Promotion. Gratitude.

“This doesn’t feel like a promotion,” Roe sighed to himself. He took a moment to appraise the two-story, red brick building. A red neon sign flashed “Donna Chang’s” on the second story. It did not look like it needed an ounce of work on the outside. it looked rather ancient, but still in perfect condition. But, the age of the exterior gave him plenty of worries about what horrors lay within.

It was an uneasy morning so far. Roe showed up at the work-site, but the foreman pulled him aside before he got started. His first words put a damper on Roe’s whole day.

“You’re not working here anymore,” his boss said. When Roe immediately demanded to know what he did wrong, his boss laughed; that didn’t help Roe’s mood. “Kid, you’ve gone and done everything right. In six months, you’ve learned more and worked harder than guys that have been with me for years. That’s why you’re getting this promotion and they’re not.”

“Alright,” Roe nodded. He was ready to listen now that his livelihood was intact. “What’s the job?” The foreman grinned and handed Roe a red business card. It was embossed with a golden dragon, and golden text read, “Donna Chang’s” with an address, but no phone number.

“A Chinese restaurant?” Roe asked.

“That’s just where you’ll make contact with your new foreman. She owns the restaurant.”

“How is this a promotion exactly?” Roe asked. The foreman always made him feel like he could speak his mind.

“Higher-level clientele willing to pay big bucks for discretion. Not only that, there are fringe benefits you wouldn’t believe. I’m putting a lot of trust in you by putting your name up for this,” the foreman patted Roe on the back. “Trust me, you won’t regret this.”  With that final encouragement, Roe made the drive out to the restaurant.

After a few minutes of waiting in the car staring at the building, he finally opened his door. He crossed the street and entered the restaurant. A small, tinny bell jingled when he opened the door then a short, elderly woman walked out of a swinging door at the back.

“Hello, Roe,” she said as she approached. She reached him and introduced herself with an outstretched hand. “My name is Donna Chang, and I’ll be your foreman from now on. Are you ready to work today?”  She asked with a stern voice. Roe nodded.

“Yes, Ma’am. I was already at one site before they sent me here.” She giggled lightly.

“Good good. No work for you today. I just wanted to know if you were ready.” She pulled out a card-sized rectangle of glass. “This is a node. Consider it your schedule and your pay. It functions like a credit card and a cellphone, learn to use it.”

“Credit card?” Roe asked. It seemed kind of unusual that she didn’t need his bank information. After his question, he realized his previous boss, Joe, probably sent all the paperwork. To his surprise, Donna nodded.

“You’re on retainer. No work today just means no work today. Joe didn’t mention the signing bonus?” she asked.

“One million dollars, pre-loaded,” she nodded at the node. “Get your things in order, Roe. Reliable transportation, reliable tools, and so on. Many of your jobs will be short notice.” Roe stopped paying attention at ‘pre-loaded’.

“One…one million dollars?” he asked. Donna nodded.

“Joe mentioned discretion was part of the job?” she asked. Roe nodded. “You’ll be working with Fae. Fairies, pixies, werewolves, vampires, and the like. I expect that won’t be an issue?” Roe’s eyes widened; he was surprised, but not shocked. He felt like he was suddenly given permission to believe in the things he knew were real all along.

“Alright,” Roe grinned. “I’m 100% on board. So, you seem wise,” Roe added. “Any ideas how I can thank Joe for this awesome promotion?”

Mary’s Boy

“Mom?” Greg spoke louder the second time he knocked on the bathroom door. Still no answer. “I’m coming in,” he twisted the knob slowly, then pushed the door open. “Where the hell is she?” he asked his reflection in the empty bathroom. His mom’s car was still in the driveway, so she should have been around. He shrugged to himself, then left her bathroom and room to wait for her in the kitchen.

Five minutes later, Greg sat at the kitchen table with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk. He was about to start eating when his mother walked into the kitchen. She seemingly came from the direction of her bedroom; not through either the garage or front door. She was still in her work clothes, white scrubs with a pattern of red scissors covering it.

“Greg!” she was surprised to see him. “You’re early, I’m about to start on dinner if you want to wait,” she nodded at his unbitten sandwich.

“Mom?” he asked with only minor surprise. “When did you get here?” This was the first time he “caught” his mom with 100% certainty. While growing up, his mother tended to show up when he was sure she wasn’t around. He chalked it up to a mother’s sneakiness and his own lack of attention. But this time, he searched the whole house for her. He knew for a fact she wasn’t anywhere in the house when he arrived.

“Oh, just a few minutes ago. I was in the restroom,” she lied casually while she considered dinner in front of an open fridge.

