Sylvie a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and waffles with maple syrup.

Victoria: She eats her breakfast tentatively and asks what happened to her foster sister.

GM: “She’ll be fine,” her foster dad smiles, and then never talks about her again.

Sylvie gets to keep the Gameboy.

Victoria: Something in her foster dad’s tone ensures that Sylvia never asks about her either. She never forgets her name, though. It’s written on her Gameboy, and on all the files in all the games inside.

She hopes the girl is okay. Where do you go once you turn 18? Are you given a real family?

GM: Sylvie’s heard about that before. How once you turn 18, you “age out.” They say that a lot. “Age out.” No one says exactly what happens, though.

Her new foster family doesn’t either.

Victoria: Nine years to go. Sylvie can’t remember anything before her fifth birthday, and she’s 9 now, so she’s got more than half her life to go, by her logic.

Not for her to worry about today.

Of course, she worries. Will she be told to leave, too?

GM: Her new family never answers that question.

Life with them is all right. Sylvie is fed and cared for, and goes to a suburban public school where most of the kids are white, there’s no graffiti on the walls, and the teachers are nice. None of the kids seem like they want to be her friends. No one sits with her at lunch, but at least they don’t beat her up after school.

Victoria: For the first time in years, Sylvia not only managers to keep her hands to herself, but doesn’t even have the desire to harm any of her classmates. She even tries talking to them; tries to make friends.

They don’t want it, but they don’t rebuke her either.

That’s better than the usual.

GM: At home, Sylvie eats with the family and their real son for dinner, and there’s always plenty of food. She’s told to go to her room when they have guests over. Her foster parents bring up a plate to eat by herself, though they never say why she can’t join them.

That Christmas, Sylvie and her foster brother open up lots of presents under the tree, and get lots of chocolates in their stockings. They get equally many. Her foster parents ask her to stay out, though, when they take pictures of themselves. They take several, all without her, and declare how beautiful the pictures are.

It was like that with the pictures on Santa’s lap at the mall, too. Her foster parents also wanted her to stay out of those.

Victoria: When holidays come, Sylvia wonders why she isn’t included in family photographs. She puts on a brave face. She says she understands.

Deep down, she isn’t brave, and she doesn’t understand. Don’t they want her, too? She’s not part of the family—but isn’t she part of the family?

She feels like the family dog. They aren’t included in photos with Santa, either. Can people be pets, too?

GM: Sylvie’s foster parents do include the dog, a golden retriever, in one of the photos. Their real son drapes wrapping paper over the dog and laughs. Sylvie gets to do that too. The dog is a pretty good sport about it all. Her dad smiles and tussles her hair, then asks her to “move out” when he takes the picture of his son playing with the dog.

Another year and another Christmas passes. Sylvia gets presents again, but isn’t included in any photos either.

Then one day, shortly after winter break ends, Sylvie’s case worker picks her up from school. She’s got Sylvie’s things in her car, including the Gameboy. She says she’s “really sorry,” but that Sylvie has to go to a new home.

Her foster parents never say goodbye.

And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.


Monday morning, 10 January 2000

Victoria: This one hurts. She cries the entire way to DCFS, and doesn’t stop crying until her tears run dry. It doesn’t stop her hiccuping.

“I—I… but… they lo—”

Love you? If they love you, you’d still be there.

She’ll miss the dog most of all. There were no conditions on his love.

“Wh-why?” she asks the social worker. “Wh-wh-wh-what d-d-did I do wr-wrong?”

GM: Her case worker’s heart looks like it’s breaking for Sylvie as she drives.

“They… they couldn’t keep you. I’m so sorry, Sylvie. I’m so, so sorry.”

That’s all she says, when Sylvie asks. That they “couldn’t keep you.” She repeats how sorry she is.

She never says why.

But Sylvie knows why. It’s just a simple truth.

No one wants Sylvie.

Victoria: At least she has her Gameboy. She wonders where the sister who gave it to her is now. She treasures that stupid thing, not because of the fun it provides, but because it reminds her: she made it to ‘aging out’, and so can Sylvie.

She continues crying.

GM: Her case worker tries to comfort her.

But it only lasts until they get back to DCFS, and she needs to find a new home for the unwanted foster child.

Sylvie’s next home is a “group home” in Bywater. It’s a big house and looks expensive and well-kept. The man who runs it is tall, thin, and blonde. He gives his name as Jacob. He’s very excitable and tells Sylvie a riveting story about Hansel and Gretel and the evil witch with the gingerbread house. He tells her and the other kids stories about monsters and magic and fairies and Indians, some in the deep dark German woods, some in the hot Texas sun. He tells the most incredible stories Sylvie’s ever heard. The other dozen-odd kids are all spellbound listening to him.

Victoria: She only stops crying because no one wants a crying girl. They don’t want a strong girl, either. Whatever Sylvia is, they don’t want.

She’s glum when she’s given her next home, only smiling when she’s addressed. After all, she can’t seem completely destroyed, or she’ll end up right back where she was before.

It still hurts. She’s infected, and the virus is ripping apart her insides.

She misses the dog.

She barely hears the story.

GM: Sylvie doesn’t seem to be the only one who doesn’t. For all that the story entrances, some of the other kids look half-ready to fall asleep. The kid next to Sylvie, a South Asian girl who’s missing a leg and walks with a crutch, actually zonks off against her shoulder.

The blond man tells Sylvie welcome to her new home, then it’s time for bed. There are dormitories. Everyone gets their own bunk, but there’s lots of bunks to a room. Once Jacob is gone, the other kids show their colors. An older boy with a mean smile demands that Sylvie hand over the Gameboy or else “I’ll beat the SHIT out of you!”

Victoria: She gives him one warning. Just one.

GM: The older boy laughs and grabs at the Gameboy.

“You asked for it!”

Victoria: She feeds it to him, teeth in the way be damned.

GM: The Gameboy leaves him with a satisfying split lip.

Unfortunately, he pays it back, with interest. He punches her in the face, kicks her to the ground, and then kicks her in the gut until she can’t move from pain. Then he takes the Gameboy and spits on her.

Victoria: It hurts, just like it hurt the day she was attacked walking home from school. Sylvie can take a punch better than most, but he still renders her broken on the floor.

Still worth it. It’s always worth it standing up to bullies.

GM: Jacob isn’t around much. It’s several days later because the only other adult in the house, a 30something African-American woman, gives Sylvie the Gameboy back and apologizes. It’s got a tooth-like dent near the screen, but still works.

Victoria: She takes it, thanking the woman awkwardly.

“How did you find out?” she asks, thumbing the dent. She isn’t sure whether it’s from her hitting him with it, or him trying to eat it. Fatass.

GM: “Saw him playing on it,” answers the harried-looking staffer. “Figured it was from you. Don’t know how else he’d have gotten one.”

Victoria: “Thank you. It’s important to me. What happened to him?”

How polite. She really means it.

GM: “Sorry?” the woman asks, confused.

“Oh. You mean was he punished?”

Victoria: She nods.

GM: The woman pauses for a second, then says,

“He won’t get to listen to story hour for two days, since that’s how long he had it. Fair?”

It sounds like she made that up on the spot.

The woman has deep bags under her eyes. She’s pale and messy-haired. She looks completely exhausted.

Victoria: She likes that. She’s punishing him just because Sylvia wants him to be.

That feels nice.

“Deal!”

GM: Was it meant as a deal? But the woman just nods and heads off.

It’s a deal in practice, if not in intent.

That interaction proves emblematic. Care in the group home is lackadaisical at best. Jacob is barely around. The woman has her hands full just cooking for all the kids, cleaning their messes, getting them dressed, and getting them to the school bus; everything else is optional. Including actually going to school. Sylvie watches many of the kids just run off after they leave the house, not even waiting for the school bus. It’s their secret, open to everyone except the adults.

Victoria: Sylvie protects her Gameboy like a dictator protects his people: with poor care, and an iron fist. After the first interaction, anyone who so much as glances at it is confronted. Some taste grass.

Sylvie doesn’t care about school. Once she learns that she doesn’t have to get on the school bus, it all but disappears from her thoughts. School is where the bullies are. At least if she hangs out with the bullies here, they bother her less. She’s one of them. They may not like her the best, but it’s better than being the nerd who leaves them to learn about men in triangle hats and why a triangle isn’t a circle.

GM: Some of the kids offer to let Sylvie come along to get ice cream with them. They steal the money from Jacob, they say. He’s absentminded and doesn’t seem to notice, when he’s around to notice. He’s happy to play the family man at dinner with his stories. His only real rules are not to go into his rooms and not to damage the willow tree he keeps outside. He tells Sylvie and the other kids, dead serious, that it’s a fairy tree. It’s alternately made from goblins and dragons and nymphs. Very dangerous.

Sylvie quickly picks up that the kids all put on nice and obedient faces for the story hours Jacob hosts during every dinner, the only time he regularly sees them, and then it’s every kid for themselves. The other staffer barely keeps the tide of anarchy at bay. Kids cry all the time, get in scrapes, cause messes, act out, swear, sob, or get sick and lie in bed all day. Lots of them seem to get sick. Lots of them seem to have behavioral issues. Lots of them pick fights and steal from each other. At various points, kids just go missing. Sylvie never finds out what happens to them. The other kids think they run away.

Victoria: She’s less easy about stealing from Jacob, but her desire to be wanted outweighs her morals. She never helps steal it, but not does she stop them. It’s a tenuous compromise.

Some nights, she cries about it. Jacob is a nice dad. He doesn’t deserve to be stolen from.

GM: The kids buy things with the money they steal. Candy. Comic books. Even cigarettes. Sometimes they share with Sylvie.

Jacob never says anything about the missing money.

Victoria: Sylvie tries a cigarette, if they let her. She chokes on it. She prefers the candy.

She wonders about the willow tree. Some days, she sits in front of it, waiting for goblins and faeries and dragons to appear. Sometimes, if she stares long enough, she can swear she sees them peek from knots and branches.

They never fully come out. They don’t want Sylvie either.

GM: The willow tree’s only goblins and faeries and dragons appear to lie in the patterns of its leaves. Sylvie can make out all sorts of things in those, if she stares hard enough for long enough. It’s easier to see faces than mythical creatures, though. The tree looks a lot like a lady’s face at the right angle. She can even pretend the wind whistling through its leaves is a voice, sometimes.

But it never says anything she can make out.

No one wants Sylvie.

Victoria: Eventually, she asks the woman if the faeries ever talk to her.

GM: The woman says that yes, the faeries sometimes do. You can’t make them, though. They’ll talk when they feel like talking.

Victoria: “Do they ever talk to you?”

Sylvie watches the leaves and trees and knots and branches, but she never quite sees any mythical creatures.

GM: The woman says she just answered that.

One day, Jacob says he’s going to be out of town on a business trip. They’ll be in good hands. That turns out to be untrue when the woman disappears several days later. The house goes into complete free fall, with that. Kids destroy furniture. They leave giant messes. They paint graffiti on the walls. They gorge themselves on sugar and sweets, and steal things; Jacob’s, each other’s, everyone’s. They get into bloody fights. Kids are beaten senseless. No one takes care of them. No one cooks. No one does laundry. No one’s there to do anything. Chaos reigns.

Victoria: It’s a lawless land. The government falls on the first day. Society follows on the second. Sylvie wonders if she’ll need to learn to survive once food runs out. She doesn’t know how to hunt, or where the grocery store is, or how to get more money. They already stole all of what they could from Jacob.

She protects her Gameboy, though. Even with the batteries dead and none in sight, she protects it. It’s the most cherished thing she owns.

She spends most of her time in her room. What’s the point in leaving?

GM: There’s food, when she gets hungry, though the house’s food rapidly disappears. There’s bathing and showering, until the toilets get clogged when some kid has the brilliant idea to flush rocks down them. Shit literally piles up, after that. The bathrooms become toxic waste dumps. The kids start shitting outside, or going to places with public restrooms. Several of them never come back.

Yet perhaps worst of all for Sylvie, her medication runs out, or perhaps disappears. She’s not sure which.

Either way, the night terrors come back.

They’re worse than ever. She dreams of her parents getting crucified on in the willow tree and burned alive. They laugh, their voices sizzling and popping like their cooking flesh, that no one wants an orphan like Sylvie. She dreams of schoolmates who never talked to her beating her bloody after school, holding her face-down in the mud until she suffocates. She dreams of being a dog in her last family’s house, kept in a cage and forgotten. She starves to death while they eat syrup-drizzled waffles. She dreams of getting raped in the dark by shadowy figures while her foster sisters endlessly sob. Voices wail at her, plead with her, scream obscene things at her.

She wakes to sheets drenched in sweat and urine, heart pounding in her chest like a drum, stomach growling in hunger.

No one comes for her. No one does anything. No takes care of her.

Victoria: Some kid leaves the vegetables outside. They begin to rot on the porch. By the third day, what isn’t picked away by scavengers turns into a fetid mash; a mockery of ratatouille.

She can smell it through her bedroom window.

She doesn’t sleep much. When she does sleep—somewhere between the sugar-laden rush ending in a crash, often literally, and the morning heat raising shit-stink—it’s restless, sweat-stained, and unwanted time with unwanting parents. Feral schoolmates. Burning loved ones. A dead dog. The pancakes are the worst. Stale marshmallows and bland cereal is nothing next to pancakes.

She doesn’t like the tree anymore. Faeries and dragons never come to help her parents, not that she’s sure she wants them helped.

The next morning, she isn’t soaked through with sweat due to her dreams alone. The air conditioner is broken.

It’s Tuesday.

She begins to cry. She misses her dog.

GM: Flies descend on the vegetable mush. Tiny fruit flies and big fat buzzing flies. They breed. Insects get inside the house. She sees maggots in the shit caking up in the bathrooms.

Between the lack of sleep, food, and AC, Sylvie feels sick all the time now, and delirious. She gets a fever. The other kids fight less. Mostly they just lie around, now. They look half-dead.

Not a week has gone by, though, before someone reports the situation to social services. Sylvie doesn’t think she’s ever been relieved to see social workers, police, and ambulances on scene before.

Cops make disgusted remarks about “kids living like animals.”

Victoria: Sylvie feels like an animal. Unwashed. Unfed. Uncared for.

Only some of that is new.

GM: And just like that, Sylvie is back at DCFS again.


Thursday morning, 16 March 2000

GM: “Your next home is going to be very different from this,” her case worker tells her after she’s showered, eaten, and been checked by a nurse. Her case worker is a woman she’s never seen before. Her old case worker quit. Or got transferred. She never finds out why the woman gets replaced.

Victoria: She isn’t sure she wants different. Different is a beast she’s unfamiliar with. At least she knows how she’ll suffer, even if they find new ways to do it.

“I don’t like different.”

GM: “Different will be good for you,” smiles the social worker.

Different is what she gets.

Sylvia is sent to a group home with several dozen residents. The contrast with the last one is night and day.

First, there are literally alarms all over the house. Everything is locked. Sylvie can’t even open the windows at night or it rings alarms, not that there’s any point with bars over them. If she can’t sleep and she wakes up, she cannot do anything but sit in her room and read or try to force herself to go back to sleep. She’s not allowed to have any electronics at night (including her Gameboy) and she’s not allowed to wander the house at night. The doors to her room are locked. The doors to the kitchen and living room are locked. Staff don’t sleep at night, and conduct bed checks with a flashlight every two hours.

She shares her room with at least two other, random, ever changing girls. She wonders where they go, and why they leave so fast. Some of them lie crying in bed all the time. Some pick fights and attack her. Staff haul them away and she never sees them again after that happens.

She doesn’t own much, but her belongings often disappear. The staff search her room top to bottom whenever they feel like it, and often do.

She is told she is on a points system. She enters with zero points, and has no privileges (TV, phone, going outside of the home for anything except school or a doctor appointment) until she earns three points. A point takes of week of incident-free behavior to earn. Points are deducted for breaking rules. If she ever earns negative points, she is told, she will go to jail. Juvenile hall. Youth detention center. “This is your absolute last chance,” staff tell her. If she makes any real trouble, such as fist fighting, verbally threatening a staff member, touching a staff member (including hugs), or stealing, she will be automatically sent to jail for an unknown period of time, with no way of knowing if she will later return to the same home, or be sent someplace else.

“This is your absolute last chance,” staff repeat.

Victoria: Her heart tries to escape long before she has any thoughts of escaping, herself. It begins as soon as she walks in the door.

Fight or flight holds congress as soon as the doors shut behind her, sealing her into her into the prison. Flight wins with a narrow margin of 52 to 48 (her brain holds an extra vote in reserve for ties), but before she can take the first step, two black boys tumble out of a nearby doorjamb, fists wailing like a summer storm.

“HE SAID I AIN’T GOT NO HAIRCAUSE MY REAL MAMA AIN’T GOT A CROW-MA-SOME!”

“NO! I CALLED YOU A CHROME DOME!”

Both boys are taken away by men in white shirts and pants, and neither are seen again.

She reconsiders running. Different still isn’t better, but this different is better than the last different.

GM: Her day starts with going to the bathroom. The doors have no locks. Other kids can barge in at any time.

Then she takes a shower. Doing so requires permission from a staff member, or she loses a point.

Everyone eats cereal at 8 AM, sandwiches at 1 PM, and dinner at 6 PM. No snacks, ever. Outside of her three allowed meals, she can have tap water or nothing. All food is kept locked up. She must be present for all meals unless she is in school or working.

There are daily rotating chores five days a week. Washing bedding, doing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, mopping and sweeping floors. Falling behind loses points. Sylvie is kept constantly working when she’s not eating or in school. There’s almost no time before curfew. The bathrooms are cleaned the most often, and yet somehow always filthy.

Residents ages 13 and below have an 8 PM curfew. Residents 14 and up have a 9 PM curfew. At 9 PM, the doors are locked. If Sylvie isn’t inside the building, and doesn’t call, she will be reported to the local police as a runaway.

It is usually extremely loud until 10 PM, which is lights out and silence. Even reading in bed, after lights out, is not allowed and deducts points.

That is her day. Day in and day out. Sylvie almost never sees the outside of school or the group home. It’s like being in jail.

She gets $12.00 a month spending money, for clothes, preferred toothpastes, tampons—because only maxi-pads are provided—or for anything else “personal” that she needs. She must provide receipts to prove she has not purchased drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. No receipt, no money the following month.

Sylvie will get a slice of cake on her birthday if she has no infractions. She will get a $20 store gift voucher on her birthday, and on Christmas, if she has no infractions. She can pick from four stores: A music store, a book store, a clothing store, or a beauty supply store.

All kitchen knives and sharp objects, including disposable razors, and all medications, are kept inside of locked cabinets. Even Tylenol. If she gets caught with a bottle of Tylenol, she will lose points, and may be sent to juvenile hall.

If she gets caught with any alcohol or drugs, she will go into a lock-up drug rehab for 30 days, and it will be reported to the police, and she will be prosecuted.

She can spend half an hour on the phone each day, if she has her privileges intact. Local calls only.

There are lots of rules about when she’s allowed to watch TV. There’s lots of fighting over TV.

Once a month, she and all the other kids are piled into white vans and taken to a PG-rated movie. She is left locked in her room if she has recent infractions.

There is medical care. An OBGYN visit upon menstruation. Yearly physicals. Yearly dental visits. Sylvie also sees a psychiatrist who gives her more meds. She is told that if she gets pregnant, and wants to keep it, she will be moved to “another placement” for pregnant foster youth.

Staff come and go. Residents come and go. All of the time, never to be seen again, and never with any notice.

It’s structured. Sylvia has to give it that. But it’s never safe. If another resident is angry enough with her, they might literally stab her, with a pen. One time she ends up with hair remover in her shampoo bottle. Another time, someone pisses in her bed. Some residents seem one bad day away from a psychotic break. Sylvia never knows what will happen.

She gets used to a lot of chaos. Yelling, screaming, arguing, fighting, breaking shit, throwing things, people being restrained, police, crying, drama, ambulances, slamming doors, threats, insults. She even learns new profanity.

Staff never touch her, except to give her a high five or physically restrain her. Rules prohibit all other physical contact.

They also tell her she’ll have a future, after she “ages out.” She’s going to enlist in the military.

They’ll get started early on the whole process and its attendant paperwork. They have an agreement with the local recruiting station. She’ll be on a plane to basic the day she turns 18.

Victoria: At 11 years old, Sylvie isn’t entirely sure what ‘basic’ is, but she knows what the military is. They’re the strong guys with tanks and bombs and planes and green clothing.

Sylvie doesn’t want to kill people. She gets mad, sometimes, and the three girls who—one of—chemically genocided her hair deserve to be punched in the mouth, but she doesn’t want to kill people she doesn’t know.

Why would she?

Why would anyone?

The thought of her life already decided by people who know her name as if it’s just as number destroys her.

She vows to get out of this house.

But until then, Sylvie is a good girl. Sylvie is a model daughter in a home without parents. Sylvie listens. Sylvie earns her points. Sylvie gets her treats. Sylvie is every fairy her willow tree never showed.

Until she pulls away the entirety of her hair one fateful shower. She doesn’t know who it was, but the choices are slim. Is it Mary-Mabel, who refused to accept that no, Sylvie would not be giving her her breakfast? Is it Bethany, whose feet Sylvie tripped over the night before? Or is it Donna, who was told that it was Sylvie who pushed her down the stairs the week before?

It wasn’t Sylvie.

Anger overtakes her. She cries in the shower, sinking to her knees as long as they allow her to stay. It isn’t long. She wants to hurt them; to stab them; to take a knife to their eyes and mush up their brains like strawberry pudding. She wants to see them hit by a car, and made part of the pavement. Maybe if they’re hit by a bus, they’ll sail clear over the bridge down the street.

She stuffs that anger down, down, down, deep inside. She doesn’t want to go to jail. She doesn’t want to lose her Gameboy.

Sylvie is a good girl.

A bald, good girl.

GM: Most of the kids are black, like the two quarreling boys. Sylvie’s not sure if she gets punished harsher or less harsh.

Running will not succeed, from what everyone tells her. She’s locked in the building almost all of the time. If she bolts after school, and doesn’t return for bed, the police will hunt her.

But that’s okay. She can be a good girl, until she loses her hair.

Most of her hair.

The staff declare what’s left “distracting” to the other residents and get rid of it. The razor they use cuts her skin. Harshly wielded scissors painfully nick her scalp. She bleeds. She will probably develop scabs.

The staff angrily tell her she’s lost a point, for what she’s done to her hair, and demand to know where she got the hair remover. Or else she will be “really in for it.”

Victoria: She never stops crying while they rend the dregs of her hair from her head. She saw an interrogation in a movie, once.

This is worse.

“I d-didn’t!! It wa-was one of them!”

She points at the door. All three suspects are somewhere out there.

“I l-loved my hair!”

GM: “You’re a liar,” says the staff member.

He roughly grabs Sylvie, hauls her to a sink, and forces her head in. He turns on the hot water full blast against her face. He then takes a fat handful of awful, pink, grainy powder K-Mart soap and shoves it into Sylvie’s mouth. He yells for her to chew as hot water pours over her face. He sticks his hand in her mouth and scrubs back and forth, washing her from teeth to gums to tongue. Sylvie gags and spits and burns. Soapy water froths out of her nostrils. She feels like she’s drowning.

“Stop lying, you awful girl. Where did you get the hair remover?” he asks after turning the water off.

Victoria: Sylvie tries her hardest not to vomit. The soap is acidic. It burns her tongue. It burns her gums. It gets in her eyes. It gets in her nose. It gets in her scrapes and cuts. Still, she sticks to it.

“I-I-I didn’t!! I loved my hair!! HONEST!!”

GM: The staff member hits her.

Just like that, he punches her in the gut. She crashes to her knees. She feels like she’s been shot. The urge to throw up is even stronger.

He yanks her back up and turns on the hot water again. Sylvia can see steam rising from it now.

“Where did you get the hair remover?”

Victoria: Is this what life is now? Is this what an interrogation really is?

She understands the movie a little better.

“I… I bought it.”

Life is giving people what they want.

“Mary-Mabel made me.”

GM: The staff member roughly grabs Sylvie by the hand and takes her to one of the “solitary” rooms for kids. There’s a bed on a thin mattress and nothing else in the windowless room.

He closes the door in her face. A lock clicks.

Victoria: She sobs.

And she sobs.

And she sobs.

And she sobs.

And she sobs.

GM: Used goods, says the voice in her head.

Look at her now.

Bald.

Sobbing.

Ugly.

Unlovable.

No one wants Sylvia.

No one wants an orphan.

No one wants a bald, crying, lying, soap-mouthed orphan.

Not even the people here.

She doesn’t have a family.

She will never have a family.

She’s going to be a pariah when she gets out. The other kids will torment her, ceaselessly, when they see she’s bald.

She’s probably lost all of her points. They’re never going to let her leave this place. She’s going to be locked up here until she turns 18, when she’ll join the army and kill people.

If they don’t just send her to jail. Juvenile hall. Youth detention. Will they do that?

That’s all she is.

Used goods.

Victoria: She might hurt herself, if she has anything to do it with. She has nothing. She is nothing. She’s never been anything. She will never be anything.

She’s the food her dog left behind, unfit to lick the bowl.

She’s the fetid vegetables left behind by maggots.

She’s the shit piled so high that you could no longer sit on the bowl.

She’s the piss in the bed she’s no longer sleeping in.

She’s every blank space in every picture she was never allowed in.

She’s the crumbs in the cookie jar, tossed into the trash.

She is emptiness, incarnate: blank space unfit even to be recognized.

I’m a junkie, Sylvia.

I’m a whore, Sylvia.

I’m a bum, Sylvia.

I’m a deadbeat, Sylvia.

I’m wasted, Sylvia.

I’m trash, Sylvia.

And so…

Are…

You.


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Story Fourteen, Zoe IV

“You’re full of shit.”
Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy


April night, 2016

GM: Zoe would say she’s not sure what she expected to find back in Chuck’s apartment, except she was sure.

She was sure it would be something other than this.

Chuck is naked in the bedroom, eyes barely open, ballgag strapped around his mouth. His wrists are secured to the bed with steel cuffs, while a spreader bar is secured between his ankles. His thighs are wrapped and connected to the headboard, so he’s at an approximately 90 degree angle. The head of his penis is covered in a steel sheath that looks as if it prevents erection or stimulation. It’s secured to a padlocked steel ring around his scrotum. There are two keys on the nightstand, on top of a napkin with a lipstick kiss print. On the floor is a strap-on with a double-ended dildo and bottle of lube.

Four photos lie on the bed:

From behind, Chuck bent over on hands and knees. He’s looking back at the camera, ball gag in.

From behind, there’s a closer shot of his ass, head of the dildo pressing against his ass.

Closeup of a long-nailed feminine hand locking his penis in the cage.

Photo from behind showing a woman’s back as she rides him. Her body is bare and perfect, with long brown hair that falls down to her back.

Up close, the napkin reads in stylish cursive,

He’s all yours ;)

It’s signed underneath with a simple,

—A

Zoe: Zoe doesn’t remember the walk home. It feels faster than it was, her memories a blur. Maybe it’s fatigue. Maybe it’s hunger. Maybe it’s her smarter subconscious blocking out what memories would otherwise prove to damage her future self.

She slips her key into the lock, nearly falling into the apartment with fatigue. She closes her eyes. She breathes. She needs a shower.

A long, hot shower, and a night of sleep. Chuck can wait. Chuck will wait, no matter what sort of deal they made.

Or maybe not? Fuck, what is in this cocaine, Cash? Maybe she won’t mind it if he wants his payment.

After a shower.

She walks into the bedroom, and opens her eyes.



“What the FUCK, Chuck?!”

Zoe is caught between trying not to laugh, trying not to be angry, and wishing the entirety of his antics can vanish long enough that she can recover from her endless nightmare.

She stomps into the room, hands flailing. She isn’t sure what to do.

GM: Chuck is still there after the shower.

Still naked.

Still restrained.

Still everything.

He tugs against the cuffs as she re-emerges.

A moaned noise slurs past his gag.

It sounds angry at her.

Zoe: She presses hands to a too-tired face.

She doesn’t need any of this nonsense. Why can’t she have a normal day? A normal night? A normal anything?

Did she actually die and go to hell? It feels like it.

Zoe unlatches the ball gag.

“Who the fuck is A?”

GM: “Fucking… un… tie me…” Chuck grogs.

Zoe: She pinches the bridge of her nose. Okay. This is fine. This is fine. Everything. Is. Fine.

She grabs the keys, then moves to unlock him.

GM: Chuck immediately grabs the first of the pictures and starts tearing it to pieces.

Or at least as ‘immediately’ as he can. He’s pretty slow and groggy about it.

“Fucking… cunt…”

Zoe: For the first time since her phase of questionable faith the first time she’d been made to distance herself from the substance, Zoe wishes she wasn’t as high as she is. Fuck. Her fatigue feels as if it’s been replaced with an injection of coffee, bypassing the stomach and taking a direct line to her heart. She wants to dance, and to fuck, and to scream, and to play, and to shower—mostly shower—and to be fun

She shakes her head, pressing a palm to her forehead and smacking herself a few times.

“Can’t fucking— I’m too high for this shit.”

She sits beside him, picking up one of the errant photos.

“I didn’t know your ass could wink.”

She shrugs, cackling, and tosses it down.

“Is it really winking with one hole? Hmn.”

Maybe that’s a topic for a thesis, when she returns to school. When.

“I’m too in need of you to consider blackmail, too tired of my day to have the energy to think any other way on it, and too high to connect one thought to the next.”

A little embellishment, but just a little.

“So, what in the fuck happened, Chuck?”

GM: Chuck does not immediately answer. He just grabs the next photo and rips it up. His eyes are drooping as he slurs,

“Bad. Decision. All right?”

Zoe: She picks up another errant photo, glances down at it, and begins to tear it.

“Want revenge?”

GM: Chuck stares at her for a second.

His face looks out of focus.

But she sees the hate in his eyes.

“Yeah.”

Chuck grabs the last of the photos and rips it up.

“Those. Those whores.”

“I’ll fucking ruin them.”

Zoe: “Girlfriend, or…?”

She tears the picture to pieces, bit by bit. The edges come first; the periphery of the room, then the bedposts, then the nightstand, then the headboard. Little by little she tears it apart, until all she holds is the center—a snippet of his asshole so focused that one can’t even tell the hole is attached to a human unless they know the context.

She holds it up to her eye, as if an entire dimension of possibility lay inside.

The grin that spreads across her face could light up a city.

GM: Chuck isn’t grinning. At all.

“No,” he growls, though it still comes out half a slur.

He rips the photo’s pieces into even smaller pieces.

“Literal, fuckin’, whores.”

Zoe: She shakes her head as if she’s a dog throwing off water.

“Fuckin’.. what the fuck is in this?!”

It’s some good shit.

“You hired a bunch of whores and they did this? Are you high?”

GM: “They… drugged me.”

He blinks slowly.

“Those whores… they fuckin’ drugged me.

“They drugged me,” he repeats, as if to himself.

He grabs the key on the nightstand and fumbles to unlock the padlock on the device around his dick.

Zoe: “Sounds like you’ve got some enemiiiiieeessss…” she sings, waggling a finger back and forth like a bony metronome.

She comes up behind him, throwing her arms around his neck from behind, as she would her boyfriend. If she had one.

“We should help each other get revengeeeeee! It’ll be fun! I’ll kill your whores, and you kill a cop! Easy peasy.”

GM: There’s a padlocked leather collar around his neck.

Chuck, though, is still fumbling to get off the chastity cage. He swears several times before he finally undoes the padlock and pulls off the steel head. His penis is tinged an unhealthy shade of blue.

“I’ll fuckin’ destroy them,” he slurs.

Zoe: “Ooooooh… That looks sick! We should get the blood flowing.”

She does not, however, move to touch it.

“How will ya destroy them?”

She moves to flop back onto the bed.

GM: Chuck tugs at the ring around his scrotum and swears some more when it doesn’t come off.

Zoe: “How many fucking locks do they have on you?”

GM: “Isn’t a lock, it’s…”

Chuck finally crams in the head of his penis and drags it underneath a protruding, keyhole-shaped portion of the ring. Then he pulls his balls through and throws it aside with an angry look. Normal color starts to return to his manhood.

“Z’where’s the other key,” he slurs.

Zoe: “You need another key?”

She sounds both surprised and annoyed.

“Haaaaa…. guess you’re lucky they didn’t chain your asshole shut!” she says, poking the shred of a picture she’s determined to keep.

GM: Chuck grabs at it.

Zoe: She closes her fist. It’s no more than a square inch after all her ripping.

“I waaaant it!”

GM: Chuck tries to un-pull her fingers. But the man looks ready to pass out at any moment, and there’s barely any strength behind his hands.

“Not… funny!”

Zoe: She rolls back further onto the bed, having the time of her damn life. Why did she ever feel tired?

“Cmonnnnn! It’s cute! I waaaant it! What made them do this, anyway?”

GM: Chuck glowers at her.

“‘Cuz they’re fucked up, is why!”

“Give it to me and I’ll tell you, all right?”

Zoe: “Nuh! They’re whores! Whores fuck! This is a conspiracy.”

She mourns the pretty little photo; at this point, barely a crumpled black dot and vaguely Chuck-colored background.

Then hands it over.

“Fine.”

GM: Chuck rips it up.

“Did a whore a favor. Said she’d pay me back with sex.”

“Brought a friend.”

Zoe: “You should invest in a safe word. Or a gun.”

GM: “Gun,” he mutters.

“Yeah. Drugged me and did…”

He fumbles around for the other key.

Zoe: “Well, technically, they didn’t break their word. Whatcha do for them?”

GM: “Some loser didn’t pay them for sex. Called my uncle ’bout where he lived. Rented from us.”

Chuck finds the key and tries to unlock the collar’s padlock. He swears when it doesn’t come off.

Zoe: “Ooooh. Not very bright going back on their word…”

A pause.

“Whatcha want to do to ’em?”

GM: “Fuck ’em,” he mutters.

“Ruin their lives.”

He tries the other key on the collar’s badlock. It finally comes off. He angrily throws it aside.

“Get them arrested. For whorin’.”

Zoe: “That’s boring,” she sings, waggling a finger at him.

“Oooh, let’s call the cops! That’ll show them what’s what. We’ll just show the cops the pictures—which don’t exist anymore—and they’ll chase them down. That’ll show them.”

Is she mocking him? Absolutely.

“You can do better than thaaaat!”

GM: Chuck glowers at her.

“No, dumbass, get them arrested for being whores.”

“Prostitution is illegal.”

Zoe: She palms her face.

“Dude, you’re literally paying me with a place to sleep and eat with sex. How will reporting them to the police—”

She shakes her head. Hypocrite.

“You don’t want to take revenge yourself? Something more personal? Come onnnnn!”

She reaches out, tugging on his forearm.

GM: He gives her a bleary look.

“Are you… high?”

He shakes his head.

“Whatever. Personal revenge. Yeah… wouldn’t say no.”

“Fuck them.”

“Fuck those cunts.”

Zoe: “Top of the fucking clouds. MAN that was some good shit he gave me!”

She tugs him over and kisses him, hard, exactly as unromantic and unsexy as a cartoon rabbit in a dress kissing a hunter.

“Good! Don’t say no. Personal revenge is much more satisfying.”

GM: Chuck’s response is equally unromantic. He doesn’t even kiss her back. Just pulls away and mutters, “Not in the mood,” with a dark look.

He ambles up and rifles through his dresser for some sweats and a t-shirt. He tugs them on.

Zoe: “Come onnnnn! There has to be something more going on! Paid whores don’t just torture their client in repayment of a favor. Are you suuuuure you don’t have enemies?”

GM: “Yeah, sure!” he exclaims, sinking heavily down back down onto the bed. “Yeah, my family’s got enemies, but I dunno who the fuck’d… who the fuck’d do this to me.

“She was just some whore I fucked a bunch. Paid her.”

“Then brought over this… this literally insane…”

“I dunno where the fuck she came from…”

Zoe: “Did they at least get you off once?”

GM: “I d-ddunno, wh…”

Chuck clutches his stomach, then barrels out of the room. Zoe hears the sound of him retching.

Zoe: She clicks her tongue. Now that she finally wants to fuck, not a soul available is ‘in the mood’. Maybe her mother gave her a good enough fucking that karma continues to decide she’s meant for chastity. Hmn.

“Do you need me to hold your hair back?”

She doesn’t sound entirely serious.

GM: There’s no answer, but after a little while, the toilet flushes.

There’s the sound of gargling and spitting, then Chuck ambles back in to the bedroom with a barely comprehending look and plops back down on the bed.

“Why the fuck are you even here, anyway?”

“Don’t you have… friends?”

Zoe: She shakes her head.

“They won’t talk to me. Mom wins this round! You want to be my friend? Like, the kind I don’t have to fuck? I’ll still fuck you. Apparently I’m good at it! Good enough for three-hun—”

She looks puzzled all of a sudden.

“Two-hun… Dred and…”

She can’t remember how much cash she has. Oh well.

“I got paid for it! I went out and got locked in a closet!”

GM: She doesn’t have any cash. The other Cash took it all.

“Yeah,” Chuck grogs.

“You’re high as a kite, ‘n I’m drugged. Night.”

He sags onto a pillow and rolls over.

Zoe: "Pffffff! Kites got NOTHING on me!”

She lays back beside him.

“…so…”

A pause.

“Develop a pegging kink?”

GM: Her answer to that is total silence.


April morning, 2016

GM: Zoe’s dreams that night are troubled and fitful. She feels like shit when she wakes up. She supposes that a night of cocaine, stripping, and nothing to eat in 24 hours but cheese sticks and O’Tolley’s cheeseburgers may do that.

Chuck is still soundly asleep and lies face-first against the pillow. He doesn’t even snore. The pale-faced man looks really out of it.

Zoe: Fuck. You can’t live with drugs. You can’t live without them. Take them, and you earn a hangover to make any bottle of rum blush with envy. Don’t take them, and you earn a hangover to make any bottle of rum blush with envy, and you’ll punch your own mother to get some.

Zoe doesn’t need a lack of cocaine to want to punch her mother. She’s wanted to do far worse for days now.

She stirs, pressing a palm to a sweat-slick forehead.

Her heart thumps with urgency upon seeing Chuck. She places an ear to his chest. Did she kill him now?!

GM: * Don’t

The sheets are sweaty too. Hers and Chuck’s. Neither of them seems as if they had a good sleep.

Zoe finds it impossible to place her ear against Chuck’s chest when he is lying on the bed chest-down, but his neck has a pulse.

Zoe: He’s alive. That’s good. That’s a relief. For a moment, she wondered if Cash killed him while they slept with intent of pinning a murder on her. It seems he either has a merciful side, or he’s not as vindictive as paranoid-Zoe thinks he is.

She hasn’t showered in days. That’s her first order of business. Also, a time check.

GM: She has a marked sense of deja vu as she steps into the shower. It can’t have been days, can it?

It’s around noon. Sunday.

Zoe: It can’t have been days.

But it has been.

She’s a has been.

She has to.

Has to what?

Has to shower.

Has to get to work.

Has to eat.

Food.

Real food.

So much food.

All the food.

She tries to recall what Chuck has in his freezer.

She stored frozen tadpoles in her shared office at Tulane. Some stupid exhibit-to-be to wrestle the interest of doe-eyed undergraduates-to-be. She had better things to do, but as Master commands, Apprentice does.

Maybe she’ll strike him down, one day.

Tadpoles aren’t food.

Not unless you cook them.

And season them.

In that order.

Shower.

Then food.

The sweat won’t come off.

Her skin will come off before the sweat.

Is Cash under her skin?

Are metaphors reality?

Does he really call himself Cash because he likes money?

She has money.

Had. Money.

He’d have liked Zoe.

Last week.

Except her tadpoles.

Though, both are green.

She has no clean clothes.

Fuck.

GM: It has been days.

One night with Chuck already.

Locked up all day in a closet for another.

Stripping all night and parting with her dignity for $280 and coke.

The sweat eventually comes off under the shower. Zoe may or may not feel clean.

There’s food in the fridge and freezer. Frozen meals and leftover, half-eaten restaurant takeout.

Her laundered clothes are a mess. At least half are ruined.

Chuck had wanted to see her naked.

Zoe: She would fuck Chuck three times right now for enough spare cash to buy some clothes and pay back those who fronted her dancing gear, but Chuck is passed out in his own drool.

Should she call a doctor for him? Probably. His heart continues to beat, so she continues to eat.

Zoe rummages through his freezer, finding a breakfast of eggs, sausage and a biscuit—somehow mashed into a paste—and nukes it in the microwave.

It’s better than some alternatives in there.

GM: The microwave dish slowly rotates around with the two ‘biscuit-style scrambles.’ The packaging looks appetizing enough, but it always does.

Do strippers work during the day?

Maybe she has that to herself. Cash Money didn’t say when or at what time she needed to be back.

Zoe: He didn’t, and while she is sure he expects common sense to be applied, she doesn’t want to make assumptions on his expectations lest she get locked in a closet. Again.

The microwave beeps, and she descends upon that poor plate of depressed eggs and other accompanying niceties with all the reserved restraint of a starved dog.

There are no survivors.

Once her plate is clean—quite literally, licked so—she finds the remnants of her clothing. What’s even left?

GM: The finished product, for ‘product’ seems the most fitting term to call it, is two open-face biscuits with egg, sausage, and cheese topping. The food tastes very salty and simultaneously filling but empty. Zoe can already feel her blood sugar spiking.

Technically, all of her clothes are left in the returned hamper. The delicates are ruined. The main articles to survive are the sturdier ones, like jeans.

She feels another striking sense of deja vu. Has she done this before?

Zoe: She has. She knew she had before subjecting herself to facing the same reality again: she doesn’t have enough clothing lift over to make an appropriate outfit to get coffee from down the street.

She groans, tugging her hair.

Okay. This is salvageable. No underwear is fine, for now. Jeans are safe.

She’ll borrow a shirt from Chuck.

GM: The shirts in Chuck’s dresser are a little big for Zoe, but he has plenty of them. They range in style from formal button-ups to wear with suits to more casual t-shirts like the one he’s still sleeping in. Polo shirts and long-sleeved tees round out the middle.

He’s still collapsed on the bed and looks completely out of it. The handcuffs, spreader bar, strap-on, ballgag, and chastity cage lie haphazardly strewn over the floor.

Zoe: They’re a little big, but it’s better than going out topless.

Concern laces her face when she regards him again. She slides onto the bed beside him.

“Chuck.”

GM: The sleeping man does not answer her.

Zoe: He doesn’t answer her, but he’ll probably be fine; and, if he isn’t fine, it’s because she’s already died days ago, gone to hell, and is living an eternity of punishment for her selfish existence.

So, you’re on your own, Chuck.

For the first time since her ‘Worst Day Ever’, she pulls her laptop out. She’d shut it off with intention to preserve it from any water damage before she left the coffee shop. It should be fine, right?

GM: For once, fortune smiles upon her, as the Sunbook laptop boots up without issue. She must’ve packed it fairly high up in the soaked and ruined bag.

Zoe: Blessed be!

She plugs the laptop in, gives it a few minutes to charge, and boots up her browser. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.

How bad is her inbox?

GM: It could be worse.

But her advisor asked her to come work on Saturday and seem distinctly irritated by the lack of response. Someone else will do that, she’s told, and will get all the credit.

Her advisor also tells her to come wash his car by Monday.

Grad students are, unfortunately, their advisors’ bitches, more or less.

Zoe: She writes her advisor most of the truth: that she ran into some trouble with her family, and that she needs to find a source of income to continue giving her focus to the remainder of her degree. It shouldn’t take her too long! At least, that’s what she tells him.

Unfortunately, she can’t make it to work and she can’t wash his car; but, she says she’ll wash it twice!

Probably in a bikini, if he has his way.

GM: It’s perhaps Zoe’s “luck” that her advisor seems to be checking his mail right now. Her inbox pings with a new email.

Granted, it’s not as if the response took him very long to compose.

It’s only one sentence long.

Wash the car by 5 PM today or you’re terminated.

The threat, she knows, is completely genuine. Advisors have total power over the doctoral students who work for them. There is no appeal. There is no transfer to another advisor. There are no second chances—leave your doctoral program, which you can do at any time, and you are done forever in academia.

Zoe’s heard horror stories about doctoral students who quit and went back to flipping burgers at O’Tolley’s because they found the abuse from their advisors so intolerable.

Zoe: She grits her teeth hard enough that she worries about cracking one.

Given her luck, she consciously relaxes her jaw, rubbing the connection at the rear.

Okay. Leave the supplies out and I’ll come over right now. But seriously, I need to find income aside; my projects will have to keep on hold.

GM: Another just as swift and curt reply pops up:

Keep up with the work or you’re terminated.

Zoe: She smacks the desk.

GM: There are other doctoral students eager to replace her.

She knows that bitterly well, too.

If only she could turn to Mom or Grandpa or even Dad to get him to see reason.

Zoe: How the holy fuck is she supposed to manage her degree, pleasing Cash—literally, probably,—keeping Chuck appeased, and somehow managing to keep enough income to eat once Chuck gets tired of feeding her?

Where does Chuck keep his stash?

She goes to rummage for that. Fuck sobriety.

GM: Zoe’s parents would be the first to tell her she’s a disappointment. She’d be the first to agree that her life is now a disappointment.

Chuck’s stash doesn’t disappoint, though. He keeps a fair bit of booze in his place. Enough that she might be able to kill herself via alcohol poisoning, if she wants to go out that way.

Zoe: No, no, no. She doesn’t want to die. She just wants to feel something more than cold, harsh reality. Cocaine is ideal! She’ll wash her advisor’s car in minutes!

GM: Alas, Chuck has no cocaine in his apartment that Zoe can find. Just alcohol.

Zoe: She whines. What kind of wealthy spawn is he? Terrorists are no fun.

She huffs.

Fine.

She’ll go wash his stupid car.

Maybe blow up his stupid head.

GM: Her advisor’s address is in Metairie. She’ll need transportation.

Or she can just walk the seven or so miles.

Zoe: Why can’t the world pass free transportation?

Well, Chuck did agree to lend her a car. She’ll just take that.

GM: It takes some searching, but eventually she locates his keys.

Zoe: Perfect! Lucky for her, she managed to pass her driver’s test. On the second try.

GM: It’s a too-familiar route to the parking garage with her keys in hand. It almost feels like she’s going out for a drive, in her old car, in her old life—apart from the fact she’s borrowing someone’s else car.

Is she borrowing someone else’s life, in so many words, staying here?

Zoe: The thought strikes her like a pallet of bricks.

All those thoughts of death and Hell and this false reality, when she really is a ghost, possessing others and living their lives, punished every time she tries to live her old life.

She was rewarded when she lived a new life the night before. Somewhat.

But how can she just move on? She can’t just forget who she was, drop decades of work and become a whore.

Her hand settles to her belly at a red light. The thought of a parasite inside her from Trip, or worse, Cash…

She shudders.

But how can she move on?

GM: The only answer she receives is a rude honk from the car behind hers.

Traffic is a poor source of advice.

Zoe: You know how Zoe moves on from who she was?

She rolls the window down and flips the driver the bird, then—checking VERY carefully to ensure she’s not about to hit someone—zooms off.


April morning, 2016

GM: It’s a much briefer trek by car than it is by foot. The house of her advisor, Craig Estes, is a well-to-do property located in a nice suburban neighborhood. There’s a big and neatly maintained lawn. It’s a fairly nice house, the kind that belongs to someone with a six-figure income.

If on the lower side on that income level, for him to be relying on his doctoral students to do household chores for him.

There’s a Suburban parked in the driveway, ready to clean. Zoe sees no supplies laid out.

Zoe: Stupid advisor. Stupid Suburban. Stupid supplies. Stupid missing supplies. Stupid PhD. Stupid Zoe.

She huffs, locks the car behind her, and knocks on the door.

GM: She’s answered by Dr. Estes, a middle-aged man with rectangular glasses and receding hair who’s dressed in a button-up. He looks her over with a bored air.

“Supplies are in the garage. When you’re done, I have a list of groceries for you to pick up.”

Zoe: “Yes, Dr. Estes,” she answers, as if it’s Christmas. What’s gotten into Zoe? She’s never been so happy to serve his needs.

“I miss Tulane. I know it’s only been a few days…”

GM: Dr. Estes gives her an odd look.

Zoe: She smiles at him. What a lovely smile. Something’s different.

“Well… I’ll let you know when it’s done!”

And so she sets to it.

GM: Dr. Estes gives a grunt of acknowledgment and closes the door.

Zoe finds some cleaning products, rags, and a bucket in the garage. There’s a garden hose nearby to work on the car with.

It may be April, but the Dixie sun is fat and swollen overhead. It feels around 80 degrees, and it’s extremely humid. Like it always is in south Louisiana.

Dr. Estes’ house is almost certainly air-conditioned.

Zoe: Stuffy corpse. Act like that and I’ll grant your wish.

Still, she cares about finishing her degree. If that means washing his car, and buying his groceries—with his own money—it’s a small price to pay. He’ll pay the bigger price in the long run.

GM: In short order, Zoe finds herself drenched in sweat and extremely thirsty. It’s tiring and physically intensive work, especially in this weather, to scrub the car completely clean.

Zoe: She pushes herself, for now. Suffering is part of the game, isn’t it? He doesn’t care to see his mentees succeed or fail. He cares to see them suffer; so, suffer she will. It will all be worth it in the end. Every. Last. Bit.

GM: Zoe is a sweat-soaked and red-faced mess by the time she’s done scrubbing. Maybe she’s gotten sunburn. She smells awful. Her clothes are going to stink after they dry out, if they do at all in the muggy weather. Dr. Estes looks the car over after she’s done, then says,

“My cat got diarrhea. You can clean the litter box before you pick up my groceries.”

Zoe: “Can I…”

She swallows a sandpaper tongue.

“Can I have a glass of water before I go?”

She’s worked herself to exhaustion; at least, it feels that way, and it shows that way.

GM: “Wash the glass when you’re done,” Dr. Estes says impatiently.

He snaps his fingers.

“Oh. I’m glad you reminded me.”

“My dishwasher’s broken. The repairman comes by tomorrow. Wash and put away everything that’s in there.”

Zoe: “Certainly, Dr!”

She always does. Cleanliness is one of the core tenets of her chosen educational path. Once you know what really lays unseen on used surfaces, you never forget to wash them again.

She just might bash it over his head first.

“Before or after I shop for you?’

GM: “Either,” he shrugs. He produces a wallet and hands her $200, along with a paper shopping list. “That’ll be enough for the groceries.”

Zoe: “Yessir.”

Water. Then another glass.

She takes care in washing the dishes, ensuring that nothing is scratched or broken. No. Zoe is the perfect student. She’s the perfect candidate. She’s perfect. Perfect perfect perfect.

She drinks a third glass, then washes, dries and adds her own glass to the collection.

Next: cat poop. At least it’s in the litter box, right?

GM: There are a lot of dishes. It’s over half an hour before Zoe finishes drying and putting away all of them. Her legs are sore from stretching on the hard tile floor. Her fingers are wrinkled like raisins and smell of dish soap.

At least it’s cool inside.

Zoe’s hope, however, proves misplaced. The litter box is in the pantry room. The cat looks like it missed the box. There’s wet, stinky poop all over the floor.

Zoe: She could leave the cat in the oven…

She hasn’t had Chinese in a few weeks.

Deep breath, Zoe. Outside the pantry.

It’s not the first time she’s been made to clean up after that geriatric feline. It will probably be the last.

She collects the supplies, regretting contacting the doctor, and sets to her next task.

GM: If she wasn’t doing his household chores she’d be terminated from the program.

It’s gross and unpleasant work, even if it is shorter than doing the dishes. Zoe’s wrinkled hands smell like cat shit through the layers of paper towels she uses to clean it up.

Zoe: Where is the monster, anyway? Maybe it can read her mind.

Back to the sink. More washing. Always washing. Her hands still smell like precum to her.

Money in her back pocket, she calls out to him, “Going for your groceries! Back soon.”

GM: Dr. Estes gives no answer. It’s a short drive to the local Herrick’s. Dr. Estes looks like he’s planning a nice dinner, or maybe dinner party, given some of the items on his grocery list. There’s a lot of wine and prime cuts of beef.

Zoe also realizes, as she tabulates up the prices of individual items, that he’s not given her enough money to buy everything. She’s around $50 short.

Zoe: She pinches the bridge of her nose, and looks up at the sky.

I know I’ve never been one for visiting your house on Sundays, God, but if you’re trying to make a point, I’m listening. I give up. Truce. You win. White flag. What do you want me to do?

She calls him.

GM: God doesn’t answer.

Neither does her advisor.

The phone rings until voicemail. She’s invited to leave her name and number and the nature of her call,

“And I’ll get back to you as soon as convenient.”

Beeep.

Zoe: She hangs up.

Okay.

Fine.

Back to his house, buying what she can as close to $200 as possible—including tax.

GM: Dr. Estes looks over everything when she’s back, as if to be sure she did it right. Then he says,

“This isn’t everything on the list.”

The man with absolute power over her future in academia stares at her with a very displeased frown.

Zoe: She whimpers. The moment he opens the door, she tells him, before he even takes the bag.

“There wasn’t enough cash. I’d have paid it forward myself, but— I don’t have any money. I’ve only been eating because a friend has been kind enough to feed me.”

Annoyance: boiling.

Demeanor: calm apparent.

GM: Dr. Estes stares at her, as if making up his mind.

Zoe can see the future of her PhD hanging in the balance.

Over this man’s groceries.

Then he reaches into his wallet, gives her another $50, and says,

“Go pick up the rest.”

Zoe: “Thank you for understanding, Dr. Estes!”

It must be near time for work. She won’t race—she doesn’t want to kill anyone—but she will skitter along quickly when she can to ensure she can get back and shower in time. The last thing she wants is Cash upset with her.

GM: The trip back to the grocery store feels as if it takes forever to pick up the remaining one bag of items. When she’s back, Dr. Estes tells her,

“Go clean my bathrooms.”

Zoe: She checks the time.

GM: A few hours past noon.

Zoe: She groans internally. Still a few hours before she has to be back at Barely Legal.

“Okay.”

He’s punishing her for disappearing for a few days.

On to the bathrooms…

GM: Zoe gets sore from kneeling over tile floor and stains her hands with bleach as she scrubs.

“Did you do the toilets?”

Zoe: “Not done yet!”

GM: There’s no reply.

Zoe: Toilets. Cleaner than when they were bought. At least it’s a feasible request, unlike buying groceries with more money than she’s given.

GM: Then when that’s done and they’re freshly scrubbed, her advisor tells her,

“You can vacuum the floors next.”

Zoe: “O-okay! Anything else?”

I can’t pay for my own funeral when Cash kills me. If you keep this shit up, one of us isn’t surviving the night.

GM: “Not for now.”

For now.

Zoe: Zoe is the best at vacuuming. There’s never been a person who’s vacuumed quite as good as her. Just ask anyone who matters, and they’ll tell you, Zoe J Kelly is the best vacuumer. Believe you her. Her vacuuming brain is yuge.

GM: Dr. Estes doesn’t look particularly impressed when she’s done. He doesn’t tell her she did a bad job, but he doesn’t praise her either. Instead he says,

“Laundry hamper’s in the bedroom. Do a load and fold everything when it’s dry. Iron my shirts.”

Zoe: Eat my shorts. Don’t you have other grad students to fuck with? Does everyone with an iota of power wield it over others as if they’re the ruler of their own, minuscule empire?

The answer is yes, Zoe, and you know it.

“Okay.”

If there are streaks, she’s lighting the washing machine on fire.

GM: There are bunch of dirty men’s and women’s clothes for Zoe to haul to the laundry room and load into the machine. It spins and spins in its cycle.

30 minutes until it’s done.

Does Dr. Estes expect her to just stand around until it’s done?

The drying cycle will take more time, too.

Does her time mean that little to him?

Zoe: Apparently, it does. He’d have been kind to ask her to do this in the midst of everything else.

But he didn’t, did he?

No, he elects to inconvenience her—and other candidates—every chance he can. He’s a bully through and through, even if he is one of the brightest people in the state.

How many of his achievements—how much of his success as an academic—stems from abuse and theft of his protégés?

He doesn’t encourage growth. He doesn’t encourage the field to move onward. He doesn’t want to breed a healthy community that will shepherd humanity into another era.

In a moment of clarity, she decides: If he doesn’t care for any of it in the way she does, he doesn’t deserve his position any longer. Since this Hell began, every time she’s felt that all-consuming fire of inside her—toward Chris, and toward the rapist-that-wasn’t in the club—their life was snuffed out as if a candle in the wind.

She walks back out while the laundry is in.

“Thank you for all you do.”

And she wills that same passionate hate to tide onto him.

GM: Dr. Estes is in his office, working on something over his computer.

“You’re welcome,” he agrees without looking at her.

They are the last words he ever says.

At first, all that happens is he stops typing. The clitter of fingers against keyboard goes silent.

Then he sags forward, breathing hard. He clutches a hand to his chest.

He jerks around in his chair, swiveling to face Zoe. His forehead is beaded with sweat. His mouth hangs open and his eyes are wide. With pain. With terror.

He tries to say something to Zoe, as his eyes lock with hers. All that comes out of his mouth is a paper-dry rasp, but there is no mistaking the look of pleading in his eyes. As he finally sees her as a fellow human being, who right now, he needs.

He staggers out of his chair, towards her, clutching his heart. He makes it two steps forward before he collapses forward onto his shoulder, then rolls to a stop on his back. His mouth hangs dumbly open as his eyes vacantly stare towards the ceiling.

The smell of piss wafts up Zoe’s nostrils. There’s a wet stain around his crotch.

Zoe: Zoe shrieks as if she witnessed her own father stabbed in the heart in front of her. There’s some guilt there, in her heart. What gives her the right to be judge, jury and executioner? Who is she to decide who is and isn’t fit for anything at all?

Guilt is made to take a back seat. This has to look right.

“Professor!? Wh—”

Her eyes widen with surprise; faux surprise, but surprise nonetheless.

She crosses the room in a pair of long strides, meeting him just as he stumbles and collapses in front of her.

“I-is it medicine?!”

Her fingers fumble across his chest, lowering herself to listen to a heartbeat she already knows is fading.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my GOD!”

She draws her own phone out, shaking, and dials emergency.

GM: Zoe might be faking it if she screamed over her father’s death too.

“911, what is your emergency?” greets a female dispatcher’s calm voice.

Zoe: “I-i-it’s my profewdor! I w-was ’elwing him anee COLLAPSED!”

She’s bawling so hard that she’s hardly understandable.

She does, however, manage to convey the address.

GM: The dispatcher stays on the line with Zoe for the seven or so minutes until the EMTs arrive, accompanied by a police escort. It’s a fast response, all things considered. Zoe is asked to open the house’s door for them so they don’t need to break it open.

Zoe: Her voice quivers like a sapling in a storm while the dispatcher tries and fails to restore some calm to her, her tears taking the role of the rain. The leading lady stumbles over her words while they speak, finding a nearby seat on the floor.

When the EMTs arrive, the door is open, Zoe standing moon-eyed behind the frame. The tears stop. She doesn’t have any more tears. How can she? Tears are replace by shock, and Zoe is shock incarnate.

GM: The EMTs try the defibrillator paddles on the motionless man, anyway, despite his minutes-stopped heart: there is always a chance they may be able to resuscitate the clinically dead. They try several times.

Their patient just lies there.

It’s not long before the EMTs “call it” and document his time of death. There’s talk of notifying next of kin.

Dr. Estes’ eyes stare blankly up at the ceiling.


April afternoon, 2016

GM: The EMTs leave the resuscitation adjuncts in place. No one moves Dr. Estes’ body or otherwise disturbs the scene.

Two black-uniformed Jefferson Parish police officers ask Zoe to tell them everything that happened.

Zoe: Zoe tells them the truth: that she was helping her advisor when she came back to mention a thought—momentarily spiraling off into some too-deep, boundary-pushing thought on cellular biology, before getting back to the point once their eyes gloss over sufficiently—and he collapsed. She describes the symptoms in the vague detail that she remembers, and she immediately called emergency.

GM: The biology talk seems to largely go over the heads of the two police officers, if the glazed looks on their faces are indication.

They trade glances between each other when Zoe is finished.

“How well did you know him?” asks one of them, a middle-aged man with a graying mustache.

Zoe: They seem to have bought it. That’s good.

She sniffles. It’s wet and globby.

“A… a few years. He was my advisor. I’m one of the d-doctoral candidates at Tulane.”

GM: “Did he have any health conditions you know of?” asks his partner, a slightly younger and clean-shaven man.

Zoe: She shakes her head.

“We didn’t talk about his health. I just… I didn’t expect anyone… I’ve never—”

GM: “What was your relationship like?” asks the other cop.

Zoe: She explains what is again the truth: that she’s been his candidate for the last couple of years, and is nearing the end of her degree.

“About as healthy as any professor-candidate pairing is,” she adds with a shrug.

“I… I didn’t expect…”

GM: “Who would,” nods the mustached cop. “How long you been over at his house today?”

Zoe: She pulls out her phone to check the time.

“A few hours?”

GM: “And you spent these past few hours talking about biology with him?”

Zoe: “Among other things. I helped him out with this and that around the house,” she shrugs noncommittally.

“I’m…” She shakes her head. “I just can’t—”

GM: “Pretty easy stuff, I’m guessing?” nods the second cop. “Dishes, that kinda stuff?”

Zoe: She nods. “Nothing stressful. Not that I’d think would cause enough stress to—”

GM: “How’d you get so sweaty?” asks the first cop.

“Your clothes smell, no offense.”

Zoe: “Have you been outside?” she answers, raising a brow. She’s more teasing than accusatory, as much as one can tease when so distraught.

“I helped him out by washing his car earlier.”

GM: “Miserable work in this weather,” says the second cop. “Really miserable.”

“He couldn’t just go to a car wash?”

“Looks like he makes all right money.”

“Made,” says the first cop.

Zoe: “Probably. You ever been through the military? The masters in our world trial their students, just as the masters in that world do. One has to be strong, even in academia,” she answers sagely.

Her eyes widen.

“You don’t think there’s something in the house, do you? Gas or something? I haven’t used bleach or anything, but..”

GM: “Mm, maybe. We’re definitely gonna have a detective look this place over,” says the second cop.

“Ask his wife about his health history, that kinda stuff.”

Zoe: She nods solemnly.

“We’re worse off…”

GM: “So, why’d you wash his car, again?” asks the first cop.

Zoe: “When you went through the academy, did your, erm… sergeant? I’m not sure who runs things in the police academy. Did they make you do push-ups? Anything like that?”

GM: “Sure did,” says the second cop. “You gotta pass the fitness test. Same as in the military.”

Zoe: She nods.

“Similar idea, I guess. Need to be able to ensure discomfort and monotony, even in my field. Washing a car sounds silly, but it matters. Things like that aren’t uncommon in doctoral candidates.”

GM: “Less about discomfort than needing to be fit,” says the second cop. “Police work can involve pursuing fleeing suspects. Gotta be able to run. Can involve fights, too. Gotta be strong enough to do push-ups.”

Zoe: “Gotta be able to sit in a lab with a broken air conditioner for more hours in a day than not, or lean over a sink, or—”

GM: “Was washing a car the only thing he made you do?” asks the first cop.

Zoe: Zoe stops in mid-answer.

