I rolled a quarter across my knuckles as I waited. Walked the coin back, flipped it, caught it between my ring and pinky fingers. He was late.
Then, a small house-cat hopped onto my desk. “Are you the client?” The cat meowed.
“Lift your left paw, extend your claws, and meow twice to affirm that you are the client.”
The cat raised its paw, hesitant. He seemed to have difficulty, but he spread his claws and peered up at me, meowing twice.
“My fee is fifty an hour, plus ingredients, minimum charge of one hour per case. Your curse is not uncommon.” I took my hat off, hanging it on the rack and opening a cabinet. “This turning-people-into-animals thing is a favorite of hedge witches out for revenge. Be grateful you aren’t a frog.” I laid out bottle after bottle. I set up a small burner, pouring three ingredients into the flask I placed over the burner. “Bellwether!”
“Yes, boss?” A tiny voice piped up from over my shoulder. The cat crouched, its rump rising – I recognized that look. I grabbed him by the nape of the neck before he pounced.
“First, Bellwether, stop teasing the client. You know a cat’s instincts.” A tiny little woman with glasses, a smart business suit, and shimmering wings flitted over to settle atop the flask and pouted. Her mischief would cause a problem, one day. “Second, you know the drill. A pixie blessing, and your hand needs to add the mustard seed.”
She put her tiny fists on her hips. “Boss! I told you! Eye of newt! It was good enough for Shakespeare! Don’t you want drama? It makes for repeat business!”
I tapped a few mustard seeds into a bottle cap and held it out to her. “Results get repeat business. Go on.”
She harrumphed, then composed herself. From atop the flask, she sang, and she danced. As jaded as this business made you, she was beautiful. Nobody could deny there was magic in the world after seeing her dance; the real kind, not this hedge trickery. Her voice and her body stilled, and the details faded; I only remembered was how the dance made me feel. She dropped the seed in, and the mixture turned blue. I waited until it shaded to green, then took the potion off the heat and poured it into a saucer.
“This will taste bad. Drink it all.” The cat sniffed it, made a face and looked at me with a dissatisfied murowl. “All of it.” Its ears angled back in distaste, and he lapped at the mixture. “Bellwether, prepare an invoice for me. Fifty for the hour, seventeen for the mireflower extract, forty for the powdered chimera whisker, twenty for the river–”
A girlish shriek interrupted me. I looked over to discover that my client was a woman, and to receive a reminder that cats do not wear clothes. I pulled my trench-coat off the chair and swung it around her shoulders. “And thirty for the t-shirt and sweats. Get them at the corner store. They’re friends, they’ll deliver. Are you okay, miss . . . ?”
“Denton. Thank you. It was awful. I couldn’t even speak. If your wizard friend hadn’t sent me here, I–”
“That’s what I’m about. Cursebreakers six generations back. Here’s your invoice.”
She looked up at me with confusion. I think she expected me to take advantage of the situation; she seemed unable to decide whether to be thankful that I didn’t, or offended.”Well . . . thank you for being a gentleman.”
“Well . . . thank you for being a gentleman.”
I offered her a smile, a little real warmth seeping up from the damaged place where my emotions resided. “It pays to be careful. You’re in a different world, now. Once magic touches you, things change. You’ll change. You might become a different kind of ordinary, but you might become terrible, or beautiful, or both. I’ll wait until I figure out what you are before offering you a drink, if you don’t mind.” I held out the invoice. When she touched it, it dissolved into her skin. I knew that she sensed it though; that corner of your soul that swayed with kind words or unspoken obligation, it felt the weight of that debt settle.
“You can pay the bill, or not. Money’s nice, but debt just balances itself for people like me . . . and for people like you, now.”
Her smile was wan and hesitant; my words were not soothing to her. “Um . . . give my regards to your wizard friend. The man with the red hair and the silly hat.”
Grish. Yeah, I’ll tell him. But . . . don’t make fun of his hat. Glad to be of service.” There was a knock at the door. “That’ll be your clothes. Bathroom is over there.”
I returned to my desk and focused on the paperwork as she took the bag into the backroom to change. I checked my watch and recorded the time and date. Use of restricted ingredients. Authorization of a pixie blessing. Record of mystical force exerted upon an unknown factor. As I wrote, I tried to push out of my mind the glimpse I got while before I gave her my coat. Curvy in all the right places. Small, but shapely. Healthy meat on her bones, freckles across her collarbone.
I shook my head. Not yet. There’s no telling what she’d become. Last time I got involved with someone like that, I nearly ended up dancing in a ring of mushrooms until I died. ‘Give it time,’ I told myself, ‘give it time.”