Staying Safe

Kadogan watched Nick tap away at his laptop, standing carefully away from the sight of the flickering screen.  Nick looked up at him.  “There’s nothing to see.”

“But you are doing things to the computer.” Kadogan said.  “This is significant.”

Nick glanced between the two elfen before clicking on a few significant icons and standing up and stretching.  “It’s downloading now.” He said.  “Any chance of a coffee.”

Kadogan looked at the computer through narrowed eyes.  “I was told that nothing goes through the cables except electricity and information.  I have never understood how information travels through solid cables.”

Nick wandered from the office and into the corridor.  He smiled when he saw Ian. “Hi, how are you doing?”

Ian looked awkward.  “I’m good.  And you?  Is everything repaired after…  Is everything repaired from last Christmas?”

Nick chuckled.  “Everything is fine.  Carol had a wonderful time redecorating.” He hesitated.  “I hope you don’t mind, but I know you’d understand.  I picked up an old grimoire literally at a car boot sale.  I couldn’t believe it.  I’d value your opinion on it, if you’re okay with that?”

Ian hesitated for a moment and then nodded.  “Sure.  How old is it?”

“I’ll get it from my car.” Nick bounded downstairs.

The shop was getting ready to open.  Mrs Tuesday was unloading the delivery of bacon into the fridge while Freydis caressed the coffee machine as it heated up.  Louise looked on resentfully.  “Why have you put dried flowers on the coffee machine?”

Freydis barely looked up.  “Fresh flowers would wilt.  Dried flowers will not last much longer but can easily be replaced.”

Mrs Tuesday closed the fridge door and straightened up.  “You got the brownies to sort out the flowers, didn’t you?”

Freydis nodding and laughed.  “I have no skill in arranging flowers.  But these look well enough and the brownies have promised to replace them regularly to keep the Machine looking beautiful.”

Louise snorted and went into the back to fetch a tray of muffins.

Fiona came in, smiling wanly at everyone before trudging upstairs.  Mrs Tuesday watched her with a frown before turning to Freydis.  “That girl is not looking well.”

Freydis nodded.  “She appears to be under a great deal of stress.” Freydis paused and said carefully.  “I believe she needs nourishing food, such as soup.  That is, the correct home made soup that one would give to a person who was under strain.”

“What are you up to, Freydis?” Mrs Tuesday had a dangerous edge to her throat.

“I believe she has met several times with Dean.” Freydis looked pointedly at Mrs Tuesday.  “He may have administered things.”

Mrs Tuesday hesitated.  “Shouldn’t she speak to the police or something?”

“I am sure she would if she felt it appropriate.” Freydis searched for the right phrasing.  “Normals spike drinks, do they not?  But I have seen that the effects leave little trace.”

“Since when did you know anything about normals?” Mrs Tuesday snapped.

“We will talk later.” Freydis said.  A few moments later Louise appeared with a tray of muffins, dumping them down on the counter.

Fiona felt like the stairs were a mountain this morning.  She dumped her bag and hung up her coat.  The computer seemed to be running something complicated and lines of code flickered over the screen.  That meant Nick was here.  She sighed inwardly.  She wanted nothing more than to grab her bag and coat, turn around, go home and go to bed, but she couldn’t abandon the shop.  She heard animated chatter from the kitchenette and wandered down the corridor.

Ian and a man she supposed was Nick Dark were leaning over an old, battered book with Steve perched on the table next to them looking thoughtful.  Steve looked around and their eyes met for a split second.  Fiona reacted completely on instinct, turned around and fled downstairs.

“What was that?” Nick asked, looking after her.

Ian put a sympathetic hand on Steve’s shoulder.  “Sorry, mate.”

Steve nodded.  “We were engaged for a few days.  It got complicated.”

Nick looked between the magician and werewolf and nodded.  “Did an elfen get involved?  Any time Lord Marius calls in he tries to set me up with my housekeeper.”

Steve’s lips tightened briefly before he changed the subject.  “It looks like the real thing.  There’s a lot of magical buzz around it.  That’s a book that’s seen a lot of spells.”

Ian touched it reverently.  “I wonder how old it is?”

Nick carefully turned a page.  “It’s handwritten and in Latin, which is more typical of an older book, and the paper seems heavy duty.”

“It looks like it’s been ignored for a long time.” Ian ran a gentle finger over the very edge of the binding.  “If it’s not been used then it could just be a well preserved but old book.”

“On the other hand, it’s written on paper, not parchment.” Nick turned a page and the men paused to admire an intricate drawing of the seven spheres.

“There’s no sign of Uranus.” Steve looked closer at the faded colours.  “When was Uranus discovered?”

Ian checked his phone.  “It says 1781, but I don’t know how long it would have taken for it to become general knowledge and into magical practice.  I suppose the book could be as late as the early nineteenth century.”

“People still knew Latin after that.” Steve said dryly.  “I think some people can still read and write it, like the men around the table.”  Armani wriggled out of his pocket and dropped onto the table. “Keep your vape pen away from the book.”

Armani approached the book with care and leaned within an inch or two before taking a cautious sniff.  He pulled a face and backed away, wiping his nose. “I’m going up on the roof, boss.  That stinks of dragon’s blood.”

Ian and Steve looked quickly at a suddenly worried Nick.  “Where exactly did you get it?” Steve asked carefully, “And have you checked for a magical tracker?”

Darren pulled up into the car park at the White Hart and took a moment to compose his mind.  The constant journeying was tiring and while he was used to being called away on duty, half the week away from his own home on a regular basis was draining him.  Darren felt a moment of complete weariness wash over him.  Perhaps he was getting old.  He got out of the battered Range Rover.  There were compensations, of course.  Mrs Tuesday’s cooking was always worth visiting.  Now that Kadogan had forced her to accept some salary she seemed to be spending it all on ingredients for meals for ‘the lads’.  Darren dragged his two large holdalls out of the back of the car.  Mrs Tuesday seemed to be making it a mission to feed up Dave, the werewolves, her nephew, and himself and it wasn’t exactly a hardship.

Darren nodded to the young man hanging around the car park and then paused.  The man looked in his early twenties, with dark hair and troubled dark eyes.  He was checking his expensive phone in quick, nervous glances while looking around warily.  Darren wandered over.  “Are you okay?  The shop opens in five minutes but I can let you in if you know what you want.”

“Last time I came here there was a bit of trouble.” The man flicked his phone to record.

“I only stay here midweek.” Darren said.  “I didn’t hear about any trouble.  Did you get short changed?”  He dumped his bags and held out his hand.  “I’m Darren King.”

“Luke Fawcett.” The man automatically shook Darren’s hand.  He swallowed, and then the words spilled out of him.  “There are things not right about that shop.  They have books and all sorts.  I looked online, and they have the hardcore stuff mixed in with tourist rubbish.  And they can do things, like curses.”

“Why don’t you turn off that recording app and we can talk.” Darren said calmly.  He was not good at the people part of being a minister, but he could see that Luke was deeply troubled.  “Maybe I can help.”

Luke slowly shook his head.  “My mates won’t even come to York anymore.  They’re too scared.  But I reckon that you have to do the right thing.”

Darren’s heart sank.  He could see the signs of a vampire hunter.  Though he didn’t seem to be fixated on vampires or werewolves, which was something.  “Do you have faith?” Darren asked carefully.

Luke looked at him as if hit be a shocking revelation.  “I’ve never been to church.”

Darren wished he was good at this.  “Sometimes it helps to know that there is a higher power that loves us.” He scrabbled for memories of the lectures in college.  He didn’t do much witnessing of his faith.  He was usually around people who believed and were happy for him to preach, pray and smite the bad guys.  “What happened here?”

Luke looked Darren straight in the eye.  “No-one would believe it.  We were all in Tim’s car and looking for parking and when we saw what sort of place this was we came in for a bit of a laugh.  I mean, no-one believes in this rubbish, do they?”

Darren had a bad feeling about it.  “A lot of people can be quite heated when it comes to their beliefs.  Did anyone get hurt?”

Luke shook his head.  Tim was giving it out to an old couple.  I think he was trying to start something with their son.  He looked a real hard case.  But the son just sat there and an old biddy was telling us about curses.  I started really looking around.  There were these really weird books and stuff, and no garlic.”

Darren tried to judge how far he could safely go.  The recording app was no longer running.  “Were you worried that there were vampires or something there – I know it sounds crazy, but there are a lot of strange things around.”

Luke shook his head.  “There was this big guard dog.  Nothing weird would have got past it.  It was massive but really well trained.”

Darren recognised the softening look of a dog lover and moved on quickly, not wanting to hear anything about Luke wanting to give Ian a cuddle.  “So what happened?”

“The old girl was giving us this long talk about curses, like she really knew what she was talking about.  Then some guys came in and asked what had happened to the car.  So we all ran out and…” Luke shuddered.  “The car was written off.  I mean, totally.  It was over here.” Luke pointed to the battered flower beds which were recovering nicely.  “They even drained the oil first.”

“Someone smashed up the car?” Darren asked, wondering where this was going.

