So now you know. Suffice it to say, you’ll never look at the world the same way again.
—A Human Handbook to the Others, Author’s Foreword
Daphanie Carter had witnessed a lot of interesting things over the course of the last forty-eight hours, not the least of which had been her baby sister’s wedding less than five hours ago. However, the sight of a small, chubby red hand reaching out from under an elegantly draped reception table and groping among the cutlery really had to take the cake. Or in this case, the diet soda, which the hand curled around and began to ease slowly through the obstacle course of discarded dinnerware.
Daphanie blinked, but the hand was still there and making remarkable progress. Considering all the cutlery, porcelain, and glassware it had to avoid, the hand and the soda were cooking. And that was when it occurred to Daphanie that maybe the hand of fate came in a variety of shapes and sizes.
It took less than ten seconds of fascinated observation before her curiosity overcame her. Casting a furtive glance around to be sure the rest of the guests were too preoccupied with each other to notice what she was doing, Daphanie reached for the bottom of the tablecloth and lifted it so she could duck underneath. Her silk maid-of-honor dress slid easily across the antique carpet as she settled herself cross-legged in the dim light of the little cavern. Directly in front of her, the owner of the red hand started and snatched the hand and the captured prize back so fast that the diet soda inside ricocheted right out of the glass and onto his demonic little face.
“Harpy’s tits!” the little creature cursed, wiping the sticky liquid from his face. Daphanie watched as he lifted the end of an incredibly long and currently dripping mustache to his lips and sucked out the moisture.
“Baghk! Diet cola! How do you humans drink that poison?”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Daphanie murmured, her fascinated gaze taking in the sight before her.
Standing less than three feet tall—probably more like two and a half, since he didn’t even have to crouch to keep from hitting his head on the table above them—the creature with the dislike of diet sodas looked like nothing so much as a comic-book rendition of a devil. He had dark red skin, marked here and there with black moles, and hair the color of coal, which he wore in a short, spiky Mohawk positioned precisely between the tips of his two pointy ears. The hairstyle stopped where his forehead started, or more precisely, just shy of the two stubby black horns that sprouted there, as if he’d just walked out of a painting of a mythological faun. He also sported the Fu Manchu mustache that grew long enough to tuck into his belt, had he been wearing one. Instead, he appeared to be decked out in a pair of toddler’s OshKosh denim overalls with the cuffs turned up over his tiny cloven hooves. The garment had apparently been altered further to allow for the pointed red tail Daphanie could see lashing behind him. All in all, he constituted the most amazing thing she had seen in a pretty amazing few days since her return to New York.
“I’d rather acquire a root beer,” he grumbled. “Doesn’t anyone drink root beer anymore?”
“Sure.” Daphanie stared at his face, finally noticing the little silver ring that pierced the end of his nose. It flapped a bit while he talked, making her grin. Seriously, the last couple of days were blowing her mind. In a good way. Hadn’t she been longing for something interesting to happen lately? Right before Danice had called to announce her engagement and add to the chorus urging her to move back to New York from her most recent home in Pennsylvania. “I mean, I don’t know if anyone at this table does, but I assume that there are people who do.”
Daphanie grinned. In addition to his entertaining looks, this little guy had quite a way with expletives. His appearance had also gone a long way toward reassuring her that her sister, her family, and she had not all completely lost their minds.
When she’d arrived in Manhattan on Wednesday, just a few days before Danice’s scheduled wedding, she’d expected a warm welcome from her parents and her baby sister. She’d expected to finally get to meet the man who had swept Niecie off her feet. She’d even expected to get caught up on all the family news and gossip that she’d missed since the last time they had gotten together. After all, when the stars aligned like they had to urge her to move back to the city, Daphanie liked to take the hint. What she hadn’t expected had been the news that the Carters’ mixed-race family was about to become mixed-species, because her baby sister’s fiancé was not quite … well, human.
McIntyre Callahan, or Mac, as he’d informed her with a million-watt smile, turned out to be a lovely man, in more ways than one. He had the fair good looks of a Hollywood dreamboat and the body of a leanly muscled action star. Honestly, the man was more beautiful than any human being had a right to be, which was confirmed when they sat Daphanie down and explained that Mac wasn’t entirely a human being.
He was half Fae, as her sister had termed it, the son of a human father and a Fae mother—what Daphanie would previously have thought of as a “fairy,” and honestly still tended to. Looking at the highly masculine and utterly besotted man with his arm curled around Danice’s shoulders, “fairy” had been the last description to come to Daphanie’s mind, but she’d taken their word for it. She had also taken their word on a whole list of other things that threatened to blow her mind and leave her little more than a vacant-eyed, drooling, babbling mental sponge cake on the day of her sister’s wedding. Having expected the mild adventure of an introduction to Mac’s family and close friends, instead she’d received an introduction to the world of the Others.
