Luke gently placed his laptop case on top of the scarred desk and lowered his holdall to the floor next to his case. “Thanks, Jeanette. I think I’ll be very happy here.”
Jeanette smiled brightly. “I’m sure you’ll be fine here. Normally you make your own food, but just tonight I’ll give you dinner.” She hesitated. “It’s just veggie soup, but I’ve always had lots of compliments.”
“Are you a vegetarian?” Luke asked, unzipping the laptop case and pulling his laptop out.
“I don’t eat a lot of meat.” Jeanette kept her smile bright. After all, vegetable soup was usually a lot less expensive than steak.
“I follow a special diet.” Luke took his jacket off and leaned past Jeanette to hang it behind the door. “I am a strict pesco-vegetarian on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. I don’t eat anything from an animal on land. I don’t eat chicken, drink milk or eat eggs. Just vegetables and sometimes fish. The rest of the time I eat meat, within reason. It’s done wonders for me.”
Jeanette eyed the lean muscle under Luke’s shirt. “Today’s Monday. I could add some bacon…”
Luke shook his head. “I don’t have to eat meat on a Monday. Besides, I had a burger for lunch.”
Jeanette managed to chuckle with him. She hadn’t realised just how strong he was under his jacket. When she had met him as a prospective lodger he had been wearing a thick sweater and he hadn’t loomed over in the same way. He suddenly seemed so much taller than her and his cropped dark hair and steady brown eyes didn’t reassure her. Maybe her mother was right. Maybe he would decide to take over and she could do nothing. On the other hand, he didn’t seem threatening. Besides, he had paid two months in advance. “Well, dinner is at six. Just come down to the kitchen.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Luke watched her leave and shut the door quietly behind her. He waited until her footsteps had echoed down the stairs and then knelt at the side of the bed to pray quietly. Then, refreshed, he stood and took a good look around his little room that was cheerfully washed in the morning sunlight. Jeanette had been apologetic when he had come for the first look, as she had just bought the house, and everything had been out of place. She had promised him it would be more homely when he came, and she had kept her word. The plain single wardrobe and chest of drawers were more than enough for him, and the desk looked out of the window and over the battered garden to the fields beyond. The walls were freshly painted, and the bedding was freshly washed. A pile of extra blankets was folded at the bottom of the wardrobe and a small vase of daffodils stood on the nightstand next to the bed. He stuck his head into the ensuite. It was basic, but it would be fine for him.
Luke unpacked quickly and methodically then sat in the comfortable computer chair. He looked out over the fields and smiled before plugging in his laptop. Jeanette had kept her promise with this as well. The Wi-Fi signal was strong, fast and didn’t seem to be capped. He quickly clicked through to the website of the White Hart. The contentment that had filled him disappeared. That shop was still trading after the fire, though just mail order until the place could be repaired. Luke scanned over the site. There was a long list of messages wishing the shop good luck and hoping that they would open again soon. Luke leaned back in his chair. What would stop that shop?
It wasn’t quite a year since he first saw that damned shop, damned in every sense. Perhaps he should be thankful. What he had seen had shocked some sense into him. He went from a skinny, shallow, marketing drone into a successful freelancer with a much greater sense of purpose. He hadn’t lied to Jeanette. The diet was part of a lifestyle that had made him happier than he had ever been before. Luke scanned over the website. It promised that the White Hart would re-opened better than ever.
Luke closed his eyes and remembered the first time he had entered that shop. He could remember how it smelled with hints of incense and furniture polish, the lighting had been bright and the air fresh. A huge, well-groomed dog had been sitting at the counter, alert and well trained as the old lady talked endlessly and in detail about curses. Then they had gone out to find Tim’s car completely trashed. He knew that something was going on in that shop. It wasn’t werewolves or vampires. That guard dog would never have tolerated them. Luke opened his eyes and started out into the thin March sunshine. Jeanette was working on the polytunnels, clearing out the rubbish that the old owner had left and washing the frames with plenty of soapy water. Luke clicked back to his emails to try and get ahead of his work, trying to ignore the knot of worry in his stomach. There was witchcraft at the White Hart, he thought, and it hadn’t been cleaned out by fire. But if fire didn’t work, what would?
