The Dresden Files: Portland

Side Job: Auld Lang Syne (Part II)

Karkana Chronicles Twenty-Seven

December 23, 2013 (Monday)

After Joey and Brianna get home from working out at the gym that morning, Brianna’s phone rings. She recognizes the number. It’s Hubbard. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, she thinks to herself, but answers. “Yes?”

“How’s tricks?” Hubbard sounds cheerful, which makes her even more suspicious.

“Things are alright.”

“Are you having yourself a merry little Christmas?”

“Not yet, but I will. And yourself?

“Oh, I don’t do the holidays of the White God. But we do celebrate the Solstice.”

“I see.”

“Boy, do we do the Solstice.”

“Isn’t that coming up? It’s around this time of year.”

“Yes, indeed. But we have business. Why don’t you come by the house?”

“I only have a vague idea of where you live. Isn’t it in the Portland Heights area?”

“It is. I’m surprised you don’t have your Baker’s Street Irregulars out looking for me.”

“I figured we’re at a different place in our relationship now. If I need to talk to you, I know how to get in touch.”

“Mmm.” Hubbard makes a noncommittal noise, but then gives her the address of 1017 Southwest Rivington Drive. “I’ll have the eggnog.”

“Let me get cleaned up and I’ll be there.” She hangs up the phone and looks at Joey. “That damn fairy. I’m off to Hubbard’s home.” She gives him the address in case something goes badly. She takes a shower, dresses in her best manager’s outfit, and get into her car. She also makes sure that the box of nails is in her glove compartment before driving off.

The address is for a very sleek, modern, and expensive-looking home. Hubbard himself answers the door. He’s barefoot, in jeans and a button-down shirt that’s open about midway down his chest. “Come on in.”

Brianna enters.

Hubbard leads her into a fashionable living room. She can’t hear anyone else in the house. He gestures to a couch that probably costs more than her apartment. She sits.

The Sidhe sits down across from Brianna and pushes a mug of eggnog in her direction. “Greetings and salutations on this festive holiday.” He picks up a mug of his own.

Brianna takes the mug. “I thought you were just joking about the eggnog.”

“I never joke.” Hubbard tilts his head, “Well, that’s not entirely true.”

Brianna smiles slightly, “I don’t know that I would call that a truth, and I thought you were supposed to be careful about that.”

“Well,” Hubbard, “I sometimes jest. I sometimes exaggerate.” Brianna holds onto the mug, waiting to see if Hubbard is going to take a sip. She truly doesn’t like eggnog, but also is hesitant to eat or drink anything offered. “I have a job for you,” he continues.

“Alright, perhaps this one won’t involved targeting a business that’s directly sponsored by the Envoy.”

Hubbard gets a very serious look on his face. “You’re not telling me my business, are you?” He voice has chilled considerably.

“I would never dream of telling you your business.”

“Good.”

“I will remind you, though, of the terms of our agreement. I won’t be doing anything that would go against the interests of my House or my Court.”

“And the Envoy has nothing to do with the interests of the White Court.”

“Well, politics have a way of getting back to one’s Court, don’t they?”

“If you’re going to make that argument, then everything touches everything else. What are you? Some kind of holistic healer?”

Brianna looks at him flatly, “You have a job for me?”

“Yes. I want you to collect some blood from a guy named Thomas Cromwell. He lives in Beaverton. He’s a writer. He owes a debt he hasn’t paid, so I’m sending you to collect in pain and in blood.” Hubbard explains further, “The guy writes best-selling crime novels. You know the type.”

“I suppose.”

“He made a deal with me to receive some insider information on some of the doings in Portland. I know some things. I’ve my fingers in various pies. He was supposed to pay me a year of his life. He’s reneging on the deal. Thus, I want the blood, and the pain is a lesson.”

“This is a mortal?” Brianna asks.

“Oh, very much so. Should be easy peasy for someone like you. Of course, if you let him talk to you, he may, you know, set you off. He tends to get under the skin. He knows how to push buttons. You already have rage issues.” Hubbard’s voice is almost hopeful.

“I know all about my issues,” Brianna says drily.

“You looked a little confused,” Hubbard retorts. “I have an address for you. 15890 Southwest Nighthawk, Beaverton. Oh! I almost forgot,” he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little vial. “Here you go.”

Brianna takes it. “Do you need this full?”

“I need it ample.”

Brianna knows that blood can be used for a lot of things: to control a person, locate a person, or to get information about a person. If someone was a magic user, they could even key a spell to a specific person. “How exactly do you reneg on paying someone a year of your life?” she asks, curious. “How do you have any control over that?”

“Not your business.” His voice is pleasant, but steely. “Your business is blood and pain. That’s why I called you.”

“How’s the Glenfiddich working out for you?”

“Hmm. Warms the tummy, don’t you know? Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug.” Hubbard actually sings the words in a soft tone.

Brianna finds that she can still dislike the Sidhe even more than she did before, but she tries not to show it. “Has there been any word in your circles about the events at Raven and Rose?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Well, I don’t know if it came across in the dialog that I had with your man, but I was spotted on the way out. I was yelling quite a few things at him at the time, so perhaps he didn’t pick up on that fact.”

A low chuckle rumbles out of Hubbard’s throat. “No, that slip-up did not get past him. Or by me.”

“If want a thief, hire a thief. If you want someone to break in, steal something, and then leave, that’s when you point me in that direction.”

“Ah. But like I said, when I want to cause someone pain, that’s when I send you.”

“So, any word getting around?” Brianna ignores his comment.

“You have a vial getting warm in your pocket.”

