“There won’t be that many people here, I’m sure,” Aunt Bella swooped in and gave Corella a kiss on the cheek. “Your poor mother didn’t go out much and your father was practically retired. People move on so quickly.” Aunt Bella moved majestically into the body of the church, antique toque and matching stole firmly in place as she headed for the front pews. Uncle Jack, following in her wake, gave Corella an apologetic smile as he shook her hand before hurrying on after his wife.
By arriving early Aunt Bella missed seeing most of the congregation come in the door and by the time Corella took her seat in the front row, after speaking with the minister and liaising with the funeral directors, the church was full and floral tributes filled the front of the church, surrounding the two coffins. Aunt Bella looked slightly miffed and that made Corella wish even more that her brothers had been able to get to their parents’ funeral, but for once their careers had a downside and that was not being able to get transport home in an emergency. Aunt Bella was her mother’s only sibling and her father’s brothers had all died young. There was a paternal cousin, in Russia of all places, but Egor Adamovich’s wife was due to give birth to their third child any day now so they, like her brothers, had sent flowers. Her maternal cousins, Bella and Jack’s children, were sitting with their parents. Jacob, closest to her in age, had gone to sit next to Corella, but his mother had hissed at him to join them and he had.
A few more distant relatives from both sides of the family sat in the second row, but there weren’t too many of those to begin with. The source of Aunt Bella’s miffedness began in the row behind that where, on her side of the church sat members of Corella’s mother’s quilting group, the Country Women’s Association, the Ladies’ Aid Society from the church, and the Pink Lady hospital volunteers. Despite Aunt Bella thinking that her mother didn’t go out much, Corella knew that her mother had been a networker. Behind her mother’s friends sat representatives from other organisations she’d been involved with and a few school students she’d coached in the local high school’s reading program.
On Corella’s side of the church behind the few extended relatives were people her father had known from his work. A heavy spattering of senior policemen, both retired and active. Three retired major generals and one who wasn’t retired and not only wore dress uniform but was accompanied by his aide de camp and a colonel. A few minor politicians were here and there on the pews. A smattering of ‘retired’ superheros out of costume and a few actives in civilian clothes. Legerdemain looked very dapper in an Edwardian frock coat as did, several rows back, the villain Necrohaul. Between the representatives of law, order and the establishment and those of supervillainy, all three rows of them, sat a selection of lawyers, reporters, fans and other ‘ordinary’ people. Behind the supervillains were a few more usual criminals like James “Big Jim” Kratsky and the corporate representatives of various tongs, triads, cartels, families, syndicates, gangs and associations.
Corella knew what everyone was and, often, who they were. On another day she would have been vacillating between amusement and concern but today she just wanted to get through the next hour.
She cried, of course, and blew her nose in consequence. Aunt Bella managed her own tears far more elegantly. Halfway through the ceremony Jacob risked maternal wrath and moved across the aisle to sit beside her and put a dark suited arm around her shoulders. Corella leaned into his side and accepted the comfort of the old alliance of age mates. Even so, part of her mind noted that Dr Fear, who was without his normal white face paint and was wearing Armani plus a neatly trimmed, curly black beard, had a fine bass singing voice while Storm Sting was the possessor of a sharp but sweet soprano.
Afterwards, the service over, Corella followed the coffins out of the church alone, Jacob having been pulled back into his mother’s orbit, and was very pleased that she’d arranged with the funeral director to have someone drive her to and from the cemetery. The double plot was in the “new” section that had only been open for thirty years so there was still open space in the grounds near it and the shade trees had reached a good size but were not yet of an age to be a safety issue. When the minister began the graveside commitment, Corella noticed extra bystanders under the trees: a few photographers; some solidly built men in dark suits and sunglasses; and a tall man in a duster coat with an Akubra in his hand. None of them looked like the “God Created Normals” loonies or the Reverend Rick Earnest, whose offer to conduct the ceremony Corella had turned down in favour of the minister whose services her parents had attended, so she ignored them and paid attention to the reason she was there.
