“Christmas came early for you guys. What’s to complain about?” says one of the men in the coffee room, looking over from pouring some of the dark, settling ichor into a plastic cup.

“Yeah, well, don’t tell the press, or we’ll look like idiots.”

A few sips of coffee, some chuckles, but not everyone is so joyous.

“And now we have some self-righteous vigilante to chase. Yeah, Christmas,” asserts a grumbler.

“We sure were doing a great job,” sarcastically adds another cynical, displeased person, “That warehouse operating right under our noses, and you know they weren’t just using it for human trafficking.”

Looks are exchanged, one in particular taking close note of the conversation. The most recent speaker continues into the sudden silence.

“We should be glad for the help. How can that place have been there without us knowing it?” and accusatory eyes are angled out at the impromptu gathering.

“Since when did you get a warrant to go into any place you want?”

“You can excuse it anyway you like-”

“You better watch what you’re implying,” comes the challenge, this cop getting right up to the other, despite her being a woman.

“Hey, calm it down,” orders a gruff, forceful voice, “We’re all on the same side here, and that vigilante is breaking the law, just like those people using the warehouse. It’s a good bust for us, but this goes beyond a ‘helpful’ citizen.”

“Don’t expect me to arrest this ‘helpful’ citizen,” says one, and a few laugh.

“Shut that shit up,” growls out the forceful one, “You especially don’t want the lieutenant hearing that kind of talk.”

Silence greets this, but the one who spoke about not arresting merely shrugs.

“What do you think, Alec?” one asks, up-nodding to the officer seated at a table by himself, having a snack of a pastry.

He raises his eyes, wide, noting all attention suddenly on him. Laughter results.

“Alec is busy,” says one, and the raucous increases, and Alec scowls, generating more chuckles.

“Come on, Alec, join the conversation.”

The big man shrugs, pursing out a lower lip, “Eh, I’ll take the help, but I guess if I have no other choice, I’ll have to arrest the guy, but if he’s as good as he seems, I’d rather just wait until he’s gone, right?” he says with a big grin.

And this gets more chuckles in response from most, while some scoff and others look potentially offended.

“A lot of help you are!” calls out one.

“Hey, hey, I know my civic duty. I’ll volunteer to help when I’m not busy.”

“Oh yeah, right,” come various and myriad responses of disbelief.

Alec stands, smirking, squaring his ample shoulders.

“I’m serious. If I can help, I’ll help.”

“Yeah, yeah, well go talk to Kenneth, then, if you’re serious. The lieutenant gave him that Task Squad.”

“I will,” Alec announces, mostly to teasing disbelief expressed on the part of his coworkers, but he, of course, means it.

*****

He studies the open book, looking over the finely printed text, leaned over and somewhat close as if proximity may aid in plumbing the secrets hidden within the words. His laptop is on the table, near the book, and he occasionally consults it, looking over images, quickly tapping on the keyboard to keep track of his own notes. After a time, he sits back in the chair, evincing fatigue, perhaps even frustration, in his posture.

“Do you speak Latin?” she asks, not too far away, occupied with some of her own work.

He looks over, smiling lightly, “Yes, though I don’t often seem to find myself in situations requiring it.”

She returns the grin, though it drops for a more inquisitive gaze as his own has disappeared as he looks away. “Is everything alright?” she asks.

“Oh, yes, thank you.” He returns his eyes to hers, the polite curve returning to his lips, “Just trying to unravel the mystery, but the threads are not being terribly cooperative.”

She nods, returning to her own chores, so he gets back to his work after taking a sip of the strong coffee she has so generously made available to him during his visits of the past few days.

“May I confess something to you?” her voice then breaks the shortly resuming silence.

He looks up, naught but open sincerity with a coloring touch of guarded stupefaction on his face, “Of course.”

She takes a few tentative steps closer, looking also quite serious. “Your being here to examine the book is really quite curious, especially coming back and spending so much time with it, so I decided to do a little investigating myself.”