“No you weren’t,” Greg replied. He had always been a mama’s boy, but it stung that the lie came so effortlessly. In the back of his mind, he wondered how much she lied to his dad about. “I searched the whole house for you because your car was outside. I went into your bathroom.”

Shit..,” Greg heard his mother sigh under her breath and her posture deflated. She closed the refrigerator, then turned around. “I guess we need to have a talk,” she said. “Let’s get Chinese for dinner,”  his mother walked out of the kitchen toward her bedroom.  She paused, then turned to look at him.

“Come on,” she said with a warm smile. Greg’s mind flooded with questions, including wondering why she headed to the bedroom instead of the front door. To avoid being overwhelmed, he defaulted to listening to his mother. He stood from the table, leaving the sandwich there, and followed.

He caught up to her in her room as she was pulling something from her purse. It looked like a cellphone, but it appeared more futuristic than even his top of the line phone.

“What’s that?” Greg asked.

“It’s a node, I’ll tell you about them too.” She tapped on the glassy rectangle several times, then she rotated it into landscape mode. She held it with both hands, then pulled. Greg’s mother held the transparent node with her left hand, and pulled something black out of it with her right hand. It was the darkest black that Greg ever saw, and it boggled his mind that it came from seemingly nowhere. The node was clear enough to see his mother’s fingers through it, but somehow it produced a pitch black card. She whirled around and threw the card against her bedroom wall; a black portal appeared.

“This place has the best Chinese food,” she said, then walked into the hole. On her way through, she waved at Greg to encourage him to follow. He walked through and in a blink Greg stood in a packed red and gold restaurant. Perfectly tailored dark suits and dresses, obviously he was now in a high-class restaurant.

“Mary!” Greg suddenly heard someone call his mom’s name. It was a short, ancient woman wearing a golden dress under a messy apron.

“Hi, Donna, is this a bad time?” she asked.

“For you, never,” Donna replied. She waved a dismissive hand at the diners. “Vampire convention, no big deal. I put you in a back room.” Donna turned around and headed toward the back. Mary followed her, and Greg trailed behind while trying to look over the customers without staring.

“Did she say ‘vampires?’,” Greg whispered into his mom’s ear. Immediately the tables around them burst into laughter.

“I did,” Donna spoke up as she led them through the kitchen doors. “And they have excellent hearing,” she added.  As they walked through the kitchen, Greg was surprised to see only one cook. A giant mountain of a man that toward over his own 6’2″ frame, and twice as wide. Despite his girth, the single chef almost seemed to be dancing between several stoves with all burners going. Greg noted the chef’s tattoos with interest. Dozens of colorful dragons on each arm, with no single color repeated.

“Two more sesame beef, T,” Mary called out as they passed the chef.

“Yes, Ms. Mary,” he replied without missing a beat. They continued through the kitchen and ended up in a small single table room.

“Enjoy,” Donna said, then she turned and left. Greg sat at one of the two chairs, and his mother sat across from him. After they were settled, Greg realized he didn’t need to look at the menu. His mom ordered for him already.

“Mom. What the hell’s going on? Where are we?” he asked.

“Let me give you the short version of everything first, then you can ask questions, okay?” Greg nodded.

“I work for a company called Sharp Medical Services. It’s a company in another universe. Right now, we’re in another universe than the one you were born in,” Mary pulled her node out of her pocket.

“This is from work, it lets me get to and from work, and lets me travel to other universes too.” If Greg had not already followed her from her bedroom to a Chinese restaurant, he knew he wouldn’t believe her. But, as it stood now, he could not deny it. The knowledge added a new light to his upbringing. His parents argued often and, looking back on it, a lot of things made more sense.

“Why didn’t you tell dad and me?” Greg asked.

“Ohh, honey,” Mary reached across the small table for her son’s hand. “Of course I told your father,” she sighed. “Your dad is… a simple man. We tried to make it work. In the end, he didn’t want anything to do with “other universes”, including my job,” she shook her head. “Sharp Medical is the best company I could hope to work for. I couldn’t give it up.”

“And why not me?” Greg asked. He had more questions about his parent’s relationship, but he could definitely see his mom’s point. His father did have a tendency to be closed minded.

“That’s… that’s my fault,” she said. “I was worried you would be too much like your father. I didn’t want to lose you too,” she said.

“Well, you still might,” Greg said. “Unless you answer this: Are those really vampires?” he asked.  Mary nodded.

“It’s a big multi-verse. Vampires, werewolves, fairies. Anything you want is out there, if you want a tour.”

“Dragons!?” Greg blurted out. At that moment Donna walked in again holding two steaming plates of food.