Talk about being careful what you wished for.
That was what Mac and Niecie called them: The Others. It meant, as Daphanie soon learned, the collection of nonhuman beings who lived and worked in the midst of human society. They could be your neighbor or your friend, the woman who manicured your nails or the man who fixed your leaky toilet. Some were highly placed political or corporate officials, and some were sanitation workers or public servants. The Others had always been there and would always be there, she discovered, and some of them were the creatures of late-night B-rated horror movies.
Missy, Danice’s quiet, kindergarten-teaching friend with the sweet face and soft manner, had married a werewolf last year, Niecie revealed. Missy had even given birth to a werewolf baby (who had not been born with fur, Daphanie had been assured). Reggie, one of Niecie’s other friends, had not only married a vampire, but she’d allowed herself to be turned into a vampire as well.
And those revelations had been only the tip of the iceberg. For three days, Daphanie’s head had been spinning as she tried to take in the fact that everything she’d ever thought was true about the world around her was really only a veneer of truth. Underneath the glossy, everyday surface moved an entirely new and unfamiliar world into which she’d just received a secondhand invitation. It was enough to blow a girl’s mind.
Daphanie’s mind, however, wasn’t blown; it was intrigued.
She marveled at the possibilities. Wouldn’t it explain a lot, she thought, if her college sculpture professor had actually been some sort of were-bear? It would certainly provide good reasons for his bushy beard and terrible temper during the winters. And how much sense would it make to learn that the girl she had hated from the sorority next door had been an actual as well as a metaphorical bloodsucker? Somehow, all of it just seemed to make sense. It was as if she’d subconsciously suspected this all along, and someone had only needed to point out the truth for everything to fall into place.
The most surprising part, Daphanie had quickly realized, was that most of the Others she had been introduced to had been so unexpectedly … normal. Except for his extraordinary good looks, Mac could have been any other man on the street, and Reggie might look a little paler than she remembered, but Daphanie hadn’t detected even the slightest glimpse of fang. Really, it had all been almost disappointing. She had expected to look around her and feel like a veil had suddenly been lifted and now she could see the world for what it really was, but it turned out that the unveiled world looked pretty much exactly like the veiled one had.
At least, until now. This little guy was an entirely new experience.
Daphanie refocused on the little red creature before her and grinned. “I don’t think we met before, but I’m Daphanie Carter. I’m Danice’s sister. Are you a friend of Niecie’s or Mac’s?”
He took her hand warily and shook quickly. His skin felt warm and rough but not really any different from human skin. “I, uh, I know both of ’em,” he ventured. “Name’s Quigley.”
“Quigley,” Danice repeated, deciding it suited him somehow. “It’s very nice to meet you, but I do have to ask what you’re doing lurking under the tables instead of sitting at one.”
“Um, I like to keep a low profile. You know, not stir things up too much. Get everyone all excited.”
Watching the way his glowing-coal eyes darted from side to side as he said that gave Daphanie the tiniest clue that his answer might not encompass his entire reason for attending the reception in hiding.
“So you crashed, huh? If you know both of the happy couple, why didn’t you get an invitation like everyone else?”
“That’s what I’d like to know!” Quigley’s chin jutted out at a belligerent angle. “Alls I can say is, it’s a fine way to thank a dude after he puts his own hide in trouble to save yer life. Some people just got no idea of gratitude, I can tell ya.”
Daphanie blinked. “You saved a life? Whose life? Mac’s, or Niecie’s?”
“Either/or. It was a tense situation.”
“What situation? Danice didn’t tell me anything about her life recently being in danger. Why was my baby sister’s life in danger?”
Quigley must have noticed a suspiciously militant gleam in Daphanie’s eye, because he quickly shifted his feet and darted his glance to the side. Daphanie couldn’t help it, though. She’d been protecting and taking care of her little sister since the day their parents had brought Niecie home from the hospital. Old habits, and all that.
“It wasn’t that bad,” the little creature hurried to assure her, twisting one end of his mustache around his chubby finger. “I mean, it all worked out, right? No harm, no foul. Hazard of doing business and all that.” He laughed nervously.
“But why was Niecie in a dangerous situation to begi—”
“So, did ya come in from out of town or something?” Quigley cut her off with an enthusiastically jovial tone. He rocked forward on his hooves and pasted a toothy smile on his face. Somehow, the fact that his teeth were more pointed and fangy than normal human teeth didn’t diminish the effect in the least. “I can’t recall Danice mentioning she had a sister here in the city.”
Daphanie’s eyes narrowed. “She doesn’t. I’ve been away for years now. I just came back this week. Does the situation you saved my sister from have anything to do with the reason why you’re lurking under dinner tables instead of mingling with the rest of the wedding guests?”
