I hate after-midnight meetings. Anyone who wants to talk to a witch after the witching hour doesn't want to chat about the weather, and my boss wouldn't call this late unless something was wrong. Bad news should be heard after I've had a good night's sleep and a cup of coffee, not after I've worked a ten-hour shift that featured lousy tips and three of the loudest screaming babies I'd ever encountered during my restaurant career. Already I wished I'd done the smart thing and hung up, turned off my cell phone, crawled into bed and hidden under the safety of the covers.
The anxious feeling in my gut made me indulge in my first cigarette in over a month as I left my apartment building. I'd dug the half-empty pack out of the bottom of a purse I hadn't used since winter, and the cigarette tasted stale and bitter. This was my tenth failed attempt to quit--I'd have to remember to cuss Mac out for it first thing at this meeting of his, because it was clearly all his fault. Maxwell "Mac" MacInnes is my boss, the owner and manager of the Three Willows Cafe. He's also my friend, and has been for several years now--one of the few I have left.
Though it was a warm, muggy summer night, the air outside was much more comfortable than my stuffy apartment. I puffed away on my smoke as I headed down the sidewalk, and the streetlight closest to my building flickered as the bulb exploded with a loud, angry pop. Feeling guilty, I ignored it and picked up my pace.
Most of the windows were dark in the houses I passed, the occupants fast asleep at this hour as they rested up for another day of work. My neighborhood is a nice place in general, though I don't recommend walking through it alone at night, particularly if you're a woman. Of course I don't follow my own advice, but my case is...unique. Sure, I look as threatening as a grade-school librarian. I'm on the overweight side, I wear glasses, and my mouse-brown hair is most often pulled back into a messy braid or ponytail. My wardrobe consists of T-shirts, blue jeans, and unintimidating white running shoes. I might as well have "Mug me" stamped in the middle of my forehead.
The last idiot who attacked me is locked up in a mental hospital in a room with padded walls, still raving about the bruja who cursed him with her demon magic. The official explanation is he suffered some sort of psychotic break. The truth is I hit him with a sort of karmic whammy and turned his own evil against him. It allowed me to escape, but did come with the side effect of leaving my attacker permanently insane. I didn't feel bad about it. I did, however, feel bad that my witch brethren felt I needed to be punished for defending myself.
I turned to head east toward the city as I reached the end of my block, where busy train tracks run through the heart of town. The tracks are generally used by Metra trains as they zip back and forth from Chicago to the western suburbs, though we do get several ridiculously long freight trains that rumble through and back up traffic. Flicking the butt of my cigarette into the street, I checked my watch. Right on time so far. I quickened my pace a bit, eager to reach my destination. I didn't know why he'd called me back into work--he knows I don't like to be at the cafe this late because I don't approve of the sort of people he lets in after hours. The two nearest streetlights flared and then winked out, and I shook my head and sighed.
"Great." If I didn't get a handle on my temper soon, Public Works was going to have a long night too.
The Three Willows Cafe closes to the public at ten o'clock on weeknights, eleven on the weekends. We get our most interesting customers after midnight, though. The ones who are allowed in by invitation only and look out of place surrounded by the cheery silk flower arrangements and paisley upholstery. Those'd be the customers I don't generally associate with. I'd rather spend my evenings curled up with a good book and my two cats, not serving drinks to the creepy crowd.
As I approached the cafe I spotted a tall, wiry figure standing outside the front door, his back to me as he stared toward the Chicago skyline. It was the fedora that gave Mac away. He always wears a hat of some sort in an attempt to hide his hair loss. The clear night allowed a good view of the bright city lights, but I knew the scenery hadn't drawn Mac's attention. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, tension obvious in his posture, and I crept up behind him.
"What are we watching?" I asked in a loud stage whisper. Mac's shoulders pinched in response, but he didn't turn toward me, keeping his attention focused in the distance.
"Hi, Cat. Just wait."
"Uh-huh. What am I waiting for?" I playfully poked him in the ribs, but he ignored me. Not a good sign. I turned and studied the area, curious as to what had caught his eye. We stood together, straining to hear the undefined trouble in the relative silence of the night. In the distance a car blasted down a side street, rattling windows and waking the residents with its booming music. Though the offender was being an ass, I doubted disturbance of the peace was Mac's main concern.
My lungs began to burn and I realized I'd been holding my breath. With an annoyed roll of my eyes I turned away toward the cafe doors, but before I took a step I finally heard the sound Mac had been waiting for. Somewhere to the east a long eerie howl echoed through the city, and then I glared at him.