Luke shook his head and, after quickly leafing through his phone showed Darren a picture.  “The car was totally written off.”

Darren stared at the evidence of what happens when you upset Mr and Mrs Appuck.  He could see a metal framework and the debris of what once had been a car.  “Did you call the police?”

Luke shook his head.  “Tim’s car wasn’t legal.  We could risk being caught with it, we would have lost our jobs.” He paused.  Darren could see Luke’s thoughts catching up.  “You’re one of them.  You do curses.”  Luke backed away.  “But I’m on to you.  And yes, I’m going to get faith.  I won’t forget.”

“I do not curse anyone!” Darren snapped, but Luke had turned and was running off down the road towards York town centre.  Darren picked up his bags again.

Darren reached the shop door just as Fiona was flicking the sign from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’.  She held the door open.  “Who was that?”

“Did you have an incident with a car being stripped down to the frame?” Darren asked.

Fiona briefly closed her eyes.  “Apparently Mr and Mrs Appuck got upset with a group of lads that were here to cause bother.  It got out of hand.”

Kadogan lounged past with an armful of candles.  “Mr and Mrs Appuck were here with their son, Geraint, and the young men were very rude, aggressive and tried to provoke a fight.  They were even rude to Fiona which was completely unacceptable.”

“Completely destroying their car may have been an over-reaction.” Darren hefted his bags towards the stairs.  “I saw the pictures.”

“They were rude to Geraint Appuck’s parents in front of him and only lost their car.” Kadogan said as he started to stack the candles neatly.  “I think they were fortunate.  Fiona has explained stock rotation to me so I am putting the newest supply of candles at the back.  This means that whenever I am in a shop I shall always look for the items at the back of the shelf first.”

“You’re never in a shop except here.” Fiona said wearily.

“You look like you’ve been drained by a vampire.” Darren took in Fiona’s drawn face and slumped shoulders.  “Should you see a doctor?”

Fiona held up a hand.  “No.  I’m going in the back to check on the wrapping paper.”

Darren looked at her retreating back and then at Mrs Tuesday.  “Is it the wedding?”

“The wedding has been cancelled, remember.” Mrs Tuesday said.  “I hope you brought an appetite because I’m making home made soup for lunch.”

Adele lounged by the till.  It was quiet today.  The rain had started falling gently outside and no coach parties were expected.  Freydis and Louise were bickering next to the coffee machine as Freydis tried to arrange coloured dried grass and lavender in glass vases.  Mrs Tuesday was cooking something fragrant in the back kitchen which smelled insanely good.  Nick was doing things up ladders to the wiring.  Adele didn’t have much of a grasp of technology but apparently the shop was getting top notch cybersecurity with extra cameras.  Ian was following him round, holding ladders and cables and talking animatedly about the grimoire and Steve was also following around adding some magical security that also was completely beyond Adele’s understanding.

Callum came back after carrying Mrs Anderson’s shopping to her car.  “It’s looking very impressive,” he said.

Adele nodded.  “So we have dummy cameras, real and visible cameras and hidden cameras.  And static monitors and things stuck in the wall.  I don’t know how people think of it all.”

“Vampires are usually pretty good with computers.” Callum leaned casually on the counter next to Adele.  “It’s the detail.  We had a vampire sort out all the pack’s stuff back home.”

“He’s a vampire?” Adele stood upright.  “But what about that Rey Baxter?  Could he be working with him?”

Callum gave Adele a very dry look.  “Not all vampires are the same.  Anyway, Ian used to live near them and they were good friends.  It was his house where Ian summoned the demon.  It looks like Nick got over it, though.  They both really liked their grimoires.”

“Sorry.” Adele said quietly.  She scrabbled around for a change of subject.  “That soup smells amazing.”

Callum nodded.  “Mrs Tuesday seems to be determined to feed us up.  I don’t mind.”

“Kadogan said that she had been depressed at home but was feeling a lot better here.” Adele said.  “Sometimes it’s better to keep busy.”

Callum nodded.  “I’ve been doing some painting,” he said.  “I mean, it’s not proper painting but it keeps me busy.”

Adele looked interested.  “What sort of things are you painting?”

“I’ve been painting miniatures of the streets in York.” Callum got out his phone.  “I take these pictures…” He showed Adele a corner of Stonegate, “and when I get home I paint them.” He flicked through his phone and showed Adele the picture he had taken of his watercolour.

“That’s adorable!” Adele exclaimed.  “When can I see the original?”

“After lunch.” Mrs Tuesday said.  “I’ve set it up in the meeting room.  Thanks to Nick we can have a nice lunch and still keep a very close eye on every inch of the shop.”

Steve looked around the packed meeting room.  Fiona had been firmly sat down next to Mrs Tuesday and, after having had a few tentative mouthfuls, was eating heartily.  Ian and Callum also had large bowls in front of them, though Kadogan, Nick and Freydis had tiny portions.  There were baskets of freshly made rolls in the middle of the table and for a short while there was silence.

“This is really good.” Nick said appreciatively.  “Please let me have the recipe for Carol.”

Mrs Tuesday waved a hand.  “It’s just some vegetables and lentils in stock with whatever spices suit.  There’s plenty more in the kitchen and what isn’t eaten today can be reheated tomorrow.”

Steve exchanged a glance with Darren and Dave.  They were definitely going to be here tomorrow.  Steve took another spoonful before taking a roll.  He was aware that the soup had ginger and garlic, with some spices like cumin perhaps, or some of the Moroccan spices.  “This is amazing, Mrs Tuesday.”

“It’s just soup.” The old boggart looked pleased.

“I still think that faking big cats in Wiltshire is a good idea.” Kadogan said as he savoured tiny sips of the soup.  “We could make considerable money.”

“It’s not exactly guaranteed.” Ian said.  He took another roll.  “What if someone else gets a better picture?”

“We will still have good pictures, and ours will be properly staged.” Kadogan leant back in his chair.  “We will be able to sell the pictures to the newspapers and to those who write books of such things.  We could have framed pictures on our website.”

Darren held up a hand.  “Are you talking about faking big cat sightings?”

“Lord Harold requires a large quantity of dried rose petals.” Kadogan held a roll delicately in his long fingers.  “We have more than enough elf shot and so we need something else to trade.  Elfen could easily fake the big cat sightings.  It would be no trouble.”

“Indeed,” Freydis added.  “And as they are so close to the Army firing range it is entirely plausible that unknown creatures could be there.”

“I can’t imagine cats being happy surrounded by loud bangs.” Dave finished his bowl.  “Is there enough for another helping and lunch tomorrow?”

“Help yourself, I made plenty.” Mrs Tuesday waved a smug hand.

“Who is the paladin down there?” Darren asked.

Callum looked up from finishing his own bowl.  “It’s not far from my old pack.  With so much of Lord Harold’s domain inside the firing area, none of the local paladins really take an interest.  I believe the Army make their own arrangements.”

“I’ll look up the paladin for Salisbury.” Dave stood up and headed towards the kitchen.  “But I’ll get another bowl of that soup first.”

Fiona slid into the chair opposite Dean, dropping her umbrella next to him.  “Hi.”

“Hi.” Dean smiled at her and pushed a hazelnut latte towards her.  It had once been her favourite drink but Fiona had come to loathe it.

“Did you have a good time in Dubai?”

Dean nodded.  He was drinking a protein smoothie and was looking fitter than ever, the slight tan he had acquired suited him.  So did the classic shirt and tailored chinos.  “I ordered cake, babe.  I know you always liked chocolate cake.”

He sat back as the waitress brought over two slices of sticky chocolate cake with a large side of spray cream.  Fiona pulled the plate towards her under Dean’s watchful eye and took a small forkful.  She had never been able to convince Dean that she preferred carrot cake.  He always insisted that women only liked chocolate.  “Thank you.  It’s really thoughtful of you.”

“I didn’t just get cake.” Dean pulled a package out of his pocket and pushed it towards Fiona.  “I saw this in the duty free and I thought of you.”

Fiona picked up the tissue wrapped shape and for a moment her fingers hovered over the paper before she unpicked the wrappings.  It was a beautiful gold chain, heavy and sinuous over her fingers as she picked it up.  “It’s beautiful.  Thank you.” Her voice was barely audible.

“Put it on.  I’ve been imagining how it would look on you all the way home.” Dean urged.

Fiona slowly shook her head.  “I can’t accept this.  It’s too much and we’re not…” Her voice faded.

“You’re still wearing his ring.” Dean nodded at Fiona’s hand.

“It’s not on the engagement finger.  And he said that just because we aren’t together now doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter.” Fiona looked down at the glowing opal on her right hand.

“And we had a wonderful life, babe.  Do you remember going on the ghost walk and getting lost half way along?  How about the time we took a boat on the river and nearly lost the oars?  Babe, we could have all that again.” Dean took the chain from Fiona’s unresisting fingers and clasped it around her neck.  It felt cool and heavy around her throat.  He checked his watch.  “Babe, I’m sorry, but I have to go.  Think of me – and drink the latte.  It will make you feel better.”

Fiona watched him rush out of the door, more vibrant and alive than ever, and slowly pushed the latte away from her.

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