He merely nods to this, the gesture slow, deliberate-seeming.

“Did you know this book is mentioned in Nicholas Rémy’s Daemonolatreiae libri tres?”

He blinks, just studying her. She shirks the barest bit under the scrutiny, her head moving a few degrees to the right and down, and her hands, yet held together in that same arrangement they seem so wont to show, display the subtle movement of fingers.

“Are you familiar with it?” she asks in the encroaching quiet.

“I am,” he nods once, though he is not inclined to tell her why.

“Ah, then I’ve not told you anything you do not already know. I’m sorry for interrupting.”

“No, no,” he says, surprising himself with the tone of urgency, sitting up further in the chair, bringing himself more attentive to her place in the room. “That is not an easy clue to come by.”

“Oh, well,” she exhales a single, audible breath into a short smile, “I do have … some experience with this sort of thing.”

He perks his eyebrows. “A curator is not necessarily a book detective,” he says with a warm grin, “I’d not turn away assistance, if you know of anything else regarding this.”

“I don’t really know much more than the usual information and listings, but it is intriguing that the book is mentioned in one of the most famous treatises on capital witch trials, doesn’t it?”

“Well, I suppose it depends on how one views witchcraft and witches,” he replies, pushing away from the table, opening more toward her, inviting her to also sit with a very subtle gesture of his head toward the nearby chair, and she sets herself in, facing him.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I think you’d find that most people do not believe in witchcraft in a literal, supernatural sense, which means that the persecution these people suffered was largely socio-political and religious. If that is the case, then it may not be odd at all to find any number of texts in the possession of these people that purports to convey knowledge prohibited by the Church.”

She blinks, brow furrowing, “This book was so restricted?” she asks, her blue eyes looking darker as they cast quickly to the folio then back up to him.

“It did not figure as prominently on any list of banned books, but the information contained in some parts was not looked upon kindly by the Church.”

She nods, glancing back down at the text as though ready to spot some heresy on the open page, then again looking back at him.

“I’m not that familiar with its contents.”

“I don’t expect it’s on too many peoples’ lists of recommended books, either. It is really quite unknown, and you are aware of its rarity,” he offers, smiling gently.

She nods, glancing again from the open book then to him, letting a very light smile trace her lips.

“What is it about?”

He looks at her, that barest of a curl on the edges of his mouth, just gazing. She meets his eyes openly, not shirking in the exchange. He notes that she returns the subtly hinting smile, and then she blinks, adjusting a stray lock of her vibrant hair which has fallen over the left side of her face.

“May I tell you tonight over dinner?” he invites.

Her smile grows in size and warmth, though still coquettish, and only a brief moment passes before she answers, “Yes, that would be nice.”

*****

The two men walk into the dingy bar, the afternoon sun pouring in through the door to announce their arrival. A few muted groans and some not so reduced scowls greet the arrival of the contrasting pair. The various people in here, the vast majority of which are male, engage in what one may expect in this sort of establishment – drinking, talking, playing billiards, darts.

The place is mainly composed of a treated wood, disguised as darker and higher quality by the glossy finish which is smudged, worn, and chipped, giving hints to the brittle skeleton beneath. The general lack of décor also indicates the no-nonsense and very masculine nature of the business. The only places that deviate from the dark, earthy palette of chamber and customers being the rolling balls on the green felt and the eye-catching labels of bottles behind the bar.

The two men are greeted with a nod from the bartender, the stubbled head atop the thick neck offering a single dip of some measure of respect.

“What can I get you?” he offers, setting aside an opened bottle of beer and placing both hands atop the bar, palms pressing in the edge near him.

“Vodka,” says the larger, paler man.

The barkeep nods once more, curt, then his eyes settle on the other.

“Nothing,” the leaner, darker man says, dismissively, then turns to look about the place.

