Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 192

The door opened as I reached for it. That sort of thing happened frequently around here when Mila was being helpful. I realized I was even luckier this time as I saw James. He was home!

“James, we have to talk!” I exclaimed, signing quickly as I spoke.

“What’s the matter?” he asked as he looked down to me.

He always made me feel so tiny next to him with his broad soldiers and greater than average height.

“The matter?” I asked. “What would be the matter? It’s not like I’ve been waiting two weeks for the date you promised only to find out that you went out with her instead as soon as you were free.”

Alma said something to him. She didn’t seem to be very happy either, running off with her incredible speed. I still wasn’t used to someone moving that fast.

“Umm… I think I hear my daddy…” started Aaliyah, turning before I could catch all of it. She had followed James and Alma inside. After a couple steps, she turned back to face me. Then she signed and said, “By the way, why are you in your hoodie?”

I fidgeted as I replied “Oh. I was getting frustrated waiting, and thought I might bump into James if I was out on patrol.”

“What happened to your other outfit?” she asked with wide-eyed innocence.

“I sorta lost part of it when Maxine hit me with a missile.” I explained.

She face-palmed before saying, “You’re not supposed to let missiles hit you, silly. If I were you, I’d ask Mila to print you a new outfit. See ya!”

New outfit!? I turned to James, grabbed his hands to get his attention, and asked “Was she being serious? Mila can do that?”

He shrugged said, “Mila ,are you capable of printing a superhero outfit for Portentia?”

Appearing on a nearby mirror, Mila signed as she said, “Oh, master. I would have no idea what you’re speaking about, though I do have a design in my database for Calamity’s outfit, strictly for cosplay purposes, of course. I think Portentia would be able to fit into it if she wished to cosplay as the city’s greatest superhero.”

James was saying something back to her, but he had turned to face her, blocking my sight. Oh! Mila was transcribing again.

“Are you saying she’s not the only one?” he had asked.

“If there are others, none have been successful enough to catch my attention, but I don’t claim to know everything.” she insisted.

I’d argue on her behalf. Mila certain seemed to know everything when asked. She wouldn’t always tell what she knew, but she knew.

“Please, get started with it!” I pleaded, nearly bouncing in my excitement. “I’ll put off going on patrol until after my date with James.”

I never dreamed getting a new outfit could be that easy. If only they could be as durable as me. Noticing Mila frowning, I felt a moment of unease.

“As you wish, but don’t let the master forget he still owes me a date as well, though I’m not quite ready for it.” she insisted.

I snapped my mouth shut, realizing it had dropped open. Then I turned to James and asked “You’re going on a date with Mila? James, why didn’t you tell me!?”

He seemed to be thinking too hard about what to say.

“Ugh. Now I’ll really have to show you that I’m more fun.” I insisted, grabbing his hand and pulling him back through the door.

Was I though? Mila was incredible. She was beyond incredible. I had no doubts she’d come up with some incredible date specifically designed for their needs.

James tugged back, so I stopped and looked at him.

“Are you sure you want to do this right now?” he asked. “I’m not entirely certain that I’m even done babysitting Aaliyah for the day.”

He quickly pulled out his phone to check.

I said, “She’s gone, so you must be. I have to grab you before you promise ten other girls dates before me. You’re not forgiven for giving Alma a date first.”

“Actually, I owed Alma a dress, since one of hers was ruined when she was helping me.” he stated.

I stared up into his eyes. He seemed to be perfectly sincere… When he wasn’t teasing someone, he was usually sincere. He was a good person.

Grinning, I said, “Sorry! I should’ve known better than to have doubted you. I’m still questioning this date with Mila. How is that even supposed to work?” I couldn’t get past the part where Mila was stuck in mirrors and phones.

He shrugged and told me “I have no idea, but she cornered me into it. Mila’s extremely bright.”

I nodded and pulled him forward again. “I know!” I assured him. “I’ve spent enough time watching Jarod and her talk to realize that they’re amazing.”

“So… what do you do with Jarod?” he asked, trying to be casual.

Was he jealous? I tried not to grin as I said, “Just hang out and talk about ways to stop Maxine, really. I’m not into him, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Why are we walking?” he suddenly asked.

“Sorry. Are you cold?” I inquired. “I can’t really help with that. I don’t get cold, so I generally don’t think about it.”

“No. I dressed for the weather when I left this morning. I merely meant that we could be taking my car.” he explained.

“I don’t have one of those either, so that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. I have borrowed Mila a few times when she’s free. You don’t mind, do you?” I asked, feeling embarrassed by asking after the fact. Mila always seemed fine with the idea, and she was actually reliable, unlike most cars.

James laughed and said, “No, not at all. She needs to be kept entertained, so she doesn’t end up finding trouble.”

I found myself wondering if Mila’s idea of a date involved her using the car to be out with James, but I quickly said, “Thank you! You wouldn’t believe how difficult hiding the fist off maxine’s machine was. If not for Mila, I wouldn’t have managed getting it all the way here.”

James put his phone to his ear and said, “Mila, could you give us a lift?” After a moment, he looked down to me and said, “Mila’s bringing the car.”

I nodded and said, “I know. I was watching.”

Mila would never turn James down. Her admiration of him was obvious whenever we talked about him. She could seem so… human. I found myself wondering again what I was. I never really had this problem before. Meeting Alma changed things. She forced me to consider that I might not really be human. Most people certainly couldn’t keep up with me, and they certainly didn’t heal as I do.

James waved to get my attention before asking “So what do you have planned for this date of ours?”

“Huh?” I asked, blinking. “You don’t have anything planned?”

He sighed before saying, “Of course not. I didn’t realize we were doing this today.

I shrugged and admitted “I guess I just thought you’d have done some planning already. You had two weeks. Don’t worry though. Let’s just go down to the triangle and roam around.”

“Sorry, but I’m not familiar with that area. What’s ‘the triangle’?” he asked.

“It’s a bit of a slum, really. I’ve been trying to clean up the streets some now that Maxine’s not keeping me busy. Since you don’t have plans for us, I figure we might as well check if anyone needs some help today.” I explained.

He nodded and seemed to get lost in thought again, standing there silently. He never seemed to understand how incredibly handsome he was. One way or another, I was going to show him a good time.

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Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 191

“Please, boss-man, sir? I want a dress too!” begged Aaliyah as she stared up at James.

Shrugging, he said, “Sure.”

