Blood, Smoke and Mirrors (2010) (2 page)

BOOK: Blood, Smoke and Mirrors (2010)
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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.

"Yeah?"

"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.

"Tomorrow."

"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.

Chapter Two

The familiar sensation of a cat biting my toes woke me. It's almost as reliable as an alarm clock with the bonus of being far more annoying. Cats are unclear on the concepts of shift changes, weekends and days off. Swearing, I untangled myself from the sheets and sat up in my bed. My little angels, Merri and Pippin, were staring up at me from the floor, waiting to be fed. I used to feed them at night, trying to preserve the sanctity of my mornings, but they took to gobbling down their food and waking me up to demand more anyway. Thusly I was outsmarted by my cats.

"Fine, fine, I'm up," I assured them. Placated, they trotted out into the kitchen to await their breakfast. Glancing at the clock, I swore again--it was a little past nine in the morning. I don't function well before the crack of noon under the best circumstances, and with only four hours of fitful sleep I wasn't at my best and brightest. Coffee, I needed coffee, and lots of it.

I stumbled into the kitchen and made a beeline for the coffeemaker. A furry missile attempted to trip me about halfway through the room, but I managed to avoid it. Coffee first, cat food second. Believe me, the little ginger butterballs weren't about to starve to death. Once I managed to start the coffee brewing I scooped food into the monsters' dishes and got out of their way. While the coffeemaker hissed and spat on the counter I padded toward the living room, intent on checking my email.

The scent of cinnamon hit me a split second before I heard the distinct rustle of wings. One of my unusual gifts is that I can smell magic. I've never heard of another magician who can do it. Strange though it sounds, it's a rather useful gift, especially considering no one knows I have it. Faerie magic smells like cinnamon to me, and it gets stronger as the magic gets more powerful.

I paused in the doorway and blinked at the faerie perched on the arm of my sofa. Enormous silvery white wings glistened and glimmered in the sunlight shining through my front windows. Thick waves of hair the color of newly fallen snow fell forward as Portia bent over the television remote held in her hands. I envy her those hands. Her fingers are slender and delicate, and her pale skin is flawless. Though small in stature, she does not have the willowy, almost anorexic angles many artists seem to favor when painting faeries and pixies, but instead her form is rounded, curvaceous. Aspiring artists also have faerie fashion all wrong--they don't usually go for flowers or diaphanous gowns. Portia likes ripped jeans in a bleached 1980s style, white fishnet stockings, combat boots and torn sweatshirts. I keep waiting for her to update her style, but she must be waiting for it to come back.

The mysteries of the remote have always eluded Portia, probably because there aren't many electronics in her world. "Kitty, make it work!" She held the remote out to me with a petulant frown. "I want to watch the game show."

"It's not on 'til ten," I replied, taking it and setting it down on my end table. Portia has a love of
The Price is Right
. She gets excited every time the announcer yells "Come on down!" and her wings shower the room in ice faerie dust, which is damn hard to vacuum up I might add, in addition to leaving a layer of damp when the frost melts. "It's early, Portia, what's up?"

"Stuff. I'm going to escort you to the big meeting. I'm your sponsor now. You'd better hurry up and get ready."

"Whoa, whoa, I never actually agreed to be in the running. I just told Mac I'd think about it, and I thought I'd just drop by and see who turned out for it."

"Oh, you talked to Big Mac about this too? Big Mac is very wise, you should listen to him."

From the kitchen I heard the soft beeping that alerted me that my coffee was ready, and I turned around and fled the room. The strong smell of cinnamon followed me, signaling that Portia was not far behind. When I entered the kitchen I discovered the cats had vanished, off to work on whatever important feline business was next on their schedule. Reaching into the cupboard over the counter, I grabbed my largest mug and filled it with the beautiful, steamy nectar of life.

"Kitty, you just
have
to be the new Titania!" There was a childish whine in her voice I knew she couldn't help. A faerie's vocal range goes both above and below a human's ability to hear, which is why we can't speak their language, no matter how much a magician studies it. Still, even knowing that fact it was difficult to avoid the instant headache that formed behind my eyes.

