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Interlude: Charlotte Abigail Winterbourne’s First Day on the Job
Several Days Later
Charlotte arranged photos of her family around her desk. Her parents – Laurence and Sarah – to the left of her computer, her elder brothers James and Henry, and the babies – twins Emily and Anne, on the right. She’d just settled in to do some reading for her classes, surrounded by family, when the front door opened to reveal not the first client of the day, but the guy who’d interviewed for something on the same day as she had!
She smiled, happy that he’d been given a chance to prove his worth and glad… well, pleased to have another brand new co-worker to learn the ropes with. He seemed like a nice enough fellow. Poor thing seemed so insecure. Sure he put on a front; all rigid and in total control, but his eyes gave him away. They shifted all around the room as if looking for an exit, just in case he wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Morning, um… what was your name again? Sorry, but I don’t think we were introduced the other day and I’m a teensy bit nervous, myself. This is my first day on the job, too.”
He extended his hand, dropping most of the armful of books he’d brought in as he did so. “Chalmers, Hugh Chalmers.” He’d probably meant that to come out like James Bond, but the effect was startlingly like Peewee Herman, instead.
Charlotte fought back the smile threatening to crease her lips. She’d been raised better than to laugh at another’s misfortune. “Here, Hugh,” she offered, coming out from behind her desk. “Let me give you a hand with those. Nothing like a bunch of slippery old books to make you feel…” She stopped in mid-sentence, noticing the titles of the books in her hands. The New World Grimoire? Demons, Spells, and Prophesies? What kind of nonsense did this man read?
Handing the books over, she wondered what kind of guy his age was so involved in Dungeons and Dragons that he’d brought his play books to his first day on a new job.
“Are you meeting your friends after work?” Charlotte’s curiosity got the better of her manners. “You must’ve played online to have a group in the States already.”
“A group?” Hugh looked at her as if she were insane.
“Well, yeah. Why else would you be carrying playbooks about Demons and Spells, seein’ as we don’t live in Medieval times anymore?”
He snorted. The fool actually snorted at her! Dismissing her as if she were a mere child. Fifteen minutes into their association and he was working on her last nerve. She so couldn’t stand game-playing nerds like him – the ones that got so absorbed in their crap that they thought the rest of the world was out of whack. She’d had enough of that with James, thank you very much. It was the last thing Charlotte wanted to deal with while trying to make a good impression with her new bosses.
“Now see here, Miss… Winterbourne, is it? I’m here to work, not play these silly games you’re talking about. Some of us have a firm belief in the work ethic, and…”
“Sure, whatever!” She raised her hand in his face, dismissing him, and went back to her own course books.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Hugh sit at his desk, obviously at a loss for something to do. Mr. Angel probably hoped he wouldn’t show up, if their rather volatile first meeting was anything to go by.
After one of the longest hours in her entire existence, Charlotte excused herself and went into the kitchen to make an espresso, It held the air of the recently modernized, and she could feel Nina’s touch. As she made her way back to her desk, she wondered if Mr. Stuffy-pants wanted anything. Her mother’s words rang in her ear in response. Be nice, Charlotte. Always be a good, God-loving woman and treat others as you’d have them treat you.
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask you before, Mr. Chalmers,” Charlotte asked as she approached her co-worker. “Would you care for some coffee? Espresso? It’s all set up in the kitchen if…”
“No, thank you. Some tea, perhaps?”
He looked like a little boy lost at that moment. Adrift. Hopefully the boss would come down soon and cut the poor guy some slack. Waiting around with nothing to do had to be tough on him. Charlotte shook her head. All this jumping around from sympathy to annoyance was giving her a headache.
The phone rang, and she pounced on it. Anything to break up the awkwardness of being alone with Hugh Chalmers.
“Good morning, you’ve reached Angel Investigations. How may we help you?”
Who the hell are you? Nevermind. Get Angel the fuck over here right now. There’s a bunch of Drathaa’g demons attacking a gym on the West side, and…”
She stared at the receiver in her hand, stunned speechless at the caller’s yelling, not to mention what he was yelling about. Demons? Then the receiver **clicked** and went dead in her hands.
“Hello? Hello!” she tried to no avail. Did the stuffy Brit have more of a sense of humor than she’d thought?
“Was the caller abusive, Miss Winterbourne? Did he offend you?” Hugh’s voice was full of concern; he seemed sincerely worried for her.
“Just a bit of weirdness,” she muttered. “Nothing to be concerned about.” She’d barely turned back to her own books when the phone rang again.
Look, I don’t have much time – I need Angel at… **click**
Her patience rapidly diminishing, she rounded on the only available target. “Did you tell your pals to call the office today, Hugh?” she demanded, not enjoying being made fun of in the slightest. “Did you tell them that harassing the new secretary would be a cute joke?”
“I have no idea what you mean, young lady,” he huffed, puffing his chest out like a penguin. “I am merely here to…”
She cut him off with a withering glare. “To play your geeky Dungeons and Dragons games, and read your stupid geeky Dungeons and Dragons books on office time?” she finished for him. Turning away from the infuriating man, she rose from her chair to get something to eat from the kitchen, when the phone rang a third time.