Was he forgetting that we were here for me, since one of my dresses was destroyed by that fey he refused to restrain? I turned to him and said, “James! Really. You shouldn’t give into her begging so easily. Who knows what your amicable attitude will cost you when she’s involved. You know good and well that she can easily afford her own dress, so must you indulge her in such a manner?”

He really needed to learn a modicum of caution when dealing with Aaliyah. If he had the slightest clue what she really was, he’d be horrified all over again by her. I still hadn’t worked out why she displayed herself to him again, killing a man right in front of him in her true form, but she always had a plan. If her plans didn’t often cause difficulties for others, I wouldn’t feel quite so worried about his attachment to her. Why was she grinning at me with such apparent glee?

“Why should you get one from him and not me?” she asked, looking at me with such earnestness that I almost believed her confusion despite myself.

“You know very well that his little friend cost one when I was simply trying to persuade her to go home.” I snapped, annoyed that I couldn’t figure out what game she was playing with us.

“I really do appreciate what you did, but I have mentioned before that my friend knew you wouldn’t get hurt. Frankly, I’m surprised she’s not more intimidated by you, like the rest seem to be.” stated James.

I knew at a glance that he meant well, but that didn’t stop the anger in me from lashing at its cage. I turned away from him, trying to calm down. He was far too trusting. That was the root of the problem, but I couldn’t deny my own frustration at knowing I couldn’t protect him from Aaliyah. Okay, so there might be some small part of me disheartened by knowing the truth of his words too. I had felt the fear within the fey. Most of them feared me even as they accepted me as one of their own. Were they scared of my power or the other part of my heritage? I couldn’t say.

James took my hand as he said, “Alma, please don’t be upset.”

I wanted to squeeze his hand in turn, but I also wanted to pull away. I did neither, just letting myself enjoy the feel of his hand around mine. I never wanted to hurt him in any way. I basked in my memories with him. There were plenty of disheartening ones, but I wasn’t anymore immune to James’ charms than anyone else, despite my protective spells. He was an incredible person with a heart far too big for his own good, and I would protect him as well as I could.

“Aaliyah has worked incredibly hard for me, so showing a little gratitude to her isn’t unreasonable. Besides, you know she can look perfectly cute when she’s not completely mismatched.” he claimed.

And he was right. As she was now, Aaliyah appeared as cute as she was terrifying in her normal form. The girl was disarming, helping James in countless ways toward some plan I could not fathom. Would he survive her schemes? I hoped.

“Boss-man, sir! Are you saying I’m not always cute?” asked Aaliyah, seeming to plead with him through her large, blue eyes.

“Oh, enough of that.” I snapped. “Let’s just proceed.”

Aaliyah’s grin to me was disarming. She climbed up on my lap as if that were perfectly normal, and I indulged her as we started using the store’s tablet to peruse and modify dresses. I also made mental notes on where the software could use a little work. The U.I. was fairly elegant in this version, but I felt the utility of it could be improved. As Aaliyah and I worked, I tried not to be too competitive in my redesigns, but the girl’s skill was formidable as ever. If James were to participate, he’d surely help us both keep in line.

“James, which style trim do you prefer?” I inquired as I showed him the original, my own, and Aaliyah’s.

He studied them all intently but said, “I find them all to be perfectly lovely, so why not trust your own instincts and go with the style that suits you best?”

He couldn’t have given a more typically noncommittal answer, and I couldn’t help rolling my eyes as I told him “The twins always spoke about how much they enjoyed shopping with you. Is your current company so much worse that you can’t be more interested?”

“What?” he asked in surprise. “No. Of course not. I simply know next to nothing about dress design and would hate to lead you astray.”

“Then let us teach you.” I suggested, wiping the current project into storage.

He didn’t argue, so Aaliyah and I commenced with explaining the high and low points of current fashion as well as the nuances in detailing which could make or break a design. James proved to know more than he had admitted, but I always knew he had good sense in fashion. When I brought back the previous project, he still wouldn’t commit to a favorite between the designs, but he at least explained why this time. I resisted the urge to argue for mine, knowing I was simply being biased against Aaliyah’s.

After the orders were placed, we discussed where to eat, but Aaliyah and I couldn’t agree. James declined to state a preference even as he suggested possible courses when he knew the restaurants.

Several minutes into the conversation, he told us “I’m sure Marco could have something prepared by the time we arrive if you two don’t mind just eating at home.”

Her home is on the opposite side of the park.” I pointed out.

I couldn’t argue against Marco’s meals being the best we could find even if we were to include the whole of the world as possibilities, but I wasn’t ready to return home quite yet, not with knowing James’ time would be taxed by the others there.

“You don’t really want to go back already, do you, boss-man, sir? Alpy’s actually taken time off work for once.” explained Aaliyah.

“Well, more or less.” I replied, having been in constant communication with some of my employees via text on my phone.

I was both grateful and nervous about her statement. Did she have plans for us nearby? Was there something happening at Somerset Estate that she was keeping from us?

“I only suggested it because I adore Marco’s cooking. Why don’t we just go to the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce?” inquired James.

“No, sorry. That won’t do.” I stated. Part of the binding contract between the Slayer’s and Aaliyah was to avoid entering that restaurant in all of its locations, one of the many parts that contract which often had me on edge. What was Aaliyah hiding there?

“There’s a pizza place around the corner that has great reviews!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she stared at her phone.

Nodding, I said, “Oh, yes. I haven’t tried that one yet.”

James looked at me in surprise.

“What?” I asked. After some thought, I decided he was confused as to how I knew which one Aaliyah had meant. “I’ve memorized every street of this city as well as the suburbs.”

“What!? That’s incredible!” he exclaimed.

I shook my head and explained “No. You simply don’t give me enough credit. Knowing your way around is important.”

We then proceeded to the restaurant, making idle conversation along the way. I found the place a bit quaint, given the appearance. At a glance, most consumers would probably feel the place hadn’t been updated in sixty years, but the registers were actually computerized, despite their appearances. In the heat from the oven, I could easily picture the entire kitchen, which utilized a large number of modern implements. By the designs, I’d guess the place had been refurbished within the past two years. I allowed myself a wry smile as I realized why this place seemed familiar. This place would have needed refurbished after the massacre Aaliyah had committed. Fifteen people were found decapitated. Weapons were found on all of them, and not one managed to get off a shot. Adelmar had thought someone was trying to send our family a message. If he would have known then what we do now, would he have wanted my mother to come here at all?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 190

I looked around in wonder, amazed that these primitive giants had even managed to colonize this world. During my brief stay, I quickly realized that they do not deserve the planet. Pollution was rampant and very few seemed to care. My kind would thrive here and easily repair the damage, though it would take some time.

