Saturday After Dark
Five minutes before she was supposed to be at dinner, Rose still had no idea what she should wear. She dumped her suitcase full of clothes onto the hotel bed and pawed through them one last time, hoping something beautiful and elegant would magically appear. It didn’t. Seemed the fairy tale she’d stepped into wasn’t the sort that provided evening-wear. As far as she knew, no mice had turned into horses yet either. But then, the night was young.
Hard to believe that just last Saturday night, she’d been alone in her tiny apartment in Phoenix, surfing the internet for jobs while she tried to calculate how many years it would take her to pay off her student loans at a social worker’s salary and if she could afford to think about grad school. Rose had resigned herself to a future of ramen noodles and Kool-Aid when her phone rang and everything changed.
A job offer. More than a job offer. An all-expenses paid vacation to exotic St. Petersburg, Russia, including first-class plane tickets and a hotel suite all her own just to listen to a pitch. Their pitch, as in they wanted her, and not the other way around. This luxury, the posh surroundings—all for Rose, and maybe that was a little suspicious. Hell it would have been a lot suspicious if even once during the conversation they’d mentioned wanting to hire her to do social work. But the man on the phone had specifically referenced her other skills, the ones no school in the world taught, and for that alone, Rose would have made this trip if she’d had to pay for the travel herself.
Now here she was due at dinner in this fancy hotel and for the first time it sank in on Rose she might be in over her head. What if there was a dress code? What if the prospective employer who so casually tossed out thousands of dollars on plane tickets and top-floor suites expected someone more polished, more experienced? And most of all, what was it they expected her to do?
Because one thing Rose knew: St. Petersburg was wrong. It was broken. Even with her back to the window, Rose felt the city’s roiling malaise like a blanket trying to smother her. A blackness so deep it overwhelmed her othersense, so aggressive it felt alive. It threatened to darken her vision and dampen her hearing until the physical world around her became a dream and the tenebrous sadness intensified to become her only reality.
In a way, that could work to her advantage. If this job was about those talents she’d never put down on an employment application, then her potential employers couldn’t have a lot of qualified applicants to choose from.
After years of running different phrases through Google and a lot of volunteer work at a couple different psychiatric hospitals, Rose had found a handful of others like herself. Sensitive was the label bandied about in the dark corners of the internet, and oh boy were they. Every one she’d met in person had been stuck in a mental ward, crying into their pillow, withering year by year. Young or old, as far as Rose could tell, all sensitives broke down sooner or later as the constant press of other people’s problems became overwhelming. And that was out in the normal world. Slap on a city that felt—what, haunted?—and Rose was willing to bet the titanic sum of her student loans that there wasn’t anyone else with her gift anywhere near St. Petersburg. This city was no place for sensitive sensitives.
Rose sighed and dug out a skirt still wrinkled from packing and a matching pair of leggings. They’d just have to take her as she was. She wasn’t sure how long she’d be able to stand it here, but for now, curiosity won out over caution. With one final look in the mirror to make sure nothing was sticking up or out, Rose made for the elevator.
The early-evening traffic in the Astoria’s lobby was enough to distract Rose from the city’s dark aura. To the naked eye, the few people scattered through the gold and marble hall were pleasantly cheerful, smiling and chattering away. But Rose knew the truth behind the tableau. She felt the desk clerk’s impatience, the withered despair of the man waiting by the door, the dishonest smiles of the pretty young couple walking hand in hand, while inside the woman fumed with resentment and the man burned with jealousy. Everybody lied, and no one knew that better than a sensitive.
A tall, elegantly dressed gentleman disengaged from the concierge desk.“Miss Daziani.” Rose loved the sound of her name in his thick Russian accent. “Your party waits. This way, please.”
Rose followed him to a conference room that tonight served as a private dining room. An elegant meal was set out, spread across a lacy white cloth and accompanied by delicate china and spiral-stemmed crystal—definitely the prettiest arrangement Rose had ever seen. But despite Rose’s earlier concern about being out of place in the high-class environment, it wasn’t the fancy dining table that stopped Rose in the doorway.
It was the men who sat around it.
