By Claire Rooney © 2010
Margaret Elizabeth Ashton Astor, III
Margaret yawned at her steering wheel as she watched the sun continued to climb its way up over the horizon. She sat in her car at the end of Aylish’s driveway blinking as the growing brightness stung her eyes even as it painted the bottoms of the clouds pink and red and then lined the edges with a soft molten gold.
‘How pretty,’ she thought, and then yawned again sqinching her eyes tight shut.
Her eyes opened again with a flutter. Margaret was tired. Deep down, bone weary, tired. But whether it was a true tiredness from getting only a very little restful sleep or the residue of Aylish’s fading into whatever it was she faded into, she didn’t know. Perhaps, she didn’t want to know.
She had, in that small part of herself that wasn’t really herself, felt the fading happen. She felt Aylish sliding away from her, diminishing, lessening…leaving her. It hadn’t been pleasant. To Margaret it felt like watching an old expensive vase, a family heirloom maybe, teeter on it’s stand, tip over, fall ever so slowly, slip just past her outstretched finger tips to shatter on the floor. She didn’t like that feeling. It was too close to loss and she didn‘t like it at all.
The night that she had just been through hadn’t been much better. It had been a short one, seasonally speaking, but it felt long to Margaret. They had run back to her apartment so she could change into her uniform while Aylish dragon-proofed her space. Neither result had been satisfactory. Margaret’s uniform felt stiff and scratchy and, in spite of Aylish’s best efforts, the dragon still managed to singe the bottom panel of one set of curtains, set the smoke alarm off twice and then find and eat a half a bag of M&M’s. It turned out that even M&M’s melted in a dragon’s hands and hot chocolate claw prints were very difficult to get out of a cream colored carpet.
The three of them then spent the rest of the night in a fruitless search for something that Aylish couldn’t or wouldn’t explain while the dragon puffed a near continuous stream of nervous smoke that kept the car filled with a burnt chocolate haze. They made it back to Aylish’s house only thirty minutes before sunrise. Margaret left the little dragon in the kitchen chirping with his family while she walked a sleepy, tottering Aylish down the basement stairs and tucked her into bed for the second time in as many mornings.
She sat on the edge of the bed and watched Aylish’s life fade from her eyes as the sun threw it’s first ray of light up over the horizon. Margaret stayed with her just long enough to see the faint blue swirls appear on her skin again. She looked at them closely but did not trace them with her finger. Or with her tongue. She contented herself with sketching one part of the pattern quickly on the back of an envelope. It was a rough sketch, seeing that she wasn’t much of an artist, but it would be enough to identify the pattern later.
She felt the folded up envelope in the breast pocket of her uniform. It crinkled slightly under her touch. It wasn’t that she disbelieved anything Aylish told her. That wasn’t why she wanted to look up the pattern. It was only that she was acutely aware that Aylish wasn’t telling her the whole story. She didn’t like not knowing the whole story and found herself wanting, very badly, to know more about the parts that had been left out. Not that she expected find the whole story in her research but if she could use the pattern to place Aylish in a particular time, then that would tell her a lot about the kind of person Aylish must have been when she was alive, which, in turn, might have something to do with who Aylish turned out to be after she died.
She liked Aylish, Margaret realized with a little bit of a start. It wasn‘t just an attraction, though there was that, perhaps. She still wasn‘t a hundred percent sure that it was entirely her own initiative but still, she had to admit, she really liked her. But…Margaret gripped the steering wheel a little tighter…there were too many mysteries for it to be a comfortable feeling. There were too many questions that didn’t seem to want to get answered, too many variables left undefined. Aylish might have understood the twilight, but Margaret didn’t even know what that meant.
Margaret relaxed her hands, finger by finger. She let go of the wheel with one hand, put the car into gear and backed it slowly out of Aylish’s driveway. The dragon sat on the back of her seat, holding on to the headrest and making little rumbling sounds, almost as if it was imitating the car. Maybe it was. Who knew?
The morning’s traffic was still light as Margaret made her way to the halfway house. She drove slower than she might have otherwise because the dragon seemed to puff more smoke when it was nervous and, truth be told, she wasn’t truly eager to get there. Aylish had given her a list of questions that she was supposed to ask the Hershberger’s. They were intrusive at best. They were down right rude at their worst but the part that bothered Margaret the most was that she didn’t know which of the questions were truly a need to know and which were a result of Aylish’s stormy history with the Hershberger family. She had no way to judge because there was too much that she just didn’t know.
She would ask Aylish’s question but she hated the thought of hurting the family even more than it would already be hurt today. Margaret couldn’t imagine what it was like for a parent to lose a child and this would be even worse than that. This would be a parent attending their child’s execution. It hurt her heart and made her breath catch sharp in her chest, not just for the savage that they had been unable to save but for his family.