Afterwards, she stood at the graveside shaking hands with the departing congregation, not all of whom would be able to attend the wake. The distant cousins had said their kind words and were chatting in the surrounds and on the footpath on their way to their cars, lingering so as not to beat her back to the house. Aunt Bella had established herself on the side of the path halfway to the street so that she could receive the separate condolences for the loss of her sister and so it wasn’t until Corella was shaking hands with Dr Fear that her aunt bore down upon her and inserted herself into the conversation by saying, “Corella, I was just telling Jack that we should be going back to the house now. Will you be joining us,” she looked the dark skinned man her niece was talking to up and down, “sir?”
“I’m afraid not,” Dr Fear’s normal speaking voice was deep and clear. “Coruscate and I were not on such terms that it would be appropriate for me to go to his home. I am sorry, ladies, for your losses but I have paid my respects and now I will depart.”
“Thank you for coming.” Corella smiled nicely as her late father’s foe bowed slightly before turning and walking away, putting on his homburg as he went.
He was replaced by Madam Fortunata, also incognito with her trademark silver-streaked hair swept up into a chignon and dressed in a wool and silk blend suit that borrowed heavily from classic Chanel, and her equally incognito bodyguards in morning dress. “I was surprised to hear that your father had died in something as mundane as a car accident,” she remarked as she shook Corella’s hand, her voice holding a not quite placeable European accent.
“Oh, the eyewitnesses said he survived the accident,” replied Corella, oddly comforted to have something different to reply to, “but my mother was pinned by both the engine block and the garbage truck and he refused to leave her. The accident investigators said he’d almost freed her, but then the petrol tank blew up…”
“Dying for love is much more what I expected,” responded Madam Fortunata, nodding her head in emphasis. “Your mother was lucky to have had him for so long. I’m sorry you had to lose them both at once.” She patted Corella’s had comfortingly and her expression suddenly sharpened just before she added, “Feel free to contact me if you need to talk, no charge and no strings attached.”
Corella kept her face carefully neutral, “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Aunt Bella opened her mouth to say something but before she could speak a slight, wiry Japanese man was presenting Corella with a business card printed in Japanese and English that proclaimed him to be a senior member of the Ishii-kai, which she knew to be a yakuza group. “Hashimoto-san,” Corella bowed politely in response, “my father would have appreciated your attendance. He spoke highly of the Ishii-kai’s actions during the daikaiju incident.”
Hashimoto raised his eyebrows in surprise. “He certainly never said any such thing to our faces,” he replied bluntly. “Frankly, my superiors sent me here to confirm that the story of his death wasn’t exaggerated.”
“My father would most certainly have appreciated that sentiment,” Corella told him, equally bluntly. “Of course, he could not have praised the Ishii-kai publicly without appearing to criticise the police and that would have been inappropriate and undeserved.”
“True.” The Japanese man nodded. “They had far too many deaths that day.”
A little over half an hour and a stream of appropriate, inappropriate and plain odd condolences later, Corella was driven back to her parents’ home by the funeral director. She wasn’t quite the first person to arrive, her Aunt Bella and Uncle Jack’s car was in the driveway, and her cousin Trixie was hovering by the front door. Trixie, Corella realised as she walked up the path, was wearing her version of her father’s apologetic look. “Mum’s in the kitchen,” she said quietly, “and I think she’s found every looked door and stair gate in the house.”
Corella sighed. “Thanks, I’ll go talk to her and see if I can head anything off at the pass.” With that she opened the door and went through the house, back to the kitchen.
The caterers were ready for service and her aunt was not quite in the way but surveying the food with an assessing gaze. “There’s more food here than we’ll ever get through this afternoon so why don’t I just pack some up for Jack and I to take home with us?” She made half a step towards the cupboard where Corella’s mother had kept food containers.
Corella intervened firmly. “Aunt Bella, nothing’s left over yet because nothing’s been put out yet.” She took the older woman by the hand. “Come back into the lounge room or out on the back verandah where you can talk to Mum’s friends.”
“And that’s another thing,” Bella jumped subjects. “Why is so much of the house closed off? I tried to go into the study but the door’s locked.”