A short glance is spared back to the other, a non-verbal commentary compressed into that one look, then the man turns, fetching a tumbler, into which he pours a generous amount of Russian vodka. The customer raises it, taking in a decent swallow, then nods approvingly. The bartender goes back to whatever occupies his time when not needed, and the drinking man turns to casually look out over the occupants of the bar. He raises the glass to have another sip, eyes shifting to his partner, then in the direction the other man observes. He takes that drink, then follows his comrade as he walks away.

The man stops at a distant table, one somewhat obscured by the varying levels of darkness in the dimly-lit place. The three men sitting there, drinking, look up, none too pleased with the potential interruption.

“We just got out, Quain. What do you want?” one of them asks, his voice carrying a deep undertone, like muddy water gurgling over stubborn rocks.

“You didn’t just get out,” the man replies, looking the three over, no sign of being intimidated at all showing on him.

The other of the duo steps over, pulling out the unoccupied fourth chair with a loud scrape and sitting his bulk in it. He gives a good look to the three, bringing up his drink for another sip, not leaving much after this most recent taste.

“We need to talk to you guys before too much time passes and you rot your memories with drink or drugs,” he unceremoniously declares.

The three look at him, one baring of a somewhat vacant, rheumy gaze, the other two evincing more disgust, even challenge.

“What do you want?” the original speaker demands.

“Haven’t you heard?” Quain asks. “Alec and I are assisting the Task Force that’s hunting that vigilante.”

“Yes,” Alec says, “The one that handed you your asses,” and he emits a low chuckle, then downs the remnants of his vodka.

“And before you get all bent out of shape,” Quain says, leaning onto the table, arms outstretched within his black leather coat, palms on the wood, “Gnegon sent us.”

The man lights up a cigarette, the paper giving forth a sickly, yellowed look. He squints his eyes at both, exhaling a thick plume after a lengthy inhale.

“You leashed dogs do good tricks,” he observes.

“What the fuck did you say?” Alec sits up in his chair, brow furrowing, jaw flexing from clenched teeth as he brings up his right arm, elbow bent, chunky fingers curled into a tight fist.

Quain looks right, placing a hand on his partner’s shoulder, encouraging him to calm down. He holds it there for a moment, his mocha skin a contrast to the dingy gray of Alec’s blazer, until the large man settles back down. He then turns to the smoker, who wears a self-satisfied smirk, and Quain lashes out with sudden speed, striking the guy in the mouth, crushing the cigarette in the process.

He looks at the other two, only one of whom reacts in any real manner, the rheumy-eyed one looking barely startled for a passing moment. He does not bother with gauging the responses of anyone else in the bar, just sets his eyes back on the smoker, who now holds his bleeding lip with one hand.

“We all have our leashes. You’re right,” he says, calmly, nodding, contemplatively, “My collar has a badge on it, too. You want to go back into a cell?”

The man just peers at him, eyes slit, anger evident.

“Hey, asshole,” Alec chimes in, a huge smirk now on his lips, “My partner asked you a question.”

The man just shakes his head.

“Good,” Quain assesses. “Now, we’re going to ask you some more questions. We know you didn’t give much to the officers who interrogated you when you were arrested.”

“Nothing at all, really,” Alec expands, speaking in an aside manner, and Quain nods.

“But this is different, so you need to answer us. Okay?”

The gangster who has lately stopped smoking just looks at Quain, still seeming incapable of doing much more than squinting, head tilted to the right, almost as though he gains more sight from his left eye.

“Okay?” Quain tries again, leaning toward the man, perking his eyebrows.

“Okay,” the man grumbles.

“Great,” Quain grins, and he slides a chair over from a nearby table, settling into it, “Let’s get started.”

*****

They meet at Yami at eight in the evening, perhaps late for some, but her work schedule had dictated the time of their rendezvous. Skothiam had offered, of course, to pick her up, but she had insisted on meeting at the eatery. He understands the caution.

He had arrived earlier, wanting to be there first and have a moment to evaluate the restaurant. The warm illumination and tones please him, the décor a pristine, modern take on traditional Asian styles. The place is somewhat busy, but not overly so, and he manages to procure a corner table in a more romantic section, the walls a mahogany hue, the carpet a more obvious red dispersed with black patterns.

