Jen slid in the booth across from me and took one of my fries. “What’s up?” she said with her mouth full of purloined food. “You said it was urgent, so I came right away.”
She wasn’t lying. I could see that her hair was still mussed up from whatever she had been doing with Lee before I called. She was a good friend to have come when I said I needed her when she was so obviously post-coitus.
I was happy for her and Skeletor. I really was. But their bliss was just such a sharp contrast to my love life that it hurt. They had gotten engaged after about a year of dating. She still moved her left hand awkwardly, as though she was forcing herself not to stare at the huge diamond ring he’d given her.
“It’s Cody,” I finally said.
She rolled her eyes. “Well, duh. What’d he do this time?”
“He called me Caroline. Except he said it with a stupid French accent. Like ‘Carol leen.’”
“Who’s Caroline?” She imitated my inflections. Jen knew Cody’s history. She knew he’d been with a lot of women before we finally gotten together after umpteen years of unrequited love on my part. No, that’s not quite true. Unrequited school-girl crush. She also knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t going to get jealous over just some ex. She knew Caroline had to have been a big deal.
“A dead werewolf.” It wasn’t just that he had called me the name of any random lover. She had been his clan-approved girlfriend.
She raised her eyebrows and her mouth formed an “o.” It would have been comical if it hadn’t been my heart on the line. “And when you say ‘called you Caroline,’ you mean?”
I nodded. Yes, he called me Caroline while we were having sex. Tears welled up in my eyes. “And I just don’t know what to do. I don’t think I can just pretend it didn’t happen. That she had been dead for years only makes it worse. Is he really that hung up over her? Why else would he be thinking about her?”
“Maybe it’s a good thing,” she said optimistically. “Like he feels so comfortable and serious with you that it reminds him of her?”
“You’re reaching,” I said flatly.
“Yeah, I’m just wondering if there is any way that you can take this less seriously than you obviously are.”
Jen’s comment confused and frustrated me, and I was already in a bad mood since he let it slip that he was thinking of his ex while supposedly making love to me. I felt my temper rising. The salt and pepper shakers started to vibrate. “Don’t you think this is a big deal?”
“Yes, Daisy. Yes, I do. And calm down. But I don’t think I'm the one you should be talking to about this.”
Her words surprised me and took my out of my anger. “What do you mean? Who else am I supposed to go to for boy trouble? You’re my best friend.”
“I know that, Daise. I just think that if your relationship with Cody is worth it, you should be telling him about your problems. This isn’t boy trouble anymore. This is a relationship issue. I don’t want you to sabotage it by gossiping when you should be facing the problem head on. If you think he’s still hung up over this Caroline, you need to confront him about it.”
I scowled into my milkshake. “Since when did you become such an expert on relationships?”
“I started listening to Loveline. And since Bethany, actually,” she added with a scoff. “That whole blood-slut turned super big sis really taught me about love and family. We never gave up on each other. She didn’t even give up on Dad. She confronted the problem head on. I’m not saying you need to become a vampire or anything. Just talk to Cody.”
That surprised me too. Who would have thought we’d be taking a lesson from Bethany on relationships?
“Speaking of family,” I nodded to the rock on Jen’s hand. “How are you and Mrs. Skeletor getting along since you two broke the news to her?”
Jen’s shoulders slumped. “Better,” she said with a half smile. “She’s still her charming old self. I don’t think that will ever change. But she seems resigned to the fact that I’m going to stick around. At least I’m not competing with a dead werewolf.”
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so harsh. How are things other than that?”
“You mean other than the fact that I don’t howl at the moon once a month? You were wrong about it like being with a marathon runner. Being a wolf isn’t a hobby for him. It’s who he is. But he just doesn’t try to share it with me. He won’t even tell me about it.”
“And his family?”
“They’re their charming old selves. At least, they would be if we had any contact with them.”
“I’m sorry, Daise.”
