Fiona sat stiffly in her chair, her hands clasped tightly around her mug. It was a full meeting room. Everyone who worked at the White Hart had come in thirty minutes before they opened on the Monday to have what Kadogan had described as ‘a frank and open business discussion with nothing of the personal’. Looking round, only Freydis and Kadogan seemed cheerful.
Kadogan pulled himself up in his chair and beamed. “As this is becoming a business, I thought I should read some business books.” Steve slumped down in his chair and rubbed his hands over his eyes. Kadogan ignored him. “So we have a weekly meeting and important things should be mentioned. I am pleased that we have had a number of different enquiries about the elf shot. The profit should be quite remarkable. It is a surprise that they are being sold mainly to jewellery and home furnishing outlets, but profit is profit.”
“We still have to work out what they can trade us for bulk rose petals.” Steve said. “I asked them about fossils, but they hadn’t noticed any in the flint mines. There is a limit to how many elf shot we can sell. I don’t think we have a steady outlet.”
“I’ve no idea.” Kadogan frowned. “Perhaps we can all think about it during the week and next Monday we will have a solution devised by common sharing of information.”
“Sounds great.” Fiona managed. “Are they any good at handmade cards? I can’t keep up with the stock. I don’t seem to have much time. I was wondering about advertising for someone as a homeworker, but really it isn’t worth it for normals. The amount of time it takes and the cost of the materials means that cardmaking is really just a hobby. However if they are keen, they could do cards for rose petals, so much weight of petals per card.”
Kadogan looked uncomfortable but it was Steve that answered. “It wouldn’t work. Elfen are excellent at what they do, but they don’t do cards.”
“Steve is right.” Freydis said. “They could perhaps copy a design, but it is unlikely to of the standard of Fiona’s cards. And I wish to add that I sat in coffee shops every evening last week and I have been observing their skill. I have also purchased a book called ‘How to Barista the Besta’ which is about making coffee. I believe I could make pretty designs on coffee and I wish to experiment with blends. Perhaps I could have a budget for experimental coffees.”
“Since when did you understand the concept of a budget.” Louise snapped.
“It takes considerable skill to repeatedly go just enough over budget to annoy a husband but not enough to start an argument.” Freydis said with some complacency. “Especially as Lord Ragnar’s tolerance was affected by outside factors and I had to be precise and swift about purchases. I understand how to use money to the penny.”
Louise glared at Freydis, but Adele jumped in. “Maybe we could have coffee evenings like we have the fairy teas. Anyway, if that’s it, I need to get the boilers switched on.”
Kadogan held up his hand. “There is an important announcement. Lord Ragnar has asked us to host a soiree in the White Hart for his court from 10 o’clock in the evening until around 2 in the morning. As he was willing to pay a considerable sum, I agreed.”
“What date is this?” Mrs Tuesday asked suspiciously.
“It is the 21st day of June,” Kadogan said airily, “which is several weeks away and gives us plenty of time to create wonders.”
“No.” Steve said flatly. “It’s one of the more powerful nights of the year and this is not a strong site. Some places can hold up to a magical charge better than others. This is not one of them. Why isn’t it at his court?”
Kadogan neatened the sheet of paper he had in front of him. “Lord Ragnar is traditional. He holds his midsummer revels on the 24th day of June. He says that everyone is so much calmer after the solstice has passed. This year he thought it would be prudent to see what his court is doing on the 21st day of June, but his halls will be in the process of being decorated.”
“But we’re going to be open the next day.” Fiona said wearily. “We can’t run a shop on three or four hours sleep, especially after a hard evening entertaining.”
“It’s possible.” Mrs Tuesday said with some caution. “The brownies would do the clearing up as part of their normal morning service. They would charge extra but if we clear as we go then it wouldn’t be too much.”
“I think if we stay here overnight then it would be easier for us to gain restful sleep.” Freydis said. “I think it may be beneficial for us to stay here where it is safer for a few nights either side of the solstice, just in case. And Lord Ragnar is correct when he says that his halls will not be able to host anything. The disruption for the feasts at the eight festivals was considerable.” She looked a little wistful.
“Aren’t you glad that you don’t have the trouble of it anymore.” Louise said, her mouth tight.
Ian ignored Louise’s dig. “Freydis is right. There’s something going on. Callum and I go out as dog and handler, taking turns being clothed, and there’s something going on that’s making our fur prickle.”