The only bright side was that she wouldn’t be facing Marceau. Or any other vampire, either. Only Marceau’s…minion would be there. Aylish warned her against calling him that but Margaret couldn’t help thinking it. She was not particularly eager to meet a minion for reasons that she dare not admit, even to herself.
The parking lot of the halfway house was almost deserted when she pulled in except for a hearse with blackened windows and a small orange-red sports car. Margaret parked her car in the HNHS parking spot, cut the engine and took off her seatbelt. The dragon climbed onto her shoulder, slipped its tail across the back of her neck and pinched her ear with a fore claw. It made a trilling noise as she got out of the car and Margaret thought she saw a small flicker of flame. She definitely smelled burnt chocolate as she reached up and rubbed its side with a finger. The pinching eased a little.
“Good dragon,” she said softly. “Please don’t burn anything while we’re in there.”
The image of a slightly off colored pepperoni pizza wavered in her brain and the faded away. She smiled and touched the dragon again with a light stroke of her finger. “It’s a deal. You behave and we’ll order out for pizza tonight.”
The dragon trilled and settled itself against her head, hiding itself partway underneath her hair.
Margaret opened the heavy wooden door. The interior was still as dim and uninviting as she remembered, with its low wattage lights, plastic tropical plants and poorly done artwork. That didn’t change with the sunrise. Very little had changed except that there seemed to be less tension in the air of one sort and much more of another. And the air was stuffy and still. The front desk seemed empty without Charity sitting behind it.
There was no one sitting behind the desk now but a woman sat in one of the armchairs near it. The door closed behind Margaret with a thunk and the woman looked up, her face set in a scowl. She rose from her chair and kept rising. The woman was tall. Very tall. Well over six feet. Her hair was long and sort of an orangish brown, her face long and thin, her skin a funny shade of bad spray tan. Margaret was sure she knew her from somewhere but couldn’t place the face. The woman glanced over Margaret’s uniform with a frown that made her long face seem to grow even longer.
“The house is closed right now.”
“Yes. I know,” Margaret replied. “I’m here to see the Hershberger’s. Mr. and Mrs. Hershberger, I mean. I’m Officer Astor.” Margaret tapped at her badge. “I’m with the Heath and Non-Human Services.”
The woman didn’t bother looking at it. “They’re not here yet. I don’t expect them until the sun is well up over the horizon.”
“Okay,” Margaret said with a nod. “Thanks. I’ll wait.”
The woman nodded back and then sat down again, still looking at Margaret, frowning hard. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“I was just thinking the same thing.” Margaret squinted her eyes a bit. The woman did seem very familiar but strangely out of context.
“What division are you with?”
“The newly risen.”
The woman shook her head. “That wouldn’t be it.” She looked up at the ceiling, her face pinched in thought.
Margaret couldn’t help but wonder at how long the woman’s neck looked. It was very long. Unnaturally long. Maybe even preternaturally long. Suddenly, it clicked. “You’re a were.”
The woman looked at her again. “Of course. All executions must be seconded by a non related species.”
“You’re the giraffe.”
The woman frowned again. “And your point would be what?”
Margaret felt herself flush a little. “None in particular. I just remember seeing you at the last full moon in the park. You helped to round up the predators and keep them calm until the sun came up. That was very cleaver foot work…er…and neckwork. We all appreciated your assistance.”
The woman‘s face cleared. “Oh. Yes. I remember you now. You were the one who managed to take care of Mayor Brandeis without cracking a smile.” The woman grinned. It was goofy soft eyed grin. “I can’t imagine how you did it. Personally I was laughing my ass off.”
Margaret shrugged a little shyly. “I like cats. They seem to like me, too.” The dragon rumbled a little from underneath her hair and gripped her ear tighter.
The woman squinted at Margaret’s shoulder. “Do you have a cat hiding underneath your hair?”
“Ah, no.” Margaret felt her blush deepen. “That would be a tiny dragon with separation anxieties hiding in my hair.”
“Dragon?” A thin stream of smoke drifted past Margaret’s jaw. The woman’s eyes opened wide. “Shit. It really is a dragon. I didn’t know they came in miniature.”
“They’re very rare. Only a few left in the wild or so I’m told.”
“Does it have flame?”
A short spout of flame flickered near the corner of Margaret’s eye. “Hey, you.” She tapped lightly on the dragon’s tail. “Don’t set my hair on fire. I like it the way it is, thank you.” The dragon trilled apologetically and settled back against her neck.
“Huh. Who’d of thought.” The woman said softly. She rose up out of her chair again and extended her hand towards Margaret. “My name’s Jimenez. It‘s a pleasure to meet you,” her eyes flicked down to Margaret’s badge, “officer Astor.”
Margaret shook her hand. It was soft, though firm, and hot to the touch. There was a distinctly furry feeling underneath her thumb. “You can call me Margaret unless you think this occasion calls for more formality.”