Stranger Danger

Mrs Tuesday stuck her head into the back room.  She followed the sounds across the room and prowled towards the steps down to the store rooms.  She glanced around, but there was no-one else in the back.  She picked up the iron nail puller Ian had hung on the door and started down the stairs, careful to make no sound.  There was a battle going on.  As she slowly walked down the steps she could hear the tell-tale snarls and yelps of werewolf combat.  Mrs Tuesday took a breath and started walking down the steps with her usual firm tread.  Those lads needed to sort themselves out.  The shop would be open in ten minutes and the last thing they needed was to be reported for dog fighting again.  She propped the nail puller against the door frame at the bottom, listened for a moment, then flung the door open, grabbed two handfuls of growling, snapping fur and threw the two werewolves at the opposite wall.  Then she went pale.

The two werewolves picked themselves up, flowing into human shapes.  Ian ran over to Mrs Tuesday. “You shouldn’t have done that.  You’ve hurt your back.”

Mrs Tuesday winced.  “It’s gone again.  It will be fine in a minute.”

Callum, who had been staying out of the whole thing, ran to the foot of the steps. “Fiona, come quickly.  Mrs Tuesday’s hurt.”

Fiona raced down the steps and stopped dead.  She was almost used to seeing Callum and Ian naked as they didn’t always remember to get their clothes back on straight away, but she was not expecting to see a skinny young woman, equally naked, glowering at her from across the room.  She took a breath and ran over to Mrs Tuesday. “What happened?”

Mrs Tuesday gritted her teeth.  “I found this young lady fighting with Ian.  I think I may have wrenched my back again.”

Fiona pulled over a battered kitchen chair.  “Callum, please can you go and make Mrs Tuesday some mullein tea.  Then I’ll help you upstairs and you can have a lie down.”

“I don’t need a lie down,” Mrs Tuesday lied.  “I’ll be fine if I’m just supervising. And that poor lass needs two rounds of bacon sandwiches.  Ian, when you’ve got some clothes on you can explain what was going on and then you can get some of my special soup out of the freezer.” She looked over at the girl. “And you can get your clothes on as well.”

Steve ran into the room and carefully turned his face towards Fiona.  “Is everything alright?”

“I was just explaining a few things to Jasmine.” Ian said, pulling his t-shirt over his head and bending over Mrs Tuesday.  “Once you’ve had some mullein tea then I can help you upstairs.”

Steve risked a quick look at Jasmine.  She was tall and over-thin, with untrimmed blonde hair that she was tying in a ponytail.  The t-shirt and jeans that she had pulled on were dirty, but she was holding herself with fierce pride.  “You’re Jasmine Liddle, aren’t you?”

Jasmine nodded.  “I just came to explain that I am not marrying Ian Tait.”

“Damn right you’re not.” Ian muttered.

“You should be lucky to have a chance.” Jasmine snapped.

“I don’t want a chance.  I’m not interested.” Ian snarled.

“And neither am I.” Jasmine grabbed her jacket.  “Just so we’re clear.”

“We are very clear.” Ian said. “Besides, I’m not into kids.”

“I’m twenty! And I don’t care what you’re into.” Jasmine grabbed her bag.  Mrs Tuesday cried out and, ignoring Steve’s suspicious look, caught hold of Ian’s arm.

“Look what you’ve done.” Ian looked over Mrs Tuesday.  “She’s not as young as she was.  She may have really hurt herself.”

“I can still throw a couple of werewolves at a wall, and as soon as my back’s better, I’ll show you how frail I am.” Mrs Tuesday said, wincing and ignoring Steve’s look of outright disbelief.  “But it’s no good.  I don’t think I’ll be able to move for a few days and what are we going to do?  The shop is about to open and I can’t move.”

Freydis stuck her head in the door, took a look around and sighed.  “Werewolves!” She disappeared back upstairs.

“And we’ve got that coffee evening tonight.” Mrs Tuesday said, rubbing her back. “I suppose I can help out in the back.”