The tiny office in the White Hart still smelled of smoke. Mrs Tuesday had been putting containers of vinegar around to try and clear the air and every window was open, but it was still foul.
“The insurers seem pretty clear that this isn’t fraud, so at least you’ve got your pay-out.” Tim took a token polite sip of his smoke flavoured coffee and checked his notebook. “Your brownies did an amazing clear up job, which is a shame as they cleared up any evidence.”
“They just went ahead.” Fiona looked helplessly at the police officer. “And I was grateful. They saved a lot of stock.”
“Who did authorise them?” Tim asked.
Steve shrugged. “I think they just wanted to be helpful. Everyone in the non-normal community is pretty shocked.”
Tim jotted down a few notes. “Have you had any threats?”
Fiona shook her head. “Nothing.”
“We’ve had the usual customer complaints, but nothing serious.” Steve said.
“Nobody from Kadogan’s lot getting revenge for last year?” Tim asked. “From what I understand there was an attempted revolution.”
“Nothing that we’ve heard of.” Steve said. “And nothing that Lord Ragnar’s heard either.”
“Have you any inadmissible leads obtained by magic?” Tim asked. “It would at least give us an idea where to look.”
“Nothing.” Steve said again. “That amount of fire and water wiped out all magical traces. No-one can get anything.”
“So absolutely nothing.” Tim put his notebook away. “Don’t take this into your own hands. If it is arson then that’s a crime in our jurisdiction and will be dealt with appropriately. We don’t want to have any hasty action. Make sure that your lot understand that, including Kadogan.”
“We haven’t seen Kadogan since it happened.” Fiona looked down at her hands. “We’re a bit worried.”
“That doesn’t fill me with confidence.” Tim stood up. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything more, and I’m sure you’ll let me know if you hear something at your end.”
Steve came back from showing Tim out and grimaced at Fiona. “Here’s some bad news – we have some big orders. The sort of orders that could make or break a business. I mean, significant orders.”
Fiona looked at him. “That’s bad news?”
“It is, really.” Steve sat down opposite his wife. “I think one of the princes decided that they needed to support the White Hart and decided to order 50 of the top of the range goody bags. You know the ones – made of silk, hand printed and designed to be handed out to their favourites. Lord Marius carried the gossip and before you know it, well…” Steve opened up the envelope file on the desk and Fiona’s heart sank.
“How many are we going to need to get out?”
“It’s easily over a thousand, and they can’t be held back or done in stages. We’ve got to treat each one as a priority to send the right message. We need to show that we’re still reliable and we’re still safe to use.” Steve rubbed a weary hand over his face. “I can source a lot of the stuff, and we’ve got a head start on the bags. But it’s going to be a job filling them. We don’t have enough people here.”
Fiona looked at the stack of papers. “Most of Adele’s family that could help are helping out their cousin in Spain. And it’s not just that.” She waved a hand over to the ‘In’ tray. It was also filled with order forms. “Everyone is putting in those little orders. I suppose it’s their way of showing support, and I’m grateful. But the same thing applies. We can’t let them down.”
Ian came bounding in, followed closely by Callum. “Did Tim have any news?”
Steve shook his head. “It’s nothing from all directions.”
“What do the orders look like?” Ian asked nervously. “Have we got any?”
Fiona handed him the tray. “There are a lot more on the computer. Most of them are barely worth the postage, stuff like herbs and spices. There are a few bigger orders in there. But we have a lot of orders for goody bags. You know what that means.”
“We don’t have the people.” Ian said. “We can’t get the youngsters from the pack, they’re too busy. You know how bad it’s been since Rey was killed. All that vampiric energy is still around.”
Mrs Tuesday spoke from the doorway. “Most of the kitlings are back in school. They can do some weekend work, but that’s not what we need.”
“And there’s no sign of Kadogan or Freydis.” Fiona tried to keep the worry out of her voice.
“We can manage.” Mrs Tuesday said with authority. “First things first, we need some tables in a place that doesn’t stink of smoke. Most of our stock was in the new warehouse anyway.”