“Dragons too,” Mary smiled.

Wish Upon a Star

Gina fell to her knees on the gravel and sobbed. The two-story red-brick building she’d heard so much about was finally in front of her.  She’d spent weeks looking for it; but, it was the kind of magical place that sometimes didn’t want to be found. She had the address and spent her days walking around the block hoping to catch sight of the red neon sign that read: Donna Chang’s.

“I made it, Sonya. Freedom…,” Gina sighed as she collected herself and wiped her tears away.

“All you have to do is walk through the door,” Sonya told her about Donna Chang’s when they first met. “The hard part is finding the door.” The pair of women became fast friends. They used the daylight hours to search for Donna’s. As horrible as things got when the sun went down; daytime was still relatively normal.

“Why haven’t you left yet?” Gina asked Sonya that first night; she was answered with laughter.

“Because I can’t find it,” Sonya replied and kept giggling. “I’m gone as soon as I do.”

“How do you know it’s real?” was Gina’s followup. Sonya shrugged.

“I’ve seen it,” Sonya replied. “I saw it once. Almost went inside too, but I forgot something in my car. When I turned around, it was gone again.”

Gina suddenly remembered Sonya’s words and hopped to her feet. She needed to get inside before it disappeared again. She rushed to the door and stepped in. A small tin bell over the door dinged as she walked in. Despite the glass windows on the door, the inside of the restaurant was much darker, and the restaurant was full of patrons.

Dozens of heads turned to face her, and Gina’s blood ran cold. Every single person sitting at a table, with eyes on her, was a vampire. She turned and looked out through the door. She could see the sunlight clearly on the other side, but no sunbeam entered the restaurant.

Gina suddenly realized she had her back to a room full of vampires and whirled around. They definitely noticed she wasn’t one of them, they all had glowing red eyes now. The same glowing red eyes that took Sonya away. A short, ancient woman wearing a gold dress under a dirty apron walked out of a swinging door and approached Gina.

“Sorry, we’re closed. Private function,” the woman smiled at Gina.

“W..what?” Gina asked, she nearly broke down then and there. She couldn’t leave, she might never find it again.

“I came in through the door…,” Gina said with an almost pleading tone. “I came through the door.. I’m free..,” she said.

“Free?” The wrinkled woman tilted her head. “From what?” she asked. Gina couldn’t help but laugh in her face.

“From what? From THEM!” she shouted and gestured at the full dining room at the same time. “All humans are to them are lovers, pets, or food. We’re slave to their whims!”

“And?” the old woman asked. That question forced Gina to her knees again; she was ready to give up. It was supposed to be as easy as walking in through the door. Sonya had given Gina hope again, then she went and got herself killed before she found out how useless that hope was. It was the only friend Gina allowed herself to make while growing up in the vampire hellscape. It was useless to make friends that could disappear at any time. Sonya proved that.

Here in a restaurant full of vampires, Gina was done. She’d lost the one friend she ever made, and her life up until that point had been a series of tragedies. She had nothing left to live for.

“And…,” Gina sobbed. “I give up. I’m done with life.. with everything.   I don’t want to be here anymore,” she said.

“Oh, okay,” the old woman replied with a subtle smile. She reached down, grabbed Gina’s hand, and pulled her up with surprising strength.

“It’s okay. You not here to eat. Come to the back; tell me where you want to go instead of here,” The old woman, Donna Chang, replied.

Date with a Dragon

“Hi, I’m Flutter,” the towering woman introduced herself to Marie with a broad smile. Flutter was easily the tallest person in the room, but Marie was the shortest if she didn’t count the caterer. She looked up at the redhead that she guessed was at least three feet taller than her, and introduced herself.

“Hi, Flutter. Marie,” she extended a tiny olive-skinned hand, it was enveloped completely by Flutter’s giant, milky-white grasp.

“Can I talk to you alone for a moment?” Flutter asked. She gestured at the open sliding door that led to the deck.

“Sure,” Marie smiled. She came to the party planning to shmooze with as many wealthy investors as she could. But, she wasn’t about to ignore the chance of finding a date or three. She followed Flutter out to the deck while admiring the way her flowing red dress fit.

Outside, the sun was setting into the ocean. A cool breeze caressed Marie’s arms as she joined Flutter at the rail overlooking the beach.

“So, how’d you end up here?” Flutter started the conversation.

“You know the finance app, Dragon Hoard?” Marie had only been at the party for about an hour before Flutter introduced herself. In that time she managed to mingle with several people, all of which gave a polite chuckle when she mentioned the name of her app. One even referred to the name as, “very clever”. Marie was surprised when Flutter let out a loud guffaw. She noted some heads from the beach turned to see if everything was okay while Flutter continued to chortle loudly. Marie began to get the feeling Flutter, and maybe everyone else at the party, was laughing at her. It definitely soured Marie’s feelings toward her a bit.

