My parents, Alma, and I set off back to the main part of the house after sealing up the vault. Father and I mainly walked in silence as mother and Alma discussed some of the pieces each particularly liked.
“Master, Marco has just finished setting the table for everyone if you’re ready to dine.” stated Mila as we exited the tunnel.
“Oh. You two certainly coordinate well.” I told her with a smile.
Nodding, father said, “I’d say. I’m famished after all that walking. I wouldn’t have believed there was such an extensive underground here if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”
“Don’t forget the theater. There are other rooms as well.” I informed him.
Mother sighed and said, “I thought our initial tour made this place seem grandiose. Whatever are you going to do with all of this space?”
“The company’s still expanding, so I imagine I’ll fill quite a bit eventually. The residential wing is fairly large, and I doubt many of them will want to spend too much time in their rooms each day.” I replied.
“The idea’s nice, but there are only so many people in this city who can afford your rates, son. I don’t see how you’ll continue expanding.” stated father.
“I’m actually quite optimistic about his potential. Considering the extensive training program available here, I could see Best Friend For Hire expanding globally in time. After James has a larger staff, I’ll gladly have some of my own companies contract with him. There’s no end to the usefulness of such a versatile business. For example, I would trust Jarod’s ability to design efficient electrical systems more than most of the engineers in my employ, and he knows even more about automobiles. Considering that he’s demonstrated an aptitude in languages, he probably wouldn’t even need a translator. Without going anywhere else, I could also get models for advertising, an unequalled topiary expert to tend the yard, technicians to install new hardware, and Mila might be convinced develop software if I ask nicely enough.” argued Alma.
“What? Mila’s on the payroll as well?” asked father.
“Well, she does do an extraordinary amount of work.” I told him, though I wasn’t entirely certain if paying her had ever been fully handled. I doubted the politics of employing an A.I. were simple. I needed to ask Aaliyah.
Father looked like he wanted to say more, but he obviously caught my look of surprise when Mila opened the door. Everyone was here, and dressed rather formally. Worst of all, Cosette and Aaliyah were wearing dresses fit for fairy tale princesses.
“James, dear, you hadn’t mentioned this would be such an occasion. I would have dressed up more.” whispered mother as she grabbed my arm.
I whispered back “Sorry. I mentioned you and father were coming, and I guess everyone got a bit excited.”
Marco hurried over to us, and said “Perdono! I hope you don’t a mind, but I got a little carried away in the kitchen, not knowing what a you might want. When I tell the others…” Then he shrugged and motioned toward everyone.
Father laughed and said, “Having been thrilled by your cooking before, I can’t say I blame them.”
Mother sighed before saying, “He’ll never be satisfied with my meals again, I’m afraid.”
Marco laughed and brushed off her fear with a wave of his hand. “I share any recipes you want, okay? Anything for James’ momma.” he assured her.
“Oh… careful. I’ll be asking you for recipes daily.” she teased with a wink.
“Nessun problema!” he replied.
“Look! I’m a princess!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she ran up to my parents.
“Yes, you are!” replied mother as she kneeled to hug her.
“And who is your friend?” asked father.
“This is Cosette! She lived next to daddy and me for a while.” explained Aaliyah.
Cosette curtsied and said, “Nice to meet you. Would you believe James refused to play princess with us?”
“I can’t say he has the figure for a dress to be honest.” replied father.
Mother attempted to give him a stern look, smiling in the process. Then she said, “I’m sorry. I just can’t keep them in line.”
“You say that, but look at Jarod. Quite a fine suit, young man.” stated father as he shook Jarod’s hand.
Mother nodded and said, “Who would have thought that Jarod would wear a suit to dinner?”
“We made him.” stated Ai and Mai in unison, grinning at him as they spoke.
Jarod shrugged and smiled wryly as he said, “Don’t worry. They haven’t ruined me yet. I still have a work shirt on underneath.”
The twins didn’t look pleased by his admission, but I couldn’t keep from laughing.
“Hello again.” stated Portentia with a wave.
“Portentia, nice to see you again.” stated father. Then turning to Brandon and Brenna, he said, “Sorry that we couldn’t make your party, but I hope you two had a wonderful birthday.”
“Oh yeah! That was a crazy party.” replied Brandon.