“Well, I was going to trade you for the rest of the information that I picked up that night, but …” she shrugs and lets her voice drop off.

“Trade me? Now, that is an interesting proposition.”

“Information for information.”

“You want to know if I have any information regarding the word on the fairy streets, as it were, about your little operation?”

“I had thought it prudent not to ask myself.”

“And in return, you want to give me information about … the wine list at the Raven and Rose?” His voice is sarcastic.

“No, just bits of a conversation heard from behind a door that someone didn’t know I was listening at.”

“You were eavesdropping? How gauche.”

“It’s whatever gets the job done. I don’t considering eavesdropping as much as collecting information, something you should be very familiar with.”

They stare at each other for a minute. “The problem is that I don’t know how much your information is worth,” Hubbard comments.

“I guess it depends on how much you like to gamble.”

He chuckles. “I only like to gamble when I win, silly.”

“If you always knew you were going to win, then it wouldn’t be called gambling now would it?” She maintains a cool expression on her face, hoping that the reputation regarding Fae and bargains has some truth to it..

Hubbard is clearly interested. “How about this? We make your little bargain, but if your information is worthless, we add a day to our previous bargain?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, come now.”

“Considering you’re the only one who’s going to determine if the information is worthless, how would I know I was getting a good deal?”

“Would I lie?”

She makes an amused sound. “No, we’ve already had that conversation. You don’t lie, not directly.” Brianna shakes her head, “You’re either want to know, or you don’t. I’m not interested in potentially lengthening the terms of our agreement. If I want to find out badly enough, I have other avenues I can explore without having to be the one who asks directly. I just thought while I’m here …” Her voice trails off.

“Okay. How about this? You include in your information what avenues you’re talking about.”

Brianna laughs out loud. “No.”

“Oh, come now.” he repeats.

“No, I’m not telling you where I get my information on the Fae Courts.” She looks at Hubbard, who’s clearly getting agitated. “You’re making this very difficult. How ever do you get anything done?”

“Very well. We shall make this bargain.”

“Alright. In good faith, then I will go first.” Brianna tells Hubbard more details about what she saw while inside the building, the behavior when the Envoy arrived, specific information on David Shenaut, the odd glowing alcohol, and then the exact conversation she heard between David and the owner. Brianna watches Hubbard’s expression to see his reaction to this information. He does seem to be considering her words and then smirks.

“Very good. Well, your little escapade has embarrassed the Envoy and also the fact that you were seen has put you on her radar. Inquiries are being made about you on the street. I, of course, have said nothing.”

“I would assume not.”

“Because we don’t know each other, as far as they know.”

“As far as they know,” Brianna repeats.

“Speaking of which, I do hope you took discretion in coming here.”

“Well, I wasn’t making a big announcement about it.”

“That’s good. Now, is that exchange of information to your satisfaction?”

“It was to me.”

“Good.”

“And yourself? Were you satisfied?”

“I think it’s fair to say I’m never satisfied. That’s how I’ve gotten where I am.” Hubbard points a finger at her. “So, vial, blood, pain. Not necessarily in that order.”

“Am I bringing this back to you here?”

“No, let’s not risk that. Let’s have you take it over to Sam at the B-Side. So, when do you think you’ll have this wrapped up?”

“I have no idea. I’ve not even had a chance to start looking into the situation.”

“Well, you still have Sam’s number. Give him a call when you’re ready to meet at the B-Side, or where ever else you’d like, just arrange to meet with Sam.”

“Alright.” Brianna stands up, putting down her mug, eggnog untouched.

“Happy holidays,” Hubbard tells her, almost cheerful-sounding again.

“And to you as well.” Brianna returns to her car and drives around for while, thinking about her options. She decides to go by the author’s house to see the general layout. It’s a very nice neighborhood and a nice house. Brianna takes one look and thinks That’s going to have security on it, goddammit.

Brianna decides to go the public library and do research on Thomas Cromwell. She’s not much of a reader and isn’t familiar with him at all. She finds out that Cromwell has written a bestselling series of books called “The Central Precinct series” set in Portland. The main character is a cop by the name of Michael Steele. According to the book jackets, Cromwell lives in the greater Portland area with his basset hound, Lucky. Brianna takes a look at his author website, noting that Cromwell has just gotten back from a book tour promoting his latest novel. He is apparently known for his extensive knowledge of the criminal underground in Portland. On another website, she also finds a reference to a divorce settlement.

She decides her best course of action is to go back to Beaverton in the middle of the night to check out the house. Around 1:30 a.m., she arrives and parks a distance from Cromwell’s home. Brianna is dressed in black and puts on a pair of gloves. Approaching cautiously, Brianna keeps an eye out for security cameras or any other sort of alarm system. She spots motion security lights and three stationary security cameras. The lights primarily focus on the doors and windows. There is a light on inside the house, probably some sort of small room located over the garage.

Brianna quietly observes for about an hour. At one point, a shadow passes in front of the window, but she never gets a good look. Brianna’s decides it’s time to move on when the light suddenly shuts off. She thinks that there are some blind spots in the security system where she could get up to the side of the house without tripping a motion-activated light. It’s even possible she could get up to the garage room window, but the window itself has a security light on it. She sneaks back to her vehicle and drives off, pondering the situation.

December 24, 2013 (Tuesday)

Brianna picks up a ski mask to wear when she approaches Cromwell’s house again at night. She decides to drive the neighborhood once again during the day in order to determine the best place to hide her car. From there, she plots out the best route to and from the house. As Brianna’s nearby, she happens to notice a grey Lexus drive up to Cromwell’s residence and pull into the garage. Brianna can’t see anyone moving around in the home. She decides to again return to the house around 1:30 a.m.