"Oh, please. You called me out here because of those idiots? What do you want to do, pretend like we're the supernatural animal cops and arrest them?"
"One of them got caught by a news camera last week," he grumbled.
"Whatever. A blurry shot of a fat coyote running through someone's backyard is hardly newsworthy. Their environment's endangered, you know, I saw a special about it on one of the nature channels." Honestly, I could care less what the shapeshifters did with their free time. If they got liquored up and pranced their furry tails around in front of the ten o'clock news, that was their problem, not mine.
"It's still a risk."
"Not our kind, not our problem, Mac," I quipped. Shifters are the second-class citizens of magiciankind, and not worth raising a fuss over, in my humble opinion. I moved toward the doors of the cafe, but Mac's hand shot out and gripped my arm. I frowned down at it. "Hey, what gives?"
"Cat, you know I wouldn't have asked you here if it wasn't important."
"Yeah, and I'm seriously disappointed in your idea of important."
"Wait. Before you go in there, I want to say I'm sorry. This wasn't my idea." Mac looked down at me with sincere sorrow in his eyes, and my stomach did a queasy flip-flop. Tugging my arm free, I pushed through the doors.
Glancing around the room, I surveyed the state it'd been left in. I hate coming in and finding the cafe in disarray. It feels almost as though someone had thrown a wild party in my apartment while I was gone on vacation for a few days. Tonight the place had been left in a sorry mess. Mac's closer must have skipped out early again. Most of the tabletops were littered with dirty plates, sweaty half-empty water glasses and wrinkled, stained napkins.
A flash of movement caught my eye, and I realized someone was sitting in one of the booths, his back turned to me. Arms folded across my chest, I crossed the room to investigate. When I reached the booth its occupant turned to face me, and as I recognized him a jolt of power snapped sharply in my gut.
Alexander Duquesne, or Lex as I knew him better, was one of the three guardians charged with enforcing magical law and order in the Chicagoland area. When I'd used magic against the thug who'd attacked me, it was Lex who turned me in and got me cast out by the witches' council. Before that, Lex had been my boyfriend, but having your significant other hand you over to the firing squad is pretty much the end of the relationship. I wanted him to look terrible, to be a gaunt, pale shell of his former self, like someone who'd suffered four years worth of terrible guilt for arresting an innocent woman, but Lex was a picture of health, still lean and fit like a track star. Even his wardrobe was the same, from his black T-shirt to the scuffed toes of his boots. His long light brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and those gorgeous, ice blue eyes I used to get lost in now watched me warily.
"What the hell do you want?" I snapped.
"Nice to see you too, Cat." His warm, smooth Southern drawl was a bit thicker than usual, which meant he was either tired or stressed.
"This is why you called me?" I turned to Mac as he joined us. He took the seat across from Lex, and I scowled down at him. "You have lost your damn mind!"
"It's about Maureen," Lex said, his voice low and even.
My stomach twisted into a tight knot. Maureen O'Driscoll was one of the few people I trusted in magician society, someone I cared about and owed a great deal to. She was also the only witch who still spoke to me, even though I was an outcast.
"Is she okay?" My voice hitched up a notch, and I cleared my throat.
"No, sugar. She died two nights ago." The sorrow in Lex's expression didn't do much to soften the blow, and I shook my head, feeling numb from head to foot.
"Cat, she was eighty-four years old," Mac said. The placating tone only sparked my already raw temper.
"So? That's not the point. She's too tough to die."
Maureen was as strong as a tower. A fortress. A mountain. The woman's magic was so potent she could practically be a faerie, and faeries are damn near immortal. In another time she would have been the stuff of ballads, epic bard tales. A legend, like Morgan le Fay. She couldn't be dead.
"She died in the hospital," Lex informed me. "There were complications after surgery. No one was expecting it. Wasn't anything they could do about it."
"Lord and Lady," I swore, shocked. "What kind of complications?"
"Massive blood loss."
"Really." I stared at him with narrowed eyes, instantly suspicious. Someone as strong as Maureen should've been able to heal almost any kind of wound, and I'd heard of too many accidental deaths from blood loss to buy that excuse.
"There's no evidence that necromancers were involved."
