For some reason, it felt very important to be at the shop at seven the next morning. Cole wasn’t a morning person by any stretch of the imagination but he managed to pull up to the curb on his old Vespa almost at seven on the dot. He dropped the kickstand and pulled off his helmet, hanging it trustingly on the handlebars. The storage under the seat had the smaller, secondary helmet he carried for emergencies plus a shopping bag of his dirty laundry. Everything else he owned was stuffed into two backpacks and strapped to the back of the seat. These he unhooked and tossed over a shoulder.
The door to the shop opened and two young men came out. In their arms were boxes and around their necks were collars. Cole watched the priests go by, dressed in their all black and they watched him. It wasn’t until they were loading the boxes into the back of a station wagon parked nearby that they whispered back and forth and tossed serious looks his way.
“Now that’s a little odd.” It made him rethink his joke about being sold into slavery.
“There you are! Good, good, come in out of the damp,” Mike called from the doorway. He followed the younger man’s gaze to where the two priests were talking quietly. “Pay them no mind, they’re jealous. They thought they’d be getting your job!”
Cole followed inside but the priests had him nervous. “Just what did I sign up for?”
“All in good time, all in good time.” He felt lighter, younger, than he had in years and Mike planned to enjoy the feeling for as long as he could. “Is that the entire of your worldly goods?”
“Well, let’s see, down here is the store front, back here the store room but it’s mostly a place to sit and chat.” Mike bustled past and to the room where he’d sat with Cole the day before. Only this time, a door in the back of the room was opened to show a narrow set of steps. “The building is from the eighteen eighties. These steps lead to the apprentice’s quarters best I can recall.” He climbed the steps painfully, another reason it was time to retire, his knees didn’t like the steep steps.
“You’re living here?”
“I was, but for the next ninety days it’s yours. The door to the shop locks but I never bother. It’s a small space but cozy. Oh, here we are.” The steps opened directly into the apartment, with a shallow railing blocking off the empty hole that dropped into the stairwell.
It wasn’t what Cole had been expecting. The space was small, yes, but recently renovated. The walls were dry walled and painted in soothing, pale tones of blue and green, trimmed in white. The temperature was pleasantly warm and central air vents just as obviously were able to cool in the summer. The large windows were topped in stained glass, the floors were highly polished hardwood, broken with nice, modern throw rugs.
The wall across from the stairs was a small kitchen. A two burner stove and small oven, dishwasher, slightly smaller fridge and a nice, stainless steel sink stood around light pine cabinets with a soft blue counter top. The small, round table sitting to the side was wood and well made but with clean modern lines.
Facing the railing by the stairwell was a wood entertainment center and housed in it was a good sized television, surround sound speakers, a DVD player, CD player and DVR. The sofa that faced it was new, clean and plush. Tossed over the back was a light blanket in the same pale and creamy colors the entire space had.
Along the far wall was a double bed. The head and foot board were wrought iron and obviously vintage from the scroll work and detail put into them. They’d been painted white but that only added to their charm. The bed was made, crisply, and a large, heavy quilt was folded over the foot of the bed. Pressed along the wall closest to the bed were a wardrobe and a pair of dressers.
There were two doors and Mike moved to the one nearest the kitchen. “Old spaces, I’m afraid, offer no closet space. In here is the bathroom, the linen closet I had them add has sheets, towels, everything you’ll need.”
“You’re leaving all of this?”
“I’ve no need. It was furnished when I got it, it’s only right to pass it to you furnished.” He smiled at the home he’d had for most of his adult life. “Be grateful I talked Hue into letting me remodel. Had to drag him kicking and screaming into the central air. Aric just got him to switch from fountain pens a couple of years ago.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Cole dug his heels in. He was confused and didn’t like it.
“Follow me, hurry now, he’ll be home soon.” Mike grinned cryptically and led Cole to the other door.
This was a second stairwell, this one wider and not so steep. They climbed down to a small entrance way. The door in front of them was obviously a door to the outside but Mike turned to the one to the right. The heavy wood door actually creaked when he forced it open.
“Oh, my God,” Cole whispered as he walked in.
The apartment, situated in the back of the shop, felt like, and smelled like, a museum. For as light and airy as the upstairs apartment was, this one was dark and heavy. Heavy, antique curtains hung on thick rods over the windows. The furniture was dark woods, thick and ornate. The walls were covered in paintings and few photographs. There was no overhead lighting; instead vintage lamps sat on tables or floor lamps hovered over elegantly outdated chairs. Cole was observant enough to see everything had been rewired but little more had been done to the place. Even the slightly larger kitchen space was older.
