“Fiona, this is Ian Tait, our new companion in this venture.” Kadogan said with an edge of artificial chirpiness.
Fiona glanced briefly over at the hard muscled man standing next to Kadogan. “Hi, Ian, great to meet you. I’m Fiona and I’m a bit rushed.” She finished scanning the pile of books and smiled at the customer. “That’s £73.47, do you want to try out our loyalty card?” She looked back. “I’ll say ‘Hello’ properly later, but Kadogan will show you where you’re staying.” She looked back to the customer. “Sorry about that.” She handed him his receipt and smiled at the next customer in the long queue.
“I think you had better follow me.” Kadogan said. He glanced around the full shop and then froze. “Actually, we have shoplifters. If you go through that door, up the stairs, fourth door on the left, that’s your studio apartment. Excuse me.”
Ian didn’t bother to offer his help. A few years ago he had seen Kadogan deal with a gang of rogue boggarts and the elfen had been viciously lethal. Instead he hefted his two sports bags, went through the door, up the stairs, past the office with a large stack of papers, a firmly closed door with murmuring voices behind it, another closed door, a kitchen and then stopped outside the fourth door on the right, the last in the passage before it bent sharply to the left. Somehow this door seemed to be a much bigger step than anything else so far.
Ian slowly lowered both of his bags to the floor. He didn’t want to do this. He wanted to go back to Ann and be happy again. He wanted time to rewind so he didn’t make those mistakes. He wanted it all to be different. Ian squared his shoulders and opened the door.
Kadogan might have called it a studio apartment, but it wasn’t so glamorous. He shared a kitchen and he had this room as his own. It could be worse. He set his bags down on the bed and looked around. It was clean. The paint on the plain magnolia walls were new and so was the plain beige carpet. The cream coloured curtains were also new and still stiff as he pushed them back a little. He had a view of a carpark where Kadogan was dealing summary justice to a couple of goblins. Past that he could see York’s medieval walls with the distinctive tower of the Minster in the distance. He checked his watch. He could take ten minutes. He needed this job and this place so much. He had to make a good impression.
He ran a quick eye over the room as he opened his bags. The bed looked comfortable and the new bedlinen looked freshly washed, clean and inviting. The sturdy wardrobe came with a good supply of hangers and the tv was set on a matching set of drawers in what was no doubt mean to be the ‘living’ part. Ian tried the chair in front of the tv. It felt good. The small table next to the chair was second hand like the wardrobe and chest of drawers but was equally as sturdy. He found a lump in his throat. Someone had tried to make him welcome. A vase of daffodils sat next to the tv and a box of tissues was on the small bedside table next to the lamp. On the small computer desk there was an envelope with ‘Ian’ written in a formal script next to a small bunch of keys. Ian hesitated before opening it.
Dear Ian, I hope that you will be comfortable. Please let me know if you need anything. You are very welcome here. Fiona.
Ian felt a lump in his throat. This was a chance to begin again. The odds were not in his favour, but that was no reason to give in. He pulled his laptop out of one of the sportsbags and plugged it in to charge. He hung his jacket behind the door, got a quick wash in the tiny en-suite and pulled on a clean shirt. The rest of his unpacking could wait, apart from one thing.
Ian dug into the bottom of the second bag, tipping his clothes carelessly on the bed. Right at the bottom, carefully wrapped, was the most precious thing he now had. Ann, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, had given it to him just before he left. He unwrapped it reverently. It was undamaged. Ian had been worrying about it all the way here. He took down the insipid print of York Minster and hung up the most important thing he had left, the only real thing he had left, the thing he needed most. He stepped back and memorised the way it looked with the morning sunlight glancing across the newly painted wall and over the pink and white, shabby chic, feminine plaque. It was shaped and sanded to look like driftwood or reclaimed fencing and there were tiny sequins framing the folksy lettering. Ian didn’t care. Ann had given him this last thing. A piece of wall art that said HOPE in fake-faded glory.
Fiona didn’t jump when Ian suddenly appeared next to her at the till. She was too busy to be startled. At the back of her mind she could hear the warnings but all she saw was another pair of hands. “Ian, are you okay helping out straight away?”
“Not a problem.” Ian glanced quickly over the till. “I know how to use this. I can take over here.”
“And I can get the café tables cleared and get some stock up.” Fiona said. “When the next tarot reading appointment comes, just send them up the stairs, second door on the right.”
“Tarot reading?” Ian boggled but Fiona just shrugged and dashed off.
Ian smiled professionally at the old lady at the till and looked again. He guessed she was a boggart under there, but now was not a time to discuss things. Instead he started scanning in her basket. What had he got himself into? He rang up the joke cook book, the humorous mug, the plastic fairy with a wobbly wand but hesitated at the four bags of mullein and he looked at her with a raised eyebrow. Mullein could act like catnip on boggarts and they were bad enough as it was.
“It’s for personal use, love.” The old lady said as she rummaged for her money in her cavernous bag. “You don’t really get it near us, and it’s the real deal.”