In the course of her research, Rose had found tantalizing hints of a supernatural world beyond the broken sensitives she’d managed to track down. Despite her every effort, the rumors and obscure references had never panned out. The community she’d been so desperate to find had remained hidden. Until now.
The three men at the table looked regular enough on the outside, but to Rose’s othersense, they were alien. These weren’t overwhelmed psychics cowering from a world they couldn’t shut out. These were men immersed in the exotic secrets Rose had been searching for her whole life.
The concierge spoke over her shoulder, making her jump. “Mr. Rutledge, Miss Daziani is here.”
The handsome young black man at the head of the table stood. His casual jeans and sweater were as reassuring to Rose as the broad grin that spread across his face as he held out his hand. “Miss Rose, so lovely to meet in person. Please, come on in.”
Rose recognized his voice, the smooth southern drawl. “You’re Alec Rutledge. From the phone. We talked.” Rose snapped her mouth shut before she could babble any further inanity. Her brain was still trying to adjust to the sudden proof of the truth she’d been chasing.
As she shook Alec’s offered hand, Rose felt…nothing. Her eyes saw him; her ears heard him. His skin against hers was warm. But to Rose’s othersense, the sense by which she navigated the world, he simply didn’t exist.
If Alec was concerned by Rose’s lack of eloquence, it didn’t show on his face. “I’m so glad you could join us. Let me introduce you to your colleagues. Father Mike Sullivan…”
Alec gestured to the old man at his left. As if Rose needed help identifying the priest in the room. And Father Mike Sullivan was serious about it too. No simple collar on top of normal street clothes—this guy was in the full black suit with the fancy button-down shirt and a Pope-approved look of disapproval on his face. Like Alec, Mike was completely invisible to Rose’s othersense.
When it became obvious Mike was neither going to stand nor offer a greeting, Alec turned smoothly to the third man in the room. “And Ian Fior.”
Ian, Rose could feel. And then some. He rose gracefully to his feet and took Rose’s hand with a captivating smile. “Rose, is it? Delightful to meet you.” His lilting tenor held a hint of Irish. Vibrant. That was the word for Mr. Ian Fior.
Alec was good looking, but Ian was something else entirely. Now Rose was paying attention, she found it hard to look away. Gorgeous was too tame a word for it. He had the inhuman perfection of a photoshopped model. His hair was a shade too red; his eyes too intensely blue to be real. And beneath his broad shoulders and angelic face was a resonance like nothing Rose had ever experienced.
Most people, Rose sensed their insides as sounds through a heavy door or the view through a window obscured by a sheer curtain. Most people, Rose could tune out once she got a sense of their overall emotional pitch. Ian’s emotions were invasive, disorienting. He pulsed with a mad energy that jangled against the malaise of St. Petersburg, brilliant and whirling and intense.
Rose pulled her hand away, breaking the physical contact, and Ian’s presence faded to a more manageable level. Still, Rose made for the chair next to the priest, wanting as much physical distance between her and Ian as possible. She focused on getting there without tripping, then tried to sound casual as she said, “Sorry I’m late. Did I miss anything?” Like she had mysterious meetings with weird supernatural people all the time.
“We’re one person short yet.” Alec waved at the wine array and leaned over for her glass. “Would you care for a drink?”
Half empty glasses on the table told Rose the party had started without her. A rainbow of open bottles poked up from ice-filled high-hats clustered at the head of the table. “Sure.” She pointed at a pink wine in the middle that no one had touched yet. “That one.”
The food, too, looked untouched so far, but the aromas over the table set Rose’s mouth watering. From the silver chafing dishes she smelled butter and garlic and the unmistakable scent of well-roasted beef. Loaves of heavy dark bread steamed next to baskets of crusty rolls. Rose’s stomach gave a rumble. Hopefully their fifth would arrive soon. Whatever he or she might be.
Rose had no idea what was going on with Ian, but Rose had a word for Alec and Mike. Sometimes the internet knew what it was talking about. Voiders was the label used by people who seemed in the know. The less-informed used other words with varying levels of hysteria—sorcerer, witch, wizard. Rose had read all kinds of crazy theories about voiders and the magic they supposedly wielded. A lot of them were hard to accept. The worst of the stories claimed that voiders came into their power by selling their souls to otherworldly beings. Demons, if you believed in that sort of thing.