“I just keep thinking of what it was like growing up just me and Mom without any other family. Yeah, we had her parents, but I can’t say I ever felt accepted for who I was. It was lonely. I don’t think I want to bring kids into a family that will treat them like outcasts.”
I hadn’t meant to use that word. It just slipped out. I looked down at my plate and shoved my food around with my fork.
Jen ignored my sullen behavior. “Talk to Cody,” she repeated.
I sighed. She was right. As good as it felt to just complain to her, I needed to talk to Cody about it. I owed it to us. I was on my way to do just that when I had a run in that let me distract myself from my relationship problems.
Run in was an appropriate phrase for what happened. After leaving the cafe, I’d looked right instead of left and nearly walked into an oncoming motorcycle.
Jen thought fast and grabbed my arm to pull me out of the biker’s path. “Watch it, asshole!” she screamed. The bike slowed down, and the biker came off his bike and turned to face us. “Oh shit.” That was the trouble of yelling at bikers. They could hear you and easily confront you. I braced myself for a fight.
“Daisy, is that you?” He pulled off his helmet—something he had never needed before. He looked older. A year will do that to an ex-undead person.
“Aye. How’ve you been keeping?”
“Alright. And you?”
“Not bad.” He came to give me a hug. He must still enjoy being able to touch people without fear that his constant hunger for human emotions would set him off ravening. I guessed it would be a while before that novelty wore off.
Jen next to me still looked a bit uncomfortable around him. Maybe because she had just cursed him out. “I better get back to Lee.”
“OK, see you Jen.” I turned back to Cooper, my ex-boyfriend’s ex-Outcast ex-lieutenant. “What are you doing back in town?” I almost asked if he had been traveling with Stefan. I wasn’t so lame that I couldn’t say his name—the two of us had parted amicably—I just didn’t want Cooper to think I’d only talk to him if I was interested in learning about my ex.
“Just seeing about some property left here. Trying to sell and manage investments for ex-Outcast.”
“Wow, investments,” I repeated like I knew anything about it. “That sounds...”
“Boring as hell?” Cooper suggested. He shrugged easily and nodded at the diner. “I reckon you just had lunch, but do you care to join me for dessert or a cup of coffee?”
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to catch up with an old friend and avoid an unpleasant conversation with my boyfriend at the same time. “I’d love to.”
Cooper ordered the house salad with dressing on the side and an iced tea. He read my bemused expression. “What?”
“I don’t know. After not being able to taste for two centuries, I’d have thought you’d have gone for something more...gratifying?”
“After the change, I binged. On everything. From Kobe beef to ice cream. I inhaled that stuff like a heartbroken teenager. I learned quickly some foods may taste great but left me feeling like shite the next day. And so, with two centuries of practicing restraint, I’ll have a salad. Besides, I don’t think I’ll find much gratifying at a cop shop.”
“What else have you been doing since the change?”
“Well, I told you about the investments. Now that we’ve got the rest of our lives ahead of us, we’ve got to start thinking about retirement and who is going to take of us in our dotage.”
“Right. That seems like quite a change from meth dealing. Like I’ve seen some other Outcast do,” I added quickly, not wanting to accuse him of pushing. He and Stefan had tried to portray a more positive image of the Outcast.
He laughed lightly. “Maybe not. Drug dealers and stock brokers both feed off the misery of others. So luckily I know a few ex-Outcast who used to work on the Exchange who are able to help us with this. But I see your eyes are glazing over when I talk about this. It is pretty boring, isn’t it?”
“I bit,” I agreed. “So, Pemkowet. You’re selling all the property here?”
“Some. Do you know of anyone interested in purchasing a biker bar? Maybe the wife of a washed up deity?” He quirked his mouth at his joke.
“Can’t say that I do.”
“I might take over meself. I’ve a mind to stay in Pemkowet. Seems being away from the eldritch community doesn't agree with me, even if I’m not one anymore. This place took root in me.”