I suddenly froze, sensing danger. I couldn’t see anything threatening, at least not at first. A shadow loomed over me, and I prepared to release my venomous cloud. The fear increased as I stared up. Something terrible and vast was looming over me. I named her Death as a voice penetrated my mind.

:Wrong planet, little one.: she stated.

I wanted to respond. I wanted to assure her that my people could better care for this place. I wanted to explain that my own planet was too populated for my offspring to really thrive. I wanted to say so many things, but I could only nod.

:You’ll be a good girl and leave now, yes?: asked the voice.

I knew to my core this wasn’t a request. I quickly thought :Yes. I’ll leave this night. I won’t leave anything behind.:

The feeling of terror instantly abated as she vanished from my sight, but something dreadful remained just past what I could see. I felt it there, watching me, waiting. I was frozen, fear building inside me again. Humans passed me, unaware of how close my family was to colonizing this planet ourselves. I wanted to look at the thing near me, yet every fiber in my being warned against turning. I ran as fast as I could. This planet was guarded by Death herself and possibly something worse. We would never come back here.

,,,^._.^,,,

“I don’t see why she needed to come along.” I stated, resisting the urge to tap my foot as Aaliyah crouched over some type of large beetle. I didn’t recognize the species, so I was guessing the creature was rare. I wasn’t going to admit my ignorance, not with how gladly Aaliyah would surely give me an overly detailed explanation which would undoubtedly tell me little of actual interest.

“Sorry, but you know my schedule is pretty tight. How was I supposed to know that Chad would desperately need a babysitter today?” asked James.

I rolled my eyes and said, “You could have pawned her off on Emma. Emma would’ve been overjoyed.”

James was quite well aware that Aaliyah was an exceptionally dangerous being who didn’t need “babysitting”, but he took the role seriously, as if what he did could make any difference to her. Would he still believe himself a babysitter if he ever found out that Aaliyah was Death herself? He had seen her true form once already, a fact that gave him nightmares for a month. Would he even be able to handle that knowledge?

Aaliyah looked up at me with her wide, blue eyes as she said, “Emma’s modeling for one of her favorite brands. You wouldn’t really want to have her be distracted on such a big day, would you?”

Was she threatening me? There was just enough variance in her tone toward the end that she might have been. I was surely over-thinking the situation.

“Are you quite finished now?” I demanded.

The girl looked too adorable as she excitedly nodded and said, “Yep! She’s promised to return home tonight, so all is well! Crisis averted!”

Was she protecting the beetle, knowing it was rare? Could she actually communicate with it? I shook my head as I started walking. I would get nowhere if I allowed myself to continue this line of thought. Aaliyah would kill me in a heartbeat if I revealed her secret to anyone, she might well kill me just for discovering another one.

“You do know that as the owner of the company you do have a say in the schedule.” I pointedly told James, settling on a safer line of thought. “I realize that Aaliyah is a marvelous secretary, but don’t you rely on her a bit heavily?”

I was dramatically understating things, but telling James he was being deceived wouldn’t get me anywhere. Unfortunately, his trust in Aaliyah grew by the day.

“You do realize that I can’t keep up with her at all, don’t you?” he asked. “The amount of work Aaliyah does in her free time is mind-boggling.”

“Quite, but aren’t you making enough to spend more time managing and less time in the field, babysitting your employee?” I pointed out, perfectly well aware that I couldn’t come close to keeping up with her either.

“But the boss-man likes his job, Alpy!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

I really disliked that nickname.

“You shouldn’t bully him when he’s finally having some fun with his life.” she continued.

I started to argue, pointing out that James had been having a sufficient amount of fun merely playing her game, but he was being oblivious when I tried to get him to confirm the point. What was distracting him now!?

Gently squeezing his hand, I asked “James, are you even listening?”

“Sorry.” he stated, blinking and looking at me. “Was thinking about stuff. You wouldn’t believe how strained my head’s felt of late, having to communicate with a fey so frequently.”

I nodded and said, “I actually appreciate the fairy’s company during your lessons. I never would’ve guessed quite how skilled you are with multitasking without seeing you attempt to fight, chat with her, and maintain a spell. You’ve been improving quite satisfactorily. However, I do still maintain that the fairy should not be allowed off your yard, particularly out of that forest. Can you imagine what she’d do to some daft bloke that attempted to mug you?”

If someone managed to harm the little creature, we’d both be quite devastated. She was probably the last of her kind. As pointless as her conversation regularly was, she always brought smiles and laughter. I really would miss her if she were gone.

“I am getting better at communicating with her, you know. I might be able to persuade her to stay out of it.” argued James.

“Alpy, want to hire a mugger and test it!? We can place bets and everything!” suggested Aaliyah.

“I’ll never speak with either of you again if you hire a criminal to attack me.” he told her, attempting to appear quite put off by the notion.

“Come now, James. We would just be having a little fun.” I teased.

He stared at me in that way which encouraged an urge to embrace him. I wished he wasn’t so fragile… I could literally hug him to death with next to no effort. I refrained from further acknowledging the urge and instead started speaking of his staff, gently pointing out ways he might be able to guide them more.

“Here we are.” I stated, having walked another block. “This will only take a few minutes, but please make yourself comfortable.”

Anna worked for me, using her antique business to aid in finding non-humans to investigate. She barely started discussing this month’s leads when I realized James seemed to grow cold in the other room. Whatever could be troubling him? He was shivering!

“Boss-man, sir? What’s wrong?” asked Aaliyah.

The way James grabbed her protectively against his chest worried me too much. I dashed into the room and inquired “James, whatever is the matter?”

“I’m… well… I’m fine, so far as there’s nothing physically wrong with me.” he assured me with a tremor in his voice.

I didn’t think he was lying, considering I could find no wound.

“Anna, might I trouble you for some tea?” I asked loudly enough for Anna to hear from the other room.

“I want some too!” exclaimed Aaliyah, her voice muffled behind James’ arm.

He released her, saying, “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t trying to suffocate you.”

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. Everything’s fine!” she assured him.