"Is there ever?" My knees went weak and I dropped into a chair across from the booth. Not possible, it just wasn't possible...and yet it was true. Murdered. Maureen had been murdered by vampires--they wanted her out of the way. Just like your mother, a little voice inside my head reminded, and I swallowed hard. After a few moments I found myself dragging out my smokes, and I noticed the corners of the hard pack were smushed from being in the back pocket of my jeans. My hand shook as I lit my cigarette, and I hated myself a bit for it, but after a few calming drags I felt better.
"Thought you quit," Lex said, and I shot him another glare.
"Yeah, so did I. So, you came by just to tell me about Maureen?"
"There's more to it than that. With Maureen gone the region'll need a new Titania, or Oberon."
"Obviously. Who'd she name as her heir?"
Frowning, I tapped ashes onto the plate in front of my chair, sprinkling a shower of gray over a few cold French fries. That made no sense to me at all. Maureen was a sensible woman, she was sure to have a few dozen copies of her will stashed around, in case of Armageddon or other hideous, unforeseen disasters. Like all faerie names, the term Titania had little to do with the actual job--being Titania didn't make you queen of the faeries. Instead, it was a political position, a kind of ambassador that oversaw relations between our realm and the faerie realm. No responsible Titania would leave her region without a designated heir, it was crazy. There were far too many dark things in Faerie just waiting for a chance to get out and wreak havoc, and just as many things waiting to get in.
I shook my head in disbelief. "But she had kids. Grandkids. Hell, she even had great-grandkids. One of them had to inherit her gifts."
"If they did, no one knows about it. There's no evidence of it at all."
"The faerie council is goin' to accept candidates for the position tomorrow. I think you should be one of them." Lex leaned back in his seat, and I blew a stream of annoyed smoke in his direction.
"That's real fuckin' funny, coming from you," I growled. With a vicious stab I ground the cig out and dropped the butt onto the plate.
"I'm serious. You're one of the few strong enough to take it."
"Cat, you should listen to him--" Mac started.
Rising to my feet, I glared at both of them. "No. Not even if I were the last magician on Earth. Thanks for the news, now get the hell out of my cafe," I said to Lex, pointing in the direction of the front door. "And you," I continued, turning to Mac. "Go balance your damn books."
Turning on my heel, I marched out of the dining room and pushed my way through the swinging doors into the back room. It probably would've made sense for me to have stormed out and gone home, but this was my turf and I wasn't about to let the likes of him chase me out of it. The Three Willows is my second home.
Lex pushed his way through the doors. "Cat, would you just listen to me--"
"Go to hell." My eyes stung and I blinked with stubborn determination. I was not going to let this man affect me. I turned away, looking for a task to focus on, and settled on a bin full of dirty dishes next to the sink.
"Say somebody did go after Maureen. Whoever did it is probably sponsoring a candidate, and we'll all suffer if the wrong person ends up in the position."
"Probably. They'd have to be a really rotten crowd of possibilities if you're scraping the bottom of the outcast barrel to fight for Team Good." My hands trembled as I started filling the sink with hot, soapy water, and I kept my back to him to hide my unsteadiness.
"C'mon, don't be like that." Lex sighed, and I snorted.
"Like what? Bitter? Hurt? Angry? Sorry, can't help it. Guess you just bring that out in me."
"This isn't about us. It's about what's best for the entire region."
"Which is not my problem anymore, guardian. I don't care about saving the world. Go recruit somewhere else."
His only answer was a strangled sound of frustration. Silent, I stared down at the rising soap bubbles and didn't move until I heard the kitchen doors swinging shut again, assuring me Lex had left. I shook my head and started loading dishes in to soak. Wasn't my problem, I reminded myself. I didn't have a place in magician society anymore. I couldn't sign up for a leadership position.
Needing a new distraction, I picked up the empty bin and turned around to head back into the dining room. Mac blocked the doorway, standing with his arms crossed over his chest.
"What?" I asked, raising a brow. "Move so I can bus the tables." I nudged him in the gut with the side of the bin.
"Hug first," he countered.
I couldn't argue with that. I set the bin down and hugged him, letting him comfort me. It lifted some of the weight in my chest, and I took a deep breath. "I'm still mad at you," I warned him.
"I know." He nodded and let me go.
Picking up the bin, I walked past him into the room. I breezed from table to table, loading the aftermath of late-night meals into the plastic bin as it balanced against my hip. "You really shouldn't let Maria walk all over you like this. Cleaning up is part of closing. Hot dates are not appropriate excuses for leaving early. And you know she's gonna leave early every night you're gone on your trip. You're lucky I was free tonight."