“He doesn’t change easily. His bedroom is that doorway, washer and dryer are off of the kitchen. Don’t even try to change things, it took me forever to get him to add the new washer and dryer.”
“This, this is…” He lost what he wanted to say when he started to add up the value of the obviously old, obviously well made furniture. “You don’t know me, there must be a million dollars worth of furniture alone here. How can you trust that I won’t just steal it all?”
“Million five actually, according to the appraised value.” Insurance had been another issue that he’d fought for. “And you won’t steal a thing, I know better.”
“What is this Hugo Dana? Like some whacko recluse rich dude?”
“Something like that. Cole, what if I were to tell you that the world is filled with powerful beings, not always all knowing but very powerful.” He watched the carefully controlled face for a reaction but saw little.
“I’ve heard the same story from drunks in pubs and shamans around fires. So? I’m not a priest, I don’t waste time thinking about God.”
“Not whatever, it’s of utmost importance. Haven’t you ever wondered why there are no crusades today?”
He shrugged. “People aren’t as stupid as they were.”
That made Mike laugh warmly. “Hardly. A truce was called, treaties were signed, a balance was created and it’s a fragile one at that. Hugo Dana’s job, his sole function, is to maintain this balance.”
“Okay, check please, I’m not buying this bullshit. Where’re the hidden cameras?”
“Sadly, there aren’t any. Hue is the mediator, the judge, nearly the final say. It’s been my honor and my privilege to assist him for the past seventy years. Now, normally, my replacement would be a member of the clergy, specially trained as those young men outside have been, to replace me. I’m breaking tradition because I feel you have something Hugo needs right now.” He watched the growing skepticism.
“What would that be? Sanity?”
“Some days. I was thinking a connection to today, a sense of humor, youth. Sanity works, however, so we’ll leave it there.”
“This is crazy.”
“Here.” Mike held out his wrist and the plain, woven bracelet that hung there. “This is yours now.” He slid it off. “At least for the next ninety days anyway.”
Cole accepted the worn rope bracelet. “Gee, thanks. Now, if I put this on and say we’re friends, do you promise not to eat my liver?”
“Just, put it on, your left wrist.” He nodded.
“And no liver eating?”
“I promise. Go on.”
With nothing to officially protest with, he slid the worn rope onto his wrist. Only, as soon as he’d let go of it and it was resting against his flesh something sharp jabbed him. “Ow, what the…” Blood dripped from the small wound and soaked into the rope. “What did you do!”
“Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.”
Cole’s eyes grew wider at the cryptic answer and he reached franticly to pry the rope from his arm and toss it aside. Before he could touch it, the rope moved. It slithered like a living thing and shivered. He not only saw it move, he felt it. “What the hell!”
“Well now, seems I’m not as uselessly old as I’d feared,” Mike muttered to himself.
“What’s going on? Get it off!”
“Settle down, it’s all perfectly harmless.”
“Harmless!” He held his wrist out, repulsed and fascinated at the same time.
The rope shivered and caught the light with a metallic flash. A spot took on a smooth glow, it shined and sparked before the entire rope twisted and turned. As Cole watched it, the rope turned from fiber to metal. The braided pattern smoothed out to a perfectly round silver bangle.
“What the fuck!” He shook his arm but the bracelet was plain metal, cool against his skin and a perfect size to rest against his hand without being loose. As he turned his wrist, he caught glimpses of dark red flashing along the silver.
Mike chuckled. “Well, well, that is a variation that hasn’t shown up in a long while.”
“What the hell? Christ, no wonder there’s no confidentiality agreement, who in their right mind would believe this.” He was staring at his wrist, wondering if he was having some bad drug flashback.
“I don’t care if you chose to believe all that I’ve told you or not, Mr. Manner, so long as you remember your job is to attempt to make Hugo’s life a little easier. Believe what you see, or not, it doesn’t matter.” He drew a breath and glanced around the apartment. “Well now, excuse me a moment, a curse of age I’m afraid. The need to empty your bladder before going anywhere.”
Cole’s head snapped up and the boxes in the station wagon below added up. “You’re leaving?”
“But, I mean, what am I…” Cole glanced from the bracelet, still metal and smooth, not braided rope, back to the serene old man. “That’s it? Some magic trick with a bracelet, a few cryptic words and that’s it? How am I supposed to figure out what to do?”