Ian glared at Jasmine.  “This is your fault.”

“It’s not my fault that I don’t want to marry you.  Who would?”

Callum flinched but Ian just glared.  “As long as it’s not you.”

“I’ll ring Jeanette.” Fiona said.

“We can’t ask her to work full days at the moment.” Ian said.  “She’s got too much to do on the small holding.  We’re lucky that she’s coming in for the evening.”

“Dave can’t help out, not with his shoulder.” Mrs Tuesday added.  “And Adele’s family are mostly in Cornwall with that big wedding.”

“What do you suggest.” Steve said, knowing that Mrs Tuesday had already decided what would happen.

“Ian, be a good lad and ask Kieran Latimer to come and have a word with me.  Ask nicely, because he’s doing me a favour.” Mrs Tuesday took a sip of the mullein tea.  “Fiona, will you be kind and lend Jasmine a few bits of yours to wear.  My stuff won’t fit her, and she’ll need something clean to wear after she’s had a shower.”

“What?” Jasmine said.  Fiona sympathised.

“It seems only fair.” Mrs Tuesday took another sip of the tea and started relaxing.  “I’m out of commission because I broke up your fight.  It seems only right that you help out until I’m feeling a little better.”

“You can’t do that!” Ian barked.  “She’s a stray.” Mrs Tuesday just looked at him.  Ian started pacing. “You can’t have too many strays together.  It’s not safe.”  Mrs Tuesday didn’t look away.  “What if she goes rogue?  What if we all go rogue?”

“Just phone Kieran Latimer for me.  I’ll have a word.” Mrs Tuesday said.  “Callum, be a good lad and help me upstairs.  I can’t have Kieran thinking I’m too frail to move.  Jasmine, Fiona will show you where you can get a shower upstairs.”

Fiona led Jasmine upstairs.  “I’m not sure what’s going on,” she said, “But you can use this room for now.” Fiona opened the door.  “If you wait a second I’ll get some soap and towels.”

“Are you sure about this?” Jasmine said, looking at a closed door. “Who’s in there?”

“That’s Dave, the Tarot reader.  He can’t be disturbed.” Fiona waited for Jasmine to go into the room.

Jasmine continued to look up and down the corridor.  “Who are in these rooms?” she asked.

“No-one at the moment, apart from Dave.” Fiona said.  “The office is at the top of the stairs, but I’m here and Steve is downstairs and we’re the only ones that usually go in there.  Then there’s the Tarot room with Dave and his current client, then it’s Mrs Tuesday, Ian, the kitchen and Callum.  This room is empty and so are the other ones around the corner.” Fiona stepped into the room.  She had worked hard to get them back to standard after the fire and the room was once again bright and fresh, with pale blue walls and soft blue bedding folded neatly on the bed.  “You should be able to find everything.”

Jasmine hesitated, then walked past Fiona to check out of the window.  Kadogan was having an energetic discussion with a brownie about a planter and Adele was hurrying to the shop at the last minute while talking animatedly on her phone.  The roadworks had mostly moved up the road.  Jasmine looked quickly inside the wardrobes and then checked out the small ensuite.  “Okay.” She dropped her bag on the floor.

“If you hang on a second, I’ll bring in some towels and stuff.” Fiona said.  “Then I can nip out and pick up some things.” She looked at Jasmine, who was at least four inches taller than her.  “I’ll pick up a skirt and top.  I don’t think my trousers will do you.”

“Thanks.” Jasmine looked awkward.  “I mean, thanks for everything.  Not driving me out and that.  I appreciate it.”

“It’s not a problem.” Fiona said, hoping that it wasn’t.  “I’ll be back in about half an hour, so take your time.  I’m sure it will all be fine.”

Kieran was not so sure.  “I’m the head of the local pack.  I have authority here.  You can’t just take in a troublemaker like Jasmine.  I’ve heard all about her.”

“She’s a young girl who needs a helping hand.” Mrs Tuesday said firmly.  “Look how Ian and Callum have turned out.  They aren’t part of your pack, but they’re still a credit to you.”

