11. The Udon Incident

Towson, MD June 21, 2004

Etienne sat on the side of his bed for a moment and delved into his memory for a particular phone number he hadn’t used in over two years. He then tapped those numbers into his cell phone.

A young, male voice eventually answered. “Prospero’s Books, how may I help you?”

“Hello,” Etienne said cheerfully. “I’d like to speak to Cassie Blair, if she’s available?”

Uh… hold on a minute, let me see if she’s here—” and he was put on hold, listening to some kind of new-age vocalist—sounded like Enya, perhaps? —until the phone was picked up again.

Hi,” another voice answered, warm and feminine, but still not Cassie. “She hasn’t come in yet, but I expect her in later this evening. Would you like to make an appointment?”

“Yes, but I’d like to leave my name and number for her, if that’s alright?” Etienne asked, and then gave his number. “Tell her it’s Steve Bishop—yes, that’s right. Thank you.”

“Bishop?” asked Dr. Hewitt, now emerging from the bathroom, fully clothed, his moustache freshly waxed. “I thought your name was Copperfield?”

“Bishop is the name she knows me by,” Etienne said, ignoring the unspoken query about whether perhaps Copperfield wasn’t his real name either. No doubt they’d be getting to that matter soon enough, but it would be a longer conversation than he wanted to have right now. “I’m sure she’ll call me back in a few hours. Meanwhile, we should probably figure out what to do about that girl—”

“That girl?” Charles echoed, in what couldn’t possibly be total obliviousness but was certainly a wonderful facsimile of it. “Oh. That girl.”  

“If she’s smart,” Etienne continued, “she’ll have called that travel agent back first thing this morning and taken the next available flight back to Chicago.”

“Yes, but it’s not so much if she’s smart, is it?” Hewitt pointed out. “It’s her boss—this professor—calling the shots, and she’s clearly quite intimidated by him.”

“Well, if he’s smart, he’ll just have her come home. If he’s just the city’s airport minder, we’ve gone way beyond his jurisdiction now.”

Dr. Hewitt was straightening up, folding his pajamas (burgundy silk, with blue piping and a monogram on the pocket) neatly into his suitcase. “I’m not sure he is all that smart.”

“Then we can send her back ourselves,” Etienne said. Then added, a bit carefully, “She needn’t remember anything about it, naturally—it’ll be as if we just vanished off the plane, and I’m sure he’ll understand the cause.” As a vampire, and especially a Ventrue, Charles would of course know exactly what he meant—the odds that he’d never mesmerized a mortal or two of his own were low indeed; but Ventrue, and especially an English Ventrue, were also prone to thinking it gauche to mention such subjects too directly. He had no desire to add to the Tremere reputation for gracelessness.

“But after forcing her to get her on the plane, how will he react if she comes home empty-handed, without anything more to show for it?” Hewitt protested, “He doesn’t seem to be the forgiving sort.”

“The forgiving sort? What’s to forgive, he’ll know we didn’t exactly give her a cha—”

Etienne stopped mid-sentence and turned to peer frowningly at Charles’ face, which was still a blank coin free of any apparent stamp beyond befuddled innocence.

“Even if he’s a blithering idiot,” he went on after a moment’s silence, “his reaction should be to realize he’s dabbling in waters far too deep for him, and he should be grateful to get her back at all.

“Well—well, one would hope,” the Ventrue demurred meekly, “but I wonder if hope is warranted. Copperfield, she’s little more than a child—”

“Be that as it may, she’s not ours to drag along with us! She belongs to another—for God’s sake, have you forgotten the law?” Etienne protested. He realized he was raising his voice, possibly to the point where little mortal ears in the next room could hear, and forced himself to bring it back down.

“Look, Hewitt—what else can we do? We still don’t know if this was just coincidence—or if her master is connected to that sinister fellow Ms. Webster caught a glimpse of in Houston. This whole thing is probably just a random encounter and the pique of a petty little tyrant.  Probably. But if someone else put sufficiently persuasive pressure on him to tell them when we were there, or where we went? I’d rather not bet our lives, or your students’, on his discretion.”