Rose didn’t pretend to be an expert on souls, but she had to admit, these two had given up… something. Ian’s whirling insides might be invasive and disorienting, but the absolute lack of any emotional energy from Alec and Mike was creepy.
Alec filled Rose’s glass, then settled back into his chair. “I hope all y’all got a chance to do some sight-seeing this afternoon. St. Petersburg’s a lovely city.”
Mike snorted. “Yeah, sightseeing is exactly what I wanted to do after a transatlantic flight.”
Rose, herself, had been more interested in a nap on arrival—even in first class, the travel had been exhausting—but the last thing she wanted to do now was agree with the crotchety old priest. “I wouldn’t know where to go first.”
“This hotel is in a great location.” Alec refilled his own glass from a bottle of pale white wine that was near empty. “We’re right in the heart of where the nobility lived, and a number of their homes have been made into museums. And of course St. Isaac’s next door is one of the most famous cathedrals in the city.”
Rose shivered at the mention of the cathedral. Her quick look on the way into the hotel hadn’t been encouraging. “Is it safe? Everything here feels—“ She broke off, looked around. Was she supposed to talk about this stuff? Even if everyone here was as unusual as she was, was she supposed to keep secrets?
“It’s all right, Rose.” Alec correctly interpreted her expression. “We’re all friends here. You can share.”
How to even describe it? Rose had never tried to talk about the impressions her othersense gave her. This was the first time she’d been around people who wouldn’t call her crazy. “I just got here, so I don’t have a good feel for the city yet, but if I’d come here to play tourist, I’d probably be booking my flight home as soon as I could manage it.”
“You’re a sensitive, then,” Mike said, dismissive. Not a question.
Rose stared at him and shrugged. Not an answer. She might not be able to read Mike’s inner soul, but she’d known enough men and women of the church to be wary.
Alec didn’t seem concerned. “It’s true St. Petersburg isn’t the sort of place you want to be wandering by yourself at night. No different than New York or Chicago in that respect.” He flashed a smile at Ian and Mike in turn. “But the tourist spots—“
Alec stopped as the concierge reappeared in the doorway. “Mr. Rutledge, the final member of your party has arrived.”
Alec rose again. “Thank you, Vasily. Could you make sure we’re left alone for a bit, then?”
The concierge nodded and stepped back, revealing an attractive middle-eastern looking gentleman in a black satin shirt with a mandarin collar and smart black slacks. Rose had to grit her teeth against the sudden dissonance in her mind. Something was… wrong with this man. Very wrong.
Alec’s default smile was back, plastered across his face. Rose wondered that his cheeks didn’t go numb. “Everyone, allow me to introduce Nazeem. He’s the final member of our diplomatic party.”
Nazeem stepped into the room and the concierge closed the door behind him, shutting them in together. Ian sparked friendly curiosity and held out his hand. “Just Nazeem? Like a rock star?”
“No.” Mike’s voice grated over Ian’s welcoming tone. “Like a vampire.”
In the silence that followed Mike’s pronouncement, Rose couldn’t stop herself from staring at Nazeem. At the vampire.
Who—just like the others—seemed normal enough on the surface. She wouldn’t have given him a second glance if they’d passed each other on the street. He was handsome, sure, and like Ian, Nazeem didn’t look much older than Rose’s twenty-two years. But where Ian’s looks—and presence—demanded Rose’s attention, Rose’s gaze kept sliding away from Nazeem, like her eyes couldn’t find anything to latch onto. Even when she tried, she couldn’t focus. Maybe not so normal after all.
Definitely not to her othersense. He clashed and jangled in a quieter way than Ian, with flavors and eddies of emotion that were like nothing Rose had ever seen.
This evening was a crash-course-wake-up-call, no question. Somehow, in all her exploration of her own psychic gifts and research into people like Mike and Alec, Rose had never taken the next leap forward to wonder if things like vampires might also be real. It wasn’t like once you took your first “There are more things on Heaven and Earth, Horatio” step into the supernatural they sent you a manual. All the late-night sci-fi channel and Stephen King stuff—just how much of it did she need to be watching over her shoulder for?