“That’s different.” Kieran said.  “And yes, they are a credit to us.  That doesn’t mean I need to get a reputation for taking in strays.”

“It didn’t look like she was doing drugs or booze.” Mrs Tuesday said.  “That’s the difference.  Most strays have a lot more than fleas to deal with.  Jasmine has issues, I can see that, but she’s also just a skinny kid and needs a hand.”

Kieran paced, throwing angry glances at Mrs Tuesday.  Ian and Callum sat passively, keeping their heads down.  Kieran stopped and faced Mrs Tuesday.  “Listen, I know that Ian and Callum have turned out alright, and all credit to them.  They’ve kept their fur flat and their tails up and I can’t say a bad word about it.  Ian’s taken young Callum in hand and after what happened last year, they’ve earned their chances.  But taking on a woman, that’s different.  You get all sorts of dogs sniffing around and it isn’t nice.  It isn’t respectable.  I mean, if she was going to pair up with Ian, that would be one thing, but she isn’t.”

Mrs Tuesday just looked at him, sipping her tea.  Kieran started pacing again.

“What will people think?  There’s always talk when people take in a vulnerable bitch.  She’s answering to no-one, she’s barely got the fur on her back – and what about Fiona?  She’s got enough on her plate organising the fire sale and anniversary party without having a stray under foot.”

Mrs Tuesday winced slightly as she shifted in her chair but continued to say nothing.

“What about all the youngsters that help out in the shop?  I know we’re busy on the patrols but when it hits peak tourist season in the summer, you’ll want them to come over and what if they’re sniffing around her then?  We have standards, you know.” Kieran looked at the rest of the group around him.  “It’s important to the pack.”

Freydis wandered in. “The coach party is due in an hour and Adele has been busy on the till.  Besides, I haven’t had a chance to watch the drama.  Can it wait?”

“Jasmine will stay at the White Hart.” Mrs Tuesday said firmly.  “Callum can stay with Adele, Ian can stay at Jeanette’s as he’s there most of the time anyway what with his gardening and his Bible Study with Luke.  I’ll be here with Jasmine and I’m sure Kadogan won’t mind staying around.  Jasmine is never alone with Jeanette.” She gave Kieran a glare.  “You know what’s happened and so do I.  Well, she can have a chance here, it’s up to her whether she takes it.  Ian can get her into some sort of shape.  It won’t hurt your cubs to know that there are consequences to actions.  Besides, they’ve all hunted strays.  I know what happened last month in Acomb.  That was absolutely the right thing.  This is different.”

“I’m not sure.” Kieran said.

“Neither am I.” Steve said.  “Mrs Tuesday, I know you mean well, but it’s a big risk.”

“She’ll be a great help at the White Hart, especially when she gets some meat on her bones.  You saw what she was like.”

“I definitely didn’t.” Steve said.  “I didn’t look at all, thank you.”

“I don’t mind staying at the White Hart for a while.” Freydis said.  “By the way, what do people think about me changing my name to Arabica?”

“Sounds like a language to me.” Kadogan said.  “Suzuki is also coming to stay.  She would like to spend some time exploring the city.”

Steve opened his mouth to talk about rents and wages and practicalities.  Then he closed it again.  “Just no fighting in public, okay?  And try not to get anyone killed.  I’ve got to go, I’m due at Lord Ragnar’s in twenty minutes.”

Steve was not in a good mood when he got into their conference centre.  Maps were hung around the elfen glade that Lord Ragnar had set up, most of them covered with pins and sticky notes.  Darren was sitting on a fallen tree to once side, trying not to scratch a bandaged arm.  Dean was standing in the shadows of a large oak.  ‘That was another explosion waiting to happen,’ Steve thought as he took off his jacket and hung it over a bush.  The day just gets better.  Miss Patience was also there, sitting on a stump and knitting something small and blue.  “I’m sorry I’m late.” Steve said.  “How are things going?”

