26. Huddle

2022, March 23th
Collapse – 27 years

Josephine’s mind wondered as she drove back to the hotel. Katherine was having second thoughts. Up until tonight, she thought she’d be running away from a life of bullying. Now Alex had shown her that bullying might follow. And there was her father. No goodbyes. No contact. As far as he’ll know, Katherine will head for school tomorrow and never arrive—a parent’s worst nightmare. If there was ever a night for that to sink in for Katherine, it would be tonight.

Even if she did go, how long until she realized what a sorry lot the coven was? Katherine was smart, gifted, and inquisitive. The coven was nothing compared to her. Even Josephine loathed the person she herself had become. They were vampires who leeched lives and bodies. Despite their talents, the world would be better off without them.

Josephine’s mind drifted to more pleasant topics, particularly what Katherine had said about replacing Alex. Now there was a good idea. The coven might be half decent without that cancer.

Sakhr would never allow it, but this would give him leverage to keep Alexander in check. And Anton too.

Josephine returned to the hotel. When she reached the presidential suite, everyone was gathered in the main room, including Alexander. It seemed she’d stepped into the middle of a serious conversation. She expected that, but she’d also expected Alexander to be in a yelling match with Sakhr. He looked more concerned than angry.

And everyone quieted when she entered, as though this were her intervention.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Did you drop the girl off at her home?” Sakhr replied.

“Yes. What’s going on?”

“We’re having a discussion about what to do.”

“Do about what?”

“About Katherine. We need to discuss her power and what that means for us.”

“What’s there to discuss? She figured out how to read Alex’s mind. You’re not honestly telling me you think she’s a threat, do you?”

“That’s what we’re discussing. Christof, tell Josephine what you told us.”

Christof was off to the side of the huddle, as though he’d mostly been listening. He unfolded his arms and spoke. “When Alexander was saying those personal things to her, her power stirred. It’s like tumors are growing beneath the surface. I didn’t know what these tumors were, but when Alex talked down to her, one of the growths took the form of his power. It came to life.”

“Yes? So? It makes sense.”

“She has five other growths forming. I didn’t make the connection then, but she’s developing each of our powers. The better she understands them, the closer she gets to bridging the connection. Soon she’ll have all of our powers.”

“Yes. She and I already figured that out.”

Sakhr looked squarely at her. “Did she try to learn your power?”

“No.”

Sakhr nodded. He seemed relieved.

“What are you so afraid of?” she asked. “She’s just a girl. She wants to come with us.”

“She poses a threat, whether she means to or not.”

“You talk as though she’ll discard us the moment she learns our powers. She’s a little girl with no friends except for us.”

“I understand that, but people change,” Sakhr said. “You haven’t been around as long as I have. Even saints can turn vicious once they have power.”

“Oh, I see what this is about. This is about your control over us. If she learns how to swap bodies, then we might not need you anymore.”

“I told you she’d be like this,” Alexander said.

“Shut up,” Josephine snapped.

“On your ride home with her,” Sakhr said, “did she read your mind?”

“What?”

“Did you let her read your mind?”

Before Josephine could answer, Alex spoke, “No, she didn’t. Don’t worry.”

“What the hell is this about?” asked Josephine. “We’re not going to abandon her.”

“If that’d even be enough,” Alex said. “She figured out my power without reading my mind. Maybe all she needs are her notes. Isn’t that when you saw her power stir the most, Christof?”

Christof replied hesitantly. “Yes.”

“And you think she can put the pieces together later? On her own?” asked Sakhr.

“Think about how much she knows,” Alex said. “Those little notebooks of hers are filled with information about us. She may already have enough. She just has to put them together, and we’ve all seen how she is. If she can, she will.”

“Why are you listening to this?” Josephine demanded of Sakhr. “Alex is just saying these things because of his own vendetta against her. She’s just a child. If you’re worried about her, then take her in. Make sure she’s on our side. Don’t condemn her over crimes she hasn’t even thought of. She’s never done anything remotely threatening.”

“Except for today at dinner,” Sakhr said.

“You mean what she did to Alex? He deserved every thing he got after the stunt he pulled. Are you holding that against her?”

“Follow this to its logical conclusion,” Sakhr said. “She lives with us for decades, centuries even. In this time she masters our powers. Then something happens. It doesn’t matter what, but tension forms between her and us. Suppose she decides she doesn’t need us anymore.”

“She leaves, like any normal person would.”

“And what if she decides she’s safer if we’re dead?”

“She wouldn’t. She’s not a sociopath like you.”