“You’ll know. I can’t teach you and it’ll be easier if I’m not hovering around. Besides, I’m years overdue for a vacation.” He smiled gently.
“You’re not even going to introduce me to this old coot?”
“Oh, he’ll be home soon, before I leave I’d imagine.” He sighed and disappeared into the bathroom.
“This is insane.” Cole was alone, in a well furnished apartment that was now his, wearing a rope bracelet that wasn’t and told he was to be the personal assistant to a man that mediated people that thought they were gods. “What the hell have I gotten into this time?” He sighed, considered leaving and ruled it out. Things seemed harmless and he was too curious not to stay and see what happened. After all, the entire point of turning his life upside down was to see what adventures he might find. This was already shaping up to be a doozy.
The door to the back steps opened and a man wearing a black suit, stark white shirt and black tie pushed his way into the apartment. “I swear, if Xander doesn’t behave better I will kill him,” the man announced before he was fully in the apartment, only he froze at the stranger standing there. “Who are you, where’s Mike?”
“He’s in the bathroom,” Cole forced out, told his tongue not to loll out and prayed he’d not get hard.
The man was tugging at the tie, pulling it loose and that alone put a dozen dirty thoughts into Cole’s brain. The suit was hot, there was no denying that, a man in a black suit was always a fine sight but this man could have stepped from one of his wettest of adolescent dreams.
Not very tall, Cole guessed he was close to five seven if that, but well built. His shoulders were wide and strong and it gave his body a clean tapered line to a narrow waist and long legs. His hair was midnight black, almost with blue highlights and was pulled back into a tight, small ponytail at the back of his skull. It looked glossy, thick, and as if, when freed to fall, would curl into loose ringlets. Cole had always known he was a sucker for dark hair, the shiny loose curls always did him in, but added with the man’s dusky olive skin and eyes as black as his hair and Cole was ready to drool.
If the man in the suit had been drawn on an Egyptian temple wall, he’d have been at home. If Cole had seen his face on early Islamic artwork, he wouldn’t have been surprised. There was a clear Mediterranean or Arabic look to the him, from the shape of his nose that was slightly too large for his face, to the size and shape of those dark eyes that sucked in all notice. It all added up to a body that Cole would have happily worshiped.
He let his eyes swipe over the new arrival, tried to hide the instant melted attraction he felt and tried to settle his body down. For the darker man’s part, his eyes swept over Cole as thoroughly but if he liked, or even approved, of what he saw, nothing touched his face. The feel of those black eyes across his body made Cole forget to breathe.
Until those eyes stopped on the bracelet and a frown turned the expressive lips downward. “What’s going on here?”
Cole managed to shrug. “Your guess is a good as mine.”
“I don’t like my guess.”
It was only by listening closely that Cole heard the soft, buried accent. It made him think that English wasn’t this man’s first language but the source of the accent eluded him. He’d thought he had a good ear for placing locations to the variations of accents but this one was new.
The water stopped running in the bathroom and the door opened a moment later. Mike came out with a placid smile fixed to his face. It was an expression that Cole was starting to suspect, even from his short association with the man, was a mask to hide his real feelings.
“Ah, good, you’re home.”
“Mike, what’s going on?” The dark eyes slid from one man to the other but understanding clicked in. “No, you can’t.”
“Hue, I can and will and I have.”
“Mike!” The dark eyed man snapped, stuck between scolding and hurt. “Not now, we’re less than a hundred days from the convention, I need you here.”
Mike held his ground and shook his head. “No, you need someone that can actually help you. Not an old man tottering around, another thing for you to worry about, my friend.”
The frown deepened. “You are not a burden.”
“Hush, we’ve had this discussion too many times. I told you I was retiring.”
The hands, held loosely at the dark man’s sides, balled up into fists. “I know, I’m sorry. I honor you.”
“Now, don’t go all formal.” He hated it, hated seeing the cold shutting down in his friend’s eyes. Hated that responsibility and the burden of his purpose had so broken what had once, long before, been a vibrant man.
“When are you leaving?” The eyes slid to Cole. “And don’t tell me that’s your replacement?”
“Hey now, buddy…” Cole shut up at Mike’s upheld hand.
“He is and I’m leaving now. Goodbyes hurt less when done quickly, yes?”
The dark head nodded. “Yes.”