Lord Ragnar frowned.  “It is unlike you to be delayed, even on perilous mercantile journeys.  I trust that the coffee evening will still be going ahead.”

“The coffee evening should be fine.” Steve said.  “Mike can’t join us.  He’s spending some time with his wife today.”

“We heard.” Miss Patience said, waving her knitting.  “I thought I’d start a little jacket.  They are always useful.”

“And Dave’s shoulder is still really bad.  He’s taking the time to catch up with some of his clients.  Sir Ewan and Luke are having a walk around in daylight to see if they can spot any more disturbed burial sites.  Tim hasn’t heard much apart from some muggings that may or may not be related.  So with Mike finding out that his wife’s pregnant, we don’t have a paladin or Templar here.”

“You have me.” Darren said.  “I’m still in the field.”

“Last night was unusually active.” Dean said quietly from the shadows.  “But very targeted.  It was as if they were attacking those who were trying to bless the old burials.”

“There was definitely evidence of some sort of leadership,” Miss Patience said, “But I don’t think the leaders we saw were the actual leader, if you see what I mean.  They were lieutenants.  Something is pulling the strings, but whatever it is, they are staying out of sight for now.”

“How is the magical science working?” Lord Ragnar asked.

Darren shrugged. “The good news is that it’s definitely within the city.  The bad news is that they are using the magic that’s being bounced back.  It’…” Darren searched for the right word.  “It’s blurry.  Whoever it is, they may be underground.”

“I was here before the legions.” Lord Ragnar looked thoughtfully at the main map, hanging from a beech.   “I was here before the traders from Star Carr brought their skins and furs to trade for the Amber when you could walk to the East and find it there, before the sea came in.  I still remember much.  But even I cannot remember all the dim places, where the rivers meet.  There have always been strong currents of power here.  There is a reason there are so many hauntings in York.  I could not guess where to start looking without direction.” There was a tense pause before Lord Ragnar visibly brightened.  “And there is a coffee evening this evening.”

“About the coffee evening.” Steve didn’t know where to start.  “You may have heard about Jasmine Liddle?  Mrs Tuesday has persuaded Kieran Latimer to let her stay at the White Hart.  To be honest, if she can behave herself it will be a blessing because Mrs Tuesday hurt her back again.”

“You’re building quite a collection of strays.” Miss Patience said, barely looking up from her knitting.  “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Will Fiona be safe?” Dean asked.

Steve got a good look at him for the first time.  Dean’s face was gaunt, the skin stretched tautly over his cheek bones and his eyes were sunken.  His jacket was hanging off him.  “I’ll be keeping an eye out for Fiona.”

Miss Patience caught Steve’s shocked expression.  “Dean is not feeding properly.  Perhaps I could send him down to Mrs Tuesday.  She seems to be able to sort youngsters out.”

“I’m fine.” Dean said.  “I think I’m just settling in to my new frame.”

“How does Freydis feel about this.” Lord Ragnar changed the subject.

“She seems fine.  She said she would stay at the White Hart for a while, just to make sure.  Callum and Ian will be staying elsewhere.”

“I’m sure that Kieran Latimer insisted on that.” Lord Ragnar looked amused.  “All the werewolves have views on such matters and Kieran is particularly strict.”

“And Freydis is thinking of changing her name so she may announce it at the coffee evening.  She was talking about calling herself Arabica earlier.” Steve moved over to the map.  “I think I should try dowsing for burial sites.”  He turned around to Lord Ragnar.  “What do you think?”

Lord Ragnar was standing there, frozen, the colour draining from his face.  He seemed to fold at the knees to land on the soft woodland floor.  “I’ve lost her.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said.  “Who have you lost?”

“Freydis chose her name for me, to fit my life.  I was wearing a Viking glamour and took a Viking name and she chose one with me.  She used to use Bridget.  She was so beautiful as Bridget, with glowing red hair and sparkling eyes.” Lord Ragnar put his head in his hands.  “I’ve lost her.  She’s changing her name from something that meant she was mine to something else.”

