Ashes

Fiona stirred the shards of what had once been the window of the White Hart with her foot.  The damp ash clung to the glass and traced patterns over the charred car park.  She glanced around.  She had had a quiet word with Mrs Tuesday who had played the old lady and got the two distressed werewolves to go back to Fiona’s flat with her and Freydis had taken one look at the burning shop and disappeared.  Kadogan appeared behind her.

“Fiona, it is exactly one year since we opened this shop.  We have had a wonderful year.  But what now?” He sounded wistful.

Fiona felt a weight settle on her shoulders.  Kadogan, the strange elfen that had offered her the chance of her dream after she saved his life, was usually a whirlwind of energy.  Now he seemed lost.  She knew how he felt.  “We need to talk about this before we go back to the others.  We started this, it’s up to us to make a decision.”  She paused.  One of the firefighters was cautiously approaching.

“The insurance people are boarding up the shop, Mrs Adderson.  You might as well go home and get some sleep.  The police will want to speak to you later, but there’s nothing you can do right now.”

Fiona watched the efficient looking men nailing boards over the blackened window frames and then covering them with metal shutters.  “Police?”

The firefighter kept a professional expression, but Fiona could tell he felt uncomfortable.  “We’re going to have to flag it as suspicious.”

Kadogan stepped forward.  “But there are roadworks with electrical lights near them which could malfunction with sparks and ignite any gas from the gas main which could have been damaged as they mended the drains.”

“Trust me, sir, if the fire had started because of the gas main we would now be in a big hole and there wouldn’t be enough of your shop to nail the boards on.” The firefighter turned to Fiona who had been the voice of reason so far.  “We can’t say that it’s definitely arson, but it’s not straightforward.  Fortunately, you have a state of the art sprinkler system and you should be able to reopen in a matter of weeks.”

“Thanks.” Fiona managed a faint smile.  “Thank you for the efforts.  We’re really grateful.  We’ll get home now.”

She turned and slipped her hand into Kadogan’s, guiding him away.  “There’s a 24-hour burger place just down the road.  Let’s go and get a drink.”

“It will not be as pleasant as the tea that you make.” Kadogan grumbled.

“But we can talk.” Fiona felt more exhausted than ever as the adrenaline ebbed out of her.

They walked through the dark streets.  There was a special quiet about 4am.  Most of the pubs and clubs were shut and those who worked the early shift were only just stirring.  Fiona bought two teas, took a handful of sugar sachets and sat down with Kadogan in a corner.

“I do not feel I have adequately repaid you for saving my life.” Kadogan said, adding sachet after sachet to his tea.  “Nor do I feel I have in any way repaid you for putting you in harm’s way last year and the great satisfaction working with you has given me.  But the shop is burned.  What can we do?”

“Do you remember the argument we had over insurance?” Fiona asked.

Kadogan slowly stirred the syrupy tea.  “Yes, if there is an accident such as a fire, then we can get money to put things right, less the thing.”

“Less the deductible.  That’s right.” Fiona wrapped her cold hands around her cup and savoured the warmth.  “We will have the money to keep going, if we can carry on paying the bills until we open again.”

Kadogan waved his hand in irritation.  “I have much money.  I never remember it all.  But the shop is burned.”

“We can sort it out. We can get new stock and try new lines.” Fiona said.

“I am old and bewildered.” Kadogan suddenly sounded as tired as Fiona felt.  “How can we start again when the shop is burned?”

“Well, we can give it a good clean, or ask the brownies to give it a good clean.  Paint it again.  We can keep the mail order business going while we fix the shop from that warehouse that Steve rented.  Do you want to try again?”

“But the shop is burned!” Kadogan stared miserably at his cup.

Fiona tried a different angle.  “It doesn’t have to stay burned.”

Kadogan looked at her curiously.  “It doesn’t?”

Fiona shook her head.  “It can be better.  But do you want to?”

Kadogan sat back and stared at the dark street outside.  Fiona could tell he was thinking hard, but she waited patiently as he tried to work it out.  Finally, Kadogan nodded.  “I would like to have the shop again.  Do you?”

“I can’t imagine life without it.” Fiona said honestly.  “And it’s not just you and me and Steve.  We are the owners, but it isn’t just about us.  Look at Mrs Tuesday.  She’s an old boggart and she was fading away.  Now she has a new lease of life here.  We can’t just send her back to the Village.”

Kadogan nodded.  “I have known Mrs Tuesday a long time and I have never known her so relaxed and so calm.  And she deserves it.  She has seen hard times.”