”God damn it, stay on the phone! The Drathaa’gs are ripping the hell out of…” **click**
“Oh, I’ve had it! I’m not picking up the phone again until I speak with Mr. Angel.” Charlotte was furious. “You have phone duty for the rest of the morning, Mr. Chalmers. I’m too old to be treated like a sorority pledge.”
Hugh looked at her, mouth wide open in shock. He took a calming breath, closed his mouth, but she paid him no attention.
With her resolve firm to ignore the phone, Charlotte peeked surreptitiously over her law book. She just knew he’d been staring at her. It wasn’t fair. This job was important to her, and she didn’t need to be toyed with by a bunch of over-aged schoolboys.
When the phone rang for the fourth time, Charlotte shoved it away from herself without picking it up. Of course it wasn’t that same guy. He got to deal with a wrong number. Anger churned in her belly and she stomped around the office area, checking the walls for hidden cameras. Maybe this was some kind of joke for them; a joke that had cost her three days where she could have been looking for a real job.
Hugh seemed to have given up the pretense of working. He was not standing at the garden door, looking out at the statue with longing.
Charlotte wished he’d just go out there already, and get out of her sight.
She closed her eyes, resting her head atop her arms on the desk. This wasn’t an auspicious way to begin a new job. A hand on her shoulder startled her out of her reverie moments later.
“Oh, please! Call me Charlotte, already,” she sighed. “I’ve had a grand old time being the butt of you and your friends’ jokes. Why should things remain so formal between us?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hugh insisted. “I am newly arrived in this country… Charlotte. I don’t know a living soul here. And I most certainly wouldn’t want to cause you this distress.”
“So, maybe they’re playing a joke on both of us?” She lashed out, accidentally knocking her cup off the desk.
Hugh managed to grab the cup before it crashed to the ground, but the coffee was a lost cause. “They? Oh, you mean Mr. Angel and his fiancée?”
She nodded, embarrassed at her clumsiness and the mess it created.
“Well, whoever is toying with us is certainly no Englishman, nor a gentleman,” he assured her, finding a roll of paper toweling to mop up the spilled liquid. “Do you know when Mr. Angel is due to arrive? Perhaps if we were to talk with him, things would be straightened out, forthwith.”
“I hope so,” Charlotte murmured. “I just want to do my job.”
Hugh nodded. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have a few books to go through.”
And just like that, her annoyance level jumped up again. Being ignored by a geek for his hobby. Wasn’t that always her luck? Stupid nerd.
“Good morning, everyone!” Nina’s dulcet tones rang from the staircase. She carried a very happy little William in her arms. “How goes your first day on the job?”
It took all of Charlotte’s restraint not to blast her new employer for setting them up with those phony phone calls, but somehow, she managed.
“I’m fine,” she bit out, tersely. “Can I ask you a question? Do you get a large number of prank calls here?”
As soon as Nina reached the desks, Will nearly jumped out of his soon-to-be mother’s arms at the sight of Charlotte, who was more than happy to settle the little boy into her lap. At least he isn’t responsible for all this nonsense. “Hey there, Will,” she cooed, tickling his belly. “You’re in a fine mood this morning.”
“We’ve been know to have the odd phone call or two,” Nina said, thoughtfully. “Mostly we just get the people who really need our unique services. Didn’t Angel fill you in on any of this?”
“Not really. He just said to answer the phone, and call either you or him if someone needed him.”
Nina rolled her eyes. “Oh, boy. Looks like a staff meeting is in order as soon as he joins us.” Turning to Hugh she asked: “I gather that there wasn’t anything wrong with your phone calls so far?”
He shook his head. “No, sorry. Other than a wrong number, I haven’t had a thing to do since I’ve arrived. Mr. Angel must have been fairly sure I wouldn’t have bothered to show up after his reception the other day. He’s not happy with me, to be sure.”
“Don’t worry,” Nina soothed. “I’m sure he’ll lighten up. Eventually.”
Charlotte snorted delicately. From the look on Hugh’s face, he agreed with her.
“He’ll get over what, eventually?” called Angel as he walked down the stairs.
Holy Mama! The guy was half naked. And hot! A definite perk.
Nina laughed. “Morning, hon. Don’t you think you’re a little underdressed for a day at the office?”
He looked down at his bare torso, then hustled back upstairs, obviously embarrassed at his state of undress.
Charlotte suppressed her slight disappointment at the sight of that pretty body heading out of her view with a small sigh.
“Not shabby if I do say so, myself,” Nina chortled, and winked.
“I’m s-sorry,” Charlotte stammered her apology. “I didn’t mean to ogle. Well, I did, but I would never…”
“Don’t worry about it, missy. You’d have to be dead and buried not to notice a body like that when it’s flashed at you.”
Whew! Not gonna get busted for drooling after her man, was Charlotte’s relieved though.
At the sound of the lobby doors banging open, Charlotte couldn’t help but give the baby back to his mother. The sight of the large, enraged black man striding towards her desk, his clothing covered in slime, frightened her. His sweatshirt was torn in several places, and one of his pant legs had been shredded away, leaving the leg covered in blue slime and bloody red scratches.