Lilja arrives not long after, and he sees her across the way, her striking hair drawing the eye. He notices that she has changed since work, opting for a somewhat darker arrangement of clothing with her button-down blouse, skirt at mid-thigh, and black pumps. It all even further accentuates the contrast of her vivid red locks tumbling down past her shoulders. He watches as she speaks to the hostess, then looks about. Her sparkling eyes finally find him, and he gives a signaling wave with the gentle raise of his right hand, standing as she walks over to the table, a light smile on her lips.

She notices that he also has opted for something different for this evening out, indeed continuing the similarity in having gone for tones of a darker hue, the thin, barely perceptible, vertical stripes of his shirt serving as the only hindrance to a uniform blackness. The sleeves are French style, folded back and secured with cuff links of what appears silver and black onyx. He does not sport a jacket, though, and the shirt is open at the collar.

“Please,” he says, gesturing to the other chair, reaching the short distance and aiding in pulling it out.

“Thank you,” she replies, slipping into it, accepting his assistance at settling in.

He gazes upon her for a moment, long enough to take in the sight but not so much a duration as to cause awkwardness. Her lips are very well formed, lush, but not overly so, the top shaped delicately, demure, the bottom fuller. A subtle splash of freckling accents both sides of her face from below each temple to down over her cheeks, the bones beneath giving a high, smooth appearance to them. Her nose is subtly aquiline, the tip soft. Her chin provides a graceful curve, showing some prominence, the width a bit more than that of her bottom lip.

Her pale skin is smooth, soft-looking, alabaster, and her almond eyes look fully upon him, seeming to sparkle, giving forth shades of such a frosty blue as to appear white, darkening toward the edges of the iris, some parts even gray. Her lashes are long, thick, brought forth even more by the touch of her make-up.

“You look very nice,” he comments, after he has reseated himself, giving her a pleasant smile.

“Thank you,” she smiles in return, “So do you.”

He grins further at this, dipping his head once, “Thank you.”

He cannot quite figure her out, though that would be expected at this juncture, but she holds an interesting mix of bold and bashful. She notes the strength in his forwardness, even as much as it is carried in culture and gentility, though one could presume a touch of impatience in such things.

A moment of silence passes. He looks upon her, noting that she casts her eyes about. She eventually looks back, noting his observation, and the barest touch of a flush touches her cheeks.

“Are you familiar with this place?” he asks.

“No,” she shakes her head very lightly, “Are you?”

He emits a short, soft chuckle, “No. I enjoy Japanese food, but I am not that familiar with the city, so I just looked up a place that might be suitable. I do hope you like it.”

“Is it your favorite?” she asks, moving in the chair, making herself more comfortable.

“Japanese food?” he replies, a smile on his lips beneath the blink of his eyes, a touch befuddled by the question.

She nods, then raises her chin at the end of the motion, peering into his eyes, eager for the answer.

“Well, I had not much thought on it,” he says, still smiling, indecisive as well as perhaps wilting the barest bit under her scrutiny. “Hmmm, well, I suppose it is, though I much prefer sushi over the other options.”

She nods slowly, absorbing this information as carefully as she might do the same in her profession. Her attention shifting as she does, looking more right, outward, as though to again casually study her surroundings. He watches this, even glancing briefly in the direction of her gaze.

Their waiter arrives, but he is quickly dismissed after they place a drink order.

“And yours?” he says, looking at her.

She returns her focus to him, blinking, her face looking open, fresh, somewhat unlike the more generally studied, polite, if not even subtly guarded expression to which he has grown used.

“My …?” she leads.

“-Favorite food,” he elaborates, still showing that pleasant smile, though the right side tries to edge up further.

“Oh,” she nods, looking down, her lips coming together.

He notices a movement at the lower edges of her jaw as she ponders. A few minutes pass. Their drinks are delivered amidst quietly murmured thanks, and then she finally speaks.