I had to come to it eventually. It was the white elephant in the room. “So, is anyone else coming back?”
Cooper hedged. “Maybe.”
Still with the cryptic eldritch shit. Or maybe now it was cryptic ex-eldritch shit.
“You can call him, you know,” Cooper said to interrupt the silence that had fallen between us. “I know he still cares for you. But he doesn’t want to interfere. You’re still with the werewolf?”
I nodded but he must have seen something in my face.
“Trouble in paradise?”
“How do you do that?” I asked suddenly. “You’re not supposed to be able to sense my emotions anymore.”
“It’s not your emotions. It’s your face. For two centuries, I’ve tasted emotions and seen the look on faces while I did it. I can put it all together. So come on, tell ol’ Cooper what ails you.”
I sighed. I thought about what Jen said. Was I just gossiping? Then I decided, who the fuck cares? I can gossip if I want to. It’s my life. I told him all about Cody’s slip up.
“And you just ran out on him?” Cooper asked aghast.
“No. It happened last night. I just pretended it didn’t happen and went to sleep after.”
“And the wolf?”
I shrugged. “He didn’t mention it.”
I ran Jen's advice by him. "I should talk to Cody about it, shouldn't I? That's what Jen said."
Cooper made a non-committal noise. "Aye, if you want. But that you're talking to everyone else but him about it, doesn't that tell you something?"
"Other than that I can't face my problems?"
He considered my answer with a frown. "Maybe I'm still rooting for the wrong team."
I left Cooper to take care of his business and headed home to feed Mogwai. I opened the door and was smacked in the face with a Spiderman mylar balloon that I was sure hadn't been there when I'd left for Cody's the night before. Anxiously, I opened the door wider, but there were no more. Spiderman danced on the ceiling by himself while Mogwai chased the dangling ribbon.
I threw myself on the sofa. Well crap.
How I saw it, there were a few possible explanations as to why a Spiderman balloon was floating in my living room: 1) this was Cody’s way of apologizing for forgetting my name, 2) Stefan was back in town, or 3) a balloon happened to float into my apartment through an open window. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.
I thought about my run in with Cooper. Was it possible that he was sent to distract me so that Stefan could plant the balloon? But how would he know I’d be at Callahan’s? Yeah, they both know I’m there a lot. All cops are. But it seems like he’d left a lot up to chance if that was his plan.
But if that wasn’t what happened, I’d have to believe it all—the balloon and running in to Cooper—was just a coincidence.
We had talked about Stefan...in a way. Would Cooper have suggested I call him if he knew his boss was at that time planting a balloon in my home? Or maybe the balloon was placed by Cooper or Stefan himself last night. In which case, running into Cooper in the morning really could have just been a coincidence.
I fought an instinct to reach for my phone and call Jen. I couldn’t imagine what she would say if I’d go running to her again when she had just told me I should tackle relationship issues head on.
“Fuck it,” I said and dialed her number. I think this put us back in the realm of boy trouble.
“I was wondering how long it would take you to call.” We were best friends for a reason. She knew me so well.
“Stefan’s back in town,” I hissed into the mouth piece.
“Are you sure?”
I filled her in about the balloon.
“Ok, are you sure that means what you think it means?”
“Are you trying to tell me that you forgot to mention that you sent me a late birthday balloon surprise?”
She sighed. “Even if it is Stefan, this doesn’t change the fact that you need to talk to Cody.”
Crap. I had all but forgotten what had happened last night and sent me to Callahan’s for comfort food and gossiping in the first place.
“You want it to be from Stefan, don’t you!” she accused after a short silence. “That’s why you’re not talking to Cody about this. You’re looking for an excuse to break up with him.”
I started to protest, but I didn’t know the truth anymore.
“It could be from Cody,” I eventually said. Even to me it sounded lame.
Jen agreed. Probably more to humor me than because she saw any merit to my reasoning. “Why don’t you invite him over to talk about what happened? That way you can see what he says about the balloon. If he asks about it, you’ll know it’s not from him.”