“I have an idea.” Steve said.
Dave lounged back in his chair. Sir Ewan lounged opposite him. It was a contented silence as the men sat in the Paladin’s citadel, the small town house on the outskirts of York, and processed their own thoughts. Sir Ewan broke the silence.
“So, how are you doing without the Tarot reading?”
“I’m doing okay,” Dave said. “I’ve picked up a few decorating jobs, and most of my expenses are covered anyway.”
“I’ve heard about your expense claims.” Sir Ewan said. “They are already filed under fiction.”
David shrugged. “Filling out a claim is always a battle of wits. It’s surprising how often the accountants haven’t read their own small print.”
“Have you ever thought of becoming an accountant?” Sir Ewan asked.
Dave shook his head. “I couldn’t stand being in an office all day. To be honest, I’m enjoying the Tarot reading. It helps me do a little good, and it’s full of variety. I’ve heard everything. And between Mrs Tuesday and the old ladies at the church, I will never starve.”
The silence returned as the men relaxed. This time it was Dave who broke it. “It’s not easing up, is it?”
“The vampiric energy?” Sir Ewan shook his head. “It feels like something has been shaken loose. York is supposed to be the most haunted city in Europe. At the moment it’s probably true, and it’s not the sort of ghosts that the Ghost Walks follow. Darren is almost permanently in York now. He’ll have to stay here if he can’t stay at the White Hart, and you’ll have to be careful about your expenses. Darren hardly claims anything.”
“I’m sure I can be creative for him. Hang on.” Dave pulled his phone out of his pocket and accepted the call. “Yeah, sure… Everything okay?… I’ll be there in a few minutes… Yeah, bye.” He looked at Sir Ewan. “Steve wants me to meet him at his flat.”
Fiona looked around the room. Kadogan and Freydis were back and looking unnervingly purposeful. Steve was sitting on the arm of her chair and she was glad he was there. Ian and Callum were sprawled on the floor, fortunately in human form. Mrs Tuesday, Adele and Dave shared the sofa while Freydis sat poised in the other armchair with Kadogan pacing behind.
Steve took a breath and, looking around the expectant faces, said, “We are not giving up on the White Hart. We have a stack of orders, we have insurance, we have built a good reputation over the last year and we can keep going. We just need to be methodical.”
“Is this going to take long?” Ian asked. “Because if it’s just a pep talk I want to get back to the White Hart and sort out the plumbing. It’s been bugging me since I moved in.”
Freydis frowned. “Shouldn’t a qualified plumber deal with such matters?”
“I am a qualified plumber, and I’ve kept up my insurance.” Ian said. “And the showers on the first floor are a joke. Who put them in?”
“It was a local firm. They were recommended.” Fiona said weakly, remembering the awful time she had had with them.
“It’s a great opportunity to finally get it sorted. Those showers are draining dog slow and I’ve been dying to sort it out.”
“We may need you to other stuff.” Fiona said. “We have suddenly got a lot of orders for goody bags. You know how much time they can take.”
“We can’t put them together in here.” Ian looked around the crowded flat.
“That’s why I called us all together.” Steve said. “I’ve rented some serviced offices in York centre. They are expensive, but we need them. There are a couple of big meeting rooms, where we can pack up the goody bags, and there’s a mail room and a small office which Dave can use for Tarot readings.”
“A mail room would be useful.” Callum said, looking at Ian. “It’s a struggle in the new warehouse.”
Ian shrugged. “The warehouse isn’t really set up for mail.”
“I have found a new coffee machine.” Freydis announced of nowhere. “I spoke to Gavin Brown and he said that the old machine was sadly unsalvageable.” She swallowed and what looked like real tears glistened in her eyes. “I have been giving the Machine an appropriate farewell.”
Fiona didn’t want to ask what sort of farewell a broken coffee machine needed. “What sort of machine have you seen?”
“I have purchased it.” Freydis said. “It is an almost new machine with several different steamers, and it has a double grinder. You may pay the money it cost to me.”