“You divorced her.” Darren said, rubbing at his arm.  “If there’s going to be magic, I’d rather go back to the Citadel and pray for guidance.”

“I only divorced her because I thought she didn’t love me, but she did.” Lord Ragnar said.  “But now I fear I have driven her away.”

“Divorces usually mean the end of the relationship.” Darren said, standing up.  “Let me know what you find, Steve, please.  Between us we may be able to work out a good pattern.”

“I can’t believe I drove her away.” Lord Ragnar had dropped his hands and was staring blankly.  “If she changes her name, I shall lose all hope.”

Darren shook his head.  “You divorced her.  I’m pretty certain that means you’ve lost her.” Steve caught hold of his arm, but Lord Ragnar had already sunk his head back in his hands.

“I had such high hopes when we had that argument before Fiona was rescued.” Lord Ragnar said. “And she was the elfen I fell in love with when we dealt with those nixies together at Christmas.”

“That was a demonstration of power.” Miss Patience agreed.  “I don’t think any of the river folk will forget it in a hurry.”

“We are supposed to be going out to dinner in three days’ time.” Lord Ragnar leapt suddenly to his feet.  “I cannot stay here, my heart is breaking.  If Freydis changes her name, all will be lost.” He stormed out.

“Well, that was helpful.” Darren said.

He prowled around the Shambles, taking his time.  The paladin’s people were elsewhere so tonight was a good night for hunting.  He wasn’t rushing, cruising almost imperceptibly through the bars and around crowded streets.  Goodramgate was too busy, and it was the wrong type of crowd in King’s Square, but he found what he was looking for towards the station.

It looked like an office party.  A large gaggle of women with a few uncomfortable looking men had spilled outside a bar.  He stayed in the shadows and watched.  A couple of older women had had too much to drink and were flirting with what looked like office juniors.  A younger redhead had had far too much to drink and was crying on the shoulder of a friend.  To one side was a woman, around her mid twenties, not too slim with shining chestnut hair and a stressed expression.  She was clutching a half drunk glass of cheap white as if it was a shield.  She was definitely a possibility.  He smiled politely at the group as he went in and bought himself a scotch before coming out to catch the air.  There were a few knots of people around so he drifted apparently aimlessly before standing not too close to the young woman.  “It’s quite warm tonight.”

She nodded, almost relieved to have someone sober to talk to.  “It’s not too bad at all.” She looked along the front of the bar.  A couple of the older women were pulling bottles of spirits out of their bags and the redhead was shouting that she was going to go and find ‘him’ and give him a piece of her mine.  “It’s a bit noisy, though.”

He was still surprised at the willingness of modern women to dally.  He moved a little down the street and took a small sip of his scotch.  “Are you out celebrating a birthday?”

She shook her head.  “It’s an office party, the anniversary of the start of the company.  The bosses always give us some money to put behind the bar and tell us not to worry about a hangover at work tomorrow.”  She smiled.  “I’m Amy.”

“Nice to meet you, Amy.  I’m Martin.” He had always liked the name ‘Martin’.  Her had was small and soft in his.  “I used to live in York, but I’ve only just got back after a time away.  I see that the atmosphere hasn’t changed. Which are the good bars?”

Amy glanced briefly at her colleagues.  The red head was insisting on getting another drink against the advice of her friend.  “I don’t go to bars much.  I go to coffee shops.  There’s some good ones in York, now.  The White Hart has reopened with a new range of coffees.  I was thinking of trying there one evening.”

Martin wasn’t going to take Amy there.  He swallowed his scotch.  “Why don’t I take you for a coffee somewhere?” He glanced back at the crowd.  The older women were topping up the office junior’s glass with far too much vodka.  He would be sick later.  “I don’t think that you’ll be missed.”

“I think that’s a great idea.” Amy said, taking a last mouthful of her wine and leaving the rest untouched as she waved a brief goodbye to the group.