“Of course.” Ian nodded and scanned them through. “Would you like a bag?”
The queue seemed never ending. He could see Fiona frantically dashing round the tables in the café area between bringing out boxes of herbs while Kadogan stalked the floor and a pretty brunette rushing between cake stands and coffee machines to keep the refreshments coming. He couldn’t pay attention to them, though, as he had enough on his hands with all the sales. And while he kept a professional smile on, inside he was getting more and more bewildered by what was going through. There was such a mix. Some of it was definitely hardcore, non normal, magical stuff and the people buying it seemed to know their way around a pentagram. On the other hand there was the most awful gimcrack stuff that belonged on the end of a pier and that was also flying out. He kept smiling, scanning and offering the loyalty card while his head was spinning. Finally it died down and Ian was able to catch his breath. He picked up some of the spilled receipts and stuffed them into the overflowing bin. Fiona beckoned him to the café area.
“Sorry about such a bad start.” She said as she wiped the counter. “Would you like a drink?”
“Tea is fine.” Ian looked round. There were one or two stragglers around still browsing. “Is it always like that?”
“I trust not!” Kadogan stalked over. “I explained carefully to the coach driver that coach parties who arrive without giving notice beforehand will be charged for parking at a suitably high rate. The coach trip from Lord Carmichael’s domain in Birmingham had apparently been booked to come to York for several months and they thought they would come in and see what we are like while they were here.”
“We’ve sold a lot.” Fiona brought over a tray of mugs. “Ian, this is Louise who does wonders in the café. Louise, this is Ian Tait who has joined us and made an amazing first impression.” Fiona smiled at Ian. “I have never been so glad to see anyone as when you turned up at the till.”
“It’s good to be useful.” Ian said quietly.
“You were more than useful.” Fiona said. She took a mouthful of tea. “What happened to the shoplifters?”
“I dealt with them firmly.” Kadogan said. “They should know better than to steal from elfen. Ian Tait, I also commend you on your efforts. It is good to have you here.”
Ian relaxed a little. “Thank you for having me. So it won’t get like that all the time?”
“You won’t have time to get bored.” Fiona laughed. “The shop may be quiet but we are getting a lot of online and mail orders. I thought you could make that your own patch. I mean, we all help each other out but you could be the lead in that. I’ll show you where to set up later.”
“Our Tarot reader is coming downstairs.” Kadogan said. “Ian, he is not aware of what we are. Louise and Fiona are normals. He does not know anything about us.”
“But he’s a Tarot reader.” Ian was confused.
“It’s okay because he doesn’t believe in it.” Fiona said. “He’s also got a room upstairs.”
Ian saw a physically fit, youngish man come out to the counter where he had a quick check of the appointment book. He didn’t look like a Tarot Reader, more like a gym instructor or a health food rep.
Fiona stood up. “Dave, this is our newest employee, Ian Tait. Ian, this is Dave Kinson, the resident Tarot reader. He’s got the room next to you upstairs.”
The two men exchanged a polite handshake and Dave threw some money in the till and picked up a bottle of water from the cooler. “I’ll just catch up then I’m off for a run. I need to clear my head between readings.” He sat down next to Louise. “It’s been full on.” Dave took a quick glance at Ian as he took a mouthful of water. Ian looked in his early thirties, used to working out from the look of things. His hands as he held the mug of tea were strong and calloused. He looked like he was a skilled worker, like a plumber or electrician. The dent on his left hand’s ring finger said either very newly divorced or divorcing. For someone who had a trade to have to take a job here and a small bedsit it looked like a bad divorce. Dave carefully screwed the lid back on the bottle. His instinct told him that Louise and Fiona weren’t entirely comfortable with Ian and Fiona was asking Ian whether he liked his tea strong. So Ian was unknown to them.
“You look like you work out.” Dave said casually to Ian. “I can show you the nearest gym. It’s not too bad.”
“Thanks. It would be great.” Ian said.
“We can go tonight after the store closes.” Dave said. I think I’ll need the exercise.”
“Do you go to the gym a lot?” Ian asked.
Dave nodded. “I go to the kickboxing classes a lot. It’s a great way to burn off stress.”
“Do they do self defence classes?” Fiona asked. She blinked as Kadogan, Louise and Ian all turned to stare at her. “Sir Ewan suggested that I got some self defence training.”
“Sir Ewan?” Dave asked.
“It’s a nickname.” Kadogan said shortly. “Does he think you would be exposed to harm here?”
“He just said it might be helpful.” Fiona shrugged.
“I’ve spent some time as an instructor.” Dave said. He had spent one glorious month and five miserable ones as an instructor before realising that it really wasn’t for him. “I can help you out if you like.” Yes, none of the people here were used to Ian, but the job hadn’t been advertised or even mentioned to him so it looked like a friend of someone, probably Kadogan, had got the job for Ian.
“I enjoy sparring myself.” Ian said. “It’s a good way to keep active.”