“We’ll need the paperwork, but okay.” Steve knew when to pick his battles. “Mrs Tuesday, can you talk to your friend Ranjit? If we can get a good supplier, we can maybe get some normal custom for the spices. The stuff he has been sending has been great and it will really help.”
“Of course.” Mrs Tuesday nodded. “I’ll work out the time difference and call him later. He’s a good lad, for an Efrit.”
“Do they grow coffee in Indonesia?” Freydis asked. “We could sell that as well.”
“If you can do a decent house blend then we can sell it in the shop or mail order.” Steve said. If an elfen got obsessed with something they could become incredibly adept at it and scarily knowledgeable. “In fact, when things have eased off we can both go down to London and get in touch with some of the bigger suppliers.”
“I’ve got some friends in different places.” Mrs Tuesday added. “They may be able to put us in touch with reliable suppliers.”
“That would be wonderful.” Freydis smiled happily. Then her face clouded over. “If only I could have obtained the same luxuries for the old Machine.”
“Can I go now?” Ian said. “If you want to assemble the goody bags here from tomorrow then I need to start getting some of the supplies over from the warehouse before I go and rip out the panelling in the White Hart.”
“Hang on.” Steve held up his hand. “Just to keep everyone up to date. Nick hasn’t been able to get any decent pictures from the CCTV so far. The roadworks have been messing up the wi-fi outside the White Hart and we didn’t realise. He’s working on getting the images cleaned up, but he says it will take time. Nobody has any idea who could have done this.”
There was a long silence, then Adele spoke up. “So what time do you want me at these offices?”
“Can you make a 9am start?” Fiona asked. “And we may need you to do overtime. There’s such a lot on.”
“There’s a lot of small orders as well.” Callum said. “I don’t mind doing them, but I won’t be able to help with the bags.”
“I can help now and then,” Dave looked around, “But there has been so much more activity I’ve got to keep on patrol, and a lot of my regulars for the Tarot readers are getting stressed in case they miss their sessions.”
Fiona looked apologetically at Steve. “We really need the plumbing sorted out in the White Hart. It’s always been a mess.”
“And I can start measuring up straight away.” Ian said, bouncing to his feet.
Steve looked at Adele. “Do you know of anyone that can help us out with the bags? It’s just a short-term thing, though we may be able to keep on some part timers when things are back to normal.”
Adele shook her head. “They are all out in Spain, and then they are all set to help Kaz with her new catering business over the summer. She’s booked for all sorts of festivals and that.”
“What about Jeanette Fowler?” Callum asked. He turned to Fiona. “I don’t think she knows about us, but she seems to be hardworking and I know she was going to look for a part time job.”
“Who is Jeanette Fowler?” Ian asked.
“She had the stall next to me at the craft fair,” Callum said, “Fiona bought up all of the crafts left on her stall.”
“I’ve been meaning to call her about the cards.” Fiona said. “If you think she would be willing I can ring her now.”
“Is she a non-normal?” Adele asked as she concentrated on rubbing a speck of dirt from her hand.
Callum shook his head. “She’s going to try and make a go of selling organic herbs and lavender in a small holding, but she said the lavender won’t be worth harvesting this year so she’s trying to keep going with crafts and any job she can get.”
“Is she nice?” Adele asked.
“I suppose so.” Callum thought for a moment. “We were both new at the craft fair, so it was nice to be able to chat to someone. And it’s quicker to give her a ring than putting an advert in the paper.”
“And if we’re paying for these offices then it is definitely cheaper than going through an agency.” Steve said.
“I’ll give her a ring now.” Fiona said. She leant against her husband for a moment and then pulled out her phone. “The sooner we get these bags sorted out the better.”
Luke came down to dinner at 6pm sharp. The kitchen was clean but worn and filled with tantalisingly aromatic scents. A wood stove stood against the north wall and freestanding cupboards were around the room. The large table in the centre had a cloth thrown over it and two places had been set at the end near the window.
Jeanette looked up and smiled. “I’ve had good news today. I’ve got a temporary job in town which may end up permanent, so I’m celebrating. Do you drink?”
“Now and then.” Luke took the chair way from the stove and out of the way. “What sort of job?”