“What’s this all have to do with him?”

GM: “Just helping us paint a picture of what he was up to, on his last day alive,” says the first cop. “His wife and kids are gonna want to know why.”

“Might be he had a health condition or something and this doesn’t matter, but we like to be thorough.”

“So what’d you do besides wash his car and talk about biology?” asks the second cop.

Zoe: She frowns, sniffling. “Maybe. I’ve been his protege for years, and he’s never talked about his health. Nothing major like this. A cold here and there. I came over to talk about finishing my degree. He mentioned hosting a dinner, and that he needed some help before we’d discuss some problems I’ve been having that took me away for a little. I figured we’d talk after the preparation was done. Just a few other things: the car, shopping, which he paid for, and throwing some laundry in. He was doing some things for the university anyway, so better my time is used than his.”

GM: “So you washed his car, bought his groceries, did his laundry, and talked about biology,” says the first cop. “That was everything you did today?”

Zoe: She shook her head.

“I was just coming back from setting his laundry to go when he—”

She gestures toward where his body is.

GM: “What else did you do?” asks the second cop.

Zoe: She has to think about it. “Cat… poop? Nothing that would make the news or be considered out of the ordinary, officer.”

GM: “So you did his cat litter, bought his groceries, did his laundry, washed his car, and talked about biology,” says the first cop.

The second cop guffaws. “No way I’d wanna do all that shit. Hire a maid.”

“You shoulda seen him at the university. Office hours or whatever.”

Zoe: She smiles politely, pained.

“We’re more than just students. Doctoral candidates are—a brotherhood, of sorts.”

She breathes a quiet sigh.

“I don’t know what we’ll do.”

GM: “So, you wanted to help with all this stuff?” says the first cop. “It was your idea to come over?”

Zoe: “My idea to come over. His idea that he needed help. It’s really no trouble,” she shrugs.

GM: The second cop grins. “Yeah, figures that was his idea.”

“Seems like a real cheapskate.”

Zoe: She shakes her head.

“Sometimes time with the masters is valuable, even in such mundane ways.”

A pause.

She sighs.

GM: The first cop laughs.

“You’re full of shit.”

Zoe: She shrugs.

“Aspirational, probably. Too dreamy? Definitely. Full of shit? Maybe the first two make it so.”

GM: The second cop removes some handcuffs off his belt.

“Hands please. You’re under arrest.”

Zoe: She squints. “Arrest? For what, officer?”

GM: “Hands. Now.”

Zoe: She offers them her hands gingerly.

GM: The second cop snaps the steel around her wrists while the first dryly recites,

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided to you. Do you understand these rights?”

Zoe: She nods silently, eyes welling up.

“Wh—what am I being arrested for?”

GM: “For hating his guts, being alone with him when he died, and feeding us shit.”

Both police take Zoe by the arm and start leading her out of the house. She sees that more responders have already arrived and are filing into Dr. Estes’ office. They start snapping pictures of the body.

Zoe: “Wh—but I didn’t—”

She doesn’t resist. What is she going to do?

They’re irritating her, but she’s already so thoroughly worn through bone into marrow on how thoroughly this purgatory is punishing her that she doesn’t feel much else.

Fear? Yes.

Anger? Somewhat.

Mostly impatience. What comes next? Will she be charged for wishing someone’s death?

GM: The officers help Zoe into the back of the cop car. The seats are hard, plastic, and uncomfortable. Steel bars separate any passengers in the back from the front seats. The second cop stays behind. The first cop starts driving.

Zoe: She begins to wonder if these are even real cops. What’s next on the menu? Rape? A beating? Maybe they’ll force her to snort cocaine, too.

“What’s your name, officer?” she asks, heart thumping just a little too quickly for her own comfort.

Calm down, Zoe. Thoughts aren’t crimes. Not yet.

GM: “We prefer not to disclose those to crime suspects, ma’am,” answers the officer.

Zoe: “Wh—b—but… how can I have committed a crime? He… he just collapsed!” she whimpers.

Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump.

This doesn’t feel right. She is liable to have a heart attack if she doesn’t calm herself down.

“Where are you taking me?”

GM: “The station,” says the police officer. Suburban houses roll past the car’s windows.

Zoe: She doesn’t answer him, nor does she ask anything further. She leans her head against the glass, focusing on her breathing. Why does everything feel so complicated? Every little thing, every moment of every day since she returned home just a few days prior.

In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Don’t have a heart attack.

GM: The police officer drives Zoe to an ugly beige building with Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department written over the entrance. The surroundings are nothing but concrete, cars, and viaducts for as far as Zoe can see. There’s no plants or trees. There’s a small and dilapidated building near the police station, almost a shack, with a sign that reads, Troy’s Bail Bonds—The Key To Set You Free!

Zoe: Every step she’s taken for the last few days feels like the long-delayed result of a children’s playful game of warning. ‘Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back!’

Zoe doesn’t much care if her mother’s back is broken for every step she takes, but the relentless, spine-shattering pain she seems to be dealt at every choice she makes—and even some she doesn’t—she does mind.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

What if she holds her breath? What if she holds it and doesn’t draw another here in the back of this cruiser? What would her false accusers do?

GM: There’s only one way to find out for sure.

The police officer parks his car and opens Zoe’s door for her.

He leads her inside a side entrance to the building and past several empty rows of cells to a room where some other people tell her to stand on a yellow line facing forward and sideways while a flash goes off. They ask her several questions:

“What is your full name?”

“What is your home address?”

“What is your phone number?”

“Who is your current employer?”

Zoe: She gives the officer her name, sparing her mother none of the shame she’d have prefers, sure she’ll pay for it later. She gives her phone number just as easily.

Her address, however, she clarifies as ‘staying with a friend’, followed by his address.

“I don’t really work,” she answers. “My degree is my work. Well… I don’t know where that is, given…”

She huffs.

GM: Then comes fingerwiping. A deputy rubs Zoe’s fingers with a sequence of baby wipes and then splays them onto the glass plate of a scanner: images of her fingertips floating in the computer monitor. A series of electronic chirps seems to indicate the pictures are keepers.

Zoe: The fingerprinting she doesn’t mind and complies.

GM: After that, Zoe’s taken aside by a black, portly, and middle-aged female deputy who boredly says to her,

“Strip search. Take off your clothes.”

Zoe: The strip search prompt earns a raised brow and a questioning pause, but she does begin to undress with all the urgency of a would-be president being informed he’ll be chained down in an all-you-can-rape Middle Eastern dungeon.

“I didn’t do anything…” she whimpers.

GM: No one blinks upon hearing her name is Kelly. She supposes it’s a common enough name.

The cops accept the address she gives without remark.

They ask what university she’s attending for her degree.

The deputy clinically searches Zoe’s clothes and person before handing the former back for her to re-dress. Any personal effects she had with her are confiscated.

Zoe: She answers the questions as simply as they’re asked, redressing with more haste than when the Tulane football team rushed through the women’s locker room whooping and hollering. Shock humor. Ha ha. Very funny. Go Green Waves. She’d have turned the waves a little more red if she had the power.

GM: Another officer then tells Zoe she will be allowed to make a single phone call at this point.

Zoe: She mentions her friend—Chuck —who she’s staying with. He’ll be the one she calls.

“I’m not, like—am I being held? With bail? Because I really didn’t do anything.”

GM: “You’re being held ’til your arraignment,” answers a cop. “Judge’ll set your bail then, if any.”

No one seems to care who Zoe says she’ll call. She’s given access to a landline phone and space alone to make her call from.

Zoe: “How long off is that?”

Can they legally hold her that long? She could have gone into law. She’d know what to do if she did.

Pending their answer, she dials Chuck.

GM: The cop helpfully shrugs.

The phone rings for a long time before it’s answered with a tired-sounding,

“Nnnh, what.”

Zoe: “H-hey, Chuck? It’s Zoe. Look—I—I’m at the police station, or jail, or… something. They think I killed my professor, but I—I didn’t!”

Of course she didn’t. How could she have? She hasn’t been anything but an obedient, complacent protege.

“Can you help me out? Please? I’ll owe you.. and we can call it even on what I helped you with the other night.”

GM: “Wai… wugh?” he says groggily. “What your professor?”

Zoe: “C-come on, Chuck!”

Think, think, think. What was the sign?

“Jefferson Parish Police Department. Please.

GM: “Righ’, start from the begin… th’ fuck you mean, killed him?”

Zoe: “I said I didn’t kill him! He just—he collapsed! I was at his house, and he collapsed. I called the cops, and they arrested me. Come on, I need help, Chuck!”

GM: “Righ’,” Chuck grogs. “I feel like shit an’ I’m a property lawyer anyway.”

“Bu’, okay. I’ll sen’ you a crim’nal lawyer, and we’re even. For las’ night.”

“Don’ talk to cops without your lawyer,” he adds, seeming to find a bit more wind. “Can only hurt you. Won’ ever help.”

“Literally don’t say nothin’ but ‘lawyer.’”

Zoe: “Thanks, Chuck. I owe you. I mean it.”

Little late for the last bit, but she’ll heed it from here on out.

GM: “Eh. Fuck it. We’re even. Balances out.”

Zoe: “What’s the lawyer’s name? Are… you covering the fee, or…? If not… you know I’ll pay you back. One way or another.”

GM: “Amber Cox. An’ yeah, I know you’ll be good for it.”

Chuck still sounds too out of it to be giving a proper leer.

Zoe: She verifies that Chuck is indeed sending the lawyer, and that he has the correct police station, then hangs up. Okay. At least there’s that.

GM: Yes, he’s sending her. Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department.

“All done?” says a deputy after she’s done. “This way.”

The police take Zoe to a small, bare, and claustrophobic room containing a single table, several hard chairs, and a single dim light. Two handcuffs bolted to the table are securely fastened around Zoe’s wrists. Two middle-aged men dressed in plainclothes suits rather than police uniforms come in and sit down on opposite sides of the table from Zoe.

“How long have you worked under Dr. Estes?” asks one of the men.

Zoe: She nods to the deputy, and follows. Her hands are cuffed, she sits, the men ask their question, and she answers.

“I’ll answer all you’d like to ask once my lawyer is in the room.”

Let it not be said that she doesn’t listen to Chuck.

GM: “This is just double-checking whether the info we have is right,” says the man. “Sooner it’s in order, sooner you can get out.”

Zoe: She simply raises a brow. Nope. Lawyer.

GM: The second man smiles.

“‘Say nothing without a lawyer,’ right?”

Zoe: She nods.

GM: “They give that advice to their clients a lot.”

Zoe: She nods.

GM: “Yours tell you how soon you can expect to get out?”

Zoe: She shrugs. Are non-verbal answers considered ‘talking without a lawyer’? Probably, but these seem harmless.

Zoe folds her hands, waiting. Any minute now.

GM: “Well, it’s up to us and up to the judge,” says the first man.

“We have some leeway in how long we get to hold you before seeing a judge.”

Zoe: “Officer, I won’t be answering anything else until my lawyer —Amber Cox —is sitting next to me.”

GM: “Then when we see the judge, up to him whether you get bail or not,” says the second man. “If he doesn’t set bail, you could be sitting in jail for months.”

Zoe: She falls silent again. Threats won’t sway her. Chuck said not to talk, so she won’t talk. She was polite, yet firm —as she’s been told to be.

GM: “Our jail isn’t as bad as OPP, but I’m sure you have other places you’d rather be.”

Zoe: “All respect, we’ll continue once my lawyer is here.”

GM: “You’re working on a PhD, right?” says the first man. “How many months can you miss before you get dropped from the program?”

“Being sent to jail for any length of time might be an automatic disqualifier,” says the second man. “Lucky for you, police holding cell isn’t real jail.”

“We can talk to the judge,” says the first man. “Get him to set bail instead of sending you to jail.”

Zoe: Silence. Not a smile. Not a frown. Lawyer.

GM: “Are we on the same page?” asks the second man. “Do you expect to complete your program if the judge locks you up for months?”

Zoe: Maybe the cops are less educated here. Oh well. Silence.

GM: “Suit yourself,” shrugs the first man.

He and his partner get up and leave. They close the door behind them.

Zoe is left by herself on the uncomfortable chair, hands chained to the table.

Zoe: She whistles one of her songs. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

GM: She waits.

There’s no clock to mark the passage of time.

No windows to look outside from.

Nothing to do but stare around the featureless room and wait.

Zoe: She counts cracks in the wall.

GM: She counts six.

Zoe: Six! Six whole cracks!

GM: Maybe there are more. The lighting is dim.

Zoe: Wait… No, seven!

What a shit hole.

She bets the officer is so grumpy because he has a tiny penis.

GM: Zoe’s not sure how much time she spends staring at the walls. She feels very sore. She’s hungry and needs to use the bathroom.

Eventually, the door opens and a woman walks into the room. She looks in her early to mid 30s. She’s blonde, somewhat pudgy, and dressed in a gray pantsuit and pearl necklace.

Amber.jpg
“Hi, I’m Amber,” she says as she sits down across the table from Zoe.

Zoe: She looks up from her daydream.

“Ms. Co—Hi! Zoe. Zoe Kelly. Thank you so much for coming.”

GM: “It’s my job,” says Amber. “So, let’s not waste any waste time. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

Zoe: “My PhD advisor collapsed. I called emergency, and was arrested,” she states plainly. Succinct, and to the point.

“In no way did I harm or want to harm the man, Amber.”

GM: Amber nods. “So you know, it’s my job to defend you whether you harmed him or not. Are you familiar with attorney-client privilege?”

Zoe: She shakes her head. She’s been around lawyers all her life, yet never interacted with one in a legal manner.

“Explain?”

GM: “Basically, anything you tell me as your lawyer, I’m not allowed to repeat without your permission. Even if you’ve killed a dozen people, and I tell the police, I lose my license and don’t get to practice law anymore.”

Zoe: She nods. Simple enough.

“I haven’t hurt anyone. Honest.”

A pause.

“They threatened me. Saying if I talked I would be let out sooner, or kept longer and given bail if I didn’t. I didn’t say anything more than that I wouldn’t talk until you’re here.”

GM: “Smart,” says Amber. “They do that a lot. But talking to cops on your own never helps you. If there’s something that would help you to tell them, waiting a few hours to vet it past me isn’t going to kill them.”

Zoe: She chews her lower lip, thinking.

“I let them know some things at the house before I was arrested. That I was his student, I was helping him around the house; that sort of thing.”

She pauses.

“Why would they arrest me? How could I have hurt him?”

GM: “Lots of reasons to arrest you, unfortunately,” says Amber. “Doesn’t cost them anything to lock someone up, and pretty often that’ll get people to spill.”

“And if they’re wrong, oh well. No skin off their noses.”

Zoe: “They are wrong,” she huffs, trying and failing to rub her temples. Stupid chains.

GM: “Well, hopefully we’ll have you out soon. Can you tell me the full story of what happened?”

“Starting when you went to your advisor’s house.”

Zoe: “That… really is the full story. I was helping him at his house with various bits and bobs, he collapsed, I called emergency services, they came, they examined him, then they arrested me.”

GM: “Can you tell me the extra full version, then? Even things that seem irrelevant, like why you were over at his house, what bits and bobs you were helping with, etcetera. You never know what will turn out to be meaningful, whether to the case itself or just to what the police or DA may seize on.”

Zoe: “He’d asked me to help with a few chores. It’s common for PhD students. I washed his car, picked up his groceries, and cleaned a bit around his house.”

A pause.

“The police mentioned my being sweaty as suspicious.”

GM: “To be clear, I meant those things as examples. Can you give me a full account of your time at his house?”

Zoe: And so she does, recounting her time at his house in honest detail. She’s cognizant of what is and isn’t appropriate for a student to say, but tells the full truth in the confidence of client and attorney.

At the end, she clarifies, “…to be clear, we had no form of sexual or romantic relationship, nor had the thought ever been raised by either of us.”

GM: Amber takes that all in and asks for the details of Zoe’s conversation with the police after Dr. Estes collapsed. As much as she can remember there.

Zoe: And so she relays, as much as her memory recalls.

“I just want to go home, Ms. Cox.”

GM: “Getting you out is what I’m here for,” nods Amber.

“I also don’t think you’ve been completely honest with me,” she says frankly.

“Now, it’s up to you how much you tell me and how much you don’t. I’m your lawyer, not your interrogator. But the more I know about the facts of your case, the better I can defend you and represent your interests.”

Zoe: Her brow softens with a touch of defeated hurt.

“I am honest. I didn’t lay a finger on the man. Not one.”

GM: Amber looks less than convinced by the denial.

Zoe: She lofts a brow. “Be honest. What do you think happened?”

“Why would I throw my degree —a goal I’ve worked on most of my life —and my life itself into jeopardy by murdering a man while alone in his house with him and no reasonable alibi for being elsewhere, then call emergency and sit there? I’m suspicious, I understand —but I’m not stupid.”

GM: “I don’t think you liked him. Doctoral students have to put up with a lot of abuse from their advisors. No one enjoys being made to do a lot of unpaid chores.”

“Could be you saw him collapse and you waited before calling 911, instead of doing it immediately. But that’s just speculation. You’re the one who was there, not me.”

Zoe: “I called immediately,” she affirms with reserved tension. “I don’t know if he has cameras or not, but you’re welcome to check them if he does.”

“Is delayed call of emergency actually a chargeable offense?”

She sounds as surprised as she is.

GM: Amber holds up a hand. “Look, I’m not your prosecutor. It ultimately doesn’t help you to convince me of anything.”

“I’ve represented clients who haven’t told me the full story on their end before. Their thinking usually went, ’She’ll represent me better if she thinks I’m innocent’ or ‘she doesn’t need to know I did X illegal thing to do her job.’”

“But it doesn’t work that way. It’s my job to represent clients whether they’re innocent or guilty. Very often, seemingly unimportant details a client leaves out can be relevant to their cases, as they lack the legal expertise to know for themselves. That usually results in me defending them less effectively, and their getting a worse sentence or plea deal.”

“And no, a delayed call of emergency isn’t a chargeable offense. You’re under no duty to aid someone in peril.”

Zoe: “It doesn’t matter how I feel. Frustration isn’t a crime,” she answers.

What is she going to say? That she liquefied his brain with her thoughts? That isn’t how sane society works.

“Every PhD candidate on the planet becomes ireful toward their advisor at one point or another, whether for mistreatment or high expectations. I’m no different. I didn’t want to be there all day serving him, but I did. Because that’s what my life demands. Under no circumstance did I harm him in any way. He is —was —my path to a career.”

Lesson one in murder, Zoe. Plausible deniability. Noted.

GM: “Frustration isn’t a crime, but it is a motive,” says Amber. “Most murders are committed by people who knew the victim and had something against them.”

Zoe: “What did I kill him with? My thoughts? I didn’t touch him. I was barely within touching distance all day.”

GM: “There are ways to kill someone without touching them. The coroners are probably doing a toxicology test on his body.”

“Telling the police you were honored to do his housework was a bad look. They obviously didn’t believe that, because no one likes doing unpaid labor, and it made you look as if you were trying to hide how much you disliked him.”

Zoe: “Okay—fair. I shouldn’t have said that. I still didn’t harm him.”

And she sure hopes toxicology doesn’t come back with anyone else feeling murderous…

GM: “Okay, you didn’t harm him. Is there anything else you haven’t told me that you’d like to?”

Zoe: “What else would be smart to tell you?”

GM: “Everything. As I’ve said, the more information I have to work with, the better I can do my job of getting you out.”

Zoe: She tentatively shakes her head.

“Can you get me out today?”

GM: “Nope. Police can hold you for up to three days before an arraignment.”

Zoe: She groans. “And they’re probably pissy because I didn’t cave.”

GM: “Or better said, I might be able to. What the police think isn’t everything. You only get arraigned if the DA’s office decides to charge you with anything.”

Zoe: “How long will toxicology take?”

GM: “So, first, the police are going to examine the scene of Estes’ death. The coroner’s office is going to examine his body. The police are also probably going to search his house and talk to his family and/or doctor about any health conditions, to see if him dying the way he did is an unusual event.”

“If it turns out he had a heart condition, or if there’s some other ready explanation for his death, then the police won’t talk with the DA’s office and will just let you out.”

“If they can’t find a satisfactory explanation for how he died, they could then decide to tender their findings to the DA’s office, who’ll decide whether to file charges against you or not.”

“The police can’t hold you for longer than three days, so if the DA doesn’t decide to charge you with anything by then, you’ll be out by then.”

“However, a prosecutor is not bound by your initial charging decision; they may later change the charged crimes once more evidence is obtained.”

“So, for instance, the police could let you out within three days, but then arrest you again a month later if the DA decides to charge you with anything.”

“As for autopsy and toxicology, around three days is pretty typical turnout time for both. They might release you before finishing the exam.”

“It’s also possible that Estes’ family will pay for a private exam of his body, if they’re not satisfied with the results of the coroner’s.”

Zoe: “I see.”

Words hardly true. The fact is that Zoe can’t see the path her future carries her toward any further than she can kick a pebble of gravel. Despite understanding their logic—thanks to Amber—she’s lost respect in the police force.

Is that loss in respect reasonable? Fair? Absolutely not, and even she sees that. It makes the feeling no less true.

“Whatever you can do,” she continues, wilting her head to run shackled fingers through her hair.

She hasn’t forgotten about Barely Legal for so long the entire day. Bigger problems. Fuck Money in more ways than one.

“What do I do now?”

GM: “At this point? Mostly sit tight and see if the DA chooses to prosecute within three days.”

“If this were the full story, I’d advise talking to the police again in my presence, answering their questions, and being helpful enough they decide to release you early. But if it’s not, talking to the police only has the potential to get you in more trouble.”

Zoe: “That’s up to you,” she answers. “What do you feel I’m being untruthful about?”

GM: Amber shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter. If that’s everything, I’m going to look in to some more things on my end and see if there’s anything else I can do.”

Zoe: “That’s everything. Thank you for helping me, Amber.”

GM: “It’s my job.” Amber hands Zoe a business card with her contact info.

Zoe: “They’re probably going to take this…”

GM: “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Memorize the number just in case.”

Zoe: She looks down at the card, committing it to memory one digit at a time. Over. And over. And over.

“I’ll see you again within three days?”

GM: “Yes. I’ll review the evidence against you, if any, find out whether the DA intends to pursue charges, and talk about your legal strategies from there.”

Zoe: “I’d give you a hug, but…”

She pulls the chains.

GM: Amber gives a wry smile. “We usually prefer to shake anyways.”

Zoe: She offers a hand, however limited.

GM: Amber shakes it and says she’ll be in touch, then takes her leave.

No one comes for Zoe.

Zoe: And so the wait begins.

Timer: 72h.


April afternoon, 2016

GM: Jail is mind-numbingly boring. Jefferson Parish doesn’t seem as if it has too many arrests, because while Zoe hears the occasional person marched into a nearby cell, she never has to share hers.

She’s left to sit on a bench and stare at the wall for hours. And hours. And hours.

She’s able to piss in a stainless steel toilet bolted to the floor.

She’s really hungry.

Eventually, once it feels like night, a deputy comes by with food. Zoe’s told to turn around and stick her hands through a grill in the door to her cell. The deputy handcuffs her to the door, opens it, then drops something onto the ground. Then he re-closes the door and undoes Zoe’s cuffs.

Lying on the floor, swaddled in saran wrap, is the saddest-looking sandwich Zoe thinks she’s ever seen. The bread is white and soggy-looking. She can’t tell what’s inside it. A sticker over the wrapping reads:

Not For Human Consumption

Zoe: One crack. Two crack. Three cra—No, that’s a crackhead. That counts as ten cracks.

She whines. How long has it been since she’s had a serving of her vice? A day? Just about a day. She wonders if Cash is looking for her yet. Maybe he’s forgotten about her entirely.

She huffs, then picks up the sandwich, unwrapping it from its wrap. Does it smell at all appetizing? She images the label must be a scare-tactic.

GM: It smells like something that’s been left in a compost heap. The odor is actively unpleasant.

Zoe: Hunger it is. She sets it down.

Even she’s not hungry enough to consume that. Is that really what they give to even the innocent?

GM: There are no innocents in Zoe’s cell.

Zoe: The only dessert Zoe serves is just desserts.

GM: Sleep comes fitfully and with difficulty. There are no blankets, pillows, or other bedding items in the cell. Zoe is left to make herself comfortable along the steel bench. She’s sore everywhere when she wakes up.

Time passes.

Eventually, a deputy strolls by her cell with something else in plastic wrap. He looks over her old sandwich.

“Didn’t want dinner, huh? Guess you won’t need breakfast.”

Zoe: Did she sleep at all? It doesn’t feel like it.

“Please…” she whimpers. “I haven’t done anything. Can I have some real food? A glass of water?”

GM: The deputy grins.

“Suck my cock and I’ll get you better food.”

Zoe: She narrows her eyes, and silently commits to reforming the police department when she rules the city.

GM: The man just grins and waits.

Zoe: “I’ll take breakfast, please.”

Zoe Kelly is no criminal.

GM: “Stick your hands through the grill,” says the deputy, pulling his cuffs off his belt.

Zoe: She places her hands through the grill, contemplating making a sandwich grenade.

GM: The deputy handcuffs her through the grill and secures her to the door. Then he opens it, undoes his belt and unzips his fly, and sticks his erect cock towards her.

Zoe: She shrugs as far away as humanly possible while chained to an iron door.

“What the fuck?! Aren’t the police supposed to be good?!”

GM: The man chortles, puts his hands on Zoe’s shoulders, and attempts to lower her to her knees.

“C’mon, just suck it off and you can have breakfast.”

“A nice breakfast.”

Zoe: “I didn’t do anything! What the fuck!? You can’t just—you can’t just shove that in my face! Do you know who I am!?”

Was, Zoe.

She lurches away from the bars, tugging on the bindings.

GM: She finds her bindings quite secure, and with the door opening inwards into her cell, there is only so far to get away.

The deputy shoves her to the ground, laughs, and smacks his cock across Zoe’s cheek.

“Can’t I?”

Zoe: “You’re really going to force an innocent woman to suck your cock?”

Yes, he is, and she knows it.

“I am innocent. Do you really want a rape allegation?”

She glances to his chest. Badge? Name?

GM: She sees a number on the gold badge attached to his shirt.

“What, you don’t want breakfast after all?” he smirks.

Zoe: “The sandwich will do.”

Fucking pig. Is this normal for jail? How bad could prison be?

GM: The deputy shrugs.

“Suit yourself.”

He walks over to her toilet, then drops the sandwich inside with a wet plop.

“Oops,” he grins.

Zoe: She glares daggers, committing the number to memory.

GM: The deputy laughs and walks out of the cell, pulling the door closed behind him. Zoe is still chained to the bars.

“Do you want me to let you off from there?”

Zoe: At what cost?

“Yes, please,” she answers, polite as she can manage.

GM: “Say sorry for being a bitch.”

Zoe: You have no idea.

“Sorry for being a cunt, officer.”

She raises a hand in the smallest salute ever to be made, thanks to the cuffs.

GM: The deputy opens the door and walks back in.

“Good girl,” he smiles, then pats her head.

Then he leaves again, closes the door, and unfastens Zoe’s hands. His receding bootfalls echo down the hallway.

Zoe: She recants his badge number in her head.

Over, and over, and over, and over.

And over.


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Story Fourteen, Zoe III

“Do you think your cunt is worth two eighty?”
Ricky “Cash Money” Mouton


Date ?

GM: “Zoe,” says Christopher.

He gets down on one knee before her and clasps her hand in both of his.

“I’m sorry what I said to you. I’m so sorry. It was humiliating, it was cruel, and I didn’t want to do any of it. Your family put me up to it. Can you forgive me?”

Zoe: Zoe whimpers. She feels tears well up in the corner of her eyes as he takes her hand.

“W—why. Why would you d-do that, even if they…?”

GM: “It was all part of a plan,” Christopher says, still kneeling. “They’d think we were done with each other. So they wouldn’t be on our backs as much, after I let you move in with me.”

Zoe: She doesn’t remember walking—driving?—back to Pequod’s. Yet, it feels so natural. Maybe she’ll buy one of her favorite blondies.

Zoe sniffles.

“You… really mean that?”

GM: “Absolutely, Zoe,” Christopher answers somberly.

He doesn’t see nervousness in his eyes. But she sees the question. The hope, that her answer is yes.

“Are we still an ‘us’?”

Zoe: She draws her hand back, biting one of her fingertips, her nerves causing her to tense.

How can she forgive him after what he did to her?

“What about… that girl?”

GM: Christopher frowns.

His face twitches. Sweat starts to bead down his brow.

He stares ahead at Zoe, though, as if unconscious of anything happening.

“Zoe… there’s something you need to know.”

Zoe: She feels a pit well up in her stomach, and she begins to sweat herself. Oh no. Don’t puke. Don’t puke.

“Y—yeah?”

GM: Christopher opens his mouth.

Nothing comes out.

He gives a silent gasp and collapses forward against Zoe’s legs. His hands seek purchase along her blouse. His eyes are wide and feverish.

“Z… oe…”

Zoe: “Ch—chris!” she stammers, clutching at his shirt. She steps forward, catching him as best she can, sinking to her knees with him.

“Are you all right?!”

GM: His mouth opens and closes. Nothing comes out. It reminds Zoe of a fish out of water, gasping its final breaths. The coffee shop’s lights haphazardly flicker. Shadows swim over the other customers, and there’s sounds and exclamations and people rushing up, but Zoe probably isn’t paying attention to them. Chris’ eyes bulge.

“Z… e…”

Then, just like that, they go blank and still.

His hands slacken.

Zoe: Then, just like that, she turns and runs from the shop, abandoning him in her fear to his fate, just as she did the first time.

Zoe Kelly isn’t who she claims to be.

Zoe Kelly is a coward, alone in the world, just like she deserves.

GM: Rain pours over her in thick and relentless sheets. The city’s streets are dark and long and eerily unfamiliar. Pedestrians jostle into her, tall and hard and uncaring. No one moves aside. She’s going the opposite direction as everyone else. She stumbles blindly, buffeted by the uncaring crowd. Hair gets in her eyes. Is it rain or tears that blurs her vision?

She’s swiftly soaked to the bone beneath freezing rain. She’s cold. So cold.

Then, like a flash of lightning, he’s there. Chris’ face. Staring at her through the crowd. Bulging eyes, gasping mouth, waxy pale face and sunken eyes. Like he’s been dead for a day. The other girl is there, too. Her eyes blaze with hate, but her mouth is set in a ghastly and utterly incongruent rictus grin.

Chris seizes Zoe’s hand in his. It’s ice cold. His body presses into hers as his voice croaks into her ear, a death rattle against the pouring rain,

“Murderer…”

Zoe: “N-NO! I’m—I’m not a murderer!”

She tugs with all her might, but he has her, as if a wolf took her wrists between its hungry jaws.

But she is a murderer, isn’t she? Somewhere, somehow, she knows it. It was when she willed it—when she wished he would die—that his eyes bulged.

GM: Zoe desperately tugs and flails. Hollow, heartless laughter rings in her ears as the rain pours over everything. Sight and sound dissolve beneath a deluge of misery and cold. Even Chris’ pale features swim out of focus, and for a moment she could swear they aren’t Chris’ features at all, but Rosalyn’s.

“I’m so disappointed in you.”

Her boyfriend’s corpse seizes her in its arms. Envelops her. Crushes her. Squeezes the life from her. It’s all she knows as the final blackness overtakes her. She kicks and screams and thrashes. Her skin is slick with sweat as she feels the body pressed against her with its cold feet pull away, as she flings blankets off Chuck’s bed.

Zoe: As the corpse that clings to life holds her, draining the heat from her body as if it were one with the icy rain above—one purpose, one drive—she struggles.

And struggles.

And struggles.

And then she doesn’t. She gives up. For the first time in her life, she accepts her defeat, and the punishment she deserves.

It’s easier that way, isn’t it? To just give up?

She sits up with a panic, cold sweat drenching her bare form. Her hands press to her face, blocking out the light of the room.

Or is there no light? The black of her dream is so strong that she can’t tell.

She feels around for Chuck.

GM: There’s a flush of the toilet, and then a door-shaped outline of light as a bleary-eyed Chuck walks into the dark room and plops down on the bed.

“The fuck you throwing off the blankets for?”

Zoe: Her breathing is ragged. She’s cold. Maybe he’s sleeping with a corpse.

GM: Chuck mutters something, picks them up, and hogs them around himself as he lies down, face-first against the pillow.

Zoe: She tugs on the blankets and tries to cuddle under them.

GM: Chuck seems too lazy to stop her and grunts something under his breath.

His feet are warm.

Zoe: Good. She was considering finding a lighter if he didn’t let her under.

She looks past him, checking the clock.

GM: There is no clock.

They are millennials.

It’s on their devices.

Zoe: She whines. Stupid modern era. She taps one of their phones to activate the screen.

GM: 3:36 AM.

Zoe: She huffs. Can’t sleep. Not after that. At least he didn’t yell at her. Plus, he’s warm.

Still can’t sleep.

She rolls out of bed, takes a few minutes to collect herself in the bathroom, then dresses.

Or, goes to examine what rags are left.

GM: Many of her delicates are good for little more than cleaning rags at this point. Sturdier clothes like jeans better survived their prolonged soaking in dirty water. She’s lost probably half of what she packed.

She has a particularly distinct shortage of underwear.

Zoe: “Fuck me…” she mumbles, sorting through her things. Whatever. She can live without underwear for now.

Jeans and a t-shirt it is. Top a hoodie on it, and she’ll be fine.

And an umbrella. Just in case.

She steels herself and steps into the hallway—taking the spare key he gave her for the month—and takes the elevator down.

Where does she intend to go? She isn’t entirely sure. She can go to Pequod’s, though it isn’t open this time of the night.

It only takes her a moment to realize: she doesn’t particularly care where she ends up. A bar. A club. A basement. She steps out into the night, turning left and focuses no further than one foot before the other.


April night, 2016

GM: New Orleans nightlife scene is never quiet, especially on weekends. She finds herself at what looks like a hole in the wall strip club called the Barely Legal. It’s stuck in between the plethora of restaurants and shops that line the partygoer-filled street.

IMG2012754979HI.jpg
Zoe: Her stomach rumbles. She’s still only had a few mozzarella sticks since she puked her candy bar up.

They have food, don’t they?

She heads inside.

GM: Unlike many of the topless establishments of the French Quarter, Barely Legal asks for no cover charge, ushering patrons straight into a neon-red world of scintillating lights, thumping music, and pole-dancing, ample-breasted women in various states of undress. Frat boys, dirty old men, sleazebag cops, and washed-up losers variously cheer, gawk, and leer at the strippers as they stick dollar bills between g-strings. An omnipresent musk of cheap perfume, sweat, pre-cum, dollar bills, and cigarette smoke suffuses the dimly-lit place. A fully-stocked bar lurks in the corner, offering a “wacky” party menu that lets patrons do everything from having the staff refer to them as “master” for $100 to managing the club for a day for $25,000.

Hustler-Barely-Legal-Club-b.jpg
There’s no food that she can see.

But this is the first time she’s been inside a strip club.

Zoe: No food, unless she develops a sudden hunger for eating ass, as is being borderline-demonstrated by a portly man in the corner to a woman whose ass could store a bank vault. She is sure it won’t be quite so secure, nor hard to get into.

Still, for the moment, she finds herself interested in what’s unfolding around her. Perhaps not the sweat. Or the precum. Or the— did the find that perfume in the gutter?

She crosses the room, seating herself at the bar, probably the most out of place creature in the establishment.

GM: The bartender is taking care of other patrons’ orders. He looks pretty busy. Most people here look like they’re drinking.

A middle-aged and dark-skinned man plops down next to Zoe and swings an arm around her. He’s fat and has a stained and partly undone shirt that shows off graying chest hairs.

“Lesh’ have a smoochie!” he grins, holding up a dollar bill as he leans in close with puckered lips.

He smells like the rest of the place, except even stronger. Especially of booze.

Zoe: Maybe this midnight wandering isn’t such a great idea. She cringes at first at the touch, then the thought, and finally the smell.

“I’m not a worker! Just looking for… a drink.”

That was probably a mistake to say.

GM: The man gives a drunken hiccup, then wetly plasters his half-open lips across Zoe’s face. His slimy tongue sloppily pushes into her mouth while his yellowed smoker’s teeth grind against hers. The man makes gumming-like motions as he tries to envelop his mouth all the way across Zoe’s. It feels less like he’s trying to kiss her than he is attempting to slurp down her face.

“Mm-uh-hff-uufff!” he exclaims in something like a guffaw, his nictone-flavored drool freely running down Zoe’s chin.

Zoe: GROSS!

Even Chuck wasn’t this bad early in their relationship!

She tries to struggle out of his grip and away from him, disappearing into the crowd if she can.

GM: The man is flabby and out of shape, but he’s drunk and horny. Zoe’s head painfully clonks against the bar as the man shoves her all the way back onto it, then half-throws himself on top of her, his fat chest pressing into hers. Zoe is pinned beneath his bulk. She feels his hard cock pressing into her thigh through their pants. His hands start tearing at her clothes as his slobber leaks over her face.

Zoe: She can already feel the bruise that will be there tomorrow, just above her eye. That fucking hurts!

He presses her into the wooden countertop, the breath forced out of his lungs by the hundred pounds or more he has on her.

And that cock.

That stubby.

Little.

Choad.

She wants it gone. She wants it to disappear; to explode into chunks and shrapnel and seed and become nothing.

“G-get OFF!”

GM: The man guffaws something past his mouth, which is still caught wetly swallowing down Zoe’s face. His fat, fumbling hands unzip her jeans and hungrily press against her sex.

Then he makes a little choking sound.

A gurgle, from the back of his throat.

His eyes bulge.

The man doesn’t get off. He collapses face-first onto Zoe, his body completely slack and motionless. Nothing stares out of his wide-open eyes.

The same nothing that stared out of Chris’.

Zoe: Zoe shrieks. She feels those grimy, sweaty palms, coated in a night of beer and unclean women and probably shit from the last time he didn’t wash his hands snaking into her pants.

He falls into her, holding her—pinning her—to the countertop, his fingers invading her.

Or is he?

With a thought—a single tower of hatred dominating her mind—he stops.

She looks, side-eyed and drenched in a vile mixture of his and her own sweat.

.. and she finds a blank face. Just like Chris. As if his mind was never there at all.

“WH—WHAT THE FUCK?! HELP!”

GM: At Zoe’s scream, or perhaps the man shoving her onto the table, the Barely Legal grinds to a halt. People shout and make exclamations of alarm. Hands descend on the body, pulling it off her. Hands descend on Zoe, too. Holding her in place against the bare, her clothes rumpled and her sex exposed for all the world to see.

“What the fuck is this shit?” comes an angry voice.

Cash_Money_Mouton.png The speaker resembles a beanpole that decided to grow limbs. His narrow head is only slightly widened by his black sideburns and ‘70s style coiffure. His puffy lips are pressed into a permanent smile, as if life is a joke whose punchline he alone knows. He smells of deodorant, hair tonic, tabasco sauce, and contagious sleaze that gives his tan skin an almost iridescent sheen. His outfit consists of a ballooning lime silk leisure shirt, a long brown leather coat, bell-bottom dress slacks, and crocodile wingtips. All things told, the man looks like a self-appointed Casanova who’d have a pretty hard time with the ladies… but somehow, Zoe gets the distinct impression, he’s used to sticking his cock into whatever he wants.

“He ain’t breathin’,” says a large man who looks like a bouncer, touching his palm to the man’s neck.

“He’s dead.”

“He have a fuckin’ heart attack?” asks the bartender.

The strippers have stopped dancing. The men in the audience are gawking, but not at the girls anymore. Many sets of eyes come to rest on Zoe.

“You,” says the beanpole-faced man. He makes a fist in Zoe’s hair and yanks her head up to meet his eyes.

“The fuck happened?”

She spots a crescent NOPD badge clipped to his belt.

Zoe: So is streaming more tears than Niagara Falls on its worst day. Between the sudden bouts of attention, and the state of her (newly washed, barely survived) clothing, her nudity, and the fact that she seems to be the one in trouble out of this whole mess, she can’t quite handle it.

“He—he…he was forcing himself…on me, and—and—and…!”

Her words devolve into hiccups and sobs. Poor thing. What a day. What a night.

“He—I don’t know! He just fell! I—I was just looking for s-something to—directions.”

She has a feeling asking for something to eat in here will get her exactly that, and after Chuck, she doesn’t want to earn another mouthful.

GM: The beanpole-faced man looks over the body.

Then he looks back at Zoe.

There’s a dangerous look in his mud-colored eyes.

“Get the little bitch upstairs,” he says, waving at the bouncer.

Zoe: Oh. Maybe they’ll just get her out of sight.

She tries to pull her pants up once she’s let go. If.

GM: She’s not. She doesn’t have time. Zoe’s grabbed by a dark-skinned man wearing a tight black t-shirt that smells like cigarette smoke. He tromps off towards the stairs, yanking Zoe along by her upper arm. Her bare ass and pussy are exposed for all the world to see, when her pants slide down her legs, but not for overly long. The man pulls her up the stairs into a ratty-looking office, then all but throws her onto the ground.

He crosses his arms and silently stares down at her.

Zoe: She scrambles to pull her pants up, eyes locked to the floor, counting the cracks in the flooring.

GM: The man doesn’t stop her.

The clock on the wall slowly ticks.

Zoe: She murmurs, half to the bouncer and half to herself.

“I just wanted to buy some food…”

GM: The man does not answer Zoe. Just stares with his arms crossed.

The clock ticks by.

Finally, there’s footsteps coming up the creaking stairs.

One is the puffy-lipped and beanpole-headed man with the NOPD badge.

The second man might be called handsome. Might. He’s dressed in a leather jacket, dark pants, and tight black shirt. His head is shaved bald. His features are comely enough, but his too-wide smile doesn’t quite meet his eyes. His eyes don’t quite meet Zoe, either. They’re just a few inches off from her face. He slowly runs a tongue across his teeth.

Both men sit down on chairs. Zoe is left on the floor.

“You’re gonna explain this shit,” says the beanpole-headed man.

He idly takes out a handgun from a shoulder holster beneath his coat and turns it over. He doesn’t point it at Zoe.

Yet.

Zoe: Why won’t the Worst Day Ever end? She could be safe in bed, even with Chuck.

He isn’t that bad.

She lifts her eyes from the floor when they enter, acknowledging the men with implicit deference in how she keeps her face largely down.

Mom, you could have given me another chance. Now…

Now she might have her brains paint the walls.

“I…”

She swallows, steeling herself.

“I… don’t know. I just… tried to fight him off. I didn’t want what he did, and his heart gave out. Or something.”

Or something.

GM: “Or something,” says the beanpole-faced man.

“The fuck were you doing in my club?”

He turns the gun over in his hands again.

The smiling man tilts his head, staring to the patch of floor several inches to Zoe’s left, and licks his lips.

Zoe: Zoe’s eyes flit between the wall behind the man, the man, and his shirt. She can’t seem to maintain eye contact with his face.

“I—I was just looking for directions. I—I was hungry. I’m staying with a friend. I don’t want to eat all his food.”

GM: “What is this club?” asks the beanpole-faced cop.

Zoe: “A—a—a strip club, I guess. It s-seemed cool. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to a-ask about the area, especially if I b-bought a drink or something.”

GM: “Are you a muff diver?” asks the cop.

Zoe: “A… what?”

GM: The man idly aims the gun at her.

“Do you like to slobber over girls’ cunts?”

“Do you like girls slobbering over your cunt?”

Zoe: She yelps like a wounded dog when the gun rotates toward her.

“P-please! I’m b-being honest! I won’t c-c-come by ag-gain!”

She knows that not answering probably won’t make him happy.

“I-I don’t know! I… I’ve kissed a girl once. I haven’t thought about i-it more than that.”

GM: The gun does not point away from Zoe.

“So you’re not a muff diver.”

Zoe: “I-I-I don’t know that I’m n-not one!”

Which is true, though he probably understands that Zoe will give any answer to not get shot.

GM: The man with the off-kilter gaze lets out a giggle.

The cop tilts the gun away from Zoe, then back at her.

“So you’re not sure if you’re a muff diver, you got partway there to slobbering over some slut’s cunt, you haven’t thought about slobbering over other sluts’ cunts, and you came to my club because you thought it was cool,” he says.

“Did you come here to watch sluts take their clothes off?”

Zoe: “N-n-no! I—I came because I was hungry. I thought you might h-have food, or that I could get directions to s-some; but, I m-mean. I’m not opposed to—”

She gestures around vaguely, meaning clubs, probably being misconstrued otherwise.

“It s-seems cool. Without the… what happened.”

GM: “Cool,” says the man with the gun.

“It seems cool.”

“But you didn’t come here to watch sluts take off their clothes.”

“You wanted food. From a strip club.”

“You wanted directions. From a strip club.”

“So you went to a strip club. Where you didn’t want to watch sluts take off their clothes.”

“When you could’ve gone anywhere else.”

The man suddenly leaps to his feet, clamps a wiry hand around Zoe’s throat, and presses his gun’s barrel against her head. His puffy-lipped features are set in a furious snarl, like he’s just discovering eggs pelted all over his house.

“How big a fuckin’ idiot do you take me for, you stupid whore? Why the fuck are you here?!”

Zoe: Her lips part to answer when her his hand wraps her throat, cutting off and killing any words that would have been given life.

The gun sets her to crying again.

“I—I—I—I—”

GM: Zoe’s throat burns.

“You have ’til the count of ten before I blow your fucking brains out.”

Zoe hears the gun’s safety click off.

“One.”

Zoe: “IT’S THE TRUTH!” she shouts, forcing her throat open enough to croak an answer.

HONEST! I’ve had a real shitty day, and… I just wanted to fucking see something new!”

Technically true.

GM: The gun doesn’t withdraw from her head.

“Yeah? Then why’d you say you aren’t a muff diver?”

The fingers around her throat squeeze.

“Two.”

The other man runs his tongue across his palm.

Zoe: “I d-didn’t! I s-said I haven’t! I never tried! B-but honest! I’ve walked by this place every d-day for years, a-and I’ve never… b-because I n-never… a-and I’M JUST SHY, OKAY!”

Why, yes! I came here to rob the place. All 120 pounds, unarmed, untrained. Captain Nefarious, at your service.

GM: The other man licks his index finger, seemingly oblivious to Zoe’s presence.

“So you are a muff diver who came here to watch sluts take off their clothes,” says the cop.

“Three.”

Zoe: “W-well, I r-really did j-just come in t-to look! I am h-hungry.”

She is. She really, really is.

“I g-guess? Will you not sh-shoot me if I am? I r-really don’t want to be shot.”

She puts her hands up, as if swearing before a court.

“I m-meant nothing bad.”

GM: The cop lets go of Zoe’s throat.

Then he smashes the barrel of his handgun over her head. Zoe’s skull explodes in pain as she crashes face-first onto the dirty carpet.

“That guy died,” sounds the cop’s voice.

“Heart attack.”

“After you tried to fuck him.”

“Dead guy scared my customers.”

“Scared customers spent less money.”

The cop’s voice is a dangerous snarl.

“You cost me money.”

Zoe: “S-sorry! It’s—it’s not my fault. H-he tried to f-fuck m-me and his h-heart..”

How is this HER fault?!

GM: With her face still pressed against the dirty carpet, Zoe can’t say the cop’s face.

But she hears the venom in his voice.

The anger.

“You owe me money, whore.”

Zoe: “I-I’m s-sorry! I—I’ve got $50! Th-that’s it! I c-can get some from my p-parents!”

GM: “$50?”

A crocodile wingtip suddenly comes down, hard, on Zoe’s fingers, with a grown man’s full weight behind it.

“You owe more than that, you stupid fucking whore.”

Zoe: The scream that fills the room is fit for a movie.

“I-I’ll pay you b-back! I’m s-sorry! I’m sorry!”

GM: “You sure will,” says the cop, grinding his shoe down on her fingers.

“Aaron, get this whore dancing with the others. We’ll collect what she brings in.”

Zoe: DANCING?!

“I— D-d-dancing? Like… on stage?”

GM: The cop lifts his foot off Zoe’s hand, painfully yanks her up by her hair, and shoves her at the bouncer.

The bald man’s eyes flash as he licks his fingers.

The bouncer grabs Zoe by the arm and starts tromping down the stairs with her.

Zoe: This has to be a nightmare. It has to be! She’s still at school—at Tulane, or Chuck’s apartment, or at home—and she’ll wake up soon.

Her family still loves her, and she’ll wake up soon.

She clamps her eyes shut as she’s tugged down the stairs, and opens them again.

No. Still here. Still living a nightmare. Maybe she did die. Maybe she is the one who collapsed and died in that little coffee shop.

She doesn’t struggle. She doesn’t scream. She simply follows, arm in hand.


April night, 2016

GM: The man’s heavy footsteps creak down the stairs. Zoe finds herself dragged into a mostly empty-feeling locker room. It smells like sweat amd perfume. There’s less pre-cum and cigarette smoke. There’s around half a dozen girls in various states of undress. Most of them look like they’re putting their clothes on rather than off. Most of them look dead exhausted. They sound as if they’re gossiping and sharing stares about their shifts, but mostly they look like they’re going home.

A posted sign reads, Entertainers must stop crying before returning to the floor.

The bouncer drags Zoe up to a 30something black woman with a pixie cut and three piercings along each of her ears. She’s dressed less revealingly than the other girls in a black halter top, dark jeans, and lace-up boots.

“Cash Money wants her started,” says the bouncer without preamble.

The woman gives him a frank look. “Everyone’s leaving. That’s not happening tonight.”

The bouncer shrugs.

The woman looks at Zoe. “You danced before, hon?”

Zoe: Zoe shakes her head, pauses, then nods.

“Not, uhm… Not like this. In school. They taught us ballroom dancing. Things like this.”

A pause.

“I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to cause any problems…”

GM: “This ain’t ballroom dancing, hon,” the woman says dryly.

“All right, you’re a baby stripper. You got shoes? Clothes?” Her gaze passes over what Zoe has on. “Thong? Makeup?”

Zoe: She shakes her head.

“I—I don’t have anything. Just what I’m wearing.”

GM: “‘Kay, get those things by your first shift. For shoes you want Pleaser brand, not just whatever heels you’ll find in any girl’s closet. Those’ll kill your feet and you’ll probably fall over. Glitter is good, but you don’t want too much. Married guys don’t want it getting all over them.”

“Also, tampons. If you’re having your period, you can’t dance.”

“Other shit you don’t need but will want. Baby wipes, superglue, baby powder, mints, painkillers.”

“If you don’t have money to buy all that, you can buy it from me. Cost’ll come outta your earnings.”

Zoe: “Wh-when would my first shift be?” she asks after a moment.

GM: “Today. 6 PM.”

Zoe: And they’ll just let her walk out right now…?

“Can I… ask an obvious question?”

GM: “Sure.”

Zoe: “What’s to make me come back once I leave?”

She sounds nervous. She is nervous. She knows there must be something that will make her return.

GM: The bouncer grabs Zoe by the arm again and hauls her away. He marches through some back rooms and opens the door to what looks like a closet. It looks like it’s for cleaning supplies. It’s one of the most cramped, dingiest, dirtiest little rooms Zoe has ever seen. It smells awful and there are funny stains over the ground.

“Get in.”

Zoe: “O-okay! Okay! I’m honest! I d-don’t break my word! I cost you money, and I will be back to pay you back!”

And she will pass any lie detector in the world with that.

Still, she steps in.

GM: The door slams shut in her face.

She hears a lock click.

Zoe: She huffs. She knows better than the bang on it.

“I meant what I said,” she calls through the door.

GM: Her only answer is the sound of retreating footsteps.

It’s pitch dark. It smells horrible.

Zoe: She’s not going to stand all night, so she sits, despite the grimy grossness of the closet. She can feel something sticky beneath her left foot.

They won’t leave her in here all night? All day? Right?

No one can dance and be chipper and cheerful after a full night in a closet.

No food.

Not bathroom.

No water.

No nothing.

She has her phone, but should she try using it? Not yet.

GM: It’s cramped. There’s no room to spread out her legs, just squat. Her company is bleach, brooms, paper towels, and rags.

Time crawls.

Zoe: She knocks on the door. Just gently.

“Hello?”

GM: There’s no answer.

Zoe: She huffs. She could be in bed. In luxury. With Chuck. Even with their deal, he still provides her access to the life she enjoys.

It’s uncomfortable, and she’s already getting sore, but she tries to sleep.

GM: Her task swiftly proves futile. She’s never slept in surroundings like these before. She’s not lying down. She has no blankets or pillows.

She already woke up at 3 AM.

She was assaulted. Watched a man die. Was threatened, repeatedly, with death, and beaten like a cheap whore.

By a sleazebag cop who says she owes him money.

Now she’s being forced to sell her dignity to washed-up losers like the dead man who tried to swallow her face.

She’s being held captive against her will.

In the shittiest little cleaning closet her mind could conjure.

No food. No water. No bathroom.

Nothing to do but squat until whenever they let her out.

What would her mother think? Her father? Grandpa?

Sleep does not feel as if it will come easily.

Zoe: And so she doesn’t sleep. Perhaps a wink. Perhaps a blink. No real, deep, restful, dream-filled sleep.

Like she would have had with Chuck.

She cries at points. Her stomach rumbles. She has to pee. She’s had to pee so often today.

Why did her life flip on its head so suddenly? It feels as if she really has died and gone to hell.

GM: Time crawls.

Minutes.

Many minutes.

Hours.

Many hours.

No one comes for her.

Squatting in the same position for so long becomes intolerable. Zoe has to stand up. There’s nowhere to move. Nowhere to stretch her arms. She stretches her legs, then she squats back down.

At several points, she hears light skittering sounds.

Mice.

Zoe has no idea how much time passes. The pitch dark closet eventually gets lighter, though.

No one comes for her.

Maybe they’ve forgotten she’s there.

Maybe they’re just leaving her to die of thirst.

She’s so thirsty.

Zoe: Time loses its meaning when one is so long without sensory input, let alone an actual clock. Her tongue is dry. Will she be made to kiss someone? They won’t like it.

How can they like it? How can she be anything to be liked at all, caged and unfed and abused like an animal?

Is that what you want, Mom? For me to become an animal?

GM: Maybe?

Time crawls.

On and on.

The light outside dims.

Darkens.

Then.

Footsteps.

There’s a clicking sound. The door opens. It’s the same bouncer.

“You’re up,” he says.

Zoe: Zoe is covered in sweat, and her stomach is roaring, and she has to pee, and she wants to puke. Her heart has been racing for the last few hours, and it’s made her exhausted.

She’s so thirsty, when she speaks it comes out raspy.

“I—n-now?”

She’s still wearing her hoodie and jeans.

GM: The man grabs Zoe by the arm and yanks her to her feet.

“No, you dumb bitch, after you change.”

Zoe: She’s dragged along, and for what it’s worth, she’s compliant in that much.

“I d-don’t know how! And I need a shower! Do you want someone who sat in their stink all night—day—to dance for them?”

They probably won’t smell her over themselves.

GM: “I donno how, I donno how, I donno how!” mimics the bouncer in a shrill, whining voice.

GM: Zoe’s hauled into the strippers’ dress room. It’s got a different vibe than last night. There’s more girls, some naked, others changing into costumes. A couple of them of them are snaring down fast food. More of them are putting on perfume, makeup, deodorant, pole grip, hair wax. Zoe sees one woman inserting a tampon inside herself.

The woman from last night is helping another upset-looking girl glue a broken heel back onto her shoe. She turns to regard Zoe as the bouncer hauls her in. A frown crosses her face.

“Right. I’m guessing you didn’t get the stuff. What’s your shoe size?”

The bouncer leaves without a word.

Zoe: She shakes her head.

“No. They left me in the closet. I’m a six-and-a-half.”

Zoe shivers.

“I really have to pee. And I’m starving. Can I…?”

GM: “Oh, yeah. Cash Money does that sometimes,” the woman says absently.

She turns around, rummages through a bag, then slaps a wrapped O’Tolley’s cheeseburger into Zoe’s hand.

“Bathroom’s that way,” she says, pointing. “Give yourself a sponge bath.”

Zoe: Sometimes?! This is normal behavior?!

And not even a shower?!

Her eyes droop. She can fall asleep. She really might.

She takes the hamburger and moves toward the bathroom, stuffing as much of it down as she can before she gets there.

She strips—silently questioning herself as she does—and bathes herself. She can run. She can fight. She can do try to escape, but she knows that if she does, she might be met with an even worse scenario.

What’s a little dancing? What’s a little groping? What’s becoming the animal dear Mother wants her to become?

She isn’t good enough for her? Fine. Zoe Kelly isn’t beaten. In the battle, perhaps, but not in the war.

So what is the cost of a little groping?

The bath is quick, the burger consumed even quicker, and she returns to the room naked, looking for her guide.

GM: The bathroom is filthy. It makes the one at Tantsy’s look clean. The cracked ceramic tile floor is caked with so much filth that it shines. Toilet paper (some used) and tampons (used) are littered everywhere floor. Everywhere but the actual toilet. The inside looks like it’s never been cleaned. It’s caked almost completely brown, and smells to match.

Zoe also observes, as she squats down to relieve herself, that the door has no locks.

Mid-way through her piss, another girl walks in, glances at Zoe, then pulls down her thong. She proceeds to urinate right into the sink.

“New?” she asks conversationally.

Zoe: Zoe nods, looking around. She gathers her soiled clothing, holding them to her chest sheepishly.

“I—I guess. I’ll be working here tonight.”

Just tonight?

GM: “Trying it out, huh?”

Zoe: She shakes her head.

“I made Cash Money mad. Now I need to make him cash.”

Money.

She amuses herself, even in the darkest times.

“…got any tips? I’m Zoe.”

GM: “Audrey,” says the girl, grabbing some toilet pepper to use on herself.

“Is that your real name?”

Zoe: She nods.

“Should I not use that?”

GM: “You’re green,” the girl remarks amusedly as she tosses the soiled TP onto the ground.

“And no, never. Not even just your first name.”

“My mom gave a guy her real name once, when she was young. Just her first name, but he tracked her down. Dunno how, but he did.”

Zoe: Zoe shudders, grimacing as if she’d just been forced to lick the bathroom floor.

“What should I call myself? Like… anything at all?”

GM: “Well you want something that’s gonna make money,” says Audrey. “Y’know, bold, exciting.”

“And also something that’s hard to get wrong.”

“Like we had a Ruby once who guys mixed up with Rudy.”

“We had another girl who was Aries, ’cuz that was her sign, and customers thought she was Harry.”

She washes her hands as she talks.

Zoe: She thinks about that. What do strippers call themselves?

“Isn’t Rudy a—guy’s name?”

She shakes her head. If the man she killed—

Did she kill him? She wished he would stop existing, just like Chris. Just like Chris before he—

No. She feels her panic spiking her heart rate.

Stop thinking about it, Zoe. Not now.

But if she did, does that mean she can..?

GM: “Yeah, Rudy is a guy name, that’s why Ruby’s bad.”

Zoe: No. Fairy tales aren’t real, Zoe. Wouldn’t it just be perfect if she could make someone’s brain leak out their nose when she wants to?

“…how about Winter?”

GM: “Winter, that’s not bad,” says Audrey as she pulls her g-string back on.

“You should have a fake real name, too.”

“Lotta guys who wanna know.”

Zoe: "I like Ruby! But I like Winter more. Can’t mistake that. Hmmm… I’ll think about a fake real name. What other advice do you have?

She’s almost forgotten that she’s naked. Almost.

GM: “Hm, smile a lot, like you’re having fun. Customers aren’t gonna wanna tip if you don’t look like you wanna be here.”

Zoe: “What if they get too handsy…?”

Is she really going to do this?

GM: “They aren’t allowed to touch,” says Audrey. “You can touch them, though.”

“I mean some will, and duh if you go upstairs, but not on stage.”

Zoe: “O-oh! So if they break the rules…? Is there a signal?”

GM: Audrey pushes open the bathroom door and walks back out towards the lockers.

“Well security’s watching, and you can tell them to knock it off, or yell. They’ll usually warn the guy and kick him out if he doesn’t stop.”

Zoe: She dips her chin. She really is going to do this.

But what’s wrong with that? Why should she care? She won’t be paid for it, but…

Maybe today will stop being the Worst Day Ever when she accepts that Zoe Kelly died, and something new rose from her ashes. Something better. Something stronger.

Wouldn’t that be something, Mom?

GM: Audrey walks up to her locker.

“Also, no offense, you kinda smell… you should go heavy on the perfume.”

Zoe: Not even the sponge bath helped. Drat.

“Borrow a spritz?”

GM: “Yeah, sure,” Audrey says as she slips on a fishnet see-through top that matches her thong. She starts doing up her face in the mirror. The lipstick she uses is very red.

Zoe: “Thanks! I’ll… Be back after I get dressed.”

She wonders in what, but at least for tonight, that isn’t her decision.

She looks around for her earlier guide.

GM: She finds the woman helping another girl with her makeup.

Zoe: “Hey. I’m… Ready. Bathed as best I can.”

Which isn’t well at all.

“What can I wear?”

“And… I’m Ellie.”

GM: The woman looks her over.

“Brooke. You’ve got a ways before you’re ready.”

She shows Zoe a couple spare costumes:

Zoe: Zoe picks a black number from the bunch; the one of the lot that fits something close to her style.

She slips it on, if only to erase the fact that she’s still naked.

“Do you have any… tips?”

GM: Now she’s only mostly naked.

“Wear shoes,” says Brooke. She’s got two pairs of shoes in Zoe’s size to pick between. They’re very high heels with ankle straps and very high platforms.

Zoe: This one is much quicker. She snatches up a pair of pretty, pastel, and black shoes.

Is that a bubble of excitement she feels?

“That’s it? Just wear shoes?”

GM: They add at least six inches to her height after she fits them on. The combination of non-slip outer sole, heavily cushioned inner sole, and ankle support from the strap makes them deceptively comfortable to wear.

“Nah. Makeup’s next. You want bright lips and long lashes. I can sell you makeup and jewelry, or you can ask the other girls to share.”

Zoe: “I’ll see if Audrey will let let me borrow some. Be right back.”

And so she scurries back to Audrey.

“Hey. Can I borrow a bit of makeup? I’ll have some of my own tomorrow, and you can make free use of it in exchange.”

GM: Zoe nearly trips in her haste. These shoes are not conductive to running. The grip at the bottom makes her feel balanced, though, and they give her hips a very noticeable sway as she walks. Her legs have never looked better as she stares down at the world from over half a foot up.

She finds Audrey getting her own face touched up by a woman who looks maybe a decade and a half older than the 20something girl. Both of them are dressed in the same revealing apparel and platform heels as Zoe.

“Yeah, sure, no big,” says Audrey. “This is my mom, by the way, Aubrey.”

Zoe: “Nice to meet you, Aubrey! I’m Z—Ellie.”

She holds a hand out to the woman, her professional history not forgotten yet.

“You really mean it, Audrey? You’re the best!”

GM: Aubrey shakes her hand with an amused look.

“You don’t use your fake name in the dress room, by the way. That’s for customers.”

Zoe: “Oh…”

Her cheeks flush madly.

“Zoe. Sorry.”

Why does she feel sorry?

“I… guess I’m up. Say, if you do well, do they let you go home…?”