Fiona had never thought of Mrs Tuesday as relaxed.  Instead she had seen her as a little old battleaxe who could casually terrorise the younger non-normals and seemed to know everything.  “Then there’s the werewolves.  Ian and Callum would have nowhere to go, and they have been doing so well.”

Kadogan nodded.  “Indeed, they have been remarkably safe for werewolves who have no pack.  We have proved everyone wrong.  Most thought we would all be killed within days if we took Ian in after he summoned a demon, and Callum needs direction now he was expelled from his pack so far away.  Look at the bad company he fell into.  You are right.  They need us.”

“Dave needs something to do.  Do you know that this is the longest he has ever stuck at one job?” Fiona clutched her cup a little tighter.  “And it’s good for him to mix with non-normals now he is a paladin and is in charge of, well…” She trailed off, trying to think of a tactful way to phrase it.

“Indeed, he protects the unknowing normals from the non-normals, and he has his hands full with those goblins.” Kadogan shook his head sadly.  “And also should Ian, for example, starting killing people then Dave Kinson would need to do something.”

Fiona thought of their warehouse manager.  Ian was quiet, driven, meticulous, intelligent, well read and driven by remorse.  He went above and beyond to do the right thing in work and outside it and was obviously working hard to set a good example to Callum.  “Is Ian likely to kill anyone?”

Kadogan shook his head.  “Not for the next month or two at least.  In fact, he is remarkably stable for a werewolf without a pack, and he is the reason Callum is doing so well.”

“And what about Adele?” Fiona asked.  “She’s just found out she’s part Blue Cap and can make herself glow.  It’s better she has a job with us, and she gets on well with Freydis as well.”

“You know, since Freydis has become so competent and focused on the coffee machine in the café, she has become a lot more bearable.  Lord Ragnar feared dreadful revenge when he divorced her.” Kadogan frowned.  “I hope she does not plan fearful revenge now that she has time on her hands.  That would be awkward.”

“Speaking of Lord Ragnar, he’s got a lot of prestige from this shop, hasn’t he?” Fiona said.  This made Kadogan sit up a little straighter.  Lord Ragnar was the elfen Prince of York and had been struggling.  Last year Fiona had nearly died in the crossfire between Lord Ragnar and a vampiric challenger and Kadogan and Lord Ragnar were, as far as Fiona could tell, good friends.

“York has benefited in general from the White Hart.” Kadogan said.  “Which makes it even more confusing as to why someone would deliberately try and burn our shop down and…” Kadogan suddenly froze.  Fiona watched as the impact of the firefighter’s words sunk in.  Then he vanished.  Fiona pushed the unpleasant tea away from her and started the cold walk home.

Lord Ragnar sat well back in his chair, braced.  “I am willing to hear my former wife’s complaint.”

Freydis pulled herself up to the elegant height of her current glamour.  Underneath she may be a small, skinny, unlovely creature but to most eyes she was supermodel tall, slender and impossibly elegant.  “Someone has set fire to the White Hart.”

Every head in the hall snapped around and the casual conversations stopped.  A log shifted in one of the huge fireplaces and it sounded like thunder.  The werewolves sprawled in their wolf forms in front of the fires sat up, ears pricked and alert.  Miss Patience stood up from the leather sofa she was sharing with her latest vampiric favourite and stalked towards Lord Ragnar, fangs showing.  Kieran Latimer, fortunately in human rather than wolf shape, followed her.  Lord Ragnar frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean that someone has set fire to the White Hart.  I believe some of the building may be preserved and they have the fire fighting machines, but there was a fire.  And it is not accidental.  Fiona Adderson has been very meticulous.  All safety precautions have been taken.  But there is fire, nevertheless.”

“Is anyone hurt?” Kieran asked.

Freydis pushed her blonde hair back and shook her head.  “The werewolves found it distressing but are safe.  No-one is hurt, but I believe the shop and its contents may be damaged.” She turned back to Lord Ragnar.  “As the shop has been so supportive of you, I believe you should take action.”

Lord Ragnar stood and started pacing as his court watched warily.  It was a strange mixture.  Lord Ragnar was the prince of York, the ruler of all the non-normals and their defender.  His hall looked like a large, Victorian gentlemen’s club, dotted with lush ferns and leather sofas with two large fireplaces on either side of the hall.  The people who stood so tense and expectant were less conventional.  Clothing ranged from supermarket jeans and handknitted sweaters to fake designer gowns and shoes to clothes that had been made half a century ago and had worn well.  Boggarts, brownies, goblins, elfen, werewolves and vampires, all were equally shocked.  “Who would have a reason to burn the White Hart?” Lord Ragnar asked, waving an expansive arm.  “And how are we supposed to flourish?  We have grown accustomed to their services – how can we recover from this blow?”

