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    "So, they used to date?"  Alaister asked.  Lucy nodded. He'd probably spent more time talking to her than he should of, but the look Andromeda had flashed him a couple minutes ago was priceless.  
    "But that was just in high school.  People are blowing this out of proportion because Evan split the party early."  She sighed. "They parted amiably, and high school was ages ago." She blushed.  "For them.  I'm a bit younger."
    Margo reappeared.  She looked as if all the color in her face had redeposited itself strictly around her eyes and on her nose.  She looked over and saw Alaister, and walked to him.   Lucy held out her hand.  "It was a lovely party.  I'm so sorry it was spoiled."
    Margo didn't seem to see it.  "I'm even more sorry someone died.  May I speak with you privately, Alaister?"
    "Sure."  he said, following her to her study.  He saw another door, and asked, "Does that lead to the library?"  At her nod, he asked, "Have they spoken to you?"  
    "Yes.  He's a very nice man.  I have a lot of confidence in him."  She was worrying a handkerchief into threads and knots as she paced. "This is awful.  I thought it was only a ghost, or something making those noises, that you'd be able to research it, then we'd figure out what to do.  Now it's too late."
    "I came as soon as I could."  Alaister said, feeling blame stalking his way.  "I could hardly start a spiritual investigation during a party."
    Her shoulders fell. "I supposes you're right.  It's just, well, Olivia."
    "I'm sorry.  Were you close friends?"
    "Not really. We ran in the same circles, saw each other at parties like this.  I mostly invited her tonight because I didn't want to hurt her by having a party and not including her."
"So you knew her well enough to care for her feelings?" Margo faced the window.  Her face was turned down, and the reflection didn't give away her expression.  He walked around the desk, trying to get her to face him, or at least get a look at her profile.  Her hair, tinsel blonde and fine, blocked his view. "She is -- was -- a nice lady, and although we never became close I enjoyed talking to her."  
    "Did she know Evan Forest?"
    "I think so, but I never saw them together."
    She turned, her eyes were raw.  "Do you really think it's odd that I'm upset?  Olivia was a good person!  She didn't deserve to die.  Do you think I have no normal  emotions because I'm rich?"  An angry hand reached up to wipe her tears away, but the handkerchief was useless, so she threw it away.  Alaister reached for a tissue.
    "Of course you do."  he said.  He patted her shoulder awkwardly, and walked away.  Something about what she said didn't play right in his head, but he set it aside. He walked over to the door that lead to the library, trying to make out the muffled conversation.  If he was a Vampire, he'd be able to hear them perfectly, but fortunately he wasn't.  His blood chilled at how close Andromeda had come to being attacked by the Werewolf that had killed poor Olivia.  He wanted to call his cousin Connor, and try and get someone over to try and find the thing, but he knew he would have to wait for the opportunity.
    When he arrived here an hour before the party, Margo had shown him around the house.  A bibliophile of long standing, he had immediately stepped into the library.  He hadn't been real impressed, the books were all matched sets of dyed leather and gold embossing.  They were beautiful, he had to admit, but cold.  No one had chosen the books for their contents, but had been bought, he figured, by the yard.
    Here, in Margo's study, he found books that had been chosen for pleasure.  The shelves took up the entire wall, and were stuffed.  His practiced eye could almost guess which ones were bought new and which had passed through other hands.  He looked at romances and mysteries, classics and dictionaries. A book of memorable quotations still had its library label at it, the Dewey number too blacked out to read.  The Lais of Marie De France was beside it.  He almost confessed to Margo that he owned most of most of her folk lore books, but changed his mind, as she was still sniffling and so this wasn't the best time.  After the shelves, there was nothing left in the office to look at.  Scattered cd's, filing cabinets, a nice framed copy of a vaguely familiar light house scene filled the rest of the space.    