GM: Aubrey laughs.

“You’re a baby stripper. It’s fine. And depends how pissed Cash Money is.”

“There was that one girl he kept for a week,” said Audrey.

Aubrey shakes her head. “Wasn’t a week. Three days, tops.”

“That’s true,” says Audrey. “I mean, if he’s really pissed, he can al…”

Aubrey mutely shakes her head.

Audrey finds a spot of makeup on her mom’s face that needs touching up.

“Earn some money, don’t cause a scene, and you’ll go home,” Aubrey says to Zoe.

“Just look like you’re happy to be here. If you see him, be friendly, and he’ll forget about you.”

Zoe: She nods. “I’ll be good.”

Be a good girl, Zoe. You’re my girl, aren’t you?

Her mother’s voice echoes in her head as if she stood right behind her.

She bites her tongue. Gently.

“Okay. Look like I belong her. Don’t cause a scene. Smile. I can do that.”

Is she telling it to them or to herself? She’s not sure.

Don’t wish for anyone to disappear.

She’s not sure she can do that.

What if she makes Cash disappear?

With Audrey’s offer, she applies her makeup to her face, taking care to paint herself a good bit more than her aesthetic calls for, but such is this strange culture.

She could have just made more mozzarella sticks.

“Thanks!” she calls, walking more carefully back to Brooke.

“How’s this?”

GM: Would Rosalyn be calling her a good girl if she saw her daughter here in a strip club?

She could have just made more mozzarella sticks.

Brooke looks her over thoughtfully.

“Looks good. You need to do your nails, though. You want every part of you to look good.”

“I can sell you polish or you can get some from another girl.”

“You need perfume, too.”

“And to pop a mint. You don’t want cheeseburger on your breath.”

Zoe: Zoe looks down at the faded pastel blue of her nails, bitten down and flaked and picked, all breaking her promise not to do any of that. She sighs.

“I’ll see if Audrey will loan me some. I’ll pick up my own for tomorrow.”

And back to Audrey!

GM: Audrey has red polish and cotton candy perfume. Her mom has Calgon body spray. Up to Zoe which she wants. They mentioned that most strippers fall into two camps, in that regard: Calgon I’m-not-even-going-to-try types, and those who swear by their Pink Sugar/famous celebrity/Viva La Juicy I-can’t-believe-she-stole-my-signature-scent-even-though-it’s-readily-available-at-Nordstrom variety.

Both women say she get manicures and pedicures regularly, if she wants to keep doing this. Part of taking care of her body.

Neither of them has a mint, but they know another dancer, Neveah, who usually has a pack of them.

Zoe: Zoe is a simple woman with a simple mission: don’t fuck this up, and don’t end up pissing off Cash. She’s fine with red polish, fine with cotton candy, and fine bugging Neveah for a mint. It all goes into the list of favors she owes in the future.

“Maybe we can go together sometime?”

She can’t remember the last time she got a manicure with anyone. Sami wasn’t ever into that.

GM: Audrey and Aubrey are both amenable to. There’s a nearby salon on Royal Street they really like.

Zoe: In the end, she approaches Brooke, and if she figure herself out, she might even look like she belongs. How strange that such a terrible, horrible, really-bad day could turn into one that makes her feel good.

Even if she won’t be paid today.


April evening, 2016

GM: Zoe’s made to sign an extremely casual if not sloppy-looking employment contract before she’s up. A bouncer glares over her shoulder the whole time she reads it. She’s also given a locker to store her things in. Audrey and Aubrey have some last tips.

“Play up how it’s your first time, guys will love that.” “Don’t be pushy, make a little conversation if he’s into that.” “But if he doesn’t buy anything in 10 mins you’re wasting time.” “If you mess up, just keep going like nothing happened. The guys are too drunk to care.”

Zoe: Zoe stuffs her soiled clothing into her locker, slamming it shut and locking it, speaking to Audrey and Aubrey as she does.

She nods.

“Okay, be a salesman. Got it. And know who’s a buyer and who’s a moocher. But don’t say that.”

She nods again, mostly for her own self-confirmation.

“What if they want to buy me a drink?”

GM: “That’s great, you want them to buy you drinks,” says Aubrey. “The bartender will just serve you water. The money will go towards the cut the club takes from your dances, so you’ll make more from those.”

In short order, Zoe and the other strippers are ushered in. Deafeningly loud music with the beat of a jackhammer blares in her ears. Brass and chrome accents glint along her peripheral vision, from the poles where strippers try out for the nudie Olympics to the rails around the stages and bars. Pulsating neon lights illuminate just enough—and hide even more. A few TV screens show sports, just in case the live action gets boring.

There are a lot of guys. Some are there at booths along a back wall. Others by tables with upholstered chairs, which look like good spots for lap dances. Last are chairs ringing the stage, where up close and personal takes on new meaning. There’s more of them than last night. They all look the same. Washed-up middle-aged losers. Younger losers, who maybe can’t get a woman anywhere else. Drunken frat boys. Average-looking husbands and dads, maybe, if on the seedier side. Some guys look like mobsters. There are even two in police uniforms. There’s also a few women, some on their own, some with guys. Everyone is drinking. Cigarette smoke is everywhere. So is last night’s musk of sweat, pre-cum, and cheap perfume.

Meanwhile, the DJ announce the next set of girls, his voice barely audible over the vibrating bass of the music, “Cinnamon, Kaylee, Gem, Jewel, Winter. You’re up."

Zoe: “Ooooh, I figured it’d be non-alcoholic. Oh well. Water is fine.”

She wishes she had a drink in hand right now, but knows that’s only another errant thought to procrastinate her inevitable march onto stage.

Naked.

Almost.

In front of a crowd.

At least it won’t be a crowd that shares a circle with her mother.

Right?

…right?

She draws a steadying breath, and walks out into the booming music.

GM: “They don’t want you getting drunk on stage,” confirms Audrey.

Maybe Rosalyn is there, among the crowd. It’s hard to tell under the dim neon lighting, or amidst the sea of unfamiliar faces.

But Zoe has a hard time seeing her mom tolerating cigarette smoke, drunkenly waving dollar bills, making lewd jeers and catcalls, and yelling for the girls to bare their asses and take it all off.

GM: One guy blows a wet and sloppy kiss at Zoe. Another one mimics cunnilingus. “What’ll you do for this!” yells a third, waving a $20. “What’ll you do for THIS!” exclaims a woman, waving a $50, to the laughter of her girlfriends. “I’m gonna fuck your ass ’til it bleeds black!” shouts a fourth man, loudest of all. He gets sharply told to “knock it off, buddy” by a bouncer.

Most of the men are actually fairly quiet. It’s the women who seem the rowdiest.

But all of their eyes are on Zoe, her fellows, and the brass and chrome poles they attach themselves to.

Zoe: The sheer number of women in the crowd—really, that the number is more than 0—surprises her. The rowdiness that they present surprises her a step forward. She expected to see boisterous men, and frat boys, and those well past their prime or so out of shape that a strip club is their only inlet for flirtacious accommodation.

She draws a breath, and steps out with a swagger to her poise, a smile on her face. She throws her arms up and out, jutting a hip.

They’re naked, not you. It’s them. You’re just putting on a show, right? Don’t worry about you. Worry about them.

It only works a little bit. Her heart is hammering as if a ball dropped on a taut drum, faster and faster and faster and faster.

She finds the pole, and spins as if it’s her partner, and begins. It’s sultry, and pretentious, a coy, but shy and telling of her first time dancing such a scandalous dance. She isn’t trained, and it shows, but her untrained dance is interlaced and interwoven by juts of her hip and sliding down the pole and grasping her chest and crawling toward whichever victim deigned to lock eyes with her and engage her spell.

Maybe her novelty is something endearing!

GM: Zoe’s pole dance receives a few drunken claps and exclamations. Whistles, too. The other girls are also getting attention, Audrey and Aubrey among them, but Zoe feels like she’s doing all right for herself. Especially considering it’s her first time. It’s easy to feel above all of the men, on the stage in her 7-inch heels as she swings and shakes her assets around the pole. The music thumps past the floating cigarette smoke, and staring down at her neon-painted flesh, it’s hard to imagine that Zoe Josephine Kelly was ever a girl on the straight and narrow.

She sees the other strippers leaning close to the audience so that men (and a few women) can slip dollar bills into their g-strings. A couple ‘rain cash’ over the girls and laugh as they get down on their knees to pick it up.

Zoe: The other girls are masters of their craft. At least, it seems that they are to someone so new to dancing before such a large crowd. Her focus drifts to the other dancers, taking in their various ticks and nuances as quickly as she can.

She dips to the floor, chest to the polished material and hind to some lucky gentleman—or lady—to pick up an errant pair of bills, stuffing them into her top.

GM: The other girls are doing more elaborate things with their poles. Aubrey and Audrey have a move where they grips it with both hands and splay both of their legs in the air, above their heads. That seems to draw a lot of attention. They and the other girls do more things with the pole. There’s a grace born from simple experience with it.

Zoe’s knees swiftly hurt on the stage’s hard surface, but it’s hardly as if she can collect the money by another means in 7-inch heels. Guys hoot and holler as she gets down on the floor. People stick dollar bills along her g-string and down her cleavage. Some do just that. Two get more handsy, though. One man gives her left breast a solid grope. Another guy runs his finger down along her asscrack, then smiles and licks it.

Zoe: How can he find that acrid taste arousing?! She hasn’t had a real shower in over a day! And there is— ewwww….

She wants to try more intricate incorporations to her dance, but she wants even more not to cause a scene by splitting her head on the floor.

…of course, that might turn them on more, and life would be easier if she isn’t part of it. Hmmmn.

Zoe keeps to what she knows is safe and what seems to be working: light exposure, ample movement of her hips, slipping her own hands to her chest and nethers, and collecting bills when they arrive.

She tolerates them. She may not in the future, but she doesn’t want to earn ANY ire this evening.

GM: The increasingly liquored customers all seem to like what she does and money comes in relatively steadily. It’s tricky to hold onto, past a certain point, though Zoe notices some of the other girls setting their cash down on part of the stage that’s out of reach to the customers.

Eventually, though, the song concludes and the DJ announces the next set of girls is up. The ones on-stage clamber down and head back to the dressing room to put away their money in their lockers.

“You did good, honey,” sounds Aubrey. “Just put it in the hours and you’ll get used to it.”

A quick count of Zoe’s money reveals that she’s pulled in $102.

Zoe: Zoe collects her winnings and moves off-stage, offering a little wink to some of her more generous donors.

When did she start sweating so much?! It was hot in the main room, but most of it is from nerves.

She shivers, thanking Audrey, and moves to store her money in the locker. It’s not hers—not tonight—but nor is she done for the evening. She’ll settle up with Cash later.

“You really think so?? I’d love to learn some of the tricks you two did!”

One day. When there aren’t gawking drunkards.

“Do we… Go back out now?”

GM: “Yep,” says Audrey as she stores her cash. “You’ll make most of your money from lap dances. And if you do really well, the VIP room.”

Aubrey checks her makeup in the mirror.

Zoe: She flushes a light shade of crimson.

“What do you… Do in the VIP room?”

GM: “Pretty often you give a blowjob,” says Aubrey.

“Sometimes sex.”

“Sometimes just more lap dances.”

Zoe: “O-oh.”

”O-oh…"

GM: “It pays really well,” says Audrey. “You wanna do the VIP room.”

Zoe: “Y-yeah. Okay.”

How much does she owe Cash, anyway?

GM: “But with a condom,” says Aubrey. “You dunno where these guys have been.”

Zoe: “Blowjob with a condom too?”

GM: “You can ask for more to do without. Your call.”

“But you dunno where they’ve last had their pricks.”

Audrey starts running her mom’s body over with baby wipes to get rid of sweat.

Zoe: She shakes her head vigorously.

“No money is worth that risk.”

Especially because it’s all a pittance compared to—..

Will she ever be taken back if this wild day gets back to her mother?

“..can I borrow one of those? I can’t give you any of what I earned yet. I don’t know how much I owe Cash, but I’ll be good for paying you back.”

GM: “Yeah, sure,” says Aubrey, passing her a wipe. She starts wiping down her daughter’s body too.

“You wanna spot yourself up after every song,” says Audrey. “You’ll probably be sweating a bit.”

Zoe: A bit? She feels like a beached whale after a sponge bath. She takes a wipe and begins to clean herself.

“Hey, uhm… What do we do if they touch you on stage? More than they should.”

GM: “Call a bouncer,” says Audrey.

“Well, tell them to knock it off first.”

Zoe: “How? I don’t want to cause a scene.. Or seem unfriendly to the rest of the crowd.”

GM: “Yeah, you should just let it slide if it’s not that bad,” says Aubrey.

“But just grab one’s eye and wave him over, you don’t wanna scream or anything.”

Zoe: She doesn’t want to let it slide. She doesn’t like how it felt to have that man swipe a finger through her cheeks; to see him lick and suckle as if he were a greedy child stealing a taste of someone else’s cake.

Yet, she does. She does because she’s the new girl, and she’s the one who might find herself with broken fingers or a smashed nose if she’s even perceived to cause another scene in Cash’s club.

For now, she suffers. For now, she endures.

For now.

She nods.

“I guess I’ll go back out now. To the floor. Mingle, right? Sell?”

GM: “Yeah,” says Audrey as she and her mom finish wiping. She gives her makeup another inspection in the mirror.

“You just wander around the floor while the other girls on stage dance. You chat and give lap dances, see if they’ll buy you drinks, and get them up to the VIP room if you can.”

“For privacy, and more fun,” says Aubrey.

Zoe: Privacy. Fun.

Money.

She isn’t here to have fun, and she isn’t going to escape with any money, but if she keeps this up, she will escape.

Is it so bad, though? She made more money in a few minutes than many did in a full day. It’s less than her family makes in the same time.

Not her family. Her past. Her birth family.

The thought brings a note of sadness to her, which she dispels with a shake of her head and a brushing of fingers through her hair. She smiles.

“Right. Privacy and fun.”

With that, she steps out into the front.

GM: Her fellow strippers don’t sound as if they regard this as particularly fun either. Just a job.

But for the customer it’s all about the fun. The fantasy.

There’s a new song belting out over the speakers when Zoe leaves the dress room. There’s new girls dancing up on the stage and sensuously swinging against the poles. Customers are already slipping bills into their g-strings.

Zoe’s fellows from the first song are already making their rounds around the club. One girl is already giving a lap dance. Most customers not sitting up along the stage, and presumably more interested in the dancers there, are seated back along booths or at tables by the bar. They aren’t close enough to tip the stage girls.

“Remember, you’re a saleswoman,” says Aubrey, patting Zoe’s shoulder before approaching the guys at a booth alongside her daughter.

The crowd is the same one she saw earlier—it has been only a few minutes. Washed-up middle-aged losers. Younger losers, who maybe can’t get a woman anywhere else. Drunken frat boys. Average-looking husbands and dads, maybe, if on the seedier side. Some guys look like mobsters. There are even two in police uniforms. There’s also a few women, some on their own, some with guys.

Zoe: Zoe mulls over her options, keeping a faint smile on her lips as she does; something pleasant, yet simple enough to be genuine.

The younger men look to be a poor source of income. Maybe if others turn her down.

Loser. Loser. Another loser.

The fathers-probably are a healthy target. She can play the role of exactly what they aren’t getting at home; though, she’s sure that highlighting anything of the sort is as sure a way as any to be sent right to Cash’s office. Hm.

The police are a fair option, though it’s sure to be a gamble. They’re likely to be Cash’s friends, given the badge she saw the night before, and so are sure to highlight her performance—for better, or for worse.

For the moment, she saunters over to one of the male-female couples, exuding confidence.

“Hi there! Having a good time?”

GM: The man looks in his mid-late 20s. He’s brown-haired and dressed in a button-down and jeans. The woman looks around the same age, with longer dark hair. She’s got on a club dress.

“Yeah, pretty good,” he grins.

He looks Zoe up and down.

“You’re hot. How much is a BJ?”

“Trip!” says the girlfriend, swatting his arm.

“I’m just asking,” he laughs.

“We don’t want a BJ, we want a lap dance,” says the girl.

“Well, I wouldn’t say no to a BJ,” says Trip.

“I just said we wanted a lap dance,” says the girl, more crossly.

Zoe: She winks at Trip, once he says his last bit.

“We can start with a lap dance,” she hums, tapping a finger nail against the rear of his seat, taking careful care to ensure her skin finds his shoulder on the way by.

Her eyes find the girl next.

“…but for who, hmmmn? You, or… you?”

A pause.

“…twenty dollars for a song, either or.”

GM: “Yeah, I want a lap dance,” says the girl. “Me first.”

Trip looks a little annoyed at that.

Neither one blinks at the price she asks, though.

Zoe: Okay. Reasonable price. That’s a good sign. They weren’t surprised, whether for cheapness or expense.

Zoe draws her fingers back, brushing the tips along his cheeks as she sweeps over to the girl.

She settles into her lap, one leg on either side, facing her.

“Any requests?”

GM: “I dunno, just do what you do,” says the girl, leaning back in her seat.

Her eyes sweep up Zoe’s body. “What’s it like to wear those costumes?”

“I thought you wanted a lap dance,” says Trip.

“Shut up, I’m talking,” says the girl.

Trip mutters something rude-sounding and takes a pull from his drink.

Zoe: Zoe slants her eyes toward Trip, her rear grinding toward into the nameless girl’s lap. Her fingers clasp around her neck while she gyrates.

“Don’t act like you get nothing out of this,” she teases the man.

“What’s your name, darling?” she asks the girl.

GM: Trip permits himself a smile, or at least less of a glower, as he watches.

“Delaney,” says the girl.

She’s still underneath Zoe, as if not sure what she’s supposed to do at this point. Her eyes wander along the other girl’s torso.

“I asked you what those costumes are like.”

Zoe: She takes Delaney’s hands, pressing each of them to her ribs, just where her skin meets the fabric of her top.

Her lips find the girl’s ear and she murmurs breathily, “…you’re welcome to feel for yourself. Just don’t get too adventurous.”

A wink, and she leans back, exposing her torso in more full for her to view—and explore, if she wants.

So Trip can hear too, “They’re fun! This is my first night in this one.”

First night ever, but they don’t need to know that.

Her gaze drifts to Trip again.

“You’re welcome to raise a bid for the next song.”

GM: Delaney feels up along Zoe’s body. She limits herself to the other girl’s stomach at first, since that’s what’s there. Then she slowly works her way up to Zoe’s breasts, squeezing them back and forth, rubbing her palms over Zoe’s nipples. The costume’s fabric is very thin.

Trip’s getting a bulge in his pants as he watches his girlfriend feel up Zoe.

“Okay, $30,” he says.

“Your dance isn’t over,” says Delaney, crossly. “Do more lap dancey stuff.”

Zoe: “Oh no it’s not,” she purrs, slipping off the girl’s lap, down down down to the floor, her fingertips dragging lightly down her arms, Zoe’s face pressing to her stomach, then her crotch, eyes angling upward.

She kneels on the floor at the end, a minor dramatic flare, then stands, turning away with a sway of her hips

“…when I’m done with her. $30.”

Tips welcome, though…

GM: Delaney looks notably more into it at that. Especially when Zoe doesn’t break eye contact. She runs her hands along Zoe’s head, pressing the other girl’s face into the space between her legs. Is she wet down there? All Zoe would need to do is pull up her dress just a bit.

Trip’s bulge gets bigger as he watches the exotic dancer entertaining his girlfriend in motion.

Delaney wraps an arm around Zoe’s shoulder and pulls her back onto her lap.

“You’re not done, you stripper,” she breathes.

Zoe: Zoe falls elegantly into her lap, her left hand finding the bare skin of Delaney’s thigh. A little higher, a little higher…

She looks back, up from under the girl’s chin.

“…you could have everything you want back there,” she breathes heavily, flicking her eyes toward the VIP section.

She kisses the underside of her chin.

“Every touch.”

Another.

“Every kiss.”

Another.

“You could make him watch, or… you could have him join.”

For a moment, Zoe wonders what the fuck happened to her. It comes naturally—these words, these actions—as if she were with Chris, or with any of the other number of fantasized encounters she’s had over the years. Playing it out for real upon this woman—a customer, and her boyfriend—draws her out from why she’s here.

For a moment, she is having fun.

She doesn’t want that fun to die.

Zoe: Delaney’s tug into her lap is foreign, and strange, and some not-entirely-ignorably-small part of her wants to shrug away at it; yet, in the same breath, it’s the first piece of positive validation Zoe has in what will be the worst two days of her life.

In two days—a little less—she’s gone from the pinnacle of society with dreams in the stars and a free ride to them to rubbing her ass on a horny guy and his horny girlfriend.

She’s asked many a time, but: What the fuck?!

“So you want to come upstairs, hmmmn?”

She makes a show of thinking while she slips from Delaney’s lap into her boyfriend’s, her crotch finding his—his jeans and her underwear separating—and grinding them together.

The suddenly-stripper whispers into his ear.

“…another $50 and I’ll make her cum upstairs. Another $100 and I’ll do it naked.”

GM: Chuck wanted her to suck his cock.

But that was extortion, wasn’t it, next to this? He was dangling what she wanted, shelter, in front of her, in return for sexual favors.

These two just want her.

These two will pay to have her.

Boyfriend and girlfriend grow all the more aroused at Zoe’s touch, at her kisses, at her sensuously murmured words. Delaney moves her hands down from Zoe’s breasts, and starts to fondle her ass an work towards her sex, until the other girl slips away to straddle her boyfriend. Zoe can feel her glare, but Trip pays his girlfriend barely a second glance as his and Zoe’s loins meet. He’s very hard and Zoe can feel his manhood quivering through his pants.

The man immediately reaches into his wallet produces five $20s, which he sticks down Zoe’s cleavage.

“Make her scream,” he breathes.

The two can’t head upstairs with “their stripper” fast enough, hands hungrily roaming along her scantily attired body with every step. A pale club employee directs Zoe to a comfortably seated mirror-lined room with TV screens in every corner. Past that is a private room with magenta lighting and tiger print furniture.

Barely_Inside.jpg
Trip shoves Zoe backwards onto the couch cushions. Delaney plops down next to her, planting kisses along Zoe’s neck as her hands steadily knead the other girl’s breasts in clockwise motions. Zoe’s nipples are already stiff under the thin fabric. Delaney looks like she’s wet too, judging by the stains along her panties when her dress comes partly up.

“Ah yeah, our stripper’s gonna show us a good time…” says Trip, starting to unbuckle his pants.

Our stripper,” breathes Delaney, giving Zoe’s nipples an emphatic squeeze.

“We’re buying her. Aren’t we?” she grins, shooting a look in her boyfriend’s direction.

“You guys want some Jameson or whatever?” the club employee asks casually, sticking his head in.

Drinks.

Money.

Zoe: “Oooh, do you want a drink?” she asks, feigning excitement—and doing so well—while her fingers find the hem of her top, pulling it over her head with shameless haste. The timing is intentional.

“I know I do!”

Just like that, she’s back to the girl, kissing her throat, pushing her down into the cushions with unabated hunger! The longer she does this, the easier it is to slip into a natural state. She’s never slept with a woman, but it doesn’t feel quite so strange an idea in here.

When in Rome, right?

Zoe lifts Delaney’s legs up, hiking her dress and dragging her panties down her thighs. She doesn’t intend to let her answer.

GM: With her panties out of the way, Zoe finds Delaney wet and ready.

“Eat me out, you stripper,” she breathes, grabbing the back of Zoe’s head and forcing the other girl’s face against her pelvis. She looks like she’s been waxed fairly recently down there.

“Eat me like you’re getting paid for it, stripper! God! You’re so fucked up!”

“Bet your daddy molested you,” breathes Trip. He’s gotten a bottle from somewhere. He takes a glug from it one hand and strokes his dick with his other.

“Bet you’re on crack, aren’t you, with a toddler at home!”

Delaney grinds her pussy against Zoe’s face, holding the other girl’s head firmly in position with both hands. Trip holds the bottle to her mouth.

“Stripper. Stripper,” she pants, pausing to take a pull of booze. “You’re our stripper. You’re just some stripper!”

Zoe: Zoe shoves Delaney’s legs further upward, forcing her head between her thighs, her lips brushing softly against the outer lips of her sex. She wishes she’d thought to read an article on how to please another woman; but, here she is, and here she’s left with only her own imagination.

What does Zoe like?

She likes to be teased.

Her fingertips seize into the flesh of her thighs, controlling and taut, yet without pain. Her lips part, her tongue running along that lip; a hint of a presence, but only a hint.

She doesn’t answer the words. She’s busy. She tells herself she’s focusing. They’re not true, of course, but their intent doesn’t help her state.

GM: Chris ate her out before. She liked that. Just do what she knows she likes, right? Easy enough.

“Lick me, stripper!” Delaney moans, yanking Zoe’s hair as the other girl’s tongue draws teasingly closer to her clit. “Lick me! I bet you’re a lesbian! I bet you do this a TON!”

“Most strippers are lesbians,” says Trip. There’s another glug from the bottle.

Without warning, Zoe feels him enter her pussy from behind. Trip grabs her neck with one hand as he thrusts in and out.

“Ah, yeah! I’m fucking a stripper! I’m fucking our stripper!”

“Fucking our lesbian stripper!” pants Delaney.

Trip delivers a sharp smack across her ass.

“Ah, yeah! You like that? You like having a dick in you, lesbo stripper? Doesn’t it feel good?”

Zoe: Bit by bit, the words eat through her shell. Lick me. Fuck me. Lesbian this. Easy that.

Then she feels him enter her, and she nearly rockets off in revulsion.

No, Zoe. No, no no, no no no. The very worst thing you can do is anger cash, though it seems like everything is pining to make you do that.

She does pull off him just as the first thrust hits, but it isn’t with revulsion. With a faintly forced smile, she turns on her knees.

“You want to fuck me, huh?”

She checks for a condom on him.

“How much do you think that’s worth?”

GM: There is no condom.

“’Fine, ’nother $100,” Trip says impatiently.

He takes another swig from the bottle.

“Stripper! Get back and lick me!” demands Delaney.

Zoe: “Uh, uh, uh,” she answers, waggling a finger. “You want to fuck me, you need a condom, and it’ll be another $200.”

A pause.

“And you can put it in whatever hole you want.”

GM: “I don’t have a condom,” Trip grouses.

Zoe: She shrugs. “I’m sure they have plenty here. And… the cost?”

GM: “Well where the fuck do we get a condom?” Trip asks impatiently.

His erection is starting to sag a little.

“Yeah, fuck that. Bareback, stripper!”

He sets down the bottle, grabs Zoe by both shoulders, and moves to re-enter her just as the male employee sticks his head back in.

“Hey. Condom.”

He tosses it to Trip.

Trip looks a little disappointed.

So does Delaney.

“Oh. All right,” says Trip.

He fits it on.

Delaney impatiently swats the couch.

“Lick me, stripper! Eat me out! I want a lesbo stripper to eat me out!”

Zoe: Zoe breathes a quiet breath of relief when the bouncer interrupts to deliver a condom. The thought of him entering her again at the word ‘bareback’ nearly makes her hamburger rise.

Composing herself, she slips a finger between Delaney’s lips, entertaining her sex while she addresses Trip for the third time.

“Why don’t we have a race, hmn? Let’s see if you finish first… or her. After you agree to the price.”

GM: “Okay, okay, $200,” Trip says impatiently.

“Trip! Look at the lesbo stripper fingering me!” says Delaney, spreading her legs wide as she leans back against the couch.

Trip doesn’t answer his girlfriend. He just grabs Zoe’s shoulders and moves to enter her again.

“Yeah, you dirty lesbo stripper, gonna teach you to like cock…”

Zoe: If I was a lesbian, I wouldn’t be working in a primarily male domin— Oh, why even waste space in my head on them? Ingrates.

She adds them to her mental journal of names she’ll hang from the ceiling when she rules the word, and moves her face forward.

Delaney’s sex has an acrid flavor to it—something salty, and sweaty, and wrong, but not so wrong that it’s repulsive. New? Strange? Foreign? She’s never tasted another woman before. Maybe it’s that. Maybe she needs a shower. She doesn’t care.

She knows what she likes—liked—from Chris, and uses those thoughts to guide her while she feels Trip enter her again.

The first time she’s been mounted by another man since—

A long time. She can picture faces, but not names. Scents, but not dates. Emotions. Mostly emotions. She doesn’t like these emotions. She doesn’t like these people. She doesn’t like their names, or their attitude, or their smell, or their feel, or how they touch her…

But they pay her—pay Cash—and so she continues.

For now.

_Chris Downs.

Rosalyn Kelly.

Chuck Pavaghi. Maybe.

Delaney and Trip.

The list is growing quickly. She doesn’t even plan to let the dead rest.

GM: But not until then, neither does she.

Trip fucks her doggy style, with relish, cock steadily pumping in and out of her cunt. He grabs Zoe’s hands and pins them behind her back while she eats out his girlfriend, juices running over her mouth. Delaney growls and pins Zoe’s face against her crotch with both hands. It makes what she’s doing less, she supposes, delicate than how Chris ate her out. She can’t teasingly circle the girl’s clit with her tongue, pick how fast or slow or in what direction she goes. She just has a cunt unceremoniously shoved against her mouth. It makes her think of how Cash Money described ‘muff divers.’ “Slobbering over girls’ cunts,” he said. Zoe is definitely slobbering. She’s sloppy. She’s having it done to her, not doing it to them.

“Look at our stripper go!”

Between her pinned hands and head, Zoe is completely immobilized. It feels like she’s being used, for the two’s pleasure. She can’t talk, not really, with her face buried in Delaney’s cunt, but the girl and her boyfriend shout over her.

“God! Look at her! She’s such a slut! She’s a fucking stripper!

“Takes off her clothes for money!”

“Fucks people for money!”

“Look at those fuck-me shoes she wears!”

“She’s a whore!”

“Bet she’s a high school dropout!”

“She’s on heroin!”

“She’s a drug addict!”

“Lost her kid to CPS!”

“She’s a stripper! Our stripper!”

“Our lesbian stripper!”

“We fucking bought this stripper!”

“Stripper! Stripper! Stripper! SHE’S A FUCKING STRIPPER!”

Zoe: Stripper. Stripper. Stripper. Stripper. Stripper.

Stripper.

Stripper!

Stripperrrrrr!

The words echo in her head, as if she’s four years old on the playground again. Her knee bleeds, and three girls and a boy hold hands dancing and skipping a gleeful ring around her.

Clumsy! Clumsy! Clumsy! Clumsy! You know what rhymes with Zoe? CLUMSY!

She wants to cry, and she can’t stop her eyes from welling up, nor tears from flowing down her face. Is it their words? Their chiding? Or is it the sweat dripping into her eyes, searing them to moisture?

Her cunt tastes like ocean water and battery salad. She doesn’t like this. This isn’t a good first experience. She could like this.

But not like this.

Stripper. Stripper. Stripper.

She wants them to disappear.

But she blankets that thought, stifling it to blackness. The last two times she’s wished for people to die or disappear, they did. They did, and if these two do, Cash will blame her.

At least he isn’t big; smaller than Chris was.

Was.

No more Chris.

More Chuck to come.

And cum.

She takes the verbal abuse in silence, servicing the girl and allowing her boyfriend to pump her.

Delaney and Trip. Remember their names.


April night, 2016

GM: Zoe’s two customers never even ask for her name. She’s just “the stripper” or “our stripper” to them. She needs a long shower by the time they’re done with her, and pay her for the sex like a literal whore.

A long shower and her old life back.

But she’s getting neither. She’s up for her next dance. Her top needs to come off for this one, she’s told. So the men can all stare at her tits.

She does okay, she supposes. Her heart’s not really in it. She’s groped and pinched and molested and demeaned as a sex object. And paid for it, even if the crinkled bills lining her g-string feel all-too few.

The lap dance, she supposes, goes okay. The fat middle-aged guy doesn’t keep his hands to himself—so much for no contact—but he doesn’t bite on the VIP room. Maybe part of her doesn’t want him to. So she grinds against his body, and feels his erect cock through his jeans instead of in her pussy. He pays for her for the privilege, and then she finds that all of the money she made from last song’s table dance is gone.

Who stole it?

Doesn’t matter. She’s up for her next song.

GM: That one goes better. She’s desperate to make up for the missing money. The crowd is drunker, three songs and two lap dances in. The fact she’s completely naked but for her shoes no doubt helps. The money flows as freely as the drink—even if the wandering hands and lustful touches do as well.

She winds up on the lap of a young loser who looks as if he’s never touched a breast before. He ejaculates in his pants mid-way through the dance. Zoe only gets a little wet from it.

Only a little.

She’s paid for that, too.

By the time the club closes down for the evening, at too-late-o-clock in the AM, Zoe is dead on her feet. Her shoes are comfortable enough, for seven inch heels, but her calves are stretched. Her knees are really sore from crawling along the stage’s hard flat surface to collect her money. The only thing she’s had to eat in…. 24 hours (?) is an O’Tolley’s cheeseburger that digests in her stomach like glue. Her borrowed spritzes of perfume do little to cover up her sweaty body or the fact she’s not bathed all day. The club’s odor of sweat, pre-cum, and cigarette smoke clings her like a lustful patron wanting to cop a last feel. Her nipples and ass are sore from the number of times they’ve been pinched.

The work is physically and mentally exhausting. Zoe’s not sure how any girl makes a career out of this.

But like any job one hates, there’s money to show for it.

$351, for her second set of songs and dances.

Missing at least $100 from the money stolen earlier.

$102 from her first song. $20 from Delaney’s lap dance. $30 from Trip’s. $100 to fuck Delaney. $200 to fuck Trip. $350, to be “our stripper,” undeserving of even a stage name.

$701 total, for her dignity tonight.

That’s when the Barely Legal’s manager, a sleazy-looking man with a receding hairline, pencil mustache, and an oily grin, explains the concept of “house cut.”

First, the club takes 50% of everything she makes.

She’s left with $350.5.

Then, she’s responsible for tipping the DJ and the bouncers. 10% of everything she brings in.

She’s left with $315.45.

Then, there’s something called a “house fee,” which is a fee charged by the club just to dance on their stage, no matter how much she makes or doesn’t make. That’s a flat $50.

She’s left with $265.45.

The club takes the 45 cents, because they round down and aren’t paying her in literal dimes and nickels.

She’s left with $265. For her dignity tonight.

Also, if she wants to keep dancing for the club, her costume is $50 and her shoes are $100. Brooke is “kind” enough not to ask for a payment tonight, if she comes back tomorrow, though she’ll need to leave the costume and shoes at the club.

GM: Zoe brings up the Jameson ordered by Delaney and Trip, a detail the manager seems to have conveniently “forgotten.” He tells her that half is credited towards her earnings. $30 bottle, so $15. She’s left with $280.

All that’s left is to see whether Cash Money is satisfied with that much.

Zoe: She doesn’t like this. She doesn’t like any of this. Not the touching, nor the staring, nor the grouping, nor the feeling that she’s no more than the inverted perversion of a ‘Where did the bad man touch you?’ doll. She’s meant to be touched. She’s paid to be touched. She’s not smart Zoe Smart Zoe died, remember? Strong Zoe died, too. Successful Zoe was hit by a car. Loving Zoe had a heart attack. The garou-that-was has become the garou-no-more; the wolf beaten and abused as if all the abusers-to-be collectively decided to explore their depraved fetish at the same time.

Then they sold tickets.

She isn’t even good at this. Not really. Not as good as she can be; as good as she thought she would be. This isn’t like school, where everything comes naturally; or, in the later portions of her educational career, with enough of a push to succeed.

Maybe that’s what she needs; to be pushed.

Hasn’t she been pushed enough?

She stares down at the palm full of grimy bills, not even bothering to count them. All that work. All that perversion, and depravity; all the poking and prodding and fucking and sweat and grease. All for the price of a nice dinner

And she isn’t going to keep any of it, is she?

She grabs her clothing, soiled as it is, and knocks on the door to Cash’s office.

“Hey,” she calls. “Paying up.”

GM: “So come in.”

She opens the door and finds the police detective reclining on his seat, unbuckled pants lying in a pile below his hairy legs.

Audrey is giving him a blowjob.

Up close, the beanpole-faced man smells even more strongly of deodorant, hair tonic, tabasco sauce, and contagious sleaze that gives his tan skin an almost iridescent sheen. She’s not sure if the lack of neon lights makes it better or worse.

But he sees her, and his mouth spreads in a half-leer, half-grin that gives new definition to the term ‘shit-eating.’ She’s not sure if he’s sexually aroused at the sight of her, enjoying the sight of what she’s been reduced to, or both.

“How much you got, slut?”

“How much did guys pay to oggle at your snatch?”

Zoe: Zoe marches inside, stopping just shy of his desk.

“T-two hundred and eighty dollars,” she stammers, holding the neatly folded wad of bills out to him. She’s taken enough care to order and stack them. How kind.

She feels an angry spark crack inside her. She wants to lash out—to reduce him to pulp—but that spark has only ever gotten her in trouble.

Besides, it isn’t real. That would be absurd.

She shivers. Gross.

GM: “Two eighty,” drawls Cash Money as he plucks the wad of wash from her grasp.

Audrey keeps sucking his cock.

“That’s how much your cunt is worth.”

“Do you think your cunt is worth two eighty?”

Zoe: She doesn’t answer right away.

“I… I don’t know. They had fun, though—the customers—and they paid, so it must be worth something.”

A pause.

“But is it… enough to make up for…?”

GM: Cash Money idly picks up the gun on his desk.

“That’s not what I asked you, whore.”

He doesn’t turn it in her direction.

But he does turn it over.

“I asked whether your cunt is worth two eighty.”

Zoe: Sparks become a small, crackling fire.

“I—I think it’s worth more! ’cause I learned! I got better! And I can get even better!”

GM: Cash Money points his gun at a bag of white powder on his desk.

“Snort some of that or you’re under arrest.”

The NOPD descent badge glints from the pants at his feet.

Zoe: He’ll probably charge her for this, too.

But she’s needed something to take the edge off for more than just these two days.

She falls to her knees, scooping some of the nefarious powder out and snorts it.

GM: It’s like coming home to an old boyfriend. Casually lying there on her bed, naked, seductive, confident that he’ll fuck her silly and she’ll beg him for seconds, and text her current boyfriend that maybe he shouldn’t come by tonight.

At first she feels her heart beating faster, and faster, and faster. Then she gets this sudden rush wash over her, both inside and out. Her body feels tingly. She’s sweating a little. She has a a drum inside of her limbs and her mouth and her brain that’s moving in sync with her heart. She has the sudden urge to talk, to explain, to listen, to DO. She wants to dance and sing and go somewhere, and take on the world. She’s on top of the world. She’s Zoe Kelly!

Oh, how she’s missed this.

How could her mom cast her out for this?

“See you tomorrow, you junkie wore,” leers Cash Money, cock still pumping back and forth in Audrey’s mouth.

Zoe: “H-how much do I owe you?” she asks, trying to keep her focus off the fact the fact that she suddenly wants to be happy.

GM: The leer spreads across Cash Money’s face like a cumstain through tightey-whities.

“You’ll pay us back.”

“Now get out before I throw you in the OPP male ward.”

Zoe: “Y-yes sir.”

She scurries out of the room.

And down the hall.

And down the stairs.

And across the room, pausing long enough in the changing room to put on her regular shoes and soiled clothes.

And out the door.

And only once she’s out in the Louisiana pre-dawn fog does she stop to think.

All of that—all her pain and suffering, being locked in a closet, and starved, and forced to dance, and being made to please men she wouldn’t give the time of day—is because she made a decision to stop somewhere new.

What if she doesn’t come back tomorrow? What if she chooses not to?

He’ll put our a warrant for her, probably. Somehow.

Daddy isn’t going to bail you out this time.

Neither is Mom, or her sister, or Chris. Definitely not Chuck.

All alone in the world, indebted to the worst cop she could have met. What a day.

Maybe tomorrow she’ll wake up to a cancer diagnosis.


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Story Fourteen, Zoe II

“It’s the same across all families. Piss them off and you’re done.”
Chuck Pavaghi


April evening, 2016

GM: Zoe’s (miserable) path takes her to a three-story house built in the second-generation Creole style that is easily recognizable by its distinctive L-shape, flush position to the sidewalk, French doors, broad roofline supported by light wooden colonnettes, and generous, traditional wrought iron gallery overflowing with potted red and pink geraniums. (In southeast Louisiana, a distinction is made between “balconies”, which are self-supporting and attached to the side of the building, and “galleries,” which are supported from the ground by poles or columns.) A wooden sign hangs from the red-bricked building’s front entrance. Faded and crammed-in letters read:

Tante Lescaut’s Occult Curiosities, Horoscopes, & Palmistry

Zoe would have to squint to make out the last two words below the shop’s name. They are even smaller and their paint is even more faded. She can’t read them now. Doesn’t bother. But she knows what they say.

Since 1721

A more legible sign on the double French doors reads simply:

OPEN

The store’s telltale chiming bell sounds as Zoe pushes the door open. The smell of old books, incense, and stranger things has barely filled her nostrils before three mewing cats—one black, one ginger, and one calico—approach her legs.

They sniff, but they don’t rub against her.

She’s too wet.

Further meows sound from further inside the store. It’s a dark, claustrophobic space cramped with overflowing bookshelves, ancient paint-cracked radiators, and occult knick-knacks ranging from pin-stabbed voodoo dolls to coiled, insignia-painted snake skeletons that stare at Amelie with empty eye sockets. Pentagrams, dream-catchers, and apotropaic talismans dangle from ceilings and partly obscure the doorways’ bead curtains.

Cats are everywhere. They roam over the stage prop furniture, track soiled cat litter over the floor, and crouch from perches atop bookshelves to silently watch the store’s patrons. Two felines even lie sleeping on the countertop that shares the cash register. They casually claim the whole space without regard for the dark-haired person who is also trying to use it. Brijbala, a twenty-something third-gender South Asian dressed in an orange… Zoe can’t remember what it it’s called. Some kind of Indian-looking robe or dress. They’re also bedecked in a multichromatic array of crystal- and wood-beaded bracelets, necklaces, and pendants. A red bindi stares unblinkingly from their forehead.

Brijbala’s eyebrows raise at Zoe’s state.

“Astagfarallah,” they murmur.

Zoe’s not sure what that literally means.

But it’s probably stating the obvious:

She looks like shit.

Zoe: Zoe adores cats near as much as dogs. Perhaps it has something to do with how unconditional a creature’s love is. Maybe that’s why she’s never gotten along with her mother.

She looks to Bri—she’s always called them Bri, whether they like it or not—and forces a smile that looks as if she’s a children’s spooky bedtime story come to life. It’s painful.

It’s probably even more painful to look at.

“…I need help.”

GM: “I can see dot,” Bri replies, eyebrows raised as they approach Zoe. “Astagfarallah, you are wet.” They raise their voice. “Tantsy! Tantsy!”

Zoe: Dot? What dot?

She nods.

“It’s—it’s not been a good day, Bri.”

She’s shivering. Drenched. Mud up to her thighs and flecked up her shirt.

GM: “I can see dot too,” says Bri. “Tantsy! Tantsy!”

“I hear’ ya da firs’ ti’, Bala, I’s comin’!” comes an elderly-sounding lady’s gumbo-thick reply.

Several feline mews and the faint rustle of beads heralds the proprietor’s arrival through a curtain of the same material. Césarine "Tantsy” Rouselle’s skin is lumpy all over and so black it has a purple sheen, while her hair so grayed and frizzy that it looks like half-worn S.O.S. pads. Her sunken cheekbones are struck with rouge and her upper eyelids are painted with fluorescent shades of pale lilac. She wears a blue moo-moo stitched with yellow stars, moons, and more esoteric planetary symbols, along with bifurcated librarian glasses that look plucked straight out of the 1960s. Three cats purr and circle around her spider-veined, swollen legs and sandal-beaded feet.

Pic.jpg
The old woman squints at Zoe past her glasses.

“Zelda, ya look righ’ awful, wha’ happened to ya?”

Zoe: What dot? Is this more of her usual insanity? She’s not unknown to speak what sound like wackadoo words to anyone outside the occult community.

She’s long-since given up on correcting her name. At least his one has two syllables.

“I—.. It’s a long s-story.. I— Everything’s w-wet.” She blubbers her words, slurring between her crying and shivering.

“I—.. I need a shower. And food. And—and—and—andtheytookEVERYTHINGTantsy!”

GM: She needs to pee, too.

It’s been a while since she went.

Zoe: “And I need to PEE!”

Her last word blows a bubble of snot so large that its apex hovers at the low end of her vision.

GM: “Righ’, righ’, Bala, make i’ happen, willya?” says Tantsy, seemingly unbothered by the snot. Or perhaps noncomprehending. “F’get da tea, now, f’get it, willya?”

Several cats meow.

“Ov course, Tantsy,” says Bri. “I’ll see ef we haf any food.”

“Lemme see ya han’, Zelda, lemme see ya han’,” Tantsy says distractedly as Bri sets off. The old woman shuffles closer.

Zoe: Zoe is the human equivalent of a wounded animal placing trust in the first warm embraced offered. She gives her hand, trembling.

GM: Tantsy splays out Zoe’s hand in hers, squints close, turns it upside down, then right-side up, and squints even closer.

“Whoa!” she exclaims, looking back up. “I go’ sum ba’ news, Zaylee, you go’ sum BAD lines! Real bad! You gon’… you gon’ be dead ’fore da year out, ’m sorry ta say.”

Zoe: She stares.

..

WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!… I D-D-D-DON’T W-WANT TO D-DIE TANTSY!”

GM: Several of the nearby cats meow sharply at the outburst.

Tantsy absently nods and pats Zoe’s wet hand, as though she’d merely said “that’s interesting.”

“Sorry, sorry, bu’ you gon’ die! Is’ wha’ ya lines say, Josie, nothin’a be done. I’m real sorry, bu’ ya gon’ die pretty soon!”

Zoe: Her words are hardly intelligible she’s crying so hard.

“Mm-mm-mom— icked— out! An— -ank, EMPTY! Clothes-!”

She points at the bag.

“A—and he—he cheated on m-me and DIED!”

She sniffles.

“D-d-did you jynx him?”

GM: Tantsy nods agreeably and pats Zoe’s hand a few more times.

“I jinx lossa folks, I sure do! You be’ I did, the car hit ’im, dinnit? Suh-mack! Middle of da road!”

Zoe: She shakes her head, spiraling water about her. Oh no. Poor cats.

“N-no! He had a—.. an accident! A heart or—or something. In the coffee!”

GM: The cats have mostly pulled away from the soaking wet intruder into their home. There’s a few affronted-sounding mews.

“Righ’, righ’, da coffee, I knew dat, Sophie,” Tantsy nods, indifferent as some raindrops splash over her face. There’s a few more absent pats of the hand. “Boilin’ coffee, he gulp it down, an’ it burned ‘im, dinnit, boiled righ’ outta his guts, it was so hawt! I made ‘im ’splode, haw haw! Dat’ll teach ‘im! Das’ wha’ he get fo’… fo’…”

Tantsy trails off.

“’Mind me, what he do, ’gain?”

Zoe: “Y-yeah! H-he must have!”

Despite her crying, the sheer ridiculousness of Tantsy brings some balance to her negative clime.

“H-he cheated on me! I said I needed him! He-.. he brought another girl! And kissed her! Then died! I think.”

GM: “Yep, yep, dat it, he died!” nods Tantsy. “You go’ it wrong, dough, he died, den he kissed da girl. Das’ how it happened.”

Zoe: Zoe squints. What?

GM: Tantsy waves a hand.

“No, no, wai’, firs’ he kissed her, den he cheated on her, den he died. Das’ it.”

“Bu’ he loved you, Sophia, he really did. ’Member him always, how he loved you.”

Zoe: “He DIDN’T! He CHEATED on me! And my—my mother shut me out of—..”

GM: Tantsy nods agreeably. “Das’ right, it real sad, real sad, but ‘is life. If you wan’, I can summon ‘is spirit, so you can say bye. Long goodbye, nice an’ proper, sweet-like?”

“I can feel ‘is spirit righ’ now, Scarlett, you’re da only thing he thinkin’ of!”

“You wan’ some weed?”

Zoe: Zoe nods, then stops.

“I.. don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

Even if Tantsy can summon spirits, what if he only validates what he implied: that he never loved her? That he used her?

She regards the woman.

Drugs got her into this mess.

“Fuck it. Yes.”

GM: Tantsy ambles over to a junk-cluttered seance table with several cat-occupied chairs. She absently sits down on the cat, causing it to meow furiously and race off before it’s squashed under her posterior. The old woman reaches into the folds of her Mickey Mouse-stitched moomoo and produces two handrolled joints and a cigarette lighter. She directs Zoe to hold the former as she lights the latter.

“Dis’ll help ya talk ta as’roids too, Pisces real happy wi’ ya, ya know. Say ya gon’ live a long wonnerful life. Ya gon’ have ten baby boys, an’ twelve gran’babies!”

Zoe: Zoe takes the joint, slipping it between her lips. It comes back to her easily. Too easily. She leans in for the light.

Then chokes.

“I thought I was going to die soon!”

GM: The marijuana smoke is a welcome feeling until she starts choking.

Tantsy waves a hand.

“Two of ‘em gon’ die young, ya boys da’ is, bu’ eigh’ boys an’ foah moah granbabies ain’ bad, innit?”

Zoe: “N-no! You said I was going to die!”

She realizes then that she didn’t question it at all. She simply accepted it when Tantsy first said it: Zoe will die soon.

GM: “Oh, well, you is gon’ die soon, bu’ ya gon’ have ten baby boys ’fore ya do,” nods Tantsy, taking a long drag from her joint.

“Be’er get started on names, righ’? Haw haw haw!”

Zoe: Zoe clasps a protective hand to her belly.

NOPE.

She inhales deeply from the joint. Make it go away. Make it all go away.

“I don’t know what to do, Tantsy. I’ve got nothing.”

GM: Tantsy smacks her lips and takes another long drag from the joint.

“Naw, naw, Pisces like you, you go’ plenny. You gon’ do a lot, ‘fore ya die. Ten boys, an’ one o’ em’s gon’ be president!”

Bri appears. They’ve got a candy bar and a tea set with a steaming kettle and two full cups.

“Dat’s all de food I could find, sorry. Vould you care for tea?”

Zoe is aware that the tea at Tantsy’s is very, very strong.

Zoe: President of what? Loserville?

That single but of kindness is enough to bring the tears back, this time silently. The old woman always seems to know exactly how to help Zoe find her footing. Even if her sanity is in question.

“That would be lovely.”

GM: Bri sets down the teacups on the table, along with the Butterfingers candy bar, then withdraws.

The tea tastes incredibly strong. It’s at once sweet and bitter like black licorice and makes Zoe’s head swim. She can feel her heart pounding in her chest.

Zoe: It’s incredibly strong, but such is the norm for Ms. Tantsy. She doesn’t half-ass anything! And she has a big ass!

“I wish you could understand what’s happening, Ms. Tantsy. I really need your help,” she laments after a sip of that horrid solution.

GM: It leaves an oily aftertaste in her mouth.

Her stomach growls.

She still needs to pee.

She’s still soaked to the bone in her wet clothes.

But it is warm and dry here, at least. She can hear the rain pounding against the roof over the low mewing of the shop’s many cats.

One of them rubs against Tantsy’s leg. She smacks her lips and takes another long drag of the weed joint.

Zoe’s head feels funny. All of her feels funny. Like she’s floating away from her body and all of its aches and wants and pains. It feels like this scene can’t possibly be real. Is this actually happening to her, Zoe Kelly, whose life was fantastic just under an hour ago?

Zoe Kelly was rich. Zoe Kelly was successful. Zoe Kelly had a successful boyfriend. Zoe Kelly lived in a nice apartment. Zoe Kelly had a future ahead of her.

Zoe Kelly isn’t supposed to be a sobbing, rain-soaked mess who sits around an occult shop’s rickety table smoking weed with a crazy old lady while a sad-looking torn sack of soiled clothes sits in an expanding pool of dirty water.

“You wan’, we cou’ do a tarot readin’,” Tantsy offers helpfully.

Zoe: The tea used to be used as a private exercise in modesty. She consumed not because she liked it, but because it helped center her lifelong lack of need in reality: sometimes, those who had not had to make due with what they had.

Of course, she knows that Tantsy simply enjoys the wildly unattractive blend of spices and suffering.

Today, it makes Zoe want to vomit. It’s not so philosophical on an empty stomach.

And it’s more to pee. Her bladder hurts. And she’s hungry. Her stomach hurts. If she vomits, it’ll be bile and a mouthful of tea.

The warm-dry only makes her cold-wet more apparent. She shivers.

And then she doesn’t. She’s warm, and cuddly, and light, and loved, and—

What did Tantsy put in that joint?

She settles dilated, glacial eyes on the elder and harumphs.

“Sure. You can’t predict worse than a dead, cheating boyfriend leaving you with 8 kids after today.”

She looks left and right, making sure there isn’t any beer to hold. Superstious? A little.

GM: There’s no beer, at least. Just a glass of green-looking tea and a fat candy bar.

Tantsy just cackles at Zoe’s answer, cricking her joints as she gets up. She sets the lipstick-smeared weed joint down on the table. She ambles off, past the mewling cats, then retrieves a stack of tarot cards from a cluttered shelf. She absently shuffles them between her veined hands as she returns and sits back down.

“So which way you wan’ do it, Samantha? We kin do da love spread, da success spread, da celtic cross, c’reer, three car’, spirishal…”

Zoe’s familiar enough with those.

The Love Spread. This six-card spread helps you evaluate your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual connections with your partner. It can tell you how strong and happy you are, and what you can do to improve your relationship or take it to the next level.

The Success Spread. This five-card spread is used when you are facing hardships or obstacles in your life. It can point you in the right direction to deal with a problem, and it can help you to solve the problem and overcome the challenges you are facing. It can also warn you about a coming disaster in your life and how to prepare for it.

The Celtic Cross Spread. This ten-card spread is ideal for dealing with intricate situations, helping the reader understand the full depth of the problem and the best way to deal with it.

The Career Path Spread. This seven-card spread helps you deal with the challenges in your professional life. It may include ‘how to get that raise or promotion’, ‘whether the job you are in now is the right one for you’, or ‘what other career choices are favorable for you’.

The Three Card Spread. This is the simplest and the most broadly useful spread, as it has only three cards. It is also one of the most powerful spreads, as it can give you prompt answers for anything you want to know or find out.

The Spiritual Spread. This eight-card spread helps when you are plagued by spiritual issues. It addresses your innermost fears and worries and how you can move forward on your spiritual journey.

Zoe: She snags the candy bar from the table and unwraps a corner, nibbling on it. Her mother forbade sweets all her life, even into adulthood. In her undergraduate, she once learned of moderation through over indulgence. Since then, she’s limited her sweets again.

But she’s hungry. So hungry.

Nibble nibble.

“Success.”

GM: It’s sugary, chocolatey, and buttery. It’s a poor substitute for real food.

But it fills.

Tantsy shuffles the cards some more, closing her eyes and running her fingers over them, then lays out five cards in a horseshoe spread. One card at the top. Two lower cards at the left and right. Two more cards, also lower, to the left and right of those cards.

Zoe: She swallows. It’s hard. She wants real food.

She doesn’t want the cards to be turned.

It’ll get worse, won’t it?

GM: “Okay, now dis’ firs’ one gon’ tell us ya problems, da things ya believe dat’re holdin’ ya back…” says Tantsy.

She flips it over.

Pic.jpg
“Wuh oh,” says Tantsy.

Zoe: The color drains from her face. The candy bar rebels in her stomach.

GM: “Lesse… ya been oppressed, lately?” asks Tantsy.

“Obsessed, depen’ent, addicted, pleasuh-seekin’?”

Zoe: She stares.

GM: “Cuz da devil, he chained up da man an’ woman, see. Dey his slaves.”

“But dey ain’ lookin’ like dey min’in it too much, is dey?”

“A’ firs’, anyway, haw haw!”

Zoe: “I—.. yes, but I was punished for that already, Tantsy.”

GM: Tantsy nods.

“Shoh, shoh, dis’ jus’ how dey go’ where dey is.”

“Da’ how you go’ where you is?”

Zoe: “How I .. go where I am?”

GM: “Da man go’ a flame on his tail while da woman got a bowla grapes on her tail, which means dey addicted ta power an’ da fine things in life.”

“But dey don’ look too happy up close, now do dey? Dey los’ deir power, dey naked an’ chained up, an’ dey exposed an’ ashamed.”

“‘Cuz dat wut happen when da devil’s ya masser, haw haw haw!”

“Dey be’er fin’ some clothes! Haw haw haw!”

Zoe: “Are you saying I’ve given too much to my own vice?” She’s still confused.

GM: Tantsy takes a long drag from her joint.

“Yes, yes, def’nitely, ya vice is ya masser, an’ ’is made ya naked!”

Zoe: She begins to cry again.

“It is, Me. Tantsy, it is! I—I said yes to something I shouldn’t have, and my M-Mom caught me! She… she took everything.”

GM: Tantsy nods along.

“Das’ da devil, yessir! He a bad masser! Bu’ lesee wha’ ya need ta do now, hey? Dis da thing you gotta do!”

Zoe: She nods and waits for what comes next. Probably the police at the door. She won’t be surprised if her mother calls them, too.

GM: Tantsy flips over the card.

Zoe: Zoe wants to flip over the table.

GM: Tantsy frowns.

“Huh, das’ weird!”

Pic.jpg
Zoe: Zoe has seen tarot readings before. It didn’t interest her. She knows that upside down is usually a bad sign.

Usually?

GM: “See, when temperance is uprigh’, da means… peace, patience, calm, harmony, seren’ty, balance.”

Zoe: She’s fucked.

GM: “Upsi’ down, here, da means… somethin’ outta balance, excess. Turbulence.”

“An’ it means das’ wha’ you gotta do, ta ’scape da devil.”

“Uh, remin’ me what we readin’ fo, ya wanna fin’ a husband, is da’ it?”

Zoe: “I’m not sure I can do that anymore, Ms. Tantsy,” she relents, her brow furrowing with thought.

Especially if she keeps offering her drugs.

And forgetting her. Everyone wants to forget her.

She’s circling the drain, and not a soul wants to save her.

“N-no, Ms. Tantsy. I—I need my life back.”

GM: “Oh, well, dis how ya ge’ it back, den!” Tantsy nods.

“Excess!”

“You shou’ eat a lotta hot dogs.”

“Do ya like hot dogs?”

Zoe: “Made from Hokkaido Wagyu scraps?”

Otherwise, no.

GM: “Made ferm any kinda scraps!” Tantsy nods. “You shou’ ea’ a lotta ’em.”

She waves at the candy bar.

“Eat ya candy, now. G’wan, eat up.”

“Excess!”

“Das’ how ya ge’ ya life back.”

“Excess!”

Zoe: “Excess? What does excess…?”

She bites a more full mouthful of chocolate. It takes a team of lawyers to get her to swallow.

GM: Her stomach loudly growls.

“Excess! Moah, moah!” exclaims Tantsy, clapping her hands.

“Drink ya tea, too. Excess!”

Zoe: “Y-yes, Ms. Tantsy!”

She stuffs the entire candy bar in. Then the tea. Then she swallows.

She feels as if her head was stuffed into a used toilet.

GM: The candy bar tastes oily and sinks down her throat like a brick. Her head swims some more. She feels woozy, but is all-too conscious of her heart’s strained beating in her ears.

Tantsy claps her hands.

“Goo’, goo’! Excess! Dat be it!”

“Make sure ya eat some hot dogs, too.”

“Or maybe pizza, dat also okay.”

Zoe: “I—I have to pee, Ms. Tants—”

She burps, covers her mouth, and runs for the bathroom.


April evening, 2016

GM: The peeling wallpaper is painted with rows of mushrooms. The toilet is moderately clean. The piss comes out of her like a released tide, and the shit after it. She feels really, really woozy. Her stomach hurts. The mushrooms swim in and out of focus.

Zoe: She ran because she has to puke, but everything inside her is fighting. The chocolate and tea have a domestic dispute in her stomach. Her head wants child support from her heart. Her heart calls its baby daddy, her bowels, who state their argument. Explosively. Her bladder finally releases with an OOOOOOoooOOOOOMMmmnYES…. Everyone else pauses. They clap. She pukes between her legs. At least it isn’t in her underwear. How does she puke so much? She hasn’t eaten since breakfast.

She’s never felt so empty. Her heart. Her stomach. Her innards. Everything except her head, which swims as if the tide that swept Moses away takes a holiday between her ears.

GM: She feels a little better, with her stomach purged. The Butterfingers bar is completely intact, albeit wet with rancid bile. The bile-soaked candy ferments in a pool of shit and piss. Zoe can smell the nauseous cocktail wafting up from between her legs. There’s some orange flecks of vomit over her thighs, too. Evidently, there’s only so far she can spread her legs under short notice.

Chuck would agree with that, wouldn’t he?

His apartment is probably clean, warm, and has lots of food.

If she’d just taken his offer she’d be clean and dry. So would her clothes. Maybe she could’ve even gone back for multiple trips of stuff from her apartment.

Then again, when Mom said she was being kicked out, did it occur to her that she’d end up here?

Zoe: Excess. If she hears the word again, she’s liable to become excessively violent.

Or she might, if she stops feeling so absolutely terrible. She wraps her hand with several layers of toilet paper, cleaning herself off as best she can manage with the dollar-store wonton-skins Tantsy buys for toilet paper.

Oh, how angry her mother will be if—

Chuck.

Suddenly Chuck doesn’t sound so bad.

In perspective, that is.

But him and his grubby hands…

She shivers. What was once a clear answer is suddenly blooming temptation.

She can always kill him. His kind die all the time and the police blame others. Never the white girl.

But he’s rich. It probably won’t be the same.

Hmn.

Maybe this will work.

Zoe opens her phone and scans her contacts: Charley, Charlie, Cheeseburger’s Cheez Hut, Chubby Classmate, Dave.

Dave?

Where is Chuck?

She keeps scrolling.

Oh. She’d put him under the prefix, "NOPE: ", along with a number of others. She resets him to “Chuck Pavaghi” in case he ever glances at her phone, and texts him.

I live with you for one month. You recover everything my mother is throwing out. You provide a space for it all, clean, warm and dry. I’ll sleep with you five times during the month at times of your choosing provided it doesn’t affect my professional obligations.

She pauses, rereading and considering. She still can just kill him. What does she have to lose?

Then she adds:

No questions asked or complaints given on what you want during those 5 so long as it doesn’t leave a mark. No videos. No pictures. No recording. Contract to be written.

GM: Chuck texts back:

one fuck a week? yeah fuck that

Zoe: Counter offer, Business Man.

GM: you need to get me off every day

Zoe: I’ll fuck you every three and you can service yourself to me on the interim two.

I know how much you want me.

GM: and i know how much u dont u must be prty desprte to be offering this soon

but tell u what youll only have to blow me half the days

actual sex the other half

stay or leave whenever u like but i cum every day your here

Zoe: $100k and I’ll agree.

God, he can’t even make full sentences.

GM: haha yeah no lol

Zoe: It’s not like the money means anything to you. It’s peanuts. You’d pay that much for an escort of my quality.

GM: yeah no lol no escorts that much

u do kno how much one costs rite?

Zoe: A white escort won’t fulfill the thoughts you have about me. You want what you want? I want cash and a place.

GM: __ur not worth 100k lol. u can fuck me every day __

Zoe: 75k, you fuck me once per day, bank days you don’t feel it, and all of the above asks.

And I get to borrow a car. BORROW.

GM: hahahaha yah ur not worth 75k either

The two negotiate back and forth. Chuck isn’t willing to make a down payment on a house to stick his dick in her, even daily. But he does want to fuck her, or he’d have just stopped responding by now.

Zoe: Okay. I get a place to stay, storage, and a car to use that I will pay for my own gas in. You get to fuck me once a day.

Is her dignity really worth a roof?

Yes.

She has none left, anyway.

And we’ll bring my things in from the garbage together. Or one of your staff.

GM: ok that works swing by whnvr

That is what her dignity is worth.

A roof.

A space for her stuff.

A borrowed car.

And no gas.

Zoe: She breathes a sigh of relief. Sorry, body. Sorry, dignity. Not sorry, Chris.

I don’t suppose I could get a ride?

GM: sure if u dont wear any clothes when your at my place ;)

bsides wen were fuckin obvsly lol

Zoe: One day without clothes for a ride.

Anything is less humiliating than this day.

GM: c u soon ;) were u at?

Zoe: She texts him the address of the shop, then pulls her clothing together, ensuring she’s clean first. She returns to Ms. Tantsy for the other half of reading and seats herself across the older woman. She looks just as crummy as when she went to pee a few minutes earlier, but with a light tinge of rose to her cheeks.

GM: She finds Tantsy asleep in her chair with a cat on her lap. Two more cats have taken over Zoe’s chair. Another feline has sat down in ‘catloaf’ position over the cards.

Zoe: She sighs.

Still hungry. Still wet. Not the kind of wet Chuck wants.

Oh, he’s in for a treat when he sees her.

For a few moments, she considers calling off the whole thing. Maybe she can call Sami. It’s been a little while since they’ve been close, but they have a history, and that history should still mean something to her. Maybe.

Not her sisters or brother. No, Mom would have warned them off.

Not President McGregor. She doesn’t want to jeopardize her PhD further, and he might be just as shallow as Chuck. At least Chuck has the means to provide for her if she really needs it. For another deal, she’s sure.

Her other friends? Her band? She can’t bear the thought of them seeing her like this. Years of friendship, and she’s still insecure about being seen as the poser rich girl. Without her wealth, she falls to pieces. What will that tell them?

Chuck it is. She’ll suffer, but she’ll benefit..

“See ya later, Ms. Tantsy,” she murmurs, dragging her back to the door to wait. Fuck, this weed is strong.


April evening, 2016

GM: Zoe waits by the door.

She’s still wet.

Still hungry.

Still vaguely nauseous.

At least she doesn’t need to pee or shit.

Perhaps she feels cleaner.

Perhaps she doesn’t.

But eventually, she gets a text from Chuck:

__Im outside_

He’s driving a flashy-looking BMW. He parks by the curb, but makes no move to actually get out and help her with her very wet and very heavy laundry bag.

Zoe: The monster emerges. He probably doesn’t recognize her.

Why is a homeless woman opening his door?

It’s locked. She knocks.

GM: He gives the homeless woman a disgusted look at the knock. He opens his mouth, as if to say something. Something angry.

Then he blinks.

Then he frowns.

He taps into his phone.

Zoe gets a text on hers.

if thats actually u text me back

Zoe: She slaps her phone against the window, showing his text.

“IT’S BEEN A LONG DAY!”

GM: “Jesus, you look like shit,” says Chuck.

It sounds more critical than piteous.

But the car door unlocks.

Zoe: She opens the back door, tossing her life onto the floor. Sopping wet. Soaked through. At least the laptop is off. It’s probably salvageable.

She opens the passenger door and falls into the car, shivering.

Still want to fuck me?

GM: Chuck starts driving.

He looks less than pleased by the sound of wet cloth slopping against his car’s floor.

“If you can’t clean up after a shower, deal’s off,” he says.

Zoe: “I just need a shower,” she grumps.

“A shower. Dry clothes. And therapy. You know I’m good for my word. A Kelly never fails to deliver.”

GM: “Yeah, we’ll see there.”

“Man, your parents must be pissed.”

“The hell did you do?”

Zoe: “Y-y-you have no fucking idea. Then again, maybe you do. Asian parents are strict, right?”

GM: “They are, yeah.”

“All about getting good grades.”

Zoe: “M-mom didn’t like learning I got into coke again.”

She looks at him sideways.

“…you don’t … do you?”

GM: “Sometimes, yeah,” says Chuck.

Oh.

Oh.

Maybe he can hook her up.

He snorts.

“Parents. Mine don’t give a shit. S’long as I do my job.”

Zoe: “Mine do. Did. Image and all that.”

There’s a long pause.

“…I’ll clean up.”

GM: “Girls on drugs are junkies whoring themselves out.”

“Guys on drugs are just partying hard.”

Zoe: Her thoughts wander to a scene involving her in a teacher’s outfit, him with a bad grade, and a riding crop. Maybe the next month won’t be what she thinks it will.

Hm.

“Well, this girl was coming home for a hit when she met her mother at her apartment handing her an eviction notice.”

A pause.

“Do you have chips at home? I haven’t had chips in years. I want chips. Barbecue. Or sour cream and onions. Didn’t they produce some Mountain Dew Dorito flavor?”

GM: “…your parents don’t let you eat onions?”

“Oh, no. You mean chips.”

“Yeah. I’ve got chips.”

Chuck grins.

“I can think of some fun ways for you to eat them.”

Zoe: “Whatever. As long as I get a shower first. And food. I’m starving.

She really doesn’t care. Is it numbness? She isn’t sure.

She nestles into her little nook of the car, wrapping herself in her arms.

“You know, if you don’t entirely abuse our deal, this could become a beautiful friendship.”

As long as it involves chips.

GM: The car is warm and the seats comfortable leather. Rain thunks against the windows outside.

“Hey, as long as you’re not a bitch about anything, I can be a great friend to have.”

Zoe: She mumbles something involving the word ‘bitch’.

“…what—”

Hm. No. She doesn’t want to ask that yet.

“Can I shower after we bring my stuff in?”

GM: “You’ll do that first, I don’t want a dirty person tromping around my apartment. Hugo’ll grab your stuff.”

The live-in property manager.

“Oh. She’s not coming by tonight, but I have my girlfriend over semi-often.”

“When she’s here, you’ll need to hide in the closet or something.”

Zoe: “Nothing. Okay. Make sure he gets everything.”

“Please.”

“I can just go out? I asked for money because Mom drained my bank. I got nothing. What do people do when they’re out of money? Like, aside from get a job. That’s obvious. They do that before they’re out of money, right? I’m actually out.”

“I guess I can get a job. That would keep me out. Or I can fuck her too?”

GM: “I wouldn’t complain,” he grins. “Hell, that sounds fuckin’ awesome.”

“Dunno she’d be into it, though.”

“She’s kinda a prude.”

Zoe: “Give her enough coke.”

GM: “She’s not into drugs.”

Zoe: “Neither was I.”

GM: “Maybe slip her something, though.”

Zoe: “There’s the vacant morals I knew you had. Good boy.”

GM: Chuck snorts.

“Like she and you are any better.”

Zoe: “You’re not so bad once you get past your cock dragging you toward the nearest attractive woman by the balls.”

GM: “Hey. I’m honest about it. You know what you’re gonna get from me.”

There’s a slight edge to Chuck’s voice.

“Families like yours get up to just as much dirty shit as mine. Maybe even more. But you guys hide it and pretend you’re better.”

Zoe: “You’re not wrong.”

She knows he’s in the life. They both know how the world works. They control related spheres, and her family is better than his.

“And you’re going to get to defile our pristine porcelain,” she answers, waxing dramatic with an amateur actress’ feigned against and the wave of a hand.

“Not that I care.” She shrugs. “Fuck the whole china cabinet.”

GM: “I don’t care about that either. I just want a hot girl who’ll suck my cock regular.”

Zoe: She slants her eyes toward him, uncertain.

“…you don’t want me because you’ve wanted to fuck the Kelly daughter?”

GM: “I mean, because you’re hot, yeah. But your last name isn’t gonna suck my dick off any nicer.”

“Sarah’s a Whitney and she always spits it out into the sink.”

Zoe: Oh. There goes her leverage.

“That’s boring.”

GM: “She’s boring.”

Zoe: “She’s your girlfriend?”

GM: “I guess, yeah.”

Zoe: “I bet I can fuck you so well you’ll leave her by the end of the month.”

GM: “Not likely, if you’re on the outs. Grandma wanted me to shack up with her.”

Zoe: “I won’t be on the outs forever. I don’t lose. Mom does.”

GM: Chuck snorts.

“Good luck. Moms and Grandmas and Grandpas don’t lose.”

“See exhibits Westley Malveaux, Susan Malveaux, Caroline Malveaux-Devillers, Gabriella Kelly, and of course Zoe Kelly.”

“It’s the same across all families.”

“Piss them off and you’re done.”

Zoe: She shrugs.

“I’ll be different.”

As if she’s the first to speak those words.

“I will.”

Now she’s convincing herself.

Her stomach rumbles.

GM: “Oh, related thing. Femdom. I’m not into it. Like, at all. Do any of that and it won’t count as sex.”

Zoe: She shrugs. “I don’t really care. Whatever you want. I’m not a starfish, so if that’s what you’re expecting..”

GM: “Yeah, don’t know any guy who’s into that. I want you to be really into it.”

“I want you to suck me off, but not all the way. I want you to finish me with your hand so I cum on the floor.”

“And then I wanna watch you lick it up.”

Zoe: “Not my face?”

“Hmn.”

GM: “If I cum on your face it doesn’t get on the floor.”

Zoe: “It does if you cum a lot.”

GM: “I like that. Watching girls lick it up.”

“Yeah, well, I cum all the time. You only get the really big multi-roper loads if you haven’t cum for a while.”

Zoe: “I wonder how much fun we’d have if you fucked me every day, but only finished every third.”

GM: “That sounds awful, why the fuck wouldn’t I wanna finish?”

Zoe: “I don’t know, cause you’ll finish more later?”

“…or you could fuck Sarah, and not finish until… later.”

GM: Chuck laughs at her second idea.

“Mmm, yeah. Maybe give her a complex over it.”

“‘I can’t satisfy my boyfriend!’”

Zoe: “I don’t really care if she has a complex or not.”

GM: “I do. Think it’d be funny.”

Her thought proves apt, though, as Chuck parks inside the Giani Building’s garage. It feels almost surreal to be heading back there. She could have just never left.

Chuck gets out, locks the door after Zoe removes her falling-apart bag, and walks to the elevator.

Zoe: Gentlemanly. At least Chris would have helped her with her bag.

She drags it with both hands, following after him.

GM: Chris also hooked up with another girl.

Before he died.

That feels like it can’t possibly be real.

But nothing about the past few hours has felt real.

Chuck, meanwhile, presses the button to his floor (their floor) once she’s hauled her falling-apart bag inside, without his help. The door dings open. He lets her drag the bag down the hallway, too. It leaves a trail of dirty water after it. Zoe has to pause several times to grab soiled clothing articles that fall out.

Chuck shakes his head.

“You coulda just taken me up earlier.”

Zoe: “Would you have taken me up, were all things switched, Chuck? Would you have so easily shown me your belly?”

GM: “I wouldn’t have had to,” says Chuck, unlocking his apartment door.

“‘Cuz that’s one area my family’s better.”

“We’d never kick out one of our own, like that.”

Zoe: She starts to cry again. Just a little. Silently.

She would never have her sisters out. No matter how badly they mess up.

She doesn’t comment on what he says. Thinking about it hurts enough. If she talks, she’ll cry more. He doesn’t like girls like that.

Then she’ll be out in the rain again.

“Will my stuff be brought in soon? I have shampoos and… stuff.”

GM: Chuck watches her cry.

He doesn’t sneer at her.

He doesn’t comfort her.

He just watches.

Then he looks down at his phone.

“Hugo says your stuff’s all gone. Parents cleaned your apartment completely out.”

Zoe:HRRRGGHH!”

Everything! All of it! Her life! Her entire life! Pictures and knickknacks and soap and clothing and books and achievements! All gone!

“How much is a murder?”

GM: Mom has always been thorough.

“Premeditated? Life with hard labor and no parole, or death.”

Chuck heads into his apartment. It’s a similar setup to Zoe’s. Identical, actually. Same floor plan. Roomy. Modern-looking decor. Glass tables and leather furniture. Big TV with a video game console.

Zoe: She looks at him as if she silently is saying, ‘Really?’ She’s heard rumors of murder-for-hire in their circles.

Zoe attempts to summon a mass of strength to carry her laundry bag over his pristine floor and to the bathtub.

GM: “That’s the law on the books,” says Chuck. “I-”

He’s interrupted by barking from a medium-sized and semi-furry brown dog that rushes up to him. Chuck grins, squats down on his haunches, and rubs the dog’s face back and forth. “Whooza good boy, Argent, whooza good…”

Argent looks at the wet, smelly newcomer into the apartment and faintly growls.

Zoe: Zoe drops the bag from just a foot above the ground, falling to her knees as the dog bounds in.

“You didn’t tell me you had a dog!”

She hasn’t seen a dog in person in— gosh, forever!

“You’ll get used to the smell! Because it won’t be here! Once I shower.”

And fuck him.

GM: “Who doesn’t have dogs, if they can?” says Chuck, not looking away as he pets Argent’s flank.

The dog woofs and looks his face.

“One of my neighbor’s been pushing to ban pets from the building, but fuck that, I’m keeping mine.”

Zoe: “You own the building. It’d be a little odd if they won over you.”

She holds a hand out to the pup.

GM: The dog warily approaches and sniffs.

Zoe: She’s owned dogs over her life, and has some basic understanding as to the human-canine butt sniffing.

She holds her hand out, waiting patiently. Only if he approaches or gives some other positive sign does she pet him.

GM: Argent sniffs some more, then finally licks her hand.

Zoe: She pets the dog, smiling for the first time that day. Dogs don’t hold grudges, so long as you’re nice to them. Or have treats.

She scratches behind his ears, then hoists her bag up and moves through the apartment, stepping over and around furniture and oddities, keeping the room as clean as possible.

Thump! goes the bag into Chuck’s bathtub. Will any of that clothing be salvageable?

She sighs.

“Shower or bed after?”

She doesn’t sound enthusiastic. It’s not his fault.

GM: The dog wags its tail and follows after Chuck.

“Shower first, then you can blow me,” he says, seemingly unconcerned.

“Maid service will take care of the laundry.”

Zoe: “I have little confidence in how salvageable my things are.”

She sighs.

“Did you eat dinner?” she asks while turning on the shower.

GM: “Yeah,” he says.

“Do you think you’ll give a better BJ before or after you’ve eaten?”

“Come to think, I’ve never had sex with a really hungry girl before.”

“Wonder if that makes it any different.”

Zoe: “No, it doesn’t, and probably before, unless you want me to puke on you. Some guys are into that. Girls too, I guess.”

She strips herself down, knocking the door over; but not closed. What does it matter? He’ll come in if he wants to regardless.

“Can I bum dinner off you after?”

GM: “Yeah, you can have dinner.”

“BJ first, though. I wanna see if you being really hungry makes a difference.”

With those words, he leaves her to it in the bathroom. The shower is exactly like her old one. The products are different, and primarily male, but there’s a couple that look like they’re for girls. Maybe they’re Sarah’s.

It almost feels like she hasn’t left home. It’s so strange to be in here. In this shower that’s exactly like her old shower, after she’s been kicked out.

Zoe: She wonders who her old place will be rented out to. Maybe they’ll take care of the place. Maybe she’ll get it back one day. Maybe she’ll murder her mother and inherit the house.

The shower itself is languorous. She doesn’t want to move, and thoughts of earlier events plague her. She wants to scrub herself clean—and she does, as if using an iron wool to rend rust from sheet metal—but the faster she finishes, the sooner she’ll have to meet Chuck.

Maybe it won’t be so bad. She’s had casual sex before, and he isn’t that bad looking. If she can forgive the fact that he’s not her kind.

Maybe it’s true what the stereotypes say. Then again, a sample size of one does not an experiment make.

Scrub, scrub, scrub.

GM: The water is hot. It feels heavenly to be out of her cold, wet, dirty clothes. It feels heavenly to let the hot water cascade over her body and wash away everything that’s made this day the Worst Day Ever. It feels heavenly to lather herself up with soap and be clean and warm again.

And she’ll get to eat, too. She’ll have a square meal and a dry roof over her head when she goes to sleep in this warm, dry apartment.

After she gives Chuck a blowjob.

Is that better than having his dick in her, or is that something else that’s better to get over with?

Then again, maybe it won’t be so bad.

Indian-American isn’t white, but he’s light-skinned enough. He doesn’t even have slanted eyes.

Grandpa’s not said nearly as many bad things about them as he has black people.

Zoe: Too soon, she shuts the water to her sanctuary off. Night one of thirty days of darkness begins!

Slight darkness.

Mocha madness?

Maybe he’ll be less repulsive if she imagines a Pequod’s logo on his chest and a caramel drizzle on his cock.

Or vanilla?

She smiles at the private innuendo and wraps a towel about herself, drying her hair somewhat with another. Chris likes—liked—her hair a little wet.

.. and out she goes, into the unknowns of the interracial dating scene, contemplating a short trip to their top-floor window on the way there.

Oh, what would grandpa say now?

GM: Grandpa knows she’s been cast out and cut off.

She comes out to find Chuck sprawled out on the couch, changed into a t-shirt and sweats, and watching TV. Argent naps in a doggy bed nearby.

When Chuck sees Zoe, he pulls down his pants.

“All right, time to pay your rent.”

“You can take off the towel.”

Zoe: Zoe pauses, eyes flicking downward. Are the stereotypes true? Does he break expectations? Can she provide a deep-throat experience without him passing the center point of her tongue?

She wonders if Argent has a bigger penis. Not that she’ll ever fuck a dog.

Her eyes wander back to him, slipping a thumb into the tension point of her towel. It falls to the floor.

Why does she feel so naked? Not literally, as she literally is.

She feels like a specimen.

GM: Chuck looks her over and grins.

“Yeah, you clean up nice.”

His penis looks pretty average-sized.

Do native Indians have smaller ones, next to American-born Indians?

Is it poor nutrition that’s responsible for that?

Chuck starts rubbing. He swiftly gets hard.

Zoe: She sinks to her knees, brushing his apart.

Well. There it is. First one she’s seen up close in years.

First that she intends to touch, anyway. There was that one time at that mock-Bachelorette party…

Okay, first the she intends to touch more than a little.

Seems normal. No protrusions. No warts.

That she can see.

Smells fine?

Doesn’t smell like anything at all.

Why is she so concerned with smell?

Distracting, distracting…

GM: No visible warts. No visible protrusions. Smells okay.

Little darker than the last one she saw, but not overly much so.

Just a penis that she needs to suck off in return for a car and place to stay.

She’s not being directly paid for this.

Does that make it better?

Zoe: She places a hand on his belly, gently urging him to lay back, fingers wrapping his shaft. She wishes he’d just asked her to fuck him. At least she could have just closed her eyes and taken it.

GM: Chuck lays back and looks glad for it.

After all, it’s late.

He’s probably had a long work day.

Just wants his new bedwarmer to suck him off and give him an orgasm without too much effort on his part.

She can still close her eyes, if she really wants.

Zoe: She used to goad Chris into sating himself with her. She got something out of that.

This is mechanical. Heartless. Cold. Dead. She could be a corpse set on a large plate and microwaved on medium for thirty seconds, then dumped before him; a doll with a pretty mouth; warm, wet, and equally disgusting.

Her mouth is moist, but only because she’s so hungry, and that thick goopy saliva from vomiting is still in her mouth. She hasn’t brushed her teeth, but she did rinse her mouth out in the shower.

Close enough. It’s not like he’s going to kiss her.

Her stomach hurts.

Zoe spits a globule of that thick stomach-saliva onto his head, standing it upright in her hand, and rubs it in as if massaging a client in a vocation she’s never had.

She knows this is bad, but it’s bad because she doesn’t have the investment to make it good. If she doesn’t, she’s going to be out in the rain again.

She fills her mouth with his shaft, locking her lips around it and pressing her tongue beneath his head.

It’s Chris. It’s Chris. It’s Chris.

It’s Chris but loyal. It’s Chris but loyal. It’s Chris but loyal.

This isn’t helping.

GM: Nothing about today has helped.

What kind of girl gives a good blowjob after she’s been kicked out, cut off, experienced (brief) homelessness, watched her boyfriend cheat on her, watched her boyfriend possibly die, gotten soaked in the rain, lost all her worldly possessions, gotten sick, thrown up, and most of all just wants to go to sleep and pretend The Worst Day Ever never happened?

Maybe one whose future is contingent on providing sexual satisfaction, though.

Chuck grins once his dick fills her mouth.

“Ah yeah. You look great. With my cock in your mouth. You can’t even talk.”

It’s amazing what difference state of mind makes. She was going to show Chris the best night of his life.

Zoe: And yet she tries. Her tongue is magic, once she clears her mind. Her lips are silk. Her hand demands his pleasure with honey more than a command.

But she doesn’t clear her mind. Not fully. Enough, perhaps.

It’d be so much easier if he’d just ask to fuck her.

GM: Easier for her.

But this is easier for him.

Chuck mostly just sits there with his legs spread, lazing back against the couch with a content look on his face. He initially looks half-asleep. To Zoe’s credit, he looks increasingly awake the longer she pleases him with her mouth. He makes a few noises. Sometimes he runs a hand through her hair, or along her face, and says “Oh, yeah, you like that,” or “Look at you go!”

But for the most part, he just watches and enjoys himself as Zoe sucks his throbbing cock.

“’Bout to cum… aim my dick with your hand…” he pants.

Aim it at the floor, of course.

So he can watch her lick up his spunk.

Zoe: Zoe has had bad days before, and she’s had to give her full effort—usually to academia, sometimes to her family—on those days. It is with that same resolve to succeed—or, in this case, to suck seed—that she levies her whole effort to finish him with such a resounding crescendo of effort that even his girlfriend will smell semen from across the city.

His words are met with doe eyes and muffled ’mmhmm’s, and when he commands her, she aims his cock at the floor, stroking him with a saliva-slickened hand.

GM: “Ahh, yeah,” Chuck pants, his breath coming harder and faster. “Ohhhh, you’re good, fuck—ohhhh, YEAH!

Zoe’s expert stroking swiftly brings him to climax as he blows his load. A moderate rope of cum squirts out over the carpeted floor.

Chuck smirks and wordlessly points.

Zoe: Chris shot bigger loads. She misses Chris. If Chris were here, she’d stab him, and take a cleaver to his balls, and puree them with cream, a dash of salt, garlic, and simmer them into a sauce, but at least he had a good-looking penis.

This looks like a mini hotdog left in the air fryer too long with a sad cough of spoiled cheese dripping out the tip.

Obediently, she lowers herself to the floor and runs her tongue through his cum. Gross.

GM: If Chris were here, would she even need to do that? The last she saw him, people were giving him CPR.

Chuck’s cum is really salty. Saltier than Chris’ was.

He grins and leans closer.

“Eat it up. All of it.”

“I’ll pay if you can burp.”

Zoe: She wouldn’t need to. She wants to.

It’s probably all the curry. So much MSG.

Zoe presses her face to the floor, the entire flat of her tongue dragging along the carpet as if she’s a cat cleaning her young. The cum is stuck to each fiber, and only little by little does she collect it.

But she does collect it, humiliating as it is. She licks every drop—every drop, every morsel, and every strand—of that little spurt of semen from the floor.

When she rises, it’s with a covered mouth and a polite-yet-satisfied burp. Ladylike to the last, even when commanded to burp.

GM: She has to ‘kiss’ the carpet, too. Use her mouth and lips, not just her tongue, to get it all. It’s like she’s kissing the carpet.

Kissing his cum.

At least there isn’t too much of it. Those multi-roper loads he mentioned.

Chuck amusedly claps.

“Not bad, not bad. I’d say that’s worth a 10% tip.”

He grins.

“I’m not sure you have anywhere… convenient, to put the money, though. Do you still want it now?”

Zoe: She smiles a faint, defeated smile; something grateful and demure, yet betraying inferiority. That’s what he likes in his women, isn’t it?

She nods.

“10% of what? Unless you’re going to get me 10% of the way off.”

He will find that quite hard to do.

“…not that I don’t want cash,” she adds, blushing.

GM: Chuck’s still grinning.

He looks like he enjoys that quite a bit.

“I liked this, and 10% of a $500 upper-range escort is $50, so $50.”

“That’s around how much they charge for additional kinks too.”

“Unless you’d rather accept payment in getting partly off.”

Zoe: She shakes her head, rolling her shoulders.

“I’ll take the cash.”

A pause.

“…will I be sleeping with you? Or the couch? Or…?”

GM: Chuck shrugs.

“I’ve got one bed. Couch is yours, or you can sleep with me if you’re naked, don’t hog the blankets, and don’t have cold feet.”

Zoe: Zoe muses on the thought.

On one hand, he’s Chuck. Being Chuck is reason enough to want to sleep on the couch.

On the other hand…

She’s alone. Completely. Utterly. Even someone like him is better than embracing a lonely heart.

“…if you don’t mind the company.”

She checks the clock. It can’t be bed time already. She hasn’t even eaten.

GM: Don’t they say no relationship is better than a bad relationship?

‘They’ probably haven’t gone through everything today that Zoe did.

It’s only moderately into the evening.

“I never mind a naked girl’s company,” smirks Chuck. “Be a couple hours before I hit the sheets.”

He flicks the TV back on.

Zoe: Zoe lifts herself off the floor and onto the sofa. She settles half a cushion away, then decides to shift closer.

Why does she want to cuddle him?

Right. Lonely.

“What is there to eat here?”

And where is that $50!?

GM: “There’s takeout in the fridge,” says Chuck. “Frozen shit in the freezer. Help yourself.”

He tucks his dick back into his sweatpants.

Zoe: She pushes herself off the sofa, sweeping into the kitchen. Her fingernails dragon on the countertops she passes, and she pulls open the freezer.

Mozzarella sticks? Mother would kill her.

Perfect.

Into the oven they go!

Ugh. Another thirty minutes before she can eat.

GM: Mozarella sticks, frozen pizzas, Hot Pockets, ice cream, and so many other bad to eat things.

Some have shorter cook times. But all entail waiting. Unless she wants to gorge on ice cream.

Gorge on ice cream naked.

Zoe: Now what?

She can’t put on clothes, which means she can’t go out. Not that she wants to.

She can’t even leave the apartment. Not without being arrested for indecency.

Zoe leans on the counter, crossing her arms at the wrists, and droops her cheek onto her palms, looking at him.

“I guess we hang out now?”

GM: “I guess so,” says Chuck as the TV plays. It looks like an action movie of some kind. There’s an exploding helicopter.

He’s sweeping over what parts of her he can see, though.

“Damn, you’re hot. I’d want you to blow me if you just hadn’t.”

Zoe: From the other side of the counter, angled as she leans, he can only see the curvature of her rear.

She glances to the oven. 29 minutes. Probably 29:50, as she only just set the timer. It doesn’t show how many seconds.

“So I’ve been told.”

She speaks each word as if in time with a metronome, playing up the advantage he just unveiled.

“Lucky. Lucky. You.”

GM: “Yep,” grins Chuck, eyes resting on that shapely rear.

“I think we’ll do anal, tomorrow. I want to ram your ass. Really fuckin’ ram it.”

Zoe: “As long as you use lube and warm me up first,” she shrugs. Apparently, it’s not something is overly concerned over, done right.

She moves back to the sofa, sitting against him.

“Get your fantasies while you can.”

I need a job.

GM: He addresses her breasts as he talks.

He makes no pretensions of doing otherwise.

“I sure will.”

Zoe: She clicks her tongue. Typical.

“…y’sure you don’t want to go again? You look like I’ll be half consumed before my dinner is done. Or we can watch a movie.”

In which case, she’ll probably pass out, and she knows it.

GM: “I got off less than five minutes ago. My dick’s gonna be sore. We can watch a movie and go again at the end.”

“Or mid-way through, whatever.”

Zoe: She chews her lip, looking up at him. Chris could go twice. Sometimes three times.

Hm.

She nestles into his arm and turns to watch the movie.

GM: It’s got a lot of explosions. The protagonist is some kind of special forces badass who leads an elite team of special forces badasses who kill werewolves. It’s Action Bill and the Danger Squad. It actually seems to be a TV show rather than a movie.

It’s dark outside. Rain steadily pounds against the windows in thick sheets. The living room is warm and dry. She can smell the cheese sticks warming in the oven. Chuck seems amply content to have a hot naked girl curled up against him.

It’s not how she’d expected to spend her evening, but it beats sleeping on the streets.

Or swallowing her pride before her friends.

Zoe: She retrieves the sticks the moment they ding, excited for something for the first time all day. She’s even able to find some marinara sauce in fridge! Yum.

The girl returns to her seat beside her Master-for-the-month and enjoys her meal, yelping when an errant stand of cheese lands on her bare thigh. At least it isn’t on his sofa, and at least it doesn’t leave more than a little red mark.

It doesn’t take long for her to pass out once she’s eaten. At least the plate makes it to the coffee table.

Despite how she’s looked down on Chuck every day before today, and despite how she’s been abused into a deal—in her eyes—to keep out of true homelessness, he’s earned some respect from her. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome of a sort. Maybe not. She holds her end of their deal, and he does his.


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Story Fourteen, Zoe I

“I’m so disappointed in you."
Rosalyn Kelly


April afternoon, 2016

GM: “I’m cutting you off, Zoe.”

Those aren’t words Zoe expected to hear. Then again, neither was she expecting to find her mother and several of the woman’s staff in her Giani Building apartment after getting home from a long day at Tulane.

Pic.jpg
Rosalyn Kelly is a tall woman with silver hair that would be “prematurely white” on a woman who doesn’t wear it as well, but she does wear it well. Pale-skinned and slender-framed, the all-white woman cuts a striking figure in her preferred black pantsuits. The distantly professional, camera-ready, poised and confident smile that typically graces her lips is absent today. Instead, they’re set in a motionless line. Her features look still enough to be carved from stone. Her blue eyes, fixed on Zoe, don’t seem to so much as blink.

Zoe knows her mother well enough to know that the woman is livid.

Maybe it’s because of the bag of cocaine her PA is gingerly holding.

“Pack your things,” Rosalyn says shortly. “You’re evicted. You’re on your own.”

Zoe: Zoe has heard the phrase ‘swallow your heart’ before. The meaning isn’t lost on her, but she surmises it isn’t the very real sensation that it’s lingering so far up her throat that she can almost chew on it.

How? How did she found out? Does her mother have cameras installed in her apartment? Did she hire a private detective to follow her around? Did she hire a thief to break into her room on some white-hat greater-good-of-the-family crusade?

Zoe’s mind races from thought to thought, discarding paths of action as quickly as they arrive. No. No. No. Wrong. Impossible. No way out. A chill runs through her, pulling what color remains from that flush of embarrassed guilt.

“I…”

She stammers a word; a syllable; a single utterance, before the dryness of her mouth cracks a lip and presses her silence again.

Why did she pick now of all times to play the mother? She could have called. She could have texted. Hey, get out. You promised.

She did promise. Years ago, by that point, but she had given her word all the way back during her junior year of high school that she was done with the scene.

She can lie.

No. She’ll only embarrass herself.

The girl collects herself, smoothing her blouse and looking up at her mother for the first time since she’d uttered her decree.

“…how?”

GM: “Well, honey, just…” starts her father’s voice.

Pic.jpg It’s from a Sunpad held by another one of Rosalyn’s staff. Bob Kelly looks like he’s in his D.C. congressional office, if the surroundings, nearby American flag, and suit he’s wearing are any indication. Zoe’s father is a younger man than his wife, but he’s not aged as gracefully. Where Rosalyn seemingly “got her aging over with” in a single quick go, and looks better for it, Bob feels like he’s trying to hold onto his youth like a fat kid refusing to let an ice cream tub be pried from his pudgy fingers. He’s got a shorter frame and tubby belly that his slender wife doesn’t have, more wrinkles along his face, and limper brown hair that’s starting to turn noticeably gray. He’s got a wider, easier smile that crinkles his eyes in a way that Rosalyn’s doesn’t.

Right now he’s not smiling, though.

“…look, we’re very disappointed in you, right now, but jus-”

“That’s your problem,” says Rosalyn, interrupting her husband without looking at the screen.

“No third chances, Zoe. You gave us your word. Collect your things and get out.”

Zoe: “I—”

More stumbling over her words! Dammit, Zoe, get it together! She knows her immediate lack of an explanation is a more sure sign of guilt than any hard evidence, even if said hard evidence hangs in a tiny bag before her.

What more can she do than collect the cracking foundation of her dignity and call it intentional aging?

Zoe sets her jaw, challenging.

“After all I’ve done. So many years of everything you asked for; not a hair out of place, not a step off the path you chose.”

She pauses.

“That’s it, then? No explanation? Not even a conversation?”

GM: “Do you have an explanation for the cocaine?” asks her mother. “The weed? The LSD? Oh, yes, Zoe. We know. I don’t recall you having any conversations with us about resuming your drug habits.”

“Look, honey, this isn’t the end of the world,” says her father. “You can still have a future. You’re not going to get arrested. But there needs to be a consequence for your lying to us, and your mother and I feel this is an appropriate one.”

Zoe: She hardly allows her father to finish a sentence before cutting in.

“A future?! My future was fine! Months away!” Her words are worse than venom. The acid in her tone can etch the diamonds that line her mother’s watch.

You. You are risking my future,” she spits, raising a bony finger to the woman.

“Stop this nonsense and the future will be fine. The family will be fine..”

GM: Rosalyn’s face cool face takes in her daughter’s vitriol like it’s spittle getting flecked over those same diamonds.

“That’s the first correct statement you’ve uttered, Zoe. The family will be fine.”

Bob lets his wife talk.

“You may retain your use of the Kelly name, but you will keep nothing else to drag us down with you. Your car will stay here. President McGregor will be terminating your doctoral program.”

Rosalyn glances at her watch. Zoe can make out her furious visage reflected in the tiny clear gems.

“I’ve spent enough time on this. Get your things and get out, or security can escort you out. Your choice.”

Zoe: Rage froths over the top of Zoe’s meager ability to compose herself. She wants so, so badly to take that anger inside her out on her mother; to harm her, and wound her, and make her realize just how wrong she is.

Why not? What should stop her? Everything she cares about—her career, her family, her livelihood, and her life—is being taken from her.

“I don’t have a suitcase. Not here. Do you expect me to don 12 pairs of underwear and 6 pairs of jeans? Or would you like me to live in the clothes I have on?”

Zoe takes a step toward, then past her mother, and just as she catches the expression on her face, she feels herself crack inside. She doesn’t lash out, though her arms tense with desire to strike. She’s punched others before, but never in such a vitriolic response.

Tersely, she adds, “…I’d like you all to leave for the evening. You will find I respect your wishes by sunset, and you won’t hear from me for some time. Check the news, dear mother. You may yet find the Kelly name has more air time.”

GM: Rosalyn cups her daughter’s cheek in her hand, as if Zoe is but a small child again.

“Oh, Zoe,” she murmurs.

The woman’s voice is almost tender.

Almost.

But her eyes remain as hard and as cool as the diamonds along her wristwatch.

“Don’t mistake your privileges being revoked as your being released from responsibility to us. You are not. The maintenance of the Kelly name is still your responsibility—call it partial repayment for my giving birth to you and spending lord knows how many hundreds of thousands of dollars over 26 years. I’d say that’s quite a debt you owe, now wouldn’t you?”

Rosalyn runs her hand up along Zoe’s hair.

Finally, she smiles.

“No, my dear. Let me be clear with you. If you should wind up in the news as part of some ill-conceived revenge publicity stunt—you will not ever be able to attempt such a thing again. There are far more drastic and permanent measures your grandfather and I can employ to secure your compliance. I trust that I am perfectly understood?”

Bob coughs from the tablet screen.

“You should really listen to your mother, Zoe.”

Zoe: With a sweetness so sickening it would make even the fattest of children cringe and vomit, Zoe answers.

“Clear as the sun is warm and the rain is wet.”

She believes them. She harbors no doubt that they could employ all manners of underhanded, illicit tactics to keep her silent; or, at the least to keep her from soiling the name.

Her mother had offered her all the reaffirmation she needed to hear, and she intends to use that information to close doors in her life, and to open others.

I’d say that’s quite a debt you owe, now wouldn’t you?

She is an investment. She has been an investment her entirely life. She knows that, of course, but until that moment—somewhere deep inside her—she harbored delusion that a mother’s love lay beneath it all.

Very well, Mother. War it is.

Unless she is stopped, she continues on up to her apartment.

GM: Rosalyn smiles at her daughter’s answer.

She doesn’t stop Zoe from turning away.

But it’s just as the younger Kelly takes her first step towards the bedroom that she calls,

“Zoe.”

She spreads her arms.

“Let’s have a hug.”

Zoe:

Zoe pauses.

What?

She looks back.

…no, she hasn’t opened the bag, so she hasn’t gotten into the cocaine. Maybe the LSD?

She raises a manicured brow, waiting silently for an explanation as to the sudden need for hugs. She’d had more hugs from a month-long fling than she had her whole life with her mother.

GM: No explanation is forthcoming.

Only her mother’s patiently outstretched arms.

Zoe: “Why now?”

GM: “Because I am your mother, Zoe, and because I have asked you for a hug.”

Zoe’s father coughs into his hand over the screen.

“You should really hug your mother, Zoe.”

Zoe: Zoe stands there for long enough that Rome returns from the ashes, conquers France, and goes drinking with Russia. Calculating, calculating, always calculating.

She takes a step toward her mother, hesitant as a tiger’s cub and rigid as a plank if wood, if as likely to snap as if she were made from balsa.

Why?

She holds an arm out. Just one.

GM: Her mother waits.

Patiently.

Arms still outstretched.

“Both arms, Zoe. Haven’t I taught you not to do anything by half-measures?”

Zoe: She wishes she was more athletic. If she’d joined weight training, she might be able to pop her mother’s eyeballs out with a hug.

All this is is a show of dominance; a confirmation that her disobedient cub still follows her mother’s orders.

She offers both arms, relenting both in will and in tension.

“I’m sorry.”

Play the game, Zoe.

GM: Rosalyn’s arms embrace her daughter and hold her close. She doesn’t say anything, for a while. Zoe feels her mother’s body pressed against hers. Registers the faint beating of her heart.

Her mother’s breath is a whisper against her ear.

Several special words, just for them.

Not for the help to hear.

Between mother and daughter.

“I’m so disappointed in you.”

Zoe: “I know.”

You can make this go away! It’s nothing like before! It’s just a little something; something to take the edge off! I could drop it immediately. Just pretend this never happened!

No. She knows the words won’t change anything. When Rosalyn Kelly is set in her mind, nothing will change that.

“I know.”

GM: Rosalyn strokes the back of her daughter’s head. Back and forth, against her head.

“I made you, Zoe. I carried you inside me, for nine months. A helpless little passenger inside of my body, utterly dependent for survival. Then I brought you out, into this world. Doesn’t that just seem so incredible, sometimes?”

Zoe: “Life is incredible, Mother.”

She believes it. Life is a private mysteries she’s wanted to solve for much of her life.

She swallows, biting back pride with it. False pride.

Play the game, Zoe.

“…is there any way I can earn your forgiveness, Mom?”

GM: Rosalyn holds her daughter close.

“I made you, Zoe. I created you. You are mine.”

She pulls away, just enough, to meet Zoe’s gaze in hers, though she does not release her arms.

“Say you are mine.”

Zoe: She recalls a distant exchange with Charlotte during their earlier years, in which they went back and forth on whether or not they should carry a weapon for defense and deterrent. A gun was out of the question—they were only 16! Mace seemed entirely too much work to acquire. A pocket knife, though? That was reasonable, and their parents might have approved it. Zoe didn’t feel it was necessary at the time, though, and in some dark chamber of her heart, she enjoyed the danger.

In this moment, she wishes she’d decided differently. She could carve her name into her mother’s perfect cheeks, rending that fatty meat asunder to stake her own claim.

Who will own who in the end, Mom?

“I’m yours. Always. I’ll earn your forgiveness. I’m sorry.”

It’s a hollow promise. Zoe knows—they both know—that the promise is an impossibility, each for their own reasons.

Unless Rosalyn adds more or stops here, she turns to collect her things.

GM: Charlotte thought mace was better. It’s a self-defense weapon. No one blinks twice at a girl with mace. A knife is harder to explain.

The tablet, meanwhile, is off. Zoe can guess her father’s motivations for not sticking around, absent even a goodbye.

Rosalyn kisses her daughter’s head.

“That’s a good girl.”

She turns to the help. A man who looks like a bodyguard in a dark suit.

“Watch her. Make sure she doesn’t leave with any drugs.”

There’s a clicking of heels against floor, and then Zoe’s mother leaves the apartment without a glance back, trailed by her PA.

Zoe: Oh, Dad, always the coward. You never were one to hang around once emotions flared, even so bitterly subtle as between Zoe and her mother, were you?

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click…

She watches her mother disappear through her apartment’s Giani, those incessant heels relentless in her head as if she were made a monkey’s symbol.

Finally, she looks to the security. Does she know him? Probably not. Hired help doesn’t tend to remain long under direct supervision by Rosalyn Kelly, save her most senior executives, who are paid well enough to endure her infernal expectations.

“Will you wait here, or would you like to help me fold my underwear?”

GM: The man leers at Zoe. He’s got the craggy face and the hard stares she’s come to recognize around ex-service members who’ve found employment as private security.

“You want me in your panties, huh?”

Zoe: “I prefer men who don’t look as if a culture of yogurt developed miniature nuclear warheads and found their faces used for a testing ground.”

It isn’t entirely true. Scars are stories, and Zoe finds them attractive. Depending. Really, she might consider him if she wasn’t bleeding frustration with her mother onto her staff. Maybe.

Whether he follows or not, she continues into her bedroom—attempting to slam the door on him if he does follow—and begins an attempt to cram her life into a laundry bag.

GM: The much larger man follows Zoe into her bedroom, easily forcing open the door she tries to slam. His craggy features turn uglier at Zoe’s taunting words.

“Mommy and Daddy are kicking you out, little girl. I’d watch that mouth of yours.”

Zoe: Zoe pauses, marveling at his audacity with her back turned. Even in her position-to-be, she’s still a member of the Kelly family, and Mommy and Daddy won’t stand for much brutality to get out on a member of their family.

Of course, they can make it disappear, if it does happen.

Hmn.

She decides it best not to retort and set to collecting her things. What can she fit into a mesh bag? Enough clothing to last a week, wrinkly as it will be? Her phone, though she’ll have to find public places to charge it. Her laptop. Even if they don’t let her keep that, her mostly-complete thesis is backed up on the cloud. Mommy can’t take that from her!

Shoes? Something comfortable. She puts those on. Boots? No, she doesn’t have room. Shit. Sandals? No. Just the shoes. She assumes her mother will throw out what isn’t taken.

Pillow? No room. Blanket? It’s warm. She shouldn’t be outside more than a few days. They won’t let her.

Right?

GM: The silence that answers that thought is deafening.

The large man, meanwhile, attentively watches her pack.

No drugs, said Mom.

Zoe: Pack, pack, pack. Zoe makes no effort in hiding what she stuffs in her bag, and no matter how closely Mr. Security watches, he won’t find find a single crumb of mushroom nor grain of cocaine. Not a one! Zoe has only just begun experimenting—just once or twice! She isn’t an addict. Not yet. It’s just a little something to take the stress off her workload.

Once she finishes packing, she turns to the man, gesturing to the door.

“Shall we?”

GM: The man follows her out, then closes and locks the door behind her. Zoe doesn’t ever remember giving him a key.

He gestures grandly down the hallway.

The elevator dings open. Chuck Pavaghi walks into the hall. He’s a handsome Indian-American man around Zoe’s age, dressed in a suit with the jacket open and the tie undone as though he just got off from work. He lives on the same floor. His dad developed the property. She’s not sure if he even pays rent. She is sure, though, that many of the girls who visit his apartment are prostitutes.

Chuck_Pavaghi.jpg
“Huh,” he remarks, glancing between Zoe and the unfriendly-looking man locking her apartment door.

Zoe: Huh indeed. She glances at him, meeting his eyes with the same polite ferocity she offers any she considers of her echelon. A faint smile follows, prescriptive and polite.

Then she continues on out.

GM: “Parents giving you the boot?” Chuck asks, calling after her.

The Pavaghi clan, her mother has sniffed more than once, are new money.

Zoe: She pauses, turning back to him.

“Life never ceases to surprise you, does it, Chuck?”

She shrugs.

GM: Chuck smirks.

“You can stay with me, if you don’t have a place lined up.”

“My rent’s very affordable.”

Zoe: And soil herself with the filth of a monkey playing sophistication? No.

“Let me collect myself, hmn? Mommy dearest doesn’t tell me what to do anymore. Maybe.”

She won’t risk closing a door, but that will not be her first option.

GM: “Won’t find a better rate for a building this nice,” says Chuck, and lets himself in to his apartment.

Zoe: Zoe waggles her phone at him as she walks into the elevator. “Text me, Chuck. I know you’ve got it already.”

It’s just like Chuck to skim the records of tenants for his own slimy use. She’s almost entirely certain of her assertion.

GM: Chuck winks as he disappears behind his door.

“Heh. You’re broke,” says the man she’s with.

“Unless he makes you fuck him.”

He shakes his head and starts towards the elevator.

“C’mon. Don’t got all day.”

Zoe: She looks to Mr. Security.

“That’s the implication, dear. When you’ve all the money any of the masses only dream of, collecting more becomes a game of score. The real power is in using it to bend others to your will.”

She pauses.

“Wouldn’t it be a delicious victory for him to bend his superior to his will?”

Literally and figuratively. She smiles at the thought. For the first time, she regards her escort with a modicum of thought, as if she realizes that there is a person inside that cratered skull of his.

“What’s your name?”

GM: “Sure would be,” says the man. He’s got a shaved head, dark skin, thick arms, and a full beard.

“Trayvon.”

Zoe: Of course his name is Trayvon. Zoe shuffles her things about, offering the man the courtesy of a handshake.

“I know you’re just doing your job. There’s no bad feelings for that. Zoe.”

GM: “I heard,” says Trayvon.

He regards the handshake with some amusement as he returns it. His hand is much larger, ticker, and darker than hers, but he doesn’t try to crush her hand.

Mom has always scolded her for her limp handshakes.

Zoe: Limp as it is, she squeezes back with a level of effort that exhibits intent without trying too hard, as a child would.

“I don’t suppose you have any advice on where the recently-evicted might go, hmn?”

Assuming he does not, she looks up a “So you’ve just been evicted…” article.

GM: Trayvon presses the button for the elevator and follows her inside.

“You can stay with me if you pay rent on your back,” he answers helpfully.

The article isn’t very helpful either.

Zoe: She restrains the disappointed sigh that she wants so badly to express.

Typical. Fucking typical.

“Your offer isn’t quite so strong as Chuck’s. There’s no chance at amicability, is there? It’s not as if I’m going to disobey the orders you were given.”

GM: Trayvon shrugs.

“Don’t got nothing ’gainst you. You wanna hang around the lobby or something?”

“But if you want advice, go crash with a friend. Get a job and help pay for shit.”

Zoe: She shakes her head.

No, she decidedly does not. What Zoe wants most is to find some time by herself. Alone. Privacy. She had tried to coerce her mother to take her minions and leave, but she’d left this crass piece of work with her.

What Zoe wants is a place to let her emotions out without fear of judgment, and she’s not sure she has that right now. Not a single place nor a person in her life. Not whom she trusts at this level of catastrophe anyway.

She taps a free finger on her hip, her panic becoming more evident.

She’d understood what was happening to her the moment her mother made it clear. A led to B, B led to C. She made and unfortunate decision, so she was evicted. Yet in that moment, as the pair step out of the elevator, the true weight of the result hits her: she has nowhere to fucking go, she has no idea where her next meal is going to come from, she’ll probably be sleeping on the pavement, and she may actually have to take up Chuck’s offer if she wants to avoid any of it.

Sorry, Trayvon. No way in hell.


April evening, 2016

GM: Trayvon escorts Zoe out of the Giani Building. He ‘asks’ for her keys. Then he leaves. Just like that, Zoe is left standing alone on a downtown intersection. Cars honk and blare as they drive past. Crowds of pedestrians walk by Zoe, indifferent to her plight. It’s an odd thought that all of these people have homes and destinations. Many are just getting off work. They have dinners they’ll sit down to. They have beds they’ll go to sleep in. They don’t consider where those things come from. They don’t have to.

Overhead, it’s starting to rain. It’s a faint drizzle, but Zoe can already feel wet pitter-patters against her head.

Even simple shelter from the elements is no longer something to take for granted.

At least Chuck’s apartment must be dry.

Zoe: Chuck’s apartment would be drier for his trying to woo her. His very aura sucks the sexual energy out of the room.

Okay, Zoe. You’re a smart one. You’ve been in worse situations before. You’ll figure this one out, too.



No you haven’t, and no you won’t.

The voice nags at her, small as it is; that miniscule questioning of her confidence.

It would be raining, wouldn’t it? She looks up at the sky, holding out her key—the car key and the apartment key only—to Trayvon. She doesn’t offer him the dignity of a farewell when he snatches them away.

Once he leaves her, she taps her phone feverishly. Contacts.. C.. H.. R.. Call.

“Chris? You there?”

GM: The phone rings.

Wouldn’t that neatly solve all of her problems? To just stay at his place? Once she has solid ground under her, once she has a place to eat, sleep, and bathe again, she can work things out at Tulane. This doesn’t have to destroy her life. She can complete her PhD at Chris’ place.

The phone rings.

And rings.

“Hey, it’s Chris. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you,” sounds her boyfriend’s assured voice.

Just the voice she wants telling her everything is gonna be all right and of course she can stay at his place.

If not for the fact that it’s a recording and she’s newly homeless.

Beeeep.

Zoe: Asshole!

He doesn’t deserve it. She knows he’s probably busy with his own workday. Why did she have to pick someone with ethics-apparent?

“Pick up the phone you ass! I—something happened. I need somewhere to think, and—it’s going to rain soon. Pretty badly. Shit. Call me when you get this, okay?”

She hangs up, following her voicemail with a simple ‘call me’ text.

Shit.

What’s nearby? A coffee shop? That’ll do. At the very least, it’s out of the rain. That’s something, right? Keeping dry? They know her there. She won’t be out of place.

GM: There’s a Pequod’s just half a block down. Inside, there’s calm music and rows of displayed baked goods. People sip their drinks, munch of snacks, and wait in line at the register, despite a sign to Please! Ask a barista about your mobile order. Many of the customers look like downtown professionals. The seats are wooden and look uncomfortable to stay in for hours, but at least it’s dry. Rain patters against the windows.

It’s too bad she can’t stay forever.

Hopefully she won’t have to.

Zoe: Uncomfortable by intent. Her mother had taught her enough about business to intuit design decisions that appear either innocuous or as being cheap, but are intended to further your cashflow.

Zoe takes a seat, setting her laundry bag of life beneath the table. She draws a breath, smooths her hair out, and checks her phone.

Nothing yet?

She moves down the list, calling each of her friends in turn.

Charlotte? She’s far, but .. surely she’ll answer.

Susan? Do nuns carry phones?

Sami? If she isn’t stoned out of her mind or thirteen and a half inches down her latest beau, she might help.

Another.

And another.

And another, and another, and another.

Meanwhile, she pulls out her laptop and navigates to her bank account.

Please, please, please. Don’t take that away from me. You can’t leave me with nothing.

GM: A few people look at Zoe’s laundry bag.

She becomes acutely aware that one else in the coffee shop has a laundry bag with them.

Does she look homeless? She’s much too clean and well-dressed, surely.

It’s while her first call is outgoing that the display for Whitney Hancock’s Personal Online Banking pops up. The blue and white webpage has a picture of an attractive young woman smiling widely as she navigates her laptop from the comfort of her tastefully decorated home. Chris once remarked that, “This is the face of someone who found out her test results were ‘HIV negative’, not ‘I accessed my online banking account.’”

Zoe pulls up her account balance.

It reads $0.

Apparently, Rosalyn has as much control over her children’s finances as she does her husband’s.

Zoe: What color remains in her face drains as if that webpage had unplugged a drain in the base of her neck.

$0.

Even the money she’d been given through her PhD grant had been drained; money she was intended to live on, if she weren’t a daughter of privilege.

Isn’t that theft? The money was in her account. Her bank. Her login. She pictures her mother as that sneering face, and if not for the lingering thought that she can’t just get another, she might have launched the laptop across the shop.

She can’t even buy a coffee.

Where the fuck are you, Chris?

Her eyes well up as her emotions finally leak through her curated exterior, and she begins to cry frustrated tears.

GM: $0.

You can do that with bank accounts, easily. Set them up so other people can make deposits and withdrawals. Don’t even need to be an executive at the bank to make it happen.

Meanwhile, her calls go out, one after another.

“Hello, you’ve reached Charlotte Malveaux. Please leave your name and number, and I’ll return your call as soon as I can.”

Beep.

“We’re sorry you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel this is in error, please check the number dialed, and please try again.”

Beep.

“It’s Sami. Leave a message.”

Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

The tears run down her face as she shakes by herself. Several nearby patrons cast her disapproving looks. Two start whispering and pointing at her. At her laundry bag.

She can’t even buy a coffee.

Zoe: Every failed call exacerbates her crying. Tears become a stream. A stream becomes sobs. Sobs become—

She slams her laptop shut, stuffs it in her laundry bag, taking enough care to wrap it in some clothing so it wouldn’t get wet, then dashes out into the rain. At least the coffee shop has an overhang to keep her dry for the moment.

She pulls her phone out again, hovering over another name: Gabriella.

No. Her mother would have already warned her sisters and brother against contact. She doesn’t want to land them in any trouble, either.

Her heart beats against her chest as if it, too, wanted to leave her alone in the lukewarm rain.

Her fingers dance without conscious thought.

‘Mom, I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Lesson learned. It’s been ten years. Ten years of work, and my mistakes kept the others from similar mistakes. Can we talk?’

GM: Gabriella is probably sitting down to dinner with her husband and children, right about now.

Zoe had made fun of her for it, for being such a picture-perfect housewife. But a warm dinner with an actual roof over her head sounds like just the thing, right about now.

The drizzle isn’t just a drizzle anymore. New Orleans weather is unpredictable. Now it’s a true April shower. Fat droplets of rain thunder down against the overhead, thud-thud-thud-thud-thud. There’s a loud honk from traffic as Zoe frantically types into her phone, and then the screech of tires. Water from the street splashes all over Zoe’s pants and laundry bag as a car blares past.

There’s no response from her mother.

Zoe: FUCK! FUCK FUCK CUNT WHORE SHIT BITCH!! WHY THE FUCK DID I CHOOSE SUCH A THIN TOP ON A RAINY DAY?!!

FUCK!”

She kicks a nearby—something, anything! She’s losing her calm, and she doesn’t really care who the target is.

It isn’t trash can, as she hopes. It’s a puppy.

Oh fuck.

She puts one foot before the other before anyone can stop and accost her for her outburst. She wants to be anywhere. Anywhere but here.

GM: The corgi gives a strangled yelp as Zoe’s foot connects with its flank, kicking it several inches into the air before it crashes to earth against pavement. The dog scrunches its eyes and whines pathetically as its owner scoops it up in her arms.

Pic.jpg
“Fuck you, cunt!” she yells at Zoe’s retreating form, her voice absolutely livid. “Fuck you!”

“The fuck’s your problem!?”

Bereft of the overhead’s shelter, rain beats down over Zoe’s exposed body. Soon she’s wet everywhere.

Wet, cold, and homeless.

Unless her boyfriend calls back.

Zoe: Guilt overwhelms her. She allowed her anger and frustration with her punishment wound a puppy! A puppy!

Zoe tears down an alleyway, intending to break line of sight with any who saw her abuse that poor, defenseless, adorable, snugglable animal.

No, Chuck. I’m not going to call you. Even if I had your number.

GM: Rain continues to pummel her. It’s even lonelier in the alleyway. A homeless man is rifling through a garbage dumpster. Several more huddle against buildings away from the rain, faces buried in their sleeping bags.

Is there where she will sleep?

Maybe not.

Because then her phone rings.

It’s Chris.

Zoe: She slaps the phone so hard to her ear that the earring digs in to her skin.

“Chris? I—the rain is loud!”

GM: “Y-yeah, I c-an-n he-ar it!” he answers, his voice garbled against the downpour.

“Y-ou sai- soe-thig happ-ned?”

Zoe: “Y-yeah! Can you pick me up? Meet me at the coffee shop across from my apartment!”

GM: “Y-y-ah, s-ur, g-mme—ten?”

The rain continues to pour down. Her hair is drenched.

She’d say she should’ve packed an umbrella, but at least she won’t need to now.

Zoe: “Y-yeah! Okay! Ten minutes! Love you, bye!”

She remembers what joy feels like, and she’s going to give him a night he’ll never forget. Not even their eventual wedding night will compare!

She sprints back down the alley, back around the corner, past the site of her attempt to send a puppy to the moon, and skids to a halt under the overhang of the coffee shop.

GM: Zoe picks a good time to get out from under the rain. She clearly didn’t send the puppy to the moon, because it’s raining cats and dogs. Everyone looks like they have an umbrella out. Water steadily patters down against the pavement.

The minutes pass.

People come in and out of the coffee shop.

They come.

They go.

A clerk passes by.

Cars roll on by.

One’s his car model—oh, no. Not him. ’Nother guy behind the wheel.

The rain pours.

Zoe: At least he’s cute.

Maybe he needs a girlfriend.

GM: Maybe he wouldn’t want her.

After all, she looks like a mess, between her soaked hair and clothes, and her equally soaked laundry bag. Her pants and bag are streaked with muddy brown.

She’s been crying, too, but maybe that’s hard to make out past her already rain-slick skin.



Zoe: Natural beauty only runs so far when life kicks you in the gut and spills your entrails all over the sidewalk to play tea leaves.

Surprise: the reading isn’t great!

She calls him again.

GM: It’s easier to hear under the overhead.

“Hey, it’s Chris. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

Beeeeep.

Plunk-plunk-plunk, goes the rain.

She’s cold.

Zoe: She texts him, ‘Chris WTF? It’s freezing! Are you okay?’

GM: There’s no response.

New Orleans isn’t that cold. Not really.

But it’s wet.

Very wet.

It’s a lot colder, too, after your mom has evicted you and left you without a penny to your name.

It’s been ten minutes.

Maybe he’s about to show.

You can’t always expect someone to arrive in exactly ten minutes when they say ten minutes.

Can you?

Zoe: She knows her impatience isn’t something to project on him, but— well, he’ll understand once she’s in the car and can talk to him.

The girl draws a breath, centering herself.

He’ll be here. He’ll be here. He’ll be here. He’ll be here.

GM: The rain plunks.

And plunks.

And plunks.

And plunks.

The numbers on the time section of Zoe’s phone go up.

And up.

And up.

And up.

Five minutes late.

Six minutes late.

Eight minutes late.

Zoe: This is fine. This is fine.

GM: Ten minutes late.

Zoe: She has to pee.

‘Paying customers only.’

GM: And she’s very cold.

It isn’t that New Orleans is cold.

It’s that she’s wearing wet clothes, in the rain, in the evening.

Standing on her feet under an overhead.

Waiting.

Twelve minutes late.

Fourteen minutes late.

Sixteen minutes late.

Zoe: ‘Hey, I know I can be bitchy about time, but I really need you right now, Chris.’

GM: Eighteen minutes late.

Twenty minutes.

Twenty-two minutes.

She’s hungry.

Her stomach rumbles.

Zoe: ‘Chris?’

GM: She had to skip lunch at Tulane today.

Zoe: ‘If ever there’s a time where I need you to be here, this is it’

GM: But he is here.

She’s not sure how she didn’t notice it.

No, she is sure.

Because she was looking down the street. Not into the coffee shop.

Into the coffee shop, where he’s comfortably parked at table, with a half-eaten pastry and tall cup of coffee.

Sitting next to another girl.

They’re hunched over his phone, smiling and laughing.

Zoe: She blinks.

No.

It can’t be him.

She turns back to the road.

Then back to the shop.

Had she not seen him before?

She walks in.

Is it him? Is she seeing things?

“Chris?”

GM: It sure looks like him.

Image

Zoe: “Chris,” she says more firmly. She looks like a drowned animal, hair stuck in a giant, matted knot down her back.

“What the fuck? You didn’t tell me you were here.”

She doesn’t register the other person yet.

GM: Chris Downs is a 20-something man with combed blonde hair, a lean frame that’s dressed in his work clothes, and a five-o-clock shadow from a long day at the DA’s office.

She doesn’t look like just a drowned animal. She looks like a drowned animal lugging along a fat wet laundry bag that’s caked with dirty street water.

Do homeless people look like this?

Are the baristas who didn’t stare at her suspiciously doing that now?

She doesn’t register them either.

Chris looks up as his girlfriend approaches.

For a second, he looks surprised. Genuinely taken aback.

“Oh. Wow.”

Then he starts quietly laughing.

So does the girl he’s with.

Zoe: She lofts a brow. Ding, 192nd floor. Oh yeah, that done.

“…is there a reason you’re laughing? I assure you, none of what happened is funny.”

Her words are colder than even she is.

“I need a shower. Come on, let’s go back to your place. I’ll explain aft—”

And then it hits her.

“Who is she?”

GM: The girl looks around Zoe’s and Chris’ age. Maybe mid-twenties. She’s got fair skin, red hair, and is dressed in jeans and a blouse. Stylish but casual.

“You look like you already got a shower,” says the girl.

She and Chris start laughing again.

Harder.

“Do you want to tell her?” says the girl.

Chris links his hand through hers on the table.

“Oh… she’s my girlfriend,” he grins.

The other girl smiles.

Zoe: Zoe doesn’t.

She feels the animalistic need to snap building inside her. She wants to hurt him; to hurt her; to carve that smile from her simpering, whore face.

Is it worth it, Zoe? Is she worth going to jail over? It’d be warm there.

She draws a breath, cooling that raging beast inside her. Zoe has always had a fiery temper. Never has she quite so badly wanted to let it reign.

“Say this is a joke and I’ll forgive you.”

GM: “Okay,” grins Chris.

“It’s a joke.”

Then he turns and french-kisses the other girl. She smirks at Zoe as she wraps her hand around his neck, tongue fondling his.

Zoe: No, no, no. No. No. No. No. No.

No.

No.

No no.

She doesn’t remember turning, nor the rain whipping into her face. All she knows is if she doesn’t leave, she’ll carve the eyes from his sockets.

How can one life—one great, successful life— have fallen so far in a span of hours?

Sh texts: Mom. Please. You’ve made your point. I’ll move home if you need. You can access my phone. It won’t happen again. I can’t deal with what’s happening!

GM: She doesn’t remember turning.

She doesn’t remember rushing out the door.