“I know.” Hewitt took a breath. “It’s just that—” He stopped, glanced towards the door between the students’ room and their own, just as there was a tentative knock on it from the other side.

Etienne stood up as the Ventrue went to the door and opened it, admitting his two grad students, with Chloe following close behind.

Dammit.

“Well! I hope everyone is rested up and ready to work,” Hewitt began, and then hesitated.

“Actually, Charles—” Diane interjected. “Not quite yet. We were thinking maybe we should have dinner first? I mean, we can talk over dinner, that’s fine—“

“It’s—it’s a little late for dinner, isn’t it?” Hewitt protested. “I mean, we’ve already—“

“I know, I told them it was,” TJ said. “But they said we should wait for you, and I’m starving.”

“I’m sorry, it was all my fault,” Chloe said, sounding a bit embarrassed.

“We had the car,” Diane put in. “Chloe didn’t have any luggage or … or anything, so we went shopping, and that took a little longer than we thought it would. And there’s not that many places to eat within walking distance, so I really apologize for not getting the car back earlier. But now we can all go together.”

“No, no, don’t apologize,” Hewitt said hastily.  “Of course we can all go together—let’s see, where was that list of local restaurants?”  He turned back to the desk and began to flip busily through the hotel guidebook.

“Just a moment—” Etienne was startled by the sudden change of focus, and the protest he wanted to make collided with his train of thought about the acceptable way to phrase it. If there was an acceptable way to phrase it… clearly, he was swift becoming a sane minority of one. Also—dinner?

“Hold on,” he tried again, looking dumbfoundedly from the Ventrue to the kids. “I’m a little confused on the plan here. She doesn’t have luggage because she’s…just how much clothing did you buy? And have we all forgotten that she admitted to spying on us for an unnamed employer?” he finally blurted out.

“That is true, of course—” Hewitt said frowning. “Unless perhaps she’d be willing to tell us his name now?”

“I—I can’t,” Chloe said, looking down.  “I’m sorry.”

“Have you spoken to him, since you got here?”  Etienne asked her directly. “What have you told him so far?”

“Nothing!” Chloe protested. “I haven’t talked to him. I did leave a message, I told him I was here, but he—he wasn’t available.”

“But he might call back, and then what will you tell him?” Etienne glanced at the others. But he still seemed to be the only one thinking any of this through. “Our reasons for being in Baltimore aren’t any of his business—or hers. And we can hardly have a dinner discussion of it with her at the same table.”

“Well… we may not have much to discuss, yet—” Hewitt said. “We’re waiting for that associate of yours to call us back, aren’t we?”

“We could just postpone the work stuff until after we get back from dinner,” TJ pointed out. “I mean, we all have to eat, right? We can talk about something else.”

“Exactly,” Hewitt blithely agreed, brandishing the restaurant list.  “Now, let’s see—what are you in the mood for?  I’m seeing Chinese, Italian, a place that claims to be Japanese… a place that claims to be Mexican…”

“Japanese,” said Diane promptly. “I haven’t had sushi in ages.”

“Ah, an adventuress—” Hewitt looked around at the others. “Thomas? Chloe? Mr. Copperfield?”

“Sushi sounds good,” TJ said, and Chloe nodded.

Obviously it didn’t really matter what Etienne thought at this point. They’re your students, so it’s your Masquerade, Professor, he grumbled to himself. Still, it made him uneasy. And the more they see, the more I’ll have to erase later.

“Fine, we can do dinner,” Etienne said at last. “However, if Chloe is joining us—I must insist her phone remains here at the hotel.”

“It’s turned off,” Chloe pulled it out of her pocket to show him. “To—to save the battery, I didn’t have the charger with me.”

“Fine. Leave it here.”

She instantly looked ten times as nervous. “Uh—what about in Diane and TJ’s room?  Just—just in case we get back really late?”

He nodded, waving his hand.  Chloe handed the phone over to TJ, who ducked back through the open door into the adjoining room, and set it on the table.

“Excellent,” Hewitt said, picking up his satchel. “Let’s be off then!”

Etienne checked his keys, his wallet, and his hair—no change there, alas, it was still 14th century hair. And here I thought having another Kindred’s ghoul spy among us would be the biggest problem I’d face tonight. But no. Sushi? Really, Professor? Sushi.