“What kind of crazy assed place are you guys running this time around?” he bellowed. “A man makes a phone call, askin’ for help, and he gets hung up on. Three times!!” He looked around the room, spotting Charlotte, and seemed to focus his rage on her. “You the little so-and-so who hung up on me?”
She was at a loss for words in the face of his anger, and couldn’t take her eyes off the mess now dripping onto the floor. Not to mention that the whack job screaming at her was highly intimidating.
“When a man asks for your help, don’t you stop and think that his life might depend on it? Are you that stupid?”
“Charles, please…” Nina tried to draw his attention.
It was all too much. Charlotte glanced around the room, needing to get out of there. Will seemed unfussed at the racket going on a few feet away from him, safe in Nina’s arms. Hugh sat in his chair, looking a little too smug, and whoever this guy was? It didn’t look like his rage would be banked any time soon. She couldn’t help herself as she burst into tears and ran out of the building.
She didn’t get far. Where would she have gone? Not only was the neighborhood unfamiliar, but all of her stuff was back at the hotel, and she hadn’t even taken her purse with her. God, she felt as dumb as she’d been accused of being.
For the second time that morning, Charlotte had been caught unawares. Apparently, the man who’d been yelling at her had followed her outside. His whole attitude had changed since she’d left the Hyperion. In fact, he now seemed downright solicitous.
“We got off on the wrong foot, it seems. Your boss was a bit close-mouthed on the job details, I take it?”
The young woman could only shake her head in agreement, a bit too upset for words.
“My name’s Gunn, Charles Gunn. I didn’t mean to freak you out or nothin’, but when you’re being chased by Drathaa’gs, backup is more than just helpful.”
There he goes again! What is it with this man and demons? Her composure returning, Charlotte looked straight into Gunn’s brown eyes. “Again with the demons! Are you and Hugh part of the same group of Dungeons and Dragons geeks? Has this been a lot of fun for the both of you?”
“You really don’t know who you’re working for, do you, kid?”
“Well, yeah,” she said, throwing off the ‘kid’ crack. “Mr. Angel, of Angel Investigations, and his fiancée, Nina. They run a small, private investigations office. And I get to watch after little William for several hours a day.”
“Angel Investigations… you ever hear of them before?” he asked her. “Of course not. Why would you have?” He answered his own questions, shaking his bald head. “I’m gonna kill Angel for this.”
Charlotte shivered at the man’s words, unsure of his intentions.
Wait a minute…” A light clicked on in her mind. “Did you say your name was Charles Gunn? Aren’t you… nah, you couldn’t be!”
He stood tall, offering her a mock salute. “Charles Gunn, Attorney at law. At your service, ma’am.”
She gawped at him, unable to reconcile the polished image of the man in her head with the grungy person standing before her. “But… but… you were 2004’s Lawyer of the Year! The most successful ration of cases taken on and cases won that year.”
“Something like that,” he murmured, shyly. They’d walked back to the Hyperion steps by then, and he sat down next to her. This time she didn’t flinch away.
“I’ve heard so much about you, Mr. Gunn,” she gushed. “A lot of my coursework is based on your cases from a couple of years ago.” Argh! She sounded like a star-struck fool. “I don’t understand what you’re doing connected to a small place like this… much less covered in all that smelly goop.”
“It’s all part of what Angel oh so conveniently forgot to mention when he hired you,” Gunn snickered. “Why don’t we go inside and see if Mr. Short on Words can fill in some blanks for you.” He offered his elbow, one of the few clean spots on his person, which she gingerly accepted, and allowed him to lead her back inside.
And stopped short.
Inside where a – a monster in Angel’s clothing was sipping something deep and red from a mug, staining his lips. Nina was polishing an axe, while Hugh was holding onto a squirming William, trying to keep him away from the sharp weapon and from slobbering all over his nice suit.
She sat down hard on the floor, hoping there was some reasonable explanation for all of this.
“It’ll be all right, Charlie,” Gunn soothed, wary of upsetting her. :Let me pour you a stiff one, and get this party started.”
“Charlotte,” she murmured. “My name is Charlotte.”
She lay in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, idly twirling a black feather in her fingers. Today had been rougher than anything she’d expected. Prank phone calls were one thing. To find out there were monsters in the world? Totally something else.
Her mind reeled with it all. Mr. Angel was a-a vampire, of all things. A vampire with a soul – unique amongst such creatures. And Nina was a werewolf! Imagine trying to shave four very hairy legs at that time of the month, she giggled softly.
Demons were real. As real as demon hunters. And there were peaceable demons, too. Just the majority were evil and out to destroy humans.
But little William was a perfectly normal human child, or so she was told. She looked at the feather and placed it on her night table. This was going to take awhile to all settle in, so she would be comfortable with all the facts.
And let’s not forget to mention meeting her legal idol! Imagine that, Charles Gunn. And he knew about demons, too. Would she ever stop being tickled by that?
Well, time will tell, Charlotte old girl. Tomorrow is another day and all that rot. Her eyes drifted shut, and she fell into a sound sleep.