She doesn’t remember the rain whipping into her face.

But she hears the shouts.

They’re coming from the coffee shop.

Chris is slumped face-down over the table. People are making a commotion around him. He doesn’t move.

There is no response from the text to her mother.

Zoe: Zoe pauses long enough to catch her breath.

She rubs her nose on a rain-soaked sleeve, sniffling. Fuck him. He probably has half the coffee shop roaring.

Is her mother really going to carry on their cold war? She’s relented. Zoe has admitted defeat and given her concessions. What further terms does her mother have?

No answer, still.

She has one final person who might help her, and draws her phone out under an overhang a few blocks from the shop to call her.

“Ms. Tantsy?”

GM: The phone rings several times.

“Namaste,” greets Brijbala Chugtai, the third-gender Pakistani self-proclaimed yogi who works at Tante’s. “Dis is Tante Lescaut’s Occult Curiosities, Horoscopes, & Palmistry, how may ve help you today?”

Back at the coffee shop, people are making increasingly frantic motions around Chris.

It looks as if they’re administering CPR to his chest.

Zoe: “I— I— I—” she pant-blubbers.

“I need help—is Ms. Tantsy there?”

GM: “Yes, Tansy is in,” answers Brijbala. “If you need help, she vill do vhat she can.”

Zoe: She realizes that between the rain and her panic and her crying and her snot-covered face, she probably doesn’t sound like herself.

“It’s—Zoe. I—I don’t have anything. Anyone. Can I come by?”

GM: “Oh. Hello, Zoe. I didn’t recognize you. Ov course you may.”

Chris still isn’t moving as responders continue their chest compressions. His new girlfriend looks like she’s screaming.

Zoe: Her lips part, but the words don’t come. The panic inside the coffee shop; it’s not Chris ranting or raving or mocking her, nor sucking attention to his new toy, as he did for so many years.

It’s him. Him unresponsive. Unconscious. Dying.

Dead?

She can’t see him.

She forgets the phone still pressed to her ear so hard that the screen threatens to crack on the point of her earring. She forgets the thickly-accented woman affirming her question.

Brick by brick, block by block, her life is being dismantled. Destroyed. Trounced and trashed as if an angry child kicked over their sibling’s Lego set for no better reason than to see them cry.

Zoe has hurt before, but this isn’t pain. This isn’t like when their dog Milo died, nor when she was told her first crush liked someone else. This isn’t like the cancer scare her sister had a year or two earlier, nor when she thought she’d caught Chris cheating last summer.

This is pure, bony, undiluted, unmitigated agony, delivered straight to the flush core of her gated heart with such a potency that its rot threatens to consume her from within.

Yet, what will remain: death and a memory, or a monster? The lonely chill of a hollow room, or the all-consuming ice of a hollow being?

She tugs her bag up out of the puddle seeping into ruined garments at the bottom, finally answering a voice in her ear that may or may not be there anymore. She isn’t sure how it’s been.

“Th-thanks.”


April evening, 2016

GM: Tante Lescaut’s is almost ten blocks away.

No big deal, when Zoe had a car.

No big deal, when Zoe could take a Ryde or a streetcar or a taxi or what-fucking-ever.

No big deal, when Zoe wasn’t a broke nobody.

But Zoe is a broke nobody, now, without a dime to her name.

So she walks.

It’s possibly the most miserable walk of her life. The rain doesn’t let up. It cascades down in sheets. In buckets. Zoe is soaked to the bone. Her hair is all but plastered against her skull. Her shoes fill with water and wetly squelch with each step. Her laundry bag of clothes is utterly soaked. That makes it heavy. Zoe did all right at track, but she’s always been terrible at lifting. She can’t carry the bag. She has to drag it, with both hands. It’s impossibly awkward. There are curbs she has to drag the bag up, then pull it down. Sometimes she doesn’t see where she’s going. Maybe it’s the rain in her eyes. Maybe it’s tears. Something happens to the bag at some point, though, because her clothes start falling out onto the street. Cars run over several before she can snatch them back up and stuff them into the falling-apart bag. She’s not sure when the hole appeared in it. The several holes.

An umbrella might’ve kept her drier, but this would be even more awkward without a free hand.

Then again, maybe it wouldn’t have kept her dry. Cars don’t feel like they notice her. Or care about when she crosses the street. They blare past her, splashing her legs with more dirty street water. She can’t get any wetter, but her pants and shoes are starting to turn a distinct shade of brown, not to mention it feels awful getting her feet soaked all over again.

People stare at her, too.

At the soaked and dirty and umbrella-less and hysterical-looking girl who’s heaving and ho-ing this soaked, raggedy bag after her.

They stare at her with disgust. With scorn.

She looks like a crazy homeless person.

Is that wrong?

Because she is homeless.

Is she crazy, too?

Zoe: So she walks.

And walks.

And walks.

And walks.

She walks past the wounded puppy. It recoils and yelps.

She feels bad.

So she walks.

And recovers another piece of clothing.

Then a second.

She leaves the third. It was a gift from Chris. She didn’t wear it much, anyway. Not her style.

Why did she pack it?

Because she wore it for him.

Sometimes.

She walks to Tante’s.

Then past it.

She passes a pizza parlor. Her favorite pizza parlor. She’s so hungry; a thousand times hungrier than before Chris—

Her stomach states it’s anger. She apologizes.

No money.

Chuck doesn’t sound so bad.

Beef chuck, not Terrorist Chuck.

Though she’d like to see both in an oven.

Separate ovens. She doesn’t want the flavors to mingle.

She walks back to Tante’s. This time she finds the door, pushing it open.

She looks like a rat. She feels like a drowned one.

The smell of pizza lingers.

Zoe au Pain:
Prep time—10 minutes
Cook time—eternity


Mix one mistake with one cup excuses and one cup good intentions.
Add regret to taste.
Mix in large bowl
Chill overnight
Present to Mom


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Story Thirteen, Celia XXXVIII

“More monsters are made than born.”
Camilla Doriocourt


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

GM: Bliss floods Jade’s mouth. Strong as a howling storm and cold as ice. The vitae of her sire.

She’s lying on the passenger seat of a car. Camilla sits adjacent to her, pouring the jar of their sire’s vitae into her mouth.

“That course of action was unwise.”

Celia: She did something stupid. What else is new.

“Yeah. It was.”

She sits up, taking the glass jar in her hands so Camilla doesn’t need to hold it. Her eyes slide to the rest of the car.

GM: It looks like an SUV, but not the one in Donovan’s garage. Jamal is driving.

Celia: “Harrison.” Jade manages a smile. It fades when she looks back to her sister. “Could have saved him the trouble. I’m dead anyway.”

GM: “Our extraction from Audubon was successful,” Camilla states. “Draco and his coterie arrived to assist in the battle against the Snake Hunters. I have staged the scene of my final death.”

Celia: “Oh. Good.”

His coterie. She hates him even more now.

“We lose anyone?”

GM: “You would prefer we had been captured by the prince’s agents? They would not have interrogated and released us. They would have interrogated and slain us.”

Celia: “No?” Jade gives her a look. “I didn’t say that. I said good. Good we got out. Good we’re both here. Good he came.”

“I didn’t think he was going to.”

“So that’s why I said good.”

GM: “Our side suffered no final deaths. Neither, by my insistence, did the Snake Hunters.”

Celia: Too bad. She’d been hoping to see the mangled corpse of the redhead.

Jade twists to look into the back seat; is it just the three of them?

GM: She sees no one else.

Celia: “Shouldn’t have let him get under my skin,” she sighs. “Stupid.”

GM: “Yes. The body double you created facilitated the deception over my final death. Nor would penetrating the vault have been possible without a second Kindred capable of flight. Your presence on the mission was of benefit. But so too did many of your actions lack forethought and impose costs paid for by others.”

“Do you understand what consequences would have befallen you, our grandsire, and the city at large if I had not been present?”

Celia: Jade’s skin begins to ripple and change, almost on its own. By the time she has drawn her feet onto the seat with her and settle her chin on her knees, arms around her shins, she’s just Celia once more.

“Big Masquerade breach. Camarilla would send someone. Multiple someones. Vidal would blame Savoy, negating his victory here, even if it wasn’t actually him. Though it was. He’d look incompetent as a would-be prince. Weakens the faction.”

She doesn’t touch the question about what would happen to her. She knows: she’d be dead. Thrown to the wolves.

“Should have left me,” she says again.

She doesn’t say what she’s thinking, either. That she was going to use it as an excuse to off herself and take as many as the prince’s people down with her as she could.

GM: “A breach,” states Camilla.

“An enormous breach, for so many girls to be found dead in the home of a murdered rich man, with no perpetrator on hand to blame. A national media storm would have ensued. The eyes of all the Camarilla would have fallen upon our city. Archons would not be out of the question.”

“The Masquerade is at once more and less fragile than neonates assume. The existence of our kind would not have been revealed to the public. But all of our kind would have suffered the consequences of your actions. By my actions, disaster has been averted.”

“Someone fucked up,” laughs Jamal.

“Silence,” Camilla orders. She does not look away from Celia.

The ghoul says nothing further.

“Pietro will be eager to tell Lord Savoy of your mistakes. I would advise you to reconcile with him. A conciliatory tone is more likely to sway hearts when the fault is yours than a proud tone.”

Celia: Celia dips her head. Camilla doesn’t need to raise her voice to make Celia want to curl into a ball and sink into the floor where no one will ever find her again.

“I will,” she says quietly. “Thank you. For showing up. For helping. For… for everything.”

“Is that where we’re going? To the Evergeen?”

GM: “Yes.”

“I have done much to help you,” her sister concurs.

Her great-aunt concurs.

She hasn’t raised her voice at all. She doesn’t sound angry at all.

Her tone isn’t angry at all.

“I facilitated your escape from Perdido House. I undid a Masquerade breach of your making. I was crucial to the success of our mission. I saved you from Pietro and Draco’s coterie, who harbored ill designs upon your body. I will speak well of you to our grandsire. Some of these things were in my self-interest, but others were not.”

“I have brought many neonates to face our prince’s judgment. I have looked into the hearts of many Kindred judged criminal by our laws. Your actions were not unique in choice, only in circumstance. Many neonates would have made similar choices to yours, if placed within the same position and confronted by the same dilemmas.”

Celia: The scent of copper hits the air; Celia wipes at her eyes before it can linger.

Roderick wouldn’t have made the mistakes. But she doesn’t say that. She just quietly thanks Camilla for the words and tries to take some comfort in them.

Then again, he’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for Savoy’s plots, so who’s the real idiot.

Him.

It’s him.

Obviously.

GM: Did she fall any less surely for her own sire’s?

“Your talents are exceptional for a Kindred of your years. Yet I had, perhaps, expected another childe of my sire to be exceptional in character as well as aptitude. I had hoped for an ally in whom I might confide any secret and share any plan. One less experienced whom I might instruct, perhaps, but one able to succeed in the Camarilla even without me. Though I do not doubt your loyalty or affection towards me, Celia, I do not feel I can rely upon you to the extent I had hoped.”

Celia: The knife in her heart twists.

“I can be better. I’ll get better.”

“I made a mistake. A big mistake. But I can get better. Please don’t write me off.”

She’s already lost everything else. Not this, too.

GM: “Your presence made possible our mission’s success, as well as my seeming final death. I have not discounted that. But so, too, do I believe you less capable than I had presumed.”

“I believe improvement is possible. You may prove yours through future actions.”

“You may continue to rely upon me and upon my help. But what secrets we recovered from our sire’s haven, and what existing secrets and designs I had wished to include you in, shall remain mine until I am convinced you will be a worthy steward of them.”

Celia: Celia stays silent. She only nods to show she understands and accepts what has been said.

“You can take the other memory. If you want. What I learned in there.”

GM: “Without a suitable explanation for the emotions you felt, I do not believe that possible. Nor do I believe there is a suitable explanation that will not unravel with time.”

Celia: “Okay,” she says with another nod. She glances at the floor, at the driver, and finally toward her sister. “I’m sorry I’m not what you were hoping for. And that I messed up. I know that’s not worth much. I’d still like to do anything I can to help you get situated.”

“And if you don’t want me to then I understand.”

GM: “There are some capacities in which I do not. There are others in which I do.”

Camilla looks ahead towards the road. They’re in an unfamiliar part of the city.

“You have asked many questions of me in our time together. You have asked few of our sire or the circumstances surrounding his final death. Why is this?”

Celia: “It didn’t make sense. What I felt when he died. The emotions that came through the link. I didn’t want to get distracted from what we were doing by asking you a bunch of questions about him. I thought there’d be time later.”

GM: “We have some time now, if there are things you would know. We are not taking a direct route to the Evergreen.”

Celia: Celia glances past Camilla to the driver. If she isn’t concerned…

“How old was he, really? Why was he watching my family?”

My, she says, not ours. She remembers that much at least.

“Why did he… why did he do this to me? And what did he do to my dad? And why didn’t he listen to me about her? Why did he go after her when I told him, I told him—”

Her fingers clench, nails digging into her palms. Even that tiny motion sends ripples of agony through her arm, pulling at the charred flesh.

“I told him it was dangerous.”

Celia turns in the seat to regard Camilla.

“What killed him? Who did it? What happened? Why did I… why did I get the emotions I did? Was he possessed? Split personality? Where is he from, and who is… the other thing. And what’s the situation with him and our grandsire, and is really…?”

GM: “I will erase Harrison’s memory of this conversation, but not all your questions are prudent to answer in his presence,” Camilla first answers. “Nor may I be willing to answer them all.”

“Malveaux-Devillers could not have stood against our sire on her own. Nor could her Kindred allies. We were handily defeating their coterie when other parties entered the battle on their side. By their intervention alone did Malveaux-Devillers survive the night.”

“Our sire was killed by a holy man channeling the power of his faith.”

Celia: “Oh,” she says quietly. “Is he dead?”

GM: “The holy man?”

Celia: “Yes.”

GM: “No.”

Celia: “If the others aren’t prudent,” she says at length, “I can do a mind trick thing so we can talk privately.”

“Not telepathy. It’s different.”

“I developed it. And some other things. I haven’t told anyone else about them.”

GM: “I am capable of limited telepathic communication. I will use it to answer sensitive questions.”

Celia: She’s reminded of a kindergartner seeking praise for their crayon drawings.

“Okay. So. The rest of it then. Age and why my family and Maxen and who was he and where’s he from and the other two things and what was the thing you mentioned on Saturday and the weird feelings and the possession.”

GM: “Those first questions are ones I will not answer. What feelings and thing on Saturday do you refer to?”

Celia: Oh. Those are the ones she wanted the most. She doesn’t press for them, though.

“On Saturday you said that it was going to be dangerous for you soon and requested access to my mind. About my family. And the feelings when he died. There was hate. And anger. And disappointment and darkness. But before that it was… light. Peace. Happiness. And… and love. Infinite love.”

Were she human, she’d blush. She doesn’t bother with the pretense now, but she looks away at the last words.

“He came for me once. When I was in trouble. I guess I thought maybe it meant something.”

GM: “The love you felt was the religious faith channeled by the holy man.”

“Our sire felt nothing for you.”

“Or for me.”

“He came for you because you were an asset he had invested time cultivating. He deemed the effort expended in your retrieval worth the returns in personal benefit to him. We were tools to him and nothing more.”

“His lack of feeling for others was the very quality that gave the holy man’s faith such power over him.”

Celia: All those times he’d kissed her. Kept her safe.

Nothing. It meant nothing.

How easily he’d strung her along. She, who wanted nothing more than his affection. Who worshiped him.

She was in denial before. Thought maybe there was a demon involved. But now the illusion shatters.

GM: “I knew this, intellectually, for years. Decades.”

“It was not until the bond shattered with his final death that I could fully accept its truth.”

Celia: “I loved him,” she says quietly. “I loved him. I met him when I was young. When he came for my dad. And then later, the incident with my mom.”

She swallows. A habit she doesn’t need, not physically.

“I never wavered in my devotion to him. I did everything he asked. I spent years being unable to trust anyone, lying to everyone, because of where he put me. A spy in his sire’s court. And what is he going to say now? What if I tell him and he just throws me out? All I’ve done is fuck it up lately.”

This time the coppery scent lingers in the air.

“I was in love with someone else. Someone who loved me. As breathers, then as licks. And I threw it away. For him.”

“Stupid,” she whispers. “Just fucking stupid and emotional and a waste of vitae.”

GM: Jamal doesn’t speak, but Celia sees his lip curl into a sneer.

:: There is nothing I may say that will bring back what was lost. But your story is as mine, many chapters earlier.::

:: I, too, sacrificed for him. I sacrificed the things most precious to me in all the world. They are now gone forever. ::

:: You would only suffered further losses at his hands if he had not met final death tonight.::

Celia: Celia moves her hand just enough to take Camilla’s. She gives a gentle squeeze.

:: I’m sorry. For what you lost, and what he put you through. That’s… part of why tonight happened. The pain. I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t reach you. Just silence. ::

:: I was rash. I let it consume me. All that pain and rage and loss. ::

A pause.

:: I know I’m not what you wanted. What you were hoping for. But I’m not… I was just desperate to hold on to what I still had. ::

There’s a longer, thoughtful pause.

:: If you get it back. What you lost. If it were possible; would you do it? Would you want to? ::

GM: :: It is not possible. And it is pointless to dwell on maybes and might-have-beens ::

:: As to what you still have, look towards your living kin. ::

:: Their lives are temporary. Do not take them for granted. ::

Celia: :: I’d like you to meet her. My mom. As my sister, who you are now. ::

GM: :: Why? ::

Celia: :: Because you’re my sister. Because we’re in this together. Because I admire and respect you and want you to know that you’re loved. That someone, multiple someones, care for you. ::

GM: :: I am touched that you want me to meet your family. But the Masquerade must come first. Your family cannot know what I am to you. ::

Celia: :: The Masquerade will remain intact. ::

:: My mother was one of Benson’s creations. I undid that work. She is aware of what I am and the First Tradition has not been violated. ::

GM: :: Then she is under the Blood? ::

Celia: :: Yes. ::

:: My mother has adopted two children that are not biologically hers. She is prepared to take a third should we find his home situation less than ideal. ::

Celia turns to face Camilla. Though small, her smile is warm.

:: She loves with her whole heart. Freely. Unapologetically. She will love you. You will have a home with us. ::

GM: :: Your offer is kind, Celia. Thank you for your kindness. But I am also Sanctified. I am God’s wolf. It is not the wolf’s place to lie with the lamb. Wisdom, not dogma, guides the Eighth Canon. ::

:: The relationship between a ghoul and their domitor is not one of equals, or of love freely given. Your relationship with your mother will end in tragedy. ::

Celia: For long moments Celia sits in silence, eyes not leaving her sister’s face. When she speaks again the words are quiet, even in the mind.

:: I do not doubt that many of our kind have had relationships with mortal family end in tragedy; I do not deny that it is not without its perils. But I do believe that Kindred often forget from where we came. We are other, but it was not always this way. We were mortal once. We trusted once. We loved once. Humans are social creatures; they, and once we, pack bond with each other, with animals, with inanimate objects. It is their nature. ::

:: Life among the Damned teaches us another way. A separate life, Kindred and kine. But Kindred and Kindred as well. There are few enough who bond as readily with each other as two unacquainted humans would. We play at being social, but we never truly let ourselves be seen. We wait for the knife in the back. I will not dismiss your faith and the purpose you find among the Sanctified, nor do I wish to offend you by offering commentary or telling you to let go of your experiences. But I will plainly state that religions are created for a reason. ::

:: Perhaps I am blinded by my the events of my unlife. Perhaps I am open where others are not. Or perhaps I have set myself on collision course. If so, I will learn from the mistake, as there is little now that can be done about my mother. Her memories are past the point of erasure. ::

:: I would like you to meet her. Whether or not you choose to remain in contact after that will be your decision. ::

:: I believe there is more to our existence than what we so often see. We have eternity, yet use it to play political games to see who can sit upon the throne, and very frequently the name that follows the title “prince” offers little change from what was. ::

:: Some may call it naivety. I call it hope. Progress. Determination for a better future for Kindred and kine alike. I would hate to spend my Requiem climbing a mountain to squat upon a plateau and squabble with others. There is more meaning in my unlife than that. ::

GM: :: We are wolves. Wolves may know affection and loyalty among their kind. Wolves may hunt in packs even as they fight tooth and fang against rival packs. Wolves may take mates. Wolves may rear offspring. Wolves are social animals. The Testament does not name us God’s wolves by mere accident. ::

:: But it is not for the wolf to lie with the lamb. We are of one kind and they another. ::

:: I do not accept that my faith was created by Kindred. My faith was revealed to Kindred through divine will. Present-day secularists and apologists make a great deal of the secular wisdom to be found within the Bible, such as the prohibition against consuming shellfish associated with greater risk of disease. They may dispute the source of that wisdom, but even they do not deny wisdom. There is wisdom, too, in prohibiting the dead from congress with the living. Wisdom that even those who do not share my faith may appreciate on its secular basis. ::

:: Yet there are some lessons that may only be learned from experience. Nor am I blind to the realities of faith within the French Quarter. Your claim upon your living kin predates mine and they are yours to do with as you please. But you will regret your choice to remain in contact with them. ::

Celia: :: You just spoke to me of cherishing my time among them, for their lives are short. ::

GM: :: I spoke of cherishing them. Not your time with them. ::

:: I, too, care for the Underwoods. It is my love for them that drives me to remain apart from them. To many newer Kindred, my faith may seem cruel. Time has taught me that it is not. ::

Celia: :: Celia still exists because of the relationship I have with my mother, because of the closeness I share with my family. Even our sire’s lessons did not break me or broaden that gap. He could not make me feel nothing, as he did. ::

:: Were it not for her I would have turned into Someone Else. Donovan’s childe in manner as well as blood. The night he came for me he took me to the edge of sanity. I felt my will succumbing to the Beast inside of us all, discarding higher thought in favor of primal instincts. It was her that allowed me to pull back so I did not lose myself completely. ::

:: I respect your wisdom, Camilla, and I thank you for sharing it with me. I will endeavor to heed it moving forward. ::

GM: :: Our sire is dead. What relationships you maintain with your living kin are now fully your choice. If you do not wish to heed the Canons, I will not stop you. That is not the reality of things in the French Quarter. But do not tell me that you will act on my advice if you do not intend to do so. ::

:: As to your mother. I will meet her upon the condition that we speak more of my faith, and that you listen to my words with an open heart. ::

:: I bear her love, as the daughter of my sister, but I do not wish her to love me. I do not wish to be part of her family. I will treat her with courtesy, but so too will I be plain as to this fact if she appears confused. ::

Celia: :: Camilla, it has not been and never will be my intent to deceive you. The warning about travesty has come too late to reverse course with my mother, but that does not mean I will continue to traipse along with other relationships, head buried in the sand. ::

:: As you say, the Quarter is limited in its faith; I have never had much opportunity to learn the Canons as closely as I should. I have made studies of religions, ancient and otherwise, but I have found few enough mentors in our own. There is always something more to learn, and I do not take lightly your willingness to teach. I will gladly speak to you of the Sanctified with open heart and open mind. ::

GM: :: Very well. We will speak further of those things later. ::

:: For now, we have some time left before we reach the Evergreen. ::

Celia: Celia nods, returning her gaze to the city outside of the window.

:: What are able to tell me about him? ::

GM: :: Our sire? ::

Celia: :: Yes. Who he was, where he came from. ::

GM: :: I am not prepared to answer those questions. ::

Celia: Celia nods. She gives her sister’s hand a gentle squeeze.

:: And of yourself, Camilla? I would like to know you. ::

GM: :: Your mother or grandmother could tell you of my mortal life. I was born and raised in the city. I attended school at McGehee. My life was sheltered and comfortable, though I did not believe it so at the time. Too few kine are happy with what they have. ::

:: I was a naive and foolish girl. I made poor decisions and squandered what I had. Our sire offered power and escape from a bad situation of my own making. I worshiped him, and would have done anything for him, even before he fed me his blood. ::

Celia: It’s a familiar story. Celia listens raptly, drinking in the details.

:: How did you meet him? ::

GM: :: Can one meet a phantom in one’s dreams? He had long haunted our family. I had seen glimpses and hints of him, but little more. We first spoke to one another in the hospital. He offered a devil’s bargain at what I believed my lowest moment. ::

Celia: :: Why our family? ::

Then,

:: What took you to the hospital? ::

GM: :: I am unprepared to answer your first question. ::

:: I was in the hospital to deliver my son. ::

Celia: :: You said that was your lowest moment. :: There’s a question behind the words.

GM: :: The birth of a child is not always a happy occasion. It was not for your sister. ::

Celia: :: No. It wasn’t. An action I took that I will rue for the rest of my Requiem. Her death, as well. ::

:: Did you grow up as she and I did, with your own Maxen? ::

GM: :: My relationship with my mortal father was unhappy, but our lives were not the same. I did not live in terror of him. ::

Celia: :: I asked once. If he knew what Maxen did to us. He said it made me strong. ::

Laughter, even in the mind.

:: Yet I failed him. I sank into comfort and excess. Hedonism. I could have been another in his image. In yours. ::

:: What for you? Why made you strong to him? ::

GM: :: That I was molded in his image gained me nothing. He believed that I, too, failed him in the end. I was unable to prevent his final death. ::

Celia: :: Would you have done it differently, then? ::

GM: :: His love was unattainable. He had none to give. ::

:: Wishing for the past to be different is useless, nor was my will my own. I am glad he is dead and that I am free of him. ::

Celia: :: Camilla, do you think it is possible for two Kindred to have affection for each other for reasons other than political gain and self interest? ::

:: I don’t mean him. ::

GM: :: Is there any other rationale for my actions towards you? ::

:: I believe it is possible, yes. Even common. But it is also common for political gain and self-interest to intrude upon that affection. ::

:: More monsters are made than born. ::

:: Affection that is never compromised by the world’s demands is rarer. ::

Celia: :: Your affection toward me, and mine toward you, is what I speak of. ::

GM: :: You ask if it is real? ::

Celia: :: No. I ask if it is rare. There are things I would tell you that I have not confessed to others. I wonder if I am alone in this, or if other Kindred share these feelings with one another. ::

GM: :: Affection is common. A depth of affection that overcomes all political demands and self-interest is rare. ::

:: Lesser degrees are correspondingly more common. ::

:: So too is affection, in all degrees, more common among the young than the old. ::

:: Even those who do not share my faith still call us the Damned. ::

Celia: :: There is more I would speak to you on this topic. A later date. You were telling me of you. The hospital. The offer of Embrace. ::

GM: :: There is little more to be said. He offered a devil’s bargain and it was not until after I agreed that I realized its price. By then, I was his. ::

:: Ask your mother or grandmother if you would hear more of a foolish dead girl. I would not have us dwell upon her past when present and future remain in motion. ::

Celia: :: Yes, Camilla. With your permission I will speak to them of Doris. ::

GM: :: You may do so. ::

:: I am aware you and Nico Cimpreon were involved with one another. He is dead. Our sire killed him. ::

Celia: Nico.

Silence meets the words. A long silence, one rife with conflicting emotions. For long moments she forgets to feel.

:: How did it happen? ::

GM: :: He and a coterie of Lasombra were among the coalition that brought down our sire. I can only presume he was involved to seek revenge for the events that resulted in his banishment. ::

Celia: :: I saved his life once. I took a punishment in his stead. What for him was final death turned into fourteen nights of lashings. Jamal kept me company. ::

:: I had always thought I would meet him again. I plan a trip outside the city; it was him who I intended to find. ::

:: Fitting, isn’t it, that his death was by our sire’s hands when prior I had denied him thus. ::

GM: :: He tackled our sire when the latter attempted to retreat during the battle’s final stage. Donovan removed his head. His last words were to call our sire a cocksucker for ‘making me do Jade.’ His sacrifice bought time for the holy man to complete a spell that stripped our sire of his speed and flight. ::

Celia: :: Making him do Jade? ::

GM: :: I am uncertain what he meant. ::

:: I am glad for his presence and sacrifice. Our sire would not have lost the battle if he retained his full powers. ::

Celia: :: He whipped me. At our sire’s behest. ::

Jade turns her face away. Red colors her cheeks, red for the boy she lost long ago and thought to find again. Would that it stain her cheeks to show the world all that has been lost. A great gash upon her, a scar across face or back for every life that she has ruined. So too for the rest of their kind, that they might find what once made their hearts beat inside their cold chests.

:: I don’t have words. I want to honor him, but I grieve all the same for what once was, and what could have been. ::

:: Thank you for telling me. ::

GM: :: I am sorry for your loss. I was unaware you had remained close. ::

Celia: :: Too much to give from one heart. Like my mother. ::

:: May I ask you something pertaining to my family? ::

GM: :: You may. ::

Celia: :: The mural revealed many family secrets, such as Lucy’s true parents, though it read “presumed” on my connection to hers. Both Maxen and Ron are listed as presumed, beneath the words “Generation Seven.” I’m curious as to what that means. If you cannot answer, then I wish to know if Ron is not my biological father any more than Maxen is. ::

:: I’d also like to know how Payton knew to send her rebellious child to the dollhouse for reconstruction. ::

GM: :: I do not believe Ronald Landreneau to be your biological father. I will answer no further. ::

:: The Dollhouse is known to many kine among old and wealthy families. They are aware the headmistress may reform even the most recalcitrant wayward daughter, though they are unaware as to her true nature. ::

Celia: :: Is the question of my father one that you will speak of in time? ::

:: Or is this something I am to discover on my own? ::

GM: :: In time, when and if I believe you may be trusted with that information.. ::

:: I cannot stop you from investigating it elsewhere, but I do not believe you will find it from another source. ::

Celia: It’s Celia who looks back to her sister.

:: Then I thank you, and look forward to how I may yet redeem myself for my recent actions. ::

:: One further query. I no longer wish to rely on others to fight my battles, both figuratively as well as literally. I have been coddled and spoiled and it is time that I rise to my feet. Will you teach me to wield a blade? Or will you permit me to borrow or pay for Harrison to give lessons in combat when he is not otherwise occupied? ::

GM: :: Harrison would attempt to rape you. He is a mad dog on a leash. He has no interest in helping those weaker than he, only exploiting them. I suspect he will require further lessons before he is completely broken in to my service. The shattered blood bond will exacerbate his mental instability. ::

Celia: :: It is not being raped by he or his ilk that I fear; my body has thus been used for years. It means nothing to me. ::

Wry amusement colors the mental words. At this moment she feels little for what once was.

GM: :: I learned bladework from our sire. His lessons were harsh but instructive. I will teach you. ::

Celia: :: Thank you. I look forward to these lessons. If there is some skill I have you do not yet master I would like to offer the same. ::

GM: :: I will likely have little spare time in the coming nights. But I will consider the offer. ::

:: I would also warn you to beware ghosts and to keep salt nearby. A large force of wraiths was part of the coalition that destroyed our sire. I do not know what they sought to gain from his final death, but if they targeted him they may target us. Your sire and I caused great pain to many of them. They may pursue revenge. ::

Celia: :: I will do so. Thank you for the warning. ::

GM: That’s what sisters are for, isn’t it?

To look out for one another.

To be there for one another.

Celia may have lost a sire, but perhaps she has still come out ahead.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

GM: The car eventually reaches the Evergreen along its circuitous route. Camilla requests that Celia tender the remaining $50,000 to Jamal before they get out—“For I am uncertain what will await us inside.”

Jamal laughs darkly and licks his lips, eyeing Celia like he might a piece of meat. She need not have her sister’s powers of ESP to recognize the equally dark desires in his eyes. It is fortunate, perhaps, that violation no longer fears her.

“Someone’s gonna get it…”

A knife appears in Camilla’s hands, flaying open the ghoul’s cheek to the bone. He hisses and clutches his face. Donovan’s elder childe regards him coolly, ice mask back in place.

“Your thoughts are plain to me, half-blood. Mind your place.”

The Evergreen is a hive of activity when they step inside, Camilla still disguised. It feels like everyone is either there or away on some errand that is the subject of much speculation and gossip—though none nearly so much as the fact that Donovan is dead. The sheriff is fallen! Savoy is going to make a move. A big move. It’s on everyone’s lips. The only question is how.

Fabian smilingly sees the pair up to one of the third floor’s Louis XIV-style sitting rooms. Pietro, Draco, Gamberro, and the redhead join them. Pietro wastes no time in trash-talking Jade, regaling the other three Kindred with all the sordid details of how she messed up. He says he is never taking her on another burglary job again—not if she paid him.

The other three Kindred laugh and exclaim at his stories. Draco laughs hardest of all. The pale-faced vampire looks like just another smiling, cruel face in Elysium now. Relishing pain, kicking people while they’re down, and right at home among the monsters he once so deplored.

They don’t wait long before Antoine Savoy and Natasha Preston come to see them, though. They wait barely any time at all.

“Ah, the returning heroes of the hour!” the French Quarter lord exclaims with a wide grin. He lavishes praise upon Pietro and Camilla (the latter not by name) for cracking the vault and retrieving the sheriff’s secrets. He extols Draco and his coterie for arriving in the nick of time to help defeat the prince’s agents. He sings praises and overflows with compliments. He looks immeasurably pleased. He declares what a glorious future awaits and what high places they have secured for themselves within it. He promises rich rewards for their faithful service—“Rewards you shall claim very, very soon!” he declares with a knowing wink.

He does not once reference, speak to, or even look at Jade.

He acts for all the world as if she is invisible.

Peter Lebeaux appears, too. He accepts the briefcase from Camilla and states that he’ll “get right on this.” Savoy fetes, flatters, and warmly receives his elder grandchilde like she’s a long-lost daughter finally returned home. “I have been so looking forward to discussing your future with us, my dear,” he declares with a wide a smile.

“As for you, Mr. Draco, I want to see you next,” he nods towards Celia’s one-time lover. “There’s much work to be done, and no rest for the wicked—or one of my newly top-most agents!” he grins. “I think your talents are going to make you just the right man for this assignment.”

“Of course, my lord,” Draco smiles in response.

:: I will ensure he knows of the help you were to our mission, :: echoes Camilla’s telepathic voice before she heads into the elevator with Savoy and Preston. Pietro, Draco, Gamberro, and the redhead depart the sitting room after some last words of praise and direction from the French Quarter lord.

Jade is once again ignored. No one even tells her to leave.

Celia: They do not need to. Long have her thoughts been distant to this room, words and taunts and pointed ignorance but a buzz in the back of her mind. Stoic as it is, her face could be carved of marble.

Only one receives any sign that she remains aware of their physical surroundings: the answering warmth of her smile bridges the mental link between Donovan’s childer before the elder of them disappears behind the doors.

The others depart. For long moments Celia sits alone with her thoughts. Gently, the darkness comes for her. It draws her into its embrace: a hand on her back, another on her cheek, it tilts her face upward and smiles at her, a new forever friend. It swallows her whole.

In the sanctity behind the shadowy veil, she dances.

Outside the moon hangs low in the sky and stars greet her with twinkling, far away lights. Some say the future is in the stars, but how could it be? Their light is a thing of the past, thousands of years in the making.

No, the future is not written in the stars; the stars are from whence she came. Celia, of the Heavens. It is her past. Not her destiny.

The social snubbing was meant to wound. But the blade missed its mark; for the first time in her existence she is not slave to another. No domineering male figure pushes his will upon her to bend her to his needs. No patron forces her into actions she must abide less she face the consequences of lethargy. She has no master to answer to. She is nothing, beholden to no one.

Wings unfurl from her body; a spring in her step lifts her into the air. The nightjar trills its serenity to the skies.

They are free.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Ayame: Later, a Toreador Anarch slips through the streets of Mid-City until she reaches the apartment building she had been to with another face, as another girl. She is not one of the multiples; she is something different, something other. This mask is just a mask.

Perception is reality.

Clad in leather leggings, combat boots, a distressed tank and a hooded sweater made for someone three inches taller, Ayame Seong-Jin nestles within the shadows’ embrace to make her trek. Leather gloves cover the disfigured skin on her hands, and over it all she wears a black, shapeless coat that reaches her knees. A skullcap keeps her hair out of her face, and a stake burns a hole in her pocket.

Just in case.

Unseen, she moves through the halls of the apartment building, up the flights of stairs, and to the door a girl named Celia had once been carried through with a piece of wood in her chest. She carries a white envelope in her hand with the name “Durant” scrawled across it. Unless the girl is much mistaken, the recipient should be returning home soon with the face of Coco’s childe. She waits until she hears the familiar pattern of his footsteps around the corner to step out of the shadows and deposit the letter between the bottom of door and hallway carpet, lodged halfway through.

GM: Ayame waits and waits until the sun is nearly up.

Roderick does not return to the apartment unit.

Ayame: Ayame becomes Celia and returns to her haven.

She’s not giving up so easily.


Wednesday evening, 23 March 2016

GM: Celia receives a text message from Mélissaire when she awakens at her haven the next evening, saying to stop by the Evergreen.

Celia: She gives the ghoul a call.

GM: “Hello, Miss Kalani, what can I do for you?” greets the ghoul. Indistinct noises are audible in the background. Voices? Footsteps?

“We’ll have to make this quick, if you please—I’m a little stretched for time right now.”

Celia: Politely, Celia inquires as to when she’s requested to stop by the Evergreen. She puts a note of concern in her voice; is everything okay? She says, in a round about way, that she’d thought Lord Savoy might not want her around for a while considering the events of last night.

GM: Mélissaire chuckles with amusement at Celia’s question.

“Have you been paying attention to the news, my dear?”

Lord Savoy is not summoning Celia for a personal audience, Mélissaire states. Many of the French Quarter’s tenants are being summoned to the Evergreen. They are advised to arrive as soon as possible—the early bird will get the worm.

“It’s time for you all to earn your keeps!” the ghoul exclaims brightly. “Rent is due tonight.”

More noises are audible in the background. Many voices are talking, some at high volume. Mélissaire briefly breaks off from the call to talk to someone else. The ghoul sounds very busy. All of the Evergreen sounds very busy.

Celia: She says she’ll be by soon.

GM: “I’m so very pleased to hear,” beams Mélissaire. “Be sure you dress and pack for some rough and tumble! Things could get pretty hairy.”

The ghoul ends the call after a last goodbye.

Celia: They’re going to war.

This is what Roderick had been talking about all those weeks ago. This is it, isn’t it. And he was wrong about Savoy not putting her in the field. Maybe last week he wouldn’t have, but now that she’s lost his favor? No reason to spare her.

She digs out another phone. Ayame calls Roderick.

GM: The phone rings and rings without anyone picking up. Roderick finally sends a short text:

Yes?

Ayame: Need to see you. Urgent.

GM: Can’t.

Ayame: It’s about your sire.

GM: Busy. Text it.

Ayame: Carolla is not your brother. They set you up.

GM: A few moments pass.

Where are you?

Ayame: Can meet you. Easton Park.

GM: St. Louis Cemetery #3. Ten minutes.

Ayame: She strips and changes her clothing, then her face, and finally her form. She’s out the window and on her way to the cemetery, invisible in the dark night, flying across the city faster than any bird should be.

Two miles to the cemetery? She’s there in a little over two minutes. The bird lands upon the nearby apartment building, Espalande at City Park. Still veiled in shadows, she returns to her assumed identity with her typical clothing: leather leggings, combat boots, a hooded sweater made for someone three inches taller, and a skullcap. Gloves cover her disfigured hands.

The perch gives her an unrivaled vantage point of the cemetery’s entrances and exists; she keeps an eye out for Durant and anyone he might have chosen to bring with him.

Once she arrives she texts back a confirmation that she’ll meet him in ten.

GM: It’s not long at all before Roderick arrived. So do four other cars, surrounding the cemetery. Nevertheless, he gets out and walks in on his own. He’s dressed in sturdy clothes that look as if they can take a beating.

His face looks grim, hard, and unsmiling.

Silently, he waits.

Ayame: He receives a text message in short order.

Send your friends back to the Quarter.

GM: Roderick finally smiles.

It does not reach his eyes as he taps out:

Hello, Celia.

Ayame: Wrong thread.

GM: We both know that even on my worst night, with one hand tied behind my back, I still could take you by myself.

They won’t disturb us. But they will stay outside as insurance against any traps or ambushes you might be or have been planning.

If you are not planning anything, you have no greater reason to fear for your safety. You’re already unsafe around me.

Ayame: Top of the Espalande.

GM: No. You’ll come down here.

By the way, only someone with Celia’s skillset could have made it there so fast.

Ayame: And yet he made it in ten. She hadn’t told him she’d arrived, only that she would see him in ten.

Anyone with a car could make it in ten. Anyone with speed could make it in ten.

GM: Her former lover offers no further response as he awaits hers.

Ayame: Top of the Espalande. You are bound to him with no reason to believe me. I will not so willingly turn myself in for moving against him.

GM: Roderick chuckles.

Have it your way, Celia.

He turns to leave the cemetery.

Celia: Silent wings carry her through the cemetery to land atop a nearby mausoleum. She returns to her bipedal form. Her features blur and she becomes Celia once more. She is under no illusion that she is safe here; a single bound can take him to her. Wary, she poises herself to flee should things go south.

“Here,” she says. For he alone, the shadows part.

GM: Roderick turns around.

“Explain,” he says without preamble.

His face looks as lifeless as the stone graves around them.

But it’s not the same dead expression on Henry Garrison’s face. No, there’s still life on his son’s, even dead as he is.

There’s just no life around her.

Celia: “I did to him what we did to Flannagan. And Gui. In the moment of his final death the spell work that was used on him came undone and I found his real print. Blood only as strong as mine. Four steps removed from you. He was Brujah, but he was not Coco’s childe.”

“You were set up and made to believe he was, as Savoy knew this was one of the few things that would pull you away from your sire.”

“There were multiple hands involved. Lebeaux did the spell work. He had a sample of your blood, and if for any reason that wasn’t enough he had Micheal’s to work with. I know he has done this work before because he has done it for me when Savoy summons me as Dicentra. Preston and Savoy put a tracker on your phone when we went to see them on Sunday. I believe they also implanted a command into your mind that night with an activation clause for finding out about Carolla. Veronica convinced Carolla to take you out and gave him the way to track you. Preston and Savoy knew that I planned to meet him on Thursday, though they told me that we would move on him Saturday.”

“I believe there was also some spell work done on you Sunday, or on Thursday when you met them alone, but that’s only a guess. Lebeaux made a big deal about you needing to be the one to kill Gui. I believe one of the serpents present would finish the spell when you took his unlife.”

“The spa was bugged. When I took Carolla apart to find out his age—no older than us—I said I was going to take his brother apart as well to find out all his secrets. I’d mentioned to Silvestri that I wanted Micheal at Saturday’s party. No doubt the word got back to Savoy, or someone merely listened to the exchange at the spa, and Preston won Micheal during last night’s fight.”

“I suspect Savoy also had your sister Embraced. When he found out that I told you he knew about her he changed plans. When I moved Dani away from Beach on Bourbon, Gui reported it to Preston. I asked Gui for assistance finding her sire and he later mentioned he’d needed to check with Savoy about it. That Saturday I met with him and Gamberro to tempt him with Carolla’s corpse. We set a time for later that evening.”

“The moment I left the Evergreen that night I was tailed. I drove back to the Evergreen and was abducted right outside the doors. You were immediately set up with a new night doctor and new friends. I suspect Savoy tipped off the Guard about my departure time. I wasn’t supposed to survive.”

“I missed the meeting with Gui. We arranged to meet on Sunday instead and he would bring Dani’s sire. He and Gamberro came inside the spa to check it was Carolla, then Gamberro left and brought you back with him, no sire in sight. I suspect that the sire has been disposed of by now, if not as soon as it happened, as Savoy would not want his hand in this revealed should you question the sire.”

“You saw what happened with Flannagan’s corpse when we were done with her. The same happened to Carolla; they were his blackened bones on the table at my spa. If Carolla’s blood had the potency we expected then mine would have thickened when I consumed him. It did not. I learned two skills from him, one from Gui. Flannagan’s blood was equivalent to Carolla’s but I only learned one from her; I suspect that the strength of their blood determines what you can learn from them, and sharing her split that between us. It is no wonder that elders hide this: they are tempting targets to those who know.”

“Somewhat relatedly, I also suspect that it was Savoy who sent the hunters after us the day we spent at your haven. Their deaths weighed heavily on your mind. That plus your sister’s Embrace plus Coco’s supposed Mafia child was enough to drive you into darkness.”

“Setites are charmers. They bring you in and you never realize they have you until it’s too late. It is why he surrounds you with them.”

“I suspect that Will Carolla was the childe of Don Carolla. He mentioned wanting to find Roxanne Gerlette because she had crossed his uncle, and I don’t imagine Roxanne had any reason to interact with him under a mortal guise. He also knew taming. While hardly rare, it does require a teacher, and the rumors about Don Carolla involve the pet alligators. Ghouls presumably, and Will Carolla learned the skill from Don Carolla so that he might speak to them and avoid the aggression our kind faces from animals.”

GM: Roderick listens.

He doesn’t interrupt. He doesn’t question. He doesn’t frown, or give an indication of surprise, or of much of anything else.

It’s only towards the end, finally, that he snickers.

Charmers. They bring you in and you never realize they have you until it’s too late.

He chortles, grinning from ear to ear. Quietly at first, then louder. He cannot contain his mirth. The cemetery rings with peals of his laughter. Dark and bleak and booming, brimming with poison, with contempt, with mockery, with mad, wild glee. There’s only one man laughing, but he laughs like he’s listening to the funniest thing in all the world. He laughs like he did in the car, on the way to Edith’s diablerie, when Jade thought he was surely cracked. It’s the laugh of a dead man. The laugh of the Damned.

He finally stops.

Then smiles at Celia.

Then he holds up his phone.

“I’ve audio recorded this treasonous little story of yours, Celia.”

It’s a poisonous smile. The kind they wear in Elysium.

“I think Lord Savoy would be very interested to hear it. Don’t you?”

He tucks the phone back away.

“Don’t worry, though. There’s a few things you can do for me if you want it to stay buried forever.”

Celia: No, she hadn’t thought that would work.

But now her conscience is clear.

No expression flickers across her face. Not at the laughter. Not at the recording. Not at the threat. She lifts her shoulders and spreads her hands in a way that suggests she’s taken what action she could and now she’s done. She offers no rebuttal. No insistence. No pleas that he believe her, no swearing to God or upon a grave, no demand that he give her a chance to find proof.

“What things?”

GM: “Let’s see,” he says thoughtfully, “there’s sharing that little shifting trick of yours, to change faces. That would be awfully convenient to know.”

He grins.

“I’ve always thought it was so poetic, how you knew that. Being literally two-faced. Sometimes the Blood really does tell.”

Celia: “What else?”

GM: “I’ll think on it.”

Celia: “If I make it through the fighting tonight I will teach you.”

GM: He sneers at her.

“Don’t count on my help.”

Celia: Celia levels a stare at him.

“I hadn’t.”

She looks past him to the entrance of the cemetery, where his friends and his car wait. Her face changes. Jade looks right at home in the leather and boots. She’s the one who finally smiles, though it does not meet the eyes she named herself for.

“On to the Evergreen.”

GM: Roderick’s—Draco’s?—sneer doesn’t abate.

It looks so at home on him, now.

The sneers.

The contempt.

The threats.

The lies.

He wasn’t even mad, over the Ayame lie. Over the other ‘lies’ he caught her in. Just business as usual between them. Just business as usual between two vampires. Two liars and predators and backstabbers who only deal with one another on a comparative power basis, and who never share anything real.

He sneers at her, this pale-faced and fanged predator in the graveyard, and he looks like just another cruel face in Elysium.

A low rain has already started to fall.

“No. You’re on your own.”

With those last words, the boy who once loved Celia turns and leaves.


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Story Thirteen, Celia XXXVII

“Guess whose closet I’m raiding right now?”
Celia Flores


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

GM: “…reaching this part of the story has aroused my lusts, my whore,” smiles Paul, staring down at Celia’s staked corpse.

“Let us have an coital interlude before I finish it. A last round with my whore.”

He unbuckles his pants and unzips his fly.

“For that is what you are, Celia,” he smiles, stroking her cheek.

“That is what you have always been, from the moment you first entered my house. That is what you shall always be, until the moment that I dispose of you. That is what you shall live on as in my memory, and that is what you shall love on as in the memory of your family members, after I tender them the evidence of our purchased liaisons.”

His cock is already hard.

“My whore.”

Without further ado, he moves to enter her.

Celia: She’d been here. Abused. Chained, like she is now, with little booties on her hands and a collar on her neck.

A collar she willingly accepted.

Like she accepted her sire’s.

He’d fed from her. Terrorized her. Let her father terrorize her mother. Got him off when the accusations came rolling in.

Thrown her mother off a roof.

Slain her loyal ghoul.

Saved her.

Killed her.

Used her.

Abused her.

For years. Her whole life. She was only eight when he came for them. How many of the pieces inside of her are because of him?

He’d abandoned her. Told her not to trust her grandsire. Told her not to trust anyone but him. They all want to use her, he said.

Like he did.

Paul had broken her for him. Easy pickings.

Like now. She’d lain still. Put the stake in her own chest.

His mistake.

Convenient, isn’t it, that the wood had missed her heart.

But she’s so very, very good at pretending.

That’s the thing about whores: they’re all dishonest creatures.

Her rage fuels her movements. She shifts: the girl is gone and the cat springs free, quick as a flash. Booties, collar, and gag fall away, fitted to a humanoid rather than feline form. She shifts again: the cat’s rumble turns to a roar when the striped one takes over. Claws and fangs come for Paul’s face.

He’ll never get a chance to fuck her.

GM: The chains fall away too, likewise fitted for human rather than feline knees and wrists.

No. Not just any human.

Young women.

Teenage girls.

Kids, young and dumb and vulnerable, who Paul puts on their backs and turns into his whores.

Turns into Donovan’s vessels.

Turns into corpses, when he’s had enough of them.

How did she escape?

Why didn’t she meet the same fate?

Paul didn’t get to that point in the story. Just her screaming past the gag.

His bad luck.

When the red haze clears, the tiger can be certain of one thing:

His bad luck indeed.

Paul doesn’t look like he died from the suffocation caused by a straight neck break. That’s the best way to go, if a tiger kills you. That’s their preferred way to kill. Faster. Cleaner.

Paul did not die clean. The man’s limbs have been ripped apart. Wholesale chunks of flesh have been ripped off from the ruined corpse. Chunks of meat lie strewn about the living room, some of them wrapped in shredded strips of suit like half-opened birthday presents. Others meat chunks in the tiger’s mouth. The man’s neck is completely destroyed and the head half ripped off. The torso is a scratching post covered in inches deep claw lacerations. The smell of blood and gore is overpowering for the tiger, though not so much that it can’t smell the shit and piss expelled from Paul’s voided bowels.

There’s not much expression left on the shredded-apart face.

But the tiger feels confident that this man died in great pain and great fear.

Celia: She hadn’t needed anyone to save her this time.

Perfect, isn’t it, since no one is coming.

Celia might feel bad in the future. Paul probably knew something that could have helped.

Now, though, she’s only hungry.

She feasts, savoring the sour taste of his fear.

GM: The tiger chews, squeezing as much blood as it can from the shredded bits of meat in its mouth, then spits. It’s a novel way to feed. Paul’s sour, adrenaline-spiked blood is some of the most luscious she’s ever tasted, and so unlike her usual lust-sweetened fare. The man’s fear is completely real, and fresh like a succulent lemon plucked straight from the tree.

How often was he the scared one?

Celia: Not nearly often enough.

Shame, too. She could have made him scream for years.

GM: Rain steadily patters against the house’s windows.

The three girls’ naked corpses blankly stare up at the ceiling.

What’s left of Paul’s head has no intact eyes to stare with.

Celia: But she didn’t come here for him.

Not entirely.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Celia: Celia moves on once her hunger has been slaked, tearing through her sire’s haven to find anything that might be even remotely useful. She leaves the bodies where they’re at. She can come back to fully drain them when she’s done.

She starts by lifting the key card off of Paul and taking the stairs two at a time to search the rooms behind the steel doors.

GM: The first door also requires a finger scan to be let in. Celia retrieves Paul’s hand and presses it to the surface. The steel door slides open to reveal racks upon racks of military-grade firearms and ammunition. Manual, semi-auto, and automatic pistols. Shotguns, subguns, assault rifles. More ‘exotic’ weapons include a flamethrower, two grenade launchers, and a belt-fed machine gun. There are also canisters of grenades, explosives, gas canisters, vials of poison, and almost as many melee weapons as firearms. Claymores, longswords, shortswords, fencing foils, switchblades, nightsticks, stakes and mallets, and still more. Some weapons and ammunition are labeled as ‘silver’, ‘cold-forged iron’, and other more exotic substances and materials. There are more instruments of death than Celia can count or identify.

The second room contains Kevlar armor vests, riot shields, and a wide range of surveillance, communicative, and survival gear. Drones, burner phones, SIM cards, bugs, bug sweepers, wiretaps, flashlights, medical kits, binoculars, metal detectors, radios, city maps, GPS devices, hardware tools, canned food, water, antibiotics, emergency blankets and ponchos, gas masks, water filtration units, and still more assorted tools. It looks as if there’s something there for every occasion.

The third room contains a modern-looking office space. There are bookshelves, stacks of papers, filing cabinets, and several phones and password-protected computers. There are no plants, pictures, artwork, or other personal touches. Bolted to the wall is a heavy-looking steel safe.

The smell of death and suffering hits Celia the moment she opens the fourth door. The room beyond contains variety of wicked-looking steel instruments whose only purpose can be the infliction of pain. Some of the torture devices look downright medieval and pulled from another era. Others are modern and include a suite of surgical tools. There are cabinets of labeled drugs and sedatives, as well as a wide range of personal restraints. Materials range from steel to plastic to cloth to leather.

A college-age woman is restrained in spread-eagle position along the surgical table. Brains, blood, and skull shards messily decorate the floor underneath her. Someone shot her in the head.

Celia: It’s like getting the winning ticket for a lottery she hadn’t known she’d been playing. Weapons. Armor. Survival equipment. Everything anyone could need for the end of days and more.

And now it’s hers. Hers, provided she can get it out.

The thing about bad guys, like every movie has ever shown, is that they’ve all definitely got a way to transport all the shit in their arsenal, which means there’s some sort of vehicle in the attached garage below with enough trunk space (or space in general, sometimes they’re into the SUV thing) to get it out.

Celia puts on a burst of speed to fly through the rooms upstairs, gathering duffel bags and suitcases to fill with what she finds. Weapons. Armor. Restraints. Medications. The tools in the room with the dead girl. The locked computers in the office. Files. Everything in that room, everything except the safe in the corner. She’ll come back to that in a moment. She snaps a photo of the dead girl’s face on her phone, then makes sure she does the three other girls downstairs.

There’s enough blood here to feed a handful of licks. She doesn’t waste any of that, either. Mason jars, empty wine bottles, whatever she can find—she drains them and tucks those away too.

Then it’s back up the stairs, searching the other rooms. Beneath the bed. Inside the closets. Along the walls. Behind the mirrors, the shelves, the books. Even Roderick had a secret space in his haven; there’s no reason the sheriff wouldn’t as well.

Thinking of him makes her wonder where he’s at. How long ago had she called him? She checks her phone for the time before resuming her search.

GM: There are several more steel doors.

Paul’s keycard does not open them.

Celia: She looks for another way in. Surely there’s more than just a keycard. Number pad. Hinges. Retinal scanner. Anything.

GM: The remaining doors have retinal as well as keycard scanners.

Celia: Paul’s eye finds itself removed from its socket. She scans it.

GM: A panel opens in the ceiling. Fire pours from the nozzle. Heat incinerates Celia’s clothes and consumes her body. Skin blackens. Fat pops and liquefies. All is pain. All is suffering. The Beast screams as Celia’s vision goes red.

When she comes to, she’s lying at the foot of the stars, blackened and suffering and all but naked. The pungent smell of smoke and cooked flesh fills her nostrils.

Celia: Someone takes their security seriously.

Sprawled in red hot pain at the bottom of the stairs, Celia lies still for only a moment before she’s on her feet again. Paul’s stolen blood heals barely any of the hurts. Even in death, her sire wounds her.

She moves to Paul’s body, popping the other eye out of its socket.

Not many licks can claim that they have stared into Donovan’s eyes. But Celia is one who can. She sculpts the eye until it resembles the stormy depths of her sire’s gaze, then goes up the stairs to try again, one eye on lookout for other traps.

GM: The rug upstairs where Celia stood is all but incinerated. It and the only partly scorched wooden floor are also soaked wet.

Celia scans the new eye.

The ceiling panel re-opens. Fire belches forth.

Celia sees red. She comes to at the foot of the stairs again. She’s avoided the worst of the flames, but there are some nasty black burns along her right arm.

Celia: Maybe she hadn’t gotten the eye right.

“You know what the definition of insanity is?” someone pretty sneers. “Doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

“Not the same. Paul’s eye. Donovan’s eye.”

“Except Paul didn’t have any eyes left, genius. You took one from a whore.”

Celia glances at the girls in question. Ah. So she had.

“Move over, I’m driving.”

Quick as that, Celia becomes Jade. The green-eyed goddess takes the stairs two at a time to find the first room with the weapons, selecting a heavy sledgehammer from the wall. Then she’s back at the room with the door that won’t open, moving past it to the adjacent room.

She taps a few times with her knuckles before she finds a likely spot, one of the hollow sounding clunks when she raps. Then she puts the sledgehammer through the same spot.

GM: The sledgehammer smashes through wood.

To her chagrin, it loudly clangs against steel underneath.

Celia: “La-de-fucking-da,” Jade snarls at the wall. “My name is fucking Donovan and I don’t love anyone and I put steel in my walls like a fucking psycho.”

“Just because he outsmarted—”

SHUT UP!”

Jade glares at the wall, red hot in her rage. It burns, but only for a moment. Quickly it’s replaced by cool rationale.

“My name is Donovan,” she repeats.

Her voice is the first thing to change. From Jade’s smooth, dulcet tones the pitch drops to the frigid cracking of a glacier that is her sire’s sound. Then the lips, flattening from full, plump, kissable to the aborted gash across his face. Her cheeks sculpt into the hard lines and angles so familiar in his. Her hair shortens, coiffs itself across her brow, nose lengthens, fingers become even more delicate…

She stands before a mirror and sees her sire writ small. Her sire in miniature. Her tiny frame, but he fills it, makes her that much larger just from wearing his face. And the eyes… turbulent. The achromatic steel found in the sky just as it begins to storm. A tempest swims in its depths.

Her tempest.

She mimics his walk, kills everything that has ever made her resemble the kine she no longer is, and puts her eye before the scanner.

GM: The ‘sheriff’ strides confidently through his house, as would one who has every right to be here.

Yet, for all the chill terror inspired by Jade’s visage, the response is as pitiless as her own sire:

The ceiling panel re-opens.

Fire belches forth.

Celia: Fire engulfs her.

Fire consumes her.

Fire dismantles her.

Fire drenches every inch of her body in its red hot tongues of flame that light up skin that may as well be made of paper for all the succor it manages in the face of such heat.

The girl inside the stolen body screams. She screams, she screams, she screams. She screams as her eyes sizzle and pop, fluid meant to open the door leaking down her cheeks to land in a sticky, semi-solid goo at her feet. Paul would be so mad if he knew. If he were alive. That stupid Latina cunt would have to get down on her hands and knees to scrub it from the floor, and even then there’d always be a little spot of stiffness that spoke of the girl whose eyes liquified and ran like white rivers down her face.

Her skin blackens. Finally, the truth of her is out, and it’s writ plain across her body for all to see. First and second degree where the flames barely licked her, the tender touch of virgin fingers, but split and cracked beneath the more experienced kiss of the heated bitch that knows what she wants and goes after it.

Her Beast screams with her.

Screams as it vaults headlong down the bare hallway. Screams as it outraces fire itself. Screams as it flings itself down the stairs to huddle in the spot it has come to know as “home” in these short moments in the house.

It screams at the girl inside of it and she screams back, and the brown-eyed beauty laughs at their misfortune and mockingly asks, “What happened to that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results bit?”

Jade bares her teeth at the bitch and says she has it handled.

Only then she sees the empty bag with the red X on the front of it. The blood she’d gotten from Marcel. The lucky hit she’d been saving for a good time.

She looks down at herself. She looks terrible. Burns and cooked and blackened skin everywhere. Incinerated hair. Blackened, smoking rags for clothes.

But she’s still walking.

The part where it killed her wasn’t real.

“Thank your lucky stars. Now stop being stupid. Think.”

“Could’ve at least left me with a swallow considering I got that for us,” Jade mutters darkly. “Selfish bitch.”

“Because this didn’t bene—”

The sarcastic reply is cut off with a shake of her head. Stop talking to yourself, she says. Quietly, though. So only she can hear. She, or he? She stares down at the body that belongs to her… and her sire. The singed clothing leaves little to the imagination.

“Figured he’d be—”

“Right?”

“Maybe we’re just—”

“Probably.”

“Probably why he never…”

“Yeah.”

Jade hums amusement beneath her breath. She pulls out her phone to scroll through her list of contacts, looking for a likely friend.

She hasn’t many of those left anymore, has she? There’s always her krewe, though how are they going to get in? She could call Draco. Because that’s… been interesting.

Or her mom. Claim she’s going to see Maxen. Use her help to get shit out. Does she need help getting shit out? Not really, she needs help getting in. All she has to do is figure out how to get past the flaming death trap and force her way in. Or go through the wall. With the fucking explosives that he has. There’s bound to be something that cuts through steel, right?

Jade takes a moment to send a text. Then she’s in the living room with the blood she’d gathered from the whores, taking a container of it to the kitchen to nuke and drink. Her Beast wants out; she shreds his kitchen table when she lets it have its way with her as the taste of blood hits her tongue, then she’s back, mending her wounds with a thought.

“Yeah,” she tells it, “kinda like jacking off if there’s no one to fuck but you’ve been thinking about wet panties all day.”

Her sire’s voice comes from her mouth. She starts. Then laughs. And finally resumes her own form, the bitchy beautiful one with the green eyes that may or may not match her name.

Jade takes the stairs two at a time to count the doors she can’t get into. She searches the walls, ceilings, and floor boards for any sign of… weak point. As if her sire had such a thing.

GM: Jade hears heavy footsteps sounding through the house.

Approaching in her direction.

Celia: Probably not the best sign. Jade steals across the hall to the most out-of-the-way place she can be, and with a thought she’s not Jade at all. She’s Lotus, staring serenely from a pair of painted porcelain eyes.

GM: Three of the police officers from outside tromp upstairs with their firearms drawn. They frown as they inspect the area.

Celia: Maybe she should stop screaming in pain with the whole being on fire thing. Something to work on, yeah?

Lotus isn’t super concerned about that, though. She’s busy casting attention at the steel door. Making the men think that maybe something got inside, maybe they should open it up and check it out.

GM: One by one, the cops turn to look at the door.

“Hey. Got a feeling,” says one.

“Yeah. Me too,” says a second.

The third pulls at the handle.

“Locked, dumbass,” says the first.

The third bangs on the door.

“Think the intruder’s in there,” says the second.

“Yeah? How the fuck did he get in? That looks like a retinal scanner,” says the first.

“Wonder what Simmons keeps in there…” says the third.