Late that night, Brianna approaches the house. She waits, observing, until the light above the garage goes off about an hour later. Brianna moves up closer, trying to stick to the security blind spots. She makes it to the side of the house without any of the motion detector lights activating. Looking around once more to make sure she’s not observed, Brianna slips on her ski mask and quietly climbs up onto the roof.

She moves stealthily over the roof, avoiding any security features, and heads towards the window over the garage. Listening carefully, she hears a light snoring coming from inside. Looking at the security light from this angle, Brianna can see several wires connecting it. Gritting her teeth and hoping nothing bad happens, she yanks them loose. Almost immediately, Brianna hears a steady beeping noise come on from inside the house. A dog starts barking from inside the room.

Cursing to herself, Brianna uses her inhuman speed to cross the roof and climb down. She quickly follows her escape route back to her car, removing her ski mask when she’s far enough away from the house. She drives away, frustrated at the night’s events.

December 25, 2013 (Wednesday)

Brianna and Joey spend a low-key Christmas together. They exchange gifts, laughing when they discover that each has bought the other a wrapped bottle of Jameson. Brianna also calls Shawn to wish him a Merry Christmas.

The White Court vampire knows that she wants to get Hubbard’s job finished before the New Year’s Eve festivities. She’s still unhappy that she tripped the alarm system, but she knows that she’s got to keep moving forward. Briana remembers that there was a home across the street from Cromwell’s residence that had a “for sale” sign on it. She throws together a duffle bag full of gear (ski mask, binoculars, energy bars, extra clothes, etc.) in preparation for a stake-out. She tells Joey that she’ll be back after a while and that she’ll keep him posted via texts.

Brianna pulls up to the empty house and looks around to see if anyone’s noticed her in the driveway. She doesn’t see anyone, so she uses her inhuman strength to force the garage door open. She drives her car inside and shuts the door behind her.

Wearing gloves, Brianna moves cautiously through the house. She sets herself up behind a set of windows that overlook the front of Cromwell’s residence, adjusting the blinds slightly so she can use her binoculars. About 5:00 p.m., the grey Lexus pulls up. Brianna can see Cromwell sitting alone behind the wheel. The garage door opens and shuts behind the vehicle.

Brianna continues to watch the house, trying to observe Cromwell’s behavior and patterns. She can see lights turn on and off in the house as he moves around. As she’s watching, Brianna also notes a high number of police vehicles cruising the neighborhood. Eventually, around 8:00 p.m., the light turns on above the garage.

December 26, 2013 (early Thursday morning)

Around 2:30 a.m., the light above the garage shuts off. Brianna stays up through the night to observe any other behavior. About 6:00 a.m., lights come on in what is probably the dining room. About an hour later, that light goes off and Crowell’s car pulls out of the garage.

Brianna paces a bit, thinking. If she can get close enough to the house, she might be able to use her supernatural speed to run into the garage as the door is closing. During the day, she wouldn’t have to worry about tripping any motion-activated lights, and there is a blind spot nearby where her movements wouldn’t be picked up by cameras. If she can make it inside before the garage door shuts, then she will have essentially bypassed the security system. There might be the dog to worry about, but that’s not as much of a concern to her. Then, she could just wait for Cromwell to come back home and set an ambush for him.

There’s still some room for mishap, but Brianna thinks this is her best plan. She texts Joey to let him know that everything is okay, then decides to nap off and on to try and catch Cromwell arriving back at home. About 1:00 p.m., the grey Lexus returns. Brianna follows his movement inside the house with the binoculars. Cromwell sits down at a table and pours himself a tumbler of some sort of alcohol. He drinks it alone, staring at apparently nothing. When he’s finished, Brianna watches him leave the table and go about his routine.

About 4:30 p.m., a police officer comes by and the two men chat for a bit at the door. Brianna can tell that Cromwell is a bit agitated, although not at the officer. Around 5:00 p.m., the Lexus pulls out again. Brianna frowns, wondering where the author is going, but remains in the house.

By 8:00 p.m., Cromwell returns. Brianna notices that he is driving very, very carefully, like someone who is drunk and trying not to show it. Soon after, the light goes on over the garage. Brianna continues to watch.

The light stays on all night.

December 27, 2013 (early Friday morning)

Brianna gathers her belongings together, preparing to move. She puts her ski mask in her jacket pocket and dons her gloves. She also throws her cell phone charger, some more snacks, and her Leatherman tool in her pockets. Everything else she returns into the duffle, which she then places in her car.

She exits the front door at dawn’s first light and heads stealthily to Cromwell’s house, making sure to avoid the security cameras. Right before 7:00 a.m., she shifts to the balls of her feet, ready to move quickly.

7:00 a.m., nothing happens.

7:05 a.m., nothing happens.

7:10 a.m., nothing happens. Goddammit, where is he?, Brianna curses to herself.

At 7:15 a.m., the garage door opens and the grey Lexus starts to pull out. Brianna bolts. Moving with inhuman speed, she manages to slip underneath the garage door just before it closes with a thud. Brianna takes a look around, her body alert for any sort of security cameras inside. She doesn’t see any and breaths a sigh of relief.

It’s a spacious garage, but there are no other cars parked inside. A trio of bicycles sit nearby along with a stack of book boxes. Mindful to move quietly because of the dog, Brianna finds an outlet and plugs in her cell phone. For the time being, she flips on the light switch, ready to turn it off again at any sign that the garage door is opening.