Atherton stepped up to Freydis and said with genuine concern.  “What about the coffee machine?”

Freydis flinched.  “It is likely that it will be unusable due to smoke, even if it has been spared the flames.”  For a moment her glamour flickered and a hint of the creature showed through before she took a deep breath and regained control.  “I wish to avenge the coffee machine.” All the elfen nodded.

“I’ll get my brownies down there now.” Gavin Brown said.  He was a small, knobbly creature, rough skinned and wearing a homespun tunic.  “We can have a look over it, see what we can clean, get some idea of the damage.” He bowed towards Freydis.  “If we can salvage the coffee machine, ma’am, we will.”  He shook his head.  “They are such good people.  They pay their bills on time, always say thank you, never give us any trouble, show consideration if it’s a big job…” He trailed off.  “We’ll get started now.” He pulled a phone from a pouch at his belt and started dialling as he scuttled from the hall.

“It could be Louise.” Miss Patience said.  “She betrayed them last June and aided the kidnapping of Fiona.”

Lord Ragnar shook his head.  “I am keeping a close eye on Louise.  She has been released from prison and is in Londinium.  She may be using magic to baffle me, of course, but I do not think so.  I shall consult with Steve Adderson.”

“Steve Adderson is away on a merchant’s journey to Inverness.” Freydis said.  “He cannot be contacted.  Imagine his grief, the shop, the White Hart, the centre of his emporia, burned.” Genuine tears leaked from her eyes.  “All burned, along with the coffee machine.”

Fiona stirred reluctantly from deep sleep.  There was a second tap on the door and Mrs Tuesday came in with a cup of tea.  Fiona pushed herself up into a sitting position and blinked.  The events of the previous night slowly came back and she grabbed her phone.  It was no good.  Steve was still out of phone contact.

“There’s a policeman in the living room.  He’s asking about CCTV and stuff.  You had better refer him to that detective with the shiny shoes.”

“Tim Pierce?” Fiona rubbed her eyes.  “I’ll just grab some clothes.”

“I’ve called Adele, and the brownies have been doing their best at the White Hart, but they say there’s some damage.” Mrs Tuesday set the tea down on the bedside table.  “Take a deep breath and hit the floor running.  You’re going to be busy today and there’s no sign of Kadogan.”

By the time Fiona had politely shown the policeman out, called Tim, called Steve once again just in case and fired up the laptop she was almost awake.  She checked the time as Callum handed her a bacon sandwich.  “Callum, you’re going to have to rush if you’re going to make it to the craft fayre.”

“I can’t go today, not after the fire.” Callum looked away.  “I’m not letting you down.”

“You will not be letting us down.” Fiona said.  “You’ve already got the stall set up, your paintings are already wrapped and in the car, you’ve even got a float ready.  And there’s all the lovely publicity for the White Hart.  If anyone takes a leaflet let them know that the mail order is still going and that there’ll be a sale later to clear the damaged stock.” She could see guilty hope fighting with duty in Callum.  “And you can’t let the organisers down.  An empty stall looks so bad.”

“But what about the White Hart?” Callum looked at Ian for leadership.

“Fiona’s right.” Ian said.  “You deserve the chance to sell those paintings and the White Hart will need any publicity that the leaflets and cards on your table can bring.  Get your coat.”

“Ian, meet us at the White Hart later.  Callum, good luck and have a great time.  Come down to the White Hart when you’ve sold out.”  Fiona watched the werewolves jog out the door and started typing up a long to-do list, handing her phone to Mrs Tuesday.  “Could you call Dave and let him know.  Have you seen Kadogan?”

Mrs Tuesday shook her head.  “I haven’t seen him or Freydis.  Do you think it could be foul play?”

“Nick did a wonderful job of setting up the security cameras.” Fiona clicked through a few icons.  “It should all be here.  I’ll be emailing it to Tim, but it will give us some sort of idea.  If only I could get through to Steve.”