Everything was most certainly not fine. What happened!? I needed to be more delicate. James looked on edge, and his mind was quite obviously not with us at the moment.

I gently touched his shoulder to get his attention before saying, “James, you can talk with me. What happened?’

He looked from me to Aaliyah. Was he not wanting to say something in front of her? He seemed to be considering a long time and concern was clearly on his face.

“Aaliyah, will you cover your ears until the tea is out?” I asked, knowing she’d hear us from half a block away with ease. “I’ll give you the last of my chocolates if you don’t listen to us for the next couple minutes.”

She grinned and nodded, looking every bit the adorable child she pretended to be. She might well be gouging out her own eardrums at the moment, though I didn’t sense anything of the sort. A deal was struck though, so she would adhere to it.

“I really don’t see how covering her ears will stop her from hearing us.” stated James.

I sighed and explained, “Due to her condition, she is quite capable of turning off her hearing. We made a deal some time ago that she’d do so for me whenever she covered her ears. Now please explain what happened to frighten you.”

I was well aware of some type of machinery inside her, but the entire form was a ruse. The machinery seemed nonsensical at best and changed periodically.

James looked embarrassed as he said, “I saw Death’s daughter when I looked in one of the mirrors. She killed someone outside, and I just started shaking. I couldn’t help it.”

What was she playing at!? Was she purposefully messing with us, or was there a bigger game afoot? I had no doubt she could seem to be in two places at once to James. Aaliyah was the fastest being known to me by an incredible margin.

Trying to console James, I said, “Don’t feel bad. You’ll meet few who aren’t traumatized by the sight of her.” Then I inquired “Sorry, but I have to ask, were you holding Aaliyah the whole time?”

“No. I grabbed Aaliyah the moment I managed to look away.” he told me.

I smirked and tried my best not to laugh. I was relieved that James hadn’t gone completely crazy from the sight of her and amused that he was trying to protect the very being who terrified him.

“Sorry. Truly. I’m terribly sorry.” I insisted, unable to explain to him why I was having difficulty containing my mirth.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, looking as if he might laugh now.

I started laughing, unable to keep the mirth inside any longer. He was completely adorable.

“I can’t help it. You’ve seen some of what she can do, yet you were trying to protect her of all people? James, I am sorry for laughing, but you’re ridiculous!” I explained, trying not to laugh anymore.

He was laughing too hard to reply, possibly realizing how absurd the situation was to some degree.

“Would you do the same for me if I would have been the one close at hand?” I asked after he calmed down some.

He shrugged and said, “I’d probably hide behind you, honestly.”

“Somewhat more sensible, but a bit less chivalrous, don’t you think?” I replied, not that I was disappointed in his response. The idea of having him pull me protectively to his chest was simply at the forefront of my thoughts.

Grabbing my hand, he said, “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you either.”

I smiled as I gazed up at him. His sincerity and kindness were admirable, even if they led him to rash judgements at times. James was undeniably a splendid person.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 189

James and I continued talking for quite some time as I drove us around. His worries kept appearing each time magic re-entered the conversation. I was far more impressed than I was concerned. If anyone could be trusted with extraordinary abilities, James could. He’d probably argue that I was just being affected by his enchantment, but I could think of far too many examples of James’ good nature and fair judgement for some enchantment to be the only reason. He was incredible.

James looked down in surprise as his phone started ringing. Considering his phone was generally muted, I could see why.

“Hello?” he asked, answering the call.

I could see the worry on his face as he listened. Something bad had happened.

“Oh no. Jarod and I are on our way. I honestly forgot about her. What happened?” he asked.

Her? Ah. The fairy was the most likely candidate. He wasn’t accustomed to her presence yet and left her out back earlier. I started heading home, assuming that was where the trouble was happening. James seemed to be listening intently. What happened?

“I’m terribly sorry. I truly did forget about her. Who would have thought that she’d still be out there after so many hours? I’ll hurry back there as soon as we arrive.” he assured the caller.

“What’s going on?” I inquired, having been accelerating for most of the caller’s monologue. If there was a situation the twins and Alma couldn’t handle, something seriously bad was happening.

“See you soon.” stated James before ending the call. Then he turned to me and said, “Apparently, the little fairy tried blasting her way into the house, got in a disagreement with Alma, and attacked her.”

I eased off the gas a little as I nodded. “Don’t forget to get the other side of the story before you start chastising someone.” I cautioned.

“I have a feeling that no amount of chastisement would faze the fairy.” he suggested.

“You’re still going to try. Besides, Alma has a tendency to be a bit forceful with people.” I reminded him, trying not to be too critical of her. “Do you really believe she didn’t provoke the attack?”

James frowned. “I’ll do my best to appease everyone.” he assured me.

I laughed and then said, “Don’t get me wrong. They both might need chewed out a bit. I was just thinking that this isn’t a time to leap to a conclusion, not with your volatile girlfriend involved.”

James sighed loudly. Staring at me, he replied “Jarod, we’re not dating. I don’t know that we will ever date, though I do like her company. We’re just… friends? I’m not even sure. She’s complicated.”

I laughed some more. James was obviously head over heels for her. I had no doubt that the two would end up dating. I wished I knew if that’d be a good thing, but I let the matter drop. There was nothing I could do at the moment, and James did have something to worry about at the moment if the fairy actually did attack Alma. Most people couldn’t survive being hit by a powerful laser, so he’d need to come up with safety measures against the fey in that scenario.

James hopped out of the car the moment we arrived in the driveway.

“Good luck!” I called, not wanting to follow. There was nothing I could do if the fairy or Alma was angry. However, I could come up with contingencies for various outcomes and consult with James should he ask. I had a feeling things wouldn’t get that far.

,,,^._.^,,,

I fought my temper, unwilling to harm this creature even by accident. James wouldn’t forgive me if I did, and I’d never forgive myself. As dangerous as the fey was, she might be the last of her kind. I hadn’t sensed any others quite like her when I was in the forest.

I sensed James jogging toward me just after the car arrived. His slow, human motions seemed to take an eternity to bring him here.

“Alma?” he called, looking around as if to find me in the mist.

He was unreasonably handsome, and I moved to him, taking his arm. That fairy should at least come to realize that James was with me. He looked down at me, concern clearly visible on his face, at least until the fairy flew up to him and hugged his nose with her entire body.