The cops talk for a while, but can’t seem to find a way inside. It’s solid steel. None of them try the retinal scanner. They decide to make a sweep of the house to see what else they find before coming back to the door. They’ve already radioed in for backup, they mention, given the corpses on the first floor.

One of the cops gives the doll a look and mutters about Simmons probably branching off into “younger” girls.

Lotus is left by herself.

Celia: A girl with a phone is never truly alone.

Help waits just around the corner. All she has to do is press a few buttons and summon it to her aid.

The problem, of course, is… well. Deciding who to call. Two weeks ago she’d have dialed Durant without a second thought and he’d have been here immediately. A week ago she’d have called Reggie and his brother and they’d have brought all the force they could muster to get in and get her out. Maybe she’d have even called Gui. He’d get a kick out of raiding the sheriff’s haven.

They’re all non-starters.

If she were a better fighter she could probably take the cops on her own. Make them call off the backup. Unless the backup is good, since they seem to know all about what Simmons gets up to (got up to, she mentally corrects herself) in his spare time. No doubt he’s got the “cleanup crew” on speed dial for the whores he murders. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to let them come.

She just needs someone to play the role of Simmons.

Or…

Jade smiles.

When Lotus disappears the girl in her place is, in a word, young. Already short, Jade uses her small stature to her advantage and gives herself the youthful appearance of a girl who still carries dolls around: the round, chubby cheeks of a baby face, full lips, large, guileless eyes. Blue, of course, with hair so blonde it’s almost silver in certain light, and maybe there’s the sheen of the aurora when she tosses her head. Pert nose, tiny little breasts that have barely begun to grow, more areola and nipple than anything else. Skinny. Not skeletal, just slender.

She’s not a threat, this girl.

She uses some of that excess skin and padding from her breasts to create a collar around her neck, a black choker that’s different than the others the girls downstairs wear. This one has no buckles, no D-rings, no metal hooks. It’s a single, solitary piece of leather, and it’s meaning is clear: she’s a lifer.

The little girl steals into one of the already opened rooms to find a… aha, here. The room with the poisons. A bit of shadow dancing and it’s the discarded Lotus doll from the floor, held in one hand as the other dials a familiar number.

She’ll need to do something about the burns, though. She looks like she should be in a burn unit. Or dead. Maybe graft some more hale skin over them from the dead girls.

She checks her phone for a response from her favorite thief while she waits for the call to go through. She’d texted him earlier.

GM: His response pings back.

Pic.jpg
Celia: What a fun invitation. She holds tight. But she’s also already on the line with someone, so…

GM: The call continues to ring. Draco finally picks up.

“Yes?”

Celia: “What do you mean, yes. Don’t pretend you have other friends with this face.”

“Guess who died.”

GM: “Not your sense of jealousy, clearly.”

Celia: “Cry harder,” she says dryly.

“You want in on this or not?”

GM: “Depends what ‘this’ is.”

Celia: “Daddy died.”

GM: “Good riddance.”

Celia: “Mmm. I’m at his place.”

“So many fun things.”

“Quit being an asshole and show up for me, yeah?”

GM: “And what do you want me for when there are so many fun things?”

Celia: “Calling for backup,” Jade says. She tosses her hair even though he can’t see that or the wicked way her smile sharpens. “While I wait for them I thought I’d diddle myself and your voice just really does it for me.”

GM: “That’s probably true. What’s the opposition?”

Celia: Jade glances out the windo—oh. No window. But she flew overhead earlier and recalls the amount of vehicles and people she’d seen. She gives him the number, then the three inside, and finally the backup they called.

Then she tells him the real problem.

“Steel doors, retinal scanner. Steel walls around. Safe I can’t lift. Most of it’s packed and ready to go but I can’t get into those. My buddy with the quick fingers is on his way, concerned we’re gonna get rolled up on before I can get it all out.”

GM: Draco scoffs.

“You are stupid.”

“If you let the cops call for backup, you’re going to have SWAT all over you in minutes. I guarantee your dad’s house will get a record-fast response time.”

“And you won’t get out of Audubon through the front entrance. They’ll have sealed it off.”

“And what do you mean, the ‘three inside’? That’s not how police operate. I presume you mean ‘formerly inside’.”

Celia: It’s like he’s forgotten who he’s speaking to. What she can do. How very, very good she is at slipping in and out of places.

Jade lets out a long suffering sigh.

“You can say you told me so when you spring me from jail, then. Better go find my friends since you don’t want to party.”

GM: “If you wind up in jail, I won’t be springing you out. But actually make it out of Audubon, and I’ll help you escape your dad’s friends back to your grandpa’s.”

Celia: “You’re a gem.” Jade blows kisses into the phone and hangs up after saying she’ll see him soon.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Celia: Jade’s out the door after that, predatory aura killed in favor of something a little softer. A little innocent. A little trustworthy.

Just a naked teenager with a doll in her hands. Nothing scary here.

The burns aren’t worth paying attention to.

GM: The house stands seemingly silent and still.

Celia: But where had her friends gone?

Sweeping the house, they’d said.

That doesn’t sound like they’d left.

Or that they’re doing things the “routine way” her boytoy had mentioned.

GM: If there are answers to Jade’s questions, none make themselves known in the hallway.

Celia: Jade always enjoyed the game of cat and mouse, feline that she is. She creeps through the hallway to the top of the stairs, listening for sounds from below.

GM: She hears voices and noises coming from the direction of Paul’s office.

Celia: Easy enough to pop back out once she desires to let them see her. Jade’s stolen tricks from Gui come in handy this evening: she melds into the shadows around her, then pads quietly down the stairs to look in on Paul’s office.

GM: She finds the police officers grunting with effort as they lift up the safe together.

“Tell you, man, I wanna see what’s behind that door,” says the third cop.

“Fuckin’ keep it in your pants, SWAT’ll ’ventually get inside,” says the second.

“Our lucky day someone killed Simmons,” smiles the first, patting the safe’s side.

Celia: Definitely would have gone south if she’d approached with this face. So much for sleeping her way out of this one. Not that it’s not an option, just… not the right option for this situation.

She hates that Draco was right. She hates that he’s going to be able to say he told her so. Just once, really, just once she’d love for him to not be such a smart fucking know-it-all cockmongler.

Way she sees it, she’s got three options: handle these three now, wait for SWAT, or wait for Pietro. No doubt the thief will have some ideas of his own, but it’s better to head off SWAT if she can and find another way into the room. She’ll worry about extraction later. And if she can’t head off SWAT, then she at least tried to do something instead of—what’d she say to Draco? Waiting around diddling herself.

Weird that they’re coming though, isn’t it? There’s not an active shooter, not a hostage situation, not a bomb threat… her sire and sister have strong ties to the police, perhaps it’s just another level of protection.

Jade steals out of the room, creeping back up the stairs to raid a closet for a spare set of clothes, her own long since ruined. It doesn’t much matter what they look like so long as they’re dark. Her face and body shifts as she moves—she’ll never get tired of this, she decides—and soon it’s her own sister-in-blood’s face staring out from the mirror when she wraps a dark coat around herself and pulls a hat down over most of her visage.

She abandons the doll illusion and pockets the poison, then straps a firearm beneath her coat. Discrete. She spends another few seconds reaching out to her own backup.

To the detective: Dad’s dead. Thought you guys should know.

To Draco: I’ll take that naked photo of you off my ceiling if you call in a bomb threat elsewhere.

To Benji: Diversion. SWAT. ASAP.

To the thief: Heads up I look like my sis tonight.

And finally to her dad. Her kine dad. The pretend one. Hi daddy. Can I come by tonight?

GM: The messages on her phone ping back:

Heard from your ex. Good to know, says Pete. Sorry for your loss.

From Draco: You’re stupid.

There is no immediate response from Benji.

From Pietro: Hot.

From her dad: Of course, sweetie. I’ll let the guards know to let you in.

Celia: Of course Draco talked to Pete already. Why would she ever get to deliver news herself. She sends a quick message back to the detective.

Swung by his place. Think your/his work pals are coming over. Kind of want to be alone right now to mourn. Can you call them off?

GM: Nope. Sorry.

You shouldn’t stick around there.

Celia: Don’t think there’s an inheritance for me here?

GM: None you could get.

Celia: Jade tries not to let that annoy her.

Not alone. P on the way.

GM: I know.

Celia: …you don’t think he can get in? I should bail?

GM: No, I expect he can. I don’t think sticking around your dead dad’s house when a bunch of people are going to show up is a good idea for you.

Celia: Yeah, my ex already told me I’m stupid for it. She presses “SEND” on that before she adds in any of the spiteful or petty things she’s thinking.

Jade flips back to the text from Pietro.

If you’re driving in, Celia is expected.

It’s handy to have shadow dancing friends.

Finally she locates a nude photo of Draco on her phone, carefully crops out his face, and sends it over with a handful of fire emojis, an eggplant, and some sweat drops. Technically it’s Roderick’s body, but technically he’s Roderick.

She wonders if he’s going to think it’s funny, or if he’ll regret that time she talked him into letting her take it.

She’s left wondering when she takes the stairs back down, still concealed, to check on her friends.

GM: Pete sends no immediate response.

Handy, replies Pietro.

Draco sends no immediate response either to the cropped nude.

His body looked about the same as Roderick’s, as far as she could tell.

The three cops have set the safe down in the atrium as they catch their breaths.

“Fuck. It’s gonna be a bitch and a half to get that thing in the car,” complains one.

Celia: At least someone appreciates her, she thinks. Pietro was always her favorite.

Maybe she’ll date him now.

Lazy of Draco’s night doc not to change his body at all, too. Jade doesn’t make petty mistakes like that.

That’s what he gets for going to the discount doc, though. Unless he’d given away her little trick with the masks… asshole. She’ll never tell him anything ever again.

Jade dismisses the thought of snake oil and refocuses on what’s at hand. She works a series of charms from where she stands obscured in shadows. The first will be to make them her friends. All of them. But she starts with one.

GM: The first man looks towards where Jade’s standing.

Then he does a double take as he suddenly realizes she’s there.

“Shi…!”

The other two look towards where he’s staring.

They startle too. More than that.

Color drains from their faces.

Celia: Jade can’t say that she particularly minds the effect this face has on them. Perhaps she’ll cultivate another identity that is just as feared as her sire and sister seem to be. Maybe come out as someone else’s childe…

She lets no expression cross her face, channeling her sister’s icy aloofness. Maybe she doesn’t need to hit them with the aura… but she does.

“Explain.”

Frigid tones, a single word. Yes, she can play this role.

GM: “It was their idea,” says the first cop, pointing at the other two. “I just went along with it.”

“He’s-he’s lying!” stammers the second.

“Hey, I was gonna report them,” claims the third, nervously licking his lips.

All three men blink as they stare at ‘Camilla’, as if wondering where the hell she came from.

Or what’s happened to her, burn victim that she is.

Celia: Camilla isn’t in the habit of explaining herself to kine.

“Your babbling,” she says coldly, “fails to explain.”

GM: “Some, someone’s here,” says the first cop.

“Simmons is dead.”

“Torn apart,” says the second.

“His girls are all dead, too,” says the third.

Celia: “And this is how you spend your time.”

GM: “Figured the killer might take it, sensitive shit inside,” says the third cop.

“Ma’am, they were gonna rob the place,” says the first cop.

“They’re full of shit.”

“SWAT’s been called,” says the second cop.

“If they’re in Audubon, they won’t get out.”

Celia: “Call them back,” Camilla says, “and cancel their arrival.”

GM: The three look at ‘Camilla’ for what feels a long moment.

The first cop finally activates his radio.

“Code 4,” he says slowly.

He’s answered by a very pissed-sounding voice from the radio.

“She’s here,” the officer says. “Doesn’t want SWAT.”

Celia: Camilla waits.

While she waits she uses more of her charms, this time targeting the second officer.

GM: There’s some back and forth between the cop and the voice over the radio. A false SWAT alarm does not sound as if it’s making anyone happy. The cop ends the transmission soon enough, though.

Celia: Finally, she hits the third officer with it.

GM: Her Beast growls angrily.

Celia: Her Beast will feast soon enough.

GM: “They’re not coming, ma’am,” says the first cop.

Celia: Camilla turns her gaze on him.

“Put the cabinet in the car.”

GM: The three don’t waste time. They pick up the safe and start carrying it back outside.

Celia: Camilla sends another text while they’re gone, letting Pietro know the role that he’s to play when he arrives.

GM: They’ve loaded it into the police car after a short wait.

Not my style, comes the thief’s response.

Celia: Camilla busies herself while they’re gone. She heats and drinks more blood while they load the safe… and has a private moment with her Beast. It wants out. Wants fresh blood. Wants to rip and tear and kill, and Jade (she knows who she really is, even with this face) can’t pretend that she doesn’t want the same. But not tonight. Not right now. Soon. But not yet. She snarls at the thing inside her chest and, with white-knuckled control, beats it back down.

Camilla glances at her phone when Pietro’s response comes in. She finally calls the thief.

GM: Not now, comes the answering text.

Celia: ETA?

GM: Soon

Celia: Camilla tucks the phone back into her pocket.

“Soon” isn’t very specific. But she busies herself in the meantime. And when the officers come back she coldly informs them to move the safe into the car in the garage, as if they should have read her mind and done that to begin with.

GM: None of them look happy, but they return to their car outside to do so.

Celia: Camilla makes another sweep of the house, looking for anything she missed in her first once-over.

GM: The house is fairly large. A once-over didn’t take too long, but a thorough search of all the rooms is likely to.

Celia: Not much else to do while she waits for Pietro. She enlists the assistance of the three charmed cops.

GM: She has some time to wait while they pant and drag the safe back from the car to the garage.

“Ma’am, what are we looking for?” the first asks in confusion.

Celia: They’re not looking for something. They’re looking for the absence of something. Whoever took out Simmons clearly wanted something, so they find what’s out of place, what’s missing.

“The absent piece,” she says shortly.

GM: “Piece, ma’am?”

Celia: “Someone was here for a reason. Your slow response,” not so much as a withering look crosses the perfect planes of her frigid face, “allowed them in and out. We find what they were after by finding what’s missing.”

Mostly, though, she’s just waiting on Pietro.

GM: “All right, ma’am,” says another of the officers. “I’ve heard you usually call Aidan for things like this. Should we here?”

Celia: Camilla gives a minute nod. Then she pulls out her phone and fires off a text to the detective.

Handled the friends. You know Aidan?

GM: Nope.

One of the police officer’s visages abruptly shimmers like dissolving water, revealing Pietro in the man’s place. He winks.

The other two don’t spare him a second glance.

“Okay, ma’am. You want us to maybe get that safe someplace, ah, safe? If you don’t need us anymore?”

Celia: Oh thank God. She’s never been more happy to see someone. She keeps her mask up, though.

“You,” Camilla says, jerking her chin at Pietro. “Stay. See to the safe. You two can go.” She waits until they start to walk away before she calls after them, “Keep it clear here. Alert me if anything changes.”

GM: The two cops say they will and seem more than happy to be gone.

“Funny,” says Pietro.

Celia: “Seems like the kind of thing she’d say. Didn’t want them touching the safe.”

Camilla/Jade leads Pietro up the stairs.

“Got into these four. Can’t get into these.” She nods toward the steel door that has so far kept her out. “Retinal scanner. Fire shoots from the ceiling if you get it wrong. Key card hasn’t worked. Steel goes all the way around the walls; tried to use a sledgehammer from an adjacent room.”

GM: Pietro looks the door over thoughtfully.

“Better valuables behind this one, then. Who’s the key card from?”

Celia: “Simmons.”

GM: “Who is…?”

Celia: “One of Daddy D’s ghouls. Guy who owns the place.”

GM: “Card is probably one Donovan has, then. Do you give your ghouls the run of your entire haven?”

Celia: “Mm.” She doesn’t bother to answer the rhetorical question. “Handled the kine authorities and I can handle my sister if she shows. Got a guy able to meet us past the gate for some assistance on the route back if anyone tries to muscle in. Dad thinks I’m stopping by; things get hairy here we can lay low over there until the heat dies. Can probably sneak the car downstairs into his garage between the pair of us dancing, use him to get out if need be.”

She waves a hand at the door.

“Give it a look, then, I’ll be back in a sec.”

She’s down the stairs before he can say much else, checking to make sure the doors to the house are locked, that the garage door is closed, that the safe is in the SUV where she told the cops to put it, and finally that the entrances to the garage and car doors are locked up tight.

Then she’s back.

GM: “If your sister shows, it’ll be in force, and we’ll both be screwed,” Pietro says as she leaves.

The front doors are locked and the garage is closed. The safe is not in the SUV, but sitting next to it, as the cops presumably lacked keys to open the still-locked vehicle.

Celia: She’ll get it loaded in later.

Jade doesn’t correct Pietro’s assumptions about her sister. He’s right that she’ll probably show in force, but not that they’ll be completely screwed. Each of them have ways to look like other people and pass unobserved.

And if she’s not terribly mistaken, she thinks Camilla might be more lenient than he perceives her to be. Then again, their sire is dead, perhaps…

Jade’s obscenely warm blood runs cold. Where is her sister? Surely she felt him die. Why is she not here, doing the same thing Jade is doing? Was she with him? Is she, too…? Was that the warmth and love that she felt her sister’s death?

Blindly, Jade gropes for the link between them.

She sends her concern, her gut-wrenching worry, her fear down the line. Fear for her sister. Concern for the lick she has barely gotten to know, that she meant to spend more time with, the sister who knows what it means to be their sire’s childe. The expectations. The demands.

Camilla knows exactly how it is.

Jade reaches for her, and a single word comes with it: Where? Where are you? Where is he? Are you safe? Hurting? Dead?

GM: For all the fervency of Jade’s concern for her newfound sister, her only answer is ominous silence.

Perhaps they will never get to spend more time together.

Celia: Maybe she’s… busy. Maybe, even now, she’s murdering whoever took out their sire. Happy retirement party, had to be someone, right? Camilla hunted them down rather than looting his haven like Jade is doing. Maybe she hadn’t felt his hatred. Maybe she’d… maybe…

Jade’s back at Pietro’s side a moment later, asking about the door, focusing on the task at hand rather than the thoughts of…of being orphaned. No sire. No sister. No lover. No—

A mom, though. She has a mom. And another sister, even if she’s not blooded. And a grandsire. Even though she’d displeased him enough to end up in the interrogation room.

She distracts herself as best she can, keeps her mind from wandering down the path of how royally she’d messed up, about what this… what all this means for her.

No sire. He’d hated her. Used her. Hated her. Thought she was useless. A waste of blood.

Now what? Now, without him, who does she… who does she serve? Who does she trust? Who will tell her what to do, how to be, who to be—

Free.

She’s free.

No longer locked in the gilded cage she and Caroline had discussed all those nights ago. Free to make her own decisions. Take her own path. Utterly unbonded. Her thoughts don’t pull her toward one thing or another. They’re her own. Finally. For the first time since her Embrace she isn’t concerned about what other people want from her.

Now it’s about what she wants.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Celia: And right now she wants answers.

She heads back upstairs, seeking Pietro.

“What do you think?” Jade asks, turning her thoughts to the task at hand. “Able to get in?”

A moment later she tacks on, “How long have you known about him?”

GM: Jade finds Pietro at work on the door when she returns. He’s pried or cut open the keycard scanner and looks like he’s engaged in some delicate work with the wiring on the underside.

“Later,” he says, not taking his eyes off the door. “Go take care of Simmons’ body while I’m working on this. Don’t know how much that’ll help after the cops all saw it, but can’t hurt.”

“When you’re done, keep watch somewhere with a view of the front entrance. We’ll be lucky if mundane cops are the only visitors we have to deal with before I’m in.”

“If anyone else shows up, let me know. Or take care of them if you think you can on your own.”

Celia: “Will do. I know you can vanish and all, but if we end up at the Flores house—number three, across the way—hit me with your ESP for a cover face and name.”

GM: “I don’t know that ESP trick,” Pietro tells her. “Give it to me now in case we need it.”

“Hiding out with your dad might be our best option, depending how things shake out.”

Celia: Jade’s flesh ripples and changes at the request. Her lips become thinner, brows thicken, jaws widen. Not the bone itself—she doesn’t know that trick yet—but it’s wider all the same, and if he were to ask her (he won’t, she bets), she’d tell him how she allocates flesh from different parts of her body to pad the jaw. The face is strong. Hard. Chiseled. There’s a suggestion of shadow around mouth and jaw, the barest beginning of a crease across the forehead and around the eyes.

He looks like someone who regularly beats his girlfriend.

“Michael,” she says in a voice that isn’t hers. “He’s dating Celia. We came to ask for Maxen’s blessing to get married. It’s new, but we’re certain.”

She gives him a height and weight and tells him the body is very, very in shape.

GM: True to her guess, Pietro doesn’t ask. He doesn’t once take his eyes completely off the door, as though he’s expecting it to sprout fangs or belch fire at any time.

“Okay,” he says. “Lovebirds.”

Celia: Given her own history with the door, she doesn’t blame him.

GM: “If you can get any blood out of Simmons’ body, or the other girls’, save some for me. I may need it after this.”

Celia: Jade leaves him to it, taking the steps back down to take care of the body.

Bodies. She’s good at bodies. Good at creating them, even better at making them vanish. Even her ex had been impressed with her last night for all that he called her degree half-assed bullshit.

Not that school had taught her how to destroy a body with gastric acid.

She picks up a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and snags a large container from the kitchen to set up. Then she gets to work, using her claws to cut open what’s left of Paul’s abdomen and pulling his stomach out to empty into the container. After a glance at the girls she decides to vanish them too, and their stomach juice joins Paul’s.

“Fitting, isn’t it? That your own body can destroy you. Did you know,” Jade says with an empty smile that doesn’t reach the eyes on her stolen face, “that every animal has enough brain matter to tan their own hide?”

She rips apart the pieces that remain intact. There aren’t many left, not after the tiger got to him.

“Fascinating, really. You kill the animal, strip its skin, cut open its skull, and mix the brain matter with a little bit of ash and water.”

Bits of skin, muscle, and bone hit the acid with a tiny splash. The pieces begin to dissolve immediately; Jade douses them with hydrogen peroxide and the process quickens.

“You were a villain in my story, did you know? Oh, don’t give me that look, I’m a villain in someone’s story too. The problem is that you’re not a very good villain. Yes, you scared a teenager when she was desperate, but in the end Paul… in the end, you’re nothing but a sad, pathetic little man.” She pats his dead face. “I thought about keeping a souvenir. Something to hang on my wall. Turn your flesh into a tapestry, perhaps.”

Now there’s an idea.

“But Paul, you’re not worth the space.”

Jade drops his head into the tub. It sinks beneath the surface of the mixture as she turns away. As if he’d never been.

Things move more quickly after that. A burst of speed and the assistance of her claws has the women dissected and added to the mixture in a matter of moments. One of them, a redhead, has exceedingly soft skin that reminds Jade of a particular serial killer, and she harvests a patch of pale, milk-white skin from her back when the thought crosses her mind.

While the bodies dissolve Jade cleans the floor and walls. Seven years a lick and seven more of menstrual cycles has made her particularly adept at getting blood out of cloth.

GM: Paul’s mutilated, clawed-apart face offers no response to Jade’s gloating words.

It’s cathartic, though, to again see him be the powerless one, who must mutely accept whatever fate Jade has in store for him.

The women are more like girls. Teenagers, maybe early 20s. They look so young, next to Emily and the girls at Flawless. Children with adult-sized frames, practically. Are college students really this young-looking?

All of their throats have been slashed. It’s a gruesome way to go. The sensation is supposed to be like drown-choking in and on your own blood. All of their young faces look terrified, and their eyes are red from crying. Paul was not wrong to call them Celia’s sisters. Perhaps they have Dianas, Emilys, and Stephens of their own, who will wonder what has become of them.

Not all could have been well in their lives, though, to bring them to Paul’s house. So much was unwell in Celia’s.

Celia: They deserved better. No matter what they did, what was going wrong in their lives, they deserved better than to die beneath Paul’s hand.

Hatred surges through her at the thought of what they’ve been through. What he’s done to them. She should have killed him. She should have killed him years ago. Should have ended his reign of terror before he had a chance to ruin more lives.

Is it better for their families that they’ll never know what became of their daughters, sisters, girlfriends?

It’s the sort of thing she once might have asked Roderick about, what to do for the victims, but she doesn’t think this new Roderick will care about the whores she found in Paul’s house.

Jade pushes the thoughts aside. Celia can deal with it next time she comes out. Jade only wishes she’d left Paul alive long enough to inflict the terror and pain on him that he had all the girls over the years.

GM: He surely experienced both in the moments before his death.

But they were such brief moments, next to what he surely put his ‘whores’ through.

The girls’ bodies are as easily disposed of as Paul’s, at the end of the night. Jade slices them open, pours their stomach juices into the fermenting acidic stew, and lets their flesh and bones dissolve next while she cleans. It’s slower going without Draco to break apart the bones, but Paul’s house is well-stocked with everything she needs to chemically dispose of a body. It’s a serial killer’s dream suite. All that’s left is her former tormentor’s clothes, phone, and the girls’ bondage gear.

Celia: Jade pulls the battery out of Paul’s phone and tucks it away for later. Who knows what sort of interesting things he keeps on there. Maybe nothing, but maybe something. She cleans the bondage gear and finds a closet to drop it into. Paul has plenty of it laying around; it’s not going to raise any more eyebrows than usual.

The clothes join the body parts in the mixture. Clothing dissolves as easily as flesh in this particular acid.

She puts everything back in its proper place when she’s done. She checks her phone while she heats more blood to feed her Beast to see if any of her contacts have gotten back to her. When she’s done drinking she drops some off for Pietro before heading back to the kitchen to find a container of salt. She slips it into her pocket.

While she works she dials the number she should have dialed from the beginning.

GM: Jade has no further texts.

She finds a salt carton picturing the umbrella-carrying girl in a yellow dress. The label reads, This salt supplies iodine, a necessary nutrient

“Why hello there, Miss Flores, what can I do for you?” greets Mélissaire.

Celia: “Kalani,” Jade corrects absently, eyes on her victims. “Are you with Gramps? I have a message.”

GM: “Miss Kalani, of course,” smiles the ghoul. “Not at this moment, but I’m rarely too far. What’s the message?”

Celia: “It’s about our mutual relative. It’s rather time-sensitive. I’d like to speak to him.”

GM: “I’m afraid that’s not possible, ma’am, if you want to this moment, but I can make certain it gets to him.”

“I can also pencil you in for a meeting.”

Celia: “My dad is dead,” Jade says bluntly. “I believe the detective passed on what I told my ex. There are details he should know. I’m at his place looking for the will, but I wanted to know if Gramps has any… needs.”

GM: “Your dad’s already sent by a friend of his,” says Mélissaire. “You’ve met up, haven’t you? The will you’re looking for is probably a in a computer or filing cabinet. Anything else is extra. It’ll be somewhere secure and out of the way.”

“Beyond that, try not to attract any attention from his neighbors or co-workers—you know how they can get. Just a quick in and out, leave the house as spotless as you can.”

Celia: “Dad sent a friend?” Jade repeats. “Saw his roommate, but no friends. Some of his coworkers did get a little anxious already. I talked them down. I brought my mother’s cousin, and my old fling is giving us some space but said he’d meet up with us on the ride back.”

“Pencil me in with Gramps, if you don’t mind. Dad called me right before he died and there are some other things I think he should know.”

GM: “Yes, your cousin is who he sent,” clarifies Mel. “I’ll let you know when your gramps can see you—things over here have gotten pretty crazy. For now, did your father tell you anything absolutely essential that we should know?”

Celia: Ah. He’s going to take credit for sending Pietro even though the thief was the first one that Jade had reached out to.

Classy.

It’s like she can feel her esteem dropping.

He doesn’t want to see her. Not even a line about getting her in this weekend or next week, just nothing. No offer. Zero. “I’ll let you know” is the biggest cop-out in the book.

No lover. No sire. No grandsire.

Jade swallows her emotions before they can pull her under. She is not a child. She is not going to throw a temper tantrum because her grandsire does not want to see her. This is the first time in her entire existence that she has not had some strong, dominant male figure telling her what to do and she is not going to spend it crawling over to someone on her knees with her tail tucked, begging for orders, asking to be collared, climbing onto a lap so she can be coddled.

She is done with that. She is done playing at fairytales. She is done serving as lapcat.

She wants his respect? She will earn it. She wants his ear? She will make herself worth listening to. She wants his attention, affection, admiration? She will take it.

She is Jade Fucking Kalani, and there is no man or lick or ghoul who will put her back on her knees now that she is risen.

“There was a battle,” Jade says to the ghoul on the phone. “Loud. Fire, bombs, guns. That’s where it happened.” Clipped, efficient, businesslike. She is not offended that her grandsire does not have time.

“I know he planned to take out his competition, and I know she suspected and hated him. There’s more that can’t be said here, but I don’t believe it to be essential. I have some research and an idea he may find beneficial during these crazy times to capitalize his gains while minimizing losses. Who should I report it all to once I’m back?”

“Also,” Jade adds, “I can’t reach my sister. Straight to voicemail. It’s possible she and the others were with him. His normal friends around the house are gone, as are the majority of the vehicles. He went in force.”

GM: “Oh, my,” murmurs Mélissaire. “That’s all certainly something, Miss Kalani. Thank you for letting us know. I’ll be around at the Evergreen to hear it all once you’re in.”

“Take care of yourself. I suspect a lot of things are going to get very hot, very fast.”

Celia: “There’s more. His roommate is… missing.” The very pregnant pause lets the ghoul know she means dead.

“He had some lady friends over. Left a mess after their party. I cleaned up, left it as sterile as he likes it to be. Dad’s coworkers saw, though. Called their friends. I held them off for now, but…”

But now she’s wondering why she thought it would be a good idea to vanish the college girls, too. And drain them completely. And let the cops go.

Masquerade breach. No body, no crime some part of her thinks, but the other part recalls what she’d just said to Mel: the cops saw and called it in. The kine know.

Oh, fuck.

They saw. The cops saw. They saw and they’re going to be looking for the bodies and she let them go. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. No panicking allowed. Think.

“It might get very hot here, too.”

A question. Arson covers a lot, but it will need to be explained.

GM: “Ah, I see. That is a messy situation,” muses the ghoul.

Mélissaire goes on to say, in a roundabout way, that a fire would explain the girls’ deaths very conveniently if responders found a matching number of charred female bodies. It would also helpfully deny any assets contained in the haven to Vidal’s people, if Jade and Pietro can’t get them all out.

Jade would need to work fast, though. The prince’s agents could show up at the house any minute.

Celia: Jade makes a vague noise of assent as she tears through the house with a burst of speed, looking for wallets, purses, any other identifying information. She’d come with it when she met Paul; no doubt the other girls had too.

GM: She finds the girls’ clothes and personal effects stored in neatly organized and padlocked little cubbies with glass doors.

There are enough cubbies for many girls.

Celia: “He had a whole harem,” Jade mutters aloud, phone still tucked against her shoulder. A second later she locates a hammer and smashes her way in to swipe the contents.

GM: “Ah, that’s no surprise. I’m sure your old man had appetites,” chuckles the ghoul.

Beyond their clothes, the girls all came with purses containing phones, wallets, and the various things one can expect to find in various women’s purses, from lip balm to pens to tampons.

Somewhat less usual is the pain relief medication in all four purses. There’s also bandaids, cigarettes (in one), lots of concealer, and various other aftercare items Celia might have thought to bring to a visit to Paul’s.

Items to ease and conceal pain.

Celia: Jade, with the help of Dicentra, does some quick calculations.

First and second degree burns only damage the upper layer of the skin, the epidermis. It turns red, might get a little sensitive, but the skin repairs easily enough. Even for humans. Third degree burns go deeper. They damage the sweat glands, the hair follicles, everything in the dermis itself.

Those are the three that most people know about. But it gets deeper than that, where fourth and fifth degree damage the fat and muscle so that bones are exposed. Celia had been hit by this sort of damage when Roderick put her in the microwave.

And then there’s the final heat wave, the sixth degree burns that damage bone itself. But bone is made of two types of collagen, calcified and non. Non burns easily. Breaks down easily. It’s the calcified she’s worried about. Because that takes about an hour at three hundred degrees to denature, and she doesn’t think the authorities are going to let the house burn for an hour.

Lucky for her, she’d knows the average house fire can reach over 1100 degrees in a matter of minutes, which accelerates the process at which the bone will break down. Unfortunately… well, unfortunately it’s going to leave behind the hydroxyapatite, and that doesn’t start getting weird until 1300 degrees. Even crematoriums don’t actually reduce bone to ash; they have fragments of it left that they grind into powder once they remove any inorganic bits. (Apparently some people take umbrage with bits of identifiable fragments of their loved ones remaining—who knew?)

Which means… which means the fire won’t cover their tracks completely, but it can be doctored…

Jade moves through the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement, tearing through the darkness to the freezer where he’d said he once kept her. Nothing looks familiar to her even though she knows she’s been here. Or he said she’d been here. Can she really trust him?

It doesn’t matter. She yanks open the door.

And there they are: two girls bolted to the wall with all the trappings Paul had described her in, full bowls of excrement in front of them.

GM: Jade cannot find a basement when she goes looking.

There is a walk-in freezer on the ground floor, though, replete with two blue-faced motionless girls in steel restraints. Ice crystals rim the frozen blood congealed around their slashed throats.

The shit in their bowls is frozen solid.

Celia: Jade yanks out one and then the other, setting them in the living room where she’d found Paul’s whores. She brings the shit with her. That and the cigarettes she’d found in the purse can help explain the fire. Manure is an accelerant. Even human.

GM: The girls’ leashes pull taut against their fixtures in the wall as Jade tugs at them.

Celia: They’re easily discarded with a swipe of claws.

GM: Celia could have used those.

Celia: If only.

Perhaps another lick had saved her, as she… well, not saves, since they’re dead, but… found these women.

Perhaps she’ll find the truth of things when she goes through Paul’s belongings.

Regardless, she doesn’t dwell on it now.

She puts the bodies in their place and starts hacking them apart with her claws, scattering bones to make it look like there are three girls rather than two.

“I’ll see you soon, Mel,” she says into the phone before hanging up, slipping it back into her pocket.

She puts the contents of the cubbies into the car. And, finally, calls up to Pietro, “should I drop this at my dad’s?”

GM: “Drop what at your dad’s?” his voice calls back.

Celia: “The car with the stuff in it.”

GM: “If he’ll stay out of it, sure.”

Celia: “Mel expects the prince’s boys to show up soon.”

GM: “Yeah, probably.”

Celia: “We’re burning it when you’re done.”

GM: “Fire will draw attention. Not good.”

Celia: Jade is up the stairs half a second later.

“Mel said it’d keep the prince from finding anything and explain the deaths of the girls.”

“You can wipe it, yeah? From a seer perspective?”

GM: Jade finds Pietro at work on the retinal scanner. He doesn’t look away from it.

“Let the ghoul take the heat for that. He’s the one who killed them.”

Celia: Jade briefly explains that she’d sort of vanished their bodies.

GM: Pietro swears in Italian, but doesn’t cease his work.

“What the fuck did you do that for? I said get rid of the renfield’s!”

Celia: Because she’s—

It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done.

“There were two more in a freezer. I can make it look like those three.”

“Hence the fire.”

GM: “Well that means there’s still two missing, if there’s three out of five girls.”

Celia: “With no ties to him.”

“It’s a problem for future Jade.”

GM: “No, it’s a problem for future Pietro if the Krewe of Janus comes after his ass,” growls Pietro. “And they pretty well are fucking tied to him if they’re dead in his freezer!”

Celia: Oh, good. She’d fucked up again.

“The fire?”

GM: “Yeah, fucking great, a fire, six dead bodies, three missing, and one—” Pietro gives another foul-sounding swear in Italian as his fingers dance over exposed wires, “and two cop witnesses! Fucking son of cocksucker, I was gonna take care of those two, but I didn’t fucking sign up for this mess! The Krewe’s going to be over this like-”

There’s a sudden spark from the wiring. Pietro exclaims, “Merda!” just as fire pours from the ceiling.

Through steel nerves and simple distance, Jade keeps her screaming Beast on a firm leash. It will not rule her actions this time. Pietro, though, is not so fortunate. Although the nimble thief avoids the flames, his lightning reflexes do not let him dodge his Beast. Madness overtakes the screaming Toreador’s eyes as he blurs down the stairs, perhaps to the very same spot where Jade waited out her own frenzies.

Celia: There’s a sudden spark from the wiring. Pietro exclaims, “Merda!” just as fire pours from the ceiling.

Through steel nerves and simple distance, Jade keeps her screaming Beast on a firm leash. It will not rule her actions this time. Pietro, though, is not so fortunate. Although the nimble thief avoids the flames, his lightning reflexes do not let him dodge his Beast. Madness overtakes the screaming Toreador’s eyes as he blurs down the stairs, perhaps to the very same spot where Jade waited out her own frenzies.

Jade waits until his Beast has run itself ragged to move in front of him, taking the Toreador by the shoulders to get his attention.

“Listen to me,” she hisses in a low voice. “I am Krewe, and this is all going to plan. You just need to get in there and get out. I’m on the hook for this, not you. I’ll take the fall, not you, and it won’t come back on him. You tell him that. Car is loaded in the garage, guards don’t stop you on the way out of here unless you look sus. Two bodies in the back. Hold them for me.”

“Can you wipe the scene or no?”

GM: Pietro throws her hands off.

“You aren’t Krewe,” he scoffs. “Krewe wouldn’t leave a fat stinking sloppy mess like this! And this is fucking bigger than us, if you missed it! There’s a giant ‘oops’ here, guess who gets blamed? Savoy! And guess who he blames? Us! And guess what that could mean? We’re fucking dead!”

“Fottuto idiota!” he swears.

That’s when they’re joined by a figure apparating out of thin air.

It’s Camilla. She looks terrible. Much of her brown hair is burned away. She’s missing her hat. Her face is sliced open to the bone and missing much of the flesh around her jaw. One of her eyes is gone. Her pale skin is half-shredded and stained with blood, ash, and grime. Her overcoat is little more than blackened rags, poorly sufficing to conceal the ravaged latticework of burned, bruised, and broken flesh beneath. She smells like blood, gunpowder, and drywall. A battered sword hangs from her hip. A scuffed sidearm rests in a tattered shoulder holster.

“You fools are triggering every defense in this place,” rings the hound’s cold voice.

“Cazzo di inferno!” Pietro swears again. A knife suddenly dances across his fingers.

“My sire and I tried to kill the prince’s childe,” Camilla says perfunctorily, not looking at the weapon. “He will not forgive this. I am defecting. I am here to bring Savoy my sire’s secrets to prove my loyalty. You may assist me or you may get out of the way.”

Celia: Anger blazes in her eyes at the thief’s words, but the moment her blood sister appears it vanishes as quickly as it came.

She looks terrible. Concern and relief dance across Celia’s face at the sight of the damage done to Camilla.

“Cami,” she breathes, stepping in front of Pietro before he can do something stupid with his knife. “We’re assisting,” she says firmly.

GM: Pietro swears again in Italian.

“Clean up this fuckwit’s mess if you want to help! Or this will all be for nothing! Oh, sorry, less than nothing! Fucking better to never have come at all! Busted our asses for a kick in the balls!”

Just like that, he’s gone again, back up the stairs.

Camilla’s head turns to Celia’s, exposing a grisly rent along her neck.

“Our time is limited. The prince’s agents will be here soon, if they are not already. What mess?”

Celia: Jade keeps it brief. She can’t quite meet Camilla’s eyes as the words come tumbling out, but at least her voice doesn’t waver. She doesn’t waste time apologizing or saying she fucked up. She can cop to that later.

GM: Camilla listens. She doesn’t waste time with questions or accusations as she hears that Celia disappeared all of the bodies, or that the cops saw them and reported them.

“Simmons’ body must be recreated,” she says shortly. “He is the lynchpin upon which this all rests.”

“It is not viable to conceal there were deaths here. The police report has been made. Responders are already on their way.”

“I will locate the police officers. I will compel them to inebriate themselves from Simmons’ liquor cabinet. I will alter their memories. They will be found to have exaggerated their story. Simmons was found dead with one girl. Not three.”

“You will recreate her body.”

“They will be dead from something ignoble. Drug overdosage.”

“No murders. No headlines. Merely a man overindulging himself in bed with a girl half his age.”

“The remaining four girls must be explained, but that is a problem for later, and for Riverbend’s subsequent regent.”

“We will remove the girls’ personal effects. I will alter the guards’ memories to recall the girls leaving Audubon Place. As far as the world will be concerned, they are still alive.”

Camilla stares at Celia, fangs long in her half-ruined mouth.

“I require blood.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself. She has no time to wallow in stupidity or to hear the echoes of voices in her head. She can only hope that Pietro keeps his mouth shut—how many boons to buy his silence on this?—and that Camilla doesn’t write her off.

She listens raptly, already abandoning the idea of explosions and drugs and arson that had begun to formulate in her mind with a million moving pieces. Camilla had told her once before to keep it simple. This is simple.

She needs materials.

“The freezer girls?” she asks, already biting into her wrist to offer it freely to her sister. “I can turn one into him and one into her.” She’ll need more than that, and she won’t be able to sculpt the bone properly, but the hardened collagen she’d planned for her mother and possibly pulling from her own body will have to do.

GM: Camilla walks to the kitchen and retrieves a cup for Celia to bleed into.

“As long as the bodies are visually identifiable, the police will not bother to forensically verify their identities.”

“The girls from the freezer will serve.”

Celia: Celia bleeds until Camilla tells her to stop. This is what sisters are for. She nods at the words.

“I’ll make it work,” she says. Then a murmured word of thanks. No doubt they’ll need to discuss it later, but right now there isn’t time.

GM: “Transform your face,” Camilla says as Celia bleeds. “If Celia Flores is seen here by the prince’s agents, that will have the potential to cause a great many problems for her.”

“Jade Kalani, too, gains nothing from being seen here by them.”

Celia: Her skin ripples and changes at the command, becoming no one specific. Just another girl on the street.

GM: She must have turned back into Celia, for Camilla to be addressing her so.

Does that happen all on its own, now?

Celia: Worrisome, but perhaps expected with the tumultuous emotions coursing through her right now.

GM: Camilla drinks deeply of the cup. The several cups. Celia watches as her sister’s ruined and ravaged flesh starts to mend before her eyes, though her hair remains in the same burned, half-destroyed state. Hair cells are already dead, after all, but should return over daysleep.

She rinses the cups out and puts them back when she’s done.

Celia: “I’m sorry,” Celia murmurs as she fills them. “I tried to reach you. I’m glad you’re safe.” She licks closed the wounds.

Time to get to work.

GM: “Neither of us is safe,” replies Camilla.

“Hide your presence, if you can.”

Then she’s gone.

Celia: “You can go to my dad’s if you need to lie low and can’t get out,” Celia says.

Then she’s gone. Just like their sire.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Celia: Celia vanishes herself, dancing through the shadows of the house to give herself an extra moment to prepare should someone else show up.

Then she moves, working to recreate Paul’s body first. She decides on a pose for him to have died in—half slumped—and gets to work creating the proper narrative. She borrows the drugs from Donovan’s storeroom. Fentanyl. Cheap to produce with a very high risk of overdosing. It’s stronger than morphine. Stronger than heroin. And it comes in various forms, which makes people think they’re doing something else: cocaine, MDMA, methamphetamine, heroin itself. Dealers cut it into the pills or powders or sprays and never let their clients know they’re taking something stronger.

That’s what kills them.

She pockets the small baggie to disperse as needed into the bodies and on the scene. Then she gets to work, carving one of the girls from the freezer and moving her fat and muscles around. The extra padding from her butt, hips, thighs, and chest are used to make her look bigger in the shoulders and stomach, to form a relatively small flaccid penis. Some people think that dicks get hard after death, and they can, but erections require blood circulation. There’s no blood if the heart stops moving. Nothing to make it hard.

Paul’s body comes together nicely. She removes the excess hair from his head—a quick swipe of her claws and half a second lifting her hand to her scalp has it blended in with the auburn curls she’d given herself—to give him the salt-and-pepper wisps she’d just seen, adds the wrinkles to his face that have been seared into her memory, puts the plastic half-smile on his face.

She hates that smile.

Celia pulls collagen from excess tissue to artificially lengthen his bones, hardening it with a touch and adding it to femur, humerus, clavicles, and scapula. When she runs out of material on him she pulls from the other girl in discrete places, giving her a tummy tuck and butt lift and breast reduction.

She smooths it all over once she’s done with the girl, then goes back in for a second round of details to properly set the scene.

Lividity. It’s the way blood settles in the body after death when gravity takes its hold. She makes sure to push and pull it into the right areas, concentrating on Paul’s lower half. Buttocks, back of his legs, one side of his torso when she gives him a slight bend, then the hand she sets on the floor as if he’d simply keeled over while sitting. People don’t pay much attention to that when they stage murders, though people don’t necessarily have her ability to fake it, either. The blood starts to settle around thirty minutes and stops between four and six hours later; a glance at the time has Celia arranging things for somewhere in between. She stiffens the muscles that need to be stiffened to set him up with rigor mortis, and as she works she adds the Fentanyl to his blood stream. It doesn’t take much to OD. She dusts extra powder on the inside of his nose and rolls a bill, dusting powder inside of that as well. She sticks it in both their noses before putting it halfway in Paul’s grip.

Paul seems like the sort of guy to do cocaine rather than heroin. It’s a rich man’s drug. Shame it wasn’t coke at all, really.

She works the girl next, moving the settling blood to her side of her body, curled up between Paul’s legs as if she’d died sucking his cock. She dilates the pupils with a touch, rids both bodies of any evidence of having been frozen, and fills her blood with the drug as well. More powder in her nose. Then a disturbed, messy line of powder residue along her ass, like that’s where Paul had done the coke from. She does the same to his cock. It’s easy to imagine him making a young girl do a line of blow from his dick.

Blow and a blowie.

She’d seen a dead girl once who died on her side like this. She remembers looking at the body wondering where the bruise had come from on her face, why her cheeks were so swollen. The purpling had been corrected with yellow concealer and heavy foundation by the funeral home her family had taken her to, but Celia remembers how the makeup had done little to hide the evidence: she’d been dead for some time before anyone had found her.

She doesn’t go to that same length here. She gives her a similar time of death as Paul, one arm stretched slightly above her head with her cheek on her upper arm and the blood pooled accordingly along her side. She makes sure to darken the organs when she reaches inside to do her work so that it isn’t just flesh that tells the tale.

No clothes for either of them, but Celia raids the kitchen to find two rocks glasses and pours a measure of bourbon in each, then dilutes it with a splash of water to look like melted ice. She curls the girl’s hand around one to leave her prints on the glass and presses her lips against the rim to make it look like she’d been drinking. She does the same for Paul. Some of the prints and lip marks overlap. While the bodies are still open she pushes the same bourbon into their blood streams and stomachs, making sure to dilute it the proper amount.

Celia closes everything up when she’s done, surveying the scene with a critical eye.

She adds a small dusting of powder to his fingers and leaves the baggie laying on the couch behind him and to his right, just where his hand would stretch to.

It’s like Camilla said: Paul and a younger girl who were drinking, fucking, and doing coke. Or MDMA. That’s more of a sex and party drug, and the powdered Fentanyl could have been passed off as either. Sometimes people snort that too.

GM: It’s a convincing-looking scene, when she’s done. Paul the pervert fucking a college girl half his age and overindulging on not-actually-coke.

Maybe it’s something about making Paul with her own hands. Adding the plastic smile. Giving him a better death than he actually met.

But her Beast hates it. She can feel the hunger roaring to life within her as her hands blur at preternatural speeds to stage the scene.

Camilla abruptly returns. The hound looks presentable again. Her face has been washed and she’s changed into a new hat and overcoat, exactly the same as her old ones. As if she had spare clothes stored in her sire’s haven.

She starts to methodically look over the scene.

The Beast hows in Celia’s ears. That’s her blood in Camilla’s veins. She should just take it back…

Celia: She should take it back. Camilla is already hurt, right? She can rip, tear, kill, drink her fill—

It’s her sister.

Abruptly Emily’s face swims in front of her. Not the anger, no, but the look of grief and betrayal she’d had when Celia had tried to feed from her. The accusations of rape. The horror over what had been done to her in the past.

She lifts a hand to slap herself in the face, just like her mother had done, and forces the Beast back into its cage with every bit of willpower she has.

“Look okay?” she asks through clenched teeth.

GM: Camilla regards her, but not overlong before her eyes turn back to “Paul’s” and the girl’s bodies. She examines the bodies, asks a few questions about how their insides look, whether there are chemicals in their blood systems, and nods her satisfaction upon hearing so. She makes a few alterations: the placement of glasses, the location and position of bodies, and a few other subtle details. Her biggest change, though, is retrieving a set of clothes and shoes for Paul and leaving them discarded over the floor, as if he’d just taken them off. Camilla also lays out clothes and shoes for the girl.

Celia can only guess how many times the hound has staged death scenes like this.

“Yes. This will serve.”

Celia: Right. Clothes. She’d overlooked that detail in her desire to get the bodies just right.

She’s glad again for Camilla’s presence. This would have been a terrible, terrible mess without her.

“What else?”

GM: “That will be all for now. I am going to bring the police officers back inside. Make yourself scarce if you think you could frenzy. Dead or injured police are the last thing any of us need.”

Celia: “You want me to leave you.”

Half a question, half incredulous statement. She can’t deny the wisdom in the command, but she can’t just leave Camilla to fend for herself. What if someone shows up?

Hunger gnaws at her. The Beast lurks just below the surface. Who nearby will not be missed if she loses the battle against it once more?

She’s in Riverbend. They’ll all be missed.

Celia reaches into her pocket, tossing Camilla one of the burner phones she’d liberated from upstairs. She rattles off her number and says she’ll be back after she takes the edge off.

GM: “I need to speak to the police officers. You cannot be nearby if your Beast is close to the surface,” Camilla says simply.

She catches the phone and tucks it into her coat.

“You do not have time to hunt. Stay nearby and veiled. We need to be ready to leave as soon as Silvestri is done.”

Celia: “Hope you have a stake handy,” Celia says, a twinge of contrition in her voice.

GM: “I do.”

Celia: “I’ll be in the garage.”

With the door closed, she won’t be able to see or smell the police outside. She won’t be dangerous. She’ll tuck herself inside the car she’d loaded things into earlier and curl up on the floor as Luna.

“Be safe.”

Then she’s gone, slipping through the house to let herself into the garage.

GM: Camilla is gone just as swiftly. But not before repeating her prior words:

“Neither of us is safe while we are here.”


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

GM: Celia’s phone buzzes on her way to the garage. The caller ID is Mom.

Celia: Celia lets the text go for a moment, eyeballing the safe in the garage. She wonders if she can get it into the SUV by herself, or if… no, she’s not that strong.

Where’s that boy Draco when she needs heavy things lifted?

The thought of him doesn’t hurt as much as it had earlier. She slips into the back seat of the SUV, hunkers down on the floor, and texts her mother back.

She wonders if Camilla would want to meet her mother. If Diana would love Camilla as much as she loves Emily.

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She doesn’t think she’d ever explained her real sire to her mother. She’d still pretended, even there, that she was Veronica’s, though she’d never mentioned the name, had she?

Something else to come clean over.

And for the first time in her Requiem, the thought of telling someone about her true sire doesn’t make her throat close up.

GM: There’s another text from her dad.

Are you coming by, sweetie? I’m headed back to bed soon if not.

Celia: She hadn’t forgotten about her dad, but she doesn’t know if she needs to hide out there or not. She sends a vague “car trouble, sorry!” text to him that doesn’t really answer his question.

GM: Her mother replies,

I’m so sorry for her. Do you think that’ll be safe? I am cautious after how things went with Caroline.

Celia: I think so. But I’ll talk to her first. Lotta stuff up in the air right now. Will have to tell you about it tomorrow. Too long to text lol.

GM: Her dad texts her back to let him know when it’s fixed.

Ok. If you think it’d be safe, and she’d be more like Pete, then I’d be happy to meet her. :)

Celia: I think she’s more Pete-like than she lets on to most people tbh.

GM: Like with you and Jade?

Celia: No, not like that.

Just kind of like it’s pretend with her, if that makes sense. Like a front.

Idk, I really like her though.

How’s Emi?

Talked to Alana btw. She said sorry and that she won’t bother you again.

Celia takes a break from her phone to glance around the garage, as if she’s able to see anything going on beyond the walls.

GM: The garage remains still and undisturbed.

She sounds like someone worth knowing if that’s how you feel. :)

Emi’s asleep. She went to bed a little while after you made up. Glad you did.

Glad to hear that about Alana.

Celia: She hopes everything is going okay inside. She hates how close she came to losing control; she’s been nothing but a liability here.

No time, she reminds herself. No time for this. She’d fixed it. It’ll be okay. Camilla is here. She’ll ask Pietro not to say anything. Or maybe see if Camilla will—

No, he’ll still be irritated with her. She remembers Pete’s and Caroline’s words about the intensity of emotions. A boon, maybe. Two? That’s enough to buy silence, isn’t it? She can ask. Worst he says is no.

Glad we did too. Felt terrible. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Tell you what though I could go for like a whole pizza right now, hahaha. She includes a pizza emoji.

Is that weird to talk about with her mom?

Oh well.

Her mind moves back to the safe. There’s got to be something interesting in there, right? They’ll load it up before they go.

She wishes she could do it herself. That she were stronger. Maybe she’ll see about grafting more muscle onto herself. The lean kind so no one knows.

Maybe she can even move the muscles in her body right now to bulk up certain areas. Bulging biceps. How much effort to lift the safe?

No, that won’t work. Lift with your legs, that’s the rule. Not that she can throw her back out. But lifting something like that is a full body motion; only bulking her top half won’t matter much.

The thoughts keep her mind busy. Keep her from worrying about what’s going on inside the house. Keep her from thinking about her sire’s hatred. Keep her from thinking about the loss of two loves that have turned to hatred so that she doesn’t fall apart in the car.

Later. Later she can dissect everything running through her. Not now. Not safe here, that’s what Camilla said. She can’t lose her head here. She has to be calm. Focused.

GM: Draco could probably lift it.

It’s not that big. The size might be awkward, but even just her pitching in might be enough.

Maybe he could even do it all himself. Heft the thing over his shoulders.

Maybe Reggie or Randy could also do it.

Where’s a man to lift something heavy when she needs one?

Oh can you not get anything right now? her mom texts back.

Celia: Draco could lift a lot of things. Like her. Over his shoulder, or in his arms, carry her into—

Bad Celia.

She needs someone new to fantasize about. Someone else who makes her fangs long in her mouth. Someone else whose hot, fiery blood warms her in just the same way.

Celia pushes these thoughts aside as well. She doesn’t need Pietro and Camilla getting into the car wondering why she’s dry-humping the air.

In the middle of some stuff.

GM: Anything I can help with?

Seeing as I’m still up

Celia: Can she? Celia considers the question.

Not sure. Nothing jumps to mind right now. Will let you know though.

GM: Ok!

Celia: Unless you want to deliver a frozen pizza or something hahaha

She glances at the time. How long until they’re ready? She hates sitting here not doing anything.

GM: How badly do you need one? You know with Abi now I need all my strength, but if it’s an emergency…

Celia: Nah it’s more than I’m comfortable with. You know how I get. Gonna stop at a drive thru or something.

Celia glances into the space behind her seat, sifting through the bags. Maybe there’s blood back here. It’s one of the things elders and smart people stock up on in case of the civil war Rod had been so worried about, isn’t it?

GM: She sees none.

Celia: Maybe her sire isn’t—wasn’t?—that smart then.

GM: Or at least doesn’t keep his blood in the exact car she happens to be in.

Celia: But the wine cellar. Has to be blood instead of wine, doesn’t it? Why would Donovan have wine.

GM: Maybe he appreciates a good Bordeaux in his vessels’ veins.

Celia: No. He appreciates terror and pain.

And obedience, maybe.

GM: Paul gave her plenty of that and no Bordeaux.

Sounds good, let me know if there’s ever anything! texts her mom.

Celia: Camilla had told her to make herself scarce. But what if she’s in trouble? What if Celia hadn’t heard someone arrive and she’s fighting for her unlife?

Hunger and worry vie for domination.

GM: Oppressive silence is Celia’s only answer.

Celia: She can imagine the report Pietro and Camilla give her grandsire: “we did all the work while Celia made a mess."

Then he’ll ask why she did what she did. And she won’t have a good answer for him. After she’d told Pete she’d knock it off. And Pietro will mock her again for the Masquerade fuckup, and maybe he’ll eventually ask how she was going to “handle it” and “keep it from coming back on him,” and she’ll have to say…

She purses her lips.

No, he’s not going to see her anyway. She won’t have to say anything.

She slumps back in her seat, staring at the garage door.

Do you think Dad was telling the truth about the mood disorder & the specialist he saw?

GM: Her mother’s answering text is nigh-immediate, despite the length.

Sweetie, there is no way we can ever know for sure. Not even if he took a polygraph. That’s why I kicked him out. I am taking no chances with Lucy’s safety. I am not taking even a 1% chance that he will abuse her like he abused us.

Celia: Celia could find out. All she has to do is go across the street and spill some salt on him.

She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t tempted. But there’s no time to think about that right now. Celia makes sure her phone is on silent before she slides it into her pocket. Then she closes her eyes, disappearing into her self.

She’s hungry. But she’s messed up this evening. And she cannot afford to make anymore mistakes. Her sire is dead. Her sister says the house isn’t safe. Her ex is waiting outside Audubon and multiple licks have said that the prince’s agents are on the way.

She doesn’t have time for hunger.

Her Beast rears its ugly head, but the girls inside of it snap back. They are in control. Celia is in control. Jade is in control. Not the Beast. Not the monster that only wants to fight and fuck. No, a different sort of predator stalks the night.

Jade slips from the car with her stolen face, sticking to the shadows in her way to the door. Quietly, she starts to open it a tiny bit to find out what’s going on inside.

She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t tempted. But there’s no time to think about that right now. Celia makes sure her phone is on silent before she slides it into her pocket. Then she closes her eyes, disappearing into her self.

She’s hungry. But she’s messed up this evening. And she cannot afford to make anymore mistakes. Her sire is dead. Her sister says the house isn’t safe. Her ex is waiting outside Audubon and multiple licks have said that the prince’s agents are on the way.

She doesn’t have time for hunger.

Her Beast rears its ugly head, but the girls inside of it snap back. They are in control. Celia is in control. Jade is in control. Not the Beast. Not the monster that only wants to fight and fuck. No, a different sort of predator stalks the night.

She doesn’t have time for hunger.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Celia: Jade slips from the car with her stolen face, sticking to the shadows in her way to the door. Quietly, she opens the door a fraction of an inch to peer inside.

GM: Opening the garage door takes Jade to the rear foyer, where Paul has his laundry machines and seemingly uses for storage space. The average family’s garage foyer may be a catch-all teeming with belongings that have no home elsewhere, are forgotten upon drop-off, or which family members take with them to and from the car. Paul’s foyer, though, is immaculately clean and organized. It looks as empty-souled as the rest of his house.

Past the foyer’s other door is the living room.

Jade hears voices and footsteps. Many people’s footsteps.

Angry, yelling voices.

“The fuck? You idiots see a dead guy and figure, ‘hey, party time?’”

Celia: At least she doesn’t need to worry about tripping over something and alerting the cops to her presence. He was good for something after all.

Thanks, Paul.

The words from the other room bring a small sense of relief. It sounds like Camilla was successful in making the officers on scene forget what they saw. The alcohol had been a good cover.

Jade slips further into the foyer to view the scene with her own eyes, peering around the door frame. She doesn’t want to be caught unawares by cops or licks.

GM: Doing so requires Jade to open the door leading from the foyer into the living room. She sees police and paramedics on-scene. Some are gathered around the bodies, seemingly attempting to ascertain the cause of death. Several police are exchanging furiously heated words with the officers Jade has already met, who look badly inebriated.

Camilla stands amidst the center of the mortals. No one looks at her.

She regards Jade’s presence questioningly. And not especially kindly.

Celia: Jade, still with the stolen face, sends a look back to Camilla. The worried sort. The “checking to make sure things are okay” sort. She gives a tiny thumbs up and dips back into the foyer.

GM: Camilla does not look pleased by the faint creak of the closing door, but at least this time, no one among the occupied responders seems to notice.

Celia: Make yourself scarce, she’d said. So Jade goes back to waiting. Camilla seems to have it under control.

GM: Celia’s face stares back at her from the foyer clock’s dim reflection.

Its hands tick by. Voices continue to sound from the living room beyond, followed by with duller, heavier noises.

Celia: Tick tock goes the clock.

Celia waits.

Celia: But only for a moment. Camilla had told her to make herself scarce, not to make herself useless. She slips back into the garage and eyes the safe. Something interesting has to be inside, right? Otherwise the cops, and Pietro, wouldn’t have wanted to take it.

Allow me, purrs the voice in her head, and Jade slinks across the floor to stand before the safe.

I may not be the best night doc in the state, she’d said earlier. But she is. Through sheer versatility she can accomplish things that the others can’t do. Things they don’t even think about. Things that don’t occur to them to attempt. For the entirety of her existence she has been so many things to so many people, flowing into the crevices of the mold their expectations create. Is it any wonder that she has adapted that attitude with her physical as well as her mental state?

She is not a brawler. Not a hacker. Not a mind-reader.

She is a skeleton key.

The Chameleon offers the safe a predatory smile; the contents will be theirs.

Without delay The Chameleon gets to work. Dicentra watches over their shoulder to provide additional medical support and intel on the bodily manipulation. They begin by pressing a hand to the safe’s lock.

Articular cartilage cushions the bones in wrist and finger. Each joint in the hand and wrist is cushioned by this articular cartilage: between the phalanges and metacarpals, the metacarpals and the carpal, the carpals themselves. Yet more tendons run the length of the hand from wrist to just below the tips of the finger, providing allowing for the flexion, extension, and opposition of the hand.

The Chameleon and Dicentra focus on this cartilage and these tendons, and calls further yet from the stolen body parts of the dead gunman. Their flesh ripples as tissue moves from the “storage space” in the hollow stomach to the shoulders, biceps, forearms, and finally into the hands.

There, Dicentra says, and the Chameleon nods its head as its index finger locks into place. The extensor indicis tendon disconnects from the extensor digitorum, rendering the finger inert. Like a worm slinking through the earth, the tendon inches its way down the index finger until it reaches the nailbed; The Chameleon splits its skin open with a thought to let the dense, fibrous connection tissue to move into the open air.

The tendon slithers into the keyhole.

Collagen makes up the connective tissues of tendons. Celia, Dicentra, and Jade have all used this substance before for a variety of purposes. Like them, it lends itself well to whichever task is needed.

Now it’s needed to crack a safe.

Locks are designed to only open when a specific key applies the right amount of pressure to the pins, which cause the springs to move aside the tumbler. Move all of the tumblers and the lock opens. In this regard it’s rather like a double-handled door held shut by a pipe between the handles: once you remove the pipe, the door opens.

More complex locks contain more tumblers (or more pipes in the above example), but no matter how many exist the process remains the same: move the tumblers, move the bolt that secures the container.