Callum took a breath.  The first rush had died away and now there were only a few passing through.  He was under no illusions.  The craft hall was warm, the weather outside was appalling and the tourists would soon be taking shelter and making impulse purchases.  He looked at small receipt book on the table next to him.  He had already made a sale.  He felt like he was standing on top of a tall cliff, teetering on the edge.  Someone had liked what he had painted enough to pay money for it.  It had only been a small study of a rosebud, but someone had paid £10 and it was the most exhilarating, nerve-wracking, crazy feeling he had ever known.  The old pack would never believe it.

He looked around the hall.  All these people had had the courage to put their creations on display.  They seemed more relaxed than Callum as they chatted and compared notes.  He wished Adele was here, but she was less likely than ever to be spared from the White Hart.

“Do you think it will pick up later?”

Callum turned around and looked at his neighbour.  She smiled and Callum automatically smiled back.  She looked friendly, with oak brown hair pulled back in a braid and calm blue eyes over the freckled nose.  She also looked less alarming than some of the artists, wearing a handknitted sweater over plain jeans.  “I think so.  It’s still a tourist town.  We’re bound to see a few more.” He held out his hand.  “I’m Callum.”

She shook his hand.  “I’m Jeanette.”  She looked at his paintings with respect.  “You have some beautiful pieces here.  Did it take you long to do them?”

Callum looked at his collection.  “I’ve been building up paintings for about a year.  This is my first craft fair.  I’ve a few more at home.”  His face clouded over.  He wondered f the paintings left behind had survived.  He deliberately changed the subject.  “Do you do many fairs?”

Jeanette shook her head.  “I’ve always been too busy.  Since I moved here from Wakefield I’ve had more spare time and as I love craft and I really need to make some extra money, I thought I’d take a risk and see if I could do more than break even.”

Callum looked over her stall.  He liked what he saw.  A fan of elegant handmade cards was framed by two wire trees displaying lavender bags.  The tiny cross stitch pictures alternated with handknitted heart-shaped scrubbies wrapped around miniature slices of handmade soap.  Stiffened jute bookmarks filled the rustic vase and miniature, cellophane wrapped bath bombs were stacked in lace baskets.  He liked the clean lines and cool colours.  “You have some really good stuff here.”

“Thank you.” Jeanette looked over her stall.  “I’ve tried for a good selection.” She carefully straightened one of the baskets.  “I’m just seeing what sells.”

“Me too.” Callum said.  “And it’s a distraction.”

Callum found himself chatting easily to Jeanette.  He left out any reference to being non-normal, but talked about being a stranger to York, of his nerves, the worry about the White Hart and his hope that he could do this regularly.  He learned Jeanette was also nervous, hoping to make a living from the few acres she had just bought and trying to top up her income from the craft fair along with whatever else she could find.  Callum was on the end of the row and the couple selling pickles the other side of Jeanette were completely absorbed in each other, so Callum and Jeanette fell easily into keeping an eye on each other’s stalls and chatting during the few lulls.  Callum was so caught up with the fair that he completely missed Fiona standing next to him.

“Hi, Callum.  How’s it going?”

Callum turned and smiled.  “It’s gone great!  Thank you for letting me come.”

Fiona looked at Callum’s depleted stock.  “It looks like things have gone well.  Congratulations.” Her eyes strayed to Jeanette’s stall and she wandered over.  “This is nice stuff.” She picked up one of the last handmade cards and inspected it professionally.  “Did you make these?”

Jeanette nodded.  “I find it relaxing, but cards don’t really make much.”

Fiona ran a hand over the crisp spine of the card.  “They’re beautifully made.” She pulled out her phone and checked the time.  “The craft fair will be closing soon.  Can you give me a price on everything that’s left on the stall?”

“Does this mean that the White Hart is okay?” Callum asked.

“It will open again as soon as I can manage.” Fiona said briskly.  “And when that happens, we’ll need stock.”

Jeanette was thoughtful as she reached her home.  As usual she paused in the drive to savour the view of her house before pulling around to the side.  It was a dull, brick-built house framed with a ragged, wide garden.  Past the clumps of daffodils were the two fields that came with it; one bare and one filled with battered polytunnels.  She had sunk the very small amount she had been left by her grandfather into buying this outright.  Now all she had to do was run it, and the money she had made from the craft fair together with the nice bonus from the White Hart should cover her groceries for the month.  She got out of the car and unlocked the back door.  She was feeling more optimistic than ever.  The rent from the new lodger would cover most of the basic bills and perhaps there would be more work from the White Hart.  She pushed hard against the stiff back door and almost fell in to her clean, welcoming kitchen.  It was going to be alright.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *