The Sweet Scent of Blood
Spellcrackers.com : Book One
Copyright © Suzanne McLeod 2008
It was a stubborn, sticky spell, though wrapped around the fridge handle it looked as innocent as a tuft of candyfloss. Except candyfloss doesn’t pulse virulent green – spun sugar is much more wholesome. I grasped a flimsy strand between my thumb and forefinger and gently pulled. The stench of rotten eggs hit the back of my throat, making me gag. I dropped the magic, watching it curl and twist back into the spell.
‘Bad, bad brownie,’ I muttered. I tried again, upping my concentration. This time the magic stretched and separated and I let it drift back into the ether.
The job at the swish Kensington bistro was supposed to be an easy one, but thanks to Alan Hinkley’s request for help, my mind kept asking questions I didn’t have the answers for – like what the fuck was Siobhan’s brother up to? And was the request really from him? Or had Bobby, aka Roberto, aka Mr October, discovered a secret he shouldn’t and decided to use the knowledge for himself? I looked towards my phone, but it wasn’t coming up with any answers either. I’d left it near the front door, a safe distance away from the magic, and despite all the messages I’d sent it was disappointingly silent. So failing any sort of reprieve, I was meeting Alan later, at the morgue.
I turned back to the restaurant and made my way through the tables. The air-conditioning hummed like an anxious bee, and gave the place a chilled, cave-like feel. I suppressed a shiver. Low level light makes the spells easier to see, and Finn, my co-worker – and future boss, if the rumours were true – had shut the blinds before I’d arrived. I’d have preferred the sunshine.
Gripping the edge of a marble table, I crouched, checking for any tell-tell glows along the floor. Nothing. The black and white tiles were clear. No more magic-induced slips or spell-trapped mice running backwards in frantic circles.
A quick scan of the ornate plastered ceiling revealed no magic lurking in the shadows. I sighed, relieved. The glass-fronted counter running the length of one wall was empty too, no elaborate cream-filled cakes, no hip-expanding pastries, and no lingering nasty leftovers. Hexed or otherwise.
The door to the kitchen swung open, breaking my concentration again, and Finn sauntered through. ‘Hell’s thorns, that kitchen’s a mess.’ He stuck his hands in his trouser pockets. ‘Manager reckons it’s a grouchy customer dropping a spell instead of a tip, at least that’s what the brownie’s told him.’ He shook his head. ‘And he believes her.’
I ignored the stupid little leap of pleasure inside me at the sight of him – so not going there, not when there’s no point – and said, ‘Why not? The restaurant’s a family business; the brownie’s probably been with them for decades . . . although it’s odd she’d cause this much trouble.’ I tapped my fingers against the table. ‘Unless it’s the manager who’s got her all miffed and just doesn’t want to admit it.’
Finn shrugged, then lifted his arms above his head and stretched gracefully.
Every time I see Finn, I try hard not to imagine him with his trousers off. I blame his horns, the office gossip, and my rebellious libido. Finn is a lesser fae, a satyr; his great-great-whatevers were worshipped by the Greeks as one of their gods, Pan, the half-goat, half-man one. Finn’s butt looks normal when he’s dressed, with not even a hint of a tail or furry thighs, and there’s never been a single confirmed rumour to the contrary in all of the three months he’d been with Spellcrackers. Even so, my mind just keeps on—
‘How’re you doing in here, Gen?’ He rubbed one of his horns. They’re the colour of dried bracken, sharp and stand a good inch above his wavy blond hair. Add in his poster-boy good looks and Finn should’ve been an ad-man’s wet dream – only the horns mean he doesn’t look human enough to sell products to the masses. He had to be wearing a glamour-spell to alter his appearance, but so far I hadn’t managed to see past it.
‘Cracked everything except the coffee machine,’ I said.
‘I could do with a hand in the kitchen when you’ve finished,’ he said with a suggestive grin, ‘if you’re willing?’
In answer I gave him the look I’d been giving him for the last few weeks, ever since he’d started hitting on me – a half-amused, half-tolerant smile that told him no way did I take his flirting seriously – and then turned my back on him smothering a sigh.