This left him with very little to think about while Margo was getting herself pulled back together, so he thought again of Andromeda.  He'd been somewhat upset when she broke off their relationship, but had forced himself to accept the good side of it.  He hadn't been looking forward to the conversation that would have started, "Hey, I never told you about my parents.  My mother was a mage, and my father used to kill Vampires and Werewolves for  a living.  Not all of them, mind you, just the bad ones.  It's sort of a family business...yeah, that means I do it too..."  Yep.  Right.  That's the way to a woman's heart. "Alaister?" Margo's voice broke into his thoughts.  "How do you know that a ghost didn't do it?"  
    "In my research I've never seen a ghost that could take a solid form.  A ghost has to kill someone using one of three ways.  They could throw things like a poltergeist does.  They could commit murder by convincing someone to do it, either by possessing them, or by taking on the form of a loved one.  Mostly they use the old fashioned method of scaring the victim to death.  There's no evidence of any of those things happening. Her body was savaged."  
     "Then what?  One of my guests?"
    "I don't know, but I'd like to find out."
    She looked at him, as if deciding what to say.  "I don't really think I need you anymore."  She was apologetic.  "The police are here, now, and if it's a rabid dog or something they'll track it down.  They'll take care of things.  There's no sense in you getting involved."
    "Are you sure?  Miss Perkins, a horrible murder was committed a short distance from your back door.  Don't you think you might need protection?"
    "From what?  A pack of rabid dogs?  A Bear?"
    "Bears?  This time of year?"
    "And if I'm wrong I don't want to be responsible for you.  You're a scholar, not a warrior."
    Alaister, feeling mortally insulted, clammed up.  He decided it was time to gracefully leave.  She reached into the desk and brought out a check book.  She signed the already made out check and handed it to him.  "Two hundred dollars, just for coming, like we agreed."
    He felt uncomfortable.  "But I didn't do anything."
"Please. You came all the way out here to help me.  I made a promise, let me keep it?"  she grinned.  "You helped me figure out that it wasn't a ghost making all that noise by the garage.  Technically, you've done your job."
    He took it, folded it in half and put it in his wallet, promising himself that if the opportunity came up, he'd do something to earn it.  "I'll leave as soon as the police permit." "The morning's plenty of time.  Your room is already made up."
    Daria was waiting for him by the office door.  "Did she say anything interesting?"
    "Not really.  Why do you ask?"
    Daria smiled sweetly, but Alaister didn't yet know what to make of her.  He was related to her through marriage -- his cousin's sister in law -- and thus he tried to put up with her.  Usually he wouldn't find this a challenge, but she was uncomfortably gossipy, pushy and arrogant.  "It's all knight's business." She said, as if this gave her every right. "A girl was murdered, obviously by a Werewolf, and we need to clean things up.  Anything you know is essential to finding out who did this." "Of course," he said dryly.  "Let Connor know what you find out and I'll call him up tomorrow with what I know."   He turned to look for Andromeda, but she was heading for the kitchen.  He decided to catch up with her later.  
    Mary Perkins looked up from her lap when Andromeda entered the kitchen.  She looked relieved, yet there was still an edge of fear in her eyes.  "You wanted to see me?"
"Yes." Andromeda said.  "Thanks for agreeing to talk to me.  I wanted to ask a couple of questions."
    Mary nodded.  "Vera told me that you were some sort of private eye.  Are you helping the police?"
    "No.  I'm basically just trying to figure out what happened.  You found the body?  The police are thinking that, since I was away from the party I might have something to do with it getting there.  And the more information I have, the easier it will be to clear my name."  She saw a ladder back chair in the corner, and grabbed it so she could sit next to the girl.  "I was wondering, since you live here, if you've seen anything strange going on."       Mary shivered.  She had blonde hair and innocent looking blue eyes.  She looked barely out of high school.  "I did find it, and I got a really good look.  A person couldn't do that.  How would they clean up and hide everything so no one would know?"
    "There's a man missing from the party."
    "No!"  Mary's voice trembled with anger.  "Absolutely not!  Even if Evan didn't have a perfectly valid excuse, he couldn't have hurt Olivia.  He's a doctor."
