Michael Latimer was a very large man.
It was an unfair description. There were other things one noted about him, things that were more concerning and carried greater weight. The way he sat, elegant, poised, relaxed, but conveying a coiled readiness. The way he held himself, with utter confidence. The razor-sharp intellect shining in his dark eyes. But the size was the first thing that made an impression.
He was six feet and five inches tall. His build matched his height, and the perfectly tailored suit in Argentinian blue expertly accentuated his wide shoulders, broad chest, and narrow waist. He wore a crisp navy shirt under it and the color combination flattered his dark brown skin. His curly black hair was cut short, and a stylish goatee beard and mustache defined his ridiculously square jaw. Our main conference room was large, and he had taken up most of it with his presence.
I was alone, sitting across the table. Just me and my tablet. The fewer people were involved, the better.
This was a long time coming.
“I’ll make it simple, Prime Baylor.” His voice was deep and measured. You knew that if this man screamed, the world was probably ending. “I know you have my cousin.”
Not “my cousin is here,” or “my cousin is your guest,” but you have my cousin, meaning his cousin was in my possession, and he was determined to break my hold on her at all costs.
“You will produce Regina. I will speak to her. And then, we will leave.”
I didn’t say anything.
“What are we waiting for?” he asked.
“It takes a while to walk from the workshop to the office,” I told him.
Michael gave me a sharp look.
I was beginning to think that Michaels were my Audrey. For various reasons, our family had problems with women named Audrey, and now Michaels were proving to be equally difficult. The Keeper’s Michael summoned death in the form of living darkness. Michael Latimer built constructs held together by magic and animated with his will. They were lethal and indestructible, and on a scale of dangerous Primes one shouldn’t let into her office, he was at the very top of the list.
A quiet clicking of metal on stone came through the open door. Cinder sauntered into the room, a slick black feline the size of a bull terrier made of steel and plastic. She sat by the door, curled her tail around her paws, and stared at us with glowing emerald eyes of pure magic.
Regina followed her cat. Her hair was loose today, and it floated around her head in a curly halo. Her skin tone matched Michael’s, the same rich brown with a golden undertone. She wore a wraparound blue sundress with tiny flowers on it and strappy sandals.
They had coincidentally chosen the exact same shade of blue.
Regina opened her arms, the glass bracelets on her wrist twinkling. Michael stood up, and she hugged him.
“You look well, Prime Latimer,” she told him.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “Are you being held here?”
She pointed to his chair. “Sit down. Let’s talk.”
He sat. She waved her fingers. Cinder shut the door with her paw and coiled in front of it. Regina took a chair.
Michael looked at me. “You can go now.”
“She stays,” Regina said.
“Because it’s her office, Michael. And I want her to know the whole story. My wife and I didn’t tell her much, except that my family would become a problem, and she said that we’d deal with it when it happened. This is us dealing.”
Michael raised his hands. “Okay. Whatever you want.”
“Three years, Regina. Not a word. No email, no texts. Not a single phone call. Your mother won’t talk to me. Your father cries every time your name is mentioned.” He leaned forward. “Why? What went wrong? How can we fix it?”
Regina turned to me. “This is a long story. Our fathers were brothers. My father, Ray Latimer, is the oldest, and Michael’s father, Reggie, was two years younger. They looked exactly the same. When they were little, people would ask my grandma if they were twins.”
Michael settled back into his chair. He clearly didn’t like discussing their family in front of me, but he must’ve decided that keeping Regina talking was more important.
“My father, I’m going to call him Ray from now on, Ray grew up thinking he would be the head of our family. We didn’t have any Primes in the bloodline, but each generation was a little stronger than the last, so our vector was pointing up. My grandfather made sure that both Ray and Reggie understood that Latimer name had to stand for something in Dallas and that one day our family would become a House.”
That wasn’t unusual. A lot of people took pride in their family name, and most bloodlines that consistently produced Significants hoped to become a House.