“Hugo Dana, this is Cole Manner.”
“Yes, my parents hated me.” Cole gave the sharp, automatic reply. “Hugo Dana isn’t a winning name either.”
“Oh, this is rich. If I can’t whip him into shape before the convention…”
“I’ll come back for a couple of weeks.” Mike nodded but smiled gently, already liking the interactions he was seeing between the two men. “Don’t worry, you broke me in, in what? Two months?”
“You were more clever than most. So, Manner? Who sent you by and are you spying on me?” Hue asked roughly, willing himself to neither grieve at Mike’s leaving or like Cole’s arrival.
Again, Mike, stepped in. “He isn’t sent by anyone. I, sort of, bent the rules a little.”
Dark eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
“I put an ad in the paper. Left it to chance and fate.”
One, long fingered hand rose up and started rubbing at the headache that was growing behind his eyes but Hue only shook his head.
“Aric was worried you’d be angry, stopped by to offer me his protection.”
“Aric is a fool. You’ve earned a retirement, you’ve served well. I won’t begrudge it.” In truth, he did, but he was too tired to be angry. “That’s the way of things.”
Mike narrowed his eyes at the easy acceptance. “I’ve told him little, you’ll have to bring him up to speed.”
“Consider it a blank slate.” He moved to embrace his friend one last time.
“Hello! I’m standing right here, don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you.”
Both men looked to Cole briefly before going back to ignoring him.
“I assume your young priest lackeys are hovering nearby?”
“Downstairs.” He pulled the shorter man into a hug and patted the shoulder that was tense with stress and worry. “It’ll be okay, he’s a good choice.”
“Says you,” Hue mumbled back.
Mike grinned softly, a touch of bitterness in it, before stepping from the hug. He paused, knelt stiffly and with pain down on one knee, the formal sign of subjection that Hue never asked of him and the closeness of their friendship rarely ever made proper.
Hue saw the uneasy way his friend knelt and the proud formality stabbed him in his heart. It wasn’t a sign of respect he’d snub easily or lightly, so he followed through. One of his hands briefly covered the thinning white hair and he whispered an ancient blessing under his breath. No amounts of formality would keep him from helping Mike back to his feet, and he finished the small ritual with a gentle kiss placed on the aged forehead.
“Blessing upon you for your faithful service, I honor your name.”
Mike nodded, unable to form words. He’d known leaving, just walking away, would be hard, he hadn’t been aware it would be this hard. Without another word to the man he was leaving behind, he turned and started for the steps.
Only he paused in front of Cole and slipped him a business card. “You met Aric yesterday. For all that Hue calls him a fool, he is trustworthy and a good friend. If you need help, contact him.” It was the only advice he was willing to offer.
Cole accepted the card, feeling even more lost and confused than before, and watched the frail old man make his careful way down the steps. Hue moved to the front of the apartment and peered out behind the crisp new curtains. Down on the street below, he watched as Mike climbed into the front seat of an older station wagon without once glancing back. He stood and watched until the car had pulled from the curb and driven away.
“So. What do you want me to do?” Cole asked carefully.
Hue slid his eyes over to glance at the blonde stranger standing in the middle of Mike’s apartment. He ignored the question and glanced back out the window just to make sure Mike wasn’t changing his mind and coming back.
“Okay, obviously you’re not happy about this. Since I don’t have another place to crash right now, you’re stuck with me. At least for the short term anyway, it’ll take me a bit to line up something I can afford.” He heard himself talking and just couldn’t turn it off. The easy way the darker man had simply moved his eyes to glance at him, keeping body and head still, had been oddly sexy.
“Do you ever shut up?” Hue asked, feeling the headache threatening to grow worse.
“That your Vespa?”
“She’s my baby girl.”
“Well, your baby girl will be stripped bare for parts soon if you leave it on the street. See the keys on the table? The little one’s to the garage, let me show you.”
“Sweet, I’d be unhappy if someone messed with my scooter.” He followed Hue but only after scooping the keys from the table.
The garage was along the side of the building, facing an alley. The small key opened a locked box that hid a button which opened the garage door. The box didn’t need to be relocked, it locked automatically. It was a nice set up and Cole found himself nodding where he stood next to his Vespa.
The door opened slowly and the light inside the space clicked on. It was large enough for two cars but only one sat there. It wasn’t the type of car Cole had been expecting and he chuckled as he walked the Vespa in to the empty side space.