“It’s not that funny,”  Marie said once Flutter seemed like she was calming down. Still giggling, Flutter nodded her head.

“It totally is, though.”

“Well, I hope you enjoyed the moment,” Marie gave Flutter a flat smile, then turned to head back inside.

“No, wait!” Flutter put a hand on Marie’s shoulder to stop her, but let go instantly. “I’m sorry, I’m not laughing at the name of your app. I’m laughing at those idiots in there,” she pointed at the party happening inside. Marie really wanted to like Flutter. She decided to give her a chance to explain.

“And, why is that?” she asked.

“I’m going to tell you a secret, but don’t freak out. Don’t panic, you’re safe with me,” Flutter said. Marie moved to the rail again.

“I’m listening,” she said.

“This little club is by invite only,” Flutter said.

“I got one,” Marie was quick to defend herself. Though, despite the reflex, she realized that Flutter didn’t seem to be the elitist type. Stuffy people tended to avoid guffawing so freely, lest they embarrass themselves.

“I know, listen. This is a private club with a very exclusive membership.” Marie shifted her weight toward the party; Flutter noticed and skipped to the point.

“Everyone here, except you, is a dragon. It looks like they thought you were one too.”

“Proof?” Marie crossed her arms and took a single step toward the party.

“I can do this…,” Flutter said. Her alabaster skin darkened. It shifted its color and texture. In moments her arms, chest and face were covered in brilliant golden scales. They gleamed in the setting sunlight and Marie was left speechless. Both in surprise, and awe at her beauty; the golden scales somehow made Flutter’s red dress look better. After several moments, Flutter relaxed and the scales receded into her skin.

“You’re not in any danger,” Flutter said when Marie didn’t say anything. “If and when they find out, they’ll just make you sign an NDA and kick you out of the club. The last thing they want is the police snooping around for a missing woman and taking a close look at their finances.”

“They’re really dragons?” Marie asked finally. It seemed like an unnecessary question, but it was the only sentence she could string together. Flutter nodded but didn’t say anything else. She smiled at Marie letting her sort through her thoughts. Marie walked to the railing and stared out at the sunset for several quiet minutes. Then, a thought struck her.

“Everyone’s a dragon?” she asked again.

“Yeah,” Flutter said.

“And they thought I was a dragon too?” she asked. Flutter nodded.

“How did you know I’m not?”  Flutter smiled.

“Donna told me,” she said.

“Donna..?” The name sounded familiar. “Donna Chang? The caterer?” Marie thought the food was delicious and was sure to introduce herself to the caterer and get a business card.

“That’s the one,” Flutter said.

“How did she know?” Marie had another realization. “Is she a dragon too!?”

“She is; she can see things most others can’t. Don’t worry though, she’s not going to tell anyone about you.”

“She told you,” Marie replied.

“She trusts me.”

“Should I trust you?” Marie asked. She took a half step closer to Flutter.

“I can’t tell you that,” Flutter said with a wink. “But, we should get dinner tomorrow night so you can decide for yourself.”

Delicious Opportunity

“Go on!” Terry chuckled and put his arm around Brent. He pointed at Lisa sitting across the red table. The group of friends sat in a Chinese restaurant with a red and gold theme. “Tell her what you do,” he shook Brent while three of them laughed. Brent wasn’t laughing; he was too tired.

“Vampire hunter,” Brent replied. Steve, the third of Brent’s trio, and Terry laughed a bit too enthusiastically. Lisa, Steve’s date, gave a polite smile, but didn’t laugh. Brent saw her eyes widen slightly and she suddenly looked nervous. “Awww, hell,” he thought.

Brent was already worn out. Terry did everything he could to keep Brent up late to jokingly get in the way of his duties. Unfortunately, he still had to try and patrol after they parted ways, and get to work on time in the morning. He had been cutting his patrols short for about month to get more sleep, and he started to wonder if the karma from that decision was sitting in front of him.

This was the first time he met Lisa, but she met Steve about a month ago. Steve stopped joining Terry and Brent at night because Lisa, for some reason or another, could never meet during the day. She finally felt comfortable enough to meet Steve’s friends and he brought them all to what she said was her favorite restaurant.

“Well that’s interesting,” Lisa said. “Excuse me for a moment,” she suddenly stood from the table and dashed to the back toward the bathroom.

“So, what do you guys think?” Steve asked.

“She seems nice,” Terry replied.

