The coffee shop Grey took him to provided a far more familiar setting for Morland. It nestled into a side street with a subdued sign and calm atmosphere. The furnishings made an unorthodox picture. Old comfortable couches and heaps of pillows outnumbered the typical tables and chairs, but the subdued atmosphere encouraged thought and study, rather than riot and laughter. Students in singles and small groups clotted the room with books and papers often eclipsing coffee cups and pastry plates with the occasional don wading through a stack of essays. No mob of club-fresh young people would totter into that place for something to eat before consenting to disperse back to their own rooms.
Morland went there sometimes to read in peace when the weather frowned to wetly for sitting outside and the confines of his own rooms became too small, but he never received the greeting and service inspired by Grey’s company. Once upon a time a pair of foreign exchange students from the American north-western coast came to be the latest incarnation of the Heavenly Cup’s management. Now, as a middle-aged husband and wife team it still showed in the way each step from roasting to serving of the coffee preparation stood on display and the expansive variations on the theme of caffeine overdose, but they adapted very well to Oxford’s atmosphere of hallowed antiquity beneath the modern bustle. Their eldest child, Kaitlyn, presided at the counter with her displays of skill that night but she barely paused to finish the orders she was preparing when she saw Grey enter the place. Morland was overwhelmed and nearly forgotten in the sedate rush to greet the odd young woman who claimed to be Julian Grey, heir to Lord Aaron Grey, knighted by two monarchs from under the hills, one of the most talked of but least well known independents in the fantastic field.
Softly, sullenly, on the edge of the babble that swept up several of the customers as well as almost the entire staff, Morland grumbled, “She can not be Julian Grey.” She paused to glare at him over the head of a bubbling waitress. Grey heard him, and he wondered why he was surprised. He could have heard him in her place too, even with his earphones on. Independent troubleshooters do not last long dealing with those other than humans without a good bit of the Other in themselves.
Before long– though it seemed an eternity to Morland– they were established in one of the mounds of pillows with a low table in reach loaded with cups, sandwiches, pastries, and at least two kinds of soup, and business settled back to its normal level of serenity. Morland would have preferred one of the couches if not actually a table, while Grey settled comfortably into place. Rather than ask to move, he napped, “What was all that about? Work here part-time while up at University, do you?”
Grey smiled at him, like a cat at a particularly energetic mouse. “In a manner of speaking, yes, I did some work here when I was a student. The present management was having a spot of bother with a former owner which I helped straighten out for them.”
“Oh how impressive,” Morland muttered, his mind drifting back to his own problems and whether or not this fraud could actually help him or if she should be left to pay the rather large tab as a lesson in deference to her elders and betters while he went in search of the real Julian Grey or some more reasonable substitute.
Grey’s tone went cold and flat as her blood dark eyes. “The former owner was haunting the place, scaring away the customers, breaking the equipment and beginning to physically assault the staff when I stepped in. He did not approve of their bringing in the cappuccino machine and had severe doubts as to the capabilities of a pair of freshly matriculated Americans with two young children in properly running this place.” She paused reminiscently then added, “He isn’t such a bad old boy for all that. I caught him playing with Kaitlyn while her parents busily cleaned up the latest mess he had made. Once he agreed to listen, I had a friend incarnate him long enough to try one of their concoctions, and helped them negotiate terms they could all…go on with. Then the excitement died down. He pops in now and again to check on them. He only manifests to Kaitlyn, usually. I believe he still prefers macchiato to cappuccino though.”
In spite of his stubbornness, Morland was not stupid. He caught the hints in the tale, most notably that if Grey was in University when the young woman behind the counter was in diapers, she had quite a few more years behind her than he did. Secondly, Grey had skills beyond the obvious court connections and talent for violence which formed the most part of his, rather her, reputation. Either that or she was a liar, a fraud, and probably part of the plot surrounding him.
For several minutes Grey left him with the scrambled mess that she helped to make of his thoughts, and made her way steadily through the range of calories, carbohydrates, and caffeine spread before them. Almost, Morland got lost in his own mind and started up his music again, forgetting Julian Grey and his intention of fetching help but he caught himself in time and the near miss gave new urgency to his need. Never before had his thoughts wandered so. It would be a great way to get killed if it happened on an assignment, or worse, a way to lose his mind entirely.
Morland wondered if Grey could read his thoughts when she spoke as the decision to trust her formed, but he hoped his concentration was not that bad. “Are you ready to tell me what’s biting you now?”
“Your hair and eye colors are natural aren’t they?” he asked and almost instantly wondered why. The question was so inane.
Grey, however, nodded as if it were the first intelligent thing he said the entire evening, “A legacy from my mother. I was lucky. One of my half brothers is bubble gum pink from head to toe. Even the whites and pupils of his eyes, and teeth have a pinkish cast.
Morland captured a deep breath for a few moments and nodded. “Julian Ialliam Grey. I am being hunted. I do not know by whom or for what reason. All I know is that the one after me is male, and his powers are completely beyond my realm of expertise. I know when he is nearby. He is like a jagged rock tearing into my mind, but I can determine no more than this. I feel him mostly at night while I sleep, and the longer this goes on the harder it is becoming for me to focus my mind. I have had to resort again to wearing gloves to prevent picking up visions from everything and everyone I touch, an expedient I have not needed since I started shaving regularly. My few contacts among the Other all deal with my own line of work and have gotten no farther than that the threat is most likely Fantastic in nature, though there are hints of the Gothic involved. Her Majesty’s paid servants who deal with the Other, in having all Her resources to draw upon, rarely achieve great skill as individuals, and could find nothing in my case on which to gain purchase, even hinting, ever so indirectly, that I was imagining things.”