“And what will I tell him if he asks why it’s there?”
“I don’t know, Daisy!” she said exasperated. “Just make something up. I can’t hold your hand through this.” I thought I could hear Lee in the background mumbling something less than charitable about my demands on her time.
“Fine.” I knew I’d crossed the threshold into petulant. “Thanks, Jen.”
I hung up and took a deep breath. I dialed Cody’s number. “We need to talk,” I said without preamble.
“Alright.” His voice was even and calm. He didn’t suspect I was upset. “Do you want to come over here? I’m watching Caleb’s kids.”
Though it wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have in front of them, I was happy that he wanted to include me in that. Exclusion from his family was, after all, one of the reasons why I was upset.
“Great. I’ll be right over.”
I felt like an idiot driving through town with a giant Spiderman balloon riding shotgun, but I needed to see his reaction. Had he sent this or had someone else? And it wasn’t just something I could ask him outright. He knew the balloon story too.
But I was worried about what Jen said, that I was mixing this all up. Was I looking for an excuse to break up with him?
“Hey Pixy Stix,” he said before giving me a warm kiss. He gestured to Spiderman. “What’s that all about?”
“Oh, some guy was selling balloons at the park, and I thought the kids would like it,” I said as though it was the most natural thing in the world. I tried to keep it light and not let me voice reveal that I was freaking out about Stefan being back in town and breaking into my apartment. “Here you are boys! And if you’re good, I’ll show you how you can use it to make your voice sound funny.”
“Thanks Daisy!” Stephen took off with the balloon with Elliot chasing on his heels.
“I wonder how long before they pop it,” Cody mused. His nephews liked to play rough.
He turned to me. “So what’s up?”
I started into his topaz eyes. They looked carefree and innocent. Like he had no idea what he had said or how it might hurt me.
He continued to look blank.
“Cut the crap, Cody. You called me that last night.”
He looked surprised. “What? Daisy, you can’t hold me accountable for things I say in the heat of passion.”
I was glad that he had at least not pretended it hadn’t happened and tried to get me to doubt myself. “I can if it’s the name of your ex.”
He wrapped his arms around me. I let him. I loved being in his arms. Why was I trying to ruin that? “She was years and years ago. And it’s not like she’s around for you to be jealous of.” He tried to say it as mildly as he could, but I still felt terrible for being jealous of a dead girl.
“It’s not her, Cody, it’s what she represents. The life with your clan that I can never be a part of.”
He tried to pull me closer. “Daisy, baby, we’ve been through this. I want to be with you.”
I shook my head and tried to get out of his grasp. It was hard to do. Not because he was holding me tightly, but because I didn’t want to go. I settled for just holding his hands. “It’s not enough,” I said.
“What’s not enough?”
I looked at Elliot and Stephen still playing with Spiderman. They accepted me. But they were young. Why wouldn’t they like me when I brought them balloons? I remembered how their mother had treated me when we first met, how they all treated me at the clan gathering, and it still hurt. “I want to be part of a family.”
“You want kids?” Coby said, still not catching on. “Me too, Daisy.”
I shook my head again. “Not just kids. In laws and nephews and nieces. Big family dinners for holidays. I didn’t know that growing up. You did. That's why you still want her or someone like her. In twenty years from now, will you regret that your kids are outcasts?”
Crap! I’d said it again. This time, Cody picked up on it. I saw green flash in his eyes. He let go of my hands like they had burned him. “It’s him, isn’t it? He’s back in town?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly.
Cody blinked back tears growing in his eyes. “Just so I know, are you leaving me because of something my family did that I can’t control or because your ex who dumped you as soon as you gave him what he wanted is back in town?”
He knew how to hurt me. I visualized filling balloons up with my anger and letting them fly away.