“James, letting her do that really isn’t appropriate, especially considering there isn’t a stitch on her.” I informed him.

“Huh? She’s… well… I hadn’t even thought of that of all things. None of the fey seem to feel a need for clothes. What of the fighting? Why is there fog everywhere?” he demanded.

“The fog makes destroying things with lasers much more difficult at any range. That was Mila’s doing, not mine in any case.” I explained, wishing again that he was better educated. We needed to rectify his ignorance. “Imagine what your mother would say if she were to find out that you let naked girls cling to you simply because they’re of a different species.”

He laughed, telling me “I’m sure mother would simply be in shock that there was a fairy hugging me.”

I let go of him, not feeling comfortable holding onto him in my current mood. Why was he being so dense? I decided to alter my approach slightly.

“Oh? And what about the taller one who is difficult to detect?” I inquired, wishing the fey would accept names. If nothing else, we could label them. No, they deserved better than to have our ways force upon them. Fey couldn’t be domesticated in any case.

He seemed to be considering my words, but he was taking quite some time to do it.

“Well?” I asked. Seeing that he had no reply, I stated “I thought as much. No, I’m not suggesting that we introduce your parents to these creatures, but I do feel you should be a little more sensitive to proper decorum around them. Having met Emma as well as her grandmother, I’m sure you can see that these creatures don’t always have innocent intentions.”

A smile played at his lips as he said, “Aren’t you descended from one as well?”

I crossed my arms as I told him “If anything, that proves my point about their intentions. If you don’t respond soon, that one might grow violent again.”

I could see the change in his expression as he listened to the fey. What did he tell her that made her so exuberant? Probably nothing of importance. James had that effect on people, and the fey weren’t above his gifts. Neither was I.

After some time, he said, “As far as I can tell, she just missed me. I don’t see what is so improper about her intentions.”

“James, you’re… you’re…” I started, having the earlier images the fairy had shown me still playing in the back of my mind. She was far from an innocent creature. “You’re being hoodwinked!” I exclaimed. “You have no idea of what she was thinking about just moments ago, and I am not going to repeat it.”

I spun around to leave. “When you finally come to your senses, will you please at least attempt to reason with her about staying in the forest for the sake of your employee.” I insisted, too upset to safely remain here. “Goodnight!”

I hurried to my domain to calm myself down. I was not going to lower myself to discuss that creature’s suggestive thoughts with him. Couldn’t he understand that she desired him as a man, not merely as a friend? She might well be able to change her size. Though there was obviously some record of interactions between my family and the fey, we hardly had a detailed catalogue of the means such creature possessed to take a lover. Besides, what made him believe fey even understood the difference between friendliness and something more? They weren’t like us!

I unclenched my fist and sighed. There was work to be done, and I couldn’t do anything more to alter James’ views at the moment. If the fairy grew too enthusiastic, he would grow uncomfortable and reprimand her. Despite how terribly slow he could be to analyze a situation at times, he was of excellent character. James wouldn’t fall victim to the whims of a fey.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 186

<Are they here yet?> I asked again, signing to Mila. I wasn’t sure how many times I had asked already, nor could I really care. I was bouncing with excitement, having fought off Maxine and taken a trophy off her suit.

<They’re almost up the drive.> she replied. < I should warn you that James and Jarod both have plans, so they won’t have long to hear you out.>

<They always have plans. If James worked anymore frequently, he wouldn’t sleep.> I insisted. I already wasn’t sure how he found the time. He wasn’t like me, so he needed his sleep.

<Don’t worry. I monitor his sleep cycle to ensure he receives adequate rest each day.> she assured me as if reading my thoughts.

I nodded, trusting Mila’s judgement. She knew a great many things that I didn’t, some of which she couldn’t reveal to me. I still wondered at times how I became so lucky to have such a home. The answer was always James, of course. Without him, none of this would have happened. He was such an incredible person, and I needed to get his attention before he slipped away tonight.

<Turn around.> ordered Mila, vanishing from the mirror.

I spun to find James stepping into the house. “James!” I exclaimed. “We need to talk. Is Jarod with you?”

He watched as Alma walked off, and then opened his mouth to say something.

Before he could answer, I saw Jarod stepping in with one of the twins holding his arm. The other twin and their brother followed. Jarod was saying something, but I missed it.

“Jarod! I need to show you something.” I insisted. “Are you free?” I asked, hoping that his plans weren’t starting immediately. Mila implied they weren’t.

“Jarod will be indisposed all night.” claimed the girl on his arm.

The other twin was saying something as well, but I couldn’t see her well enough past the others to know what exactly. I didn’t bother looking around to see if Mila transcribed what she said. They rarely spoke without harassing someone, so they were probably just teasing me. I became slightly more interested when I noticed Duncan looking startled by what was said.

“No, I don’t. I haven’t even finished healing from the last match.” he was insisting.

I hoped they weren’t trying to get him to fight me. With him already injured, I might hurt him too much.

The girl who was on Jarod’s arm had turned around to bug her brother. Duncan was quick to remove her hand, but I couldn’t see him speak past her head. Didn’t anyone understand this was important? I needed James and Jarod! The twins started hugging one another and staring at their brother. What were they doing now?

As they turned around to grab Jarod, they said, “Jarod, please save us from our perverted brother!”

What!? Those two had to be half villain. I felt sorry for their brother. Jarod seemed to be saying something, but I couldn’t see what now. I was running out of patience. I needed him to come see what I had before he was forced to leave. The girls seemed to be fighting over Jarod, pulling him back and forth between them. James was turned, watching the exchange. Was I really going to lose my chance here? No. I needed to do something. I started to formulate a plan of attack when everyone suddenly looked off to the side. I turned to see Alma there, serene as ever.

For once, I was quite glad to see her when I realized she had called off the twins and their brother. The three followed her away, leaving Jarod and James with me! She might be part saint after all.

Someone touched my shoulder, so I turned to find Jarod looking at me.

“What’s so urgent? I have half an hour before a job James hired me for, something rather vague I might add.” he informed me, signing as he spoke.

His sign language wasn’t perfect yet, but he was sweet for bothering to learn at all.

“I have part of her suit!” I exclaimed, finally getting to tell them.

“What?” they both asked in surprise.

“While you were out being duped at the villain’s party, I was fighting her. Well, I was too late at most of the scenes, but I got some help from a friend getting to the last one. I didn’t manage to stop her from breaking in, but I did take her arm and send her running!” I explained. Mila didn’t want me to mention her aid yet. She seemed concerned about how James would take it.

