Authors: Terry Maggert
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban
First published in USA in 2016 by
Copyright © Terry Maggert 2016
Formatted by LionheART Publishing House
All rights reserved.
The right of Terry Maggert to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review —without written permission from the author.
To my bride. Thanks for all of it.
The moon hung full, meaning I would sleep on the couch to listen for the squeak of my mail slot announcing the plaintive request for a secret spell. That was where people who I rarely knew would push a handmade envelope through the slim space to fall into my home; the letter would slide across the floor with a swishing rasp, before coming to a stop. I would then open each letter in the moonlight of my kitchen, where I got down to the business of being a good witch.
In a sense, I grant wishes.
I have growing power. I’m a work in progress, I guess, and I feel it in my bones that every little bit of effort must be made to keep the most subtle kinds of evil at bay. Things like loneliness. Fear. A loss of caring. These are the things that all of my spell requests are built around; the words change, but the pleas are always the same. I think that because of this ability to use my magic, I understand that there must be goodness in the world in order to foster even greater kindness. I’m okay with that. It’s my calling.
My Gran taught me that goodwill should be freely given. The ability to be kind without strings is the mark of pure magic; its sole purpose can only be fulfilled when there is no expectation of reward. In a sense, the envelopes that fall to the wood floor of my foyer are the closest thing to a physical prayer that I will ever see. I treat each request with the care it deserves, and I am utterly committed to lessening the suffering of the people around me. Gran always told me that someday I’d think of myself as a priestess who cared for the world around me, and I think I’m starting to understand.
The moon slides across my kitchen in a soft pane of light for three nights out of each month, unless it’s cloudy, or snowing, or rainy. It’s during this transit of light that I wait in a state somewhere between dreams and reality. If I doze too soundly, Gus will wake me when an envelope arrives, but, for the most part, there’s a part of my mind that anticipates each quiet plea. To fill the hours between now and then, I went to the kitchen to graze. It’s a scientific fact that if you eat while standing over the sink, it is neither a meal nor does it count against your alleged workout plan. Fortunately for me, the diner keeps me in shape, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling a twinge of guilt when I eat something that has no nutritional value whatsoever.
Like right now. I selected a spoon that is just small enough to fit in my mouth, opened the fridge, and pulled out a tub of homemade peach ice cream.
“Hello, beautiful,” I murmured. “We’re about to get uncomfortably close for the next half hour.” I spooned the first frigid bite of heaven into my mouth and let my eyes close with the kind of pleasure that only ice cream or a lingering kiss can bring. The spoon rested on my tongue, cold and brittle, and I was moving to dredge another bite when the mail flap opened and an envelope slid onto the floor. Gus eyed the ice cream with a feral speculation; he wasn’t above pilfering licks if I left the tub unattended, so the ice cream went with me to the foyer.
I bent to pick it up and my hand stopped in mid-air. The paper was marred by three dark smears, but I knew it wasn’t ash or ink.
It was blood.
Moonlight has a curious effect on many things. It can spawn romance, or poems. It can light the water at night, and the snow, too, spangling the frozen crystals with the second-hand sun from the other side of the world. In the fall, it can turn an innocent night into something sinister, looming over the harvest like a fat reminder that the veil between worlds is thin indeed. But for blood, it takes that which is crimson and makes it black, and I know this because it’s something I’ve seen before.
I reached for my power and let my senses drift across the innocuous paper, and I was sorry that I did. Fear, like blood, can stain things, and this message was fairly soaked with the kind of terror that can kill. Gus padded over and uttered a low growl from the depths of his throat; he felt the wrongness of the aura permeating the note.
“I guess I have to open it.”
Gus hunkered down next to me, an expectant look on his broad feline face. I stood and turned on the hallway light, then plucked the envelope from the floor and opened it in one smooth motion.
It was a torn piece of paper, yellowed from sun or weather. The smell hit me first; a mélange of age and the coppery bite of blood that was still too fresh to be oxidized. The words were clearly written with a fingertip, and in a hand that shook so badly I wondered if the author had survived to the end of the message. I read, turned my eyes for a moment to steady myself, and then read the note once again.
When they find her, you will know. Please do not forget the rest of us.
My mind screamed at the opaque meaning, knowing that somewhere in the depths of those few words was a message that could save lives. I knew intuitively that what I held in my hand had been written at great cost, and curling fingers of dread hooked around my spine and began to squeeze, just to let me know that I was powerless in that moment. I sat down on the floor of my foyer and felt the first hot tears of rage spill down my cheeks, hating that all I could do was wait.
If you know me at all, you know there are certain things I’m not very good at. Reaching things on the third shelf? Not my thing. Eating butter beans? No way. But the thing that actually galls me is to wait, yet that’s exactly what I did, resting on my couch with Gus until my gray eyes were dark hollows in my face. The sun rose as my stomach roiled with frustration and guilt, but as the light became impossible to ignore, I rose and went to make coffee.