And why was this the first time she’d run into any of this? One truth was becoming clear: none of these people could hide their differences from a sensitive. If there was a whole world of supernatural people running around, why had Rose never met any before tonight?
Mike shoved his chair back as he stood, one hand fisted in his jacket pocket. “Explain this, Rutledge.”
“Explain?” Alec’s eyebrows furrowed. Rose couldn’t feel his insides, but she could see the confusion on his face easy enough.
Mike planted his feet, like he was bracing for an attack. “No one told me there would be vampires.”
“As no one told me I would be working with a priest. So we are both surprised.” Nazeem’s voice was soft, beautifully accented, and compelling. Rose found herself unable to do anything but listen.
Alec stepped between Mike and Nazeem. “Gentlemen…”
Nazeem held his empty hands out to either side. “Please, good Father, we are not enemies here.”
“Not enemies?” Mike pulled his hand free of his pocket, revealing a black-beaded rosary with a silver crucifix wrapped around his fist. Nazeem flinched at the sight of it.
“Stop it!” Rose snapped, jumping to her feet. Vampire or not, the last thing Rose was about to do was sit by and watch him get bullied. “We’re supposed to be talking.”
Ian also stood, his concern striking Rose with the force of a brick to the head. “Rose is right, and I, for one, want to hear what Mr. Rutledge has to say.”
After a few tense breaths, Mike lowered his hand. Whether from lack of allies in the room or some other reason, Rose couldn’t tell, but either way he returned to his seat. “Fine.” Rather than putting the rosary back in his pocket, he lay it next to his plate, in easy reach. “We’ll all talk.” His voice twisted on the word.
Everyone settled back into chairs, Nazeem taking the place next to Ian, where he could watch Mike from across the table. The awkward silence grew and Rose gazed longingly at the bowl of herbed potatoes before her. Would they never get to eat? The tangy, buttery smell was irresistible, but she felt awkward about reaching for it while everyone else was so intent on giving each other the hairy eyeball. Instead she took a large swallow of her wine and tried not to stare at Nazeem.
Alec leaned back in his chair, swirling his wine. His mask was good—very good—but Rose could see muscles tensing under the dark skin of his neck. He was more nervous than he wanted to show. “My friends, the world is changing.” His soothing drawl sounded confident enough. “Technology and fear make it difficult for us to go on as we have for centuries, safe from discovery. My employers believe it’s time for us to carve out our own space in the world.”
“Space to do what?” Rose asked.
“To live. To hide without hiding. A place of safety and peace.”
“Just who exactly is us?” Mike growled, still glaring at Nazeem.
“Us,” Alec answered in a smooth tone, a wave of his hand encompassing the room. “The supernatural community.”
Mike snorted. “We’re a community now? I must have missed that memo.”
“Of course we are. Voiders, vampires—even sensitives like Rose have special needs that are hard to provide for out in the world. My employers believe there is more that unites us than divides us and it’s time our various factions reach out to each other.”
Alec paused. Rose found some reassurance in the fact no one else seemed to have any idea what he was trying to say. Ian’s confusion was palpable, and while Rose couldn’t read either Mike or Nazeem, their silence spoke volumes.
“We brought you here,” Alec continued, “because my employers believe St. Petersburg is the perfect location to put their plan into action.
“Forgive me if I’m being slow,” Rose said. “But what plan?”
Alec lifted the silver lid from the large dish in front of him. “Have some stroganoff. It’s a specialty here.”
That was all the invitation Rose needed to reach for the potatoes. And some bread. The butter on the dish beside her plate was real and shaped like little flowers. Food was good. Rose was hungry and everything smelled very expensive. Food made sense. Rose could wrap her mind around the food. Unlike whatever it was Alec was circling around.
Ian also approached the food with enthusiasm. Mike looked as suspicious of the stroganoff as he was of the vampire. Nazeem took nothing.
Alec continued. “My employers need people to be their public face. To be negotiators, diplomats and, when necessary, police.”
“Police?” Rose interrupted as she buttered one of the still-warm rolls. “What do you mean police? What law would we be enforcing?”
“Peace,” Alec said through his Ken-doll smile. “The specifics of the definition and your approach would be yours to work out.”