Brianna identifies a good place to hide and set up an ambush. She knows she won’t want to engage Cromwell until the garage door is completely shut and he’s out of his car. After her phone charges, she places everything back in her pockets and stays near her hiding spot. She’s not sure when he will return, but wants to be ready to move.

A little after 1:00 p.m., Brianna hears the hum of the garage door starting to raise. She quickly hides, pulling her ski mask on.

The garage door shuts and Cromwell gets out of his car. Brianna moves in with her regular speed and punches at him, but misses.

“What the hell?” Cromwell is clearly shocked. “Hey, take it easy now! We can talk this out!” Even in his confusion, he seems like a really nice guy.

Brianna pauses for an instant, but Hubbard’s instructions to her clearly specified that the lesson must involve pain. However, if she can land a good one, that would meet the letter of their agreement. She punches Cromwell again.

This time, she lands a solid hit, breaking Cromwell’s nose. Blood flies. And there’s the blood, Brianna thinks.

“Jesus Christ!” Cromwell howls in pain. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Sit down.” Brianna uses every ounce of her intimidation to make him comply.

“Yeah, I’m sitting! I’m sitting!” He quickly sits on the floor.

She hands him the vial. “I need your blood.”

“Excuse me?”

“I need your blood,” she repeats calmly. “You’ve pissed someone off.”

“You’re going to hit me again if I don’t do this, huh?”

“Yep.”

Cromwell takes the vial and swipes it under his nose, capturing some of his blood in the tiny glass tube. Then he hands it back to Brianna who returns it to her pocket. “Who did I piss off?” he asks, his voice trembling slightly.

“Someone you made a deal with.” Brianna can see the wheels turning in Cromwell’s head. Then it all clicks.

“Oh, God.” His face is pale. “Oh, God, you’ve got to give me that back! I’m serious! You’ve got to give me that back! You have no idea what you have there!”

“I do have an idea of what I have here,” Brianna replies grimly.

“Then if you do, don’t put me through that! Come on!” Cromwell sounds desperate.

“Friend, I can’t really help you much. I’ve made a deal myself.”

“Oh, God. Look, I’ve got money. I’m a best-selling author, I’ve got money. I’ve got booze. Whatever you want. Do you like this car? I’ll give you this car. Seriously, I need that vial!”

“I’ve made a deal. I can’t break it.”

Cromwell slumps, closing his eyes in utter defeat. “Merry fucking Christmas to me.”

Brianna isn’t pleased at how this conversation is going. She doesn’t like being pressured into this situation by Hubbard in the first place, but she especially doesn’t like the fact that Cromwell doesn’t strike her as some sort of sleazy asshole. He seems like a decent human being.

Cromwell eventually opens his eyes again and looks at her. “Why are you still here? Are you going to beat me some more? You’ve already as good as killed me.” His voice is broken.

“I don’t like this any more than you do.” Brianna’s voice is soft.

“Then do something about it!”

Brianna pauses, then asks, “Why did you break your deal?”

The man sighs. “Do you know what the deal was?”

“I was told it was for a year of your life.”

“Yeah. Just that. I got a divorce not too long ago. I got two kids. Brattiest little kids you ever saw, but they’re mine. I only get to see them every other weekend and for a few hours on the holidays. At least when I don’t have a book tour or when my ex comes up with some bullshit reason where I can’t see them. So, I broke the deal. Because I wanted at least one more year with them.”

Brianna looks at him. “If it’s a year off the end of your life, does it matter as much?”

“You mean when I’m old and grey and get to see my children’s children? Do you think it’ll matter then? I’m young now and every minute I don’t get to see them is a minute stolen. He was going to do it again. So, yeah, I reneged.”

“What did you think was going to happen? Promises with his kind are very serious.”

“I don’t know. I thought he would be reasonable.”

“Oh, no. He’s not a reasonable person.”

“I suppose he’s not.”

“This leaves us in a predicament.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

Brianna folds her arm, thinking. If she mixed Cromwell’s blood with some other blood, it would be tainted. Maybe Hubbard’s magics wouldn’t work quite as planned, but it wouldn’t necessarily negate the magic completely. It could even make it worse. She might be able to add iron filings to completely counteract the Fae magic, but that would also be very obvious. What little she even knows about magic may not apply anyway. Faerie magic is more elemental than mortal magic.

She looks at Cromwell again. “How did you meet him? Did he approach you? Are you aware of the communities he runs around in?”

“I was an investigative journalist. I used to do the cop beat and heard about some pretty weird stuff. His name came up as a source of information about the criminal underworld of Portland, which I needed to know for my books. That’s why I approached him. I didn’t know what he was at that time.”

“You know what he is now?”

“I have some idea, yes. I don’t know if I fully understand it, but at least I know what he’s not.”

“Sometimes that’s just as important.”

“So, we made our arrangement. When I did, frankly, I thought he was just bonkers.”

“As someone who also knows what he is, that statement is not far from the truth.” Brianna leans against Cromwell’s car. She’s not fully letting down her guard in case he tries something, but her body posture is much more relaxed.

The author continues, “But then I heard things that made me think that I had gotten myself into some real trouble. When he approached me to collect on the bargain after my latest bestseller, I told him no,”

“He was going to take your year right then?” Brianna shakes her head. “I don’t know how that works.”

“I don’t know either, but apparently me telling him no was enough.”

“You telling him no was a breach of contract, which is a big deal for his kind This is going be a problem for you no matter how our transaction goes. He is going to keep coming after you. I don’t know how I can help you with that.”