“Ray was healthy. Michael’s father had asthma. Uncle Reggie was big and strong, but he couldn’t run around and play like the other kids. Ray took care of Reggie. He wouldn’t let anyone bully him because nobody picked on Ray Latimer’s brother.”
“It wasn’t exactly like that,” Michael said.
“It was exactly like that,” she said. “Their roles were all set. Ray would run the family and get the lion’s share of the glory, and Reggie would be his helpful sidekick. Except Serenity Hamilton came along. She was a Prime from a small but gifted Animator House and her parents wanted to find her a husband who would join their family. Ray was in the running, but Reggie got the girl.”
“Ray didn’t like it?” I guessed.
Regina smiled. “Ray was livid. In his head, Reggie had stolen what should have been his. His younger, weaker brother, the burden he carried so nobly, had upstaged him. Serenity loved Reggie so much, that she even went against her parents’ wishes to marry him. She took his name and became a Latimer. None of aligned with the Hamiltons’ plans. Nobody was happy, except for Reggie and Serenity. They moved to Houston and then they had Michael.”
Michael rolled his eyes.
“He was the cutest baby ever.”
“I’m older than you,” the former cutest baby boomed. “You don’t remember.”
“I’ve seen pictures. The baby made the Hamiltons rethink things, and then Michael’s powers manifested. He is brilliant. Off the charts brilliant. Do you know that he animated his first functional construct when he was two years old?”
I looked at Michael. “Is that good?”
“Most of us begin building when we’re toddlers,” he said. “We try to animate bits and pieces. It’s a compulsion. We have to do it, but most people don’t put the whole process together into a functional construct until they are five or six. I just started early.”
“He is very modest.” Regina reached out and patted Michael’s arm. “The Hamiltons were so impressed, they dissolved their House and reformed under Latimer so he could have the protection he needed to grow. It nearly ended Ray. That should have been his beautiful wife, that should have been his talented son, and that should have been his House. He couldn’t deal with it. The man is full of bitter hatred. He runs on it like a car on gasoline.”
“He got over it,” Michael said.
Regina shook her head. “Not even close. Ray became preoccupied with getting his own House just like Reggie’s. He wasn’t a Prime, so making powerful kids had to be the answer. He just had to prove that his baby batter was even better than his brother’s.”
Michael grimaced. “I wish you hadn’t said that.”
She winked at me and kept going. “Ray married my mother, another upper range Significant, and they had three children, and then Ray stepped out on Mama to have two more on the side. None of us panned out. Oh, we’re all strong, and smart, and talented, but that doesn’t matter. He kept trying for a Prime and we failed him.”
“Look, what is all of this about?” Michael asked.
“I’m getting there. My dad wanted nothing to do with his brother or his niece and nephew, but then Reggie died. His wife was attacked, and he sacrificed himself to protect her and the kids. Michael was thirteen. One of those fun House stories we all keep in our drawer.”
“I’m sorry,” I told Michael. It wasn’t a surprise, since I had done the full background check on him when we first considered hiring Patricia but knowing about it didn’t make it resonate any less. “My father died as well.”
“I know,” Michael said.
“Anyway, Ray saw his chance,” Regina said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We had a grand family reunion. Ray rented the Dallas Oasis, this huge ten-acre estate with manicured lawns and waterfalls. I remember white tablecloths and pastel roses, pink and white. All the kids are running around the tables in our Sunday best, and here comes Cousin Mikey, skinny, quiet, and so sad. You were the saddest boy I’d ever seen. You looked like a ghost. And Ray comes over and gives him a big old hug and says… What did he say?”
Michael unlocked his jaw. “Welcome to the family.”
“What was that like for you?” I asked.
“It was wonderful.” He paused. “Ray looked just like him. It was like my dad was alive again.”
“Ray was the best uncle,” Regina’s voice dripped with bitterness. “He played his part just right. He told childhood stories about Reggie, and he treated Michael like the son he’d always wanted and deserved. His real sons, not so much. They didn’t get the special treatment.”
Michael’s expression went back to unreadable. “I didn’t ask for it.”
