So, it’s Thursday, the day after Wednesday. I didn’t realize it was Wednesday yesterday until the kid mentioned that tomorrow will be Friday. Which means, today is Wednesday, and I am late posting again. This isolation business (which I whole-heartedly support to keep up all safe) is wreaking havoc with my sense of what day it is. I’m going to have to put an alarm on my phone.
Today (which should have been yesterday), I’m going to share a short story.
In a Witching Minute
(originally published in 2016 in the anthology Street Magick: Tales of Urban Fantasy from Elder Signs Press–find more about the anthology at http://www.eldersignspress.com )
The aroma of roasted garlic was strong; a remnant of dinner – she’d used too much garlic powder in her cheese sticks and had to throw them out when the little bits had charred black. She’d been trying to recreate the appetizer she’d gotten last week at her favorite Italian place. It would be so much cheaper if she could make them at home.
Across the table, her client wrinkled his nose and sniffed. “‘fraid of vampires or something?”
“No.” Shana wanted to snort but held it in. Vampires. Just because she was a witch, everyone wanted to make jokes about the paranormal. “I’m a witch. Why would I be afraid of vampires?”
The client looked up, eyes wide. He darted his eyes around the room and swallowed hard enough Shana could hear it.
She smirked. Serve him right if one found him in a dark alley. “This should only take a minute.”
“Just that quick?”
He sniffed again. “Smells like an Italian restaurant in here.”
“Well, it is my kitchen. I do cook here, you know.” Cooked too much, sometimes. She still cooked like she was feeding her family, Michael and both kids, though they weren’t kids anymore. There was a bowl of pasta congealing in the fridge she’d prepared on the weekend, and warmed some up with a lumpy Alfredo sauce to go with the garlic sticks. She should be better at that by now; it had been five years since Michael had filed for divorce, four and a bit since the actual papers were signed, and an exact four since he’d married the mistress she’d known nothing about until she’d seen the wedding announcement in the paper. She’d been tempted to hex him, but she hadn’t used magic during their marriage, had kept it in until it wanted to explode out of her. The divorce had been a release of sorts; now, free of the shackles, she could be herself.
Sometimes, she just wished she wasn’t herself alone.
“Uh, yeah. The other guy had an office.”
Blinking, Shana refocused her eyes. She’d forgotten her client and his spell. Clearing her throat, she checked the potion – it was fine. “Some do that.”
“Are you sure this will work?”
“No. Nothing is ever certain.”
“Justin said you were good.”
Shana snorted. Justin, the arrogant bastard, did not think she was ‘good’. “More likely he told you I was cheap.” Or, he knew the risks in the spell and didn’t want to take them. Which was another likely scenario; why else would he send work her way?
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“You’ll be no worse off than you are now.” Shrugging, Shana jiggled the brass pot over the Bunsen burner set up on the center of her kitchen table, a frayed yellow and blue checked towel beneath it to catch any drips. She finished mixing the components of the spell with a stained chopstick and sat back, watching the thin tendrils of smoke waft to the dark ceiling. It should only take a minute to cure then she could pour it in a jar and get this guy out of her kitchen and on his way.
“Are you sure this will work?”
Damn, he was like a myna bird, always squawking the same thing. A bit like Michael and his constant nagging about dinner not being healthy enough, the house not being clean enough, the kids not being smart enough. She had to stop dwelling on the past; she’d mess up the potion. Shana stood and stretched her arms over her head, sighing and arching her back so that it cracked in relief. “You signed the waiver and understanding form.”
“Well, yeah, but-”
“There are no guarantees with this spell. Everything hinges on the person it’s meant for. Probably why Justin sent you to me. He only works a spell if it is guaranteed. That’s why he can charge such high prices.”
The man nodded and looked at his hands, clasped tight in his lap so that his knuckles glowed white in the moonlight.
The smoke stopped and Shana pulled a small canning jar from the top cupboard next to her sink and a glass funnel from a drawer beneath it. She drizzled the liquid spell into the jar, making sure it didn’t foam, and sealed the lid with soft green wax and a screw lid. “Here.”
Swallowing so that his Adam’s apple bobbed wildly in his throat, the man took the jar, holding it away to stare at the ever-changing green of the contents. “What do I do with it?”
Shana scrubbed her fingers into her eyes. “I gave you a copy of the instructions. With your copy of the waiver and understanding form you signed. Put it into something the guy’s gonna eat or drink – but it can’t be heated too much, so best make it something cold.”
“Right, right.” The man stood, shoving the jar into the pocket of his oversized raincoat. “Thanks.” He threw five twenties on the table, sneered at her and stomped out the door.
Goodbye Mr. Brian Kramer, used car salesman.
But the twenties were fresh, newly printed, sticking together. His prints were probably all over them, nice and distinct. Using a pair of tongs from the same drawer she’d taken the funnel, she picked them up and took them to the counter, using a spray bottle to shoot pink smoke over them. Various dark prints appeared on the bills, and she pressed a plain sheet of newsprint over them, the prints transferring to the paper.
Once she had the prints off each bill, making them clean and untraceable, she folded them into neat, even squares, and tucked them into her jeans pocket. Picking up the finger-printed news sheet, she stared at the fine dark lines and folded it, too, tucking it between the cover and first page of her small purple leather-bound spell book.