“Maxine was actually there the whole time.” stated James.

Nodding, Jarod said, “She must have an accomplice or some clever type of control system.”

I hadn’t considered that she might not actually be in the suit.

“So where’s the piece?” he asked.

I smiled and said, “In the garage, of course. I wanted you to be able to work on it.”

I started walking that way and explaining how the fight went. Jarod seemed impressed by the lasers, but I insisted that they were nothing compared with my staff, Midnight. Dodging missiles was pretty intense, but I related what happened as best as I could up until we arrived. James, noticing the fist, immediately knelt down to look at it. He was interested! I hadn’t been sure with how impassive he seemed as I told my tale. Maybe he was spending too much time with Alma.

James jumped when we started descending into Jarod’s work area.

“There’s a subfloor?” he asked, looking around.

I didn’t know how to take him not being aware. How could he not have known? I missed most of what Jarod was saying, but he just seemed to be explaining what was down here to James.

“Whose is this?” asked James as he walked over to the old Volkswagen that was being repaired.

“Oh. Brandon asked for an oil change the other day, and I noticed some other problems. This is a 1987 Silver Volkswagen Quantum Syncro Wagon. Bit old, but it’s in reasonably good shape now. I just have a bit more that I want to do to it.” explained Jarod.

“I have no idea how you find time to do anything.” replied James, looking completely sincere.

“I actually have more room in my schedule than you on most days.” insisted Jarod. “I had Mila give me an analysis on a whim one day. Hey, Mila, would you mind moving this over by my suit?”

I knew Jarod had been constructing a suit as well, but I hadn’t seen it in action yet. Well, I hadn’t seen it at all. He was keeping the whole project hidden. I missed part of what they were saying, but Mila was transcribing for me on the far wall.

James had asked “Is your suit behind the sheets?”

Then Jarod told him “Nah. That’s a little project for Mila. It’s not ready yet. My first suit’s straight ahead, though I doubt I’ll be using that too much.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” asked James.

“I was mulling over a new idea during the… umm… auction. The problem with a suit like Maxine’s or my first one is that they’re too bulky. Even if I figure out the power supply, I couldn’t use the suit in many parts of the city without risking collateral damage like Maxine constantly causes. I was reading up on some tech the other day that could potentially replace muscle for electronic arms. Thinking through the tech used in creating a cyborg, I’ve realized I might be able to make a less intrusive interface to communicate our thoughts to a durable fabric that could enhance our strength by acting as additional, external muscle while also providing support to save our joints.” explained Jarod.

“The general idea is nice, but that’ll take a bunch of research and development if it’s possible.” insisted James.

With a shrug, Jarod said, “I think I can manage. Thanks to Aaliyah, we have access to resources that most people don’t. Plus, my assistant is top notch, right Mila?”

“Not having to sleep does have its advantages, but I am still learning a great deal from you.” she replied.

“The biggest part I’ll need your help with, James, is finding a way to enhance the design with magic.” stated Jarod.

James stared at him, looking surprised.

Jarod smiled as he said, “I know you have a ways to go, but Ai and Mai don’t know how to enchant things like Midnight there. Alma, if she does, hasn’t been interested in aiding in my endeavors. For now, there are some spells that Mila’s chosen from her database which should give temporary boons.”

“I’ll try, but I have a long ways to go.” replied James.

I was growing impatient again. Yes, everything said was important enough. Jarod could come act as my sidekick if he finished any sort of suit to help him keep up, but we had something important to do at the moment! Weren’t they interested in what was in the mechanical hand?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 185

The night started off wonderfully. Plenty of influential witnesses arrived at the gala, so no one could reasonably accuse me of the robberies taking place. The first couple stops went without incident. Calamity, the would-be hero, arrived at the scene of the third stop just as I was leaving, which gave me a nice laugh. I wondered what she hoped to accomplish.

I set my machine, Theophany, to autopilot for a couple minutes as I went on stage to announce the next performer. When I returned to my seat, I focused on Theophany to resume manual control. The slight lag in this interface was always a bit disconcerting, but I didn’t even have ideas on how to further reduce it.

Within a minute, I was landing, almost finished for the night. Most of these stops were just for show, but a few were supposed to house some dirt in safety deposit boxes that I could leverage. I easily brushed aside the door and started cutting through the vault door. As I was sifting through boxes, a motion alert triggered, so I turned, finding Calamity charging at me. I shot her through the chest with my machine’s laser, but it was ineffectual as I suspected it would be.

I tried to grab her, so I might pin her down. The lag was making things difficult. Damage warnings started appearing. She was hitting my suit hard enough to dent the armor!? I fired Theophany’s thrusters, jumping back toward the entrance I had made. I needed more space to move. I didn’t have time for this. The cops were surely rerouting to here by now. Deciding to give up on this bank, I fired a missile at the entrance.

Calamity dodged, flipping back from it and actually kicking the missile into the air. I was impressed. I tried a series of smaller missiles, but she dodged well enough that the explosions only knocked her back for a moment. More disturbingly, I wasn’t getting any useful readings of that staff. Was it really just a big hunk of metal? How strong was she!? I used my laser to cut it in half, but there wasn’t any damage to it. Worse yet, she had used the time to get on top of me.

Theophany was actually taking substantial damage.I needed to escape. I swung to knock Calamity away, but there was a hull breach. The entire hand had been severed! I took flight immediately, smashing into a building as I attempted to level her out from the awkward takeoff. I was half afraid Calamity would give chase into the air. She had too many surprises for me this night.

As I did my best to maintain flight with the damaged and missing components, I considered this encounter. Half of that staff had changed into a blade, but what kind of blade could cut through this armor? I needed to make improvements if I were to ever come back here, but I wasn’t entirely certain where to begin. Instead, I started thinking through ways to capture an opponent, focusing on ones that’d completely immobilize them. Not only did Calamity have a dangerous weapon now, but she seemed to have learned how to fight extremely well.

If we met again, I wouldn’t want to be in my suit, so my plans would have to account for the lag. If she managed to disable Theophany entirely, I’d use the self-destruct and be nowhere near her to avoid capture. I knew I couldn’t handle her hand-to-hand. She seemed faster than me and had to be significantly stronger. I’d make more suits and work on software to help them act somewhat independently.