Nervous tissue spans the entirety of the human / Kindred body. The central nervous system connects to the brain and tells it what to feel and how to adjust, while the peripheral nervous system contains the neurons that, through dendrites and axoms, carry messages from synapse to synapse back to the CNS. It’s automatic or somatic, controlling the automated personal needs (like pupils adjusting to light), and allowing beings to feel. Eyes, ears, skin, muscle: it all contains the neurons that feed back to the CNS, and it all takes orders from the CNS to make muscles contract or relax. That allows us to move.

The Chameleon uses the neurons in the tendons to find the pins in the keyhole, applying the specific amount of pressure to move the spring and adjust the tumbler. It moves one pin at a time; once it finds the right size it hardens that bit of collagen and cartilage to keep the spring activated and moves on to the next, repeating the process until every single pin has pressed against every single adjoining spring to slide every single tumbler out of the way.

Once done, it’s just a matter of twisting the collagen key to free the bolt that secures the safe.

GM: The Chameleon is at it for some time, carefully fitting its tendons to fit the pins. After all, perhaps there is a lockout delay. Pietro once told Jade that it’s a very, very common security measure used by Kindred and ghouls with safes. The ability to enter a thousand combinations in the blink of an eye becomes moot if a failed combination locks you out for a minute, a half hour, or even longer.

It’s more than that, too. Gui’s voice is also there. The Ventrue mafioso knew a few things about breaking and entering, and Jade ripped that knowledge from his screaming soul when she devoured him. It guides the Chameleon’s hand even now.

The safe clicks open.

The Chameleon sees stacks of $100 bills in mustard currency straps labeled $10,000. It counts ten stacks, bringing the total to $100,000. There’s also a variety of documents, including a foreign passport in Paul’s name, the deed to his house in Audubon Place, and a last will and testament from Paul Simmons to a one Timothy Peters. A casual inspection of the will states that Peters is to be left all of Paul’s worldly possessions.

Last of all, there is a handgun with ammunition, and two white pills.

Celia: An empty safe is just as telling as a room tossed for furniture. The Chameleon knows this, and when Gui whispers the assent in its ear it nods its head.

The documents interest it. It takes photos with Jade’s phone of the various papers, then pockets the will that cedes everything to Peters. The name doesn’t ring a bell, but then The Chameleon isn’t quite able to focus as deeply as it would like when even tiny movements pull at its charred flesh and send agony rippling through the neuron synapses to alert its brain.

It shoves the cash inside of itself. Not all of it, but 80% of the hundred grand; who would look askance at a safe that holds 20k when 20k is a lot to most people? 20k isn’t unusual for a rich man like Paul to have on hand, but 100k might be.

No one will miss it.

The Chameleon pilfers the pills, the gun, the ammo, tucking that inside as well.

It gives the safe a last look over.

GM: The Chameleon’s belly visibly swells as it adds the gun, ammo, and eight stacks of bills into its flesh.

Not a bad haul.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

GM: It’s not overlong before the door opens and Camilla strides in. She glances at the open safe, then starts looking through the contents.

“Take the rest of the money. The next individuals likely to see the inside of this safe are the prince’s agents, and there’s no sense in leaving them with a cash windfall.”

“What else did you remove?”

Celia: “Gun. Ammo. Pills. Last will.”

The Chameleon takes the rest of the money.

GM: “Take the rest. The prince is already going to know the house was robbed.”

Celia: It needs no further encouragement. Quick movements empty the safe of the remaining contents.

“Everything good inside?”

GM: “Sufficient. We do not have time for me to supervise the entirety of the police investigation. Come.”

Camilla turns and leaves the garage.

Celia: The Chameleon wastes no further time; it strides after Celia’s sister, safe closing gently behind it. Maybe someone else will waste time trying to get in and be rewarded with nothing.

GM: In the foyer, Camilla twists one of the coat hangers. A concealed door-sized panel in the wall slides open, revealing a set of stairs.

She waits for the Chameleon to follow her inside, then presses a button in the wall. The door panel silently closes behind them.

Celia: Jade is impressed. Celia is reminded of the story Paul had told her about taking her into the basement.

The Chameleon simply starts down the stairs.

“Silvestri?” it asks in a quiet voice.

GM: The stairs lead upwards rather than downwards, but level off after only a few steps. Camilla strides briskly through an unlit corridor narrow enough that the two Kindred must walk in single file.

“He is still entering the vault. Both of you have set off a thousand alerts to my, our sire’s, and his servants’ phones, for all the good that will now do.”

Celia: “Sorry,” Celia murmurs. “I didn’t want anything to fall into the wrong hands. Hasty and reckless.”

GM: “Harmless in this case. Everyone whose phone was linked to this house’s alarm system is now either dead or seeking to rob the house.”

The hound’s footsteps dully sound against the hard floor.

“Should you find yourself attempting to infiltrate a powerful Kindred’s haven in the future, however, know that your recent actions would have greatly jeopardized your success. Technology has made it easier than ever to become aware of intruders in one’s haven, and often without an intruder ever realizing they have triggered an alarm.”

Celia: “Yes, Camilla. Thank you.”

She tucks the information away. No doubt she’ll need it some day.

“Can you make him forget.”

GM: “Whom?”

Celia: “Silvestri. The fiasco.”

GM: Camilla stops in front of a mirror-shaped window in the wall. She stares out from it, surveying the police and med techs who are even now still documenting the scene of Paul’s and the girls’ bodies. No one looks back at them through the window.

Celia thinks she calls Paul having a mirror in his living room around this spot. It was a kitschy piece of art she didn’t pay any mind to.

After a moment of inspection, Camilla resumes her march down the corridor.

“Is he the sole individual aware of it?”

Celia: “The specifics. Mélissaire was told there were bodies that vanished. That cops saw. Could convince her she misunderstood what I said.”

“Shouldn’t have come.” She’s not going to beat herself up about it further. Not here. There’s no time. She watches the emergency workers in the next room.

GM: “And if you cannot convince her, or she has already relayed your words to Lord Savoy?”

Camilla keeps walking. The tight corridors split off in multiple directions. There are mirrors along each one staring out at the house’s rooms. Camilla takes several turns, then a flight of stairs leading up.

Celia: Celia follows behind. It’s a brilliant setup. She takes notes for her own future haven rather than commenting on Camilla’s use of the address ‘Lord’ when she had burned Jade only nights ago for saying the same.

GM: Nights ago she wasn’t defecting to Lord Savoy’s side.

Celia: “Could spin it. Just can’t explain the cops.” She lifts her shoulders. “Already displeased with me.”

“Is she dead? The Ventrue.”

GM: “I do not know,” answers Camilla.

The pair pass Pietro. He’s still at work in front of the vault door with a very pissed off expression. Then he’s gone, as Camilla rounds another corner. She stops in front of a heavy steel door with a retinal scanner. Camilla scans her eyes, then removes a keycard from her coat and swipes it over the lock.

Celia: A pang of guilt thrums through her at the thief’s expression. She keeps moving.

GM: The door whirs open. Celia smells blood. Camilla strides inside. The scent of blood grows stronger. They’re in a bare room full of computer terminals and security monitors. The monitors cover every room within the house, as well as several feeds around Audubon Place’s perimeter and gatehouse. The police, who’ve seemingly taken over for Blackwatch tonight, look sharp-eyed and alert.

There are further feeds into rooms that Celia doesn’t immediately recognize. It’s in one of them that she spots her father. Maxen is reading a book in his living room and looks half-asleep. In another feed, Edward McGregor lies asleep in his bed. Celia sees the faces of several more sleeping neighbors in their bedrooms. Seemingly every house in Audubon Place has been fitted with cameras watching the residents’ private lives.

Celia: He’d been watching. Her whole life, he’d been watching. She’d been watching. Someone had been watching.

“I’d wondered how he knew.”

She stares into the monitor with the feed at her father’s house.

GM: The book Maxen is reading looks like a presidential biography on Andrew Jackson, though his eyes are half-closed. After a moment, he shakes himself awake, glances at the time on his phone, then turns a page in the book.

There’s also two corpses splayed over the ground. Black men in seemingly their middle years, with closely shaved heads and dressed in servants’ uniforms. Their bodies are thin and their cheeks hollow. Their throats have been gruesomely slashed. Blood pools over the floor. There’s no shock or even pain written across their faces, though. Just vacant, zombie-liked stares.

Camilla glances at them, then types a password into one of the security terminals. She doesn’t bother to sit.

“He knew everything in Audubon Place.”

The (former?) hound removes her phone, glances at it, then types another string of characters into the terminal.

Celia: Celia slides her gaze to the bodies, then back to Maxen.

“He was there the night I went to kill my father. That’s when he took me.” Her expression stills. “He hated me.” She’d given him everything, would have given him even more, and he hated her the whole time.

She twists her lips into the mockery of a smile.

“Maxen is expecting me. If we don’t need to lie low there I’ll send him to bed.”

GM: “He neither hated nor loved us, until the end. Tools are unworthy of emotion, save anger when they fail in their function.”

Camilla removes a USB stick from her coat and plugs it into the terminal. Celia watches data start to copy over.

“We will not stay here. Our grandsire will want what we’ve recovered as soon as possible.”

Celia: Celia hasn’t recovered anything. But she doesn’t say that. She sends a text to her father that she isn’t going to make it tonight, she’s sorry, she’ll call him tomorrow.

GM: “Much of the prince’s strength was likely destroyed tonight. Lord Savoy will move soon. Our sire’s tactical and strategic data should prove a considerable asset.”

Celia watches in real time as her father glances down at his phone and types back that he’ll talk to her then, and that he loves her. He yawns, closes the book, and walks upstairs to his bedroom.

“No one will miss these men,” states Camilla. “Turn one of them into me.”

Celia: Celia gets to work. She picks the body closest to Camilla in size and crouches beside it, using her claws and fingers to sculpt muscle and flesh into a perfect likeness of the (former?) hound.

“What about his master?” Celia asks from the ground, where she builds a mound of tissue into a pair of breasts.

GM: Camilla shakes her head.

“The prince will know of his final death, if he does not already.”

Celia: Then, a moment later, “Will I alter your face before we see Lord Savoy?”

GM: “No. Save the vitae. But perhaps later.”

Camilla glances down at the body as her sister-in-blood sculpts the flesh.

“Work quickly. Our time is limited.”

“I have been Kindred for approximately sixty years. The body should appear in a state of advanced decay.”

“If we are able to convince the prince’s agents of my demise through your help, that will earn you some measure in redemption in our grandsire’s eyes.”

Celia: I may not be the best night doc in the state, she’d said earlier. But she is.

Any knob off the street could turn this black man into Camilla Doriocourt with a handful of quick changes. But Celia, Jade, and Dicentra are not some knob off the street. They’re educated, resourceful licks with a medical degree and plenty of first-hand experience conducting interactions with both the living and the dead.

Celia gives herself the burst of speed that she needs to complete her task in a fraction of the usual time; she relinquishes control to Jade and Dicentra and their hands blur across the body of the dead male.

Sixty years dead. Sixty years of decomposition that Dicentra mimics in sixty seconds.

Decomposition begins to occur minutes after death. Without the blood circulation and respiratory functions the body has no way of getting oxygen or eliminating waste; the excess carbon dioxide ruptures cell membranes, leading to released enzymes that begin to eat the cells from the inside out. Tiny little blisters form on organs and skin. When they rupture they create a sheen on the body, and the skin begins to loosen. Those enzymes released earlier create their own gasses; the body’s bacteria emits a compound containing sulfur that causes skin discoloration.

The body bloats. Some of them double in size, even. They start to stink; Jade recalls the stench outside of Joel’s room. Citrus, but not summer lemonade on warm sunny days. More like a can of industrial orange cleaner mixed with a bucket of fish that has been left in the sun to rot for a week. It’s this putrefication that calls to necrophagic insects to eat the decaying flesh, lay eggs in the body’s open cavities, and begin the process again.

But Kindred don’t have bacteria in their guts. Any they once had are long dead; even if the corpse of a young lick went through the autolysis and bloat of a human cadaver there would be little to no stench to summon the flesh-eating insects.

Which alters the decomposition of a Kindred corpse. No insects means that the decay happens more slowly, though with a corpse as old as Camilla’s, and even Celia’s, the active decay will both begin and end. Organs, muscles, skin—it all liquifies, seeping out of the body’s orifices to pool in rancid puddles on the ground. Once the soft tissue is gone just the hair, bones, and cartilage remain.

Then it begins to skeletonize.

The rates vary according to a number of factors: humidity, ambient temperature, season, fat content. Even the location itself can affect the way a body begins to skeletonize. As humid and warm as New Orleans is, the process of decomposition happens more rapidly, allowing the skeletonization to begin.

Sixty years dead, there will be little left of Camilla Doriocourt besides the skeleton itself.

Jade doesn’t waste time building Doriocourt from the black man. She strips apart the skin and uses her hands to pulverize the soft tissues inside into little more than liquid, like some sort of organ soup. She leaves some of the collagen and cartilage intact, knowing that she’ll need it to shape the skeleton, and tips the body to splash some of the liquid onto the floor. As if it had leaked from the rapidly decaying body.

Unable to do proper bone work, Jade improvises. A glance at this skeleton could convince someone that it is Doriocourt who died—the facial features remain even with skeletonization from the dry skin stretched across the bones—but anyone with a deeper medical knowledge of male and female anatomy will be able to spot the difference.

So she fixes it. Because she is the best night doc in the state.

Male skulls have a boney ridge on the brow line and a heavier, square shaped mandible. The skull itself slopes backwards. On a female the shape is different: her forehead is vertical, the mandible is rounded, and even the orbits are more rounded than the male’s square. Jade uses the borrowed cartilage and collagen to sculpt the skull into the proper shape, evening out the slope of the skull, rounding the edges of the orbit, softening the square of the mandible.

She moves lower, focusing on the pelvis. While she cannot adjust the bone itself, she can and does loosen the ligaments to place the pelvic bones as needed. She widens the pubic arch, sculpts yet more collagen and cartilage onto the ilium to create the illusion of wider hips, and shifts the pubis to create the wider opening of a female.

Maybe that would be enough for most night docs. But Dicentra isn’t most night docs, and she puts the finishing touches on the pelvis: the ventral arc. The elevated ridge of bone is found in females but not males (though they have a bony ridge it’s not a true arc), and the most pronounced of them create the squared-off appearance of the pubis.

Skeleton re-sculpted with the additional hardened tissue, Dicentra closes it back up. The only thing left to do is dry and darken the skin, stretch it taut across the bones, and shift the facial features into Camilla’s. A gross, dried out version of Camilla, but Camilla all the same.

Not the best, she’d said.

What a lark.

“I mean our sire’s master,” Jade/Celia says from the floor.

As dry and desiccated as the Camilla corpse is, Jade/Celia still thinks it looks better than her. Each movement of her hands had cracked and split her burned skin, stretching it across her muscles to send sharp agony through her body.

At least it’s over quickly. She’d rather suffer intense pain for a minute than prolonged pain for an hour or more.

GM: Not the best, she’d said.

But Camilla could likely ask for little better.

And could likely ask for nothing at all, if Jade/Celia weren’t here.

Camilla interjects, initially, to explain that Kindred corpses decay at a slower rate than mortal corpses. A sixty-year-dead vampire’s body should not be a skeleton, but somewhere between decayed corpse and dessicated mummy.

Yet her words soon prove extraneous, for Jade/Celia reaches that conclusion already. Flesh, as ever, is clay in Jade/Celia’s hands and submits to her will. The zombie-faced black man is soon no more, and Camilla Doriocourt lies dead and rotting on the ground in his place.

Flawless.

Jade/Celia can feel her own flesh reshaping, too. Perhaps on another occasion, she would not notice it. But this time, she does. It hurts. Cracked and burned and charred flesh is put through the ringer and twisted into agonizing new shapes. The driver changes and the car changes to match. No more confusion. No more mix-ups, Jade had said.

Camilla, meanwhile, removes the USB stick from the port and slips it back inside her coat. Her fingers fly across the keyboard, typing what looks like a script into a terminal.

“I am uncertain what you are asking,” she replies, then looks over the fleshcrafted corpse.

“Good work. This will be enough.”

“Change back your face. Celia or Jade being seen here only invites greater danger upon you.”

Celia: Good work.

It’s the sort of praise her sire would never bestow upon her, but here is her sister giving her the recognition she deserves. Celia cannot help but smile down at the corpse as she finishes her work. The damaged muscles beneath her flesh scream their displeasure at the movement.

She rises, burned skin already rippling to take another face.

Concerning that it continues to shift without her active consent. No more mix-ups. Jade and Celia take a back seat to The Chameleon, an androgynous face and body with a slim waist and narrower hips than the typical woman.

“Donovan’s master,” The Chameleon clarifies. “He was never Vidal’s man. I am asking what we do about him.”

GM: “Nothing,” answers Camilla.

Pain lances through the Chameleon’s body at the change.

“The prior face was better. A female one is more forgettable and consistent with your clothing than an androgynous face.”

Celia: The Chameleon can assume any face. It resumes the mask of the auburn-haired female.

GM: Camilla closes the script terminal, then starts placing what look like explosive charges along various points throughout the room.

Celia: “We do not inform Lord Savoy when you tell him the rest of his sire’s secrets?”

“Do you know of it, or do we need to discuss later?”

GM: Camilla glances again at the security monitors, scrolling through more feeds. The responders in the living room are finally taking away Paul’s and the girl’s bodies.

“I have no secrets to relay concerning Maria Pascual that our grandsire does not already know,” Camilla answers. “Answer what he asks of you, if anything. Otherwise, speak to no one of your sire whom Lord Savoy has not already entrusted with that information.”

Celia: Maria Pascual. Her great-grandsire. Is that who Donovan had served this whole time? But Maria is a feminine; she’d be marquise or marchionesses, not marquis—

No. The dead do not recognize genders; a female prince is still a prince. Only the kine bother to change the titles to feminize them.

The lick with the made up face only nods.

“What else can I do?”

GM: “Speak plainly. What you know or believe you know concerning our sire’s activities could place you in vastly greater danger than you realize.”

“I am not choosing to fabricate my final death for frivolous reasons.”

Celia: “When Donovan Embraced Celia he took her into the abyss of his mind. She was shown who he was, why he defected from his sire’s camp, and who he truly served. Marquis d’Avignon. Is this Maria Pascual?”

GM: “No.”

Celia: “The old foe that Vidal has defeated twice?”

GM: “The prince has done no such thing.”

Celia: “Then who is the marquis?”

GM: Camilla glances back across the security monitors.

“That is a conversation for another time and place.”

Celia: The imaginary face nods once more. “I will say nothing of it.”

GM: “Good. Speak of that name to no one, and only to Lord Savoy if directly asked.”

Celia: “Yes, Camilla.”

GM: “Do you or Silvestri possess any nearby allies?”

Celia: “Durant is waiting to provide escort once we leave Audubon.”

GM: “Is Durant loyal to Savoy?”

“Or to Celia?”

Celia: “Savoy.”

GM: “What pseudonym is he using tonight?”

Celia: “Draco.”

“He may be with Setites.”

GM: Camilla picks up a landline phone, recites what sounds like a pass phrase, and orders that anyone who identifies themselves as ‘Draco’, along with any other passengers in their car, is to be let through into Audubon. All other traffic until dawn is to be denied entrance.

A male-sounding voice answers in the affirmative.

Celia: The lick taps off a message to the boy in question, alerting him to his clearance into Audubon.

GM: I could already get in if I wanted to. Why should I now?

Celia: “He wants to know why come in now.”

GM: “You have help. The prince’s agents are watching and his own help my prove instrumental in our escape. It is better if he and his friends wait in their car outside of the house and can be ready to depart with the recovered materials as soon as possible.”

Celia: She relays the information to Draco.

GM: She receives no response.

Celia: You said you were coming to escort. Is that still true?

GM: No response.

Celia: If not lmk. Will need to adjust plans accordingly.

GM: There is still no response.

Meanwhile, Camilla’s visage runs and flows like water, coalescing into a small-framed Caucasian female. She closes down the terminal and slings the body over her shoulders.

“There is a ghoul newly in my service, formerly in our sire’s, named Jamal Harrison. Are you familiar with his appearance?”

Celia: “Yes.”

GM: “Make the other body resemble him. You may remove flesh from me if you require more materials.”

Celia: “Draco has not responded,” the girl says, already bending her knees to balance on the balls of her feet to adjust the second body. “We are not as close as we were, though I do not believe he would leave me to fight alone without Savoy’s direct order. The hatchet was supposedly buried.”

Slender fingertips work against the body of the slain man. There is no shaving here; the night doctor expands the body this time, adding mass as needed. She does not yet cut into Camilla for the flesh, but opens the skin of her abdominal cavity to pull the borrowed tissue from the gunman.

Borrowed. As if she’d return it.

The thought makes her giggle.

On its own the muscles, ligaments, and tendons from the gunman seep from her opened stomach to adhere to the ghoul, like snakes slithering through the air. For a moment the pair of bodies are joined via tissue bridge; while the meat is connected to the night doctor’s body it moves at her mental command, and only once it has settled into the appropriate positions does she sever it from herself to make it truly part of the man.

“Date of ghouling?” she asks as she continues to work.

GM: “Irrelevant,” Camilla answers. “A ghoul’s body will not give away its true age unless all vitae is expunged from its system.”

Celia: Two of the girls inside of her are intimately familiar with the man she seeks to create on the floor. She recalls him towering over her, hands on her throat, and she lengthens and broadens his fingers accordingly. She recalls him beneath her, face flushed while she takes her pleasure, and broadens the shoulders and pecs she’d scratched open with her claws when she found the release she’d craved.

When the likeness is complete and Camilla has given her the approximate age of the ghoul, Dicentra begins the process of decomposition.

GM: Camilla watches the girl work, hands blurring and turning a labor of potentially an hour into less than a minute.

“Good work,” she repeats. She lays down the smaller body for the girl to take and hefts the larger one across her shoulders.

Celia: “Is Harrison available for trade or purchase?”

GM: “No. All of my other ghouls are likely dead.”

“Nor would he obey any domitor who could not physically overpower him.”

Celia: “Then I’ll find a combat instructor.”

The night doctor hefts the smaller body over her shoulder. Even someone relatively weak can move a significant amount of weight in the fireman’s carry: Nova is even smaller than her and she’s seen the Malk lug the dog around on her shoulders as if he were a toy poodle.

The movements disturb the charred skin, but the pain stays buried deep inside of her where no one can see.

GM: “You are overconfident to believe you might so easily defeat a trained killer decades into the Blood. He would likely rape you. The point is also moot.”

Camilla opens the door and proceeds down the narrow hallway.

“I am aware of your sexual history with Harrison. He is not for sale. I have been left with almost nothing after tonight. I likely have no other ghouls. I no longer possess a domain, herd, or mortal agents. I am without title or office or reputation. I am without friends or allies save you. I am penniless but for the cash recovered from Simmons’ safe. I approach our grandsire with nothing save the clothes on my back, the secrets within my mind, and the one servant I have salvaged from this disaster, with whom I have a decades-long working relationship. You are sparing little thought to the current state of my Requiem if you seek to part this from me.”

Celia: The Chameleon follows in Camilla’s wake.

“No,” she says, “I do not seek to relieve you of what you have left. I sought to trade once you were re-established. You said no. I will not push further.”

Each step pulls at the burns on her body.

“I have domain. I have a herd. I have multiple havens. Cash, clothing, contacts, family. You are welcome to any and all of it. No expectations in return.”

“I will not leave you to flounder on your own. I am with you.”

GM: “Thank you, Celia. I welcome your assistance. Nor do I expect our grandsire to leave me with nothing in the likely event that he accepts me into his service. There are some ‘rainy day’ assets I have concealed and may be able to recover. But that is a concern for later.”

Camilla presses a button to open another panel in the wall. They exit into a room the Chameleon recognizes as Jamal’s quarters. Camilla deposits the corpse on the floor, then starts changing it into some nondescript clothes she removes from the closet.

Celia: “I have multiple Kindred identities,” she says as Camilla changes the corpse. “You are welcome to someone already established, though none will have your current reputation.”

GM: “That and other assets will take decades to fully rebuild. I have put some consideration into the alias I will adopt. I will wait some time before re-entering Kindred society.”

“Harrison saw extensive combat,” she remarks as she removes the body’s shirt and pants. “He can be presumed to have regenerated his wounds through vitae, but the incendiaries will have destroyed his hair.”

Celia: The Chameleon deposits the Camilla corpse on the floor to make the alterations to Jamal’s doppelganger. She does not need to bother crafting the flesh itself; with claws as sharp as razors she can simply remove the hair and gather what falls out to avoid leaving evidence behind.

“Donovan told Celia not to trust Savoy. That his affection is but a means to cultivate loyalty. I imagine his death has changed things regarding loyalty, so I will not tell you how to feel.”

She finishes the work on his scalp.

“I only pass along what was said.”

GM: “Leave a used razor in the bathroom,” Camilla says upon observing Celia’s last handiwork.

“Our sire’s approval, on those rare occasions it was demonstrated, was but a means to cultivate loyalty. The same may be accurately said for many Kindred of advanced years.”

“I will return soon.”

Then she’s gone in a blur.

Celia: The words serve as reminder that Donovan had never felt anything for Celia. He’d saved her. Hunted for her. Fucked her. But he’d never loved her.

The one certainty of her Requiem had been a lie.


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Celia: The Chameleon slips from bedroom to bathroom, locates a razor inside a cabinet, and dulls the blade by wiping it across her pants. The edge looks like it has been little used, but still used. She wedges a single hair between the blades. Donovan expected fastidious cleanliness and austerity; Jamal, careless, had left the one behind after cleaning his razor.

She rinses the rest of the hair down the sink and runs the water until the final strands disappear.

She returns to the bedroom and checks her phone while she waits.

GM: There’s a new text from Celia’s mother.

Do you want him back?

The previous ones in the conversation thread read:

_C: Do you think Dad was telling the truth about the mood disorder & the specialist he saw?

M: Sweetie, there is no way we can ever know for sure. Not even if he took a polygraph. That’s why I kicked him out. I am taking no chances with Lucy’s safety. I am not taking even a 1% chance that he will abuse her like he abused us._

Celia: He could be a valuable asset.

Celia sends the text. Then types another.

Sometimes I just want a dad. Kept telling Pete to date you so I’d have a surrogate one.

GM: I want to find a husband. I want Lucy and Abi to have a father figure. And you, if that’s something you want.

But not Maxen, ever again.

Celia: Then again I also want Stephen back, and he’s done some fucked up shit, so that shows how good my judgment is.

GM: I think it’s different in your cases. But I know, sweetie. I know what it is to want someone back after they’ve cut you out of their lives.

I’m not going to say it gets better overnight, or that you’ll ever fully stop missing them, but you can surprise yourself just how vibrant and rich a life you can enjoy on your own.

Celia: Yeah. I’ll get over it. What kind of dude you looking for?

GM: Someone my age or older. Stable. Traditional. Gentle but strong. Able to love my children like his own flesh and blood.

Celia: Someone like Stephen would have been.

I’ll keep an eye out.

GM: Stephen didn’t meet ‘my age or older’, at least.

At least her mom wouldn’t have wanted to steal her boyfriend.

Thanks. I don’t know how much time I’ll have for dating with Abi to now take care of.

Celia: Pete is in love with you. Says he’s not but he is. Tried to pass it off as loving the idea of you.

Just saying.

GM: You mentioned. He seems like a good man. But I don’t know. There are too many things he’s missing.

Or maybe I should say, too many things he’d miss.

I want a partner who can be by my side at all hours of the day or night.

Celia: So not a vampire.

someone like you?

GM: There are things an adult daughter can miss out on that are much harder for a husband to miss out on.

Like me in what sense?

Oh.

I don’t think so.

Celia: Lots of secrets.

They’d make it work.

GM: I don’t want a husband who’s in love with someone else, though. I’m not sure they’d even want me as a wife anyway.

Or an addict in the house raising my kids.

A second addict.

Celia: Good point. Wasn’t thinking.

GM: Telling the truth has a lot of appeal, though. This is such a big thing to keep secret.

Celia: I’ve gotten good at lying.

GM: Forgive me if this sounds cruel, sweetie, but how did that work out with Stephen?

Celia: She sends back a shrug emoji.

I’m a black hole, remember?

GM: Only if you decide to be. Every night you get up, you get to decide what you want to be.

Celia: Too late. She’d already sucked the life out of the boy she loved because she’d been chasing a lie.

Could try online dating.

GM: Good idea! Time-saver and lets me do it from home.

Celia: Plus Emi and I can judge from afar. And follow you on your dates to judge from up close.

GM: I’m so lucky to have you both. :)

Celia:


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

GM: Glancing up, Celia sees that Camilla has already returned. She did not hear her sister-in-blood enter the room. Camilla is strapping weapons onto Jamal’s and “her” corpses. Phones go into both of their pockets. She’s dressed “her” corpse in an identical overcoat and is planting USB sticks inside of it.

“Give me half of the money, too. It will be more believable if that’s lost.”

Celia: Celia slips the phone into her pocket. Her face changes once more.

She pulls the 50 grand from its place inside of her.

GM: The money is wet and sticky with bodily fluids. Camilla impassively rinses it in the sink, dries it, and sticks it into the pockets of “her” coat.

“Were there any documents that would be useless as pictures, rather than in their original forms?”

“They, at least, we may simply make copies of.”

Celia: What bodily fluids? Dicentra cut them all out of her.

She pulls the documents she’d liberated from the safe.

“Will could be altered. Deed as well. If we want it. Don’t know who Peters is.”

GM: “If the full name is Timothy Peters, a legal fiction. He was a future alias our sire’s ghoul intended to assume after retiring the Simmons identity.”

Celia: “It is.”

“If the legal documents exist we can use the identity. Not sure how feasible it is under a new regent.”

“Did we need him? Simmons.”

“He cracked. Collar snapping, I assume.”

“Sorry,” she offers.

“These we can keep digital copies of. I’ve already taken photos.”

GM: “I do not believe anyone outside this room knows that Timothy Peters is a legal fiction,” Camilla considers. “The identity could be possible to co-opt.”

“As to Simmons, there could have been advantages and disadvantages, but what is done is done.”

“It is preferable if the documents are dry. Send me the pictures. I will make copies.” Camilla gives her a phone number.

Celia: She does so.

She starts to clean and dry the documents; she’ll need to restock on bags. She’d given the last of them to the thin-blood with his $500.

“Did you know about it? What he did to Celia.”

GM: The girl swiftly finds drying the soaked and only half-legible documents to be a futile task. Paper documents are much less resilient than dollar bills.

“I will make copies,” Camilla repeats as she looks at the images on her phone.

“I was unaware what Simmons did to you.”

Celia: “Ah. He mentioned leaving her to die. We are curious how she survived. No matter.”

GM: “That is also a discussion for later,” says Camilla.

“Carry the bodies as far as you can through the passageway. Leave them by the mirror that overlooks the vault. I will join you there.”

Her sister vanishes in another blur.

Celia: She’ll add another pocket to her body later. Something to keep things dry rather than rely on bags; perhaps the stolen flesh from the girl downstairs will make for convenient storage.

The girl hefts the larger body over her shoulder and begins the trek through the passages.

She returns for the second to do the same once the first is deposited.

GM: She sees the thick steel door slide open after depositing the first body.

Pietro gives a quiet whoop and exclaims something in Italian.

Celia: For a moment she halts and observes, taking stock of the contents within the vault.

GM: The inside of the vault contains featureless steel walls, several safes, a computer terminal, several racks of arms and weapons, and several secure-looking steel lockers. There’s not even a bed. Her sire’s sanctum sanctorum looks as bare and empty as the rest of him.

Pietro does not immediately stride into the vault, but warily starts to examine the adjacent walls and floor with a gadget she doesn’t recognize. After he does that, he runs his fingers along them.

Celia: She’s not sure what she expected. More. Just… more.

But there’s nothing. No personal insights. No photos, no possessions, nothing that suggests he was ever anything but cold and unfeeling.

She makes the return trip to pick up the second body and lugs it back to the mirror across from the vault.

Then she waits, watching the thief across the way.

GM: Camilla returns with copies of the documents before Celia drags along the second body. Her sister helps carry it and sticks the documents inside the body’s coat.

She opens the panel door in the wall and steps out. Pietro curses, then calms when he sees who it is.

Camilla looks across the vault’s interior.

“This doesn’t make sense,” says Pietro.

“You don’t build a vault on a building’s upper floors, if you can avoid it. You build it on the ground level, or even better, the basement.”

“So there are fewer points of ingress,” concurs Camilla. “A powerful enough drill could have penetrated the walls or floor.”

Celia: “Decoy,” she suggests. “Everyone knew about this place. Secondary or tertiary haven.”

GM: Pietro glares.

“I am not leaving this McMansion with fucking nothing.”

Celia: “I imagine he has something here. Just not the golden egg we presumed.”

“If the vault had nothing then anyone who isn’t familiar with what you do would know it’s a decoy. He’d include something to stop further searches.”

“After all,” she says, “not knowing of its existence is the best defense against thieves.”

GM: “I guess you’re an expert on jobs like these,” sneers Pietro.

“There is something here, and it is not in this room,” says Camilla. “If the entire haven was a decoy, he would have built the vault in a more secure part of the house.”

Celia: The Chameleon considers the thief with a tilt of her head. She smiles. But she holds her tongue. Sometimes silence is stronger than venom. And she’s not wrong: there is a decoy. It’s just the vault rather than the whole haven. Everything else she’d said still applies.

He must be salty he’d spent all of his time breaking into what is effectively a fake room. Like stealing a painting only to find out it’s a forgery.

She walks past the other Toreador, shadows still clinging to her frame, and moves down the stairs to check that the coast is clear. It appears the kine have finished up. She moves through the living room where she’d slaughtered Paul and into the kitchen.

He’d mentioned a basement. She hadn’t looked for it earlier, not after seeing the freezer on the ground floor. Maybe Paul had added it to the story to scare her. Or maybe he’d slipped up in mentioning it. Either way, she searches for it. Rather than look for the door itself she looks for the lever that activates it, just as Camilla had activated the hidden door into the walls.

GM: The Chameleon finds the coast anything but clear. While the two corpses have been removed, police officers are still present. They are photographing and videoing seemingly everything related to the scene. Every footprint, partial footprint, and trace of footprint, looks like it is being diagrammed, measured, and photographed with scales. Investigators are scouring the area, looking for other things to record in diagrams and photographs. Yellow crime scene tape, watched by further police, cordons off the house.

Celia: Awkward.

Seems a bit like overkill for what is clearly an overdose. But she’s not a cop, and she only knows what her client told her about her sister’s death. The police hadn’t bothered to take many photos or do an inventory of the house; she doesn’t think they’d even swept for prints. Doors and windows had been secure, so no one suspected foul play.

Maybe rich white men get better treatment than everyone else even when they’re dead.

Rather than risk alerting the police to her presence—who knows what sort of noise she’ll make trying to sneak between the officers and technicians present, or who she might accidentally bump into—she returns to the top of the stairs and down the hall to the vault.

“Simmons mentioned a basement. Possibly off the kitchen. Will the walls take me there?”

GM: Of course rich white men get better treatment.

She finds Pietro and Camilla methodically looking through the vault. It’s the thief’s hands, running across a concealed wall plate, that suddenly cause a section of floor to pull back. A shaft roughly wide enough for a single spread-eagle body yawns beneath them. There’s another heavy-looking steel door at the shaft’s bottom. There are no stairs, steps, or ladders leading down to the door: the only way to get down is by jumping what looks like two stories.

Or flying.

Celia: It’s a good thing she takes after her sire in that regard.

“I can float down.” Pietro can crawl, she thinks. Or they could jump. It’s not like two stories will kill them.

GM: “Walls are trapped,” says Pietro. “It’s what I’d do, if I were him. Every inch of them. Because he’s never going to touch them.”

“Never going to have any heavy falls, either. Pressure-sensitive alarms could trigger more nasty surprises.”

“Are you capable of floating up as well as down?” asks Camilla.

Celia: “Yes.”

“I can fly.”

GM: “I suspect what we find will be too heavy for a bird to carry,” says Camilla. “Wait here.”

She’s gone in a blur, then returns a moment later with a leather suitcase.

“I do not see a locking mechanism,” she states, staring down into the shaft. “Do you?”

“No,” says Pietro.

“Feel like it won’t be a conventional lock.”

“Was already one up here.”

“Already delayed an intruder plenty. Already plenty of alarms. At this point, he’d either be here already or he wouldn’t be coming at all.”

Celia: Her skin splits itself apart when Camilla returns with the suitcase. She’d already gotten rid of most of the mass inside of her, first by sculpting the additional muscle onto the Jamal corpse and then by handing Camilla the documents and half the pilfered cash. She pulls out what’s left inside, setting the other 50 grand on the floor, the gun and ammo beside it. She keeps the white pills tucked inside and out of the way.

She reaches for the suitcase so she can stuff it inside of her.

“I’ll float back if it doesn’t fit.”

GM: “It is currently empty,” states Camilla.

The leather suitcase looks fairly small, as far as suitcases go, but still like a very large fit for the 5’3" woman’s torso even were the bones, heart, and lungs removed.

She looks at Pietro.

“What would you make the last lock?”

“Blood magic,” he says. “To hedge out anyone who isn’t me. No technology, so no hacking that way.”

“I’d say he could’ve gotten that from you, but you’ve obviously not been in here. So probably not magic. I’d make it-”

“It will be magical,” states Camilla.

Pietro raises an eyebrow, but says nothing further.

The former hound rises aloft into the air and starts to float down the shaft.

“Do not touch the door,” she tells Celia.

Celia: Then her stomach closes itself back up. She’ll float down with it and float back up with it. No matter.

Celia drops down after her.

GM: The two float steadily downwards. Featureless steel slides past them. The hole at the top with Pietro grows steadily smaller.

The “door” at the bottom of the shaft, if it can truly be called such, is more featureless steel. There are two handle-shaped protrusions at opposite ends for someone to wrap their hands around, seemingly to pull the door open with. Even there, the door’s architecture is designed to be as unfriendly to non-fliers as possible: someone who was physically standing atop the door while (awkwardly) pulling the handles would be incapable of opening it, because their own body weight would still be pressing down against the door. Only someone capable of flight, and seizing the handles without touching their feet to the door’s surface, looks like they could actually pull it open.

Celia sees no locks, keyholes, access panels, or other physical means of preventing a flier’s ingress.

Camilla murmurs something that sounds like a prayer. A spiderweb of runes and symbols suddenly appears across the floor. They are dark and sinister-looking, all brutally hard lines and angles with viciously sharp edges. The blade-like pattern works in a spiral towards a droplet-like shape at the center of the door.

“The final defense. His blood alone is the key.”

Celia: “His actual blood? Or what he passed off as his?”

GM: “The blood from his veins, and no other. Ours will not be sufficient, though it may afford some measure of protection.”

Camilla clasps her hands and murmurs another prayer. The runes flicker and fade, for a moment, but return to full strength. Camilla looks unsurprised.

“The architecture has been designed for a Kindred who fit his physical profile. The door will be extremely heavy. We will need to expend blood to lift it.”

She looks over Celia’s fire-ravaged body.

“I will attempt to open the door alone. You are in no condition to do so. Whatever curse it triggers will fall upon me. If I survive, and if I know him, there will be an emergency reserve of blood on the other side. His own blood, by dint of its greater ease of preservation. Use it to revive me.”

Celia: Celia winces. She was careless earlier to be caught by fire so many times. She can’t be useful when she needs to be.

“I will,” she says.

GM: “Float upwards.”

Camilla passes Celia the suitcase, then clasps her hands and recites another prayer. A dark yet radiant halo-esque light spills from her body, enveloping her like a shield. She removes one of her leather gloves, presses a finger against an unsheathed fang, and lets the drop fall onto its seemingly indicated place on the door. The runes turn a violently shade of red. The blood angrily burns and fizzles. Without further ado, Camilla seizes both of the door’s handles and pulls.

Fire immediately consumes the former hound. Not orange and yellow fire, like normal fire. The hissing tongues are red as blood and black as sin. They crackle with palpable malevolence. With hatred. Their smell is unbearably foul, like rotten eggs.

At first, Camilla’s pale flesh merely bleeds and bruises, not burns. The dark light seemingly wards off the worst of the evil flames. Her arms strain as she burns through vitae to push dead muscles to their limits, and beyond. Slowly, torturously, she starts to lift the door open. It looks incredibly thick. How much easier it must be for their sire, so much stronger than any mortal man, to open.

How much easier it might be for Roderick, too.

But with every inch the door rises, the light around Camilla dims. Finally, as she pulls the door open just high enough to squeeze through, the light dies, devoured under the malevolent flames. Camilla’s body becomes a black and scarlet torch. The former hound is roasted alive as she rasps at Celia,

“IN.”

Celia: Celia can only stare as the fire engulfs her sister. No, she wouldn’t have been able to open that door. Wouldn’t have been able to take that much more fire consuming her body; she’d be dead. Well and truly dead.

Rotting eggs. Sulfur. Fire and brimstone. Hell.

Demons some internal part of her screams. This isn’t just fire magic; these aren’t the flames her mother summoned in her living room. This is black magic, infernal magic, demonic magic.

She stares. And then she drops, twisting through the air and into the open door to the other side as soon as Camilla rasps the word.

GM: Celia has to squeeze as much as drop. Camilla has barely managed to lift the impossibly heavy door upwards. No sooner has she done so than the former hound blurs after her, following her in. The vault-like door slams down. Camilla plummets like a falling star. She crashes to the ground and does not get up.

Celia: Celia descends more slowly to the ground to stand beside her sister. She casts her gaze around the vault to find the blood.

And to see what else her sire kept down here.

GM: The room’s interior is made for one of the Damned. One of the Damned with few creature comforts. It is pitch dark, without any light sources save a computer screen. There are no chairs or beds or tables or cushions. Everything is just steel. If her sire sleeps here, he does so by simply lying flat upon the ground.

It looks like the interior of a Cold War-era bunker. There’s a closed laptop with a plugged-in USB stick sitting on a table. There are racks of weapons and munitions. There’s a computer terminal with a number of floor-to-ceiling monitors, much like the ones in the security room. However, these monitors also include live feeds into the hidden corridors behind the house’s walls, the security room, and the vault’s interior. Piles of clothes in her sire’s preferred style, dark and austere, are neatly folded and laid out. They aren’t even placed inside a dresser. It’s as if he assumed neither dust nor insect nor anything else would ever disturb the tomb-like bunker’s interior. The air is stale and foul. Celia cannot imagine it being pleasant for any living creature to long endure. There are several glass jugs of blood near one of the walls, below an elaborate mural that looks like a family tree.

Celia’s name is on it.

Celia: Celia steps forward, eyes glowing bright in the darkness. There will be no secrets kept from her in this dark tomb. She surveys the mural, tracing the line backward from her name.

GM: Directly above Celia’s name, and linked to it by a dark line, is “Diana Underwood (Flores)”. Diana’s name is paired with another name, also directly lined to Celia’s, which reads “Generation Seven.”

Written underneath “Generation Seven” is “presumed Ronald Landreneau.”

Written underneath Ron’s name is “presumed Maxen Flores.”

Celia: She traces it back further.

GM: Payton Andrews (Underwood) and Timothy Underwood are the names above Diana’s, and branch down to Stanton Underwood and Prudence Bellamy (Underwood). Prudence and her husband branch down to Lily Bellamy. Stanton, who Celia was told had no children, branches down to Adam Shanks.

Above Payton are Celia’s great-grandparents William Andrews and Marie Freneau (Andrews). They branch down to Payton and her sisters Doris, Judy, Beverly, and Kathleen, all of whom are dead but for Payton and Beverly. Celia’s maternal great-aunt, she dimly recalls, lives in South Carolina with her family.

Doris’ name is written thicker than the other Underwood girls, but written underneath it is, “Failure.”

Celia: Celia checks the thickness of Doris’ name against her own, trying to make sense of… this. How long had he been watching her family? How long had he waited for someone in her line?

GM: Celia’s name is thicker than her siblings’, too.

There’s also a “Failure” written underneath.

Celia: Her hand clenches into a fist.

GM: He’s been watching her family closely, if some of the other names are any indication. All of the Flores family’s dirty secrets are on there. Lucy’s name branches down directly from Maxen’s and Diana’s. Ethan’s name crisscrosses Maxen’s and Isabel’s (“Roxanne Gerlette”), which is annotated with, “Unworthy.”

Celia: She looks for more notes. More failures. More unworthies.

If he knows Ethan and Lucy are Maxen’s, then what are the “presumed” notes next above hers? He doesn’t know? Neither one of them?

GM: Lucy has a “presumed” note for Celia Flores + unknown father. Ethan has a “presumed” note for Mary Flores and her husband.

Both children’s names are circled.

Celia: Celia’s lips move soundlessly in the dark. Presumed. What the world presumes. Then neither Maxen nor Ronnie are…? No. She’d taken a DNA test. Ron is her father.

…right?

And Doris? Another childe? His childe? Celia looks over her shoulder at the fallen hound. Is this Doris, the dead great-aunt? Sixty years. Dead for sixty years. Payton is, what, 70s? Doris would be… older. Payton was the last for four girls, that’s why her father had treated her as he had. Her grandmother has told her the story plenty of times.

Doris. Dorio. Court. Like her judge father, right? Doriocourt.

She laughs. Camilla is her great-aunt.

Why the circles, though? Had he planned on testing Lucy and Ethan for candidacy? She searches for more circles.

She searches for more notes. She searches for more family lines.

She searches for his name.

GM: Above Payton and her sisters, the genealogy continues to trace up through Marie Freneau and her brother Bernabé Freneau, from whom descend the still-living Freneaus to bear that name.

Sebastian Freneau is circled. Twice.

More dirty family secrets are on display. Rachel Freneau branches directly from Sebastian Freneau and Kimberly Guillory (Freneau), but Olivia Freneau branches from Kimberly and an unrelated man. A note adds, “Presumed Sebastian Freneau.”

Celia: Why circled? What do the circles mean?

Is Uncle Seb a lick, too? She’d thought him another sort of supernatural, one of the lucky ones the exiled prince had mentioned.

She has no context for what she’s looking at. Maybe Camilla will.

Celia moves forward, reaching for one of the jars of blood. Her sire’s blood? She opens it… and takes a drink.

GM: The familiar taste of her sire’s vitae flows across her mouth, deathless and powerful and icy cold as ever.

Celia: That’s not what she wants. She searches for something deeper. Something he can’t hide with sorcery or shadow dancing now that he’s dead.

It’s… different. Stronger. Much stronger. He had been hiding it.

…hadn’t he? Or is she only tasting what she wants to taste in his blood, distracted by the burns and pain that wracks her body?

She doesn’t know. Not yet. But there are multiple jars; she tucks the half jar she’d sipped from into her open abdominal cavity and wraps it securely when she thins a tendon long enough to encase it. Then she takes a second and does the same. She closes herself back up.

She wants to study the mural longer, but time keeps ticking. She takes photos of it in its entirety, letting her phone flash in the darkness, then checks to make sure they came out okay.

Finally, Celia opens another jar to wake her sister. Or great-aunt.

GM: The vitae trickles down Camilla’s charred and blistered lips. She seizes it and drinks the full thing. The former hound still looks catastrophically hurt, and only a step removed from final death. Celia can only guess how much blood she’s already burned through outside the door.

She stares at the sole remaining jar with blood in it.

Celia: Silently, Celia offers another jar, leaving just the one for herself.

She bites into her wrist and begins to fill one of the empties.

Then another.

And a third.

She sets the jars beside her sister. Aunt. Sister-aunt.

“Were you born Doris Underwood?” she asks quietly.

“I can spare more, if you need it.”

GM: Camilla, Doris, or whoever she is, is ravenous. Her fangs are long against her ravaged face. Celia may wonder if she’s about to frenzy right then and there, but the hound forces the instinct down. And drinks. Her ruined body slowly begins to repair itself, but she leaves the one remaining jar with Donovan’s blood untouched.

“I do.”

Celia: Celia bleeds for her.

GM: Camilla continues to drink. The former hound’s body mends, but not completely. The hateful flames leave unhealed wounds that look at least as ugly as Celia’s.

Camilla stands up and surveys the bunker. Including the family tree.

“How much of his blood was originally here?” she asks, depositing the jar into the briefcase.

She puts the laptop inside too and slips the USB stick into a coat pocket.

Celia: “Five,” she says. “I took one. I thought maybe I’d finally learn the truth about him, but I’m… well.” She gestures at herself. “I have one tucked away. I thought I could use it for something. Or test it. Or something.”

“Is Savoy our grandsire? Or our brother?”

GM: “The vitae could still serve a purpose. It is better to have more than one draught. Savoy is our grandsire.”

Camilla removes the family tree mural, rolls it up, and fits it inside the briefcase.

Celia: “Oh. Mel mentioned that Donovan didn’t need instruction on anything when he was Embraced. That he seemed born for it. I thought maybe he was older than he said.”

Celia takes another look around the room, searching for anything she can use to gain insight on her sire.

GM: She sees naught else than the items she has already, minus what Camilla has taken. Her sister produces a tablet, hooks it up to the desktop computer, and busies herself on it.

Celia: Celia peruses the rack of weapons.

She feels… extraneous. Like Camilla could have done this all on her own.

And she’s just slowing things down with questions.

GM: She finds two swords of the make used by her sire, two hunting knives, two handguns, a shotgun, a machine gun, and assorted ammunition. Fewer arms than were stored upstairs, but a respectable enough personal arsenal.

Celia: She wonders if he had died with the bracers on. If they had helped in any way.

GM: Who knows how or at whose hands he died?

Celia: “Did he wear bracers?” she asks. “During the fight?”

GM: “Yes. He slew one of our attackers with them.”

Celia: “Good.” A pause. “I made those for him.”

GM: Camilla’s fingers type across the tablet.

“They appeared well-crafted.”

Celia: “I can make you a pair. If you want. I have the material already. I planned second set.”

She reaches for the sword her sire must have carried.

GM: There are two swords, both identical.

Celia: She only needs one.

But she takes both.

One for Camilla.

And the knives.

They belong to his childer.

GM: “I would,” Camilla answers Celia’s first statement. “Their utility was proven on the battlefield, and close-range weapons were of less use to him than me.”

Celia: “Did you ever meet your niece? Payton’s girl, Diana.”

GM: “I have not met your mother.”

Celia: “But you are Doris.”

GM: “Doris who?”

Celia: “Underwood.”

GM: Camilla finishes with the tablet and stows it back inside her coat. She pries off the desktop’s external casing.

“On what basis do you presume this?”

Celia: “It was on the mural. Same as mine. You died around the right time. He was tracing our lineage.”

Celia fingers one of the dark shirts her sire wore.

GM: It’s identical to a half-dozen others. Non-identical shirts, pants, coats, socks, and underwear are all there, neatly and impersonally folded.

Camilla pulls out the computer’s hard drive and adds it to the briefcase.

“It is unfortunate you saw that, if apparently unavoidable.”

Celia: She pulls off her layers of clothing on top and slips into the shirt, wrapping her arms around herself.

“I don’t know if I should apologize or not. I’m not… I mean it doesn’t change anything for me to know who you are.”

She touches one of the unique shirts. Then a coat.

GM: The shirts are simply not identical to the black turtlenecks she touched initially. The others are black button-ups.

Celia: Oh. Well she takes one of those, too. Nothing cuter than a girl in a pair of socks and borrowed button-down.

GM: “It changes more than you realize,” Camilla answers, then retrieves another explosive charge and places it inside the computer. “It places your family, you, and I in greater danger.”

Celia: “Why?”

GM: The former hound stares into the screen. Celia cannot see her sister’s face reflected in it. Her visage is as lost to reflective surfaces as any of their kind’s.

But her voice, when she speaks, is tired.

So tired.

Like all the hurts of the evening have at last caught up.

Like all the hurts of a lifetime.

Of several lifetime.

Celia has to strain to hear her voice.

“I was once Doris. I have not been Doris for many years.”

“It is better that she stays buried.”

“Speak of her existence to no one. Not her niece. Not her sister. Not any of her living kin.”

“And not ever to our grandsire.”

Celia: “I’m sorry,” Celia says quietly.

She says she won’t tell anyone. Especially him.

GM: Camilla smashes in the monitor’s screen, then turns and makes a final-seeming sweep through the bunker.

Celia: Celia lapses into silence, doing what she can to help after tucking away the clothing and pulling her other outfit back on.

GM: Camilla locates several unmarked black books that she fits inside the briefcase. It’s getting full by this point. She stuffs one into her coat.

The former hound rises aloft into the air. There is no ladder leading down from the vault-like door on the ceiling: this portion of their sire’s haven is designed exclusively for fliers. She slips the briefcase’s handle along her wrist to free both hands.

“This side of the door will not be warded.”

Camilla pushes against it, straining to lift the unthinkably heavy slab of steel. Doubtlessly, she’s burning through more blood.

Roderick would be useful here, even unable to fly.

Celia: Celia does not let her do it alone. She takes to the air, pushing against the steel with the strength she can muster, burned and broken though she is.

GM: The vault-like door feels impossibly heavy. It’s like trying to lift a tank. It swiftly becomes plain she cannot contribute towards its lifting without also expending vitae to augment her dead muscles.

Celia: So she does. Her sister is not alone in this.

GM: The women strain their arms. Slowly, tortuously, the vault door starts to lift, but the gap yet remains too small for either of them to fit through.

Celia: This won’t do. Celia grits her teeth. She sends still more vitae surging through her body.

GM: Camilla, too, continues to heave and push. The slab-like door finally lifts, just barely high enough to squeeze past.

Celia: “Go.”

GM: “You,” Camilla grits out.

Celia: “I can shift. Go.”

GM: “I am stronger and less injured,” states the former hound. Perhaps a mortal would be wheezing and breathless, but the dead have no need to breathe. “We do not have time to argue. Go.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t argue further. She keeps her hands on the door to assist as she can, squeezing through the opening.

GM: Camilla nearly buckles beneath the added strain, then streaks through in a blur. The vault door slams thunderously shut after her. The flame-scorched former hound’s fangs are long and hungry in her mouth.

She floats upwards, out of the shaft. Pietro is talking into his phone, but closes it as he sees the two Toreador approach.

“Got it?”

“Yes,” answers Camilla.

“Great, but the idiota has still fucked things up for us,” says Pietro. “The prince’s goons are here.”

“They would have been here regardless,” says Camilla. “How many did you see?”

“Four, and at least as many ghouls.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t acknowledge Pietro’s words. Camilla is right: they’d have been here regardless. And if she weren’t here they’d have never gotten in or back out of the vault.

She taps off a text to Draco. Eight here. 4R. You bring friends?

GM: There is no response.

Celia: “Where are they? We can all dance. Go through the walls. Get out that way.”

GM: “You’re a fucking idiot,” says Pietro.

Celia: Celia finally rounds on him, fangs distended. “Shove it, Silvestri. It’s fixed. What’s your bright idea on getting away?”

GM: Pietro blurs and rams a stake into Celia’s heart. She topples over with a crash.

“We create a diversion around her,” he says to Camilla. “Vidal’s goons grab her and we’re long gone by the time they realize she wasn’t alone.”

“No. We must engage them and win,” the former hound replies coolly, without glancing at Celia. “Doing so is necessary to convincingly stage my final death.”

“You’re fucking nuts with those odds,” says Pietro.

“The ghouls will not pose an obstacle,” replies Camilla. “My sire’s haven has a defense I may activate to eliminate them quickly. I have a ghoul nearby. That leaves four Kindred against four of us.”

“Against three of you, you mean. I’m not here to help you stage your death. I’m here to steal shit and get out.”

Celia: Coward.

He’s leaving with nothing. Camilla and Celia had gotten all the relevant material.

GM: “Which is now in my possession,” replies Camilla. The former hound’s voice is chill as ice.

“Chance your odds against me, thief, if you prefer them. Or slink back to Lord Savoy empty-handed. The choice is yours if you will not assist us.”

Pietro glowers.

“I’m bailing the second it looks like we aren’t winning.”

“Acceptable,” replies Camilla.

She bends and removes the stake from Celia’s chest.

Celia: Celia rises to her feet.

Was it Savoy who gave the order to leave her behind, or had Silvestri decided on his own to abandon her?

She doesn’t ask. She looks to Camilla.

GM: “Who are our opponents?” asks her sister.

“The Snake Hunters and Joshua Pacuad,” says Pietro.

“Waiting for us to penetrate the vault, probably. Couldn’t have done it themselves.”

Celia: Meadows’ childer, aren’t they? The Snake Hunters. And Harrison. She’s gone up against him before, but she’d had her krewe behind her.

She glances at her phone. He said he’d come. He said he’d be there. Is he, too, not assisting at her grandsire’s order?

GM: “No. That is inconsistent with their characters,” says Camilla.

“The Snake Hunters would not care what is inside the vault.”

There is still no response from Draco.

Celia: Whatever. She doesn’t need him. He can go fuck the redhead and believe the lies about his sire forever, then.

“Location?” she asks again.

GM: Pietro ignores Celia completely.

“Then explain why they’re waiting. Orders from higher up?”

Celia: Hatred surges through her. She had fixed it.

If she hadn’t been here he’d have nothing to show for his time. Neither he nor Camilla would have been able to do it on their own.

GM: “I am uncertain,” says Camilla. “Regardless, we must incapacitate them quickly. If any escape, they will alert the seneschal. He is capable of arriving within moments.”

She doesn’t add, Then all is all lost.

Celia: Two wounded. No pressure.

Celia quietly absorbs the information.

GM: Pietro taps into his phone.

“This sounds like better and better reason to bail.”

“I require the phone number of Lord Savoy’s herald or steward,” Camilla says without preamble.

Pietro rattles a number off.

Camilla dials it into her phone.

“Preston Senescalli. Nosti qui sim,” she begins.

The two have several further exchanges in what sounds like Latin before Camilla hangs up.

Celia: Celia begins to change as the conversations take place. She isn’t needed here. Jade is. But not with Jade’s face. The stolen face from earlier.

She looks down at her blackened, scorched skin, lower layers of skin and muscle exposed to the air. She swallows. Easy target. But there’s flesh that isn’t broken, isn’t there? And she can… stretch it. Hide the damage. Make herself look like she isn’t one solid punch away from falling over.

Or make it look worse. Like she’s wounded and barely standing. If the Gangrel are anything like the animals they so commonly mimic they’ll probably toy with her rather than kill her outright. Or is that instinct just left over from their human years?

She stays silent, tapping into her phone to see if either of her in town krewemates are available.

Who else does she know nearby? The dollmaker. The frat boy. Neither of them would assist against the prince’s own men, though.

Her mother. If she were willing to risk her. If Diana has mastered the fire trick. And if not? If the woman arrives and is slain by the licks or ghouls?

She can’t bear the thought.

It’s a hard pill to swallow when she draws a blank on anyone else willing to help. She has alienated her friends and allies, has disappointed her mentors.

She blinks down at her phone, as if a number is going to magically appear.

A second later, Celia slips the phone back into her pocket and closes the distance between herself and Camilla, whispering into her ear.

“I think he can create illusions. What if we cover the hole with one and lure one or two in? Even if they fly, and some do, we can slide the door back into place. Evens the odds.”

“We could do like Pietro said,” she says after a moment, including the thief this time. “Cause a distraction, use me as bait. Not staked, but a runner. You’re both faster than me, can do more with the shadows. You follow. Grab them before they grab me. Stake two before they know you’re there. Evens the odds in our favor. If they do catch me I figure they’ll want to interrogate rather than kill; last time Harrison picked someone up he held him for ‘questioning.’ And if I’m wrong then it’s not much of a loss and you two still get out.”

“Won’t give them much time to call the seneschal if two are taken out that quickly and the other two are busy fighting.”

“And I can pass as a snake if that’s what they’re after. Or you.” A nod to Camilla.

GM: “I think he can create illusions. What if we cover the hole with one,” Pietro mimics in an exaggerated, lisping, and faintly Valley Girl-esque rendition of Jade’s voice as she talks.

He is only several feet away from Camilla.

Perhaps a mortal with duller senses would not overhear.

Celia: Jade turns to him. Supernatural charm pours from her, turning his mind to putty.

“I don’t know what I did to offend you, Pietro, and I’m sorry that I distracted you on the lock enough to trigger the fire trap. But whatever you were screaming about Masquerade breach has nothing to do with me.”

GM: The stake suddenly pierces Jade’s heart again. There’s a very cool look on the thief’s face as the knife re-appears in his hands.

Celia: Oh, good.

GM: Camilla’s sword intercepts a flash of steel from Pietro just before he can slash open her throat.

“Fuck this spoiled cunt,” snarls the older Toreador. “She’s out or I am.”

No emotion crosses the cool face of Donovan’s elder childe.

“Kalani has proven volatile. We will make do without her. Torpor her if you wish, but restrain yourself from taking her head off. I will not be the one to inform Lord Savoy that one of his Blood met final death.”

“Lights out, fuckwit,” sneers Pietro, and then his knife slits open her throat.


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Story Thirteen, Caroline X

“You can always count on the dead to dish out more hurt.”
Louis Fontaine


Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM

Caroline: Just as suddenly, the light is gone. Caroline feels so desperately alone, and hungry, and hurt, and exhausted.

It feels like a lifetime ago that she fled Claire’s safehouse, her body pushed to the absolute limits of what it could endure. It feels like a lifetime ago that Donovan’s bullet splattered the casquette girl’s brains across her face. It feels like a lifetime ago they dueled the Guard in the gym, that she stood with only a ghoul beside her as the sheriff tried to devour her soul. A lifetime ago that they’d fled the gym into the nightmare that is the flame-, blood-, and trap-filled school. A lifetime ago that they pinned Donovan to the ground, that they finally turned the tide.

How many centuries has she lived tonight?

When did she fall to her knees?

It doesn’t matter. Her gaze sweeps the room.

GM: Caroline could not behold a scene scene of greater devastation.

There’s almost nothing left of the auditorium and its contents. The rows of seats are little more than slag and ash. The stage is demolished. Rents gape along the floor. The roof is caving in. The walls are collapsed.

Lou remains kneeling and bowed in prayer, hands clasped around the humble object, the relic, that delivered them. Caroline cannot see his face. What must it even look like? What can he even be thinking, this old man and weary and ready to die man who has had his prayers fulfilled, who has felt God’s(?) touch in his hour of most urgent need?

What’s left of the sheriff lies before him.

Westphal looks terrified. Absolutely terrified, like nothing has made him. His eyes are enormous and rimmed with blood. His head is curled against the lap of Roger Ferris like a frightened little boy.

Ferris is dead. That bullet hole in his neck from Camilla could only have been fatal. No heart beats from his chest. His mouth hangs faintly open, revealing two pointed fangs. The look on his face is… bewildered. Doubtful.

Mahmoud looks half-confused, half-panicking. And poisoned. Like she’s swallowed something indigestible, that’s burning her up from the inside. She looks furious, though whether at it or herself, Caroline cannot say.

Kâmil, too, is kneeling, his head bowed and his hands clasped. His deep voice mouths words of prayer in his native tongue.

The cloud of gathered wraiths looks… many things. But above all, yearning. Hope alights in their translucent eyes. Longing. Weariness. Many of them look as if they want nothing more than to pass into that now-vanished light. To simply rest.

All but for their leader.

