Vradin, Chapter One

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My demarcation day started, like any other typical day in Western Washington, in the rain. Before that day, my life was normal, or as normal as any life gets. Mundane. Certainly, I never dreamed that shape shifters were real, and the only people I knew who thought magic wasn’t an act you went to Vegas to check out wore pentacles and talked up Wicca.

Jody and I were browsing the shops at the Pike Place Market. We had lunch overlooking Puget Sound, and were just about ready to leave when Jody spotted a new vendor. Chibi’s Boutique was filled with a kind of typical retro-hippie flare, from cheap pottery incense holders to hand made “art” pieces that looked like a talented child’s efforts. There were imported sari wraps and fake coin-studded scarfs a la belly dancer chic. It was a fun shop to poke around in. I liked to look at that style, but it’s not my scene. Jody, however, is very into the whole New Age meets Neo-Pagan thing, and she was trying to talk me into buying a faux-stone statue thing.

“It’s a beautiful ancient goddess image, just what you need in that man-cave. She’ll help you get in touch with your feminine side!” Jody was always trying to convince me to get in touch with the divine feminine inside me. I was a little offended at first because, hello, I am a woman. I have all the curves to prove it, too. It’s not like I’m some butch dyke or anything, either. I love primping and shopping and make-up and all that. I just usually don’t have time for a full-out indulgence fest. Jody, however, was not referring to my looks or anything like that.

I hate frills. I love clean lines. I love solid, deep colors. I hate how overused and virulent the powderpuff pink tones have become. I love technology. Gizmos and gadgets of all sorts are a delight to my senses. Jody and I shared an apartment in Tacoma, and because we couldn’t paint the walls or make structural changes without losing our deposit, I went to the fabric store and bought yards and yards of the cheap velvet knock off stuff in a deep brown and pinned the fabric to the walls, my own take on fabric wallpaper sans permanence. While I was at JoAnn’s Fabrics, I found some gorgeous gold gauzy sheer something or other and bought more yards of that to hang up, too, giving my room a kind of sultan’s tent theme.

My bed is just where I sleep, and I never really got the whole dating thing, so I have a dorm style twin bunk bed, with a desk nook under the upper bunk instead of another bed. I have a smaller server rack in the corner and an armoire acting as an end cap to the bed (because the closet is where my dead tech rests until I need to pull something for another something else, you know?). My stereo controls are mounted up the wall, close to the bed. The television set is standing on a brick and board “end table” (because stacking a few bricks and putting a plank across them is the closest I come to making furniture). I did drape the “end table” (okay, I can’t even call it a “table” without the scare quotes, but it works and that’s what matters, right?). I found a nice hunter green in the same material as the walls for that, and the “table” is long enough to hold my assortment of gaming consoles. I don’t really watch TV. That’s Jody’s kick. The TV doubles as a monitor for my media server, and all my music and my movies live on the server.

I get migraines, horrible ones that make it impossible for me to stand at times, and they can be triggered by too much glare, so I taped down the light switch, took out the big bulbs, and hung those tiny little LED Christmas tree lights around the ceiling. I used hook pins that look like those extra support hooks for really long curtain rods to keep the lights off the fabric, just in case.

When Jody isn’t ripping on my room for being a man cave, she calls it my Shroom Zone and accuses me of being a fungus in a prior life time. I generally roll my eyes at her, like I did now, and say, “Whatever, Princess Bitch Queen!”

“That’s rude,” this very metro man said. I ignored him because, well, he was a stranger in the city butting into our conversation. Telling him how rude he was being was dangerous. You never know who will turn out to be a psycho stalker dude, but you can generally weigh the odds toward guys being seriously violent over girls. It may be sexist of me, but I have the unfortunate weight of truth on my side there.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll live to see the day that men tone down the muscle flexing, but the way things are going, by the time I die there will be more women trying to play the macho game than men figuring out that machismo is a losing game.

So, rude man. Ignore and avoid. Should be safer, right?

Jody, however, does not share my point of view. She grew up with a dad who constantly told her, her sisters and her mother that if he wanted their opinion he would give it to them. He meant that about every woman. Jody’s mother is a very, how shall we say, broken woman. Jody’s sisters (Melissa and Anna Marie) learned early on to stay in the background around him, but not Jody. Nope, according to Anna Marie, Jody’s been a mouthy rebel from birth. Hard to blame her, I guess, but she’s absolutely fearless.