“Ah, that explains it. Yup, I figured if Danice had a sister in New York, she’da mentioned it by now. I was just sayin’ to myself, ‘Quigley, if this is Danice’s sister, I bet she musta been living someplace pretty far away up until now or you’da heard about her before this.’ Yessir.”
The creature’s burning, beady eyes darted this way and that, looking everywhere but at Daphanie’s face. She could almost swear she saw little drops of sweat collecting on the skin at the base of his horns. She had him backed into some kind of corner without even having seen the walls coming. She couldn’t think of any other reason for his nervous twitching. The question was, what had him so tied up in knots, and should Daphanie try to squeeze him for information, or take pity on the poor thing?
“I’m going to take that as a yes.” She considered him along with her options. Clearly, whatever danger Niecie had been involved in had resolved itself by now, but it bothered Daphanie that her sister hadn’t told her about it. And it bothered her even more that this Quigley creature knew more about her sister’s recent past than she did.
“Take what as a yes? Was there a question? I don’t remember a question—”
“And that means that whatever situation you were in with Danice, it was one she didn’t want to be reminded of on her wedding day. Because I’m assuming that otherwise she would have invited you.”
Quigley’s nervous laugh made her think of hyenas and two-year-olds, simultaneously. Which was kinda creepy.
“Heh. Come to think of it, maybe she did mention she had a sister with a bit of wanderlust to her. Haven’t you been traveling for a few years now? I think I heard Danice tell Mac that her sister was some kind of gypsy, wanderin’ around the world sellin’ her art and lookin’ for inspiration to make more. That’d be you, I take it?”
“Which means that if she or Mac knew you were here, they wouldn’t like it.” She saw his eyes dart nervously around, as if he expected the linens to disappear and leave him vulnerable to exposure. She was on the right track. “Given that it’s their wedding day, they might not want to make a big scene and might just get someone from the staff to escort you out. That would cause the least amount of trouble, I’m guessing. But then again, Niecie always has had a temper. If she was really upset to see you here, she might pick you up by your ears and fling you out a window herself.”
“A real live artist! Fancy that!” Quigley’s voice had risen to an uncomfortable and unnaturally loud squeak that made Daphanie wish for ear muffs. “Who would have thought I’d be sitting here at Vircolac’s talking to Danice’s famous artist sister! Now, she didn’t call you a painter, so what was it you do? Sculpture? No, not that, but something similar, right? I think I remember it being something simi—”
Daphanie crossed her arms, her lips pursing. “Now, I don’t know Mac very well yet, but he does seem to be awfully protective of my sister. It makes me curious. I wonder what he would do if I just let him know about his little uninvited guest under table three…?”
“Hey, you know what? It’s gettin’ kinda stuffy under here, ain’t it?” The imp cut her off with grim determination and a forced tone of good cheer. His smile looked more pained than friendly, but she guessed he was at least making an effort. “Whatta ya say we blow this pop stand, eh? You’re new to the city. I could, you know, show you around. Take you to all the hot spots.”
As an attempt to change the subject, the offer lacked a certain amount of subtlety, but it made up for it in obvious desperation. Daphanie quirked an eyebrow.
“I grew up in Brooklyn. I think I can find my way around Manhattan. But thanks. Maybe I should just go ask Danice about the adventure the two of you had together. I think that might be easier all around. Have a nice night, Quigley.”
She placed her palm flat on the carpet and made as if to push to her knees and crawl out from under the table. Quigley’s hand slapped onto her wrist so fast, she thought he might have broken the land speed record.
“Wait!” Quigley’s eyes narrowed on her face and his expression shifted from fear to calculation. “You might know what streets lead where around here, but ya don’t know the city like I know the city. I’d betcha a case of root beer ya ain’t never been to any of the places I could show ya.”
The creature stabbed his chest with a stubby thumb. Daphanie considered him for a minute, raking her gaze over his outrageous and frankly unpleasant little form. “I’m not sure I’d want to go to any places you could show me, Quigley.”
“Is that right? Huh, and here I thought you monkeys always wanted to go to the places ya ain’t been invited to. The places where the real Others hang out.”
“‘Monkeys’?” Daphanie repeated the insult. It took her brain a second to catch up with the rest of his statement. “Wait, what do you mean, ‘the real Others’?”
The creature shrugged. “Just like I said. The real Others. The ones like me, not like this bunch of pretty, rich movie stars they got here.”
“I don’t recognize anyone here from the movies,” Daphanie observed dryly. “I thought Niecie said this was a private club especially for the Others. She said it had been founded and run by werewolves for something like two hundred years and had werewolves and vampires and demons and all sorts of Others as members.”