“I guess I’ll just have to figure that out. But based on some of the stuff I’ve heard, I won’t be able to do anything if I don’t have that vial. I don’t trust him not to use it in that manner. Look, I’ve got money … I’ve got resources…”

I don’t want your money. I’m just trying to figure this out. You’re not the only one that made a deal."

“Really, what was your deal?”

“I’m in his service for a year and a day in order to keep him and his agents away from other people. So, he gets to bark and I get to run. I was hoping this was going to be more of a partnership, but I don’t think it’s going to work that way. So, now I have to look for ways to find leverage in our agreement, because this isn’t what I want to be doing.” She sighs. “The one thing that works in my favor is that his kind believes in the letter of an agreement, not the spirit, which means that I can take his orders very literally. He specifically said that he wanted me to retrieve your blood and to cause you pain. I think he envisioned me beating you to a pulp, but we’re going to go with what I did.”

“Well, thanks for that.”

“Let me make a phone call. You just sit there.” She points at the garage floor.

“I’ve got no place else to go.”

“I’d like to try and figure out a solution that will benefit the both of us, so just don’t do anything that’s going to force me to make snap decisions.” Cromwell doesn’t move. Brianna gets out her phone and dials Sydney’s number. “Hi. I’ve got a question for you. I don’t know how much detail I can get into the phone.”

“Okay.”

“Is there something you can do to a personal sample of blood that would make it unusable magically-speaking?”

“Well, many things can contaminate a sample depending on the effect that you’re wanting. If you’re wanting to negate it completely, that’s more difficult.”

“What about at least just mitigating it then? If I have to give a vial of blood to someone, but I don’t want that other person to do really horrible things to it, what do I need to do?”

“If you contaminate it in some matter, mix it with anything that will dilute it in some fashion, that will lessen the potency and it will become less useful. I don’t mean just dilute it with water,” Sydney clarifies, then asks “Is there any way you can switch the blood for something else? That would be the best way. Even a little bit of blood can be incredibly potent.”

Brianna sighs. “I think I’m fucked with this one.”

“I’m sorry.” Sydney sounds distressed.

“It’s not your fault,” Brianna tells her, “I got myself into this mess.”

The young sorceress offers a few more suggestions, “Depending on what they’re going to do, the effects could fade at sunrise, but blood is one of the most powerful symbiotic links you can get. Even if you dilute it, if there’s any blood, it still can be used against someone.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.”

“I could work on a talisman. It might offer a modicum of protection. The best protection would be running water, a magic circle, or distance.”

“Distance would help? I should let you know that this has a lot to do with the last sort of situation you helped me with.”"

“Generally, the further they have to go, the more power they have to generate. Blood definitely makes it easier, but depending on what they’re planning to do, distance could make a difference.” Sydney pauses. “But it all of this has to do with that other thing, then whatever I tell you may not make a difference.”

“That’s also what I was afraid of.”

“Is a friend of yours in trouble?”

Brianna chooses her words carefully. “It’s actually someone I just met. I have to be very careful with what I tell you, but it would be safe to say that previous deals that I had to make are going to make this a problematic year and a day.”

“Well, outside of of switching it out with an inert sample, I’m not sure what you can do. If you just dilute it, it’s still there. And if it’s still there, it can be used. That’s the nature of blood. That’s why it’s so powerful and sought after. I’m sorry, I really want to help.”

“Well, I’m the one who got myself into this. You’ve already helped quite a bit.” Brianna is resigned.

“if we knew what the blood was going to be used for, I could try to make something to specifically combat it. If I make a talisman just against magical interference, it will be more general and thus weaker. I could still work on one if that would be helpful.”

“Thank you. How long will it take?”

“I could have it by tomorrow night.”

“Well, I haven’t been given any time frame, so that might work. In the meantime, what if I slightly dilute this sample. Do you think those things would work together?”

“Every little bit will help. It depends on how you contaminate it.”

“Well, I don’t want it to be noticed. I was thinking another kind of blood.”

“If you put another person’s blood that would be just as bad.”

“I was thinking animal blood, just something to mix it.”

“That could help confuse the magical elements of the spell.”

’I’m just trying to mitigate it as much as possible. Do you think that distance could be the third piece of the solution?"

“It depends on what he’s trying to do, but it could help. I’ll work on the talisman. You dilute the sample.”

“Great. I’m going to suggest distance as well. I’ll text you when I have more information.” Brianna hangs up and looks at Cromwell. “Well, I don’t know that I have a complete answer for you, but I have someone who’s willing to help me mitigate the effects of whatever he might throw at you.”

“Okay.” Cromwell sounds hopeful, but wary. “So, what does that mean?”

“It means that I need to contaminate this sample. Do you have raw steak or something in your house?”

“Yeah. I have a filet in the fridge. I can take you to it.”

“I also have someone making a talisman for you that may help.”

“Wow. We’ve come to that. It seems a little cliche, but okay.”

Brianna continues, nonplussed, “The person you made a deal with, his kind, follow slightly different rules. Some of these things are our best guess. But another thing that may make a difference is distance. At the very least, distance will make it harder for him to find you or send other people after you, myself included. I’m taking a chance that he won’t notice my interference and be pissed at me.”

“Distance I can do. If you’re willing to do all this, I can offer you some distance too.”

“No, but thank you. I’ve got too many people I’m watching out for here in town.”

He nods. “Let’s get you that steak.”

Brianna lets Cromwell lead the way. She’s still watching in case he tries to hit a panic button or use a cell phone, but she’s feeling more relaxed about the situation. The author pulls out a steak and sets it on the kitchen counter. Brianna uses a toothpick and carefully adds some of the beef blood to the vial and mixes it together.