    Andromeda nodded  "I'm sure you're right."  Although she wasn't sure of any such thing.  "Have you heard any strange noises?  Seen anyone prowling around?"
    Mary stood, and began pacing with barely contained energy.  "Last week I was wandering around the house.  That was weird in itself, because I always sleep like a log and rarely get up."  She pointed to the door at the far end of the kitchen.  "I found myself standing in the conservatory, looking out between the plants."
    "Did you turn on any lights?"
    "No.  I have good night vision, and I've been in this house all my life.  I know all of the twists and turns.  I looked out the window. There's a good view of the woods."  Her words slowed down, and she spoke uncertainly.  "I saw something come from the woods on all fours.  It looked like a wolf, but larger, more muscular."  
    "Are you sure it was wolf like?  Some people just assume...it could be a large dog."
    "I really didn't see much of it."  She said in tones of confession.  "The second I saw it I hit the floor.  For some reason I was scared it would see me."
    Andromeda nodded as if she approved.  "Why didn't you tell anyone else."
    "Because at the time, it was just a silly thing.  Margo would just tell me I'd seen a stray dog and turned it into the boogey monster.  But now...who knows?"
    Andromeda turned this over for a moment, then said, "All you can do for now is avoid the woods. Never go in them alone, and make sure you keep your doors locked."
    "You're looking into this?"
    "Definitely."
    Mary brightened, as if something had been lifted off of her. "Oh, good.  Thank you.  I feel so much better now."  

Chapter Two

    "Magic burns inside you now, as it always will. It's your blood, but though you can't help it, you'll have to
control it.  It's a balancing act, Alaister, between light and dark, Heaven and Hell..."
    - Hilda Seagrave to her nephew, twelve years ago.

    Alaister took his leave quietly, driving home through the inky, silent night.  The drive calmed him to the point where he found himself half asleep at the wheel, but he managed to get home safe, trudge upstairs and flop into bed.  In the morning he awoke again, bleary eyed and still half dressed, to a overcast Sunday.  The churches hadn't let out yet, and he contemplated opening the store at noon.
    Alaister lived and made his living in an old fashioned brick store front situated on the main street of a two stoplight town. It had two bay windows flanking a dark green door, a simple sign on the left window read "Hilda's Tea and Herb Shop" in gold calligraphy.  Hilda was his Aunt, who had owned the shop and the apartment above it, and even though she had passed away two years ago, he never bothered changing the sign.  
    He forced himself out of bed, changed, and went to the kitchen.  On his way past he ran his hands over the bindings of his books and realized that he was happy to be home.  He pulled a few, on Werewolves and magic, to take down and read later.
    He went to the kitchen, dug into a cupboard for a box of Cream of Wheat.  Today he would do some research and think about what steps he could take next.  He glanced at the list of things to do he kept posted on his refrigerator.  Most of the items were internet orders for herbal tinctures and teas that he had to pack and ship.  
    He ate, carried the selected books down to the long, green marble counter.  He looked around to make sure that the store was in order, then pushed up the shutters, flipped over the sign, and unlocked the door.  Patchy daylight drifted in sluggishly as he settled down behind his counter.  He sat on the tall stool for a long moment, breathing in the scent of green drying things, of herbs that mixed and blurred together.
    His first customer was his cousin Connor, Captain of the Knights of the Sun.  He was about the same height as Alaister, blonde instead of brunette, blue eyed instead of green. They once both wore the same plain, squarish nose except Connor had had his broken twice.
    "Did you get to talk to Daria yet?" Alaister asked.
    "Yeah.  The creature sounds interesting in a sick and twisted kind of way." Connor also had the family talent of sarcasm.
    "Do you think it's a Werewolf?"
    "What else?" He leaned on the counter, shaking his head.  "I really hate the rules that force the Knights to wait until something happens before we can strike out against their kind."
    Alaister pulled a chair over for Connor, but he declined. "There's some wisdom in those same rules, though.  Not all of their kind want to hurt humans."