Lifting the counter-top, I focused on the machine. The industrial-sized contraption glowed bright enough to cast a sickly orange glare up the wall. The levers were the worst. Of course, it would take only a second to crack it rather than tease it apart, but true spellcracking involved blasting the magic – and that also blasted apart whatever the magic was attached to. Collateral damage isn’t an option – customers tend to object – so instead I pinched the spell and started to unravel it. Hot steam jetted over my hands and along my arms. Shit. Suppressing a whimper, I shook my hands to get rid of the sensation. The pain was real but the steam wasn’t, so there’d be no burns, just the nasty release of power.
‘Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.’ Finn’s tone was sympathetic. ‘But that’s what happens when you take it too fast.’
I snorted. ‘Like I don’t know that.’
He grinned. ‘’Course you do, but hey, this is one seriously cranky brownie. Glad it’s not me she’s pissed off with.’
Gingerly, I poked at the spell. ‘Sounds like you’re talking from experience.’
‘Oh yeah, a whole month’s worth.’ He winced at the memory. ‘Whenever I opened a honey jar, a bee flew out and stung me. Everything I ate tasted burnt, and she hid every single one of my left socks.’
‘There’s no such thing as a left sock,’ I pointed out, delicately unpicking more of the spell. ‘They’re all the same.’
He laughed. ‘’Course there is! It’s obvious, you always put your right sock on first, so the missing one’s got to be the left one.’
‘Ha Ha.’ The magic shredded into tiny filaments under my fingers and finally dissipated. ‘So, were you just your usual self or did you do something in particular to annoy her?’
His shoulders lifted in a careless shrug. ‘Can’t remember now; think it was probably her witch more than the brownie I actually upset.’
Of course there had to be a witch involved, didn’t there? The witches at Spellcrackers had descended on Finn like excited kids playing pass-the-parcel, each of them grabbing to be the next one to unwrap the present when the music stopped. And Finn seemed to be enjoying the party, amazingly keeping everyone happy with his equal-opportunity flirting. I’d been invited to play, but it wasn’t an invitation I felt able to accept.
Not that I wasn’t attracted. I was, and then some. And there was the whole fae thing going on, which meant the magic was always trying to nudge us together, just to add to the complications. No, my problem was that Finn was almost too appealing. More and more I just wanted to sink my teeth into him, and that was so not a good idea. So I swallowed down the disappointment instead and tried hard to keep him at a distance.
He gently touched my hand where the spell had phantom-burnt me. ‘Want to talk about what’s bothering you?’
I looked up, surprised at the concern in his eyes. ‘It’s nothing.’
‘Yeah? You’re usually much more careful with the magic.’
He was right. I was. ‘Bad morning,’ I said, ‘y’know – pixies, and then I managed to crack the crystal on my phone.’
‘Ahh.’ He gave me a thoughtful look for a moment and then smiled. ‘Problem solved then. I just found a new crystal supplier on eBay. The initial quality’s good and the prices are reasonable. I’ll tell Toni to sort you one out as a trial.’
A pretty gift-horse yawned in front of me, but I ignored it in favour of having my distraction work. ‘That’s great,’ I said, ‘thanks.’
Finn dropped a casual arm round my shoulders. ‘Heard the latest gossip? Stella left early, supposedly for the Council meeting, but Toni thinks she’s got a fancy man.’ His breath warmed my hair. ‘Apparently he’s been on the phone three times this morning and wouldn’t give his name, just said Stella’d know who he was.’ The faint scent of blackberries curled around me. ‘But Toni says she’s sure she recognises his voice.’
I slid out from under his arm before I let myself get too comfortable. If Stella was at a Witches’ Council meeting, that explained why she was ignoring my messages, and it didn’t take much for me to guess who Toni, our office manager, had been talking about.
Finn lent against the counter and winked at me. ‘She’s certain it’s that journalist chap who interviewed Stella. Tall, dark, good-looking. Don’t suppose you saw him, did you?’
I gave him a teasing look. ‘Worried about competition in your little witch harem, are you?’
He chuckled. ‘Hell's thorns, Gen, he’s human. Where’s the competition?’ His face turned sly. ‘Just wondering whether Tall, Dark and Handsome is your type as well as Stella’s.’
‘Don’t wander, it doesn’t lead anywhere.’
‘Don’t worry, I know to stay on the path.’ He reached for my hand and traced a finger across my palm. ‘C’mon, Gen, can’t blame me for being curious. I’m a fertility fae.’ His thumb stroked gently over my wrist, causing my pulse to throb. ‘And you’re sidhe fae, your heart beats for passion. Imagine what music we could make: the very birds and bees would sing along with joy.’ He lowered his voice. ‘It would be a grand opera, rich enough to rival Mozart.’
Laughing, I twisted my hand free, stuck two fingers in my mouth and accked. ‘Pleeeease! Don’t tell me that works? That is soooo bad!’
He grinned, teeth white and even against his tan. ‘What do you think?’
‘No, that’s just too awful to contemplate.’ I shook my head. ‘All those witch groupies you’ve got hanging around, they actually fell for that?’
He spread his arms wide. ‘What can I say, I’m a sex god.’
‘Ha.’ I poked him in the chest. ‘In your dreams.’
His face turned serious. ‘Just one question, though?’
I narrowed my eyes. ‘What?’
He leaned in close and murmured against my cheek, ‘You ever seized the magic at midnight and danced across the stars?’
My breath caught. Shit. He was too close. Anticipation spiralled deep inside me. I could almost taste the ripe blackberry juice bursting on my tongue.
Finn moved back, far enough to study my face. His moss-green eyes filled with male satisfaction. ‘One night, Gen.’
I bit down hard until the copper tang of blood filled my mouth and I swallowed. ‘Don’t tempt me, Finn.’
‘Always.’ He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.
I forced myself to move away and laughed, needing to end the serious mood. ‘You know what they say about wishes?’
‘Wait.’ He held up a hand, then gave me a wicked grin. ‘Oh yeah, it’s too late once the wish comes true.’
I nodded. ‘Remember that.’
‘I wasn’t making a wish, Gen.’ He crooked a finger at me. ‘That was a promise.’ He twirled the finger like he was reeling me in. ‘Wishes have to be granted.’ I felt a sharp pull deep in my centre as though hooked on the thorny stems of bramble. ‘Promises on the other hand’ – he touched his lips to his palm, eyes never leaving mine – ‘when given’ – he blew me the kiss – ‘are a sure thing.’
Fuck. ‘Don’t bet on it.’
Finn smiled but his eyes were sombre. ‘Too late.’
A popping noise followed by an irritated cough sounded from behind my head.
‘Mebbe when thee and himself have finished blathering, an ole biddy could get a wee word in?’
The brownie sat like a well-dressed doll on top of the coffee machine, her leather ankle boots stuck straight out at right angles from beneath the floral smock she wore. Huge brown eyes glared down at us out of a sandstone-coloured face and little tufts of brown hair sprouted angrily over her scalp.
The sensible part of me was glad of the interruption.
‘I think she wants to talk to you,’ Finn muttered. ‘I’ll be in the kitchen.’ Tipping his head at the brownie he retreated faster than a troll who’s cornered a cat.
The brownie’s round face screwed up into a disapproving scowl, her button nose almost disappearing into dried-peach-like wrinkles. ‘Himself had better keep his hands offa ma wean, else he’ll lose more than the odd sock.’ She jumped down to stand on the counter: a bristling two-foot-high guard-nanny. ‘And thee better take care yerself, thee’s supposed to do the courting, not him.’
I got what she was saying, my mind automatically translating ‘wean’ into ‘child’ thanks to a year living in Scotland when I was nine. If her wean was pretty and female and no longer childlike, then Finn had already found her. And as for courting – dating – Finn really didn’t need any encouragement from me in that department.
My earlier suspicions clicked. I gave her an enquiring look. ‘This is all for my benefit, is it? You could have phoned, you know.’
She fisted her hands on her hips. ‘Don’t hold with those new-fangled mechanicals. Anyhows’ – she smiled smugly – ‘you’re here now.’
No arguing with that. ‘So, what’s the problem?’
Her smock billowed as she leapt to the floor and held out her hand out. ‘Agatha Brown, Lady.’
I placed my palm in hers and an old familiar comfort swept over me, like snuggling under cosy covers on a cold winter’s night. I crouched next to her. ‘Do I know you?’
Her small rosebud mouth parted in a sigh. ‘A brownie’s touch goes to them that needs it and is ne’r forgotten.’ She shook her head. ‘Weren’t maself, though, would have bin one of ma sisters.’
She cupped my cheek in her small hand and as she did so, the memory returned. I was six. The latest nanny stood over me, her face flushed red, anger spewing from her like vomit.
We’d moved to an old country mansion and it had one of those stone food safes in the kitchen, a heavy wooden lid covering an ancient hole in the floor. Inside was cold and black. And when I stopped screaming, and started listening, it was full of odd scratching noises. I wanted someone to come for me, my father, or any of them, but it was daylight and they were all sleeping like the dead. Then a small hand crept into mine, offering comfort. I’ve never been afraid of the dark since.
Agatha’s large brown eyes were full of anger and compassion as she shook her head. She’d shared something of my memory. I stood quickly, breaking the connection.
The nanny had taken to leaving me in the hole nearly every day, but that small warm hand was always there. Of course, one day the nanny left me there past sunset and my father found me. We moved again that night. We were always leaving somewhere.
Later, I realised he must have killed the woman.
But then he always was a practical bastard when it came to keeping his secrets safe.
I smiled at Agatha, accepting the obligation along with the manipulation. ‘Want to tell me why I’m here?’
Her forehead creased into a worried frown. ‘It’s ma wean, she’s awfy poorly—’
The sound of breaking crockery interrupted her and she rushed away through the service doors into the kitchen. I followed her, and we found Finn and the manager staring down at a pile of shattered china plates.
Damn. Looked like Finn had tried cracking a spell.
‘Mr Andros, this is not what I had in mind when I hired your company.’ The manager prodded the pile with the shiny toe of his shoe. ‘I expected a quick professional clear-up of the mess. That is what your company guarantees.’ He made a point of looking at his watch. ‘I have customers in less than an hour.’
Finn threw a malevolent glance towards Agatha, who sniffed and headed for a half-open doorway at the back of the kitchen.
I left Finn to handle the apologies. Whatever the problem was, it wasn’t going to go away until Agatha got what she wanted.
The door led to a small staff area furnished with a table, a couple of battered chairs and a row of lockers. Agatha stood, hands clasped, chewing her lip next to a young woman sprawled over the table. ‘Ma wean, Holly.’
Holly wore the standard waitress uniform, white blouse and black skirt. She’d abandoned her shoes on the floor and with her head buried in her arms, all I could see was a mass of dark curls that tumbled over the table like tangled vines.
‘Go away, Aggie.’ The words were muffled by their passage through all that hair. ‘Nothing’s wrong. Jus’ leave me alone.’
‘Herself’s here, ma bonny.’
‘I don’t want to see anyone,’ Holly wailed.
Aggie tentatively stroked the girl’s shoulder. ‘Please, Holly,’ she entreated.
Holly jerked upright, her face blotchy from crying. ‘Get out,’ she snarled at Agatha, baring small green triangular teeth. ‘You always ruin everything!’
Agatha’s expression turned determined and she grabbed Holly’s wrist, holding it out for me to see. ‘She would’na go to the clinic. Tuesday night it happened, an’ I’ve bin worrid stoopid, what with the news an’ all.’
Holly snatched her hand back, though not before I spotted the half-healed vampire bite, and burst into fresh tears.
Now I knew why Agatha had booby-trapped the restaurant with spells: this wasn’t a magical problem, but one I dealt with every week at the HOPE clinic. Getting Fanged was the current hot fashion for that all important coming-of-age celebration and as a result, we had a constant parade of youngsters dragged in by worried parents once they realised where, and with whom, their offspring had been out partying the night away.
I nodded at Agatha. ‘Why don’t you leave us to talk to each other?’
Agatha’s shoulders sagged with relief and she disappeared with another audible pop.
Holly glared at the vacant space. ‘Don’t you be listening either, Aggie,’ she shouted at the empty air.