Jason had accepted an invitation to visit a metabolically-challenged client...
Chapter 10: Career Counseling
It was, at least, somewhat more comforting to be pulling into the huge, curving driveway in my own car under my own control. My prior visit had been rather informal, ending with my being shoved into Verne's parlor while still in my pajamas. So this time I was not only here by choice, but I was also better dressed.
The door opened as I reached the landing, and I saw the impeccably elegant butler/majordomo I remembered from the last visit. "Thank you… um, Morgan, wasn't it?"
"Indeed, sir," Morgan replied, with a small bow. "Your coat, sir? Thank you." I handed him my overcoat, which he took and handed to another servant. "If you will be good enough to follow me, sir, Master Verne is waiting for you in the dining room."
The manners in the Domingo household, I had to admit, had never given me room for complaint, at least aside from the initial threats. I followed Morgan to an absolutely magnificent dining room, with an actual cut-crystal chandelier shedding a sparkling light over a huge elongated dinner table which could have easily seated fifty people. The panelling was elegant, real wood I was sure, and there were small oil paintings tastefully set along the walls.
Verne Domingo, resplendent in an archaic outfit, rose upon my entry and bowed. "Welcome to my home, Mr. Wood. Enter freely and of your own will."
I couldn't manage to keep a straight face, though I tried. After I stopped laughing, I spread my hands. "Okay, okay, enough. I see you have a sense of humor too. At least you have the looks to carry it off."
"I thank you. Please, sit down and tell me how my chef has done his work. Alas, I am unable to directly appreciate such talents any more."
It was a shellfish dream—seven different dishes, small enough so that I could eat something of each of them without feeling like I was going to put a large number of crustaceans to waste. As it turned out, small enough so that if I felt like a pig, and I did, I could make sure no crustacean went untouched. I sat back finally, realizing I'd overeaten and not regretting it one bit. "Magnificent, sir. I haven't eaten that well since… um… I don't think I've ever eaten that well, actually. Seven dishes, four cuisines, the spices perfect, neither over nor underdone… I'm going to miss this when I go home, I can tell you that."
Domingo smiled broadly, giving a view of slightly-too-long canines. "Excellent!" He glanced to the side. "Did you hear that, Hitoshi?"
A middle-aged Japanese man came in and bowed. "I did. Many thanks for your kind words, Mr. Wood."
"Jason—may I call you Jason?—this is Hitoshi Mori. He has been my chef for several decades now, but he rarely has had a chance for a personal command performance. I am sure he finds it good to know his skills have not faded."
"They certainly haven't. Domo arigato, Mori-san." That was admittedly pretty much the limit of my Japanese, and I suspected that both Verne and chef Mori knew it, because Mr. Mori simply bowed and thanked me again.
I glanced at Verne. "I'd guess then that your entire staff isn't vampires? I mean, Hitoshi-san must have people to cook for?"
Hitoshi bowed. "It is true that, aside from Domingo-sama, his household needs to eat. But it is also unfortunately true that a man can become too accustomed to a routine—either the chef to the tastes of the household, or the household to the work of the chef. Only one who is new can truly permit the chef to measure his skill."
"Well, you have my vote. I've eaten in top-flight restaurants that served far worse. And I'm sure that at least one—the grilled lobster with the citrus and soy sauce—was an original."
Hitoshi looked gratified. "You are correct, Mr. Wood. I am glad that my efforts met with your approval." He bowed again to Verne and me, and left.
"Okay," I said, leaning back to let my somewhat overstressed stomach relax, "Let's cut to the chase, Verne. What, exactly, did you want to talk to me about?"
For the first time, I saw Verne Domingo look… uncomfortable. Almost as though he was embarrassed. "As I mentioned, it has to do with a discussion we began the first time we met. You described your objections to my profession, I dismissed them.
"I have… reconsidered some of my statements."
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh? You no longer want to argue about whether drug-pushing is an acceptable profession?"
He cast a faintly annoyed glance at me, then nodded, conceding that I had the right to phrase it that way. "Philosophically, I remain of the opinion that your government is committing an act of extreme idiocy in criminalizing these substances. In terms of morals and practicality, however, I have considered your words and realized that there was far more truth to them than I was originally willing to grant.
"While ideally I sold only to those who were both wealthy and foolish, I discovered that this was in practice virtually impossible to maintain; some of my… products were inevitably being sold down an ever-branching hierarchy of smaller and smaller distributors, eventually to be marketed to the very unfortunates I would never have intended to ensnare. Moreover …"
He trailed off, then rose from his chair, walked over to a window, and looked out into the darkness.
I waited a bit. Finally, I said, "Yes?"