Jody turned from me and the statue thing to the stranger. With sarcasm practically dripping from every syllable, she said, “I must have missed when you were invited to our conversation. Please, don’t stay seeing as how we’re so offensive to you.”

The man put a hand to his hip and rolled his neck. “Weel, aren’t you two a matched pair?”

“Mister Snazzy Vest, you invited yourself into our conversation, and I am simply returning the rudeness you started. You are more than welcome to walk away at any time now.”

The stranger was middling height for a man, somewhere between five foot eight and six feet tall. His hair was longer than a military cut, but only just enough to style into a spiky brown duck tail at the front. His skin tone was somewhere between tanned Caucasian and light mixed race. He wasn’t so much slender as he was trim. He wore slacks and leather loafers in shades of brown and a button up long sleeved shirt in white and pale blue plaid, overlaid with a vest with a brown, green and gold paisley print.

In contrast, most of the men we had passed wore blue jeans and sneakers with T-shirts and jackets of varying styles. There were some folks in office appropriate attire, but it just wasn’t the right time of day for that to be the norm. His eyes were distorted enough behind a pair of pale blue tinted glasses that it was hard to tell whether they were brown or a dark blue.

Features wise, he was attractive without being a stand out. There was something in the way his face was put together that made it hard to pin him to a particular ethnic heritage. I mean, his eyes were kind of squinty and his cheeks were more broad than sharp, like a Korean, but the bones in his cheeks were higher up and his nose and chin came out from his face, more like a Caucasian. His lips were full, bordering on fleshy, and his hands, when he fluttered them around in his metro limp wrist gestures, looked like they were a pianists dream: very long fingers, kind of big for the rest of his body, which has always been more of a sign of Middle East meets Africa in the gene pool, at least in my experience.

He narrowed those squinty eyes at Jody and puffed up, the whole shoulders going back, feet braced, knees slightly bent, chest expanding, chin tucking she-bang. I stepped back and put a hand out to Jody, thinking I don’t know what, but wanting both of us to get away from scary psycho dude.

Jody, however, puffed up back at him with the difference being that she raised her chin and she straightened up, damn near gaining three inches in height.

Which is when Carl spotted us.

Jody was a stripper at Lady’s Night. I was a drink server there. Carl was one of the regulars and he knew us by our working names.

“Hey, Tank, I didn’t realize you knew Clare and Neveah. How are my two favorite ladies doing? And what brings you up from Tacoma?”

Carl is a big guy. He’s big in the way dual axle extended cab trucks are big. Going in a straight line, he’s quick and he pulls things along with him. Stopping with a full load can require a lot of room, and he’s, well, he usually runs right over social blunders without ever feeling a bump in his road.

Getting a name and an associate for our stranger did not make him any less scary psycho dude. In fact, I had heard some of the conversations Carl and his buddies had had in the club, and somehow the way they talked about their cohort Tank (I was never clear if he was a friend or a coworker or just some bad ass guy that hung with them on occasion), the way they talked about Tank I had pictured a guy on a par with Carl’s towering physique but with the swiftness of a striking snake. Metro psycho dude was not matching up.

He did get a mean-like considering look on his face when he turned to Carl. Then he turned his gaze back to me and Jody, measuring both of us in a way that, for once, wasn’t about sex. I mean, Jody is stacked out to the Mississippi and very much the picture of Norse goddess meets sex symbol.

Me, I’m girly and I clean up nice, but I’m hardly in Jody’s class when it comes to strut factor. Still, most folks with Y chromosomes have a tendency to look at our boobs, our hips, and our hair long before they look at our eyes. I’d complain, but I get tired of useless whining real fast, and doubly so when I’m the one whining.

I felt the now reflexive pleasant expression take over my face, which was the only face we were allowed to show the clients at Ladies Night. Joe, the owner, was very firm about always looking like we were having a good time. “The boys come here for some peace and good times, not for glum guts,” was Joe’s favorite refrain.

“Hi, Carl,” I said, only sparing him a quick glance. Tank scared me and I wasn’t going to split my focus.

Jody tipped her chin even further upward and pivoted on her heel. I wouldn’t have had the guts to turn my back on psycho dude, but, like I said, she’s fearless.

There was a brief moment while she was looking to Carl where her pissy face showed, but it quickly softened and a slow, genuinely happy smile took over. “Carl! How’s my favorite mountain doing?”

The big man moved up beside me and I stepped to the side, almost but not quite putting Jody between me and Tank to give Carl room.

“Not too shabby, my lovely lady, not too shabby. Something wrong, Clare Bear?” he asked me.