For a moment, it seemed Grey’s second bowl of soup disagreed violently with her palate considering the way her face contorted and the extreme care she took in setting bowl and spoon aside. “And so you went through the time and trouble of tracking down Julian Grey, the great man ennobled by the Others for services rendered, heir to a title in his own right, and famous all over the world for single handedly slaying a moderate sized dragon of the non-sentient type in the middle of a small German town square with no weapon but a small dagger and wearing nothing but shorts, tank top, running shoes, and a lot of dragon blood where a libelous reporter with a quicker camera than wit could see and further confuse the question of my gender with his poor grasp of German grammar and pronouns from which all the other editions were translated.” Grey vented all in one breath though, perhaps, not legitimately all in one sentence.
Morland’s smile in response was small but authentic, and after a moment Grey smiled back when he responded, “Something like that, yes. Are you interested in the case? I understand that the fees in your area vary by the degree of the threat involved so in a case of the unknown like this, one begins with a flat rate by the day plus any medical costs, with the bulk to be paid on the determination of the scope of the issue. Does that sound agreeable to you?”
Grey’s response to the discussion of money was desultory, but then her mouse eating grin snuck across her face. “You said you sense your antagonist mostly at night.” She waited for Morland to acknowledge with a nod then went on. “Then it looks like I’ll be sleeping with you tonight. I hope you drove, because I would like to stop by my digs for a few things on the way back to your place and taxi men can be such nosy parkers about such things.” Without another word she bounced up from her place and over to say her good-byes to Kaitlyn and the rest while Morland stumbled to his feet. He noticed there seemed no hint of cash exchange in the goings on. It seemed that free food was part of the Heavenly Cup’s ongoing attempt to repay Grey for services rendered.
Looking around at the array of empty dishes she left in her wake Morland muttered, “The haunting must have been worse than she it sounded, or she comes by very rarely. Otherwise, they’re likely to go out of business with the way that she eats.” He looked up to find both Grey and Kaitlyn glaring at him from across the room. Peter Morland blushed and made his way outside to wait for Grey and wonder what on earth he was getting himself into.
Grey’s “digs” turned out to be no more than a single crowded room in a tiny bed and breakfast a few miles out of town. Either she had only just checked in or repacked the bag before she went to meet him. When Morland followed her into the second floor room with the high canopied bed and the country Victorian furnishings he found everything neat and tidy save for the large army green duffel sitting at the foot of the bed. Grey had to argue a bit to get the active white haired proprietress to accept the sheaf of notes she produced. Morland could not fathom where it had been hidden in her pocket-less brief sheath of spandex and latex. The lady kissed Grey on the cheek as they parted. Morland found himself following her around like a sleepy puppy, wondering about the odd feel he got from the elderly little woman.
Relative peace reigned on the drive back to town, where Morland had the opportunity to restore some form of order to the disarray this Julian Grey made of his expectations. Unfortunately, he was not quite able to do so. The persecution had a longer history than he admitted to anyone, much less this discordant note he invited unwittingly into his life. Beyond such immediate concerns as keeping to the left side of the road, watching for pedestrians, pets, and traffic signals, Morland found himself quite unable to force his thoughts into the order he desired.
“What have I allowed myself to become embroiled in? Julian Grey should have been a tall, slim, quietly dressed gentleman. Well, she is tall and slim, taller than you are even without those spikes on her boots. Yes, but she should be a he, an older, wiser head for one to turn to, not this teenage club cub. But she is not teenage and you both know and believe it. She is at least in her mid forties possibly older no matter what she looks like.”
With a slight jolt, Morland braked harder than was his want when the vehicle preceding him over reacted to a shift from green to yellow ahead and tried to drag his thoughts back in line. “Julian Grey was to have listened to one seriously, perhaps over a quiet cup of tea. She did give you tea, even if she drank coffee, and after a few sharp questions Julian Grey should go off and investigate, possibly including one in a bit of that fantastic mumbo jumbo. After all, if it didn’t fall into one of the other Other classifications you wouldn’t need help in the first place, in spite of how skeptical and derisive you may be about the validity of the magic dealing realms of interest. A couple of days after the initial consultation, maybe four at the outside, after all not everyone can be as efficient as you are, and there might have been the need to wait for the full of the moon or some other such nonsense, Julian Grey should explain the issue, and the problem should be dealt with neatly, cleanly, and finally. Then one could return home and finally get some real rest for the first time in months. Does she really plan to sleep with me tonight? Oh god, will she wear a proper night dress?” Morland glanced over at Grey, taking in the brief scrap of green spandex barely covering her breasts and the latex hugging her from the hips down to her boots with zippers from ankle to knee as well as standard at the front as the only way her feet could possibly fit through the narrowness of the cut and despaired.
With a sigh, Morland turned into the small parking garage where he kept his spotless Rabbit when he was at home. Another worry drifted through his mind. “Talking to yourself is not a good sign you know. I am not yet doing it aloud, and there have been indications talking to oneself may be a sign of higher intelligence. Many madmen are said to be above average intelligence.” Quietly, Morland led the way upstairs to his flat.