I looked out the window and watched the snow falling. In the days since Adelmar’s departure, Alma had found no evidence of more zombies within the city, but the necromancer was out there… somewhere. How were we supposed to track him, especially without Mila to help? Her absence weighed heavily on my mind. I had grown quite dependent on her and the countless things she did for me in a day.
Before I had really considered buying a new car, Aaliyah convinced me to let Jarod build me a new DB5 from parts she procured, arguing that my old car’s absence would be too noticeable. Father, at very least, would never believe I had sold that car. Mother would have surely been dubious as well. They both knew how much I had enjoyed driving the DB5 and had seen the tech within. No, explaining why I would give that up would be quite impossible.
I didn’t believe either of my parents would truly appreciate how much I missed Mila. My parents seemed to find the idea of an A.I. being employed by me to be somewhat of a novelty, but they didn’t really seem to understand that Mila was a living being. No, she didn’t breathe or depend on biological functions, but she was alive. Her sentience was beyond a doubt in my mind. She felt things. She possessed emotions, emotions that I hadn’t fully appreciated. In her absence, I’ve rethought through many things she had said and done. I think she loved me.
I had no doubt that Mila would be jealous over me agreeing to date Alma, especially so soon after our date together. The incredible things Mila and I had shared on our date were quite literally out of this world. No one would believe me if I mentioned them. Well, Aaliyah would… Carl as well. Evanna had been there too, acting as our guide. She said some of the weirdest things.
My mind raced back to what precisely she had said. How many times had Evanna seen Alma and Mila to be able to differentiate between them? Since Alma didn’t believe herself allowed in the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce, something was going to change for her to frequent the restaurant with me. Mila would be brought back. Alma was right, Aaliyah must have back ups. Questioning how someone backs up a mind was a moot point when I didn’t understand how someone could build a mind in the first place.
“James, are you certain you don’t want to stay longer? I’ll be happy to pay for your time.” offered Mr. Butler, as he stepped up beside me.
The Butlers had hired me today to act as a mediator between him and his wife. They had plans to remodel part of their home but couldn’t agree on the specifics. Officially, I was here as an interior designer, though I hardly qualified in my opinion. Aaliyah had scheduled for me to study all morning for this assignment. The lessons weren’t the same without Mila talking me through them. Fortunately, Edwin and his wife both had great ideas for the remodel already. I simply needed to point out the common ground between the two and help the ideas meld together.
“No, thank you. My girlfriend is waiting for me nearby, and I mustn’t keep her waiting too long.” I replied.
“Oh!” exclaimed Mr. Butler, laughing as he did. “No, you don’t want any of that sort of trouble. Thank you for your time. You made this whole process much more enjoyable.”
I made my farewells to him and his wife, and then stepped out into the brisk November air. Thanksgiving was approaching rapidly, and I hoped Aaliyah would be able to finish repairing Mila before my parents arrived for the day. I sighed. Aaliyah had practically been unavailable for the past few days. She would reply whenever I messaged her, but she never came over. I missed the company. Alma was… intense… these past few days, training me to participate in duels.
I was appalled upon hearing the details of this influential family’s love of dueling. Films of the Wild West had made duels seem grisly enough, though what I remembered from history classes romanticized the proceedings. Duels in the Slayer family were frequently fought to the death. Seconds, instead of acting as arbitrators seeking peace, were often there to force an opponent’s hand.
Alma had acted as a second several times, knowing that her presence would cow the opposition into “disgracefully” forfeiting. The seconds, after all, could “pick up sword” and fight if not satisfied with the outcome, and no one in the Slayer family wanted to face her. The idea that swords were still commonly used was a bit disturbing to me as well. Guns, thankfully, were a rarity, not because they were forbidden, but because they were considered boring. I spent the remainder of my walk thinking again about what I was getting myself into.
Alma looked out the window of the cafe as I approached, recognizing my body heat among all these people. The snow hadn’t seemed to put off anyone’s desire to shop. Of course, Black Friday was approaching as quickly as Thanksgiving. Of the many things for which I was thankful each Thanksgiving, I was glad my parents never made me shop on Black Friday. The day was a blight, banishing good will and replacing it with greed.
Something hit my back hard, and I stumbled forward. Twice more I was struck, sending me sprawling. I rolled to the side as I stood, barely missing a shopper. I felt Alma coming toward me. Her magic was obvious. She was angry about something. I needed to calm her down. I stood as quickly as I could without startling those around me. A man next to me jumped as Alma came to my side in full haste, throwing discretion to the wind. She casted a spell I recognized. The man probably forgot us completely as he walked around us. Memory spells were a bit finicky.
Gently hitting my chest with her fist, Alma said, “You startled me. Did you deflect them?”
I stared at her, feeling confused. Was this some sort of training that I failed? I felt her hand on my back as something warm was peeled off my skin. Wait. My back was bare? No. There were holes though.
“Your coat is ruined, and you simply can’t be seen like this. Head home quickly and avoid detection. I’ll meet you there.” she ordered.
“What’s happening?” I asked her.
“This isn’t the time, James. I’ll be there soon.” she claimed, casting an illusion on my coat as she gazed up at me.
I didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t want to argue right now either, not while caught up in something I didn’t understand. “What hit me?” I asked her.
She placed something warm in my hand and said, “These. Now go!”
She ran, and I was tempted to chase after her. I froze in place as I looked at what she had handed me. There was only a moment of confusion before I realized that I had been shot three times. I was part terrified by the thought, part amazed that the bullets didn’t pierce my skin. I did, however, feel bruised. I hurried home, no longer wanting to chase her. I didn’t want to see what Alma did to my would-be assassin. Wait. I thought Aaliyah had killed all other assassins? Would she be killing the shooter for taking the job?
Too many questions were rolling through my head as I ran. I couldn’t get home quickly enough. There were routes throughout the city Alma had me memorize that made avoiding cameras fairly easy, though most would only catch a blur if I appeared on them. Squeezing the bullets in my hand, I could hardly believe that this was to be my life now.
I nearly stumbled in my haste to stop as I ran up my drive. There was someone by the door with brightly colored luggage. That cat-eared jacket with its tail coming from the back was as unmistakable as the nervous way she reached toward the doorbell, only to pull her hand back again before touching it. Raine Vance, the most timid girl I had ever met, was at my door. I hurried up behind her and impulsively gave her a hug. I needed a hug.
“Raine! I can’t believe you’re here.” I told her, remembering something as the words came out. I hadn’t actually went on a date with Raine. I had gone on a date with Aaliyah disguised as Raine. I just hugged a girl who didn’t know me and called her by name. What was she doing here?