Cromwell watches her movements. “Well, what now?”

“Well, my friend won’t be done with the talisman until tomorrow night. What sort of arrangements do you need to make in order to leave town?”

“I have a few things I can get started.” Cromwell pauses, then adds softly, “That son of a bitch. He’s still stealing the time with my kids.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. To be perfectly honest, even if I walk out of this door and get hit by a bus, he’s still going to send people after you. I doubt the next person is going to care that you have kids. I do and I’m sorry that it’s come to this.”

Cromwell is silent for a long moment. “You know what? I am too. Why don’t you just take me to your boss?”

“You want me to take you to him?” her voice is incredulous.

The man’s expression firms. “If he’s going to do something to me, I may as well be there. I made the deal, I better fess up to it.”

“Are you sure? Because I’m willing to help you as much as I can.”

“And put yourself at risk?”

“I do that all of the time.”

“Yeah, well, not for strangers.”

“Well, sometimes I do that too.”

“No. This is my fault. I’ve got to pay the piper.”

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Brianna insists.

“Yeah.”

“I will still technically be bringing him pain and blood then.” She smiles thinly, “You’ll just have all of your blood inside.” She dials Sam’s number.

Sam answers on the first ring, as solicitous as usual. “Brianna! I’ve been looking forward to this phone call.”

“I’m sure you have.” Brianna’s voice is dry. “I want you to tell your boss that I need to bring the blood by the house.”

“That wasn’t the deal. He doesn’t like changes to the deal.”

“That’s why I’m listening to your dulcet tones rather than just showing up.”

“Why do you need to change the deal?”

“It’s going to be more difficult to the the blood to the bar than I originally thought.”

“Why? Is there traffic? Drive around.”

“Look, are you going to ask him or not? Or are you just going to give me shit?” Brianna is getting pissed and her voice is icy cold.

“Alright, alright! Jeez!” Sam backs down quickly.

“Call me back.” Brianna hangs up. While she’s waiting, she turns and looks at Cromwell. “Look, I think at this point we’ve moved beyond masks. And I’m fucking hot.” She takes off her ski mask and puts in back in her pocket.

Her phone rings. It’s Hubbard. Brianna answers, “Yes?”

“Hello, Brianna. Did my holiday greeting come out oddly? Did it come out in a different language? Are we having trouble communicating? I told you call Sam and the B-Side. Now I’m getting phone calls from Sam that you want to come here. This is confusing to me.” He sounds incredibly irritated.

“Is that a no?”

“I don’t understand the change in venue. We do not need to be seen together.”

“So, you want me to leave the blood with Sam at the B-Side?” Brianna asks carefully.

“Yes! A thousand times, yes!”

“Alright. It’ll get arranged today.”

“Good!” Hubbard huffs and hangs up.

Brianna shrugs at Cromwell. “Well, I may not be able to give you directly to the man in charge, but maybe his agent. We’re going to have to play this one by ear.”

“Let’s get the show on the road,” the author replies, “my face hurts.”

Brianna hands him a wet towel and some ice. She tells him to wait here while she gets her car. Brianna quickly moves across the street and retrieves her car from the empty house. Once they are pulling out the driveway, she calls Sydney and tells her to wait on the amulet. The person in question has decided to instead talk to the person he made the deal with."

“Okay. Well, good luck.”

“Thanks. We’ll need it. This situation is going to require some fancy footwork on my part. I’ll call you when it’s done.” The two friends say their goodbyes and Brianna heads for the B-Side Tavern.

When they arrive, Brianna leads the way inside. She quickly spots Sam at the bar and heads over to him, Cromwell in her wake. Sam glances up as they approach. He looks confused for a minute, then his eyes widen. “You have got to be shitting me.”

“What?” Brianna says in a very neutral tone.

“Don’t look at me all innocent!”

She crosses her arms over her chest. “I was told to bring back two things and that I have done.”

Sam starts to laugh, incredulously. “If you think I’m explaining this to the boss, then you’ve got another think coming. You’re going to explain this.”

“I tried to.”

“No, you didn’t.” Sam is still laughing.

“Well, I tried to come by the house,” Brianna amends slightly.

“You didn’t try to explain shit!”

“He was not in a talking mood. Sometimes he’s just not interested in what other people have to say. And if you try to tell me that’s not the truth of it, I don’t think you can.”

‘Lady, you’ve got nerve. That’s all I’ve got to tell ya."

“I wouldn’t have gotten to where am I today without having balls.” Brianna’s gaze never falters from his.

Shaking his head, Sam starts pulling out his cell phone and walks to the back of the bar. Brianna tries to overhear what she can about the conversation, but isn’t very successful. It’s just clear that Hubbard isn’t happy about the turn of events.

She turns to the author. “Thomas, you look like you need a drink. I need a fucking drink. It’s on me.”

“Yeah, I could use a drink.”

Brianna leans across the bar to gesture to the bartender. “I don’t care how much it costs me, but tonight we need two doubles of your best whiskey.” She clicks her glass with Cromwell. “Sometimes when you’re over a barrel, the only satisfaction you can get is following something exactly to the letter of the law.” He laughs. Brianna flicks her gaze over to Sam, but he’s still getting an earful from Hubbard. She leans in close to Cromwell and speaks in a low voice. “The letter of the law is very important to these people. Have you done any research on other things to protect yourself.”

“Some.”

“So you know about the cold iron?”

“Yeah.”