“I know,” she said. “None of this is your fault, Mike. You know I love you. All of us love you. But you should know that since that day our lives turned into community theater. We prepped for your visits. When you were over, everything had to be perfect. And none of us resented it. It was nice. Especially, because after a while you weren’t sad anymore and some of us thought it was helping.”
“I still was,” he said. “I learned to hide it better.”
Regina nodded. “I thought as much. There was a lot of hiding happening. Ray decided to divorce Mama and marry Serenity instead, so he could adopt Michael and finally get to be the Head of a House. He hedged his bets, of course. He didn’t start with the divorce, he started with proposal, and Aunt Serenity shut him down flat and then called my mother. It was almost too much for Mama.”
Regina’s voice turned soft.
“The way Mama was raised, you got married once before the Lord and you stayed married until death do you part. She almost left, but Ray worked on her and got her to stay. He’s good with crying on demand.”
She’d packed the world of meaning into that “worked on her.” Ray Latimer really was a slimeball.
A hint of suspicion flared in Michael’s eyes. Whatever he was thinking, he must have found it troubling.
Regina glanced at Michael. “Ray had to accept that the best he would get is telling people that he’s your uncle, so he turned his attention back to us, his children. Since none of us were Primes, he expected us to marry and start popping out Prime babies.”
“He sounds obsessed,” I said.
“That’s the perfect word for it,” Regina said.
“None of us went along with it,” Regina said. “Alex and Deon ran away to the military. Alisha married for love, and neither of her kids are Primes. Her father-in-law is a Senator, and Ray can’t mess with her. Besides, it appeals to his pride. Dayanara doesn’t want kids, so she paid for a fake medical assessment that said she was infertile. I was Ray’s last chance. I’m the youngest and the strongest.”
I got a sick feeling. The expression on Michael’s face told me he didn’t like where this was going either.
“Ray had big plans for me. You should have seen the freak out he had when I told him I was a lesbian. He told me I was a sinner and an abomination and that I was going to hell. Then he threatened to disown me.”
Michael drew back. “What?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“He brought in some crazy preacher to give me special counselling to get me ‘right with God.’ He had my grandma call me and cry on the phone. Every day was some new thing. If I refused, he’d lock me out of the workshop. You know what that does to our kind.”
The muscles along Michael’s jaw bulged.
“When Ray figured out that I wouldn’t bend, he told me it was okay for me to keep Patricia on the side as long as I got married. He had a House in mind. I said no. I wouldn’t do that to Patricia, to the man I was supposed to marry, and most importantly, to myself. I’m a person. I’m not a bargaining chip or a baby factory. He put me on house arrest.”
“He what?” Michael snarled.
“I had an ankle bracelet like a criminal. If I left the property, his security goons would come to get me. He was not losing his last chance, you see.”
Michael looked like he wanted to break something. “How long did it go on?”
“All together? About eight months. You were in France. You didn’t know. He might have broken me if I hadn’t met Patricia. Her love gave me strength. Without her I would’ve ended up in a psych ward.”
Michael reached for his pocket.
“Don’t touch that phone, Mike.” She shook her head. “I’m not finished. One night Ray and I had a heart to heart. He told me that he would let me go, and I could be with Patricia, and I didn’t have to marry someone I didn’t love, but he wanted me to have kids. He wanted me to have children and give the children to him to raise. I didn’t have to ever see them. He would have full custody. He told me to think about it, because the next step would be harvesting my eggs.”
“No.” It just came out of me.
“Oh yes. He left, and then Mama came to see me. She brought her spiders. She told me to take what I could carry, and she and I walked out of that house. They tried to stop us, but we hit them hard. Uncle Deon was waiting for us with a car. He and Mama took me straight to the airport, and when I got there, Patricia met me at the gate. The next morning, we landed in Poland, and Ray woke up to a divorce filed by the best lawyer Mama’s family could hire. Mama had been preparing for it for months.”