He took a breath—I noticed that he didn't seem to do that habitually, which was a subtle but definite clue to his nature—and forced himself to continue. "… moreover, I found that I was not pleased with my own behavior, when I compared it with your own, or – in truth – that which I would perhaps have expected of myself in times past. I do not think my own people—those bound to me by oaths and by the power that makes them able to share my journey through time—could ever complain of their treatment at my hands, but outside of this isolated and self-contained circle, I have not been the sort of man I originally meant to be, not in… a very, very long time."
He gripped the windowsill, tight enough that I heard faint crackling sounds and was sure that if I went there later I'd find dents the shape of fingers in the wood. "Many things happened in the past centuries which soured me, made me less than I had been in many ways. I do not think, were I to talk with my self of ages past, that he would be proud of what I have become; in truth, I think he would pity me. I have had no true friends outside of these, my people, for a very long time indeed. I was, despite my unchanging appearance, becoming a bitter, cynical old man. I had… and still have… enemies who would consider that a triumph and amusement." He turned to me. "I wish to try to change that. I would abandon this peddling of illegal substances, find some other venture to provide for myself and my people, and, perhaps, find a way of in some small manner rejoining humanity."
Other people might make a speech like that for effect; but the way that he spoke, I could hear pain under the restrained and dignified words. In my business, you often make a living by guessing who you can and can't trust. Verne Domingo, vampire and drug-runner, still struck me as a man whose word was inviolate and who would never say things like this unless they came from his heart.
I nodded. "For what it's worth, Mr. Domingo, I agree with your philosophical position. I think people have the right to be fools, and that the criminalization of things like drugs was proven to be a failure during Prohibition. The same market forces that eliminated booze as a profitable black-market item here would pretty much eliminate the crime caused by drugs, if we just stopped making it illegal to sell them. Doesn't mean that this wouldn't create other problems, but I think the new problems would be a lot more manageable than the old ones." I studied him. "But I think you called me here for more than to basically admit you'd made mistakes—although I appreciate immensely your decision, and find it pretty darn gratifying that you decided to tell me this personally. So… what do you want from me?"
"In a sense… little more than you have already given, Jason."
"Aside from the words you have already spoken, which eventually led to this revelation, the fact that you have known what I am, and have nonetheless chosen to leave me to myself—and have even trusted me, to assist in hiding what happened here, and to come here and speak with me, on nothing more than my word." He was looking at me very gravely. "I have trusted no mortal with my secret for a long time, save only those who have become a part of my household. You have taken that trust and already repaid it.
"Yet I confess that there is another, more practical need I have of you." He sat down again, looking slightly less formal than he had moments earlier. "As you can see, I live quite well; this involves the expenditure of money, for which I would prefer to have a visible source. It is undoubtedly true, however, that I am hardly a man of these times, and I have no idea what professions I could do well in."
I blinked at that. "Mr. Domingo—"
"Call me Verne, if you would."
"Okay. Verne, I'm not an employment agent or counselor."
"This I understand, Jason. Yet it is true, is it not, that finding jobs, or evaluating people, could be construed to be something involving finding and analyzing information?"
I chuckled. "Well, yeah, I guess you could put it that way. I could probably do a halfassed job at those kind of things, but a professional advisor would be a lot more effective."
"This I cannot argue with," Verne conceded. "However, to do their job to the best of their ability, such people would need to understand many things about me—including what makes my situation unique."
I saw what he was getting at now. "In other words, they'd have to be able to understand why you were in the position you are—most likely have to know there was something weird about you, at the least, and maybe learn exactly what you are."
"Precisely. Now, I have already confessed that I have been a sour old man for far too long, but that does not mean that I have decided it would be wise to spread the secrets of my existence far and wide. In fact, I suspect that this is one area in which I must remain as careful as I have ever been."
I nodded slowly. "Can't argue that. Despite The X-Files and other similar shows, the world is not ready for real vampires as standard citizens. And the angry mob these days carries automatic weapons, molotov cocktails, and explosives." I dropped into my professional mode and started analyzing the problem.
"Okay, Verne, let's take this a step at a time. I find it hard to believe that you don't have scads of money stashed away somewhere—you've had centuries, and it's pretty obvious to me, just from your mannerisms, that you've been used to being in the upper crust for a long time. So I guess the first question is, why do you need a job at all?"
He looked pleased. "Indeed, you cut to the heart of the matter. I do, as you surmise, have quite considerable wealth in various locations and institutions around the world. However, this is not quite as simple to access as you might think. Until recently, you see, there was little ability to examine the flow of funds from one country to another, and thus it was relatively simple for a man such as myself to move from one place to another and bring my fortune with me, needing only a rather simple cover story to explain why I had so much."
