Jason frowned at himself in the mirror, yanking the uncomfortable noose of his tie in an attempt to get the thing straight. Somehow every adjustment he made only worsened the situation. Also it suddenly struck him that instead of recreating the stylishly ruffled look his hairdresser had managed with a single drop of gel, Jason had transformed the mop of his thick brown hair into something suggesting a bird’s nest in the aftermath of a hurricane.
And for that matter, did his black shoes really go with the russet suit he’d chosen?
His cat, Princess sauntered over, swiping her long red body across his pant legs and depositing a fine coat of shed hair before bounding up to her regular bird-watching perch on his widow sill. Jason wasn’t certain if she was having fun at his expense or was just trying to be encouraging in her own way. Meeting her approving gaze he decided to believe the latter.
“Thanks,” Jason told her. “It does add a dash of color and domesticity to the look.”
He heard Henry’s soft laughter from behind him.
Then he caught sight of Henry’s reflection in the mirror and felt his hand clench harder on his already mangled tie. He’d always found Henry striking, but washed, shaved and dressed in a sharp suit he looked like another man altogether—like one of those polished, assured heroes from a spy film—tall, tan and rugged in a way that made Jason’s mouth go dry.
How could he go from a scruffy Philip Marlowe to a blond James Bond in twenty minutes?
“Are you trying to strangle yourself to get out of this?” Henry asked as he met his gaze in the mirror. “Because we could save your life and just cancel—”
“No. I want to go.” Jason assured him. And he did, but there was just so much uncertainty in meeting these people who he wanted so badly to like him. “I just can’t get this tie—”
“Well, the first step would be to stop choking yourself with it. Here, let me.” Henry pulled the length of gold silk from Jason’s hands.
“Windsor or Pratt?” Henry asked and for a moment Jason thought he was speaking in another language, but then he remembered all those diagrams he’d been studying online.
“I was trying for a full Windsor.”
“The knot of kings, huh?” With the nonchalance of decades of practice Henry effortlessly retied the Windsor knot and then straightened the collar of Jason’s shirt. There was something so comforting about meeting Henry’s eyes—seeing the affection in his gaze—and feeling his large, sure hands brushing so gently over the tender skin of his throat and then briefly caressing the short hair at the back of his neck.
“Nervous?” Henry asked.
“Yeah,” Jason admitted at last. “A little.”
“Look, you know that you don’t have to introduce me to them.” Henry said. “I’m not going to be offended if you go solo—”
“No, that’s exactly what I don’t want,” Jason said quickly. “The last thing I need is to be all alone with them. I barely know most of their names. The only one I’ve ever met in person is Bubbie Tillie, and that was one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever had.”
Jason had been so excited, after months and months of searching to at last locate one of his father’s a living relatives. At the time he hadn’t thought that there might have been a reason his grandmother hadn’t been involved in his childhood. Nor had he considered how having him standing in front of her might remind her of how badly she and her son had parted ways and how brutally he’d been murdered ten years later.
Still she’d been kind enough to invite him to join the family’s Hanukah gathering. And when he’d risen from her kitchen table, and thanked her for the tea, she’d stood as well and then hesitantly reached out and hugged him to her frail body. Jason had returned her embrace gingerly as if she were a fragile piece of bone china, rather than a living person.
Even now, he experienced a twinge of guilt, remembering his thoughts. Because he knew he was comparing her unfairly to an ideal grandmother—some woman who probably never existed outside of commercials for cookie dough and schmaltzy holiday films but who had come to represent his only knowledge of what extended family meant.
Or maybe he was thinking of Gunther’s mother, Mrs. Heartman, who, despite her terrifying appearance had clasped him to her bony breast like a beloved teddy bear and almost spun him off his feet when she’d welcomed him and Henry to their Summer Solstice celebration.
“Henry’s said so much about you,” Mrs. Heartman had told him and then laughed, the blood red slits of her eyes crinkling into crescents. “Your really gave those Sidhe royalists a well needed kick in the teeth, didn’t you?”
After that it had been easy to mingle and joke with the odd and alien beings who attended the gathering. Gunther and Keith had flown back from DC for the occasion and Jason spent some time chatting with Gunther’s tattooed, surly lover. Jason found him charming in the way he spoke so off handedly of Gunther, while watching his back like a love-struck teenager. Jason almost thought he could see little white hearts puffing off of the man and drifting after Gunther, but then he’d realized it was just steam rising from the vegetable grill that the Keith worked over.
After the night of barbeque, fireworks and many cups of goblin cider had ended, Mr. and Mrs. Heartman had told Jason that he was welcome in their home. Bleary and tired as he’d been, he’d felt so thankful for their acceptance that it embarrassed him.