“I saw no reason for anyone here today to need to go into Dad’s study, Mum’s sewing room or the family bedrooms. If you want to leave your hat and coat somewhere, the ground floor guest bedroom is open and if you need to go, then there’s the guest bedroom ensuite and the downstairs toilet next to the laundry.” Corella didn’t quite tug on her aunt’s hand as she added, “We’re in the way here, please come out into the other room.”
“And I’ll come over tomorrow and help you sort everything out.” Bella cast an eye around the dining room as they passed through it on the way to the lounge room.
“Thank you, but the boys and I agreed that we’ll leave that until they’re all home in the autumn and we can decide together what happens to everything together.”
“Nonsense,” dismissed Bella, pulling her hand free of Corella’s. “That’s far too long to leave everything. I’ll be over tomorrow.”
Despite the almost physical pressure she was beginning to feel from her aunt’s will, Corella said, “No.”
“Belladonna, you’re being inappropriate.” Uncle Jack’s voice cut in hard and fast, completely unlike his normal demeanour. “Corella said no and that’s the end of it.”
The pressure on Corella dropped as her aunt turned to her uncle. “But there are things that were my mother’s,” Aunt Bella replied, almost pleadingly.
“And now they’re things that were Connie’s,” he told her firmly. “Corella and the boys will sort them out.”
“Enough, Bella. Other people’s needs are just as important as yours.” Uncle Jack took her by the arm, “Now come and sit down with a cup of tea and let people come to you.” He led his wife off towards the verandah and Corella could only look gratefully after them.
Later in the afternoon Corella was speaking to Andrew Sebastian, who was representing both the Sebastian Corporation and the family itself, when her cousin Naomi, Jacob’s sister and the daughter of Bella and Jack, came over to them.
“It meant a great deal to us all when your father came to my father’s funeral,” Andrew Sebastian, a man old enough to be her father, was earnestly telling Corella. “Dad always considered him a friend, despite the age difference. I think he envied him his settled marital state sometimes.” He gave a wry grin, “I think it’s fair to say that none of his four wives made my father happy for a long time, and who’s this?” He turned to face Naomi, leading the way with his drink in its tumbler.
“This is my cousin, Naomi Blackadder,” Corella made the introductions. “Naomi, this is Andrew Sebastian. His family is the powersuit-making one.”
“I’ve done some work for one of your subsidiaries,” Naomi said conversationally as she and the older man shook hands, “but I’m sure there’s a lot of that going around.”
“Indeed,” the Chief Operations Officer of the Sebastian Corporation agreed. “Was it a good experience?”
“They keep asking me back.” Naomi smiled at him.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then.” He returned her smile and then said to Corella, “I’ll leave you two ladies to it, I know how family matters can come up at these occasions,” smiled again at both of them and then went to speak with a retired major general.
When he was out of easy earshot, Naomi turned back to her cousin and said, “Corella, I’m sorry I interrupted your conversation but Faye, Trixie, Quinn and I thought you should know that our Mum’s getting a bit thingy-obsessive about Grandma’s pearls and the old oak dresser. She wants the four of us wearing the pearls at our weddings because she and Grandma did. Honestly, I thought we’d gotten this sorted when Grandma died and it’s not as if any of us are planning to be married any time soon. She did get all the other good jewellery, after all. Dad’s keeping a lid on her at the moment, but…”
Corella sighed. “I’d like to wear those pearls at my wedding too, but I’m afraid they’re not in play anymore, even for a loan.”
Naomi looked confused. “I’m sorry, I don’t follow you.”
“Mum was wearing them when they had the accident. They were incinerated with her. Pearls don’t burn but the nacre does peel off in extreme heat. There are no pearls anymore.”
“Woah.” Naomi blinked hard. “That’s going to knock her off centre a bit, I think. I’m sure you’ve noticed that she tends to cling to a few fixed ideas when she’s under stress.”
“She’s not the only one,” agreed Corella. “Does she still want food to take home? It looks like we will have leftovers and I know how she gets when she’s stressed.”