She didn’t worry about the waiver and form of understanding. She made the ink herself, and it would fade to nothing in 48 hours.
“Aw, shit.” Shana slapped the newspaper to the kitchen table, knocking over her glass of cranberry juice. The liquid ran red over the pages, blurring the already vague photo of the body of Donald Smythe, top-notch used car salesman for Runaround Motors, found by local police behind the car lot, an avocado-banana smoothie half drunk in his hand. Grabbing a handtowel, Shana dragged it over the mess. “Fuck, double-fuck.” She banged her forehead to the table, resting it there.” Hell, make that a triple-fuck.”
The pounding at her door meant she was too late to skip town. Someone had already attached her to the body. So much for her 48-hour disappearing ink. She never should have bought the rabbit’s liver from a discount shop.
She dumped the towel on the table and strode to the door, straightening her spine, pulling what little magic she left hanging out close around her – she might need it. Squinting through the peephole in her door, she examined the back of the head on the other side. It was a generic back of a head, probably male by the short-cropped brown hair.
It swung around and her eyes struggled for a second, focusing on the heavy-lidded brown eyes.
Damn. It was the guy who bought the spell. What was his name? Oh yeah: Brian Kramer.
“What do you want?” She yelled through the door.
“A refund.” He pounded on the door.
“No refunds. I told you that.”
“But he died!”
“You read and signed the waiver and understanding form. It listed the risks.”
“What? I didn’t read that part!” She heard in fumbling through the pockets of his gray trench followed by the faint uncrumpling of paper. “Show me where it says that!”
“You should have taken your time. You probably don’t read any agreement form you sign.” Shana stepped away from the door and picked up a kitchen chair, wedging its back under the knob at the next round of rapping.
“C’mon. I need your help. Can you at least bring him back?”
“Bring him back?” Was the man nuts? She never should have taken the commission for the spell. Should have sent him packing the moment she heard Justin‘s name. It was never a good thing when Justin referred you.
Damn the need to pay bills and eat.
“Can’t do that. That’s impossible.” Shana snatched her purse from the peg where it hung, checking that her keys and wallet -and spell book – were still inside. They were, so she slung it over her shoulder.
“But I need help.” The man’s voice lowered into a whine and something heavy slid down his side of the door.
“You needed help before. You think I failed you. Why would you come back to me?”
“Justin said if you messed it up, you would have to be the one to help me.”
Shana snorted. Fucking Justin. He should have just told the man the spell was too dangerous and left it at that. Why the hell had he sent him to her?
“Look, I can’t help you, either.”
“I’m sorry.” Backing out of her kitchen, keeping her eyes trained on the door, Shana felt her way through the unlit apartment to the wide window in her living room that led to the fire escape.
Something moved outside the window.
There was no other way out of her apartment. Besides the door, there was one window in the kitchen over the sink, too small to get through, and the big double hung in the living room. Her bedroom and bathroom were interior to the building – there was another apartment on the other side of the walls.
No way though there unless she wanted to make a hole herself, and that would be a sure sign to whatever was watching for her that she was trying to escape.
Hell and damnation. Who else had this man gone to? Had he spoken to anyone besides Justin? It wasn’t Justin’s style to set something on her like this. There were several warlocks who would be happy to see her put behind bars and her spell book confiscated by the Coven Master. Maybe it was one of them?
Still in the dark, Shana shifted down, keeping her body low. She listened but heard nothing outside the window, only watched the shadowy figure’s shadow shift across the panes.
The man banged the door again, but it was slower, weaker. “Please, I need your help.”
Shana glanced at the window. Whatever, whoever, was out there was waiting for her to try to leave through the window. At this point, it might be better to just let the salesman in.
Keeping her purse on her shoulder, she darted to the door, jerked the chair away from the knob, and pulled it open. The man slumped against the jamb, falling inward. She caught him, straightening him up, shoving him against the wall.
He looked awful. His face pale, his eyes red and dark-rimmed. He smelled of sweat and sour milk. Shit. Did the man have kids?
“Fine. I’ll try to help you, but not here. We have to leave.” Grabbing his arm, she hauled him down the hall, not bothering to close the door to her apartment behind her. She didn’t plan on coming back.
The man resisted her pulling, but an explosion reverberated through the walls of the complex, a gust of wind and debris puking through the just closed door of her apartment. The man jumped and looked around like he’d only just woken up.
“Come on.” Shana thought maybe they’d both been duped, but she’d have to figure that out later, in a safe place. And right now, the hallway outside her apartment was anything but safe.
Smoke billowed from around the door, lopsided and hanging from a single hinge. It smelled of sulfur and pulverized wallboard.
She jerked on the man’s arm again and this time he followed without resistance, trotting after her like his life depended on it, which it probably did.
At street level, Shana chanced a glance up at the floor her apartment was on. She couldn’t see her apartment – it was on the back side and alley – but there was smoke seeping out the windows of her neighbors flat. That wasn’t a good sign.
Good thing the man that lived there worked early hours. He’d be returning to a mess, but he wouldn’t be hurt.