    Connor snorted.  "They're all evil."  This was the typical stance for a Knight of the Sun.  They were a medieval order, dedicated to protecting humans against Werewolves, Vampires and magic.  The part about magic was particularly uncomfortable for Alaister.  His father had been a Knight.  His mother was a mage, and the daughter of a powerful warlock.  He lived his life in both worlds, was a credible mage and a decent warrior.  He also was constantly trying to make sure that the left side of his genealogy didn't know what the right side was doing.
    "Well,"  Connor said, "We'll be going on patrol tonight.  Do you have any more of that goo?"
    "Yeah.  I'll go get it."  The goo was a mixture he'd gotten out of a magic book, more chemistry than sorcery, that he made for the Knights to put on their weapons.  It prevented cuts dealt to Werewolves and Vampires and other creatures allergic to silver or iron from sealing shut.  The smallest cut could then turn deadly.
    He went to the storage room in the back, were he kept unmixed herbs in dark jars in cool cupboards.  On one gray blue painted door, the carved rose wood cross his Aunt had given him hung from two hooks.  "We are gifted, you and I," she had said, holding the carved wood up to him.  "We must not forget where these gifts come from.  We must not abuse our powers."  
    He picked up two heavy canning jars filled with a smoky colored grease. Silver was in it, along with black cohosh, beeswax, wolf's bane, rust, valerian and rue.
    "We really appreciate this."  Connor said.
    "I'm glad to help."  Alaister said.  He meant it, because it gave him a way to help his family with out having to go out and patrol.  He was not afraid of patrolling, in fact he enjoyed wandering around at night, save for the fact he didn't want to get into a situation where he'd have to fight fellow mages.  That, and because he didn't see the world as black and white, night and day like the Knights did.
    His next customer was a bookish looking young thing, with brown hair and glasses.  She approached the counter shyly, her smile awkward and well meaning.
    "Can I help you?"
    "I hear you sell a tea that's really good against headaches."
    He nodded, then went to the shelves, looking for the sage colored boxes.  
    "Lots of pretty colors."  she said, commenting on the different colored boxes that lined the shelves.
    "It helps me keep track of what's what."  He handed her the box, and smiled apologetically.  "It's five dollars for twenty four tea bags.  One of the ingredients is expensive."
    "That's not bad."  She sniffed the box, but couldn't detect anything but paper.  Alaister always put the tea in a heavily waxed paper bag to keep it fresh.
    "Do you have an incense burner?"  He asked.  "I have some lavender that my customers really like for headaches."
    She looked at the glass jars with their neat, laser printed labels.  He followed her gaze, secretly pleased with the labels and signs he had made for his business.  He liked playing with the colors and the type styles, learning how to do  different things on the computer.  
    She picked up one jar lid, and sniffed, then another.  He gave her some space, studying his shelves to see what he needed.  He was almost out of cayenne cooking oil, and was getting low on the lemon verbena.  Careless, he thought, because it took time to make the oils right. He liked to put them in the window, let the sun do the work.  He also had an anti-burning spell that he liked to put in them, and if he didn't have the ingredients...
    There was a rustle of paper.  She was standing by him, lavender incense in a long, slender paper bag.  She stopped to pick up one of the cheap stick incense burners.  He also kept in stock a few fancier ones, inlaid with mother of pearl, or carved, but mostly he sold the plain dollar ones.  Sometimes people came back and bought the nicer ones, after they became addicted to incense, but not often.   People generally just make do, he thought as he smiled and wrote her order up on a pad.  She was studying him now, her eyes seeming to bore into him.  
    "Is something wrong?"  He asked, then scribbled in a margin, trying to get a little more life out of the pen.
    She acted as if he'd startled her.  "No."  she smiled, but it was quick and slippery, like a flash of sun on fish scales. "You look tired."
    "Nothing some sleep won't cure."  He smiled, attempted to put on the charm.  "Are you sure there isn't anything else I can interest you in?"
    She looked at him again, her head tilted, so she was studying him out of the corner of her eye. "Nope."  She scooped up her change and the brown paper bag with the name of his store carefully rubber stamped on it, and left.