“What do you know about her?” Brent asked. Steve rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“I know she’s not a vampire. Not to kiss and tell, but she’s had more than a few chances to sink her fangs into me, if she had them.”

“Congratulations!” a short, wrinkled Asian woman said from beside their table. She pointed at Brent. “1000th customer! Free food for you and your friends. Come do paperwork please,” she said, then turned to walk to the back.

“Thousandth customer?” Brent laughed and looked around the empty restaurant. “This century, I guess.” Brent stood from the red booth and followed the ancient woman down the hall, then into the kitchen. He was surprised to find Lisa standing in the kitchen looking fretful, next to a mountainous man. The giant wore a cook’s uniform with short sleeves; he had dozens of colorful dragons tattooed on his arms. He focused on the sizzling wok in front of him.

“Lisa?” Brent asked as the old woman walked up and stood next to her.

“She is under my protection, hunter,” the old woman said. “She is innocent and means no harm to your friend.” Lisa nodded quickly.

“I like Steve,” she said. “A lot.”

“Don’t make trouble in my restaurant,” the old woman added. “Lisa is a good vampire.”

Good vampire?” Brent chuckled and shook his head. “No such thing.  Are you a good vampire too?” he asked the woman. She shook her head.

“Donna Chang,” she said. “I”m not a vampire, but I protect the good Fae that pass through my restaurant. Brent looked her up and down. He felt confident she wasn’t a vampire, but something about her bothered him. She wasn’t human. Brent was fast enough to keep up with most vampires, and vampires were possibly the fastest creatures he’d ever faced. He felt confident in his ability to rush Lisa before the old woman knew what was happening; even if she was Fae too. Lisa was a vampire, that was good enough for him.

Brent relaxed his hands at his side. In one fast, smooth motion he pulled the silver dagger from behind his shirt and lunged forward at Lisa.

“Takeru,” the old woman said, without making any moves to stop him. As Brent shoved the dagger forward he noticed the hulking chef disappeared from his station. A golden mist gathered at the tip of Brent’s dagger inches before it penetrated Lisa’s neck. In an instant, Brent was on the ground. On his aching back with the wind forced out of his lungs and his own silver dagger poking at his throat.

Golden mist coalesced above Brent and took shape. It solidified into the tattooed chef with a ham hock hand holding the dagger against him.

“I am officially your employer now,” the woman said. “I’ve let you work in my city because you provide a necessary service; not all vampires are good. Also, not all are bad. Lisa lives, but I have a list of others you may eliminate with my blessing.”

“Hah,” Brent managed a weak chuckle while he caught his breath. “What’s the pay like?” He made the joke hoping to stall and figure a way out. He wasn’t prepared for an answer.

“Enough to comfortably quit your day job, Mr. Swift.” Brent’s eyes widened in surprise for a moment. Then he realized it made sense she was checking up on him. “I know your hunts aren’t earning you anything but sleep deprivation. Now that you work for me, you can get some rest during the day, collect a hefty bounty at night, and eat here as often as you like.

“What are you? Brent asked. “I like to know who and what I’m working for.” As soon as he asked his question, the cook disappeared into a golden mist again. After a moment, he rematerialized in front of his wok.

“I’m Unique, Mr. Swift.”

Old Friends

“I’ll eat its heart,” Bertram grumbled with spite as he trekked up the mountain pass. Day broke. The sun began its ascent on the other side of the mountain. A gentle chill breezed out of the growing light of the orange and purple sky to tickle him. “I’ll use that white mane to wipe my backside after.” His anger kept him warm as every step crunched and sank into the snow. “I should’ve killed the thing sooner,” he directed some of his anger at himself; it was only right.

The Dawn Dragon earned its name from the locals before Bertram was born. It was said that the golden, serpentine dragon hunted just before dawn to enjoy its meal with the sunrise. Everyone in the village was grateful the dragon did not need to feed every day.  Bertram heard the stories as a child but never believed until he saw it for himself.

At 12 years old he was helping his grandmother with some early morning chores when he felt a rush of air from above. He looked up and saw a shimmering, golden body flying by. He did not see any wings. It was as long as a river with its four clawed feet tucked up against it as it glided through the air. A wild, white mane surrounded its neck. His grandmother didn’t seem concerned and the Dawn Dragon did not seem concerned with them. From that day forward Bertram trained to slay the dragon. Now that he knew it was real it meant it was a real threat. And, if it was real that meant it could be killed.

Bertram worked hard over the years. He became a notable knight and somewhat of a local hero. The Dragon had not been seen since he was 12. He tried to organize his knights for a raid once or twice but his grandmother said the dragon was probably long gone by now. It never showed up again and without that focus Bertram let his fame go to his head. He forgot all about it until this morning.