“Run.” Shana let go of the man and ran through the cars on the street, their blares and screeching tires blending with the other sounds of the city. The man stayed at her heels; sometimes she felt his hot breath on her cheek.
They ran through the business district and across the park, through a high-end residential enclave and a less ritzy housing project. She ran, gasping, muscles screaming in protest, the salesman keeping up, until they hit downtown and the river.
Shana slowed and had to grab the man’s sleeve to stop him from careening right into the brown stench of the Elizabeth. “Slow down. We have a minute. And I know someone here who might be able to help.”
“Help with what?”
“What to do about your dead friend.”
“Dead friend? Who died?” The man looked around, lost and scared. “Who are you? What was I doing in that apartment building? What was that explosion? How come I’m not at work?”
Damn. He’d been spelled to even come to her. Why hadn’t she sensed it? Or one of her alarms gone off? She and this salesman were in more trouble than she’d figured.
A shadow passed across the sun, its blur flitting across the dusty gravel beneath their feet.
“What was that?” The man looked ready to jump out of his clothes and dive naked into the river.
She couldn’t be positive, but it had the same general shape of that thing outside her window. “Nothing good.”
“So it’s bad?”
“That’s the opposite of good, right?” Man, how did this guy sell cars? She’d seen the lemons and limes on the lot; none were worth the money marked on the windshields.
The man nodded, his gaze squinting up at the sun.
Shana closed her eyes and chanted.
“What are you doing?” The man grabbed her arm and she stopped speaking.
“I’m calling for help. Don’t interrupt me again.” She closed her eyes and started over.
He shook her. “That thing passed over again.”
Sighing, Shana thought about smacking him. “Look, every time you stop me, I have to start over. Shut up and leave me alone or we’ll never get help.”
“Right, right.” The man stepped back and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Just don’t move.”
The man froze, taking her a little too literal. At least he was obedient; and he’d finally shut up.
Taking a deep breath, Shana squinted her eyes shut and rushed through the chant. Her pronunciation was off, but she didn’t think Old Malik would much care. It was an old chant, old school through and through. Old school was something Old Malik appreciated. He’d listen.
They just needed to wait for his response. Might as well fill in the salesman. “You’re dead friend’s name was Donald Smythe.”
“Donald? Donald’s dead? What happened?”
“You asked me for a spell. It went wrong, I guess, and he died.” Shana looked around. Where was it? Ah. There. A small ball of blue light grew nearby.
Shana sighed. “How about I finish after we’re inside, okay?”
The blue light turned into a ring, and a hole appeared in its center, revealing a solid wooden door with iron slats holding it together. The doorknob glittered gold in the sun. Shana reached out for the man’s hand – “hold on”- then grabbed the knob.
In less than a heartbeat, they materialized in a dim room, lit by large candles arranged along the rounded perimeter. The scent of hot wax and smoky lavender filled Shana’s nose and she breathed in deep.
“I didn’t think you’d ever come visit.” The voice came from a large wingback chair in what might be called a corner, if the room were square. An old man lounged in the chair, his long gray hair twisted into several messy braids hanging down his chest to his lap. He crossed his knees, the boney bits jutting against the light gray linen of his pants.
“I wasn’t planning on it.” Shana lessened her grip on her companion’s sleeve but didn’t let go. “There’s a situation I need some help with.”
“Will you help?”
“Tell me the situation first. Then I will decide.”
Shana snorted. That was the problem with Old Malik. He wanted to know everything first. But she didn’t know everything. All she knew was her bit. And the man beside her was clueless now.
“I sold this man a spell that went wrong.”
“Wrong? It isn’t like your spells to go wrong.”
Huffing, Shana rolled her eyes. “The spell wasn’t supposed to kill him.”
“He died?” The man dropped his crossed knee and leaned forward, his too large smoking jacket falling around his shoulder’s like a child’s dress-up. “That really isn’t like you Shana.”
“I know. But now I think there was more to it.”
“This guy,” she jerked a thumb at her companion, “doesn’t remember that his friend died, after coming pounding on my door this morning to tell me. He doesn’t remember asking for the spell, either.”
Old Malik stood, the creak of his bones heard across the room. “You do need help then.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Why did he come to you?”
“Day before yesterday, he told me Justin recommended me.”
“That isn’t like Justin.”
“I know.” Though Shana thought it was just like the bastard, she didn’t think Malik would appreciate her disagreeing with him. She didn’t need the old warlock any more pissed at her than he was already.
“And you still took the job?”
“I needed the money.”
Old Malik sighed and turned to a cabinet. “I’ll help you this time, Shana. But you will owe me.”
“You help me; it’ll be worth it. Someone else was at my apartment when he came by this morning. When we left, someone blew it out.”
Freezing in front of the cabinet, arm stretched out and resting on the bronze key set in the lock, Old Malik blinked at her. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“You didn’t wait for me to finish.” He wouldn’t back out now; Old Malik always kept his word. He could go back on it, of course. No one would question anything he did, and she’d have no recourse against him. As Coven Master, his word was magical law in the Tidewater coven’s area, but Old Malik was loyal and true to his word, no matter what. That’s one of the reason’s she’d moved to Portsmouth after the divorce. There was too much political pandering in New York.