Not wanting to go home, I drove around aimlessly for a bit after leaving Cody’s. But the trouble with Pemkowet was that, being a small town, there weren’t that many places to drive around aimlessly. After I’d driven down the same street a few times, I grew nervous that the residents would call the cops about someone in a beat up old Honda casing the neighborhood. Without thinking, I ended up on the road to Sinclair’s house. I shrugged and got out of my car. He was still a good friend even if he was dating Stacey. At least now I didn’t have to worry about jealous fairies. I could definitely kill some time with him before going back home and facing whatever more balloons were waiting for me. Or just going home and being alone with my thoughts, being forced to confront the fact that I had just broken up with my long time crush.
“It’s about time,” Stacey said with a scowl. While I had gotten used to her being in my social circle, I wasn’t expecting her to be at Sinclair’s, and her naturally unpleasant demeanor always gave me pause. I had to remind myself that she wasn’t bullying me. She was just a bitch to everyone. “I called the police over an hour ago.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I generally don’t do house calls.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Then what are you doing here?”
Eep. “I was in the neighborhood. I wanted to hang out with Sinclair. Watch a good break-up movie or two.”
Sinclair bounced over to the door and ran his fingers through his dreadlocks. “Hiya, Daisy. We’ve had a bit of...”
Stacey cut him off. “Someone stole my clothes.”
I bit my tongue to keep myself from laughing.
“It’s not funny!” she hissed. “Some old woman took them. I saw her wearing them!”
“You really should be talking to the police about this. Why don’t you go in and make a report?”
Sinclair put his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think it’s entirely a police matter, if you catch my meaning.”
Confused, I looked between the two of them.
“I’m not going to die!” Stacey said defiantly. Her hands were balled up into tight fists on either side of her hips.
“We think it was a banshee that took her clothes. Last night, we heard her wailing. Stacey’s mom heard it too. And this morning,” Sinclair pointed to a spot in the front yard by the road. “We saw a woman sitting there wearing some of Stacey’s things.”
I went to the spot Sinclair pointed out, looking for a loose sock, and earring, anything to corroborate their story. I don’t know. I’m not a trained officer of the law. I just help out on eldritch cases, though this one might fit the bill. But it gave me time to rack my brain—what did I know about banshees? I knew they were supposed to be omens of death, but that was about it. Were they the ones to kill the subject? Was it just a matter of being scared to death? Was it inevitable that once a banshee appeared the subject would die, or was it a warning? Was there a way around it?
I walked back to Sinclair and Stacey. He was lovingly massaging her shoulders, trying to calm her down, and her scowl had deepened. “Well?” she asked menacingly, as though I were the one to set the banshee on her. If a banshee even was something you could sic on another. I hated the times when my job as Hel's liaison made me feel so ignorant. I hated having to admit it to others. It made me look incompetent.
“I don’t know a lot about banshees,” I confessed.
“Geeze, Daisy. I thought this was your job?” Stacey said. She didn’t sound disappointed. She sounded like she expected me to know nothing.
For a brief instant, I wondered if, assuming there were a way to avoid Stacey’s death, I really wanted to try to find it. But I shoved that uncharitable thought aside and tried to be professional. Revenge wasn’t one of the deadly sins, but it wasn’t exactly nice either.
“Look, there are millions of fairy tale creatures out there. I can’t be expected to know everything about all of them. My job isn't to solve your banshee problem. My job is to liaise between the eldritch and mundane communities, and that includes building up a network of resources who might be able to help me with the myriad things that go bump in the night."
Stacey crossed her arms over her chest and looked at me skeptically. "Like who? The crazy old librarian who only speaks in riddles? Our drunk English teacher?"
I galled me that she could be so disparaging about two of my best resources, and I didn't want to admit that she knew everything there was to know about my professed network. I thought for a minute. Who else might know about banshees?
To ask the question is to find the answer. I reached for my cell phone. “Hi, Cooper? I think I need your help. What can you tell me about banshees?”