I flicked another glance his way and tried for a happy tone. I didn’t pull it off. “No worries, Carl. I thought you said you were working a job site in Olympia this week?”

“Ah well, Tank wanted me up here for a quick side job and you don’t tell Tank ‘no’. But I should be over to the club this weekend. You two working Saturday?”

Jody answered for us, her smile both flirty and kind of sweet. “You know Joe. You think we’d be allowed to miss it?”

Jody had a huge crush on Carl which, she said, was why she would never date the man. Her track record sucked until she decided that if the men she dated didn’t ask about exclusivity she wasn’t going to assume she got it. And if she didn’t get their exclusive attention why should they get hers? At this time she had three boyfriends, two of whom were good friends and knew about each other. The third was kind of an ass to the rest of us, but Jody had stopped taking shit from men. If he hadn’t treated her right he would have already been out the door.

Carl laughed, rolling with the flirting. “He does like his money makers, doesn’t he? So, if you can save me the corner table I’d really appreciate it.”

“The three seater or the six?” I asked.

“The six. We’ve got a few extra guys on the crew with us this time.”

“Alissa was asking about Davy the other night. He on crew with you?” Jody asked.

Tank was watching the interplay with a sober face and the kind of stillness that reminded me of some of the military men that frequented the club. I knew Jody was deliberately ignoring him, but it was as if he had switched from being very metro mannerisms to fading into the background.

He caught me watching him and made an arched eyebrow face at me. “So you’re Brawnley’s Clare Bear? I apologize for butting into your conversation earlier.” Looking to Carl, he said, “The effect is rather subtle.”

Carl shrugged. “My nose is maybe a bit sensitive.” With a glance to me, he added, “I don’t know what perfume you wear, but it’s really nice, very mellow. I was telling Tank that I need to ask you about it so I can get some for a Mother’s Day gift or something.”

There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on that made me doubt that was really what they were talking about. Maybe it was body language, but as far I was concerned, it was their business.

“I wear Ombre Rose at the club,” I said. Carl had a habit of making statements that were meant to be questions. Sometimes it amused me to prod him into actually asking the question, but I wasn’t up to the teasing right at the moment.

“Have you two eaten yet? There’s this great pub up the block over by the Mexican Consulate. I’d love to treat you,” Carl offered.

I could see the temptation Jody felt in the way she leaned a little forward so before she could volunteer us I said, “Oh, we just ate at the Chowder House, and we’d have missed you if Neveah hadn’t decided to take a tour of the new shop.”

Carl’s face fell. “Oh. Well ….”

I could tell he was trying to find a way to draw things out. I added, “I hate to say it, but we really should be going. But we’ll see you Saturday, right?”

He brightened a bit. “Sure, Saturday. You’ll save me that table?”

“I’ll do my best, but it’s Saturday and there aren’t any good movies coming out at the theaters. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it reserved till ten and after ten all bets are off,” I warned.

“Good to know.” Carl took my hand and kissed the back of it, then repeated the gesture with Jody. He always managed to make it a very natural movement.

. . .

In the car, Jody sighed and started the engine. “Carl is such a sweetie! Why did you rush us off?”

I finished buckling in while she backed out of the parking spot before I answered. “He also has a very scary friend that you were ready to go toe to toe with and I didn’t want to risk that that psycho dude would be part of the invite.”

“Scary? Hon, you are such a timid little mouse! That boy was gayer than the rainbow. You could have taken him with your pinkies tied down.”

“Jody, metro doesn’t mean gay, and, uh, you did catch that Carl called him Tank, right? Have you heard what he and his crew have had to say about him? I mean, Carl’s crew is scared of him, and not in the ‘he can screw with my paycheck’ kind of way, but more in the ‘he can screw with my knee caps’ kind of way.”

Jody made a disbelieving face and scoffed. “That guy? Pa-lease!”

“Besides, what kind of sane guy butts into a conversation between two strangers to complain about them being rude to each other? That’s kind of insane. Insane people do insane things, like go psycho on your ass for no damn reason. Jody, he’s scary, maybe not like ‘I’m a big he-man’ type of scary, but the ‘what the hell is he going to do’ kind of scary.”


“Fine, squeak! Squeak! But psycho dude scared me.”

She reached over and patted my knee. “S’okay. I won’t let the big bad gay pip squeak piss in your Cheerios, mouse.”

Despite myself, I found a grin twisting my lips. “Bitch.”

“Woof woof!”

We laughed and turned the conversation to her boyfriends.