His grandmother’s house lay closer to the foot of the mountain than the town. He felt incredibly lucky he was visiting when the Dawn Dragon flew by and grabbed his grandmother. One second she was feeding the chickens and waving to Bertram, the next second she was being carried off by a golden claw. If he tried to go back to town for his men, he might not have reached the dragon’s lair in time to save his grandmother.

The sun was peeking over the top peak as Bertram found a wide-open cave. He approached it cautiously. He tried to keep his steps light, but the snow still crunched like apples under his feet. The snow ended a few feet before the opening. Bertram stepped onto the bare mountain spot and felt warmth emanating from within the cave. A dim orange light glowed far within.

“You’re a monster,” a frail old voice echoed in the cave. Bertram recognized it and dashed in while unsheathing the heavy sword on his back. He wasn’t worried about stealth any more; his grandmother was in danger. With any luck, his clanging armor would distract the dragon from its breakfast.

He stopped abruptly in front of a campfire. A pair of elderly, wrinkled woman looked up at him in surprise. They held ornate porcelain teacups and looked like they were in the middle of a pleasant chat before he interrupted. They sat on wicker mats and a plate of cookies rested on its own mat between them.

“Bertram!” His grandmother smiled at him. “What a dear, you came to rescue me, didn’t you?” She sighed when Bertram nodded. “I’m sorry, dear. I should have told you a long time ago that she was my friend.”

Bertram had been so surprised by the unexpected sight he momentarily forgot why he was there.

“Where’s the dragon!” he asked and lifted his sword to a ready position.

“Put that away, you’re embarrassing me…,” his grandmother said with a gesture at the second old woman. “…in front of our host: the Dawn Dragon.” the second old woman stood from her seat and nodded at Bertram politely.

“You may call me Donna Chang,” she said with a warm smile.

Ancient Wisdom

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, Ms. Chang,” Frederico said with a sigh.

“No matter how much I focus on the gang,my illegitimate funds are running dry.

I keep having to pull from my business revenue.”

The ancient, Asian woman smiled and nodded.

“Sometimes what you plan is not what’s planned for you.

Running a criminal empire will leave you rotted.

Focus instead on nurturing the talent you already have:

A successful pizzeria is no small prize.

Have you considered turning it into a franchise?”

Wolf Packed

After a vigorous scrubbing in the shower, Curt packed his bags. As a blogger, he could work from anywhere and he tended to move around often anyway. He planned to stay in the city longer but after waking up next to a corpse he decided it was a good time to move. His memory of the night was blank; the last thing he remembered was laying down to sleep in his own bed. He had no idea how he ended up in the field, but something in the back of his mind insisted he killed the stranger. He pushed the uneasy flashes of guilt to the back of his mind while he worked on getting out as fast as he could.

Three and a half hours after waking up, Curt was driving out of town. He felt good about his headstart and realized he was starving. As he drove he noticed a new place he’d never seen before. A bright red neon sign said, “Donna Chang’s” and a smaller “Open” sign lit up beneath it. It looked like Chinese food and he decided to stop in since it was open unusually early; it wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet.

“Good morning!” an elderly Asian woman greeted Curt as soon as he stepped in the door; a jingling bell hung at the entrance announced him. She stopped and looked him up and down. “Just you?”

“Yep, just me.” The old woman nodded, grabbed a single menu from a nearby stack and led him to a red and gold booth. Curt admired the decor as he followed her. Dragons, in one form or another, populated almost all the artwork in the restaurant. “I’m surprised you guys are open so early,” Curt said when he sat down. The woman placed a menu in front of him and smiled.

“Open 24 hours,” she said then winked at him. “All kinds of people show up.” Curt felt like was telling him something, but did not know what. He started to worry she somehow knew about the murder he probably committed. He glanced at the menu to check if what he wanted was listed; then, he ordered before she walked away.

Once she left Curt pulled a silver bullet out of his pocket. He grabbed several from the corpse, and its cash before he left.

“Everything okay?” Curt jumped in his seat and dropped the bullet on the table when the woman startled him. He looked up and saw a concerned look on her wrinkled face. Her eyes flitted between the silver bullet in his hand and his face.

“Yeah, fine,” Curt chuckled and grabbed the bullet from the table. “You just startled me a bit.” He expected her to walk away; she did not.

“Why do you have that,” she asked. Her eyes focused on the bullet in his hands and she nodded her head at it.

“Found it,” Curt replied. “in a dead man’s hand,” he kept that part to himself but he felt like he was telling the truth. “It looked neat.” She laughed at him as if he’d told the funniest joke she’d ever heard.