“I half expected it to be a model T or something.” He dropped the kickstand on the Vespa and moved to run a hand over the side of the black, brand new, hybrid car.
Hue shook his head. “That’s in storage.”
“Hard to picture you as a hybrid type.”
“I’d love to get under its hood. I haven’t gotten to work with one before.”
Hue moved to a door near the back that lead to the small garden in the back of his building. “Touch it and I’ll break your fingers.”
“That’s harsh man, that’s really harsh.” He followed again like a puppy dog, as the garage door lowered shut behind them. “So, what am I supposed to do?”
“Right now? I don’t care.” Hue made a mental note to check that the aphids that had been eating the roses had been stopped and unlocked the back door to the building.
“Right now I’m going to take a long, hot shower. Then I may or may not eat something but I will catch a few hours of sleep. I have a meeting tonight and will be leaving around eight. Do us both a favor and stay home.” Hugo shut his apartment door behind him, almost on the blonde man’s nose.
Cole stood in the hallway for a long moment, surprised at the coldness. “Rich, eccentric weirdos.” It was easier to think of it in those terms but the cool metal of the bracelet that hung on his wrist contradicted such simplicity.
The upstairs apartment was unlocked but Cole took the time to learn which keys fit the lock. Inside felt too nice, too expensive, for a place he was staying in. He’d grown used to pay-by-the-week motels and hostels where not having rats nibble on toes was a luxury. The elegant comfort made him feel like an intruder.
The easiest way to remedy that was to make himself at home. Systematically, he started going over the apartment. Pulling out drawers and sitting on the bed was a good start but it felt odd to unpack his few things so while he knew where he wanted to put his socks, they stayed in their bag.
The bathroom turned out to be narrow but clean. The tile was smooth and cool in a classic black and white design. While the sink and toilet were new, the tub was an old cast iron claw foot. The shower hung high over head and the curtain circled the monster like a cape. It had an older, sexy feel to it, which didn’t suit with the idea of the older man that had lived there.
The kitchen turned up some more interesting finds. The cupboards had simple, elegant dishes in teals and blacks, all neatly put away. There were spices in one and boxes and cans of food in the other. When he pulled open the fridge he found inside fairly well stocked. The milk was fresh, the fruits were ripe but not rotten and everything down to the salad dressing was there waiting for him. He really was stepping into someone else’s life.
One of the last drawers in the kitchen turned up a stack of take out menus and a yellow post it note. It read: “Cook occasionally, there’s a market down on the corner. Above the fridge I’ve stashed some useful things. Good luck.” Under that was a paper with vital information: the apartment’s address, the telephone number, all things he’d forgotten to ask after neatly prepared for him.
“Weird, very weird.” It wasn’t so weird that he wasn’t climbing up to pull open the small cupboard above the fridge.
Inside were two bottles of scotch and a white paper envelope. Cole gathered them all up and carefully lined them up on the counter. He wasn’t normally a drinker, though he’d been known to hit the pubs a time or two, so it took a moment to understand that the two bottles were seventy years old. The envelope wasn’t sealed and he slid it open to find a note and five hundred dollars in tens and twenties.
Cole whistled under his breath and set the cash next to the bottles. “Very, very weird.”
The paper the note was written on was heavy and of a fine quality and the same handwriting that had neatly rolled across the post it had scripted his name across the front. He unfolded it, half worried something would fall out and make things weirder.
“Dear Cole. I’m sure you’re very confused right now, don’t worry, it’ll make more sense soon. When I started, my predecessor left me two bottles of brandy he had purchased during his first year, he had been given two bottles from the woman that predated him. It’s one of our traditions. I’d recommend going out and buying a case and stashing it, that’s the only way, as the years go by, that you won’t want to crack into your saved two bottles. This is assuming that you’ll be sticking around, I know. Trust me, working with Hue requires a stiff drink occasionally. The cash I left in case you needed it, consider it a gift. Welcome to a grand adventure. Mike.”
“Okay, weird doesn’t even start to cover this.” It would be easy to take the cash and run, Cole went so far as to pick it up.
With a sigh he put it back down, back into its envelope and stashed it and the bottles back above the fridge. He had a full day to kill before having to be ready to go out at eight. Unpacking wouldn’t take nearly long enough but a day off wasn’t a bad thing. There was no way he was leaving until he figured out just what he’d stumbled into. The fact that Hugo was drool inspiringly handsome didn’t hurt his decision to stick around either.