“It’s just packing stuff in a warehouse until the shop can re-open.” Jeanette held out two bottles of wine. “I’m not sure which goes with what. They were both housewarming gifts.”
Luke had learned a lot about wine in his last job as he had had to impress clients, though he hadn’t bothered with it much lately. He guessed the soup was more substantial than he was used to and highly flavoured, so he pointed to the Merlot. “The Chardonnay is probably best chilled and enjoyed separately.” He said. “Should I get the glasses?”
“Please.” Jeanette turned back to the soup. “It’s Egyptian soup, so lots of veggies and spices. It’s one of my favourites.” She gave a quick stir before pulling a muffin tray from the oven and tipping them onto a cooling rack. “There’s lots of lentils in it, too, so there’s plenty of protein.”
“It sounds great.” Luke found two wine glasses and set them on the table. “You’ll have to give me the recipe.”
“Do you cook a lot?” Jeanette gave the soup another stir and pulled out two bowls from a cupboard and put them on the warming rack.
“I don’t bother much.” Luke looked around. “Can I do anything?”
“I’ve got it covered.” Jeanette tipped the rolls onto a large platter and placed it on the table.
“So, what’s the job like?” Luke sat down and watched Jeanette as she bustled around.
“You know that shop that burned down? The White Hart? I’m working for them. They have a mail order business as well and they need a hand with some big orders.” Jeanette ladled two large helpings of soup into the plain white bowls. “It’s not likely to be exciting, but it’s at least minimum wage and I could maybe get some regular part time work as well.”
“I think I went into the White Hart once.” Luke chose his words carefully. “They had a lot of strange stuff in there.”
“Fiona, that’s one of the bosses, said that there was a lot of strange stuff in the shop but not to worry, I wouldn’t need to do anything or even learn much about stuff.” Jeanette swirled some cream into the soup and brought the bowls over. “She said that even the Tarot reader didn’t believe in Tarot cards.”
“Isn’t that fraud?” Luke asked, pouring wine into the glasses.
“She said it was clear that it was for entertainment purposes only.” Jeanette sat opposite him. “The best bit is that I get to sell my cards there. I don’t really make anything on them, not after I’ve bought materials, but I love making them and so I get to do my hobby with the costs covered.”
“Do you mind if I say grace?” Luke asked.
Jeanette paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth. “No, of course not.”
“Father, thank you for this food and we ask that you bless it. Amen.”
“Amen.” Jeanette mumbled before taking the mouthful of soup.
“Do you think that the people will be easy to work with?” Luke asked as he took his first spoonful of soup. “This is really good.”
“Thanks.” Jeanette was glad to turn her mind back to her good news. “I think they will be fine. Fiona seemed nice. She said that some of the people there were a little odd, but they were all okay, and that sometimes there would be a dog around but don’t worry about them. She said that they were guard dogs, so it was best not to pet them.”
Luke thought back to the dog he had seen and agreed. It had looked immaculately groomed and in great condition, but it had looked far too purposeful to be a pet. “Sounds like a good place to work.”
“Do you know the best bit?” Jeanette beamed. “Someone from the shop gives me lifts to and from work! Fiona said I didn’t need to have a lift if I didn’t want to, and that it was up to me if I wanted to drive in or use the bus, but she thought it may be easier for me. Do you know how hard it is to get parking in York?”
Luke nodded. “And the park and ride isn’t that cheap.”
“It’s cheaper than the parking, but I won’t need to worry about it!” Jeanette waved her spoon. “It’s like a dream job. Although the job is nothing special.”
“This soup is incredible.” Luke changed the subject. “Listen, I know you said that we could do our own cooking, but it’s easier to cook for two than one. Why don’t we take turns? I may not be able to come up with stuff like this, but I don’t mind doing my share.”
Jeanette thought for a moment as she broke her roll. “That’s not a bad idea, I suppose. We can save money that way.”
“I’d rather keep the costs down.” Luke said smoothly. “And I’m keen to have a healthy diet. I don’t mind doing a little extra to make sure we eat well.” He took another roll. And while we chat over dinner, he thought, I can learn a little more about the White Hart.