“It looked neat?? HAHAHAHA” She walked away still laughing. Curt watched her walk into the kitchen through a swinging door. When it swung forward he heard a different, deep rumbling laughter come from in the kitchen. He felt the floor under his feet vibrate.

After nearly 10 minutes of wondering whether they were laughing at him, the old woman walked out of the kitchen carrying a plate of steaming food. She placed the plate in front of him then looked at him through narrowed eyes.

“Do you know what you are?” she asked.

a murderer?” Curt thought, but he managed to get out a safe reply.  “Hungry?” he asked. The woman sighed and sat down in the booth across from him.

“You’re a werewolf.”

“Uh…” Curt had considered the possibility given his circumstances. The poor sleep quality he was getting as well as the stranger he likely killed. He didn’t think werewolves existed; but, hearing someone else say it to him made seem so obvious. She knew he was a werewolf and she still remained seated in front of him. Curt assumed she knew a lot more and decided to trust her. “How do you know? I, uh… I didn’t figure it out until right now when you told me.”  The old woman smiled and golden star-like patterns formed around the pupils in her eyes.

“I can see you.” The glow faded. “Silver is not something you want to carry around,” she advised. Curt nodded and reached into his pocket. He gave her the few silver bullets he stole. He thought maybe he could pawn them, but now that he was a werewolf it seemed like a bad idea. As he gave her the bullets he held on to the last one and rolled it in his fingers.

“Why can I touch it?” he asked, then dropped the last one in her waiting hand. She shrugged.

“Werewolves are people too. Not all the same; different silver sensitivity. But,” she looked at him with a stern expression. “It will kill you.”  Curt nodded in understanding.

“Thank you.”

“You have somewhere to go?” Curt shook his head. He did not think that far ahead, his current plan was just to leave town; something he hadn’t accomplished yet. The woman nodded. “Kill anyone?” She asked so matter-of-factly that Curt thought he could trust her.

“I think so. I don’t know for sure but I woke up next to a body this morning.” She nodded again.

“You probably did, okay. You’re safe, I’ll make arrangements for you. Do you have friends or family?” Curt shook his head. He tried hard to keep his attachments minimal, it’s what helped him move around so freely.

“Okay, eat. You go to new home after,” she stood and walked back into the kitchen.

Offering a Seat

“Mrs. Houston?” Erica heard her name and whirled around. She stood at the entrance to her small, single-office in the run down strip mall at 7:50 a.m. about to enter and start her day. The area’s residents did not stir much until about noon. Hearing her name made her jump; she did not expect to see anyone around. She found a short, elderly, Asian woman standing behind her. She relaxed when she realized a woman that ancient wouldn’t pose much of a threat.

“Yes, Call me Erica,” Mrs. Houston smiled and finished unlocking the door. “Come inside. How can I help you?”  She led the old woman in and gestured at a metal folding chair in front of a small wooden desk. Erica dropped her purse in its usual filing cabinet then sat down in front of the woman. “I haven’t seen you around town, are you new here? Mrs… ” she waited for the woman to introduce herself.

“Ms. Chang,” the woman said with a smile. “Yes, I’ve only been here for a day. The word around the neighborhood is you’re someone that can be trusted; you genuinely care about the people here.” She said. Erica did her best to keep a straight face, but her bottom lip trembled a bit as tears gathered in her eyes. She almost did not go to work that day. Until she heard those words she assumed this would be her last day on the job. She’d spent years trying to make a difference but she did not see any evidence.

The neighborhood and a good portion of the city were nearly overrun by crime. The police were paid, handsomely, to stand around and look the other way; they would not lift a finger. Erica had been doing her best to work with the people that did show up at her door. Not only individually but she often put them in contact with each other. Her plan was to try and foster a sense of community so they would be more inclined to help each other. Hearing that they considered her trustworthy changed her mind in an instant.

“Thank you,” Erica managed to hold back the tears. “How can I help you?” Donna Chang shook her head.

“I don’t need your help, I’ve come to help you.” The frail, wrinkled woman made a show of looking around the office with a critical scowl to give Erica a clue about what kind of help she was offering. Erica sat up straighter and shook her head. She did not know anything about this woman, but she knew Dralio made her a similar offer.

“No, thank you,” she nodded toward the door. “You know the way out, it’s not a big place.”

“Dralio is dead,” Donna said. She did not stand from her seat to leave; she stared at Erica expectantly. The social worker sighed.

“I assume you’ve taken his place?” she asked. Donna gave a slight nod.