"Portia, that's really a lot more responsibility than I'm interested in." I opened my refrigerator and grabbed the bottle of vanilla-flavored creamer.

"But you're good at it."

"Yeah, right, I'm a regular candidate for governor. Hey maybe I'll run for mayor and unseat Daley."

After adding a healthy helping to my coffee I replaced the bottle in the fridge. Turning around, I leaned against the counter and watched Portia as she tried to figure out who this mysterious Daley person was from her perch on the corner of my kitchen table. Faeries don't sit, they perch, and though they look as solid as a human they are far lighter, so I had no worry that my cheap, rickety table might snap under her weight. Hell, it'd be more likely to snap under the weight of one of my fat cats than Portia.

"I'm not a people person," I explained, but she was unconvinced.

"You don't need to be a people person, you need to be a faerie person." She jabbed a slender finger at me for emphasis. "You're perfect for that, your blood's strong. The Silverleafs all love you."

"My blood's not as strong as Maureen's was, not by a long shot."

"Few people are anymore. She was half-blood."

Choking, I nearly spat a mouthful of coffee across the room. Maureen being half faerie would explain a great deal about why she was so powerful, but it did bring up another question.

"Why didn't any of her children inherit it then?"

"Oh, they did."

"Why the hell didn't one of them get named as her heir?"

"Never got trained, might as well have been born straights." Portia sighed, her wings drooping in disappointment.

My mouth opened as I almost asked another question, but I swallowed my curiosity. If Maureen hadn't trained her children, there was a reason for it, a personal reason that was none of my business to know. I'd been to her home a few times, but never met any of her family. It made more sense now--she probably didn't want to explain to them how she knew me.

"She'd want you to do it."

I nodded in silent agreement. Maureen would want me to do it, she'd always believed in me. She supported me when no one else would, she looked after me after my mother died and made sure I went to a witch's foster home, instead of being dumped into the straights' system. I owed her a lot. I owed her this much...

"What time is this meeting?"

"Soon! Drink faster!" she urged, and I took a gulp of coffee.

"All right, all right."

Portia barked orders at me as I hurried to get ready--though I had no idea how to prepare for this sort of thing. I was glad I'd showered when I got home from the cafe, because there was no time for it now. After shedding my pajamas I stood in front of my closet in only my underwear, wondering what to wear. My wardrobe consists mostly of casual, comfortable clothing: jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, that sort of thing. I don't own very many things that fall into the "nice" or "formal" category, as I seldom have the opportunity to wear them.

This trip was just plain difficult to plan for--the first and most important lesson I'd learned about the faerie realm is you must expect the unexpected, and that's nigh impossible to dress for. The rules and laws that apply here don't necessarily extend there. Faerie is a world of pure magic, and that makes it far more fluid than our world. Locations and landscapes shift on a whim. Even time runs differently--remember those old stories about people being snatched up into a faerie mound for a night and when they return home the next morning they discover a hundred years has passed, and everyone they loved has died? All true. Magicians eventually learned that taking a piece of time from our world, first as an hourglass and later as a pocket watch or wristwatch, keeps us grounded in our own timeline when we return home.

"Portia?" I said, waving a helpless hand at the selection.

"Dress for battle. Do you have armor?"

"Yeah, they give you a Kevlar vest when you move into the neighborhood," I joked, rolling my eyes.

"What's Kevlar? Is it shiny? I like shiny."

"Never mind."

"How about something with lots of pockets? For spell components."

Well, at least I knew I'd need to be prepared to do magic. The knowledge was not very reassuring, and likely meant my abilities were going to be put to the test. Spellcasting is one of my many strong points, always has been, but like any witch I have an automatic handicap where it's concerned. Witches require tools to cast spells. We need words, ritual and physical components like wands, daggers, herbs, candles and crystals, to name a few. And we need lots of 'em. A sorcerer can conjure up fire with a thought, but a witch needs to speak an incantation and have a symbol of it on hand, like a match or a lighter. That split-second difference has cost many witches their lives.