“Part of our dilemma here is that there’s not as much you can do once you’ve started making deals, but you can focus on the letter of the law. Oath breaking is very bad.”

Cromwell sighs. “That’s why I’m here.”

“That’s why I’m here, too.”

Sam comes walking back. “Yeah. We’re going to meet the boss.”

“Alright then.”

“I’m parked out front, you can follow me.”

They leave the Tavern and Sam pulls away in his vehicle. Brianna and Cromwell get into her car and follow. She’s not sure what’s going to happen when they meet Hubbard. It could get ugly. As she’s driving, Brianna leans over to the glove box and pulls out a handful of iron nails, stuffing them in her pocket. Cromwell sees what she’s doing and does the same.

Sam leads them to an old warehouse. Brianna’s not pleased at the remote location. Before she gets out of the car, she texts the address to Joey. So far so good. As usual, managed to piss someone off. This is where I’m heading in to talk to him.

He texts back. Do you need backup?

I don’t think you could get here fast enough. I need you to know where I am. If you don’t hear from me in a couple hours, you come looking for me.

Okay.

We’re going to talk after this. Brianna promises. Then she and Cromwell get out of the car.

Sam goes around to the back of the warehouse and opens up a padlock. He holds the door open and Brianna boldly walks in first, although she’s keeping an eye out in case someone is waiting to clock her. It appears she’s in a small dingy office. The only light inside comes from single bulb dangling on a wire. Hubbard is sitting in an old, beat-up chair, his feet causally propped up on the desk in front of him. Brianna feels her irritation surge, but comes to stand in front of him.

“So, you brought me blood,” Hubbard drawls.

“I brought you pain,” Brianna points to Cromwell’s broken and swollen nose. “And I bring you blood.”

“Well, Brianna, you never cease to surprise.”

“And blood that came willingly, I may add.”

“It’s not as fun when it’s willing.” Hubbard’s voice goes low and silky.

“I guess we have different ideas of fun.”

“I’m sure we do.” He flicks his gaze to Cromwell. “So, what did this weasel promise you?”

“Nothing.” Brianna says simply.

“Nothing?” Hubbard scoffs.

“Nothing. He said it was time to pay the piper. I can be very persuasive, you know.”

“And this is what you thought I wanted?”

“I could not even begin to comprehend what it is you want in life.”

“What I wanted …” Hubbard suddenly kicks the desk away from him, “was for him to suffer!” He’s yelling now.

“You think this is fun for him? I think he’s suffering right now! I bet whatever you’ve got cooked up in your head is not going to be fun for him either!” Brianna’s anger flares hot as her voice raises to match Hubbard’s. “But he walked into here with his head held high, so give the man some fucking dignity!” She seizes the edge of the desk and slams it into the side of the wall. Her eyes turns slightly silver as her rage and hunger rise.

Hubbard mouth stretches into a grin, but his voice is cold. “Well, I believe we’ve got your dander up. Good! That’s what I pay for. Now if I could just direct it, we’d both be happy.”

“I sincerely doubt it.” Brianna spits the words at him.

The Sidhe stalks over to where Cromwell has been standing quietly this entire time. “So, you’ve decided to pay your price now that the cutting has begun?”

Cromwell shrugs. “What can I say, the lady is persuasive.”

Brianna watches the two of them, her arms crossed.

Hubbard narrows his eyes, “Do you think that your last minute plea for mercy will grant you clemency, oath-breaker?”

The author sighs, wearily. “To be honest with you, with the day that I’ve had, I don’t really care one way or the other. Do what you’re going to do and get it over with. I’m done.”

Hubbard turns to face Brianna, pointing at Cromwell. “That? That is your_ mortal dignity_.”

That is a man who knows exactly how much he is giving up, but still comes forward.”

“Well, what a dramatic pose we’ve all stuck. You with your righteous indignation. This one, with his world weary so-called dignity.” Hubbard sighs. "I grow bored. “Very well.” He steps up to Cromwell.

Cromwell suddenly pulls the handful of nails from his pocket and shoves them into Hubbard’s face who screams at the contact. Hubbard makes a quick, sharp gesture with this hand and the mortal goes flying backwards across the room, hitting the wall and collapsing to the floor.

Brianna makes no attempt to hide her actual shock. “What the fuck was that?”

Hubbard turns on her, snarling. “You, I will deal with later!” His normally flawless skin is now marred by black burns where the metal touched him. He stalks over to Cromwell, kicking at his hand and scattering the nails. The Sidhe easily picks up the mortal by the front of his shirt and Brianna can tell that Hubbard likely has a strength on par with hers. Hubbard reaches out with his other hand and twists at his broken nose. The man screams in pain. “That was for my face,” Hubbard hisses and lets him drop back to floor. “I was going to stick to the dictates of our original deal, however you have angered me mortal. Now, first of all,” he begins conversationally, kicking Cromwell in the stomach, “I wanted you to suffer.” He kicks him again. “So, you’re going to suffer.” Kick.

The Sidhe shoots a dark look at Brianna. “This is what I had in mind.” Kick.

Brianna returns his gaze, her eyes shooting daggers.

Hubbard stoops to the whimpering Cromwell. “Now, I’m going to take what is mine.” He puts a hand to the mortal’s head. Brianna sees a slight frosty rime form under Hubbard’s hand. Cromwell doesn’t cry out, but looks slightly dazed.

The Sidhe straightens, then turns to Brianna. “Now. For you. I told you I wanted blood and pain.”

“You did.” Brianna’s voice is equally icy.

“And you brought me a pathetic, broken-nosed man. Is that what we’ve come to?”