“I’m giving you the same answer I gave him. I will improve things here. One family at a time if I have to. I will not send anyone your way for extra…,” Erica raised her hands to form air-quotes. “…’work’ that we both know they won’t come back from. I don’t care if you are vampires. You can kill me, but you can’t scare me off.”

“I am not Dralio,” Donna said. “I am not a vampire. I don’t want to kill you or scare you off. It’s as I said, I came to help you.”

“Uhuh, I’ll bet. What’s in it for you?” Erica asked. The stranger’s calm demeanor helped Erica keep her own feelings reigned in.

“Nothing except for the joy of helping others,” Donna replied. Erica scoffed, then forced out several peals of harsh, sarcastic laughter.

“Yeah of course. Why didn’t I think of becoming a mafia boss to help others!?” she asked rhetorically.

“It’s never too late,” Donna smiled.

“What?” Erica asked with a puzzled expression. “You’re serious?”

“What we are does not have to dictate what we do.

The factions that reported to Dralio now report to me,” Donna shrugged. “He grew cocky, sloppy,” the elderly woman pointed at Erica. “Even you knew he was a vampire. I took his seat to teach him a lesson; but, I have no long-term interest in staying here. I am looking for someone to manage things when I leave.”

“And all these vampire factions are going to take orders from a human?” Donna nodded.

“The vampires are only one faction. There are also the werewolves, zombies, and fairies. They will obey your command as if it were my own.”

“Werewolves? Zombies and fairies too??” Erica asked with wide eyes.

“See? That surprised you,” Donna giggled to herself. “Dralio was very sloppy.”

Stellar Friend

Billy stepped out of a black portal and into a large, messy, active kitchen. One mountainous cook danced between three different stoves. Multiple pots and pans sat on lit burners on each stove. The giant chef moved between the three stoves like a ninja.

“Who are you?” A woman asked. Billy noticed a short, elderly, Asian woman eyeing him suspiciously. He decided he did not want to deal with her and stopped time. The young man turned to find his way out of the kitchen but stopped in his tracks. The elderly woman stood in front of him again with an annoyed look. In the background, Billy heard the chef still stirring his steaming pots. “Who are you?” She repeated the question.

“I’m Billy. #14, La Muerte,” he replied with a sigh. He expected her to introduce herself too, but she did not.

“What you want here, Billy?” she asked.

“I’m looking for someone. Uh.. a friend; An estrella with a star on her hand,” Billy shrugged. “She’s probably with a diablito.” The woman’s eyes narrowed.

“You know Alliane?” She asked. Billy nodded. “No trouble, okay?” Billy lifted his hands in surrender.

“No trouble. I just need to talk to her.”  

“Start time again,” she said. Billy did. The woman nodded and pointed at a darkened doorway. Wait in the back. Too busy in front. I’ll get her.” She turned to head out the door.

“Uh…” Billy stopped her. “Tell her I said please.”

“Okay,” she disappeared through the swinging door. Billy walked to the dim room in the back. It looked to be a private dining area set up for a giant.

“Hey, Billy. What’s up?” He heard Alliane’s voice behind him and turned around. He sighed with relief when he noticed she came without her fiancé.

“Hi. I need some advice.” The woman nodded and walked into the room. She sat on the monstrous table and waited for Billy to explain. “Do you know anything about Derby?” She nodded.

“Yeah, some. Why?”

“You can’t kill someone while competing, right?” Again, she nodded.

“Technically you can if everyone agrees to turn the safety features off. But as a general rule it’s pretty safe.”

“Thanks,” Billy nodded. He wiggled his hand at the air and opened a black portal.

“Wait! That’s it!?” She hopped off the table and stood between Billy and the portal. “You came all the way here just to ask me if it was safe?” Billy nodded.

“Yeah, it’s not a big deal,” he pointed at the black hole in the air behind her. “As far as I’m concerned I walked into the next room to ask you a question.”

“But why derby?” She grinned. “Are you gonna compete?” He shook his head.

“No. My charge is competing.”

“Your charge?” She burst into laughter. “Like a stepson or something?” she giggled. “Worried about Billy Jr. getting hurt, huh?”

“No. I had to be sure he couldn’t kill anyone,” he replied honestly. He wanted to be sure Ray could not permanently harm the other skaters.

“Oh. Why me?” she asked.

“Why you what?” Billy asked.

“Why did you ‘walk into the next room’ to ask me?” Billy shrugged.

“The person I usually talk to isn’t around anymore and my list of friends isn’t as expansive as you might imagine.”

“Friends, huh?” Alliane grinned and stepped out of the way. “I like that. Anytime you need a friend,” she pointed at the portal. “You can always find one in the next room.”