Adele blinked a little but Kadogan took it in his stride and nodded seriously. “So, Fiona, please will you make sure that there are plenty of trinkets to tempt a casual purchase and choose some non violent music. Ian, please will you and Callum consider how to best clear an area in the shop for some dancing that is away from fragile items. Louise, Mrs Tuesday and Adele, please consider the best options for food and drink. Steve Adderson, you and I should consider the security issues. We must be prepared.”
Dave raised his hand. “How about me?”
Kadogan looked awkward. “Would it perhaps suit you to have cocoa and an early night?”
Dave called in at the spartan headquarters of the Knights Templar. Sir Ewan answered the door.
“I hope you don’t need manpower because we don’t have any.” Sir Ewan waved Dave inside. “Everyone’s been drafted to Doncaster. Some idiot tried to summon an angel and it got out of hand.”
“Summon an angel?” Dave walked past Sir Ewan and into the sparse meeting room. “Is that possible?”
“No,” Sir Ewan said cheerfully, “but it gets the attention of all sorts of nasties. What’s up?”
“Kadogan has agreed to host a reception for Lord Ragnar at the White Hart on 21st June.” Dave sat down in the nearest chair. “Steve seemed to think it could go badly. Mrs Tuesday seemed worried. What’s the deal?”
Sir Ewan frowned and sat opposite Dave. “You know that magical energy flows through the world, and that it can be stronger or weaker?”
“Yes?” Dave answered uncertainly.
“There are eight days which we need to look out for.” Sir Ewan shrugged. “Actually, there are other, minor, days, but these are the main ones. That’s the equinoxes and the solstices – say 21st of March, June, September and December at a very rough guess. Then there are the old festivals, Lammas, Lughnasadh, Beltane and Samhain.” Sir Ewan looked shamefaced. “I’m sorry, that’s my pride showing. You know May Day and Halloween? Well, there’s also the 2nd of August, Lammas or Harvest, and 2nd February, Lughnasadh or Candlemass. They’re the old festivals from before Christianity and they are deep in the bones of the country. Other local stuff comes up now and again, but those eight days are notoriously bad for trouble. There’s just more magic around and even if it isn’t as much as some think, it focuses the mind. People get carried away. There’s always a spike in prophecies around that time as well.”
Dave pulled a flint arrowhead from his pocket and absentmindedly ran his fingers over it. “So something bad could happen at the White Hart on 21st June?”
“Something bad is definitely going to happen on 21st June.” Sir Ewan said flatly. “Lord Ragnar’s up to something. I bet he talked about them being too busy decorating their halls for the St John’s Eve ball or something, but that’s…” Sir Ewan caught himself. “I’m sorry, my tongue is getting away from me. The hall is decorated using brownies and magic. It traditionally takes a long time because all the elfen argue about it, but realistically it can be decorated in a few hours.”
“So what is Lord Ragnar up to?” Dave tried to work out the angles. He didn’t like the look of any of them.
“I have no idea.” Sir Ewan drummed his fingers on the table. “But I have a bad feeling about this. Are you invited?”
“Not exactly.” Dave spun the arrowhead around his fingers. “But I’m sure it’s not just fairy godmothers that can crash a party.”
Steve forced himself to call in at the White Hart before turning home. Not that the new flat, right under Fiona, was a great place for him right now. The sign in the shop door said ‘Closed’ but it was unlocked and, while the rest of the shop was in darkness, the lights above the café area were open. He trudged over.
Adele and Louise had gone home and Mrs Tuesday was missing but Freydis and Kadogan were animatedly discussing something while the werewolves watched, bemused. Fiona was sitting a little to one side and looking pale and a little queasy. Steve wasn’t sure how that made him feel so he just nudged Armani in his pocket to stop him snoring.
“We have had a breakthrough in the search for the rose petal deal.” Kadogan announced. “We shall ask the local elfen to fake sightings of big, black cats. I believe it often makes the papers.”
“What?” Steve hadn’t expected that. “You can’t just fake a sighting. It’s unethical.”
“But they would enjoy it so much.” Kadogan said earnestly. “I have had so many wonderful ideas about it. We could get them to adopt the glamour of a very large black cat, import larger than average black tom cats, fake foot prints and hair – there are so many things! And I am sure they would enjoy putting finishing touches to the plan.”
