Regardless, days like today were clear reminders of why I chose gainful employment. If I'd had nothing but free time on my hands, I would've spent the rest of the day ruminating about my fate and the potential transfer. Assisting Walter-as-Santa - as absurd as it was - at least gave me a distraction while I waited to hear from Jerome. Vocation gave purpose too, which I'd found was necessary to mark the long days of immortality. I'd met lesser immortals who had gone insane, and most of them had done nothing but drift aimlessly throughout their long lives.
A new elf - one whom Walter had christened Happy - had joined our ranks today, one who was certainly helping pass the time if only because of how much she was grating on my nerves.
"I don't think he should be drinking at all," she said, for what felt like the hundredth time. "I don't see why I have to learn this schedule."
Prancer, a veteran elf, exchanged glances with me. "None of us is saying it's right," he told Happy. "We're just saying it's reality. He's going to get a hold of liquor one way or another. If we deny him, he'll sneak it in the bathroom. He's done it before."
"If we're the ones giving it to him," I continued, "then we control the access and amount he gets. This?" I gestured to the schedule we'd drawn up. "This isn't much. Especially for a guy his size. It's not even enough to get buzzed."
"But they're children!" Happy cried. Her eyes drifted off toward the long line of families trailing through the mall. "Sweet, innocent, joyful children."
Another silent message passed between Prancer and me. "Tell you what," I finally said. "Why don't you make them your priority. Forget about the liquor schedule. We'll handle that. You go trade places with Bashful at the head of the line. She doesn't really like working with the public anyway." When Happy was out of earshot, I remarked, "One of these days, someone's going to report us all to the mall's HR office."
"Oh, they have plenty of times," said Prancer, smoothing out his green spandex pants. "I've worked with Walter for three years now, and Happy's not the first elf to have moral qualms about Santa getting lit. He's been reported lots."
That was news to me. "And they haven't fired him?"
"Nah. It's harder to fill these jobs than you might think. As long as Walter doesn't touch or say something inappropriate, the mall doesn't seem to care."
"Huh," I said. "Good to know."
Beyond the gates leading to Santa's pavilion, I saw someone waving at the edge of the crowd. Hugh. My heart rate sped up. This mall was actually right around the corner from his office, so he'd come by before for lunch. In light of recent events - and the look on his face - something told me he wasn't here for a casual meal today.
"Hey," I said to Prancer. "Can I take my break now?"
"Sure, go for it."
I cut through the crowd and met up with Hugh, trying not to feel self-conscious about wearing the foil dress. Hugh had come from the office and was dressed impeccably, playing up the role of successful plastic surgeon. I felt cheap beside him, especially as he and I walked farther from the holiday mayhem toward some of the mall's more upscale shops.
"I was on my way home from work and thought I'd stop by," he said. "I figured you weren't taking many calls while on the job."
"Not so much," I agreed, gesturing to the tight dress and its lack of pockets. I caught hold of his arm. "Please tell me you heard something. The transfer's a mistake, right?"
"Well, I still think it is, but no, I haven't heard anything back yet - not from HR or Jerome." He frowned slightly, clearly not liking the lack of communication. Underneath that, I also sensed another emotion in him - nervousness. "I've got something else for you. Can we talk somewhere . . . kind of private? Is there a Sbarro or Orange Julius around here?"
I scoffed. "Not in this mall. There's a sandwich place we can go to."
"Sandwich place" wasn't entirely accurate. They also sold gourmet soups and salads, all of which were made fresh and packed with enough prissy ingredients to make Ian happy. Hugh and I snagged a table, my appearance gaining the attention of some children there with their parents. I ignored them as I leaned toward Hugh.
"What's up, then, if not the phantom transfer?"
He eyed the watchers uneasily and took several moments to begin speaking. "I was calling around today, trying to work connections and see if I could find out anything about you. Like I said, I couldn't. But I got caught up on all sorts of other gossip."
I was kind of surprised Hellish gossip was what he wanted to discuss, more surprised still that it had apparently warranted him coming in person. If he'd heard a rumor about a mutual friend, it seemed like a phone call would've sufficed to pass the news. Even e-mail or text.
"Do you remember Milton?" he asked.
"Milton?" I stared blankly. The name meant nothing to me.
"Nosferatu," he prompted.
Still nothing, and then -
"Oh. Yeah. Him. The vampire." A month or so ago, Milton had visited on vacation, much to Cody and Peter's dismay. Vampires were territorial and didn't like outsiders, although Cody had been able to use Milton's presence to impress his macabre loving girlfriend, Gabrielle. Or so I'd heard. "I never actually saw him. I just knew he was in town."
"Yup, and it turns out last week, he was in Boulder."
"So, first of all, it's weird that he'd have two 'vacations' in that short time. I mean, you know how it is for vampires. You know how it is for all of us."
It was true. Hell didn't like to give us vacations very often. When your employers owned your soul, they really didn't feel any need to make your life pleasant. That wasn't to say we didn't occasionally get time off, but it certainly wasn't a priority for Hell. The business of souls never rested. For vampires, this was doubly true because they didn't like to leave their territory. They also had various complications with traveling, say, like with sunlight.
"Okay, so, it's weird. How does that affect us?"
Hugh dropped his voice low. "When he was in Boulder, a local dark shaman died under mysterious circumstances."
I felt my eyebrows rise. "And you think Milton was involved ?"
"Well, like I said, I had time to make some calls and do some research today. And it turns out that even though he's based in Raleigh, Milton travels an awful lot for a vampire - and every place he goes, some mortal in the supernatural community ends up dead."
"You're saying he's an assassin," I said, intrigued but still not seeing the point. As part of "the great game" we all played, angels and demons weren't supposed to directly influence mortal lives. That's where lesser immortals came in, with our offers of sin and temptation. Now, we weren't really supposed to kill either, as far as the game went, and we certainly weren't supposed to do it on behalf of a greater immortal's instructions. We all knew it happened, however, and Milton wasn't the first assassin I'd heard of taking out inconvenient mortals.
"Exactly," said Hugh. He frowned. "He goes to places, and people disappear."
"How does that affect us?"
Hugh sighed. "Georgina, he was here."
"Yeah, but nobody - " I gasped, freezing a moment in shock. "Erik . . ."
The world reeled around me for a moment. I was no longer in an elite mall's food court but instead was looking down on the broken, bleeding body of one of the kindest men I knew. Erik had been a longtime friend in Seattle, using his many years of occult and supernatural knowledge to advise me on my problems. He'd been investigating my contract with Hell when a freak robbery at his store had resulted in his death by gunshot.
"Are you saying . . ." My voice was barely a whisper. "Are you saying Milton killed Erik?"
Hugh shook his head sadly. "I'm not. I'm just laying out the evidence for you, which is compelling - but not enough to form a hard link to Milton."
"Then why tell me at all?" I asked. "You don't like to get involved with anything that questions the status quo." It was true, and it had been a constant point of contention with Hugh and me.
"I don't," he said. I understood now why he was so uneasy. "Not at all. But I care about you, sweetheart. And I know you cared about Erik and wanted answers."