By the time Theophany was parked, I needed to do a last farewell. Taking to the stage, I said, “I do hope you all had a wonderful time tonight. Sorry for all of the disturbances. I never would have guessed this would be such a busy night in the city.”

Rushed, but I wanted to get out of town just in case. There was so much to be done. I still made a point to approach James one last time. I didn’t want to leave without speaking to him one last time.

“The evening was delightful. Thank you.” stated James II.

He wasn’t as tall as his son, but he was a competent businessman as well. Unfortunately, Lady Pendreigh was making a move on his business according to my sources.

I smiled at him and said, “We’ll be able to help so many children with the funds we’ve raised. Thank you all for your contributions.” Then I turned to James III and told him “James, I’m afraid that I’ll be leaving even sooner than I expected. Please do come visit anytime you wish. I’d love to show you around my city.”

“The packing is complete.” whispered Aengus.

I nodded and said, “Sorry, but I must be off. Thank you all again.”

I let Aengus guide me away as I considered what sort of bait might lure Calamity to my city. I needed time to build a suitable trap, but I had time. No one knew the true identity of Marvelous Max.

,,,^._.^,,,

I walked with Ai and Mai on my arms towards the limo, but all I could think about was how Maxine could be controlling her suit from the gala. She must have invented some sort of interface that could communicate directly with the brain, but how did it work? Any sort of transmission and scanning devices had to be extremely small if they were to be incorporated into her glasses. The long-ranged transmissions could be done by some device hidden in the area, but her goons probably moved it already.

My thoughts had carried me into the limo and part of the way home. I almost stood when James asked Mila to stop the car. I looked around for what caught his attention as he stepped out of the car.

“Are you okay?” asked James, calling out to someone across the street.

The man did seem injured by his gait, but that could be an old wound. What was James doing?

“Oh. I see how that must look to you.” stated Alma. “Let me show you the truth.”

The man suddenly flew toward her, but no one in the area seemed to care! She had to be using magic on them of some sort. I was glad she excluded me in whatever spell messed with their heads.

I saw why Alma acted as she did when the man was close. His flesh was rotting. His arms stretched out toward James as if wanting to grab him.

“A zombie!? Are you serious!?” I exclaimed. On my list of things I hoped to be confirmed as real, zombies weren’t toward the top, but they were still on the list. This was incredible!

“You could call it that, yes.” stated Alma.

I blinked and turned my head, unprepared for the flash of light surrounding the zombie. The man was gone when I looked back. Alma apparently incinerated him instead of wanting to investigate further.

“Let us be off then.” she stated.

“I didn’t realize you were having problems of that nature. My family has a specialist in these matters if you care for assistance, Lady Pendreigh.” offered Duncan.

“Thank you, but there’s no need. I’ll manage.” she replied.

“A zombie specialist? Are there so many in Japan that you need one?” I asked, still feeling excited.

“Of course not.” he stated, looking slightly offended. “We like to deal with these matters quickly, so we trained someone toward that end.”

I nodded glumly, having my short-lived dreams of seeing this specialist in action bashed.

“Most families destroy that sort of knowledge for good reason. Many of the practices are unsavory.” insisted Alma, apparently put off by word of the specialist.

Duncan was quick to assure her “We do oversee our specialist, Lady Pendreigh. There’s no need for you to worry about him doing anything unpleasant.”

I understood why he didn’t want too much of her attention in his family’s territory. The twins had told me enough to know that Alma could easily sweep everything they owned into her pockets on a whim.

“How long has this been happening?” asked James.

Alma stared at him for a moment before saying, “I encountered the first zombie nearly a week ago. Whoever is creating them seems to abandon them after he’s done with them, so I can’t simply follow one back to him.”

I nearly smirked at hearing her say “zombie”, since her accent even made zombie sound posh, as the twins occasionally put it. I started asking for details as the limo continued on its way. Ai and Mai kindly answered. When they told me of zombies marching on a town, I grew excited, imagining how that would look here. Unfortunately, the creation of so many was tedious enough to be impractical for most people, so I couldn’t look forward to z-day.

“I guess I’ll have to tell Aaliyah we don’t really need all of those provisions for it. She’s going to be so disheartened.” I informed them.

I still asked a few more questions on the way back, since my excitement wasn’t completely deflated. As horrific as a zombie apocalypse would have been, seeing it still could have been incredible, given my allies.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 184

I watched James closely as his limo drove us toward the gala. Lady Pendreigh was openly showing affection for him, but I never heard rumor that the two were actually courting. There were numerous games she could be playing, and I was certain to only be seeing what she wished if a game was in play. Her affection for James seemed quite real to me, and I still had no clue what all he could do. His assets, however, were remarkable.

Over the past two days, I found myself captivated with his home. Great wealth was casually displayed with no apparent security, but his entire staff was formidable. Jarod regarded Mila as a person, not just a machine. If she was as sentient as she seemed, he was right to do so, and her value would be incredible.

Even Mila’s value was nothing compared with the discovery of living fey. How James found them and gathered them in his forest was a mystery. Had he really let the little one indoors on accident, or was he showing more of his power? The tiny creature seemed to regard him as an ally, possibly even a friend. Even a handful of fey was a very dangerous force, and I believed James had many. Just who was he?

“Since you’ll be with us longer, I was wondering if there was anywhere which you wanted to visit? I’d feel remiss as a host if I didn’t manage to spend some time with you away from my home.” stated James, noticing that I was watching him.

Did he now want to deter me from viewing more of his home, or did he have other assets to unveil? A straightforward approach might serve me best, so I said, “Thank you for the consideration, but I have seen more wonders in your home than I ever would in the city. I simply wish to visit that remarkable forest and see the creatures within at least once before I go.”

He casually nodded as he replied “I’m sure we can manage, though my secretary will likely require a contract. The creatures there are quite rare and precious.”

A contract from her was not a mere trifle. I worried over what this might entail. His words might even be taken as a threat. Who was I, after all, to argue with the one with Lady Pendreigh on his arm?

“I see.” I stated. “I’ll have to discuss this with my family after I peruse the documents then.”

Lady Pendreigh smiled slightly as she said, “I found the contract to be pretty standard fare for her, Duncan.”

I nodded and tried to fight the wave of fear which brushed over me. Aaliyah’s contracts included many, many ways to forfeit one’s own life, and I had imagined too many times what having her come for me would be like.