“Oh, yes and Dad will thank you. Nothing Mum cooks will be safe tonight – there are times I wish she had more control over her poison powers.” Naomi sighed. “I’d better go break it to her gently about the pearls.”
“You know,” Corella said because a memory had popped into her mind and somehow seemed relevant, “a few months ago, my Mum told me that you miss the strangest things when your parents are gone. After Pop and then Grandma died, no-one ever called her Aconite. She hated that name, but when they were gone, she missed them calling her that.” Corella’s eyes started leaking and Naomi gave her a brief, hard hug before heading back to her own parents to handle her mother.
The guests started leaving the wake about half past three and Uncle Jack took Aunt Bella home at half past four, along with a bountiful stack of food. The rest of the guests who’d attended the wake left shortly after that, giving Corella and the caterers time clean up before the people who hadn’t been able to get off work for the funeral came to pay their respects on the way home: bank managers who’d once been tellers; junior policemen who’d been rostered on for the day; a few firemen; and nurses who’d known her mother through her volunteer work at the hospital.
The caterers finished up at half past six, leaving Corella with more than enough food to lay out on the back patio table as the sun set at seven. Within a quarter of an hour, the night folk started to arrive to pay their respects. Nightbloom, Nosferatu and The Count were the first to arrive, the first touching down lightly at the foot of the garden steps before walking up them, the last carrying funeral flowers, the two villains hissing at the hero and all three of them keeping their distance from each other. All three were on their separate ways within an hour.
Meridian and Stalker dropped in briefly while Moonraiser stayed chatting for over an hour, keeping a watchful eye on the minions sent by The Hierarch and The Black Prince while he did so. The Hierarch’s three subordinates refused Corella’s offers of refreshments while The Black Prince’s men ate as if they weren’t sure when they’d see their next meal. They all left when the representatives of the Loa Alliance arrived, headed by the self-proclaimed avatars of Baron Samedi and Maman Brigit.
Her father had never been impressed by the claims of the Loa Alliance but Corella could feel and hear the other behind their eyes and sharing headspace with the human body owner. She was polite, respectful and kept her distance but Maman Brigit, aside from language, might have been in an earlier time and paying an afternoon call and the others took their tone from her. After they left, Corella cleared the empty dishes from the table and settled down to wait for a little longer.
He emerged from the darkness at half past midnight, a tall, spare, dark skinned man with grey touches in his hair. He was wearing black and Corella vaguely recognised the garment as something probably of African origin. “My condolences, Miss Corella.” Her father had had a public identity for much of his career but it was still impolite to mention the family surname. “It must be very hard to lose both your parents at once.”
“Thank you. It’s…challenging,” Corella admitted. “You’re The Broker, aren’t you?”
“I am,” he admitted easily, “and despite what you may have heard, I only deal in information.”
“You and my father disagreed about culpability from passing on information, didn’t you?” Corella thought it was best to get that out in the open.
“Indeed we did. I shall miss our…vigorous exchange of opinions on the subject,” he smiled. “However, aside from extending my condolences, another reason I came here tonight was to give you a piece of advice I suspect your parents hadn’t got around to broaching. I know you have a power,” he held up a hand to forestall her interruption, “and I don’t know what it is but I suspect you have the problem your mother, Madam Fortunata, Mindsense and I had – your power’s very useful but it has no offensive or defensive use. You have a choice if you want to avoid Mindsense’s fate, either follow your mother’s path and find a protector you can trust or do as Madam Fortunata and I have done separately and build yourself an organisation that can protect you.”
“No-one wants to wind up like Mindsense,” Corella said quietly.
“But only you can take the steps to avoid her fate,” The Broker said quietly. “At some point someone will meet my fee for telling them what your power is, I will find out and I will tell them. After that, everything is out of my hands and possibly yours too.”
“I see.” Corella though for a moment and then looked at him sharply. “So, what happened to the people who paid your fee and asked about your power?
“Commercial in confidence, Miss Corella, commercial in confidence,” he answered and the chuckle in the back of his voice reminded her why The Broker was considered to be a supervillain.
This is now followed by Protection.