“If you send me to go and do your dirty work, beat up mortals, and bring back their blood, and I will do exactly what you ask me to do. I don’t think it’s quite a surprise what my thoughts are on being ordered around like a common criminal every other week.” Briana clenches her fists in anger.

“You impudent thug. Who do you think I hired? I tried to send to you on a more subtle mission and you complained. So then I send you on a mission showcasing your particular talents and I get more complaints. So short of sending you to drive an ice cream truck for little children, what, do tell, will you be pleased with?”

“To fucking start, you can stop sending me after mortals who have no clue what they’re getting into when they bargain with you.’

“Don’t be naive,” Hubbard shakes his head. “This is so boring now. Go home, Brianna, until I send for you again.”

Brianna looks at Cromwell who is laboriously trying to rise to his feet. She makes her way to the mortal, careful never to turn her back on Hubbard. The Sidhe makes no move as Brianna offers her arm to Cromwell and helps him outside.

Once safely outside, Brianna loads Cromwell into her car and drives off. They drive in silence for a little while, then the author raises his head. He has tears in his eyes. “What did he do to you?” Brianna asks softly.

“I can’t remember.”

“You can’t remember what he did to you?”

“No. I can’t remember the first year of my children’s lives.”

Brianna draws in a hissing breath.

“It’s like it’s not there.” Cromwell’s sounds lost and broken.

The White Court Vampire yanks her car over to the side of the road. “Thomas. Fucking look at me.” Her voice is commanding and he numbly obeys. “What he did to you was really shitty, but you do not get to let it define you. You do not get to let him win. Do you understand? Do you hear me?” Her voice is raising with her anger at Hubbard, at the entire situation. “It is utter crap what he did. He did it because he is vindictive and mean and a faerie asshole. But, you can overcome this. You can make another life with your children. You will never get those memories back and that’s always going to hurt. But what you do moving forward is what will make the difference.” She narrows her eyes at Cromwell. “And if you do something stupid, he wins. I can tell you that a lot of times these fights aren’t fair, but how you choose to react is only fucking difference that you can make. Do you hear what I’m telling you?”

“I do.” Cromwell voice is soft.

“And whenever you think that you can’t make it or you’re feeling weak, you just remember that you put a motherfucking handful of nails in that asshole’s face!” She laughs. “Because that was fucking amazing! You really pissed him off!”

A small smile curves around Cromwell’s lips. “Yeah, I guess I did.” He pauses for a moment. “I think I’d really like to go to the hospital.”

“I can drop you off,” Brianna starts the car moving again. “At some point, I don’t think we should have conversations any more.”

“I understand. I won’t forget you though.”

She sighs. “But I’m going to give you my cell phone number anyway, alright?”

“Okay.”

“If you need someone to talk or someone just to yell at, call me. My name is Brianna.”

“Good to finally meet you.”

The rest of the drive is in relative silence. When they get to the hospital, Brianna puts the car in park and opens the door to let Cromwell get out. Then she drives off, texting Joey. Coming home.

When she gets back to the apartment, Brianna slams the door shut behind her. She texts Sydney to let her know that things (somewhat) worked out. Then she gets out the bottle of whiskey and sits down at the kitchen table. She pours herself a double and pours one for Joey. He joins her. “So, I’ve been trying not to tell you much of what’s been going on, especially since I’ve been specifically told to be discreet on a lot of it. But, I don’t know that I’m going to make it a year and a day with this guy. At least, not without doing something really stupid.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“He gave me a lot of loopholes in this last job, which meant, while it was still not optimal, I was able to at least work several aspects in my favor. But he kind of called me on the whole doing exactly what he asked thing. I’m worried that the next time he tells me to do something, he’s going to make his instructions so explicit that even if I don’t like it or find it objectionable, I won’t be able to get out of it.” She drains the rest of her whiskey and pours another double. “I’m not sure what my next plan is going to be. If he’s going to continue to up his game, then I feel we’re heading towards some sort of DEFCON situation. I’m not sure that I can take him out. He’s seems out of my league.”

“That was going to be my next suggestion. It sounds like he needs an ass-kicking.”

“Oh, he needs an ass-kicking. I just don’t think he’s in my social circle, let alone my power circle. There’s still a lot of stuff I don’t know. I can’t break my oath though, that’s the problem. You’ve been around this community long enough. You know how that goes.”

“Yeah. But if there isn’t anyone there for you to break your oath to, it’s not really a problem.”

“That’s true,” Brianna frowns. “I just think I’m going to have to start thinking of alternate plans. By the end of the year and a day, I have a feeling only one of us is going to be standing … and I would like it to be me. The last job I did for him has resulted in people now asking about me in the supernatural community. So that’s shit. I don’t want to get run out of Portland. I’ve got friends here. I’ve got a business here.”

“Such as it is.”

“But it’s still mine and yours. I don’t want to have to leave just because of him.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I’m not looking for an answer, I just want to be as open as I can with you about this.”

December 28, 2013 (Saturday)

Brianna invites Sydney over to the apartment and shares most of what she told Joey the day before.

“Perhaps what you need is some sort of counterbalance to him.” Sydney suggests.

“Yeah. I just don’t know it’s going to be. I’m worried about getting more and more debt with people, especially people who are going to ask me to do crappy things.”

“I know how that goes.”

“Ah, hell, Sydney. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

“Well, it’s a big problem.”

“It is. I got myself into this mess. I should have known the deal seemed too good to be true.” Before she leaves, she also alerts Sydney that inquiries are being made about Brianna in certain circles after the recent activities.

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