When he’d met his biological mother for the first time she’d looked at him with the perfect calm of beautifully carved marble and informed him that she would have devoured him at birth if she’d had her way. His biological father had murdered and tortured countless men and women in his quest to capture and gut Jason. He’d died trying. No love lost there.
But Bubbie Tillie’s estranged son—Levi—had raised Jason and showered him with the wit and affection that he’d needed to survive later foster homes and psychiatric hospitals.
Jason didn’t know if he was just deluding himself, but it felt important to him to reach out to his father’s relations, to try to find what he could of a family. At least that had been his thought when he’d hired the detective who had eventually tracked the Shamir clan down in Los Angeles. But now the reality of this gathering began to terrify him. They didn’t know him—they probably didn’t want to know him. Fear of rejection welled up in Jason, feeling as inescapable as the sorcerous Stone of Fal, buried in his bones.
They’re going to hate me.
Henry studied him, his blue eyes shining like gas flames.
“You’re gonna be fine,” Henry said. Jason couldn’t quite meet his gaze. “And I won’t be offended if you want this just to be you and your family—”
“No! I can’t—I really want you there with me.”
“Sure but aren’t the new relations going to find it a little…queer?” Henry raised his blond brows.
“No... I mean, I don’t think so. Bubbie Tillie said that it would be fine if I brought along a friend.” Jason scowled at himself in the mirror. “Do you mind?”
“Always happy to oblige,” Henry replied and they both knew that he was humoring Jason.
“Thank you,” Jason told him. “I really wouldn’t have asked except that you always seem to know how to be yourself and still talk to normal people. And I… I really don’t.”
“Okay, okay I’ll be your conversational wingman. But honestly, Jason, you’ll do fine. You’re smart, good looking, and rich, who wouldn’t want you for a relation?”
“My birth parents come springing to mind, just off the bat—”
Henry grabbed him and shut him up with a hard, insistent kiss. The earthy taste and rough feel of him made Jason’s mouth almost water from wanting more of him. He invaded and invited Jason’s excited responses with confidence. Jason ran his hands over Henry’s solid body instinctively searching for the heat of his naked skin. He found the buckle of Henry’s belt.
But then Henry pulled back, looking flushed and breathless.
“You’re not going anywhere tonight, if we keep this up.” Henry’s right hand still rested on Jason’s hip.
“You started it.”
“Yeah well…” Henry ran his scarred hand through his blonde hair disheveling a few very gold strands and then gave Jason a crooked smile. “It was supposed to be reassuring. Calm you down a little.”
“Seriously?” Jason laughed at the idea of that hot, demanding kiss calming anyone down.
Henry shrugged and Jason understood. He’d been willing to distract Jason, even take the blame for keeping him in bed the entire evening if that was what Jason really needed. And he might just need it—but not until after he’d faced what faint hope he had with the remains of his father’s family.
Jason drew in a deep breath building a calming blue melody in his mind—the chill of ice and mint filled his lungs while a lattice of cerulean blue dew formed a radiant halo over his head—then he released both spell and breath to wash the tension and arousal from his flesh.
“Wow, minty fresh.” Henry gave a short laugh. “I guess that means we’re off to eat latkes, then.”
Jason nodded, snatched up his coat, then at the last minute decided to wear his glasses as well. The evening was already going to be awkward, the last thing he needed was to get caught gawking at some gape-faced vampire or shimmering fairy that happened to be strolling past Bubbie Tillie’s wide windows.
What Jason hadn’t counted on was that the unearthly creature he needed to stop staring at would be at the dinner party, crouching on the cream carpet wearing only a rhinestone-studded collar and leash. The scrawny brownie sported a little crest of curling pink hair on the top of his head as well as matching nail polish on his fingers and toes. Though by studying the creature directly through the enchanted lenses of his glasses Jason was able to see what everyone else in the room saw—a snaggletoothed, knee-high mutt that looked like a cross between a Chinese-crested Chihuahua and a battered brown shoe. It had been recently taken to a groomer—thus the dyed pink hair and painted nails. Even from across the room, and disguised by some spell Jason could see that the thing looked miserable.
According to Bubbie Tillie, the creature had been abandoned to the care of Jason’s pretty thirty-something cousin, Sarah, after its previous owner had died Jason had heard the story earlier but hadn’t really registered it amid the flurry of introductions to his aunt, uncles, their wives, his five cousins, their spouses and dates as well as a herd of nieces and nephews— every one of whom looked more comfortable in their upwardly-mobile ensembles than Jason felt with this designer tie around his neck.
