There was clapping and barking from the audience.
Casey hadn’t been expecting so much fanfare, but she was pleased by the People’s welcome and warmed by Falco’s generous words.
“And while I am proud to have Casey with us in this struggle,” Falco continued, “I am grieved to learn of the death of our friend Ramses.”
The room quieted again.
As she sat back down she distinctly heard someone say: “Nice backside, too.” She managed to keep a straight face as she returned her attention to Falco’s solemn eulogy. The People were reminding her more of the Longhorn crowd by the minute.
“Ramses’ life ended the way he lived it. Fighting for his Pack, fighting for the mission. I pray that when my time comes, I exit this world as well as he. A finer dog, I’ve never known. While his spirit has migrated to a kinder world, we will miss him.”
Casey’s gaze wandered across the crowded room, the somber doglike faces. She wondered who her guard would be, and what the choice would be based upon. Strength and power? That Rottweiler near the wall looked positively intimidating; she hoped it wouldn’t be anyone that scary. Intelligence, maybe? She kind of liked the looks of the Border Collie in the second row. He had a friendly, competent look about him. Merciful heavens, hopefully not that Chow Chow in the corner, she’d never liked Chows and this one looked especially vicious….
“…and thank you.” There was clapping as Falco stepped aside, yielding the podium to Alastair. Casey hadn’t been paying attention to the last of that.
“Now then,” Alastair began, “I’ll take yuir reports… Sherlock, we’ll start with you…”
Falco nodded to Casey and headed up the aisle and out the door. She rose and follows quietly.
When she emerged into the hallway beyond, Casey found Falco and Cerberus waiting in the company of another dog person. She was a Malamute, black and white hair. Frankly, she was stunning. Casey looked her over in surprised pleasure. For some reason the thought of a female bodyguard hadn’t occurred to her; suddenly the whole thing felt a little less awkward. It was probably sexist of her to think she’d get along more comfortably with another female, but she couldn’t help feeling a little relieved anyway.
“Casey,” Cerberus said, “I’ve assigned Pana to you.”
Casey gave the Malamute a friendly smile. “Hi, Pana.”
Pana’s dark eyes swept across the young Telekinetic. Her voice was cool, “Nice to meet you.”
There was a brief, slightly awkward pause while Casey wondered whether Pana was naturally reserved or if she resented being assigned the task of babysitting a human. Then she started over, still friendly but a hair more formal. “I really appreciate you looking out for me. Are you from Austin originally?”
“No, ma’am.” Casey pegged it: Pana’s tone was that of a subordinate to a superior. “I’m from Dallas. I’ve been in town for six months.”
“I’ve been here for almost two years now, but I’ve seen a whole new side of Austin since last night. You probably already know a lot more about the important stuff here than I do, I’ll try not to be too much trouble for you.”
Pana nodded at that, “I’ll help you along, ma’am.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. “Please just call me Casey though.”
“We’ve had Pana working several different assignments. She’s a resourceful bitch,” Cerberus offered.
Casey’s eyebrows shot up at that, until she realized that the term was completely appropriate. “Um…that’s good. I like resourceful.”
“Excellent,” Falco smiled. “I’m sure the two of you will hit it off…”
“Camille,” Cerberus said softly.
“Is it time already?”
“Who’s Camille?” Casey asked.
Falco squinted. “It’s going to a bit tight in the Jag.”
“I’m sure we can all squeeze in,” Cerberus said, winking at Pana.
Pana snorted, shaking her head.
Casey was a little skeptical herself. “All four of us?”
It was a tight ride. Pana and Cerberus both in dog form, huddled together between the two seats, rumps resting on the trunk. Casey could sense Pana’s frustration with Cerberus… and she could most definitely sense Cerberus’ attraction to Pana. Squished tightly between Pana and the car door, she suppressed a smile. Apparently some issues were universal, regardless of species.
Falco was silent as they drove.
“Camille will assume you are my girlfriend,” he said at last. “Please assure her that I am only your mentor. The girl does like to meddle.”
“Make sure Camille knows I’m not your girlfriend, got it,” Casey nodded. “Who’s Camille?”
“My grand-daughter.” He frowned, “Well, my great-great-great-great-great-great-you-get-the-idea-grand-daughter.”
“Wow.” Casey took a moment to let the idea sink in. “Does she know all about you, then?”
“No,” he shook his head. “She knows me as her grandfather, but not that I am really her grandfather. She believes me to be a long time friend of the family. A very close friend of the family. She also does not know that her two dogs have much in common with Pana and Cerberus here.”
“Wow,” Casey said again, eloquence eluding her at the moment. She fell silent again, wondering how many family pets were actually members of the People. It was a distracting thought. After a while she resurfaced. “Is this a social call then, or is she involved in the war?”
“Social call. She is not involved in the war.” He grumped, “I wish she wasn’t in town. I tried to get her to attend elsewhere, but she was adamant on going to UT.”
Casey nodded. “People like to make their own choices. My parents hated the idea of my moving here too, but as much as I love them it was just something I had to do.” She frowned. “Of course if I’d known about the…nightlife here I might have reconsidered.”
“Not fond of the bars on Sixth Street?” He smirked.
That got a quiet snort.
He scowled at the road. “Camille was attacked by a vampire last night. Or,” he clarified, “One tried to attack her. Her minders warded him off.”
Casey shivered. “Good thing they were there. Did you assign them to her when she moved here?”