I settled on wearing my many-pocketed cargo pants, an army surplus button-down shirt over a black tank top, and my black combat boots. Rifling through the drawers of my dresser, I started pulling out nearly every amulet, talisman and holy symbol I own, stuffing them into my pockets and hanging them around my neck. Next my gaze settled upon my ritual dagger and sword. They both serve the same purpose, performing the same tasks and symbolizing the same things, but each would send a different message to my observers. The sword was a more aggressive symbol than the small dagger.

"Bring both," Portia suggested.

"Both?"

"Yup. Just in case."

"Of what? Barbarian invasion?" I joked. Grabbing the belt out of my closet, I affixed the sword's scabbard and the dagger's sheath to it.

I loaded my fingers with rings, my wrists and arms with bracelets and watches, and then earrings for my double-pierced ears. Next I brushed out my hair and let it fall long and loose down my back. The final touch was my favorite: my top hat. It's a detail that is my trademark, and Portia in particular loves it--she probably wouldn't let me leave without it. It's black, of course, and Two Tarot cards--Justice and The Moon--are tucked into the satin band.

"You look good!" Portia assured me when I was finished.

"I look like a gypsy going to war." Turning toward my bed, I nodded to the two cats that had been overseeing my progress. "Well, what do you boys think?" Pippin expressed his opinion by rolling over and demanding a belly rub, which I indulged him with, and Merri just yawned. "Gee, thanks."

"Good, let's go!"

Fluttering into the air, she zipped across the room and through the dressing mirror. The glass rippled like water in her wake, and normally I would've expected it to display an image of the place in Faerie she'd traveled to, but instead my reflection stared back at me. Guess I'd have to create my own gateway this time.

"Okay, everybody out," I ordered. Pippin hesitated, wanting more attention, but in a stunning display of actual obedience, both cats hopped down from the bed and hightailed it from the room.

After shutting the door to my closet and to my bedroom, I crossed to the antique mirror. The old dressing mirror stretched taller than me and just slightly wider, and my reflection stared back at me, resigned to our fate. Taking a deep breath, I drew the dagger from my belt and sliced a long, shallow cut across my right palm. The blood welled red, bright and painful against my pale skin, and I placed the palm against the center of the mirror.

"Between the worlds, I make this door,

Safe passage through, as time before.

The lock undone, with blood as key,

As I will, so mote it be."

The image shimmered and a ripple spread out from my hand like rings on the surface of a pond. A glow formed and lit the room, suffusing the entire reflection until it was a blank sea of light. I inched my hand away and the light brightened even further, almost to the point of blinding until it suddenly faded. My room was no longer reflected in the mirror, but instead an image of a grassy hill appeared. Fluffy white clouds wandered across the landscape's sky, and the long grass waved in the breeze.

I glanced at the two photos atop my dresser--one of me and my mother on my fourth birthday, and one of me and Maureen at my high school graduation. "Wish me luck, ladies," I said softly.

Squaring my shoulders, I stepped through the mirror.

I've lived in the city all my life, so it's no surprise that the sensation of breathing fresh air is strange and foreign to me. I'm used to exhaust, smoke and other general pollution, and the absence of it makes me wary. To me, it's the ultimate reminder of not being in Kansas anymore, Toto. Aside from the cleanliness, Faerie isn't so different from our world as far as looks go. The grass is green, the sky is blue and the sun shines during the day and the stars at night, though admittedly the constellations are different. I'm not sure why that is, I'm no astronomer, and I haven't had the time or inclination to find out.

With one hand secure on the hilt of my sword, I walked forward toward the hill. The portal closed behind me with a muffled pop, but I paid it no mind. I knew how to get home without it, even though I had no idea where I was. Despite the fact that I've used the same mirror in the same spot for seven years in a row now, it's never opened to the same place twice. I knew the hill was a faerie mound, and if this was where the door had brought me then this was where I needed to be.

"Portia?" I called out as I walked. It was slow going, or at least in comparison to a brisk walk down the concrete sidewalks of home. Like I said, I'm a city girl. I like my roads paved, my messages instant and my coffee to go.

"Kitty! This is so exciting!"

I turned to see the faerie fly over to join me. A cool shower of faerie dust rained down as Portia fluttered above me, and I couldn't help but sneeze.

BOOK: Blood, Smoke and Mirrors (2010)
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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