They gathered in the spacious, ivory, gold and beige living room, while a maid prepared the dining room for their meal. An elegantly dressed brunette in her fifties, poured drinks and from her amused expression and eclectic offerings Jason guessed that she was bartending for the challenge of it more than anything else.
The Shamir clan made for a large and intimidating crowd, counting no less than four doctors—two of them surgeons—three lawyers, two nurses, an architect, a professor of theology and a psychiatrist among them. The men, all of them shorter than Jason and most older, affected hard, white smiles as they circled Jason and shook his hand with mechanically firm grips.
Stealing a glance over his shoulder, Jason noted the touch of amusement in Henry’s expression as he, too, received their polished, professional greetings. Though most of them faltered slightly when they noted his missing finger. Jason overheard one of the lawyers inquire about the injury. Henry informed him gravely that he’d lost the digit in an egg-rolling accident.
Most of the women air kissed Jason’s cheeks, enveloping him in the alien scents of cosmetics and floral perfumes, and then exclaimed at how delighted they were that he’d gotten in touch with Bubbie Tillie after all this time. But it wasn’t delight that Jason read in their beautifully made-up faces; it was suspicion. He could see them searching his angular Sihde features and bronze skin for any resemblance of their own pale, soft, human heritage and finding none.
And he supposed they had every right to distrust a young man who appeared seemingly from nowhere, claiming to be a long-lost relation. In the month since he’d contacted Bubbie Tillie he had no doubt that several of her children had hired detectives of their own to have him and his claims investigated.
He wondered if they’d flipped through pictures of him with his arms wrapped around Henry, attempting to steal sly kisses. Did they already know he studied music at Berkeley or that he often strolled the park in the company of a vivid red cat? Undoubtedly they’d uncovered records of his years bouncing between foster homes and psychiatric hospitals. With that many medical specialists in one family they would have the resources and connections to obtain his files, he had no doubt. Half of them probably thought he was crazy.
Or maybe worse.
Tillie Shamir was not a poor woman, and playing a long lost grandson wasn’t unheard of as a con game.
It was with those thoughts rolling through his mind, as well as a feeling of sudden nostalgia as he took in the large menorah waiting on a console table next to the window, that Jason caught his cousin Sarah’s explanation for the plastic dog kennel that she lugged into the house.
“I couldn’t leave him alone. Last night I came home and he’d nearly chewed through the back door.” Sarah slid the kennel between to beige armchairs. “I have no idea what I’m going to do with him.”
“Just take it to the pound.” That response came from the eldest uncle, Dr. David Shamir, just before he turned to ask Henry if he attended Berkley along with Jason.
“Doubt they’d admit me,” Henry had responded with a grin and then added. “I work for NATO—mostly in the field but I’m on holiday right now.”
It turned out to be the doctor’s wife, Ellen, who enjoyed concocting cocktails. She handed Henry something called a vesper and bestowed a sidecar upon Jason. He cradled his glass in his palm, too nervous to trust himself to drink. All around him pieces of conversation rose and fell. Investments advice, entertainment commentary, gripes and punch lines, washed over Jason, disjointed from their meaning and filling the air like the bright colors of birdcalls.
Two of Jason’s young nieces careened past the long ivory couch, the skirts of their pastel dresses trailing them like tracers, while a slightly older nephew played at chasing them. Jason preformed a series of dance steps to avoid both the girls and their giggling pursuer. He made his way between clots of his unfamiliar relatives to reach Bubbie Tillie.
She smiled a little warily—and he realized that she’d grown more uncertain of him since they’d last spoken. He presented her with the box of chocolates he’d spent the last three weeks securing. She glanced down at the gold box, with its frill of thick ribbon and the flowery foil tag designating the dark chocolate selection as pareve. She looked back up at Jason questioningly.
“These are my favorite, but how did you know?”
“I remembered dad buying them for my mom once and saying that you loved them,” Jason told her though he regretted it almost immediately. Bubbie Tillie’s smile dimmed with sorrow the moment he mentioned his father. From across the room he noticed his youngest aunt, the psychiatrist, scowl at him.
“Well, thank you,” Bubbie Tillie told him but then she turned away and set the box of chocolates on an end table beside one of her many decorative vases. A gaggle of her granddaughters bounced to her side asking if they could light the menorah this year and if there would be latkes at dinner and if her cook had made a special dessert for them. Bubbie Tillie instantly brightened as she took in the circle of noisy little girls. She said something that inspired gleeful cries from them but Jason didn’t catch her words.