“No, I guess I didn’t.” The old warlock opened the cabinet and took out a large, leather-bound book. “I still have issues with being impetuous.”
“And there are some of us forever grateful for that.” Shana let go of the man’s jacket and relaxed, though she didn’t completely drop her guard. Just because the Coven Master was helping didn’t mean they were out of danger. It all depended on who was responsible for the mess she was in.
“You say Justin suggested he come to you?”
“That is what he said when he first arrived at my apartment.”
“And you didn’t question it?”
“Of course I did.” Shana crossed her arms and cocked a hip. “I asked him several times. But the spell seemed simple enough. And I made him read the waiver – out loud – before signing it.”
“Did he hesitate before signing?”
“He asked more questions, then signed. Nothing suspicious. He asked questions after signing, too.” Shana let her gaze wander the room. It was much the same as the last time she’d visited. That had been a much more pleasant event; she’d been letting the Master Warlock know she was moving into his territory.
That was right after the divorce, when Michael had gotten custody of Trevor and Cecily – mainly because he got to keep the house – she’d hated it – and the judge decided the kids could finish high school in the same district. There was no way she could afford a house in that neighborhood. She wouldn’t have bought one even if she had been – except maybe if she’d thought she’d be able to keep the kids.
Malik dropped the heavy tome onto the table and flipped through the pages, running a finger over some before flipping again for several before stopping to read again.
“Nothing that I can tell from the reports. It shows that he visited Justin’s office, but that is all. Then he visited you – and you set the spell.”
“No other activity?”
“No magical explosions?”
Shana shrugged. “Someone blew up my apartment when we were leaving it. That’s what brought him out of whatever trance he was in.”
“Trance? Why would you help him if he was in a trance?” Old Malik’s voice rose to a girlish squeal.
“Well, trance may be the wrong word. But I couldn’t tell anything was wrong with him until after the explosion. Best way I can describe it is a trance, but he didn’t act like he was in one.”
Malik sighed and rubbed over his eyes. “You aren’t making this easy, Shana.”
“I’m not trying to be difficult.”
“I know. You just have a natural talent for it.” Malik closed the book and returned it to the cabinet. “Let’s sit and have tea. You can continue to tell me what happened – preferably in order but as you remember it will have to do, I suppose.”
The old warlock waved a hand and the fireplace flared, making an iron kettle that hung above the flames whistle. Heat from the flames spread out into the room, warming cheeks and fingers Shana hadn’t realized were cold.
“I’ll have our tea ready in a minute. Please sit – both of you.”
Shana bumped Brian-the-salesman with her elbow and stalked to the table. He followed, shuffling along the Oriental rug that covered the stone floor. The salesman looked around, his reddened eyes wide, his mouth gaping.
“Where are we?”
“In the river district.”
“This doesn’t look like something in the river district.” Brian looked around the room, one hand stretched out, as if to touch something, but he wasn’t sure his hand wouldn’t get slapped.
“It isn’t. And it isn’t a good idea to touch stuff. Malik doesn’t like folks touching his stuff.” Not to mention, his stuff might not like getting touched. Shana sat at the table, leaning back in the chair, arms still crossing her chest. She was angry at herself. How could she be so blind? She’d had no warning that anything wasn’t what it seemed.
“That’s why we have familiars.” Old Malik set a large rose-decorated tea pot in the center of the table and retreated.
Damn old magic. She couldn’t even tell when the man was in her head, listening. “I’m allergic to cats. And dogs.”
“Take an allergy medicine. And dogs do not make good familiars. You should know that.”
“Of course I know that. And allergy medicine makes me groggy.” Michael had been a cat person. He’d brought three of the clawed devils into their house, and no amount of allergy pills helped the sneezing, snotting, and sleepiness. She hadn’t been able to function as a regular human, let alone a witch in denial.
“A rat?” Malik raised a brow.
“Um, no.” Rats were dirty, and she didn’t like their eyes. Their gaze reminded her of how Michael used to look at her across the dinner table.
“Snakes can be familiars.”
“Not in my house. Scales are a no go.” Damn slimy things shouldn’t be allowed to live.
Malik sighed, the air gushing from his lungs long and loud. “Most casters would make a concession.”
“My concession was extra vigilance about people.”
“And that has failed you.”
“For the first time. I’ve never had a problem in the past.”
“Indeed.” Malik returned to the table with a tray containing three cups with saucers, a sugar pot and a pitcher with creamer. “Please, Shana, pour for us.”
Shana let her arms drop and picked up the pot, pouring tea into all three cups. “So, Justin is behind this, yes?”
“He’s the one who sent Brian,” she nodded at her companion, even though she figured Malik could figure out who she was talking about, “to me.”
“True, but perhaps the trap was meant for Justin, and his familiar warned him.” Malik watched the steam rise from his cup, the tendrils miniature slow-motion tornadoes.
“So he sent Brian to me, instead? How is that better?”
“Better for Justin. And he may have expected the man to give up if he had to go elsewhere.”
Shana snorted and took a sip of tea. It was bitter, but she knew better than to add cream or sugar. Brian, however, did not, and added several teaspoons of sugar to his cup, followed by a large swig of cream.
Malik watched the man slurp his tea before taking a sip of his own undoctored concoction.
“Shana, the politics of magic-“
“I know, I know. It’s all politics and power struggle and patience and ploys.” She sighed and took another drag of the tea. It didn’t seem as bitter, this sip, so she took another. “I just want to do my thing and make enough money to get by.”
Across the table, Brian’s head lolled forward and he let out a long snore.
Malik sighed and leaned the man back in the chair, waving his hand so that the back adjusted to support his head and neck. “Not much of a tea man, eh?”
Shana shrugged. “He gave his friend a green smoothie to cover the spell, and the guy took it and drank it, so it probably wasn’t an out of the norm action. I never knew him until he showed up asking for a spell.”
“You did a background check?”
“I did a Facebook and Google search. Even checked his Twitter feed. Nothing much came up about him. Other than cars. Most posts were about cars for sale and cars he’d sold. He’s a used car salesman, works for at the big used car lot on the other end of town. Donald, the guy the spell was for, was another car shiller. Worked at the same place. Top salesman every month. All this guy said he wanted was a spell to make the guy sick for a week so he could outsell him this month.”
“And that is what you gave him?”
Shana blinked hard and shot Malik a stare. “What else would I give him?”
Malik nodded once, his nose dipping almost into his tea, but said nothing.
“I even did a search on the Donald guy, just to make sure that’s all there was. And he came up as bland as Brian. Just nicer cars on his Facebook page. And posts from old ladies who loved the cars he’d sold them with a senior’s discount.” Shana scrubbed her hands over her face.
“So how come he died?”
“I don’t know that yet. I was too busy avoiding whatever was on the fire escape to look it up.”
“Fire escape?” Malik’s tea cup rattled against the saucer when he set it down. “You mean, there’s even more?”
“At the apartment, while Brian here was banging on my door, I decided to run out the fire escape, only something was out there waiting. I already mentioned that.” No way was she letting Malik think there was something else she’d forgotten.
“Something. Someone. It was big.” Shana rolled her eyes.
Malik drummed his fingers on the table. “Did you get a look at it?”
“No. I was too busy trying to leave. I tried a peek, but Brian kept hammering the door.”
“I unlocked the door, grabbed Brian and started running. That’s when the apartment exploded.” Shana squinted at the wall for a moment, focusing on a stone just a little lighter than the others around it, putting herself back in that moment. Was there anything else about the explosion she could tell the Coven Master? A scent or color or sound?
Her memory came up blank.
“I see. Is there anything else?” Malik leaned forward, his hard glassy gaze piercing into Shana.
“It was here, too. Flying. I saw it. And Brian-the-salesman said he saw something cross the sun.”
“Here?” Malik stood up, weaving on his feet. “You led it here?”
“I’d already called when I saw it.” Maybe a little lie would be best.
Shana nodded, vehement enough it made her head hurt.
Malik fell back into his chair, taking a long drag from his cup, then waved it at her. “That all?”
“I think so. If I remember anything else, I’ll tell you.”
Sighing, Malik leaned back and nodded. “I’ll have to call some folks in. Including Justin.”
“You’re going to invite them here?”
“It is the only place I can invite them to.”
Shana shook her head. “I don’t want to see him.”
“You can take another room.”
“But I do want to see his reaction to your questions.”
“Then you’ll have to be in the same room.”
“I know.” Shana took another sip of the tea. It was sweet now, almost too sweet. And she hadn’t added sugar. Well, darn it. She set the cup in the saucer. She blinked and nodded. “I really need the recipe for your tea.”
“It’s a secret, family recipe.” Malik took his last sip, draining his cup. “Have a nap, Shana. You’ll need your strength when everyone gets here.
Shana set her arms on the table and rested her head on them, closing her eyes. She had known not to add sugar, but he’d still gotten the sweet in there. She slept.
When Shana awoke, she was lying on a blue velvet chaise in another room. Brian still slept, snoring, in an oversized recliner across the room, his feet propped up to show the worn soles of his shoes.
Yawning, she stretched and wondered how long she’d been asleep. If she was waking now, then whoever Malik had invited must be arriving. That is how it worked with the Coven Master. The one in New York operated in a similar manner, though he wasn’t as nice about it as Old Malik. In New York, she would have woken up on a concrete floor with a crick in every joint. And the room would have been freezing, not warm and cozy like this one.
Standing, she closed her eyes and stretched her magic, searching out other magic, to determine who was already there. She found Malik right away, his magical essence sure and strong; good, that meant he was still in charge.
She also found Moira, the old woman’s magic surprisingly steady. It was not strong though, not as it should be. That worried Shana. Moira was Shana’s hive leader, and she had no idea who might be taking the woman’s place when she was no longer able to maintain her position.
Justin’s magic was pushy, arrows of power shooting out in offense of anyone seeking him out. Shana retreated as soon as she touched a shard of it; it was almost painful to even brush against his power. No fear that he would be losing his position as the other hive leader.
She sensed other magic centers, but didn’t recognize any of them. She didn’t know if they were from the area, or from away, invited by Malik to observe and act as counsel. He’d need backup if it was Justin’s plot. Justin was powerful, and had challenged Malik for leadership of the Tidewater coven twice already.