A strange word to strike terror into the heart of the undead, but there you had it.


 

Dinner might have been an amusing adventure, except, of course, it wasn’t.

They were seated promptly, in a round corner booth. Dr. Hewitt made sure the satchel containing his precious relic was situated on the seat between himself and Diane, with Etienne on his other side. This put all the mortals on the far side of the table, which gave them entirely too good a view of the spectacle about to ensue.

In the course of his duties as Pontifex for the Far Eastern Region, Etienne had attended several business meetings with the Japanese kue-jin and their mortal entourages—so he was at least somewhat familiar with the names of dishes listed on the menu, though naturally he’d never tasted any of them. Given the prospective audience, he settled on a bowl of udon with egg and a cup of green tea, as being the easiest to fake eating.

The students, of course, had no such worries. Diane ordered a sushi platter and miso soup, TJ ordered sushi and unagi, and Chloe decided to try a chicken teriyaki bento, not being entirely convinced that raw fish was as delicious as her new friends insisted it was.

Dr. Hewitt, after studying the menu with a rather puzzled frown, decided on chicken tempura. Etienne had hoped—though he recognized such optimism was likely futile—that meant the Ventrue actually had some clever tricks up his sleeve to handle it all.

Instead, it appeared he could barely handle his chopsticks. His first attempt to grasp a piece of the batter-coated chicken flipped entirely out of his hand, and he was forced to retrieve it (with exclamations of embarrassment over his own clumsiness) from the floor, placing the offending chunk on the place mat next to his plate. He then made use of his knife and fork to cut the pieces into manageable size,  attempting (not entirely successfully) to dip them in the sauce without losing them, and pushing them around on his plate amid remnants of batter with chopsticks. All the while, he kept up a steady stream of conversation with the students (and of course, with Etienne himself, who understood the value of talking as an excuse to not actually engaging in eating).

However, it was not easy to keep up with conversation regarding the history of the Shogunate, or the relative merits of Evangelion versus Princess Mononoke, or whether it was better to watch anime in original-Japanese-with-subtitles, or the English-dubbed versions—all the while aware that three pairs of little mortal eyes were watching every move of his spoon. Or when his thoughts tended to revert to mantras like Fucking English Ventrue, Putain d’idiot Ventrue anglais over and over again.

TJ polished off all his sushi and was already debating the choice between ginger-flavored or green tea mocha ice cream for dessert. There seemed to be fewer chicken tempura pieces on Dr. Hewitt’s plate, though it was also littered with so many broken pieces of the batter coating, it was hard to tell.

Etienne finally managed to catch the attention of their waitress, who had been occupied with the loud yuppie-bohemian crowd over at an adjoining table, to come and take plates away. She didn’t seem surprised at the nearly-full udon bowl—apparently she was accustomed to the average customer being unable to finish one.

She also took the dessert orders, at least from Diane and TJ. “Oh, none for me,” Etienne said, raising his hands. “I couldn’t even finish my soup!”

Dr. Hewitt likewise declined. “Yes, that was quite a dinner, really—much more than my usual. I couldn’t hold another bite!”

An unfortunate—or unintentionally revealing—turn of phrase, and it reminded Etienne that it had been two nights since he’d properly fed. Well, hopefully when Cassie called, she might have an answer to that dilemma as well.

The ice cream arrived, and Etienne simply nursed his tea, pretending to sip at it now and then, reminding himself that this painful ordeal was nearly over.

“This is so good,” Diane’s eyes closed in rapture over her ginger ice cream. “It’s—sweet, and still has a gingery bite to it. Charles, you should really try this—here, I’ve got a clean spoon—”

“Well, maybe just a tiny taste—” Hewitt admitted, and leaned towards her, over the satchel.

What? Oh, good God, what is he thinking? Ventrue were known to be finicky eaters even when it came to blood, after all—and a Ventrue barfing up force-fed ginger ice cream in public would be just the direction their luck seemed to be heading.

Etienne prayed silently for deliverance.