“I’m not really sure what is my favorite food. It changes. I like many foods, if they are prepared well. I like a good steak, I really enjoy well-made pasta, I like smoked and raw salmon. I like sushi. I like reindeer. I like soups. I like good food, and I really can’t name one absolute favorite. I’m also open to try different foods.”

His grin has grown throughout her response, and when she stops, she blinks at him, her head tilting to the left. He notices as her own smile changes, lips parting, then she looks down as her cheeks become more prominent from the increasing grin.

“And I thought we had to pick one,” he comments, and they share a brief chuckle.

“Sorry,” she finally says, shoulders coming up a bit as her eyes shift to him, then away.

“It’s fine. Really.”

They continue the exchange of light-seeming, though subtly insightful banter throughout the meal, taking their time. He has ordered a bottle of Rikyubai sake, served chilled, which they finish off over the course of the evening. Once they have completed the meal, she asks the waiter to bring them a pot of sencha green tea.

It takes but a moment to arrive, but the short time has been spent in quiet, the two looking at each other, occasional glances given to their surroundings, but the main focus still shared betwixt the pair. The ceramic pot is set down on the table, somewhat ornate, but not overly so, accompanied by two matching drinking bowls. She politely dismisses the waiter then raises the small lid of the pot to peer inside, leaning over for an inhale through her nose. He watches her closely, baring of a respectful amusement, and she nods to him, agreeable to what she has discerned.

She then pours a decent amount of the steaming, green liquid into a cup, and he is surprised when she turns the vessel, then dips her head to him and offers him the drink. He blinks in confusion but manages to return the gesture, taking the bowl.

“Thank you.”

She smiles at him, pleasantly, then after it is obvious he is waiting, she bids of him, “Drink.”

“Aren’t you going to join me?”

“Just drink,” she invites again.

He then raises the cup, sipping from it under her keenly watchful eye.

“Is it good?”

“Oh, yes,” he says.

She smiles at this then holds out her hands, a light motion of the first two fingers of her right hand indicating to him that she wants the bowl. He decides not to question and gives it back to her. She smiles again, giving another dip of her head, which he returns, and then she turns the object, partaking of its contents.

“Mmmm, yes,” she says whilst nodding, swallowing, “It is very good.”

She then pours some tea into the other bowl, handing this one to him. He looks at her with some confusion but takes this, sipping of it as she continues with the other. A moment passes as they quietly enjoy the beverage.

“Was that a sort of tea ceremony?” he finally asks.

She offers him a gentle smile, “Not quite. They do have a nice enough flower arrangement there,” she points behind him, and he turns to see that indeed there is an unobtrusive arrangement of white flowers in a tall, narrow vase, standing atop a pedestal there in the corner, back-lit, “But many of the crucial elements are missing, and you really ought to prepare the tea yourself for the ceremony. I just wanted to do something similar.”

“Thank you,” he smiles, and she returns it. “That has made it very special,” he adds, and this causes a very light flush to take her pale flesh, but she does not look away.

*****

“The research is coming along well,” he says, having taken the time to change into a pair of black, silk pajamas and pour a small measure of brandy.

“I hope so,” speaks the person on the monitor.

He glances over from his casual wanderings in the room, noting the image of his mother. She had left him a message, wanting to know how things were going, asking him to call tonight, no matter the hour. He knows she is something of a night owl, but he also knows that regardless of how old they get, she will always be the worrying mother.

She also does not look her age, which is just shy of seventy. Her full, straight hair is out, the silver coloring a luster, where it had once been a rich sable. She also appears to have already made herself ready for bed, perhaps reading or some such until he had called.

He prepares to speak again, but she presses on.

“You’ve been at it for a full week now. Have you learned anything?”

“Yes,” he says, sipping from the brandy, letting the warmth have its way with him, “But you know as well as I do that the Three Books comprise a mystery of their own. They do not easily reveal the secret. It is another of the reasons we do not fully understand them. Were they written as a safeguard or as a weapon of annihilation?”