I stood sipping the first cup, my eyes gritty and red. I could feel the low simmer of anger percolating within me even as I stepped into the shower. This was going to be a bad day. I considered and discarded dozens of possible meanings for the note before walking to work with my head down and eyes locked firmly on the sidewalk. It was too early to bother Gran, but I resolved to call her when I could steal a moment away from the grill at the diner. I knew we’d be slammed, but there was something about the note that froze the marrow in my bones.
I didn’t know what was coming, but I could tell it was going to be bad.
If I ride my bike to work, it takes three minutes; walking takes ten. I chose to walk. The sun broke over the lake in a fury of gemlike flames. Halfway is a lake made in heaven, and the town curls around it like a jealous lover. At five in the morning, it’s sleepy and quiet, with only the occasionally rowdy goose or loon breaking the silence. The only humans moving around other than me and a few bakers are fisherman; they have the excellent sense to limit their noise and speech under the auspices of not scaring their prey. I applaud that kind of dedication to avoiding human contact before you’re fully caffeinated.
I unlocked the diner’s side door and slipped into the quiet cool. This was the magic hour before any other employees were around, and the entire space was mine. Three days a week Louis would be waiting to greet me—he started baking at two in the morning, but not today. There was no aroma of flour or sweets and coffee, just the welcoming stillness and a lingering hint of something fried and delicious. Glynna and Pat would arrive later; between the two of them, they could organize the invasion of a modest country. They’re both seasoned veterans, who know that coffee comes first, chit chat is second, and smiles are constant. It’s no surprise that getting a job here is rare, but keeping it is common.
I set coffee to brew, wrapped a snow white apron around me, and slid easily into the kitchen to begin the dance of preparing for an onslaught of bustling customers who came to eat, relax, and gaze out at the brightening surface of the lake. There are some mornings that I lose time; it’s as if the muscle memory of my job takes over and bliss descends to move my hands in a familiar pattern of cooking, plating, and smiling at the general joyous chaos that erupts from the moment we open our doors. Most of the time, I love my job. Other days, I tolerate it. But this was not one of those days. This day was going to be
I looked up from the grill and froze. Usually, the diner—that’s the Hawthorn Diner, known to everyone in town simply as The Diner—is filled with a nice mix of tourists and locals. You know the types. There are tourists wearing all manner of vacation uniforms, with the occasional sunburn mixed in for good measure. Dads wear khaki shorts, white sneakers, and an expression of relief when their kids start eating. Tourist moms wear anything that’s clean, drink coffee like their lives depend on it, and always seem the smallest bit worried. Our locals wear baseball caps and an air of infinite patience, waiting for me to cook their waffles just so without a hint of hurry.
So, when I looked up and saw six clowns sitting at the counter, I took a moment. Okay, if you want to get technical, I froze. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of clowns. As a witch, I actually find them sort of relaxing when compared to the paranormal nasties I deal with now and again; a little face paint and red noses don’t frighten me. But still, I just took a moment.
Glynna smirked at me while she filled a row of coffee cups; apparently even clowns enjoy a hot cup of joe. I nodded politely, looking down at my current batch of home fries that were happily sizzling away, then turned to add onions and mushrooms to an omelet that was nearly done. Despite my, ah, stature, I can cover a lot of ground in the kitchen. I may not be tall, but I’m really busy, and that goes a long way toward making me efficient. I like that. So do our customers.
“Circus in town?” I asked Glynna, who began to hang tickets in the window with a robotic efficiency. You’ve probably seen someone like her before in a diner somewhere. Glynna is fifty, slender, and has hair color that changes like the weather and brown eyes that are cheery and bright.
She’s an inveterate coffee and sugar addict—they’re what fuels her—and she avoids vegetables, meat, and milk like one would a radioactive badger. I really need to look into her diet someday, if she’ll ever stand still long enough to let me take notes about her eating habits outside work.
She pointed at the array of clowns and nodded sagely. “It is. Rolled in overnight. They’ve set up near the park, although I’d say it was more like a carnival. They’re nice guys; they were giving away tickets at the lakeshore before they came in here to tank up on waffles.”
The lakeshore meant the walkway that followed a rough outline of our park, which snugs up to the water. We are exactly halfway between the beginning and the end of the Adirondack chain of lakes, hence our name, and the park is your basic giant green lawn that acted as a picnic spot, music venue, and general meeting place for friends, lovers, and the occasional dog who wanted to stretch it out and run for a bit. My town is compact, idyllic, vibrant during the summer—as all touristy places are—and frigid for the winter.
It’s also lousy with magic.