At Amy’s suggestion, they picked up some take out coffees and wandered along the streets of York.  It was peaceful away from the centre and the June evening twilight leant a softness to everything.  They found a bench near the river and stopped to drink their coffee.  They looked mismatched.  Martin was wearing an expensive suit with a pale blue shirt and a blue tie knotted loosely at his throat.  Amy was wearing a pink strappy top and a short skirt that she kept trying to pull down to cover more of her legs.  Martin took off his jacket and gently placed it around Amy’s shoulders.  “I don’t feel the cold.” He said truthfully.

Amy snuggled into it.  “I feel like I shouldn’t accept it, but I’m glad to have it.”

“It’s cooler than you would expect next to the river.” Martin said.  “And I suspect you are usually in jeans and a sweater, yes?”

Amy laughed.  “I borrowed this outfit from my sister.  She told me to go out and have fun in it.” She put her coffee carefully on the ground next to the bench and looked at Martin expectantly.

He smiled and put his coffee next to hers.  She was making it so easy for him.  He gently stroked her hair and her face before holding her head and fixing his eyes on hers.  For a moment Amy tried to get loose, feeling uncomfortable at the unyielding grip, but Martin had been doing this for centuries and she couldn’t escape his gaze.  Martin kept eye contact as he leant in closer before kissing her gently on the lips.  She closed her eyes and sighed.  She was under his control.

They were in public and could potentially be disturbed, but that was no reason to rush things.  It was only respectful to Amy to take his time.  He kissed her again on the lips and she shivered helplessly.  He stroked her hair and she leaned into his hand.  He picked up one of her hands that lay helplessly on her lap and stroked over the palm.  Amy was breathing faster now.  He lifted her palm and kissed it, nipping a little at the base of the thumb.  Amy groaned.  Martin kissed the inside of her wrist and, as Amy groaned again, he bit and started to feed.

For a moment, Amy went rigid.  Then the effects of vampiric feeding kicked in and she was leaning against his shoulder, sheltered by his free arm around her as he drank her blood.  Martin could hear the shiver in her breathing, feel her utter surrender to him as he took what he needed.  That was the thing, he never took more than he needed.  He took just enough to keep him sustained and to keep the demons at bay.  Then he drew back.  Some vampires liked to leave a mark, like staking a claim.  Martin always thought that lacking in basic respect.  He kissed the small mark on her wrist and then focused his will.  The tiny puncture wounds healed up.  Then he scooped Amy up and held her on his lap, stroking her hair as she came round.

Her breathing slowly returned to normal.  He could feel her shifting a little, as she woke up from his influence.  Martin was braced.  Now was the trickiest time, after the first feed.  Amy sighed and snuggled closer.  “You’re a vampire.”

“Yes, I am.” Martin stroked her hair, enjoying the softness of it.

“And you just fed from me.” Amy said.

“Yes, I did.” Martin pushed the hair away from her face.  “I didn’t take too much.”

“It felt amazing.” Amy looked at her unmarked wrist.  “I thought you drank from the neck.”

“It’s an option.” Martin said.  “But I think a wrist is a little more polite on a first date.”

Amy leaned back against him, still wrapped in his jacket.  “I feel like I’m floating, like I’m drifting in a dream.”

“I’ll take you home.” Martin said.  “I want to make sure that you get home safe.  But first, can I take you to dinner next Monday?”

“Do you eat food?” Amy was still half dreaming in the after effects of the bite.

“Not only do I eat food, but I have perfect table manners.” Martin pulled her gently to her feet and wrapped a supporting arm around her shoulders.

“Would you feed on me again afterwards?” Amy asked as they strolled back towards the city.

“Perhaps.” Martin said.  “I don’t want to make you weak.”

“It felt amazing.” Amy said.  “My sister said I should have a good time, and I really did.”

“And I promise you will have a good time on Monday.” Martin steered her towards the taxi rank.  “But for tonight, let’s get you home.”

Martin dropped Amy off at her unremarkable townhouse and started walking back to York.  Now he had drunk enough to keep his mind clear, he could make plans.  Much had happened over the last century as he had slept.  He needed to work out what to do next.

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