“Sure, Vircolac is for Others, if you happen to be an Other with a couple billion bucks in the bank or a family name that goes back to one of the first Others in America,” he snorted. “Sayin’ any Other can hang out here is like sayin’ anybody can live in a penthouse on Park Avenue. Theoretically, it might be true, but it ain’t gonna happen for real people.”
“Okay, so where do the ‘real’ Others hang out?”
Quigley shrugged, his gaze running over her with calculation. “We got a few places, but they ain’t what I’d call suitable for most humans. Ya sure ya wanna see ’em?”
Daphanie thought about that for a moment. Did she really want to follow something that looked like a miniature devil, a creature she’d met only ten minutes before, into parts of the city she might not know all that well? Did she want to take that chance?
Part of her held back, wary, which only made sense. She wasn’t stupid, after all, and she had a healthy sense of self-preservation; but another part of her whispered that this was an opportunity. An opportunity afforded her by fate, the same way all the other major opportunities in her life had presented themselves to her—the scholarship to the New School, the first chance to go to Paris, the offer to travel into China, the fellowship in San Francisco, even the little studio in New Hope where she’d settled last. The best things in her life had all come to Daphanie out of the blue, and it had been up to her to grab on and run with them.
All her life, Daphanie had had a streak of insatiable curiosity. She’d always wanted to know how everything worked, especially people. She craved answers like a drug, and now that she’d encountered the biggest question mark of her life in the form of her newfound knowledge of the Others, her curiosity was threatening to drive her crazy. She needed to know more, and who better to learn it from than an insider? She couldn’t imagine anyone more inside the world of the Others than a—a—a—
She frowned at the small red monster. “What exactly are you, anyway?”
Quigley rolled his eyes. “Oh, nice. Nice manners, human. I happen to be an imp. A greater imp,” he emphasized, glaring at her. “And you wanna watch it with questions like that. Not everyone will take kindly to that sort of thing. I mean, how rude is it to ask something like that?”
“I don’t know.” Daphanie shrugged. “I don’t know anything about the Others, which is the reason I’m actually considering letting you distract me from talking to my sister about you. I don’t know what kinds of Others there are, or what they look like or act like. I don’t know how to talk to them. I don’t know how not to make them want to eat me. Nothing. You might say I’m totally ignorant about them.”
“You can say that again,” he muttered.
“So, maybe this is the opportunity for me to learn the basics,” Daphanie mused aloud. “If you show me where they gather and how to react to them, it would go a long way toward helping me understand Niecie and Mac…”
“Are ya asking for my opinion? Because if ya are, I gotta say that so far yer charm ain’t gonna take ya real far with the kinda folks I know. Most of ’em don’t take kindly to rude, ignorant humans pokin’ noses into their business.”
She glanced down at him. “But while I’m with you, you can let me know if I do or say something wrong. You know, keep an eye on me.”
The imp’s eyes widened. “Look, Daphne—”
“Daphanie,” she corrected. “Like Stephanie, only not. But you can just call me Daph.”
“Daph,” he echoed. “I ain’t some kinda Emily Post. I offered to take ya to a club or two, not turn you into a human-Other ambassador. That ain’t my shtick.”
“Then what is your shtick? Hanging out under tables at wedding receptions and hoping no one will notice you siphoning off their root beer? Don’t take this the wrong way but that strikes me as a touch … I don’t know … pathetic.”
Quigley glowered. “You callin’ me pathetic?”
“All right, fine.” The imp threw up his hands. “Ya wanna learn all about the Others? We can do that. But ya better brace yerself, and ya better keep yer eye on me, because where we’re goin’, yer sister ain’t gonna be able to come to yer rescue.”
“Am I going to need rescuing?”
Quigley sized her up with a jaundiced eye. “Let’s just say that outfit ain’t gonna help ya blend in.”
“Well, I was planning to change,” she scoffed. “I love my sister, but this is still a bridesmaid’s dress. It’s not like I plan to wear it outside of this room. I’ve got jeans and stuff stashed upstairs. I can be ready to go in fifteen minutes.”
The imp scowled and snatched up the tablecloth on the side closest to the wall. “Make it ten,” he barked as he ducked out from their little sanctuary. “That way you might catch me before I change my mind.”
Daphanie pushed to her knees and made to follow the grouchy red creature. “Are you saying you’d leave without me?”
Quigley laughed. “Leave without ya? And not take ya out on the Other town? Lady, I don’t owe ya that kinda favor.”
As Daphanie pushed through the service door at the rear of the room, slipping out of the party undetected, she wondered exactly what that was supposed to mean. A club was a club, after all, and she’d been to hundreds in her life. How different could this one really be?
Copyright © 2011 by Christine Warren