"Gotcha. Transferring significant sums around, making formerly inactive-for-a-century accounts active, dragging in large quantities of gold or whatever, tends to draw the notice of the IRS and other agencies interested in potentially shady activities." This was an issue I hadn't really considered before, having grown up in an era where the government was already well in place with computers monitoring any significant transaction. Oh, it had become more pervasive in areas since I was born, but the basic idea that income was watched by the IRS had been taken as a given. Someone like Verne, who had been living for hundreds of years in civilizations which didn't communicate much between countries and who had at best spotty ways of tracing assets, would indeed find the new higher-tech and higher-monitoring civilizations a bit daunting, to say the least.
"As you say. In addition… I am accustomed to doing some form of work. I have been many things in my time, but even as a nobleman I tried to busy myself with the responsibilities such a position entailed. I would feel quite at a loss if I had nothing at all to do." He waited for me to acknowledge this second point, then continued. "Now, my former profession, while illegal, has the advantage of being paradoxically expected. When the government sees large sums of unexplained cash, it expects drugs are the source. If it finds what it expects, then it digs no farther. And if I can deny it admissible evidence and have… connections who pay the right people, it is unlikely to do more than try to harrass the suppliers. Supplying drugs also, as I understand you deduced, has the advantage of no set hours. If I wish to be eccentric and meet people only at night, well, this is no stranger than some of the other people involved in this business."
I rubbed my chin, thinking. "Uh-huh. You have this double problem. Not only do you have money of unknown provenance—and thus, from the point of view of any cop, probably crooked somewhere—you can't afford to have people look at you too closely because there's some aspects of your own existence that you have to keep hidden.
"So what you need is a job or profession which permits you to communicate with people exclusively, or nearly exclusively, during darkness hours, which has the potential to earn very large sums of money, and which you can at least fake having the talents for. Either that, or you need a way to get a huge sum of money here where you can use it openly and have an ironclad reason for getting that money."
"I think you have summed it up admirably, yes. I also have something of a philosophical objection to the rates of taxation applied to certain sources of income, but that's a different matter."
"And way out of my league; finding more acceptable employment is one thing, convincing the federal government that it shouldn't tax income is another." Verne smiled in acknowledgement. I went on to the next item of business.
"And what are you doing about your soon-to-be-former business associates?" At a glance from him, I hastily added, "No, no, I'm not asking if you're going to turn them in or anything. Just when and how you're going to get out of the business, so to speak."
"I have, in point of fact, already sent the relevant persons my decision. I will of course clarify my position to them if any of them desire it."
I looked at him questioningly. "You do realize that some of these people may not think of retirement as an option?"
He smiled, but this smile was colder somehow, less the smile of a gracious host and more the bared-fang expression of a predator. "I am sure I can… persuade anyone who might think otherwise, Jason. Do not concern yourself with that side of the equation."
I gave an inward shiver, remembering what Elias Klein—barely a baby by Verne's standards—had been capable of. No, I didn't suppose Verne would have much trouble there.
"Okay," I said, "I guess I can give it a shot. I'll have to think about it a bit, and of course we're going to have to go into your skills and knowledge areas. I'd feel kinda silly giving you a standard questionnaire, so I'll just have to talk to you for a while on that—get a feel for what you would enjoy, what you'd hate to do, what you've already got the skills and knowledge for, and what you'd learn easily. Also, you'll have to confirm or deny the various limitations I guessed for your people, and how they apply to you, so I know what things are definite no-nos and which ones are 'well, sometimes, but only rarely,' if you know what I mean."
"I grasp your meaning, yes. Would you like to start tonight?"
I ran over my schedule in my head. "Unfortunately, no. I'd have to leave here in about another hour anyway—I have some early clients to see—and I'd like time to just let the concept percolate through my brain. How about Thursday—day after tomorrow? I know that one was clear, since I checked on it yesterday."
"Thursday will be eminently satisfactory. I shall expect you at the same time, then?"
"Fine with me." I got up and extended my hand.
He shook it with a firm but not oppressively strong grip. "You have neglected to mention your fee, Jason."
I shrugged. "This isn't a normal job—I have no idea what to charge at this point. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. In fact, I have a better idea. When I bring over the work-for-hire agreement, the price will be left open to your discretion. You can decide after the fact what the work was worth to you."
"Are you not concerned I might take advantage of this option?"
I shook my head. "You're a man of honor. You'd feel too guilty. In fact, I will probably come out ahead, since you're likely to charge yourself more than I would."
He laughed. "You are indeed wiser than your years would make you, Jason. Good night, then, and have a pleasant journey home."
"After that dinner, I certainly will. Thank you, Verne."