It sounded so ordinary, like a lot of people's childhoods, but I knew that at seven he'd witnessed his stepfather beat his older brother, Nicholas, to death. I had even shared the memory of that other little boy yelling, "Run, Nathaniel, run!" and Nathaniel had run. He'd run away, and been on the streets as a child prostitute by age ten. I'd never asked what happened between ages seven and ten.
This was the first time he'd offered anything positive about his stepfather, and I had a hard time reconciling a dad who would take the kids to Little League practice with the monster I'd seen swinging a baseball bat at those same boys. How could you be both? How could you do both?
"That's the most positive thing I've ever heard you say about him."
"Years of therapy and I can finally say that my stepdad wasn't always a monster. I don't remember much of him before Mom got sick, but that's when he started drinking. He was different when he drank; it was as if he became his rage like I become a leopard. When you first change shape you don't always have much control, and you don't remember what you did when you wake up the next morning. It's not that different from getting blind drunk, except as a wereanimal you have weapons instantly that can tear and claw, and rip people up."
"You were with the local wereleopards here when it happened the first time, though, right? Gabriel, your old leader, may not have been as powerful a dominant as Micah, but he was strong enough to make sure his cats didn't go out killing people when they shifted. Or do you mean he used the new leopards in some of their snuff films?"
"No, even Gabriel saw his duty as head of our pard better than that. That would have been a betrayal that we could have taken to other wereleopard groups and used as an excuse to ask for sanctuary. One of the few rules all animal groups hold to is that you take care of the fresh meat, so they don't have anything to regret when they first change shape."
"Okay, good. Gabriel was a sexual sadist and a lot of bad things, but you told me he got you off drugs before he'd change you into a wereleopard. That made me assume he'd been more careful of you when you first shapeshifted."
"I know you hated him, and I know you killed him because he was trying to kill you, but he wasn't all bad. Almost no one is all bad; that's part of what makes it so hard in therapy. There are so few true villains, just other screwed-up people who pass the damage on. He took care of me, better than anyone had for a long time. Gabriel got me off the streets, cleaned me up, and trained me how to act at fancy hotels, nice restaurants, the kind of places where people take escorts, not whores. Jean-Claude helped him tutor me on the social graces, did you know that?"
He grinned suddenly, as he merged into a long line of cars waiting to exit. "When Gabriel first introduced me to Jean-Claude I thought I was there to sleep with him, and instead I was there to audition for going onstage at Guilty Pleasures. I thought I knew how to take my clothes off onstage, but Jean-Claude showed me the difference between shaking the moneymaker to the music and getting naked onstage, as opposed to a true striptease. I can still hear him: 'One is an art, and the other is cheap and tawdry, and nothing cheap dances on my stage.' God, Jean-Claude was so elegant in everything he did. I'd never seen anyone like him."
"He is pretty unique," I said.
Nathaniel laughed. "He was always a perfect gentleman with all the dancers. He said he couldn't be a good manager if he played favorites, so first he taught me how to be elegantly sexy onstage and then he taught me which fork to use, and not to tuck my napkin into my shirt collar."
I laughed. "I never knew that Jean-Claude took that much interest in Gabriel's wereleopards."
"He didn't usually, but I wasn't just one of Gabriel's wereleopards, I was one of Jean-Claude's dancers, and he always looked after his people, as much as he could. The power structure limited him while Raina and Gabriel were alive."
Raina had been the old Lupa, head lady werewolf of the local pack. Technically I still had the job, but only because the Ulfric, or wolf king, Richard Zeeman, hadn't chosen a new mate who was a real werewolf. I was still the pack's Bolverk, doer of evil deeds, and would kill pack members if it had to be done for the safety of others. When a wereanimal went rogue, the body count could add up quick; really all I didn't do as Bolverk that I did do as a legal executioner was wait for the rogue to kill people. I could do a preventive strike out of the sight of the other cops. I hadn't actually had to kill anyone who wasn't trying to kill me or someone else yet, and hoped the trend continued.
Nathaniel took the exit, and the darkness was more complete as we went on smaller streets and there were fewer cars. "One of my regular customers was rich, really rich, and it was old money, which meant he couldn't
afford to have people find out I was a hooker. He wanted to take me places besides a hotel room and to the kind of dinners where you have more silverware than you ever imagined anyone needing at one place setting. It wasn't just using the right spoon, or fork, either, but a whole different way of acting and interacting with the people while you're at that kind of dinner. Gabriel's background wasn't that different from mine, just a street kid who fought his way to management, so he asked Jean-Claude's advice, and I got etiquette lessons."
I tried to picture Jean-Claude giving a teenage Nathaniel Miss Manners lessons, and I could picture it. He'd taken me through the confusing silverware lesson so I could eat the kind of meals he'd have eaten if he'd been able to consume solid food. I carried three of his vampire marks, which meant he could taste food through me if he concentrated. We'd had dates where he watched me eat, just so he could taste the food along with me. I guess if I hadn't been able to eat a steak in over six hundred years I'd be pretty excited, too.
My phone rang that old-fashioned brrriiinngg; I jumped and gave a little squeak. Shit, I was really going to have to find a new main ring tone; this one always made me jump. Nathaniel wisely turned his laugh into a cough. He and Jean-Claude both thought it was cute. Micah thought I should change my ring tone.
I got the phone off its charger in the center console and said, "Blake here, what's up?" I sounded angry, which was what I usually sounded like when I was scared.
"Did I call at a bad time?" It was Manny.
"No, no, it's great. I need to talk to you."
"I've known you too long, Anita, what's wrong?" Manny had been the one who took me on my first vampire hunt, taught me how to stake them and cut off a human head. He had held my hand while I lost pieces of myself learning the ropes of our shared job. He'd helped me refine my zombie-raising ritual, because he raised the dead, too.
"Jean-Claude treating you badly?" He asked it in that way that older men do, when they feel protective and fatherly toward you.
"No, he's great, but sometimes the bad parts of my job make the good parts of my life hard to deal with, you know?" That was the truth, and so obscure that it was almost a lie. But Manny took it for what it was: all the truth he was getting.