Was this a third challenge?
Shana pulled her magic close and opened her eyes. No sense hiding. The closed door was in front of her, but it opened easily. Malik must be ready for her – or at least he didn’t feel she needed to stay away.
Magic hummed in the air, beckoning, and she followed it to the main meeting room. There, a long table, lined with high-backed chairs, stretched from one end of the room to the other. Large glittering chandeliers hung above, the light from their lit candles dancing over the dangling crystals, reflecting on every flat surface in the room.
Malik sat at the head of the table, a glass of what must be red wine in one hand. Justin and Moira sat to either side of him, similar glasses on the table in front of them. Down each side of the table, others sat, full glasses of wine in front of them. At Moira’s left, in the chair away from Malik, was a lone glass of wine before an empty chair.
Shana marched in, head up, and claimed that empty seat.
From her new angle, she could tell that most of the guests were transparent. Which meant they were there as witness only – using their magic to stretch their essence from their own far-flung coven to here.
Justin sneered at her and rolled his eyes. “Really, Malik, why the amateur?”
“She is not an amateur, Justin.” Malik sipped his wine. “Just inexperienced.”
No one else touched their glass.
Moira raised her chin. Her white hair coiled loosely around her head, long wisps trailing down in front of her ears. “You consider anyone besides yourself to be amateur, isn’t that so, Justin?”
The warlock tapped his fingers on the table, staring across it at the older witch. “Anyone who cannot perform the most basic of spells without skill is an amateur.”
“What kind of basic spell do you mean, Justin?” Malik swirled the wine in his glass, watching it spin in the goblet.
“The woman cannot even set a simple love potion.”
“Yes, I can.” Shana knew she shouldn’t speak out of turn, but that man roiled her temper like no other. “I simply refuse to.”
Moira nodded and took up her glass, sipping at the liquid within.
Justin sneered again. “Speaking out of turn?”
“She is allowed to defend herself, Justin.” Malik set his glass on the table. “Now, on to business. It has come to my attention that a man died from a spell cast two days ago.
Two days? She’d been asleep that long? Shana glanced around the group at the table. The holograms wavered, and one at the end looked over his shoulder, spoke to the nothingness behind him, stood up, and disappeared.
“Yes. I heard about that. The death, I mean.” A lone warlock, present in-the-flesh, sat next to Justin. The man shifted in his seat, nervous fingers playing with the stem of his wine glass. “Wasn’t he a car salesman, or some such thing?”
“Shana, this is Dorian, an assistant of Justin’s. And yes, I believe he sold used cars.” Malik stared at the speaker’s glass then picked up his own and took a sip. “The man who ordered the spell was a co-worker.”
“Used cars? Why would a used car salesman want to kill a co-worker?” Justin’s voice rose and his dark brows closed over the bridge of his long, sharp nose. “What was the benefit in that?”
Which meant, Justin probably had nothing to do with it. But-
“Justin, I understand you were first approached about the spell?”
Justin blinked, his brows parting. “Me? That is not the caliber of client I deal with.”
Shana picked up her glass and took a long swing of the wine. Like the tea, it was bitter. She had to restrain from wrinkling her nose. She wouldn’t give Justin the satisfaction of knowing she didn’t like the drink Malik offered.
“Of course not,” Dorian spoke again, “not your kind of thing at all, Justin.”
“The man said it was Justin who referred him to another caster.” Malik waved a hand and a wine carafe drifted over from a sideboard nearly hidden in the shadows. The carafe uncorked itself and smoothly refilled Malik’s glass, before sailing down the table, topping up Moira’s and then Shana’s.
Frowning, Justin took a drink. “I referred no one. I was not approached by anyone about such a spell.”
Malik observed Justin raise his glass from the table to his lips, nodding. “Why would the man say it was you who referred him?”
“I have no idea.”
“Who could have done such a thing? You have an office, yes?” Moira held her glass high, her elbow resting on the table.
“Of course I have an office. I do not conduct my business out of my kitchen.” Justin snuck a glance across the table to Shana.
Shana didn’t care what he thought of how she did business. She did not have the income to maintain an office just for that purpose.
“Who would have access to your office?” Moira raised a brow.
“No one.” Justin straightened in his chair. “What are you suggesting?”
“She is not suggesting anything.” Malik raised a hand, cutting off the conversation.
“Well,” Dorian’s white fingers gripped the stem of his wine glass, “the spell was done wrong, since a man died, and we should be focusing on the punishment of the witch that cast the spell.”
“Witch?” Malik leant his head to the right, his eyes sharp on the younger warlock.
“Witch. Warlock.” The man waved a hand and took a long gulp of wine. “You know what I mean.”
“No,” Justin shifted to stare down his assistant, “we do not know what you mean. Who cast the faulty spell?”
The warlock opened his mouth to speak, his eyes darting from face to face.
Shana kept her face slack. As far as she knew, her name had not yet been mentioned as the caster. No way would she give that way. She held her breath, her lungs burning.
The warlock swallowed and his lips pursed. He stared at his glass. “I guess we don’t know that, do we? You haven’t said.”