She sighs, and he pauses in his sudden drift into musing, his eyes blinking back to her crisp image. He knows his own is being relayed to her, the small, state-of-the-art camera even set to track his movement.

“You and your father are much better at this than I am,” she remarks, and he nods. “Though I did have an interesting talk with Nicole.”

“Oh?” he leads, eyebrows perking, and he slips into the fine, cushioned leather chair.

“You were out late tonight,” she observes, “And you sound a bit anxious. Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything is fine,” he says, giving a very slight curl to his lips.

“Anything on Denman?” she shifts gears again, mentioning the Malkuth who had recently come on staff at the university.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. I am sparing some surveillance to that end, but I’d think that less attention from us would be the better method.”

“Yes, well, if we’re to assume he does not know you are there. He’s very subtle and tricky.”

“Yes,” he nods slowly, deeply, “I know,” exhaling at length through his nose, as he looks away, pondering. “I might risk more general observation.”

“Has he been to see the Book?” she asks. “If he is there, they obviously suspect, and the first place he’d look would be the library’s collection.”

“That is quite an assumption,” he replies, eyes back to hers, and he notes the narrowing. “Not of which I am aware,” he tries to placate by answering her question, “I have been spending a good portion of the days there, and he has not stopped by when I’ve been there. I can’t exactly ask the librarian if he has been by. That would arouse too much suspicion.”

“We just need to get that book out of the collection.”

“I am working on that, but it seems the university is not in any mood to part with it. They have money, so offering an endowment may be less attractive than the prestige of having the book itself.”

“Then offer them more.”

He exhales, pausing in his response to sip of his brandy, “The negotiations are underway. It has only been a week. I cannot appear too eager. I am sure the Malkuths would be watching for something of that sort, just as are we.”

“If we’re to assume they know the book is in the collection at all,” she hurls a barb at him, a self-satisfied smirk to her lips.

He grins, a forced exhalation of breath though his nostrils, “Yes, Mother.”

They both share a short chuckle at that.

“Oh, I spoke with Charleston,” she brings up, and he raises his chin, eyes widening to a more open, neutral gaze. “He’s found a few decent choices. He’ll need your input, of course, but I helped to eliminate some more obvious options.”

“Thank you,” he gives a warm smile, “I’ll contact him tomorrow.”

She nods, also smiling, “Nicole may also call you tomorrow. She has some ideas on how to assess and protect the situation.”

“Alright,” he acquiesces, for there is little reason to object, and he senses it would result in an argument.

His sister has quite different methods than his own, her attunement to certain ways far out-stripping anything in recent history. It sometimes worries him, to be honest, as though her mind had evolved beyond typical human expectation. She can be very useful with particular things, but he worries she’d compromise the subtlety required here. She is certainly not that reckless, but the very uniqueness of her presence and methods may be a beacon.

“I’ll let you go, then,” she offers another warm smile, “Good night, Skot. I love you.”

“Good night, Mom. I love you, too,” and the call is ended.

He sits for a moment, in the silence, computer powered down, as he ponders his evening’s activities – going out on the date, seeming to be pushing toward establishing something romantic with Lilja. He is taken by it and quite obviously by her. He had not expected something like this at all, but he is also not inclined to ignore such attraction. He knows she is also experiencing it.

He had let the thought pass his mind of telling his mother, but he would not have anticipated the most positive of responses. He has been single for many years now, and though he knows she’d like him to find someone, she worries of his being hurt as he was before. She’d also likely be displeased with the age disparity between himself and the young curator-librarian, warning him that a young lady would be more apt to want children. He smirks to himself at that thought, as if she’d not want more grandchildren.

It is always a precarious thing when bringing someone new into the family, though such thoughts regarding that are obviously premature. He still ponders them, though, for he knows this is not some casual attempt at dating and pleasurable distraction while he is at work here. There is something about her which pulls at him deeply, a particular quality that he finds nigh undeniable. He shall continue.

©2016 Scott Carruba

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