Turning to Lady Pendreigh, James asked “Did mother ever finish that painting for you, Alma?”

He was incredibly relaxed next to her, a man of power regarding her as an equal at best. He possibly saw himself above her.

“Yes. Her talent is quite extraordinary. I was very impressed by her work.” she replied.

I had looked into James’ family, but I didn’t find out anything remarkable. His parents were talented humans as far as I knew.

“Oh, so you’ve already picked it up? Mother never mentioned that you stopped by again.” he replied, a hint of disappointment in his voice.

Lady Pendreigh turned from him. Her face was still a porcelain mask, but she seemed slightly uncomfortable to me. What did he have over her? Was this some sort of code?

“No, I haven’t. I made arrangements for her to hold onto the painting for now, as I don’t feel the timing is right to have it publicly displayed.” she claimed. “Ah. Let’s have a stroll through the park, since we have some time. I do like this one.”

I glanced out the window but saw nothing particularly interesting. Did she want space from us to discuss something with him? I surmised as much when the two set out walking without waiting for my sisters and Jarod. Normally, I’d use spells to enhance my hearing and listen, but such a trick around Lady Pendreigh was dangerous. If she felt insulted, I could die. I dissuaded the others from trying to approach with idle conversation. As I spent more time around Jarod, I couldn’t deny his intellect. How was he chosen to be the apprentice of Death? Perhaps there was even more to him than I had guessed.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Did mother ever finish that painting for you, Alma?” asked James.

I was certain James didn’t realize how much he distressed me at times, but did he have to bring up that bloody painting right now? Every time I thought of that visit I paid to his parents, his anger at me came fresh to my mind.

“Yes. Her talent is quite extraordinary. I was very impressed by her work.” I assured him.

“Oh, so you’ve already picked it up? Mother never mentioned that you stopped by again.” he commented.

I released his arm and turned from him. I couldn’t look at him right now. “No, I haven’t.” I admitted. Then I quickly explained “I made arrangements for her to hold onto the painting for now, as I don’t feel the timing is right to have it publicly displayed.”

I could feel Duncan watching us, studying. I knew everything said around him would surely be relayed to his mother. Must James prod sore points right now? The Williams-Wynn Memorial Park came into view, so I gave into a whim and said, “Ah. Let’s have a stroll through the park, since we have some time. I do like this one.”

The limo pulled over, and I quietly thanked Mila for not questioning me. James stepped out and offered me his hand after the door opened for him. I stared up at him and found myself wondering again how a human developed such a perfect face. He was unusually attractive.

After briefly enjoying the view, James asked “What is your home in England like?”

I stared up at him, trying to discern how he came around to ask such a thing. Still uncertain, I told him “My father owns a castle, but I wouldn’t really call it my home. I only visited the place a few dozen times in my life. I should go see father again soon.”

He nodded, looking thoughtful and took a few more steps before asking “Where did you call home then?”

“Nowhere, really.” I replied with a shrug. “Up until coming here, I spent most of my life traveling. At first, I was traveling with my mother and learning the family trade. Then I took over. Mother probably wouldn’t have approved of me staying here this long, but Adelmar, my cousin, does.”

I was thankful that my cousin wasn’t intruding at the moment. He’d surely say something highly inappropriate about my stay.

“Wait. Was Adelmar the one who sent the tiara to Aaliyah as a birthday present?” he questioned.

I nodded, saying, “I do apologize about that spell I used on you. I hadn’t meant for you to feel unwell, but that spell affected you differently than it should have. I’m guessing your magic threw things off a bit. Otherwise, I would have stayed longer.”

I did feel quite guilty over that affair. James had done nothing to deserve such treatment.

“You were the one who delivered the tiara? I suppose that makes sense, given that the tiara looks extremely valuable. Why would your cousin give something like that to a young girl?” he asked.

I stopped and stared up at him. He knew enough about her to know she was far more than a young girl, but, I supposed, he apparently didn’t know enough. I wasn’t in a position to explain either. I started walking again as I said, “I do wish I could explain. I am sorry, James, but I am privy to a great many things which I cannot share, at least not yet. Hopefully, someday. Hopefully, soon.”

Taking hold of his hand again, I gently squeezed it. There was so very much I wished I could convey. I had many secrets that I needed to keep, not all of which I’d even be able to tell after we were wed. If we ever were to wed… Would James be able to survive if I were to court him? I had plans prepared to protect him from the worst of the opposition, but the wisdom of them was questionable.

I turned our conversation to Ancient Tribes of Earth to distract myself from my other thoughts. There were many events I had considered which could help keep our guild lively. With thousands of members, we needed plans that could involve everyone in one way or another, and I didn’t feel James fully considered them enough. Too often, people were simply glad for his presence. He wasn’t accustomed to having to work to entertain.

All too soon, the count in my head ran out, and I announced that we should be off. Arriving too late wouldn’t be any more acceptable than too early, and we all had to maintain our image. The gala was perfectly acceptable, much to my ire. I would have enjoyed seeing Maxine slip in her execution. Even I could admit that she was talented, despite her unsavory nature, but being knocked down a few pegs might help her realize that the world wasn’t her toy.

Chad was quick as ever to greet me when we made our way to him. Aaliyah was there, of course, grinning in that insufferably adorable manner. In part, I wanted to hug her like some exotic pet. I also wanted to throw her as hard as I could against the wall, but she’d only come back and execute me for making a fuss in front of her father. I wasn’t remotely amused by her choice of donation for this auction. Where I was giving a priceless wedding dress that had belonged to an ancestor, she chose to donate the very gun which killed that ancestor. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if she had pulled the trigger herself after forcing someone to enchant the bullet.

After the initial exchange of pleasantries, James’ parents joined us. They didn’t seem particularly glad to see me, but I could understand why. We conversed for a time before the lights dimmed. Maxine took to the stage, greeting everyone and explaining how the auction would proceed. Then we were treated for music before getting our first viewing of the items up for auction. I made note of what I would acquire as well as what seemed to please the others, just in case. Knowing the tastes of James’ parents particularly interested me, so I might find something suitable for each of them at a later time.

Some time later as we ate, a table near us went vacant in a hurry. I had overheard their discussion, so I was the first to hear of the robbery. Given the timing, I was certain this was Maxine’s handiwork. She couldn’t simply raise money for children without committing some nefarious act. Her reputation would be ruined.