Severed, infant-sized fists desperately pull at his ashen-hued locks. Blood and pus weeps from his furiously popping boils. For his face is furious. There is no peace writ upon it. Perhaps, for a moment, there was grim satisfaction. Or maybe it wasn’t anything, just gaping emptiness. But there is no awe. No humility. There is scorn. There is contempt. There is rage.

And there is undying, eternally burning, forever unsatisfied, hate.

Cat-quick, the old wraith suddenly blurs behind Mahmoud and drives his sword into her back.

“Epi kounyeya nou pral fini travay la, parazit!” he roars.

Caroline: Caroline is tired. She’s starving. She’s hurt. Not just physically, not just mentally, but spiritually. The brush with the divine aches in a way her vampiric regeneration does nothing for.

She wants nothing more than to lay down where she is and rest.

But there’s no rest for the wicked.

Treachery.

Westphal knew it before any of them. But Caroline knew it the moment she looked into the wraith’s hate-filled eye, even before he ran through the Lasombra.

A man, a ghoul, and even a Kindred might take their victory tonight and be satisfied with it. The death of the sheriff is a rare victory for the vampire-hating spirits. But Lou said it best earlier: “You can always count on the dead to dish out more hurt.” Even now, at the moment of triumph. All they have left is hate, not even the promise of redemption on Judgement Day that all Kindred enjoy.

Maybe that’s why it hates them so much.

GM: The violent act shatters the spell over the group.

The remaining wraiths howl their wrath and descend upon the vampires. There are many of them. Were there this many, in that last battle against the sheriff and his childe? Lou springs to his feet, seizes his sword, and then he’s gone in a barely visible blur.

Westphal does not stick around for this battle, either. The look on his face says it all: Yeah, I didn’t sign up for this fight. Or maybe it’s more, Fuck everyone else, I’m saving my hide. Sped by Caroline’s vitae, the Lasombra turns and runs, flashing across the auditorium.

Across the now-leveled rows of seats, Caroline makes out the bloodied and battle-scarred features of Camilla Doriocourt. The hound floats into the air, and then she’s gone in a blur.

Caroline: Many things happen at once.

Caroline drops Lou’s smoking, probably ruined shotgun.

She swaps her blade to her left hand as she leaps into the teeth of death again. Into the old wraith.

She lets loose a war cry, catching his attention.

And she opens no less than three mental dialogues.

:: Fleeing alone into this maze will get all of us killed faster than the wraiths will achieve. Flee south in the path of Doriocourt.:: This she sends to everyone.

:: Roger, Wright’s shotgun was full of rock salt, please use it to keep the crowd back as we withdraw. Be judicious—I only counted six remaining rounds on his bandolier. ::

:: Raaid, I have no right to ask this of you, but that monster’s childe is fleeing to the south. She is badly mauled. She will no doubt set off every trap along the way. If you prevent her escape on our way out, I will be in your debt. ::

And then she’s there, blade in hand against the ancient wraith. Fighting another foe she knows she can’t defeat in a losing, withdrawing action. The individual spirits are a horde, dangerous, and potentially lethal. But the old monster, she knows, is something more. More, too, she knows none of the others have a hope against him. Not on their best day, and certainly not today. Not Ferris, minutes into the Blood. Not Kâmil, who can have so little left after recovering from his wounds. Not Mahmoud, who is already so badly injured.

No, she’s the only one left that might stall him as the others flee.

But their flight must be deliberate. It must be together.

GM: The one-eyed wraith doesn’t even try to block or dodge Caroline’s sword. The blade passes harmlessly through his translucent body like it’s made of air. Just like her fist did against Emmett. How did Donovan fight him?

The wraith twists the spectral blade embedded in Mahmoud’s gut. Spectral tongues of sickly green fire dance across it, blackening the Lasombra’s flesh to a crisp. She slumps to the ground, torpored before she can even scream.

Kâmil doesn’t try to fight the ghosts. Seeing Caroline’s intention, he leaps into the fray, grabs Mahmoud, and slings her over his back. The other wraiths can’t physically stop him, not with their incorporeal hands. But a hail of debris flies after the elder ghoul as he takes off, relentlessly pummeling him.

The horde of wraiths descends. Upon Caroline. Upon Ferris. Upon Kâmil. Smoke-like ephemera pours into mouths and nostrils. One spirit pours into Caroline, and her vision swims for a moment. Then the unfortunate wraith is spat out just like Turner was, writhing on the ground as his blacked and rotting flesh melts like so much wax.

Another wraith descends upon Ferris. The newly-dead man, perhaps still riding the indescribable high of his Embrace, is not subverted so easily. A thin wave of shadow lashes from his hand at the ghost pouring into Kâmil’s mouth.

:: Ma’am, finding that shotgun wherever it fell is finding a needle in a haystack! We need to get out, NOW! ::

There is no immediate response from Raaid.

But the Lasombra fledgling’s attack is enough. Kâmil shakes his head and vomits out the ectoplasmic cloud. The elder ghoul waits a split second for Caroline to join him, then takes off in a blur.

Ferris runs after him.

The one-eyed wraith’s hollow laughter rings after them as he calls in French,

“Courez, parasites! Courez, sangsues! Courez, voleurs de vies! Vous n’échapperez pas si facilement…”

(“Run, parasites! Run, leeches! Run, stealers of lives! You shall not escape so easily…”)

The three flee through the building and its maze of traps and passages, the wraiths like baying hounds at their heels. The three catch up with Westphal in short enough order. Doubtless, he’d make no apologies for abandoning Mahmoud even if he was willing to spare the breath he doesn’t actually need.

Of Doriocourt, Caroline encounters no sign.

The Ventrue moves like lightning. The others can barely keep up with her. She blurs to and fro through the building, helping the stragglers, zapping ahead of them to check if the way is clear.

It’s not.

Something is wrong. No matter how far Caroline runs, she can find no way out of the building. The doors don’t seem to be where she remembers them. Corridors stretch on forever. An infinitude of crossroads offers a morass of hopelessly confusing exits out of the school. Was the building always this large?

Caroline: :: There’s sorcery at work, hobbling the way out, :: she sends to the others.

GM: :: This feels wrong, :: echoes Ferris.

:: I remember the building’s layout, :: concurs Westphal. :: We should have reached an exit by now. ::

:: I believe you are correct, bayan. Supernatural interference is a probable explanation for our inability to leave, :: transmits Kâmil.

Caroline and Kâmil both ably outrun the horde of descending ghosts, the latter with Mahmoud slung over his back. Westphal and Ferris, however, soon fall behind.

Caroline might be able to grab one of them, if she’s willing to leave the other.

Caroline: She isn’t.

Instead, the Ventrue is willing, though not happy, to hang back, doing everything in her power clear obstacles for her slower allies while creating whatever impediments she can to the wraiths—mostly herself. The revelation twice over that those attempting to possess her are so badly harmed is something she uses to her ruthless advantage.

Her own perception, even aided by power stolen from others among the damned, is clearly insufficient to penetrating the eldritch maze that the school has become, but the putrefied ghosts that attempted to steal her body spark an idea.

She doesn’t need to navigate the actual maze.

No, she has a string that leads to something outside of it.

She grasps at the tie holding her to her sisters and mother, all conveniently in one place. All together, every strand pulling in the same direction.

She can’t lead from the front, but she can direct the others thanks to her blood in their veins.

:: Left up here. ::

:: Bear right. ::

GM: Unwilling to so abandon her slower allies, who cannot outrun the wraiths, it’s in the school cafeteria that the ragged band of survivors makes their final stand. Ghosts pour from the walls, howling their wrath. Clouds of ectoplasm pour into everyone’s mouths—everyone but Caroline’s. The wraiths have apparently learned from their mistakes, for they do not attempt to possess her again. Instead, they fling objects and sundry at her. Tables crash through the air. Pots and pans and utensils, bricks, a storm of debris relentless pelts the vampires who do not succumb to possession. Westphal finds himself the only one who can effectively fight back through his shadows. The wraiths make him their primary target, for his childe’s are so much weaker. The one-eyed wraith dissolves into smoke and pours towards the Lasombra’s mouth.

It’s as the battle rages that a voice intrudes within Caroline’s thoughts.

Calm. Somber. Stern.

Familiar.

The seneschal’s.

:: What is your approximate location, Miss Malveaux-Devillers? ::

Caroline: :: Mt. Carmel High School. The cafeteria. Corner of N Galvez and Annette St. ::

She tries to keep the panic out of her voice as she slices flying objects out of the air and blurs through the clouds of ectoplasm that assail her allies, hoping to harm them with the contact.

:: The sheriff is dead and the hounds scattered. We’re losing to a sea of wraiths. Quickly. ::

GM: Caroline’s hope proves futile. Attempts at possession may have grievously harmed the wraiths, but she swiftly discovers that mere physical contact does them no apparent injury.

:: Abel’s children may be harmed with salt. If you lack this, abjurative prayers, recited to the Almighty with great faith and conviction, may serve to hold them at bay. ::

:: I have arrived at Mt. Carmel High School with a relief force. The conclusion to your battle draws nigh. ::

Caroline: That much is no news. Sadly, they lack both.

Perhaps if Doriocourt had remained they might rally around her faith.

Perhaps even Agnello.

But she knows Roger’s faith lies in himself, and Westphal’s even more so.

And her own? She might believe in God. But she knows, knows, after the appearance of the divine here tonight, that He has no faith in her.

And salt? Surely Lou removed it, didn’t he?

Except hadn’t the old wraith reported exactly the opposite? That as they fought the hounds through his very room, the attackers had found salt to use against them?

She certainly hadn’t seen any in their hands during the fight in the gym…

Not scattered across the floor. Not in the open. But in the kitchens? How salty and disgusting is public school food? She doesn’t actually know, but she’s heard plenty.

“Kitchens!” she yells, blazing in through double doors like a lightning bolt, tearing open every cabinet and container looking for that most essential of spices since the dawn of civilization.

GM: Caroline’s search proves fruitless, but her preternatural speed at least allows her to make that assessment quickly. Wherever Wright got his rocksalt shells, it doesn’t look like the kitchen.

Ferris and Kâmil manage, at least for now, to withstand the lesser wraiths attempting to seize control of their bodies. Perhaps Ferris’ sire might too. But not against their leader. The arrogance on the boy Lasombra’s face gives way to seething hatred, and then the survivors are fighting him too.

Not for long, though, before Caroline’s stake pierces his heart.

The one-eyed wraith pours out of Westphal’s mouth and towards Ferris. Lightning-fast, a second stake pierces the fledgling’s heart next.

Caroline can’t well fight the wraiths, but she can damn well deny them her allies’ bodies.

A shuddering boom reverberates through the building, as though it is being struck by an immense battering ram.

Caroline: “Run!” she orders Kâmil, standing alone before the sea of wraiths from a position atop the staked corpses of the last of her allies.

Her blade—the one she stole from the mimic seemingly a lifetime ago—is a blur, slicing objects of every conceivable shape from the air as they’re hurled at her. Its edge is nicked and chipped—swords are not meant to split bricks or smash pots and pans out of the air—but no less swift for it.

Not that it matters. The worthlessness of all her martial skill is on full display against the ghosts. She could be the greatest swordmaster in the city—she’s not, though deaths and final deaths this evening have almost certainly elevated her several spots on that list—and it wouldn’t matter a bit.

GM: Perhaps her skills are irrelevant against the ghosts.

But not their stolen bodies.

Kâmil starts to shout something, as he grabs her in his flight. That it contravenes his domitor’s orders to abandon her—and then the one-eyed wraith pours into his mouth as the storm of rubble and steel continues unabated. The thought of the deathless swordmaster in so formidable a host should terrify anyone. Caroline’s reflexes, though, prove faster still, and perhaps Kâmil yet fights against his possessor. Two lightning-fast cuts to his legs, and the suddenly hamstrung ghoul lies bleeding on the floor. Caroline blurs away. Wrath bubbles on Kâmil’s face as the one-eyed wraith pours out from a third victim’s mouth.

Then it’s just him, and the mob of spirits that can but throw against objects and sundry, against the last standing Ventrue.

A second boom reverberates through the building, this one even deeper and stronger than the first.

Caroline: She should run.

She might be able to get away.

Faster than all the spirits—knowledgeable enough on her own, and with her mother’s thread to guide her out, or the seneschal to achieve her relief.

But that isn’t who she is.

It’s never been who she is.

She’s loyal—to a fault. To an abusive family, an abusive father, and an abusive sire. How much pain would it have saved going over to Savoy? She could have met the sheriff with his faction behind her, instead of her own covenant stabbing her in the back. No, instead she came crawling, across a bed of broken glass, to her sire.

And that same loyalty is here. Pragmatic Ferris, pessimistic Mahmoud, even cowardly Westphal, all came here to fight with her. To fight beside her. Perhaps for their own reasons, but beside her all the same. She won’t leave them to their final deaths if she still has strength to prevent it.

Not when she’s built something with them. The beginnings of something. She’d begun laying plans the moment they agreed to journey to New Orleans, for what it might look like after. How they could fit into her vision for the prince’s bloc when the sheriff was destroyed. She was ripping out a cornerstone of the kingdom, she always knew that, but she had plans to build something in its place.

She won’t throw that away. Won’t watch it all collapse.

Too, she wants their respect. Wants them to know that whatever their failings, whatever their weakness, she was better. She fought for them even when everything told her to run. Even when they tried to abandon her. As they stare up with glassy, frozen eyes, they can see that she never broke faith. That she was worthy of their own.

And too she hates the idea of running, of admitting defeat. Not to a dead man, a memory of a miserable old shade with nothing but hatred. She hates it like she hated the idea of running from Donovan.

GM: So she doesn’t.

Caroline knows well how useless her sword is against incorporeal flesh. She doesn’t try to duel the scarred and hate-fueled wraith. It doesn’t matter which of them is better, against that fact. She just has to stay ahead of him.

The one-eyed wraith made a mistake, when he and his followers struck down Mahmoud and had the advantage of his surprise.

He didn’t try to strike Caroline down first.

It’s his loss now. She weaves a dance of steel with her sword, deflecting hurtled objects like a spinning fan would chew through paper. She races to and fro across the room in a blur of pale flesh, too fast to see, too fast to touch. She runs up walls and cartwheels across cafeteria tables. She moves like the wind. The one-eyed wraith curses her in French. He curses her as a coward, a parasite, an abomination and plague upon the city. But none of the ghosts can pin down the lightning-fast Ventrue. For all their insubstantial state, they simply cannot keep up.

A third boom rocks through the high school. The building’s halls and corridors seem to warp and fold in on themselves, like a vast pretzel being twisted, before suddenly unraveling. A fog of confusion lifts from Caroline’s mind that she had not realized was there. She remembers the way out. It seems so obvious, now.

The one-eyed wraith scowls, only for a sly look to enter his remaining eye as he raises his sword high above Kâmil and prepares to bring it down—just as the cafeteria doors burst open.

Caroline recognizes Gabriel Hurst, Charlie Harrison, Becky Lynne, the two nameless Kindred her diablerie-honed memory recalls from Rocco’s long ago party, two male vampires (one black, one white) she doesn’t recognize, Gus Elgin, and perhaps twice as many ghouls. The Hussar is there too, sword drawn. His gaze is instantly drawn to the one-eyed wraith, and the one-eyed wraith’s to his, heedless of the gathered Kindred.

Then he espies Philip Maldonato’s stern visage.

At once, the one-eyed wraith and his followers wink out like snuffed candles—the night’s third battle seemingly over before it can begin.

Caroline: Sixth battle, by Caroline’s count, if one gives credit to her stepmother’s trap. Though she doubts any histories will record that, nor the flight through the city’s streets, nor the initial battle within the gym.

She lowers her battered, ruined sword as the ghouls approach. Her gaze seeks out the seneschal’s.

Her blonde hair is no longer blonde. What’s left of it is stained as red as her pale skin from countless injuries given and received this night. At some point the tie that held it back in a ponytail was lost, and it hangs in stained wet clumps around her face.

The white arming coat is in tatters. The front is sliced to pieces and the back is literal rags pierced by countless pieces of shrapnel. Her pants and boots aren’t much better—her feet squish as she moves, blood having long ago run down her legs to fill her boots. There’s a single stake hanging from her belt, alongside three empty sheaths.

As hellish as she looks, one could be forgiven if on a casual examination she looks mostly hale. One less familiar with the Damned, at least. The wholeness of her body has come at a terrible cost in blood. The monster dancing behind her eyes looks terrifyingly alive, on the verge of escape at any moment. Her always pale skin—what little isn’t stained red or black with soot and blood—is almost porcelain-like.

She shakes her head as the ghouls get close, fangs standing out oh so clearly.

“Don’t… get close.”

It’s impossible to tell, even for her, if she’s shaking with relief or barely contained need.

GM: Many pairs of eyes set upon Caroline. Others look towards the seneschal, who stares silently ahead as though seeing beyond the room and its confines. A few voices start to talk.

Then, as the last figure strides through the shattered doors, all fall silent.

Augusto_Vidal.jpg
He is tall, dark, and terrible in his purpose, the fury of heaven matched with the fire of hell. His raiment is a midnight-black suit of the finest cut. Not so much as a crease is visible, making the garment seem cut and spun from the night itself. His pristine white undershirt and and blood-red necktie bring to mind the ermine mantles worn by kings of ages past. A gold signet ring set with a ruby adorns his finger. The blood-red gem seems to pulse and glisten as he walks, hungrily devouring nearby light. His frame is tall and broad-shouldered, his features crisp, Mediterranean, and utterly still, like a marble statue by one of the old masters come to life. His slick black hair appears wet, and his mustache is trimmed into a uniformly straight Van Dyke. His gaze carries the weight of centuries and civilizations swept aside by time’s inexorable march. His eyes dominate his face: cold, fanatical, implacable. Those who stare too long feel dizzy, their mouths warm with the taste of blood. The eyes are primal and inhuman and they are strong. They have seen the passing of kings. Kingdoms. Civilizations. They are older than this city, older than it and all its inhabitants, older than its streams and rivers—

And now they rest upon his childe.

They take in her state.

And they grow wroth.

They grow wroth.

“Who has done this.”

Caroline: She comes to a knee as he breaks through the crowd, bowing her head.

His fury all but stills her tongue.

All but.

She raises her voice but not her eyes. “The sheriff sought my destruction, Your Highness.”

It takes her a breath to realize it doesn’t fully answer the question. “He led the hounds, and many others, against myself and any who would stand with me this night.”

GM: Murmurs sound among the younger Kindred.

Caroline’s sire makes no immediate reply. His black gaze burns silently ahead. None attempt to meet it.

Maldonato’s voice fills the silence.

“Master Elgin, Primogen Hurst. Divide into teams and search the building for survivors.”

The other Kindred divide into two teams of four and disperse, along with most of the ghouls. They seem glad to be gone. The Hussar numbers among the few who stay, alongside the seneschal and Caroline’s sire.

Caroline: She does not rise.

GM: “It shall prove more expedient for our purposes, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, if you consent to allow me access to your thoughts,” states Maldonato. “The night’s events have proven long and arduous, I am certain, and shall take no small span of time to recount.”

He strides to Kâmil, who has hauled himself to sitting position, and bends to offer the ghoul his wrist. He drinks gratefully.

Caroline: She’s grateful for her bowed head, that she doesn’t see the vitae. Hearing it is bad enough.

The Beast is all but roaring in her mind. Only the presence of her sire keeps it at bay.

“I have no secrets from you this night, Your Grace,” Caroline answers truthfully.

She’s grateful, to be honest. She doesn’t know how she could possibly put into words the sheriff’s fate, the darkness that lurked within him.

GM: She smells it, too. The scent of the seneschal’s spilled vitae.

But also a second Kindred’s.

Her sire’s.

“Drink.”

Caroline: Perhaps if she was less starving she would show more decorum. Would show even a measure of reservation at taking from him in any way.

But she is starving. Not in her bleakest night has she burned through vitae like she has tonight, not since she first awake in the park alone has the thirst raged against her mind. How much of her blood was spilled? How much burned away to pull her savaged body back from the brink over and over again.

She doesn’t argue. She doesn’t question. She doesn’t even pause to acknowledge the command.

She falls on the offered wrist with like a dying man and is rewarded with vitae beyond all other vitae she has ever tasted. Vitae to make all blood taste like piss.

The Beast roars up: she’s held it at bay too long. It wants. It needs.

It fails. In an alley, or in her haven, or even with a lover, she might have succumbed to it. But not here. Not in front of her sire. Not in her moment of triumph. She will not allow herself to be humiliated before him, to be weak before him, to be unworthy before him.

Nor to snatch this moment from her. This moment of intimacy. The third time her lips have touched his flesh.

GM: The draught is everything it was last time. Everything and so much more, for even the memory was faint against the reality. It washes over her like an unstoppable tsunami, but leaves her whole and radiant and glorious in its wake. It leaves her feeling powerful and exalted beyond all others, a sovereign among the clan of sovereigns. Out of all the kine in the city, he chose her. Perhaps not to receive his blood. But to retain it. To be worthy of it. To be his childe.

Even her starving Beast, howling its bottomless thirst and frenzy for more, cannot compel her to show unworthiness.

Caroline: The woman and the childe wants to drink forever, to latch onto that wrist and never let go.

But a more practical part of her waves her off as the red recedes.

This is her sire, the prince, at this moment of disaster for his reign. How many of his servants lie dead? How many challenges await him this night?

How can she take from him now?

Horrible, selfish, childe.

She breaks away to look up at him, hands still cupping his own.

GM: Amidst it all, she almost doesn’t feel the foreign mind inside hers. The seneschal’s touch is light. Thoughts run through her mind’s eye like a fast-coursing but shallow river. Triumphs and terrors, trials and tribulations.

Caroline: It’s different than the last time: she’s not trying to build something for him, to resist him in any way. Instead she just puts low rails up that he can easily see over, just to keep him on track because of how much they have to cover, and starts at the safe house.

The fight through the traps. The near-destruction upon their escape. The plan to return to Perdido House and the appearance of Lou. And the dreaded certainty once the casquette girl relayed the sheriff and hound’s intentions that death stalked her tonight.

The bullet that ended the life of the ancient ghoul—carefully crafted to pierce the bulletproof glass. Delivered into a moving vehicle.

Their flight through the streets to the location Lou provided and urgent summoning of allies—of any that would answer her call—under fire.

The vicious fighting in the gym—late she wonders of Jocelyn survived without passion—and the desperation of that battle as they lost on all fronts. The sheriff’s fangs in her throat, and the reprieve offered by Lou’s arrival.

Her explanation of her first suspicions about him to the Lasombra.

Then the running battle against him. Against the hounds. Against the sheriff’s allies. Against the sheriff himself.

Finally, the confrontation bleeding into the auditorium. The nail that drove a nail in the sheriff’s coffin.

The turning of the tides… and then the hell that awaited within him. The gate to hell that threatened to swallow the entire school, and the divine intervention at the last moment.

She tries to gloss over the feeling of that soft light.

And then there’s the flight from the spirits, flowing by more quickly than all the rest: he doesn’t need to see their flight, their weakest moments after the sheriff’s death.

They speed to the last moments, the hopeless fight against the spirits she couldn’t harm, right up until the doors open…

There are many nights in her Requiem she is not proud of, that she would not share.

This is not one of them.

Tonight she has no secrets, no lies: what lie could match the truth?

GM: Caroline’s sire resembles a statue. Frozen. Unmoving. His black gaze burns slowly ahead like a simmering blowtorch.

Maldonato, too, speaks not as the memories rush through Caroline’s mind.

He does not speak after the cafeteria doors again burst open.

Nor does her sire.

Silence stretches, as if the two elders are engaged in their own telepathic counsels.

It does not escape Caroline that her sire does not once look upon Maldonato’s face.

Nor does the seneschal attempt to catch his liege’s eye.

Caroline: Nor does it escape her notice that they’re both here, together. That the prince has permitted his once-lover to touch his mind. That they’re speaking at least, if only in extremis.

GM: Maldonato is the first of the two to move. His head slowly turns.

The stakes lift themselves from Westphal’s and Ferris’ chests, clattering to the floor. He approaches Mahmoud and feeds her a trickle of vitae from his wrist. The younger Lasombra comes to. Her clanmates restrain her as she howls and thrashes at the doubtlessly powerful taste until she is herself again.

“Great rewards shall await you who have aided your prince’s childe in her hour of need,” states Maldonato. “Yet greater still is his kingdom’s need. Go now, and locate Primogen Hurst. You may assist him in his present endeavors until others are assigned you.”

The three Lasombra murmur their assents. They look at the prince as they depart, but none attempt to catch his eye.

He does not glance at them. The statue-like elder’s black gaze continues to burn silently ahead.

“The sheriff was not to die in this manner,” Maldonato states once his clanmates are gone. “Events have not proceeded as they should.”

Caroline: You could hear a pin drop in the silence that greets that declaration.

Pieces slide around into new places.

GM: “Mine designs have been thwarted again. The proof is irrefutable.”

“Woe that I did not heed your counsels, Philip,” answers the prince.

He still does not look at him.

“I have erred. In my folly I have allowed a serpent to entwine itself about the foundations of mine house.”

“Even mine suspicions paled before the truth, my prince.”

Caroline: Present tense.

That’s new. She’d believed the sheriff was the serpent.

GM: “The blood tells,” pronounces Caroline’s sire. “The blood always tells.”

His dimming gaze slowly comes to rest upon her.

“Your vitae touched her first, my prince,” sounds the seneschal’s voice.

“Death may not conquer itself through life.”

Caroline: Disapproval?

She hadn’t expected him to be pleased this evening.

Not with the death and destruction of what were likely many loyal servants.

But is he displeased with her more directly?

GM: The prince’s gaze slowly simmers, then moves past Caroline.

“Her folly set us upon this path.”

“Her folly was but the latest in a chain of follies,” answers the seneschal. “And until but recently, her victories were greater than our own.”

Her sire’s face is as a statue’s.

“That was no victory.”

Maldonato’s gaze sweeps across the ruined building.

“As much as was this.”

Caroline: The words hurt more than the sheriff’s blade did.

Her folly?

Being set upon by the sheriff virtually the entirety of her Requiem, and all the more directly tonight?

Was she to roll over and let him kill her?

The same sheriff who had been actively hacking away at the prince’s strength from within, murdering supporters and feeding them to hunters in equal measure.

She bites her tongue.

She hadn’t expected happiness, but she’d hoped for at least… pride.

She’s spent the last three hours getting burnt, shot, stabbed, sliced and beaten in equal measure. Fighting every moment for her Requiem, to buy another second, another moment, another tortured breath. Fighting against what she thought was the foe of her sire.

GM: “Folly not to have slain her long ago,” states her sire.

“Great would have been the cost,” answers Maldonato. “And great, too, the peril risked in striking stem and not root.”

“These ruminations serve no purpose,” says the prince.

“I shall search the building for other survivors,” states the seneschal. “There are more pressing errands upon which to set what remains of our house’s strength.”

Maldonato is abruptly gone, as though he were never there. Caroline is left alone with her sire and the ghouls.

He does not look at her. He stares silently ahead.

Footsteps sound down the corridor.

Karena Cingolai, or what’s left of her, emerges. The battle’s toll looks as terrible upon her as it was on Caroline. Her clothes are shredded rags. Bloody, half-healed abrasions mar her shredded and dirtied skin. She’s missing an eye. Clumps are gone from her ragged hair. She walks as though pulled by an unseen chain.

Still she kneels before the prince, bows her head, and recites smoothly,

“Strategos Vidal. There is much of which Your Majesty should be informed.”

Caroline: Caroline watches Cingolai out of the corner of her eye as she approaches. Like she might track the approach of a candle in the night while seated beside a bonfire.

GM: “I have been informed, Lictor Cingolai,” states the prince.

“I do not doubt it, Strategos,” answers Cingolai, raising her head. “Yet not all not doings germane to this evening occurred this evening, and may contextualize much.”

The Ventrue’s cool stare rests upon Caroline as she rises.

“This eiren slew the gerousiastis.”

Caroline: “Gerousiastis Malveaux was set upon by hunters in the employ of Claire Malveaux, Lictor,” Caroline replies quietly, not rising.

“The same hunters who at the direction of the sheriff arranged the destruction of many of the archdiocese’s loyal servants.”

“I have no doubt that when the files recovered from her safehouse tonight are examined they will contain documentation to that effect, as well as detailed notes about his banes and other weaknesses. Undoubtedly, that was part of why he felt so compelled to make his move immediately upon their recovery.”

“Upon the ‘discovery’ of the bishop’s death, the sheriff immediately used it to elevate his own childe to bishop, and attempted to annex the gerousiastis’ domain into his childe’s—to say nothing of using the death as a pretense to execute any Kindred that had ever had meaningful dealings with me.”

“Had you seen fit to speak with me of the matter before taking up arms against me, Lictor, I could have directed you to the seneschal himself, who examined my memories of that night in detail.”

GM: The respected lictor ignores the ignoble neonate completely as she regards Vidal. In fact, she talks right over Caroline, after ‘loyal servants.’

“The sheriff and I have uncovered direct proof of the eiren’s guilt in the course of our joint investigation, which may be pres-”

They are the last words Cingolai ever says.

Oily darkness washes over the lictor like a thirsty tide. Its waves swim with rending talons, ink-slathered tentacles, and bogeyman’s grasping hands—a child’s night terrors given horrifying semblance and animation. Rents split open across the Ventrue’s ruined flesh. She simultaneously explodes into gore and implodes into ash, her scream as brief as it is terrible. Sizzling chunks of blackened bone and meat spatter over the floor.

Caroline: Caroline cuts off her words abruptly.

It’s unfortunate, in some ways. She’d have preferred to turn the lictor. She’d have made for a powerful ally and perhaps even teacher. Ventrue in the city are in increasingly short supply.

On the other hand, it does neatly tie off another loose end. And the satisfaction of watching her sire slaughter those speaking against her is undeniable. She wonders what evidence the sheriff could have found against her that was so compelling.

Not that it would matter with that delivery: evidently, the bishop learned his interpersonal skills from his sire.

GM: Caroline’s sire broods from his seat, which she only now observes, a throne-like thing of congealed blackness. Yet even it is not so black as the rage burning from his eyes as he stares at what’s left of Cingolai. The lictor’s remains smoke and writhe and shrivel into ash, but he does not look away. Hate pours from him in nigh-tangible waves.

Time passes.

Caroline: She tries to remain silent, but the weight of the moment builds, and finally the question escapes her lips.

“Have I failed tonight, Your Majesty?”

The ‘you’ is implied.

GM: Her sire gives no answer.

Perhaps he does not hear.

He stares at Cingolai’s remains, and Caroline feels nothing but hate.

It is then that Maldonato abruptly reappears.

“The battle’s survivors have been accounted for or have fled the building.”

The prince slowly seems to rouse.

“Whom that raised hands against my Blood is unaccounted for?”

“Hound Doriocourt is unaccounted.”

His gaze burns black with that same hate.

“Destroy her.”

“Find her.”

“I shall invoke the lextalionis.”

“Pretext against the nominated bishop may prove difficult to manufacture, Your Majesty,” Maldonato states. “An explanation must needs be contrived for the sheriff’s death—and one that does not invite further calamity upon our house.”

Caroline: There’s so much she doesn’t know—of their plans, of the levels of politics they consider. If she’s already orchestrated the sheriff’s death against their wishes, is her own suggestion valuable, much less welcome?

She bites her lip but remains on her knees.

The immediate answer that occurs to her seems painful, but also the most valuable in the long term—maybe a way to stem the bleeding from the Sanctified, to hope to stabilize.

GM: “Speak, Miss Malveaux-Devillers. Perhaps your counsel will prove wise and perhaps it will not. We would turn aside none in so dire an hour.”

Caroline: “The death of the sheriff and bishop so close in proximity cannot be readily or convincingly hidden, Your Grace,” she begins.

“To paint another for the deed is to invent more foes that struck us so deeply—it makes us appear weak, crumbling. We were dealt two near mortal blows by another without response?”

“And too, to frame another is also to create new enemies we must strike down in a moment of relative weakness—to expend strength perhaps better shepherded.”

She continues, “I would propose some version of the truth of the sheriff’s treachery be revealed.”

“As bad as it may look, the truth may be the easiest way out in the now while also paying intermediate term dividends not as apparent to those the sheriff served.”

“As respected as he was among the city’s elders for the ruthlessness and diligence in the prosecution of his duties, Sheriff Donovan was a terror to many others. He chased away would be converts to the faith. Too, he used Claire’s hunters to slaughter many Kindred that to all appearances were loyal. That will come out eventually—used to flip their sires, lovers, friends at the worst moment by our foes.”

“Vilify and disavow him now, and you remove that treacherous arrow from our foe’s quiver. Too, much of the strength Donovan considered personally loyal and accessible is already here—expended. The survivors can be dealt with as their relative crimes dictate. There is no need to move against a third party and leave us more vulnerable while ding so.”

“Make this a cleaning of our house. Make it an invitation for those turned from it by his treachery to return to the fold. Pin anything you wish upon him in full and reclaim the banner of Justice the pretender in the quarter wishes to wave.”

“It still hurts, the loss of such a terrifying servant does weaken our house in the eyes of most, but presented properly… his defeat at the hands of new and loyal servants will keep the more cautious predators at bay, leave them asking ‘what new strength is present in Perdidio House that could cast him down?’”

GM: Maldonato offers Caroline’s final question a wan smile.

“Our house’s strength shall not be questioned in the coming nights, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, but tested.”

Caroline: “Unavoidable, Your Grace,” Caroline agrees.

“I would reiterate, though, that all those who would loyally serve a house in which Sheriff Donovan was a dominant power already serve that house. I see little additional strength to be found by making him a martyr or victim, but believe some could be garnered by making him a villain.”

“I cannot overstate how much he was not just feared but hated by so many of the prince’s subjects.”

GM: Caroline’s sire silently broods, his black gaze silently burning ahead to some intangible horizon.

Hate is all she feels from him.

Maldonato speaks again.

“Were the world as I would have it, Sheriff Donovan would have ‘left’ our prince’s service for a justicar’s, and honorably discharged his duties to the archdiocese while reflecting well upon the quality of its Kindred.”

“Failing that, I would have had him perish a hero in the archdiocese’s defense. His treachery reflects upon his masters’. Every judgment he rendered, every power he was granted, flowed from your sire and I. His treachery, to many, would be evidence of our incompetence and ill judgment.”

The seneschal’s gaze sweeps across the ruined building.

“Yet, that a battle occurred at God’s vineyard will be impossible to conceal. Too many of its participants remain unaccounted for, and the bishop’s final death has already been publicly laid at the feet of hunters. Perhaps the Birds of Dis might be blamed, but such a story will ring hollow to many.”

“Your narrative may prove the least of the evils we must decide between, Miss Malveaux-Devillers.”

“Truth is often the most convenient narrative. That the sheriff envied the prince’s childe and sought to end her Requiem is truth.”

Caroline: “And that thing inside him, Your Grace?” she probes.

GM: Maldonato’s face is grave as his gaze fixes upon Caroline.

“Mr. Westphal’s, Miss Mahmoud’s, and Mr. Ferris’ memories of those events shall be expunged.”

“Once these immediate crises are dealt with, we may turn our attentions towards locating the surviving witnesses of Donovan’s final death.”

“All shall be silenced or put to death.”

Caroline: “Should we fear something similar, as it relates to his childe?” Caroline probes.

GM: Caroline’s sire at least speaks, the burning gaze drawn away from its unknowable horizon.

“We do not fear.”

“The sins of the sire are the sins of the childe. No further seeds shall grow from the tainted fruit.”

“The cardinal may be informed of the sheriff’s and his childe’s disloyalty. Disloyalty alone will be cause for the withdrawal of her nomination as bishop.”

“What you witnessed in the traitor’s final moments shall be spoken of to none outside this room. None. Am I understood?”

Caroline: “Fully, Your Majesty,” Caroline agrees without hesitation.

GM: “Capitán Gaultierrez, Kâmil, look into my eyes,” orders Maldonato.

The ghouls approach him and meet his gaze. Little surprise is writ on their impassive faces, but perhaps there is some envy upon the Hussar’s. The seneschal tells them to forget Caroline’s last two questions and his and Vidal’s answers. The ghouls blink and accept this.

“The sheriff’s destruction need not be immediately explained,” states Maldonato. “Better that it initially emerge as rumor and hearsay from Mr. Savoy, and not be confirmed as fact until the trials soon to come have passed. Their outcome may greatly shape the final narrative we disclose.”

Caroline: “A believable rumor given how quickly it will originate from the sheriff’s sire,” Caroline muses.

“And were it me, I’d already have my people in motion to capitalize. He no doubt knows any conflict with the sheriff that would result in his death would attract much of our strength and attention.”

GM: “The fact of the sheriff’s final death may not be long concealed, Miss Malveaux-Devillers. But the cause of his final death is yet our purview to explain. Even the sire can know but little of how the childe was destroyed if Doriocourt does not find her way to his side.”

“You are correct that Mr. Savoy will not remain idle, however. Even we speak, his agents are surely mobilizing—as are own. There are several matters to which we must now attend.”

He stares ahead.

“Mr. Hurst and Master Elgin shall join us momentarily.”

Seconds later, the Ventrue primogen and Nosferatu priest appear, perhaps already having been summoned by the seneschal or Caroline’s sire.

“You three are our foremost remaining captains,” Maldonato states to them and Caroline. “There is much to be done.”

Caroline: It’s very far from what she wants to hear.

Not tonight.

Not after her near torpor at Claire’s safehouse, not without even a single one of her ghouls accounted for, not after the horrific injuries she endured in the repeated battles with the sheriff, and certainly not after gazing into the very pits of Hell.

She wants to inventory her losses. She wants to see her sisters. She wants to rest, for a century at least.

Instead she nods in acknowledgment, painfully tearing her gaze away from her seated sire in his furious brooding.

GM: Heavy is the head that bears the crown—and expects to bear the crown.

Maldonato begins that first, as in all times, the Masquerade must be observed. The battle at Mt. Carmel has surely already attracted attention from the sheer noise—Robert Congo, thanks to Caroline’s warning, has already set into motion what levers he could to delay the arrival of emergency responders. Maldonato states Donovan has already used his influence within the NOPD to do the same. There is no hiding there was a battle here—Maldonato is inclined to attribute it to gang conflicts—but the scene must still be staged, and evidence destroyed which does not fit this narrative or betrays the Kindred’s existence. The Krewe of Janus will soon be here to assist in the clean-up, but nor is this a duty the Sanctified may shirk. The prince cannot look as if he is prioritizing his political interests above his foremost responsibility to the Camarilla.

Secondly comes the defense of those interests. Savoy and the Baron may seek to expand their domains and seize territory in the wake of the sheriff’s death. Maldonato judges those areas of the city adjacent to Tremé and the French Quarter to be the most vulnerable. Savoy will likely strike first, given that he will likely know of the sheriff’s death first. The prince’s agents must prepare a defense.

Third, messages must be dispatched to those Kindred blocs least nominally allied to the Sanctified: the Invictus, the Tremere, and the Anarchs. Their leaders must be informed of the sheriff’s death, and their followers enlisted in the defense of Vidal’s territory. If enough aid can be mustered, Maldonato is inclined to consider an offense into the French Quarter, under the pretext of clearing out the vagrants along its borders, if only because it may be the last thing Savoy expects.

Maldonato himself will pursue a related diplomatic mission to enlist further aid, “though bitter may be its price.”

Fourth, Riverbend is now undefended. While Maldonato does not believe the parish is in danger of falling to Savoy’s or the Baron’s followers, given its geographic distance from their territories, loyal Sanctified must still be dispatched to secure any assets and sensitive materials contained within Donovan’s haven. One of Antoine Savoy’s—and Camilla Doriocourt’s—first moves may be to do the same.

Fifth, Camilla Doriocourt remains at large. She may know more of her sire’s secrets than anyone, and already knows a great deal of sensitive information pertaining to both the Lancea et Sanctum and Guard de Ville. Maldonato believes she will either flee the city or defect to Antoine Savoy. The now-renegade hound is to be staked and brought to Perdido House for interrogation. Her final death is also acceptable if she cannot be captured, and preferable to her remaining free.

Sixth, Louis Fontaine must also be apprehended and brought to Perdido House for interrogation. The elder ghoul has interfered too many times in the prince’s affairs and knows too many secrets to be allowed to walk free. While capturing Lou would normally be a task for another night, there is another factor that makes this mission far more pressing: the trove of intelligence on the city’s hunters that Caroline lost. The secrets within Claire’s files must be recovered, for Antoine Savoy has contacts and alliances among witch-hunters and may use them in upcoming offensives. Claire’s files could identify names and faces.

Maldonato states there are “many further labors to be undertaken,” but these six are of the most vital importance to accomplish tonight. He organizes what is left of the prince’s followers into four task forces. Some of these Kindreds’ help will be enlisted through corvée, others through temporary hunting rights in Riverbend’s college campuses.

Hurst will lead LaCroix and McCandles. Adler is not Sanctified, but will surely assist her brother.

Harrison will lead June, Cleo, and Pacuad.

Caroline will lead Westphal, Mahmoud, and Ferris.

Elgin will lead Benson, Huang, and Marrow.

Maldonato inquires which of the above tasks Caroline believes herself and her coterie best-suited to.

Regardless of which and how many tasks she accepts, she will accompany the seneschal on his diplomatic mission.

It is then that Caroline’s sire, silent as Maldonato architects how to preserve his crumbling power, finally speaks.

“Inform the Krewe of Janus that I shall supervise their efforts. I shall remain here.”

Neither Hurst nor Elgin ever truly looked away from the prince, but their eyes immediately fall back upon him.

“Let them bear witness. Let all my subjects bear witness. In the hour of my sheriff’s treachery and my would-be usurpers’ plotting, their sovereign upheld the First Law above all else.”

“Their sovereign remembered his duty.”

Caroline: Her initial inclination, upon her sire’s declaration, is to say first the cleanup here.

It’s not totally wrong: her gifts are well-suited to the task, and it would provide her people with an opportunity to recover. But the real reason is it would put her in proximity to him. A chance to prove herself in front of him, especially after this so-called disastrous night.

But she knows that isn’t where she can best serve. If he’s here, nothing she might offer will matter: he’s the prince. No other help is needed.

Which leaves six tasks. She cuts them to five.

“I retain copies Claire’s files, Your Grace,” she admits.

She had not intended to share that, but with her covenant pulled so dearly, the fewer resources they can waste tonight, the better.

GM: “Then six missions are made five,” replies Maldonato. “Mr. Fontaine’s capture may be accomplished at a later date.”

:: Why did Gisèlle make no report of this fact when she relayed the files had been stolen? ::

Caroline: It’s a very awkward question for him to ask. There’s a brief pause, then an honest answer.

:: It was kept from her. I believed you, and by extension she, underestimated the treachery of the sheriff, and that the most likely outcome upon their recovery was their immediate turnover to the sheriff or his childe. ::

:: I believed if that happened incriminating evidence against him would be destroyed. Evidence I hoped to use to recruit allies against him, as I knew he had directed the destruction of numerous Sanctified Kindred. ::

GM: :: Your sire and I shall address this matter later. ::

“I shall presume you do not possess them upon your immediate person. See that they are swiftly tendered to Mr. Congo. Are the copies located upon a physical drive that was ever handled by Mrs. Malveaux?”

Caroline: :: Yes, Your Grace. ::

No good deed goes unpunished.

“No, Your Grace,” she answers his question.

GM: A frown creases the seneschal’s face.

“Unfortunate. Encryption may require some time to break, and of that resource we possess scant little.”

“To which tasks do you believe yourself and your fellows best suited, Miss Malveaux-Devillers?”

Caroline: “I may yet have strength left on the border of the Quarter, Your Grace,” Caroline answers. “I know the ground, and expect my allies to be quite a rude surprise for interlopers—unknown as they are. The death of most of our ghouls though leaves us shallow in depth for that task.”

“I do not believe us incapable of presenting messages of the sheriff’s death, nor of selling the importance of honoring their oaths to their liege, but my own ambiguous position—and youth—may make that a more difficult task than for a more familiar face and invite undue speculation.”

She chews her lip. “Given the option, I think we are best used to contain those that might seek to take advantage of a moment of perceived weakness.”

“We too have Doriocourt’s scent. It may be parts of those tasks align, Your Grace.”

GM: “Very well,” states Maldonato. “If you require resources, Mr. Congo is at your disposal.”

Gabriel Hurst and his people will assist Vidal in the Masquerade clean-up, since they are already here. Their gifts are also well-suited towards such.

Gus Elgin and his people will assist Maldonato in securing aid from Sanctified allies. The master of elysium is well-suited to diplomacy.

Charlie Harrison and the other three Gangrel will be dispatched to Riverbend. Their gifts will allow them to quickly reach the parish and bypass Audubon Place’s walled perimeter. They will help muster defenses along Vidal’s borders when they are done at Riverbend.

“Time shall be of the essence in locating Doriocourt. Enough has been lost already. Begin with her.”

It’s not overlong before the other Sanctified return, bearing with them bodies. Some of the bodies may be ones deemed unsuitable or simply too numerous to be found at the scene of the crime—Caroline can only guess how many men died here tonight, and how many national headlines it will make on major news networks if the truth is not buried here.

Indeed, while one would expect some number of wounded survivors from any battle, this one had remarkably few. Whatever mystic defense prevented Caroline’s escape from the building also prevented the escapes of other survivors—who were then helpless to flee the wrathful ghosts. The vampire-hating shades could freely traverse the building’s maze-like passages in their incorporeal state. No mortal who allowed Kindred vitae to pass their lips was spared. Wounded survivors were savagely bludgeoned to death with telekinetically hurled objects, or possessed and made to kill their fellows with their bare hands. All told, the casualty rate of the Battle of Mount Carmel is horrific.

Of the dead and the survivors, an accounting is made.

What’s left of Jocelyn Baker’s corpse is set down before Caroline. Held immobilized by Westphal’s command, she was helpless to flee when the gym became a battlefield. Jocelyn looks as if she was blasted into torpor beneath grenade detonations and weaponsfire—but what finally killed the Toreador was the sword stroke that separated her head from her body.

Megan Wilkins, against all odds, numbers among the battle’s few survivors. The pitiful (and badly wounded) ghoul was found mindlessly clutching (and drinking from) her domitor’s corpse, some distance away from the gym, and looks incredibly traumatized. She flinches at any touch and is incapable of coherent speech.

Alexander Wright’s torpid body is recovered.

Raaid’s destroyed body is recovered. It is yet uncertain at whose hands the Assamite met final death.

Rocco Agnello’s body is not recovered. Westphal amd Mahmoud, however, report that they torpored the hound alongside Raaid. That fact, together with the escape-proof killing field the school became, causes Maldonato to deem the Gangrel’s survival unlikely.

The body of the vampire who aided Lou was not recovered, nor is her final death confirmed.

The body of the woman who attacked Wright is not recovered, nor is her death confirmed.

Cingolai, of course, has already been executed by Vidal.

Duke Elmhearst’s body is recovered. The Brujah is believed to have met final death at the ghosts’ hands after he was torpored by Raaid—or perhaps sought to flee Mt. Carmel and was unable.

Two further ghouls belonging to Karena Cingolai and Duke Elmhearst are recovered alive and badly hurt, though not so traumatized as Megan Wilkins.

Many of the recovered bodies are in terrible condition. It will require some time to identify them all, including whether there are any further surviving ghouls who fled the battle.

Louis Fontaine among them. No trace is found of the elder ghoul.

It is impossible to know, too, how deeply or recently many of the slain ghouls fed from their domitors, or whether their bodies were contaminated by any of the Kindred blood spilled during the battle. Arrangements are made for the bodies to be burned or decapitated to prevent any postmortem Embraces. This is a kindness on more than one level: many of the slain ghouls suffered such catastrophic injuries that to allow them to arise as Kindred would condemn them to an eternity of suffering.

Among those slain ghouls with largely intact bodies, Maldonato orders all who were not Donovan’s or Camilla’s ghouls to be spared burning and decapitation. It will be left in God’s hands whether any of them arise as Kindred. Any such childer already acquainted with the vagaries of the Kindred world will prove useful and sorely needed soldiers to the Sanctified in the nights ahead.

Caroline: It’s an unmitigated disaster, a bloodbath on the scale rarely seen in the Americas, much less the States. A Masquerade problem the likes of which she can hardly imagine: this many deaths cannot all roar in at once. No accident will explain them. Which means they have to keep some of the men and women alive, at least for a time. A Masquerade endeavor she’s never attempted individually, much less on such a scale.

The scope of that disaster perhaps overshadows the final deaths of five loyal Kindred tonight. Some she didn’t know: Elmhearst is a stranger, and she sheds no tears for Cingolai, but Rocco was a mainstay of the covenant for a century, to say nothing of Donovan and his childe.

The destruction of the treacherous sheriff was a necessity, she still believes, but she would never have initiated a conflict like this. There are no winners tonight, only the dead and survivors that must pick up the pieces. Half the covenant going to war with its own members was madness. She wants to snarl at the traitors that flocked to Donovan’s banner, to demand what manner of insanity they engaged in, but it’s a pointless exercise. All the more so because some of the deaths land closer to home. None more than Jocelyn.

Jocelyn, who was the first lick to treat her with any warmth. Jocelyn, who she found in fervent prayer at a church, who answered her questions, who asked so little. Jocelyn, whose kiss she first felt, whose embrace she first enjoyed.

Jocelyn, without whom she wouldn’t have survived after the fight with Kelford. Who begged in tears before the seneschal for Caroline’s life when she was forfeit.

Jocelyn, whose krewe she almost singlehandedly destroyed, who she tried to push away, and whose Requiem she’s now ended.

Caroline had told Cécilia that she had no further feelings for the Toreador. Not after the bond to her sire, not after Jocelyn’s flaming flight into their home that put her sisters in danger. But that was not a whole truth.

Caroline might have no longer felt any burning passion for the brunette Kindred. Her affection had waned with the furious infatuation her bond inflicted on her, with her anger and frustration and shame over dominating her. But Jocelyn was her first Kindred lover. She was her first Kindred friend. Seeing her rotting body cradled by Meg is a grossly unnatural thing.

It was weeks, not months ago, that the two were shopping into the evening, blowing thousands of dollars on clothes. That they shared vessels. That Jocelyn shared her frustrations over the lack of respect and appreciation her art received. How much it hurt to be considered not even an artist by older, more established licks.

Jocelyn, another lick who’s Requiem she ruined, then claimed, for the crime of being kind to her.

She knows how important touching, or holding, the body of a loved one is. Remembers Fatimah’s tale of gathering her sire’s bones for internment.

The heiress feels no such urge. She doesn’t want to cradle Jocelyn’s broken, scorched, rotting, defiled body. There’s nothing left there—the rapid decay that’s set into the body makes that clear if nothing else.

Jocelyn is gone, like a candle snuffed out in the night. All light has gone out of her eyes. Clinging to her corpse would make her as pathetic as the ghoul set before her.

Does she feel grief? It’s hard to say. Perhaps guilt, perhaps sadness, perhaps remorse.

But most certainly, anger.

Why?!

The word tears across her mind like a psychic scream.

The Toreador was literally no threat, would never be a threat, to the sheriff or his party. Even if she hadn’t been dominated. Even if she hadn’t been torpored. Her murder was senseless. It was cruel. It was petty. They destroyed her not because they needed to, not in the pitch of battle, but because they could.

There’s some savage satisfaction in the sheriff’s horrific demise, tempered by the knowledge that the same fate awaited him as did Jocelyn: they’re both in Hell, and it’s Caroline’s fault.

It was Caroline’s fault for dragging her into this. For dragging her into her own Requiem. For letting her back in. For bonding her in the first place.

She’s like some great albatross, bringing destruction everywhere she goes, and to everyone she knows.

She holds back tears.

It wouldn’t do for a Ventrue, for the prince’s childe, to show such public emotion. Instead, she digs her nails deep into her palms. She bottles it up. Another casualty of this—whatever this is. This Requiem she’s carved for herself.

She doesn’t regret the path she’s taken. There was no other path. She just wishes it less frequently ran through those she cared for, and those that cared for her in turn.

GM: This.

Little things, and great things, and perhaps in the end, all petty things.

Her request, to bring a vessel into the school.

The sheriff’s ruthless choice to turn her into a weapon.

Westphal’s furious order to freeze.

The sheriff’s choice to attack then.

The battle against the sheriff.

The game being played by him, by Caroline, by all the city’s powers.

The Jyhad.

The Requiem.

The this that claims so many lives and unlives.

So few of those gathered here tonight know who Jocelyn was to Caroline. Only the seneschal, besides Meg herself.

“I believe Miss Baker to have been a casualty of the wraiths,” he states as he examines the body.

:: I am sorry for the loss you have suffered, Miss Malveaux-Devillers. If you would do Miss Baker a final service, I believe she would desire her ghoul to be cared for until more permanent arrangements may be reached. ::

Caroline: :: I will see to it when the crisis is passed, Seneschal. ::

There’s a stoic resignation echoed in her thoughts. She has no idea what use Meg might be put to, or how to keep the already suicidal ghoul from taking her own life. Caroline will figure it out, she supposes, if she survives the night.

She doesn’t have time to worry about that problem. Not yet.

GM: Meg is ordered taken outside with the other departing Kindred.

Vidal, meanwhile, seizes control of his gathered follower’s minds without any pretense or subtlety. He orders the glassy-eyed Kindred to forget select details of what they have seen and heard tonight, then sends them along their way. Gus Elgin is made to drink from the prince’s wrist, then commanded to forget having done so.

The Lasombra are among the last to depart. Vidal commands them to forget Donovan’s final moments: the ex-sheriff never surrendered and was destroyed in a great invoking of the holy man’s religious faith. He orders all three Lasombra to drink from his wrist, then to forget having done so, evidently trusting the strength of the command to overcome even the strength of his vitae upon their tongues.

Maldonato instructs his clanmates to wait outside and states they will be well-rewarded for their efforts tonight.

A long moment passes in silence between seneschal and prince before Maldonato feeds his vitae to Alexander Wright, reviving the torpid hound.

He kneels before the prince upon seeing his liege. Maldonato questions him while Caroline’s sire watches in utter silence. The Brujah hound seems quite reserved under that black gaze, by his usual sarcastic standards, and provides simple and direct answers to the questions asked of him. He professes to have been ignorant as to Caroline’s identity, after Maldonato informs him of it. Donovan told the hounds that Baristheaut’s troublemaking childe murdered the bishop and was defecting to Savoy.

“I wouldn’t have believed that shi—who her sire was if it was anyone but you tellin’ me, sir.”

Maldonato invades the hound’s mind without pretense or subtlety. Several moments pass before he declares, “Your words are truthful. In lieu of the present extremis, you may rejoin our prince’s service. You are acting sheriff until a permanent replacement may be found.”

Wright glances at the prince, but not does attempt to hold the Ventrue’s terrible gaze. It is hard to imagine a less congratulatory atmosphere as the acting sheriff offers a simple,

“Thanks. Your Grace. Your Majesty.”

Maldonato tells him to join Hurst, LaCroix, and McCandles on their mission. They will inform him of what has transpired since his torpor. The Hussar passes him a phone. He leaves without further word.

Caroline: Wright’s words of doubt sting her pride. Caroline stares him down as he speaks. She wonders if he’d ‘believe’ it now, a fist of ancillae smashed against no answering (surviving) vampire with a decade in the Blood.

GM: Wright meets her gaze as he leaves. The hound’s expression is uncharacteristically flat. He says nothing further.

Maldonato discusses offering temporary feeding rights in Riverbend as payment to the Sanctified who have answered the prince’s sire’s call tonight. Others, where applicable, may satisfy their corvée. It is not lost upon Caroline that many of the Kindred she has seen tonight do not appear to be her sire’s dedicated agents. They seem more akin to auxiliaries or a citizen’s militia, mustered in this hour of need, and paid for their efforts. The Sanctified’s main fighting force has been shattered. Only Wright remains.

Caroline: The cost of her actions is not lost on the Ventrue, necessary though they might have been. She may have broken the Sanctified’s back to cut out the cancer killing it. That the loss of Donovan would be a blow, she knew. She hadn’t imagined the sheriff would be able to bring so many to the fight so easily, that he would bring down so many with him. The wraiths’ betrayal made it all the worse: how many of those destroyed this night might have merely been torpored if the dead men had not sought further blood?

The damage the traitor has wrought is staggering, but the tools she wielded reaped their own butcher’s bill.

GM: You can always count on the dead to dish out more hurt, said Lou.

Maldonato states he will dispatch messages to several prospective sheriffs. Perhaps if luck is with them, these Kindred may arrive by tomorrow. Slane Holland’s name is the first one floated. The former hound and Sanctified Ventrue. Vidal states he is disinclined to trust any Kindred to the post who is not bound by blood as well as faith.

Caroline: Holland, she knows, serves her sire still in another capacity. How much more damage will withdrawing his agents, recalling them in this latest crisis, do? It’s impossible for her to guess.

GM: The prince’s eyes burn into the distance. He still has not once looked upon his former lover’s face.

Finally, he states,

“Your punishment is overdue, Your Grace.”

“You have confessed to bestowing the Embrace without my leave. My sole punishment has been banishment from my presence. Even this judgment has now been undermined by extremis. No.”

“I have prayed long on how I might punish you without weakening the archdiocese. My vision is now clear, thanks be to God. I sentence you to the same violation of your will that you imposed upon me. No oath have you sworn, but no greater punishment can I think to devise. You shall experience your crime in all of its fullness, and by your suffering you shall rebuild my weakened house. Yes. This is just.”

The prince’s voice is a near-whisper.

“You shall Embrace another.”

Caroline: The declaration steals the breath from Caroline’s dead body.

She turns to regard the seneschal more fully.

GM: Maldonato’s visage is utterly still.

It feels as if a chasm has yawned open between the two elders.

As if an iron curtain has descended.

As if the ruined cafeteria is now a tomb, thick with years of silence.

The moment feels as though it lasts a century.

It passes in a second.

“It shall be as my prince commands.”

He turns to regard Caroline.

“Miss Malveaux-Devillers, I would have you gain experience in manipulation of kine institutions. Please arrange Adam Malveaux’s expulsion from the priesthood and his financial ruination once these immediate crises have abated. Take care to arrange avenues for his reinstatement and the reversal of his fortunes should his character prove unsuitable for our purposes.”

Caroline: Oh, Maldonato.

And, too.

Sire…

Centuries-old oaths betrayed, whatever the purpose, the intent. Trust broken. And repaid in kind. Her sire lashing out at his lover. The pain between them only growing with time, with each cut they inflict on one another. It’s watching two titans carve each other apart, and to what end?

Only grief. Grief that she is at the center of. How can either of them stand her presence, the constant reminder of what has broken them?

The Ventrue barely has time to register the pain between the two, the wounds inflicted on one another, before the seneschal’s words hit her, like the next wave brought in by the tide as she tries to draw herself up over the last.

Her mouth opens, closes, then opens again as she finally finds her voice.

“It will be as you have spoken, Your Grace.”

She dares not say ‘as he wishes.’ She knows, has heard well from the seneschal’s cousin, his view of the Embrace. He does not wish this at all.

The slap in the face of his choice to Embrace her cousin, his choice over her in the first place, barely registers. The blow to the Malveaux family from the loss of a third scion this year doesn’t land. The entire matter leaves her feeling numb.

:: I’m so sorry. ::

She doesn’t know if his mind touches hers still, if it remains open or has slammed shut amid his resolve, but she means it. She wishes there were some word of comfort she could offer.

GM: Whether because his mind no longer touches hers, or whether because he chooses not to, the old Moor offers no reply.

There is little enough comfort to offer.

“The Masquerade has been imperiled by the deaths of enough Malveauxes,” he states. “Adam must retain his identity among the living.”

Without further word, the seneschal turns and departs. Caroline, too, is dismissed and told to see to her duties by her sire. Even as he orders her thus, Harlequin and masked Kindred who can only belong to the Krewe of Janus arrive, along with those Sanctified whom Vidal has commanded to remain and assist him.

Corpses and signs of battle of everywhere. The noise from so many weapons discharges was tremendous. Even in a derelict building in a poverty-blighted neighborhood, Caroline can only guess what local residents are thinking, what the police response will be, and what the Masquerade cover-up will involve. Something like this, she is sure, could make the national news if mishandled. More than a score of men did in a pitched battle with military-grade weapons.

Perhaps some of the present Kindred harbor doubts as to whether they can accomplish the labor before them. Perhaps they despair they cannot. Perhaps they merely mean to bitch and complain.

None do.

The Krewe look stunned to see their prince in the flesh. He offers no explanation for his presence. He simply issues orders in his sharp Spanish staccato. Doubt, despair, and indecision vanish like a child’s nighttime fears after a parent turns on the lights. His presence fills the room, imbuing them all with purpose and confidence. He commands them like a maestro before an orchestra, flawlessly ordering and directing each instrument into a greater whole than any might achieve alone.

There are so many occasions where it feels Caroline’s sire terrorized his subjects, ruling through force and tyranny too great to oppose. Yet here, tonight, he does something else:

He leads them.

Caroline remembers Autumn once sarcastically remarking, during one of her moments of self-pity, “I thought Ventrue were supposed to be take-charge types who got stuff done.” There is nothing sarcastic or worthy of scorn that she now sees. There is no sense of arrogantly or jealousy presumed superiority like there was when Matheson or McGinn demanded that she bow before them. They demanded she debase herself to raise them up high. They demanded she pay obeisance to a sovereignty that was unearned.

Here, tonight, that sovereignty is earned. The present Kindred want Caroline’s sire to lead them. She sees it in all of their eyes. They want him to take command. His command makes possible great works they might never achieve on their own. His command makes possible the impossible. They accept Ventrue sovereignty and they accept it gladly. The Kingship Clan will drive back the barbarians at the gates and hold up the sky from collapse. Right to rule is demonstrated through rightness in rule. The thousand breaches of the Masquerade before them can be repaired. The vast labor before them can be undertaken. Father is here to take care of things.

Against the outline of her sire’s figure, standing tall and unbowed as he issues commands, Caroline feels as if she’s gazing upon a window into the past. She sees an older New Orleans, one that has not sunk into vice and degeneracy and lazy Southern sloth. She sees a thriving metropolis renowned the world over for its exquisite culture and material prosperity, a city in the summer of its strength and vitality. A city from that nebulous “good old days” era her father recalls in campaign speeches, a golden and glorious and better time when there was pride in the past, achievement in the past, and optimism for the future. For all of Savoy’s easy charm, slick deals, and byzantine schemes, Caroline knows:

This is what it is to be a prince.

Yet there is an undeniable and gnawing sense of loss, too. For if the sight of her sire taking command is like unto witnessing an aged and decorated general take to the field, it is because he is bereft of subordinates who can perform the job in his stead. They are all dead or occupied upon other errands. The Sanctified are stretched too thin. They can no longer rule the city without their prince’s intercession. Like Alexander, he has founded an empire that cannot outlast its founder—and his remaining time upon the throne is limited. The Sanctified’s side of the chessboard has been swept almost completely clear of knights, bishops, and rooks. The king and queen are now active pieces in the game.

Caroline thinks, too, to a quote by C.S. Lewis, repeated by Benjamin Edwards during a sermon she attended in undergrad:

“But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over.”

Caroline’s sire is not God.

But perhaps he is an author.

How soon to end is their play?


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