“Yes,” he answered. “We have guardians with other members of the family, but when Camille came to town Wulfgang and Schnitzel were assigned.”
They parked on the street. Both dogs leapt clear of the car.
Casey stepped out more sedately, but she was just as glad to be out of the cramped car as the dogs were. She looked around, slightly puzzled. She’d assumed they were going to Camille’s home, since they had the dogs with them, but this was a business area.
Falco led the way across the street. They approached a patio area cheerily lit by white and colored string lights hanging from trees and along the fencing. The sign above the patio read OFF THE LEASH. People were seated at tables with their canine companions alongside them. Casey glanced through the patio’s occupants, trying to see if she could guess which one was Falco’s great-etcetera granddaughter. **Wait…what am I supposed to tell her you’re mentoring me in?**
:: Business. She believes me to be an art and antiquities dealer. Which is true. ::
A burst of humor came through the psionic connection. **We’ll be sure to tell her you haven’t been mentoring me long. I don’t know a thing about art or antiques.** Casey’s eyes searched about to see if she can identify Camille before Falco led them to her.
He moved onto the patio.
She ID’d a German Shepherd as one of the People. Another Shepherd, also of the People, lay at the feet of a young woman seated at a far table. **There she is!** Casey placed her age somewhere around 20 or 21. She had short brown hair, worn in a stylish fashion common among college girls. She wore plain, black rimmed glasses that on another girl might have looked too bookish. On Camille, they were oddly charming.
Falco’s grandchild had a fair, delicate complexion and warm bronze eyes. She wore a grey turtleneck sweater, which seemed a size too big. She was wearing jeans and a pair of sneakers. A book bag was slung over her chair. She was reading.
**She’s pretty** Casey observed.
:: Yes, she is. All the Falco women are. :: There was a touch of sadness in that.
She wondered a little about the sadness, but didn’t want to intrude on his privacy by asking. **I can see the family resemblance, a little.** It suddenly occurred to her that Falco didn’t look old enough to be anybody’s grandfather, or even play the part convincingly. **How old does Camille think you are?**
::Mid-forties. ‘Grandpa’ is for her a term of endearment. ::
He smiled as they approached the table, “Camille!”
Her face lit up upon seeing him, “Grandpa!”
She jumped up, hugging him, kissing his cheek.
“Camille,” Grinning, “This is Casey. She’s working with me.”
Casey nodded hello, smiling.
“Mmm-hmm,” Camille was skeptical. “A little young, but that’s probably good for you.”
“It’s a working relationship!” he protested as he sat, motioning for Casey to do the same.
Falco rolls his eyes.
“Hi, Casey. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.” Casey took a seat at the table, laughing a little at the exchange between Falco and his granddaughter. “It really is just a working relationship. Mr. Falco’s teaching me all about the antiques business.” Her normally direct blue gaze slid away from Camille’s eyes and down to the tabletop as she uttered the last bit — lying had never been Casey’s strong suit — but her tone struck the right note of amused candor.
“Well, I hope the old lech is paying you well.” She patted Falco on the hand.
Casey wasn’t sure how to answer that; fortunately Falco rescued her with a change of subject. “How’s school?”
“Hard!” She groaned, “Seems like all I do is read and read and read.”
“Work that brain muscle,” He encouraged.
“Mr. Falco’s all about the working of the brain muscle,” Casey commented wryly.
Camille nodded, “Then you feel my pain.”
A waiter arrived placing a water bowl down for the dogs and then glasses of ice water for the bipeds. Falco ordered an Old Speckled Hen, which turned out to be ale. Camille stuck with coffee.
“Miss?” The waiter asked Casey.
“Iced tea for me. With lemon, please.”
It was provided accompanied by chips and salsa.
Camille glanced to Pana, “Your Malamute is beautiful.”
The four dogs were all sniffing each other.
“Thanks. I just got her, actually. Her name’s Pana.”
“Pana? Interesting name. What’s it mean?”
“Not sure; it’s the name she came with.”
“Pana is a diety from the Eskimo tradition,” Falco answered. “She tends the souls of the dead while they wait in heaven to be reincarnated.”
Casey grinned at Camille, rolling her eyes slightly at Falco’s ready if rather obscure information. “You can see why I asked him to mentor me. I don’t think there’s anything he doesn’t know.”
“Don’t I know it. So, tell me about you, Casey. Where are you from?”
“Just outside Niblock, in Montague County. My family has a ranch there.”
“Country girl,” she grins. “Working ranch? Or gentleman farmer?”
“Working ranch,” Casey smiled, more at ease now that she was back on familiar ground. “Quarter Horses and Red Angus cattle. Not much resemblance to Austin, but I like it here. I’ve been here almost two years now, but this city just keeps surprising me.”
“Montague…?” Camille pondered. “Boot country, right? Nocona’s around there?”
“Nocona’s about two hundred and fifty miles Southwest of us,” Casey smiled. “Niblock’s one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it little towns that don’t even make it onto most maps.”
“Camille is from Dallas,” Falco offered.
“Born and bred,” Camille nodded.
“I’ve never been,” Casey said. “Is it much different from Austin?”
“Bigger. More urban. Lots more people. Not nearly so… weird.”
Pana tensed…and a corresponding sense of wariness washed across the young telepath. Caught in the act of sipping her iced tea, she glanced over at Falco. He remained calm and at ease, but just for a moment his eyes flicked over her shoulder…