She leaned back, her tone light. “See, the problem wasn’t escaping. The problem was keeping Ray from chasing after us. Mama had his legal assets frozen, but he has plenty of money he hid over the years. Wherever we went, he made sure to screw things up for us. He ruined my wife’s reputation. Fraud, blackmail, nothing was off limits. By the time we came here, nobody would hire her. She is so good at what she does, Michael, and she loves it the way we love breathing life into things we make. He almost took it from her.”
Michael’s face was terrible. He was keeping a lid on it, but he was thinking murder. I could see it in his eyes.
“The only reason he hasn’t come after us full force is because Mama kept dragging the divorce out as long as she could. But it’s coming to an end now.”
Regina’s face turned hard. She’d been angry for so long, the anger had crystallized into armor.
“If I ever have children, they won’t know his face. He will never get his claws on them. Ever. He won’t be screwing up any of my babies with his bullshit. I’ll kill him first.
“Why didn’t you come to me?” Michael asked. His voice was gentle. “Do you not trust me? I could’ve helped you.”
“Of course, I trust you. And I care for you. But none of this is about you.”
“What does that mean?”
Regina leaned forward. “If I asked for your help, my father would submit. But he would do it because you asked him. Not because I told him to stop or because it was wrong. Not because he loved me. He would do it because it would threaten his relationship with you. It would change nothing, Michael. He still thinks he has done nothing wrong. He would find some other way to torment me, and I am done with his fucking bullshit. I’m better than him.”
She waved her hand encompassing the conference room. “See all this? There are no saviors here. House Baylor isn’t sheltering me or Patricia. They were desperate to hire her and yes, we were desperate for her to get hired, but this isn’t charity, it’s a business arrangement. They stay out of my business, and I stay out of theirs. They value my wife, because she is the best there is and they would be lost without her.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“I don’t need a rescue. Mama and I already rescued ourselves. I need to be acknowledged. I am a person, Michael. I’m a power, and that asshole will recognize me. He will respect me, and he will fear me. So no, I did not go to you for help. I don’t need you to stand up for me. I’m standing up for myself.”
She leaned forward and rested her hand on his. “I know what you have done. I know all about the abuse shelters and the charity and how important it is to you. If I came to you, you would’ve crushed him. Look at yourself. You can barely keep your hands away from your phone. At heart, you are a protector, Mike, and what I’ve told you made you very angry. I understand that, but I need you to stay out of my business. I must do this on my own.”
“Okay,” Michael said. “I won’t make calls. I won’t crush him. I really want to, but I won’t. Is there any way I can I help you?”
“Well, not bullying my wife’s employer would be a good start,” Regina said. “You brought a Class X construct inside the walls.”
I looked at her.
“His car,” she said. “It’s a murder machine. It’s alive and it transforms into a slaughter construct.”
I turned to Michael and spread my hands.
“I was told she was being held against her will.”
“They are involved in something heavy, and you were misled,” Regina said. “You are one more thing these people can throw at the Baylors. I’ve had months and months in a workshop building whatever I want. If I wanted to leave, they couldn’t stop me even if they tried, and they wouldn’t try. I love you, cousin. Thank you for coming to check on me, but I am fine.”
“So that’s it?” he asked.
“It would be really nice if you stayed for dinner,” she said. “I’d like you to meet Patricia.”
He pretended to consider it. “What did you make?”
“Italian. Roulade with bacon and basil, whole wheat pasta, and salad.”
“Well, I’m not the one to turn down bacon,” he said.
She smiled at him. “I’ll show you my army.”
“You have an army?” I asked.
“Of course, I do. I’ve been working on them since before we moved. I am almost done.” Regina’s smile sharpened. “It’s my war, and when Ray comes sniffing around, I intend to fight it.”
Michael turned to me.
“You’re welcome to spend time in our home, Prime Latimer,” I said. “Take all the time you need.”
“Thank you,” he said.
Regina and he rose. Cinder stretched at the door, a perfect imitation of a real cat, and followed them out.
I listened to the receding sound of their steps and Cinder’s claws.
The office fell silent.
Well, that went better than expected.