"Just let it alone. I didn't call you in to clean. You know, you could've at least tried to be civil to him." Mac sounded weary, but I shrugged his suggestion off.
"No, I really couldn't. He's lucky I didn't stab him with a salad fork."
"Cat, what happened to you wasn't Lex's fault."
Yeah, like that was going to fix things. A few words from Mac couldn't heal that wound, especially now that Maureen was gone. She'd been my last connection to my own kind, the only witch brave enough to speak to the disgraced outcast. Now I was truly alone, and I had Lex to thank for that.
"I trusted him, damn it, and he arrested me. Lex hauled me off and paraded me in front of those dried-up old hags and let them condemn me just 'cause I wasn't willing to roll over and let myself be killed like a good witch would."
"Because they ordered him to, not because he wanted to. You don't think it killed him to do it?"
"Just drop it, Mac. I don't want to talk about this again."
I heard him sigh, and then he retreated to his office and shut the door behind him. Like a good soldier I marched from table to table, making mental notes on what else needed to be done to set the room to rights. I considered pouring myself a cup of coffee, but the warmer had been switched off and the two carafes were empty. Just as well. I really didn't need the caffeine right about now. Hell, what I needed was a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream and a carton of smokes.
Maureen had been a coffee addict too, but she took it black. No frills, no nonsense, no decaf cappuccinos for that woman. She'd always been sensible, which was why she stuck by me. Maureen thought the council was crazy for sentencing me with such a severe punishment for using magic in my own defense--she even spoke on my behalf. They could've censured me--should've censured me--but instead they chose to cast me out. Apparently the council thought I couldn't be trusted not to do it again and considered me to be too great of a risk. A bad seed, thanks to my necromancer father. It didn't matter to them that I hadn't seen the man since I was ten years old, when my parents divorced. Bad blood was bad blood.
The second round of dishes left the tabletops clear, and I grabbed a bucket from underneath the sink and filled it with warm, soapy water. There were a few spots on the tiles in front of the cafe that needed some scrubbing attention. Grunting with effort, I heaved the bucket up out of the basin and hauled it out of the kitchen and all the way to the front of the restaurant. Suds sloshed over the side and onto my white sneakers, soaking the tips. My white shoes never stay white for very long. You'd think I'd learn my lesson and buy a more durable shade.
Mud had worked its way deep into the grout between the deep green tiles near the hostess station and underneath the bench we have for customers to sit on while waiting for a table. Grabbing the scrub brush, I knelt next to the bucket and set to work. It had rained more than usual the past few weeks, which for the Chicago area is really saying something--six more inches and I'd consider building a boat and rounding up the animals in the Brookfield Zoo. I attacked the dirt with gusto to avoid thinking about Maureen.
I couldn't picture anyone who'd be able to fill her shoes as Titania. I certainly couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it, damn it. Relentless, I scrubbed faster, grinding the bristles into the grout, until a series of loud pops outside startled me. Glancing up, I saw a spectacular shower of sparks sailing out from the streetlights, raining down like fireworks onto the pavement up this side of the block and down the other across the tracks. Eyes wide, I sat back on my heels, and the brush slid out of my hands and clattered to the tiles.
"Oops," I said. Probably one of the greater understatements I've ever uttered. It had been years, years, since I'd had a magical accident that severe--not since I was a teenager, learning how to control my magic while battling the interference of surging hormones. Aside from the flickering streetlights earlier, I usually have excellent control, so this was especially eye-opening.
I heard the sound of the office door opening, but all I could do was stare out the windows of the Three Willows into the darkness. In an area like ours, which stresses the urban in suburban, the night never gets truly dark. Streetlights, illuminated store signs, headlights and of course the lights from houses all keep the deepest shadows at bay and provide a feeling of security--though it's often false. And I'd just zapped that security.
Mac stood behind me. Still too stunned for even a sarcastic quip, I continued to stare outside.
"Catherine," Mac said quietly.
"Maybe you should take a break. Come back into my office."
I lurched to my feet, wincing as my joints popped and cracked. Drying my hands on the seat of my jeans, I followed Mac into his office and flopped down into one of the chairs in front of his desk.
I love Mac's office--any magician would. Mac is a librarian, one of the oldest and most respected of the nine subsets of magiciankind. The walls of his tiny office were lined with shelves that were crammed with books. They're all considered safe for public viewing, since the Three Willows caters to the non-magical majority most of the time. It wouldn't be good for one of our regulars to wander in and find a bunch of spellbooks lying around.