Brenna rolled her eyes and said, “The craziness was all Brandon, but I did have a great time.”
“Someone’s gotta bring the fun.” claimed Brandon.
“Pick me!” exclaimed Aaliyah, bouncing on her toes.
Giggling, Emma said, “You can plan my party!”
“But that’s not till February.” complained Aaliyah. “Cosette, can I plan yours?”
Cosette frowned briefly, and then smiled. “Of course. I’ll look forward to it.”
“Just be sure to invite her parents, dear. Not seeing James as often has been rough on us.” claimed mother.
Cosette’s smile faltered.
“I’m not sure how much planning can be done in a few days, but I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful time.” I assured her.
“How old will you be?” asked father.
“Twenty.” claimed Cosette.
Did Aaliyah discuss a new identity with her? I supposed that living here at twenty might draw less attention than at fifteen, especially from my parents, but I didn’t really feel she looked that old. Of course, she easily could with a little vampire magic whenever she goes out.
After a little more discussion and some mild urging from Marco, we all sat down for a fantastic five course meal. I wasn’t entirely surprised when one of the desserts available turned out to be cake, especially considering that I had told Aaliyah cake wasn’t a meal earlier. Yet again, she got her way.
Much to my pleasure, everyone managed to behave, and my parents seemed to enjoy themselves. Many compliments were given to Marco, who insisted on serving us with Mila’s help instead of joining us too. Looking around at everyone, I was very grateful to know them all.
“James, dear, are you planning on coming home for Thanksgiving?” asked mother.
“I can if you’d like, but you’re quite welcome to join us here.” I told her.
“Marco already volunteered to work that day, so we’ve gotta eat here! Daddy’s really looking forward to it.” claimed Aaliyah, practically begging with her large, blue eyes.
“I suppose that’s settled then.” stated father as he gave mother a wink.
“I promise you a meal that you won’t a forget!” exclaimed Marco, smiling at them.
“I doubt I’ll forget anything you cook. This… this was amazing.” insisted father, gesturing to his empty plate.
Conversation continued for a while until Brandon had to excuse himself to get ready for a job. I borrowed Aaliyah from Cosette, promising to return the captive princess soon, and guided my parents and Alma upstairs as I carried my secretary, followed closely by Mila, of course. I was amused more than surprised that Aaliyah already had documentation prepared to lease out my collection. When father asked how she was so prepared, Aaliyah explained in excessive detail how she had been looking into possibilities ever since I mentioned the idea to her.
We all chatted for a while longer before father decided that he was needed at home, so Mila fetched the documentation for the purchase of his business, though I had to promise him twice that I would look over it tonight as well. Alma stood by my side as we watched my parents heading down the drive in father’s car.
“James, we need to talk about you purchasing Somerset Suites.” stated Alma.
“You’ve found evidence of some sort of creature frequenting there, so you want to set a trap?” I asked, having considered why she didn’t simply barge in like normal ever since the purchase was brought up.
She smiled at me and said, “Nice to see you were paying attention, but there are more than a few types of creatures which frequent that hotel chain. I believe we’ll be able to strike quite a decisive blow to dangerous creatures in this area if we work together.”
“Possibly, but I will look into each one. I don’t want more of ‘the good ones’, as Portentia puts it, harmed.” I told her.
Alma sniffed loudly before saying, “Just because you don’t catch them harming anyone doesn’t mean they haven’t.”
“Tell that to Cosette. I’m sure she’ll gladly join your family after finding out you murdered her parents.” I replied sardonically.
Alma wasn’t amused. I felt her magic surging within her, but her face was perfectly impassive. We stood there, watching one another for a minute, and I could feel her magic subsiding.
“Had I known that one of her parents was part of my family, I wouldn’t have dealt with them so quickly.” stated Alma.
I nodded and said, “If you hadn’t decided to kill them without further investigation, you might have found out more sooner. She’s a good person, vampire or not.”
Alma seemed frustrated, clenching and unclenching her hands before she said, “Point taken. The more pressing matter is that I believe the creator of the zombies might reside there. Please, help me find him.”
While focused on saving lives, I hadn’t really considered that such evil might actually dwell in my father’s hotels. “We’ll find him, Alma, but carefully. Let’s be sure we have the right person.” I told her, wondering if “person” was even the right word. I’d need to acquire father’s hotels quickly.