Fortunately for all concerned, Hewitt only nibbled at the end of her spoon, and didn’t seem to actually swallow. “Oh, my, that is lovely,” he said at last. “No, I don’t need any more than that. Must watch my weight and all.”

Finally the waitress brought the bill, which gave Etienne something more substantive to do than pretend to drink his tepid tea and try to refrain from visible eye-rolling. At least his discretionary budget could stand the strain, even if his nerves were down to their last tangled, fraying threads.

And then, quite fortuitously—as soon as he signed the bill and put his credit card away—his cell phone rang. The number was unfamiliar, but it seemed to be a local area code. Dieu merci. “Excuse me, I had better take this one—” he said, sliding out of his seat, phone in hand, and made for the restaurant’s front area for a bit of privacy. “Hello?”

“Good evening. Mr. Bishop?” A woman’s voice, with an English accent, and very familiar. “It’s Cassie. How are you?”

“Ah, very well,” he said, and felt all the accumulated stress of the past hour recede just a little. “Guess who’s in town with a couple of friends?”

“Oh, really? Should I be worried?  Or more to the point, should I let my… uncle know?”

He took her meaning at once—does my Regent know you’re here? and chuckled. “No, not with these friends—and let’s not involve your uncle just yet. But I would like to consult with you about some things. Tonight, if that’s possible? Sorry for the short notice, but matters did come up rather all of a sudden.”

“Oh, no problem. You know I’m always glad to see you. Do you want to come out to the house, or the shop? I’ve got appointments ‘till eleven, but I could cancel them if need be.”

“The shop, I think, would be best. We’re not far away, just finishing up… dinner.”

“Dinner?” she echoed, in a tone that could either be puzzlement or amusement.

“Yes, dinner. Don’t even get me started—” Etienne glanced back to their table, where Dr. Hewitt was smiling with his hands raised, fending off an apparent assault from a plate of almond cookies. “I don’t think you need to cancel, I’m sure we can just browse in the shop for a bit. I do have another favor to ask, however. Regarding… a certain friend of yours.”

“A friend of mine? That sounds ominous.”

“No, no, it’s not, really,” Etienne assured her, wondering which of her friends she thought he actually meant. “You see, he offered me a tour a while back, and I’d very much like to take him up on it now, but given the situation I was thinking it might be a bit… awkward if I just show up on his doorstep. Also, I’m not even sure where his doorstep actually is.”

“Ah, yes, I know who you mean. Awkward is certainly one way to describe it—but we can discuss it when you get here. I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Thank you, my dear,” Etienne found himself smiling, just basking in the moment with someone he didn’t have to worry about or lie to. “It’ll be lovely to see you again.”

“Likewise.” There was genuine warmth in her voice. “I’ll be watching for you.”

Etienne returned to the table, but remained standing. “Talk about perfect timing. That was my associate. As soon as we’re all finished here, we can go meet up with her. It’s quite close, actually, just around the corner from here.”

“Excellent!” Hewitt smiled, and then seemed to hesitate, glancing over at the students. “But shouldn’t we, uh… go back to the hotel first? I mean, if we’re going to talk about our actual work….”

“Wait a minute,” Diane interjected. “Please don’t say we have to wait in the hotel again.”

“Yeah, remember what happened the last time—” TJ added, his long fingers tapping the bruised area up near his hairline.

Chloe glanced over at TJ, looking a bit confused—clearly she’d either not heard the story, or had naturally assumed the only person being dropped off at the hotel would be herself.

“Hmm, that is a good point—” Hewitt frowned slightly. “Perhaps we should stay together, but—”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Etienne said, hoping that was indeed the truth. “As it happens, she works in a bookstore, and we’re meeting her there. So everyone can at least browse around downstairs. There’s even a coffee shop—”

“Ah, splendid,” Hewitt said, brightening.  “Just the thing, a spot of caffeine to keep us going!”

Etienne’s mouth opened, then closed before his thoughts actually became words and escaped, most likely ones he would later regret. But he silently cursed all Ventrue and their beaming, addle-witted progeny quite vehemently in medieval French all the way out to the sidewalk, until the thought of seeing Cassie—known also to him as Sarah McCullough, his younger sister in House and Clan Tremere—brightened his spirits once again.

To Be Continued…

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