Steve felt once again that he was trying to nail down fog. “But how would that pay for the rose petals?”
“But we could sell pictures and articles.” Freydis said seriously. “We would make sure that someone local got the first picture but then we get the good pictures to sell to the papers. Sometimes those pictures can make a lot of money.”
“No.” Fiona sounded tired. “It’s not right.”
Kadogan tutted. “But we sell many, many books on this subject.”
“Cryptozoology.” Ian said knowledgeably. “The study of unknown creatures.”
“If they are unknown, how can they be studied?” Freydis asked reasonably.
“There’s a whole industry around it.” Ian said. “Conferences, books, websites, expeditions – the whole kit and caboodle.”
“And we do stock so many of those books.” Kadogan said. “I am confident that we could sell more if there was a sighting or two.”
Steve rubbed his forehead wearily. “It’s really close to Salisbury Plain.”
Callum looked startled. “You mean where the army practice with live shells? You can’t go wandering near there.”
“I know.” Freydis smiled. “So all that area which the soldiers use for practice is usually out of bounds and perhaps the big cats could have been living and breeding there. It’s very plausible.” She caught Steve’s eye. “And I am cousins with some of them and they don’t lead people under the cannon fire anymore. It was explained to them.”
“No.” Fiona said firmly. “We’re not going there.”
“But just one or two photos could make a big difference.” Kadogan said wistfully.
“Indeed.” Freydis nodded. “It would make so many people happy and every time we got a royalty payment we could send more rose petals.”
Fiona got up, grabbed her bag and walked out.
Dean was waiting at the café. “You look tired,” he said, pushing a cup of her favourite latte towards her.
“It’s been a long day.” Fiona said quietly. “You look…” her voice trailed away.
“The boss was feeling generous.” Dean smiled slowly and ran a hand over his shirt. “You like?”
“You look amazing.” Fiona stared at him. Dean had always been an own brand jeans and t-shirt kind of man. Today he was wearing what looked like a pale blue, tailored shirt, very like the ones that Steve wore, and sharp pressed dark chinos. His sleeves had been rolled up to just below the elbow which displayed an expensive looking watch.
“So do you.” Dean said. “But you look tired. I should be looking after you. You should be coming home to me and I should be keeping you safe.”
Fiona shook her head. “Dean, it seems like a life time ago. Maybe it was meant to be…”
“You’ve broken up with him,” Dean reached over and gently stroked over the back of Fiona’s icy hand. “There’s no reason to stay apart now.”
“How did you know?” Fiona asked.
“How do you know everyone you work with is human?” Dean said smugly.
Fiona pulled her hand free and clamped both her hands around the warm coffee cup as if it was a lifeline. “Dean, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Look,” Dean glanced around the deserted café quickly and then pulled back his collar. “Perhaps your slick boyfriend wears a shirt like this for the same reason I do.”
Fiona looked on horrified as Dean pulled back his collar to show what looked like two stab wounds surrounded by horrific bruising. “Dean, what’s happened to you? What’s going on?”
“I tell you, vampires are real. You have to believe me. The boss did this. He drank my blood, just like the films, and it felt amazing. It’s better than sex.”
“It looks really sore.” Fiona couldn’t drag her eyes away from the mess at the base of Dean’s neck.
“It heals really quick. And it’s amazing. The boss won’t do it too often, he says it’s not good for me. He’s a good guy.”
Fiona took a mouthful of the hazelnut latte, desperately trying to get some warmth into her. “It’s all so confusing.”
“He’s a good guy, Fiona, and he’s keeping an eye out for me. I’m making good money, having a great time and feeling better than I have in years.” Dean leant forward and looked deep into Fiona’s eyes. “The only thing missing is you, babe. Please.”
Fiona slowly shook her spinning head. “It’s too soon. I’ve only just broken off an engagement.”
“Sweetheart, you’re tired. They’re working you to hard there. You need to come and work for Mr Baxter like me. Listen, I’m off to Dubai tomorrow for a few days. I’ll call you when I get back. Until then, just think about it. You and me, just like the old days.” Dean stood and dropped a gentle kiss on the top of Fiona’s head. “Think about me while I’m gone.”
Fiona watched him stride confidently out of the café and up towards the Minster. Then she slowly pushed her latte away from her. What was she doing?