Taking in air, slow so as not to gasp, Shana stared at the warlock across from her. What the hell was going on? Was this man really that sexist that he just assumed it was a witch that cast the spell, or was there more to it?
“No, I haven’t.” Malik sipped his wine once more.
Justin turned back to Malik. “Who cast the spell?”
“I do not wish to say. I will tell you more of what I have learned in the past thirty-six hours. The man that died, Donald Smythe, had a heart condition. He was planning to retire next month, to spend time with his much-younger third wife, and was pushing hard to make a sales record. He told no one about his condition or his plans to retire.”
Damn. Shana took another mouthful of wine. It was still bitter. She wished it was cider, or even beer. She gulped down the liquid in her mouth and took a long breath through her nose. Wine really wasn’t her drink of choice.
She took another sip and the taste of fermented apple burst in her mouth. She glanced at Malik, who smirked from the head of the table, cocking one brow.
Shana took another swallow. It was good. Would be better from a bottle or a lager glass, but she’d put up with the goblet.
Moira smiled at her, tipping her glass in her direction.
Shana smiled and took another drink, setting the glass on the table after. What a shame. If Brian had only waited another month, he would have been the top salesman without having to resort to a cheating spell.
“Donald’s widow is planning his funeral for tomorrow. Christ Lutheran, I believe. One o’clock in the afternoon. Then a short service graveside.”
Moira nodded. “She’s inherited a substantial amount of money. He was a big saver, from what I read in the paper. He only had to pay alimony to his first two wives until they remarried. Then there’s the insurance on top of that. Nice policy, or so his lawyer says.”
“I’m sure she’s terribly upset.” The warlock across the table from Shana paled and took a long swig from his glass, grimacing when he swallowed.
“I’m certain she is.” Moira sipped from her glass before holding it out for a refill from the floating carafe.
“Dorian, what the hell is wrong with you?” Justin tapped the man’s glass.
“Nothing is wrong with me. I think we need to focus on the perpetrator of this crime. The witch that cast the bad spell.”
“I do not think it was a bad spell. I think it simply compounded his heart problem. Accident at best.” Malik waved a hand to refill his own glass and Justin held his out, as well.
“Still, the witch-“
“Why do you keep saying ‘witch’?” Moira stood to her full height; the woman was tall, at least six feet, though usually stooped with her age.
“Well, it’s just a term-“
“You have a problem with female casters?” Moira did not retake her seat and Malik did not ask her to sit.
Justin frowned at his assistant. “Are you certain you know nothing more about this?”
“Of course not.” The man took a drink from his glass and gagged. “How can you drink this stuff? It’s awful.” He spit into a napkin.
“I think it’s quite good.” Shana took a long sip of her cider.
“You! You-” The warlock shook in his chair.
“Did you meet with Justin last week?” Malik leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands in front of his chest.
Justin turned to Malik. “I meet with my staff every week. Dorian is my assistant, so yes, he met with me.”
Malik nodded. “At your office?”
“Of course.” Justin whipped his head back to Dorian, a frown growing on his face. “Wait. You were not at the meeting.”
“I was out of town.”
“Were you?” Malik stared at the warlock.
“Do not lie to me, Dorian.” Justin turned in his seat, leaving his goblet on the table.
The warlock took another sip of his wine and his eyes teared and he spit the liquid back out, gasping and gagging.
“Were you out of town last week?”
The warlock looked like he didn’t want to answer the question. But finally, in a small voice: “No.”
“Were you skulking around Justin’s office?” Malik tapped his fingers on the table.
“Did you meet with Brian Kramer. Tell him you were Justin?”
Dorian’s hands shook; red liquid spilled from his goblet. “Yes.”
“Did you refer him to another caster?”
“Why?” Shana stood, her head only reaching Moira’s shoulder.
The man sneered. “Why not? I knew Donald had a heart condition. I knew what Brian was there for. I saw the opportunity to send him to you. I figured you’d mess it up anyway.”
“Is that the only reason? Why use Justin’s name?”
The man snorted, red wine seeping out his nose. He swiped at it with a napkin, staring at the spreading stain. “It was also a good opportunity to discredit Justin. I’m better than assistant material.”
“I see.” Malik closed his eyes and sighed. “Sit down, Moira. You make me feel short. You, too, Shana. Though you don’t make me feel short.”
Moira sat, and Shana followed suit. She shouldn’t have stood before, but she’d forgotten protocol. She was surprised Justin hadn’t called attention to her gaffe.
The red seep from Dorian’s nose increased to a drip, and the man pressed the napkin to stem the flow. It didn’t help, and the white napkin became a sodden red mess. He grabbed another napkin from the next setting, the silverware wrapped inside clattering across the table.
The liquid pooled on the table, a rivulet making its way across the surface toward Shana.
Shana leaned back and Moira pulled her from her seat, pulling her to stand behind the older woman’s chair.
Malik opened his eyes and stared at the spreading stain. “Dorian, you feel malice toward Shana?”
“She refused my love spell.” The words spewed from the man’s lips, accompanied by a good amount of spittle. He glared at Shana.
“She doesn’t do love spells.” Justin glared at the warlock. “Who did you want the spell for?”
The man didn’t answer. Shana though maybe he couldn’t. The liquid from his nose ran in a steady stream.