Dave thought he knew most of the people involved in the martial arts scene around York. He could be wrong, but it looked like Ian wasn’t from York. So someone with a skilled trade was recently divorced or divorcing, had taken a job in a shop when he looked like the person least suited to it, had had to get someone to take him on as a favour and had moved. Dave wasn’t good with accents, it was one of his weaknesses, but he thought that Ian was from Yorkshire, but not York. “Why don’t we go after the shop shuts? I’ll show you round and we can get a few bouts in.”
“Sounds good.” Ian nodded.
“And tomorrow I’ll take Fiona for some lessons. Do you want to have some lessons, Louise?”
Louise jumped. “Sorry, I was miles away. It’s okay, I had some lessons with Kadogan, but I’m not really a natural for that sort of thing.”
Dave smiled and took another mouthful of water. Louise may not know Ian but she was fascinated by him. Dave couldn’t tell whether Louise was scared of Ian or whether she was starting a crush. He was staying out of it. He took a quick glance of Kadogan. He had long since given up trying to figure out who Kadogan was, but he found it hard to believe that he could give self defence lessons. Dave rubbed his eyes. “I need to get a run. I’m exhausted after four readings back to back this morning, and I’ve another three this afternoon. I’ll see you later.”
Kadogan found Fiona in the office, talking cheerfully to someone. He positioned himself so he couldn’t see the computer screen and listened in.
“That’s so kind of you. I can’t say how grateful I am. So, just to confirm, I can expect the delivery tomorrow… that’s right, all the colours except blue but that will follow later…” Fiona listened for a few moments. “Yes, it is unusual stock for a gift shop, but not all our customers are normal… That’s great, thanks again.” Fiona put her phone down with a sigh and made a few notes on the computer. “Hi, Kadogan. I’ve just managed to get a bulk order of edible glitter. Steve Adderson put me onto the supplier.” She turned away from the screen and stretched.
“Is there likely to be a conflict of interest between us and Steve Adderson?” He asked carefully. “Because a romantic affair could solve that problem.”
“I think there are other ways to deal with it.” Fiona sagged a little as she looked at the stack of orders piled on the desk. “Everyone’s putting in tester orders. You know, just a bag of herbs or a cheap book just to see what we’re like.” She sighed. “We’re going to have to get them out as soon as we can to make a good impression.”
“Ian can help tomorrow.” Kadogan said. “He is not suitable for a romantic affair, but he is very capable.”
Fiona caught Kadogan’s eye . “I am not interested in a ‘romantic liaison’. I am happy being single. Do not try and pair me up.”
Kadogan frowned. “But you do not have a boyfriend…”
Fiona held up her hand. “No.” She could see Kadogan fighting with his better judgement.
“Fiona Ellen Greene, I provided the money to fund this shop in order to thank you for saving my life. Since then I have been grateful for many small kindnesses and impressed by your good heart. As someone who is older than you, and I suppose in the position of a male relative…” His voice trailed off under the heat of Fiona’s glare.
“I don’t think we need to discuss this.” Fiona said.
“There is one romance that we do need to discuss.” Kadogan said. “Lord Ragnar will try to divorce his wife.”
“She did seem close to the vampire.” Fiona said. “But I suppose that’s between them.”
“Not quite.” Kadogan picked up the pencil and started spinning it around his long fingers. “Lord Ragnar is in charge of the non normals of York. Freydis has power and influence as his wife. If he divorces her then she will lose that influence and may have to leave York.”
“That’s sad, but still nothing to do with us.” Fiona reached towards the papers. Kadogan’s hand on her arm stopped her.
“There are two very real reasons why it affects us. We pay a tax to Lord Ragnar, the same as all the businesses the non normals run in York.”
Fiona nodded. “We pay 10% of everything we make after overheads. That’s why we did all the calculations on the pricing, so that we would have an idea how much we owed at the end of each week.”
“The courts of the Princes don’t use a lot of money, but they do need some. If we fail then Lord Ragnar has less than he would otherwise. Freydis will not want Lord Ragnar getting money. We shall have to be careful.”
“What is she going to do?” Fiona asked.
Kadogan shrugged, the pencil still spinning around his fingers. “We shall have to be very careful. The other reason to worry is that Lord Ragnar is a friend.” Kadogan looked uncomfortable. “It is rare for the elfen to have friendships, but we have a long history of mutual aid and I suppose that is the same thing. I will be deeply involved in anything that happens.” He frowned. “You know, you would be a great deal safer if you were romantically involved with Steve Adderson. He is a very skilled magician and has a lot of influence. He also has many contacts with other courts.”
“I am not getting involved with anyone!” Fiona snapped.
Kadogan went back down to the shop. The building was getting quieter. Louise had gone home and Ian and Dave were out so apart from Fiona’s tapping on the computer there was only the quiet murmur of the brownies. He hesitated. It was obvious that Fiona was destined for Steve. Anyone could see that. The question was, how to convince her? He had never understood romance. He didn’t want to, either, as it seemed to be incredibly complicated and difficult. But he did know someone who did understand romance, as much as anyone can, someone he knew from the old days. He would get in touch with her straight away.