    He stood there a long moment.  Something about that young woman didn't feel right.  He shrugged.  He had a stack of things to do, and if today went well, he'd be interrupted constantly.  He picked up a book, and got started.

***

    Andromeda wasted a good half an hour of what should have been a pleasant drive fuming over Alaister.  "I can't believe you're still hung up on that stupid man." she muttered as she fiddled with the radio. Even her overnight stay at Vera's hadn't calmed her down.  No, he wasn't stupid, she admitted. That was the problem, or at least something that made the solution harder.  The few short weeks they'd spent together had convinced her that he was the closest thing to perfect there was. Oh, he had flaws, plenty of them. But they weren't bad flaws.  If he had some nasty ones, she could hold them up to herself, go, "See?  Better off with out him." and walk away, her conscious clear, her emotions appeased.
    But she couldn't. He'd really gotten to her, and there hadn't been any one else since.  Instead of telling him, she walked away, because she didn't want to see him die.  Couldn't stand it if something followed her home and hurt him.  That almost happened, once.  And Andromeda was very good at taking hints from the powers that be.
    "Great."  She glanced around, then merged.  "I've got a murder to solve, and a knight errant running around with a bruised chivalry bone.  Oh, goody.  This is going to be a wonderful next couple of weeks."
    She could hear the phone ring in her purse. She looked around again, then pulled off onto the burm, wincing as something crackled under her tire.  
    "Andromeda Pendragon, at your service."  
    "We got your report.  What do you need?"  The voice was slightly nasal, but edged, business like.  Andromeda wasn't sure of the sex, but was leaning toward female.
    "How about a password?"
    The voice...a woman, definitely, recited a series of numbers.  Andromeda closed her eyes and envisioned the lines of numbers she had forced herself to memorize.  The woman was saying them backwards from the way she memorized them, which was correct.  
    "I appreciate that."  Andromeda said.  "I'm a bit paranoid.  I need someone to break into the local police and coroner computer files, so I can have a report on their findings. I'd like to see what the coroner makes of the wounds.  I also need any reports that some one might have filed on unrest between Vampires and Werewolves, as well as mundane reports on animal attacks in this area."  These were things that she herself had all the passwords and codes to do, but she didn't want Balance to know that.  True, they were her employers, the "good guys", but Andromeda believed in gathering a few aces and keeping them firmly up her sleeve.  It was something her mentor, Grigori had taught her.
    "Alright. We'll send them to your computer as soon as possible. It's Sunday, though, and the coroner might not even look at the body today."
    "Understood." Andromeda said. "Thank you for the help."
    "It's okay."  The voice finally warmed up.  "I hope you'll get to salvage some of your day."
    Not very likely, she thought, dialing another number.
She might as well, since she was parked.
    "Hello?"
    "Mark?  It's Andromeda.  I hope this isn't a bad time."
    "Not at all.  What's wrong?"
    Briefly, she told him about last night.  "I'm  sorry to just plunge into things before being officially introduced around."  
    "Not at all." Mark's voice was smooth, and warm.  Andromeda, who never knew her parents, remembered that voice from her youth.  Balance had taken her from the orphanage, but it was Grigori who had raised her.  Mark, Grigori's pupil of the time, was a shadowy figure in her memories, a sometimes baby sitter, a quiet voice reading bed time stories. Tom Marsden, who was now one of the top officials of Balance Head Quarters, was another one of these remembered men, the one who took her to the doctor and held her after she got her shots.
    "I'll find out everything I can, and send you a report ASAP."  she said, a feeling of loyalty overwhelming her.  With
Grigori dead and Tom out of reach, Mark was the only person left of her childhood.  "You'll be so happy that you brought me over from Pittsburgh."
    "I already am.  Good bye Andromeda."
    She grinned and pulled back onto the road.

Andromeda Pendragon:  Balancing Act
by Cindy Lynn Speer
Go to Balancing Act:  Part 3