“Jessica, Donald Smythe’s new wife is my guess.” Moira watched the table, her hand still gently pressing Shana to stay behind her.
The ghostly guests nodded to Moira, a couple standing to fade away. Only three remained. They stared at Dorian and the spreading red. One shook his head and disappeared in his chair.
“I would say that is a very good guess, Moira.” Malik stood, raising his glass high. His remaining pseudo-guests faded to nothing.
Moira stood, picking up her own glass and nodding for Shana to retrieve her own. Shana did, the cold cider sloshing in her haste, spilling over onto her fingers.
Justin did the same, though he did not spill his drink.
“Dorian, you are hereby relieved of your duties as a warlock in the Tidewater coven.” Malik drained the wine from his glass, followed Moira and Justin as one, then Moira nodded for Shana to do the same. She did, the cider sliding sweetly down her throat.
“Well then, this business is complete.”
The warlock fell forward to the table, his cheek pressing into the liquid, his eyes open but sightless.
“Justin, you may remove him from our presence.”
Justin proffered a short bow and nodded, setting his glass on the table. “As you will it, Malik.” And he placed a hand on Dorian’s slack shoulder, and disappeared, the dead warlock with him.
Malik waved a hand and the table reset, the glasses clear, the napkins refolded, the blood gone. “Shall we dine, now?”
“Indeed, please. I am starving.” Moira shook out her napkin and spread it across her lap, smiling at Shana. Shana took her own and did the same.
“You have a question, Shana?” Malik snapped his fingers and silver tureens and trays wound their way through the door, stopping, first at his plate, then Moira’s and Shana’s, ladling out portions of their contents.
Shana stared at the steaming food on her plate. There was roasted pork loin, tiny red potatoes and asparagus with slivered almonds. The aroma made her mouth water, but- “The thing on my fire escape? Was that Dorian?” She had trouble imagining the warlock brave enough to station himself outside her apartment like that.
Moira waved a hand and the carafe filled their glasses with an amber liquid. “No.”
“No?” Shana looked from Moira to Malik and back. “Then who, or what, was it?”
“It was a gargoyle, Shana. It was sent to observe how you do business.” Moira smiled at her over the top of her glass. “It never meant you harm.”
Malik took up his own glass. “Rest assured, Shana, I knew nothing of this gargoyle when you first came to me.”
“You sent it, Moira? Why?”
“Yes. The gargoyle was mine. Shame, about the explosion. It thought you were in danger and broke through your apartment wall. More of an implosion, I suppose, than an explosion.” Moira took up her utensils, glancing at Malik and waiting for his nod before cutting into the loin on her plate. “I wanted to know a little more about you Shana.”
“Why?” Shana was fast losing her appetite. She’d only lived within the Tidewater coven’s borders since Michael’s remarriage. Had she broken some law? Was she going to be expelled?
“I am getting ready to retire, Shana. Not immediately, but soon.” Moira put the bit of pork in her mouth and smiled, sighing. “I do love your cooking spells, Malik.”
“Like my tea, it is an old family spell.” Malik raised a glass to Shana and sipped.
Shana stared at Moira. Though it was known through the gossip mill that Moira was getting older – some thought the woman already too old to be a hive leader – and thinking of retiring, there was no whisper at all of who might replace her.
“Did you like your wine, Shana?” Moira nodded at Shana’s plate. “Eat up, child. You’re going to need your strength.”
“It was cider.” Shana took up her fork and speared one of the potatoes. Why would she need her strength?
“You are certain of your choice, Moira?” Justin strode through the door, a plate appearing at his place next to Malik, the tureens and trays drifting forward to serve him.
“Of course. If I was not certain, I would not make the decision.” Moira didn’t look up from her meal.
Justin sat at his place, frowning at Shana. “What did you drink earlier?”
Shana raised her brows, but before she could answer, Malik spoke. “She drank cider, Justin. Cider.” The old warlock chuckled.
“Hard cider.” Shana felt the need to speak up. She didn’t want him thinking she couldn’t handle alcohol.
Justin stared, ignoring the cooling food on his plate.
“What do you think of my decision, now?” Moira took a sip from her glass, smiling and licking her lips. “I do love a good sherry.”
Shana examined the liquid in her glass. Sherry? She’d never drunk sherry in her life. She picked up her glass and took a sip. It was sweet – maybe too sweet – and it burned a little going down. She still preferred her cider. She took another sip, and this time it was the cider she loved.
She set the glass down, glancing at the pork on her plate. She didn’t eat meat. She frowned, thinking about the blackened salmon served at the one fine restaurant she could afford to eat at once a month, and the loin on her plate blurred, to be replaced by the very dish she’d been thinking of.
“Damn.” Justin glanced to his own plate, frowning down at the potatoes. “I can’t even get my potatoes to turn to rice.”
“It’s a good decision.” Moira grinned at Shana.
“We’ll see.” Justin started on his meal.
“What decision?” Shana leaned forward, trying to catch Malik’s gaze, but the Coven Master was busy digging into his dinner.
“Why,” Moira set a gentle hand on her arm, pulling Shana’s gaze to her own, “the decision to make you my successor.”