Sakhr’s nostrils flared. “Watch what you say, Josephine.”

“Or what? I’m sorry. I’m not going to stand by while you force the rest of us to turn against a little girl just because she might possibly pose a threat to the precious leverage you hold over us.”

“She is a threat!”

“She’s a girl.”

Alex chimed in. “I’ve seen her thoughts. She’s more ambitious than she looks. She dreams of power.”

“Fuck off, Alex.”

“Look at it this way,” said Anton. “What we have now works. We all look after each other, even if we don’t always get along, because we need one another. Sakhr is in charge, but he needs us just as we need him.”

That surprised Josephine. Not the argument—that was just as vacuous as Sakhr’s reasoning—but that Anton agreed with with Sakhr at all. He was a pig, but he was a rational pig.

“I can’t believe this,” she said. “Are all of you agreeing with him?”

She looked around. Anton and Alex both met her gaze as though they were only trying to make her see reason. Sibyl looked as though she’d rather be anywhere but here. Christof was the same, but at least he met Josephine’s eyes.

He saw her pleading and reluctantly spoke up. “I think we should be careful not to overreact.”

It wasn’t much, but Josephine gestured as though that argument should have ended this nonsense. He was her only ally in this fight.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” said Alex. “If she comes with us tomorrow, she’s going to see this conversation in our heads sooner or later. We don’t trust her, and she won’t trust us when she sees that. We can’t take her with us.” He looked at her gravely again, as if only poor Josephine could see reason.

You don’t trust her. Maybe we should put it to a vote.”

“This isn’t a democracy, Josephine,” Sakhr said. “We’re leaving tomorrow. We’re not taking her with us.”

“Fine. She stays. I’ll stay with her.”

“No,” Sakhr said, suddenly fierce. “Do not play games with me. I will not tolerate disobedience. You will do as I say or you will never get another body.” His settled down. “Do you see? Do you see what that girl is doing to us already? Go. Go back to your room. We leave tomorrow. You are forbidden from seeing that girl again.”

He pointed toward her bedroom.

Josephine nodded curtly and left. There was no point in arguing further. Rational discussion was gone. Sakhr was afraid of that girl because she might upset his power.

And he was right. It had. Josephine just decided she was staying. Five people would get on that plane tomorrow. The only question now was whether they would remember there was a sixth.

She always figured it would come to this, she just thought it would be Sibyl she’d escape with, but she’d had enough of that spineless woman. If it had come to a vote, Sibyl would have sided with Sakhr out of shear timidness.

Katherine might be disappointed tomorrow, but she was a smart girl. She’d see in Josephine’s head that she was better off without Sakhr and the others.

Josephine smiled as she lay on her bed.

Who’s to say Katherine wouldn’t get their powers anyway? Once Katherine learned Josephine’s power, they could come and go from the coven as they pleased. Every time they’d meet Sakhr, it would be “for the first time”. Once Katherine learned what she needed, they could fade away.

They’d be a friendly little coven of two.

Somewhere in the hotel suite, a door slammed. Footsteps passed by in the hall. Some just left. Who? And where?

Only one place came to mind.

Josephine ran out the door. In the hall, the elevator dinged. Sprinting, Josephine reached it just as the door closed. Sakhr, Anton, and Alexander had been inside. Alex had seen her. He’d flashed that smile of his just as the door sealed.

They were going to kill Katherine.

She could already follow Sakhr’s demented logic. The longer the waited, the more powerful Katherine might get. Kill her now, while she’s still weak and innocent.

“Go back to your room. Josephine,” Sakhr barked through the door. “Do not interfere.”

The elevator descended.

Josephine jammed the call button. Waited. Jammed it again. Waited more. The other elevators took their time. She considered the stairs, but that would take longer. They were on the top floor.

The next elevator finally dinged. The door opened. She stabbed the lobby button. It closed leisurely and descended. At the third floor, it stopped for a large woman to get in. Growling in frustration, Josephine bolted for the stairs.

Two flights. The lobby. The parking lot.

One of their rented sedans was gone.

A knife was jammed into the tire of the other. The rest of the tires were already flat. This would be Alexander’s doing. She could imagine him whistling as he did it.

She scanned the parking lot. A nearby Prius beeped. A woman in a business skirt was walking away from it. Without pause, Josephine knocked her over. The woman screamed. Her car keys scattered from her hand. Josephine snatched them and got in the Prius.

As Josephine drove off, the woman got up, dusted herself off, and continued to the hotel.

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