His cousin Sarah’s exasperated conversation with her sister and their uncle David swelled through the room.
“I was in shock,” Sarah pushed a lock of her curly brown hair back from her round face. “What was I going to do? There she was standing on my doorstep telling me that her mother had just been shot by a burglar and asking me if I could watch the dog for the night. Of course I said I would.”
“But it’s been three weeks now, right?” her sister commented—Jason thought her name was Abby. “And nobody’s come for it.”
Sarah shook her head, “I went over but the old woman’s house is completely empty. No sign of her daughter or anyone anywhere.”
“So take the mutt to the pound,” Uncle David repeated. He accepted another drink from his wife.
“But it bites,” Sarah objected. “And it’s ugly and really, really old. They’ll just put it down.”
“That might be for the best,” Uncle David replied.
“Not if the owners come back and ask for it. What would I tell them?”
“You look…” Henry trailed off with a frown. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. I was just thinking of the last time I celebrated.”
“With your dad?” Henry asked.
Jason gazed at the menorah waiting there on the table and nodded. It was so much more ornate and elegant than the funky clay one that his father and he had made together, when Jason had been six. Jason’s mother had laughed at it but then agreed with Jason that what it really needed was blue glitter and a few dinosaur stickers.
The people gathered here would probably have been offended at the sight of the thing, but it had given Jason such joy and he’d always felt incredibly proud when he’d seen it shining in the window of their rundown apartment.
Horrifyingly Jason felt his chest tighten at the memory. He closed his eyes against their sudden sting. It wasn’t like him to get so choked up.
“Damn it, Jason—” Henry muttered under his breath.
Jason glanced back to him to see Henry’s troubled expression.
“I’m okay, really. It’s just, you know…” He forced a smile but couldn’t maintain it.
“Sure you are,” Henry replied quietly. He took the untouched drink from Jason’s hand and set it aside on a decorative table. “Orphans and family holidays mix about as nicely as bleach and ammonia.”
“What?” Jason glanced up in time to catch the concern in Henry’s expression.
“Tear gas,” Henry replied. “ Seriously. Do you need me to get you out of here?”
“No. I really am alright.” Just having the offer, strangely made Jason feel a little better. “But maybe you could put your arm around me.”
“With pleasure.” Henry caught Jason’s shoulder and pulled him closer.
Jason had suspected that many members of the family had been watching him surreptitiously. The wide variety of startled expressions that appeared all across the room as he leaned into Henry only confirmed as much.
Somehow remembering that crooked, homemade menorah and the joy it had brought him, freed Jason from caring so very much about the opinions of these strangers. He didn’t hate them—in fact he felt a genuine warmth for Bubbie Tillie and he suspected that if he got to know Sarah he might like her as well—but they were strangers and he wasn’t about to give their values more importance than his own happiness.
“So are you two—” Abby began, but just at that moment the dog burst free of its kennel. It dashed frantically around the room barking, while Sarah and several other family members attempted to catch it. The youngest children squealed or laughed as the small creature shot past. At last Sarah grasped hold of the dog’s trailing leash and animal came to a lurching halt.
It had been at that moment then, as Jason looked over the rims of his glasses that he caught sight of the gasping creature’s true form and realized that a naked brownie, with long drooping ears and fingers like spider legs, crouched on the carpet before them all. The polish coloring his fingernails and toenails looked weird against the knotted tough mahogany of his hands and feet. His pink hair hung in strings over his snouty face and obscured one gleaming black eye.
“He keeps getting out of his kennel somehow.” Sarah gripped the pink leash so tightly that Jason could see her knuckles turning white.
“Where did you say you got him again?” Jason asked, and Henry gave him a quizzical look. Jason knew better than to simply blurt out the truth, not only would the Shamirs think that he needed to be shipped back to St.Mary’s for another round of electroshock therapy, but the Secrecy Act strictly forbid such revelations to the common public. He could get them all in trouble.
So, meeting Henry’s gaze meaningfully he simply said, “He is not a dog… from a breed I’ve ever seen before.”
Casually, Henry glanced down at his watch and Jason noted a flickering green number lighting up the point of the minute hand. Henry’s attention shifted immediately to the brownie. Jason wondered if he was silently trying to crack through the spell disguising the creature.
“No one knows what breed it is but it belonged to Sarahs’s old witch of a neighbor,” Abby announced. “She died and her daughter just left the thing with Sarah. What was their name again? Puce or something like that?”
“She wasn’t a witch. She was just cranky,” Sarah replied. “And her name was duPuce.”
“DuPuce…” Henry repeated then he looked to Sarah. “Mara duPuce?”