The chair creaked as Mac sat down and leaned back. Deciding this would be an ideal time for another smoke, I dug out my pack and liberated another cigarette from it. I glanced up at him over the flame of my lighter as I lit the end of my smoke. "Sorry 'bout that," I mumbled around it. The cig bobbed up and down between my lips as I spoke, and then I inhaled.
"Never seen that one before."
"Yeah, I'm just full of surprises today. It was an accident."
"I'm sure the city will have a fun time trying to figure out what caused it," he replied dryly. Mac wasn't mad, which was a good thing, but there was something on his mind. We sat in silence as I puffed away. I kept trying to quit for monetary reasons, not health ones. I'm not afraid of lung cancer--all magicians are immune to most diseases, one of the reasons we're so long lived. And hard to kill. If your blood is potent enough, like mine is, you can heal a broken bone in a few days, sometimes even hours if it's something small like a hairline fracture. Of course if you drop a Kansas farmhouse on me, I'll be dead instantly, wicked or not.
"If I'd come to you about taking the position, would you have said no?" Mac asked.
I gave him a sour expression. "Doesn't matter. I don't want it."
"A fact which makes you a good candidate for it. You wouldn't be in it for the power or political gain. You'd do it because it's the right thing to do." Though I didn't agree with him, I had to give Mac credit for the thought. "Why do you think someone wanted Maureen out of the way?"
"Power, probably." It was my best guess, and I slipped my glasses off to rub at my eyes with my free hand. "Maureen was always fair, even when being fair wasn't the popular choice. There are people who'd prefer someone more easily corrupted."
Witches follow a strict rule of harming none with our magic. The other breeds of magician don't come with those kinds of ideals though. Most of the major forms don't dabble in the dark stuff--it's the sorcerers and the necromancers you have to worry about, and thankfully there's never been a necromancer as an Oberon or Titania. Necromancy is the first step to becoming a vampire, and vampires can't interact with the Faerie realm. Pretty silly to appoint a representative who's counting the days until they'll be forced to resign.
"I don't want it, Mac. Besides, the witches would never stand for it. They'd refuse to work with me, and the faeries won't want a Titania who comes with that kind of baggage."
"No, the witches would have to listen to you if you became Titania, and it would prove that they were wrong about you."
"Yeah, right." I snorted at the idea, and then inhaled deeply. "That'll never happen. They prefer martyrs to fighters. As far as they're concerned, I should've let the guy kill me." My crime, the unforgivable act that had gotten me cast out from the ranks of witch-kind, had been to fight back against the man who attacked me. I'd thought using his bad acts against him would keep me free from punishment by the witches' council.
I was wrong.
Mac shook his head. "Then forget about the witches. Think of all the other magicians you could help if you become Titania. You can't hide here forever, Cat."
There must have been an audible thump as my jaw hit the floor. "I'm not hiding from anything. What the hell kind of statement is that?" I sputtered. "You own this place, what are you hiding from?"
"I'm not hiding from a thing. I'm a librarian, this place fits me right down to the ground. I host a neutral gathering place which gives me plenty of information from our more unique customers. Outcast or not, you're a witch, you're meant to use your power to help others. Refilling their coffee doesn't count."
"I can't do it, Mac, I just can't."
"Yes, you can. And don't tell me you don't care, because I know you do."
My smoke had burned down to the filter, and I dropped it into the ashtray. I didn't light another one--there weren't enough cigarettes in Chicago to make me feel better.
"I believe in you, Catherine. You should try believing in yourself for a change."
"I'll think about it."
"You do that." He nodded.
"Right... When are the candidates meeting again?" I asked, trying to keep my tone casual.
"Too bad, I work tomorrow." Shrugging with feigned nonchalance, I stood up.
"Not anymore, you're taking the rest of the week off."
"Hey, I didn't say I was going to--"
"Just in case. Think of it as a vacation."
"I can't afford a vacation. I'll take the day off though, if you're insisting."
Rising to his feet, he rounded the desk and gave me another much-needed hug. Sometimes I wish that Mac was younger, heterosexual and that we found each other attractive. It'd be nice to have a lover who was as good a friend as Mac, someone I could trust implicitly.
"Thanks," I said. Pulling away, I gave him a weak smile.
"You may want to consider some ice cream when you get home. For medicinal purposes."
"Good idea. A lot of ice cream."
Tomorrow was going to be a very long day.