Rose chewed that over, still unsure what he was getting at. But Alec wasn’t done. “All I’m asking for initially is a month’s commitment from all of you. We’ll cover your expenses plus fifty thousand dollars up front. You can get to know the city, get to know each other, put together a plan. At the end of the month, if you don’t think this is possible or we don’t think it’s possible, everyone walks away friends.”
Rose didn’t miss the sideways look Mike gave Nazeem at the last word. She, herself, was trying not to drool over the idea of that much money. More than she could make in a year! It would mean the end of student loans and credit card debt.
“And after a month,” Nazeem asked, “What then?”
“My employers are prepared to offer each of you a million dollars for a year’s contract.”
Rose stopped moving, a forkful of stroganoff only an inch from her mouth. Had she heard that correctly?
Nazeem broke the silence that had followed Alec’s remark. “I can’t help but wonder who these most generous employers of yours might be.”
“They would prefer to keep their identities anonymous for now. But I can tell you they’ve spent years researching—they hand-picked the four of you for your exceptional talents and expertise.”
A million dollars. This couldn’t be real. But Alec was sincere. Rose could see it on his face. “Why are we worth so much to them?”
“Business,” Alec answered simply. “To my employers, this is a small investment to create a safe haven to meet, to work, even to live.”
Mike had pulled back in his chair, arms crossed. It didn’t take a sensitive to see his dislike of all of this. “What gives your employer the authority to do this? What gives them the right to dictate people’s lives?”
“Money and power.” Rose had to respect Alec’s honesty. “We’re all part of the invisible war, one way or another, and no government on Earth has laws that apply. If there are organizations trying to regulate it,” —Rose didn’t miss the way Alec’s eyes lit on Mike, Ian, and Nazeem in turn— “they’re flailing beneath the weight of their own secrecy and ignorance of each other. It’s time to try something new.”
“An interesting proposition.” Nazeem’s emotions were there, pulsing against Rose’s senses, but they didn’t resonate in any way she could understand. Yet.
“Is it?” Mike’s gravelly voice demanded. “What interest is this to a vampire?”
“As Alec said, the world is changing.” Nazeem’s tone was low and even and impossible to ignore. “Electronic databases, cooperation between governments, watch lists. Travel becomes complicated, especially with your American initiatives against people who look like me. The idea of a safe haven is most compelling.”
“The other vampires in the city—” Alec began.
“Other vampires?” Rose interrupted, remembering Mike’s reaction to Nazeem. “There’s more? Are they dangerous? No offense,” she added quickly in Nazeem’s direction.
“Not all vampires are monsters.” Nazeem’s lips quirked, almost a smile. “No more than we were before we died.”
That earned another disdainful snort from Mike. “I suppose you couldn’t bear the sight of the cross before you died either?” Nazeem gave a mild shrug. “Exactly. Don’t try to tell me you people are no different than when you were alive. I know better.”
“Now Mike,” Alec tried to mediate, “We won’t get anywhere if we can’t—”
“I need a cigarette.” Mike pushed his chair back. He circled wide around Nazeem as he stalked from the room.
Alec sighed. “Obviously, y’all will need some time to think about this.”
Rose still didn’t understand what they were supposed to be thinking about, but she knew she wanted it. The money was one thing. The challenge—the mystery—was too interesting to walk away from. But most of all, this was her way in. This was her invitation to the world that had been hiding from her all her life. And they wanted her.
She studied Ian and Nazeem, tried to figure out what was going on in their heads. Ian was agitated. Nervous and excited and all at a pulsing, screaming volume that seemed more real than anything Rose had ever felt.
Nazeem eluded her. Even his face was inhumanly still. His gaze flickered to hers, caught her looking, and his lips curved to the barest hint of a smile. “I beg everyone’s forgiveness,” he said, standing with an easy grace. Nothing like the hurry Mike had shown. “As we seem to be finished with the meeting for now, I will leave you to your dinner.” He bowed his head to them and left.
Ian only lasted a few minutes longer. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I could use some air.” And he was gone.
Rose wasn’t willing to let the meal go to waste. She spooned up more stroganoff. “I guess I’ve got one question for you, Alec.”
Alec was unsettled, wary. Rose saw it in the crinkle of his eyes. “Go ahead.”
“What’s for dessert?”