“Yeah…” Sarah blinked at Henry like he’d preformed a magic trick. “You know her?”
Henry nodded, but he appeared none too happy. Jason knew better than to ask why. More than likely this related to NIAD, which meant the woman—if she was a woman—had likely broken some law.
“Well, great,” Uncle David snapped. “Maybe you two can take the mutt off Sarah’s hands. In the mean time can we please get him back in that crate.”
Uncle David’s wife took the empty glass from his hand.
“I’m allergic.” She sounded almost apologetic.
The brownie sighed heavily and, with an expression of profound melancholy, let flow a stream of bright yellow urine against the leg of Bubbie Tillie’s filigreed end table.
“Oh for god’s sake!” Uncle David shouted, suddenly red-faced.
One of the younger boys laughed only to be swatted by his sister. Two of the girls howled in excited revulsion.
“Oh no! I am so sorry!” Sarah turned to Bubbie Tillie, pale with mortification. Bubbie Tillie simply shrugged.
“After five children, I promise you I’ve seen worse,” Bubbie Tillie assured her. “The maid will get it anyway.”
Sarah beamed at her grandmother. But then the leash slipped from Sarah’s hand as the brownie made a break for the dining room doorway. It dodged between the family members, tearing across the carpet on its elongated fingers as much as its spindly legs. A cacophony of shouts came from the children but none of them carried over the boom of Henry’s voice.
“Stanley Longfinger!” Henry roared.
The brownie stopped suddenly and spun around to look at Henry… As did everyone else in the room.
“Stanley,” Henry said more softly and he knelt down onto one knee. “It’s Henry, remember? Come here and let me get you back home.”
The brownie stood motionless for a moment then with a weirdly distorted yip he raced to Henry, pressing himself up against his leg.
“You really do know him?” Sarah said.
“Yeah, well it’s a long, weird story,” Henry replied. “But Stanley’s real family have been looking for him for a while now.”
A silence fell over the room. For the first time Jason thought he could clearly hear Bubbie Tillie’s maid setting the places at the table in the dining room. None of the other Shamirs seemed to know quite what to do. Henry crouched down and removed the leash from the collar, hanging around the brownie’s neck.
“You mean he didn’t belong to Mrs. duPuce?” Sarah asked at last.
“No,” Henry replied. “He was abducted along with some twenty others.”
“Really?” Abby asked.
“Okay, so you have to tell us…” Sarah rolled her hand.
Henry sighed and seemed to take measure of the people gathered around him then he glanced to Jason and smiled just a little.
“A couple weeks ago duPuce got wind that the law was onto her. She and her partners ditched everything they could and made tracks for the border.” Very gently Henry patted the brownie’s bony shoulder.
“How do you know all this?” Uncle David demanded.
“Work. Mrs. duPuce has links to an international crime organization.”
“Of dognappers ?” Sarah asked.
“ Human traffickers. The Cruella stuff was just duPuce’s hobby,” Henry replied. “Anyway I can’t go into it in detail; a lot’s still under investigation.”
Again that confused silence filled the room. Jason had to suppress a laugh. These were definitely not people who lived among the surreal and strange.
He could see that Uncle David wanted to object to Henry’s story, while Sarah and Abby obviously preferred to believe it to be in some way true. Degrees of excitement and skepticism showed on the faces of the adults and children alike. Though Bubbie Tillie seemed to be looking at the dog itself and Jason could see the gentleness and compassion in her expression. Then she glanced to Jason and their eyes met. She smiled at him and for the first time he recognized his father’s tender expression in her face.
“Well, if you’ll all excuse me a minute,” Henry said. “I really ought to call this in and see if I can’t get Stanley back where he belongs. His family’s been pretty torn up since he went missing.”
Henry fished a sleek black NIAD phone from his pocket but then paused to assess Jason.
“I’ll be quick,” Henry assured him and Jason knew that he could have made an excuse and it he wished slipped away with Henry. But he realized that he wanted to see that big menorah all lit up and to share a dinner with these strangers, whom he might one day call his family.
“ I know. I’m good here,” Jason assured him.
Then with Stanley the brownie following on his heels Henry slipped outside into the balmy L.A. afternoon.
The moment the door fell closed behind him, Abby spun on Jason.
“Is he for real—”
“Are you and he dating?” Sarah demanded over her sister’s question.
“Yes,” Jason replied to both of them.
“It does have its moments,” Jason responded.
He picked up his glass and finally tried the sidecar. It tasted of brandy and oranges. He’d expected something much more dry and bitter, but now found this surprisingly sweet and warming.