Now, clowns aren’t from the Everafter, they just dress that way. Trust me, if you’ve ever seen an actual Faerie Queen, you’d think she got her wardrobe at yard sales held during the disco era. Just because you’ve got royal fae blood doesn’t mean you have taste. I know this from experience, and I’ve only just stopped laughing at a printed pantsuit that a fae court member wore during a fight with a rogue Werebear. If it hadn’t been dangerous, I would have been too busy taking pictures for posterity. I don’t care if your beauty is magically enhanced; when you combine stripes and spots, I’m going to laugh at you.
I breezed through the remainder of my shift in a happy fugue, stepping out of the door at just past two in the afternoon. Actually, I took two steps, because I’m just brushing five feet tall and my legs are appropriately long; that is to say, they reach the ground. Barely. My eyes are gray, my hair is black, and I love my Doc Martens as much as any inanimate object on the planet, save my charm bracelet, which acts as a sort of repository for my excess magic. I’ve got a hidden witchmark behind my right ear; from it springs hair of every human color you can imagine, and a couple that I’ve only seen on really unusual cats. I use the hair for spells, on occasion, and the witchmark as a sort of early warning system for everything nasty that finds witches to be delicious or interesting. I couldn’t blame the beasties, since my hair smelled of the grill, my clothes were speckled with waffle batter, and I needed a shower in that welcome sort of way you get if you love your job. I do. I’m lucky like that.
So, I’m a witch, and I come from a long line of witches. My Gran is sort of the de facto leader of all things magical in our area; her decades of experience make her the go-to for all questions about the arcane. I seem to be the designated hitter in terms of pest control; I don’t know whether I should be flattered or angry that I spend so many of my days off traipsing around the woods hunting down errant demons, ghouls, or undead tax accountants. It would seem the spread of evil knows no bounds, and until you’ve had to cast spells at a guy with blue skin, a pocket protector, and fangs, don’t you dare judge me.
Part of being a witch means having a familiar. Mine is a cat named Gus. He’s of the Maine Coon variety, which means that his size rivals mine, and his favorite hobbies include giving me the stink eye, complaining, and trying to smother me with his tail when I take naps. In other words, he’s your basic cat, just three times larger and more attuned to my magical needs. Gus is the only other occupant in my home; it’s a small bungalow that’s close to the diner, and it once belonged to my parents. They’ve retired and headed for the sunsets of New Mexico, leaving me my childhood home.
I love everything about my house. I love the deep cool of the cellar where I perfect my magic; I love the green expanse of the lawn, and the lonely apple tree that marks the eastern corner of my yard. Its branches are few but heavy with fruit each September, and I pick each apple with a reverent memory that stretches back to the first years of my life. I’m twenty-one years old, and I’ve never known another place. I belong here, and I love that fact, too. All of these things push together in my heart and leave me full and happy, a fact which naturally irritates the rare cynic I’m forced to deal with. Those people are inevitably customers who are cursed with real or imagined special dietary needs. Egg white omelets make me sad, but the people who order them make me angry.
I stepped through my door and tossed the keys on a tall table that hugs the left-hand wall. Gus waited to greet me from his usual perch on the fireplace mantel; I refer to it as The Dais of Judgement, due to his unblinking stare and haughty bearing.
Then again, he’s a cat. They’re built for that kind of subtle insult, so maybe I’m just overly sensitive since he’s so confident. I admire that kind of moxie in an animal who is frightened of my sneakers if I dare to leave them in a different position. He’s a creature of habit, as am I, but you won’t see me shedding like a cheap sweater when I get upset. Big difference.
Gus interrupted my thoughts with a single deep mroooowwwt.
“Yeah, yeah. You big galoot. I’ll get it.” I moved unerringly to the fridge and pulled out a pitcher of actual cream—my snobby cat won’t drink anything but the good stuff. After I filled a dish large enough to swim in, I started peeling off clothes and heading toward the bathroom. I took an experimental sniff as I passed my bedroom, sensing the lingering essence of Wulfric, my boyfriend. He’d left just before dawn to go on what amounted to a patrol of his lands. I should probably explain why I have a boyfriend who needs to patrol anything, so here goes.
Wulfric is a thousand-year-old half-vampire, half-Viking, who guards a section of the forest so that mortal hikers don’t get turned into undead monsters by an evil spring that we sometimes call the Fountain of Youth. He also has a daughter, Emilia, with a no-good skank named Anna, who is actually a Werepanther, hula-hoop addict, litterer, and general malcontent. Anna’s also really hot, which means that for the most part she got away with all manner of anti-social behavior, but absconding with my boyfriend’s kid puts her squarely on my shit list, and I’ve got news for that trampy little kitten.
I’m not scared of any kind of cat. I live with Gus.