A Time For Crows

Chapter 2: Sucker for a Pretty Face

The day had started out normally enough. No psychotic monsters with unashamed gratuity; no stopping psychotic ritual sacrifices; and no shooting or soul whips in a hospital. Rather, the day had started with me hitting the snooze button eight times until I’d realized I was late. 

Still, I’d exercised, which actually had consisted of squatting down to pull up my pants—hey, shout out for leg day and positive thinking!—gone into my shop, Dwarven Spirits, and prepared for customers. 

Kate had arrived before me, but thankfully she’d remembered to lock the backdoor. Morning was cold, bit foggy still, and full of the salty sea tang. I adjusted my stack of experimental teas and herbs in my left arm and leaned against the outside doorframe. I tried fishing my keys from my pocket, without losing my load. It’s Franksburg, so we have a steel door on the back of my shop with the little painted logo of a Tolkienesque dwarf drinking a frothing stein (front door’s quadruple pane Plexiglas, in case you were wondering). 

Damn door was a bitch. I really needed to adjust it, so it opened easier.

But it kept the unwanted out, so I’d been lazy.

Just as I got my door open, my phone rang. I call it my vigilante phone, because I’m a nerd, but also because it’s encrypted in about every way possible—and if someone calls on it, it means one in about five people are in trouble. Serious.

I slid my phone out and—

And I dropped a bag of loose-leaf wintergreen. Damn. Well, least it didn’t spill everywhere.

“Hey,” I said in my phone. We never used each other’s names, just in case. There was more than just people that listened in on phone calls.

“Where you at?” Jenny said on the other line. She didn’t sound breathless or hurt, good sign, just worried, and if something worried Jenny—well, let’s just say my heart picked up a bit. 

“Shop,” I said. “You okay?”

“Me, I’m fine,” she said. Sounded like she’d turned on her blinker. Must be driving somewhere.


“I need a favor.”


“Can I meet you in forty-five minutes, hour, somewhere around there?”


“Yeah. Can’t be overheard.” She’s not normally this clipped on the phone, which wasn’t a good sign.

“Let me know when you get here. You can park in the back.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course. See you in a bit.”

We hung up, and I sighed, then squatted down and picked up the fallen wintergreen.

The door groaned upon opening—like I said, it needed adjusting—and the sweet yeasty tang of brewing kombucha flirted with my nostrils when I stepped inside. Kate must have hauled in some supplies from here in the back into the brewing section and left the doors open for a bit. 

I remember the first time I’d sipped some kombucha. A friend of mine named Kelly Ellsworth had told me about how it helped her get over a cold, and so I’d tried some, mostly to humor her, because back then I had just about every cold remedy you could think of with the Order and working under Earl. But the moment the cool, sweet and sour brew touched my mouth, and glided down with just the right mix of wintergreen and sassafras, I knew I had to bottle it myself. 

Earl used to make fun of me for it, and when he’d started losing it before the end, he’d even been downright rude that I wanted to open my own shop. “Stay with the Order,” he’d said, “don’t waste your time on stupid side projects,” he’d said. 

Well, if you could see me now, Earl, you’d probably be just as much of a sourpuss, but screw you. If Eddy weren’t asleep, he’d probably have more to say.  Sure I hadn’t “made it” yet, but I made enough to pay my employees and fund my nighttime job, and for now, that was good enough for me.

I’d built Dwarven Spirits, and dammit, it was mine. 

Though thinking of Earl and the Order, made me think of Jenny. I hoped she was okay. Last time she’d needed a favor, she’d gone into hiding for about a week and a half, and I’d gotten my calf ripped open by a stray bullet on the range. Or at least that’s what I told the doctor, because you  know, saying I’d been stalked by an invisible demon with bull horns might, on the off chance, make me sound a bit like a nutter.

I strode passed my shipping and receiving area, boots echoing off the concrete floor, and toward the hall-like, vapor-trap doors with the fans, and then into the brewing and bottling area.

“Hey boss,” Kate said and smiled. She’d just secured the white cloth over the big wooden barrel with a giant rubber band. I have about forty barrels in here, all filled with brew at various stages—and they smell great, like tangy sweet tea that even zings your mouth when you smell it. 

Kate kept her blonde hair curly and wore a white and pink dirndl—no, not the hooker type, I’m not that type of boss—and the color of the dress made her hair look almost strawberry. The outfit went with the feel of Dwarven Spirits, and she fit right in. She was built like a younger version of Jenny, all legs and square shoulders, but pretty. She was about ten years younger than me and was a sophomore over at Franksburg University, which just about everybody called the Big F-U. 

I’d sort of taken Kate in a little over a year-and-a-half ago when I’d found her as the offering to a summoning, that none of the stupid kids had even realized they were doing, save for a few leaders. She’d gotten mixed up with the wrong side of the occult, with the Faternitas Paimous. I knew what it was like to get mixed up with bad friends, bad leaders, bad mentors, and knew that especially after that night, she’d be prey to all sorts from people and magickal groups to the things that stalked the night. She needed protection and training, so I gave her a job, helped her find a new place to live, and did my best to keep her nose clean.

“Morning, Kate.” I set my load down on the stainless steel table to my right. “You’re here early.”

“You’re just late.”

“A boss is never late, Kathryn McKay, and neither is he early, he arrives—”

She shot a rubber band at me. “You find anything last night?”

We didn’t talk much about Beth anymore, kept it more unspoken. But that didn’t mean I’d stopped looking.

I shook my head. “I chased an asshole for about thirty minutes; turns out he was a slinker.”

“Did you catch him?”

“Phased right through a wall. By the time I got around, he was gone.” 

“Maybe if there were two of us—”

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

“I’m not as scared anymore.” 

“I need to get a better handle on things first. But when I know what I’m dealing with, then maybe you can come too.”

 “Remember I’m taking off early, for the thing at the school?”

“Thing at the school? Oh yeah, right. The, art show, or something.”

“Ha. Ha.”


“Art show?”

I grinned. School was putting on The Tempest and Kate had landed the part of Iris. Minor role, but I was proud. “I actually bought tickets.”

Kate was all dimples. “Jenny coming?” 

“Get back to work.” I said it light-hearted, and meant it that way, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a pit grow in my stomach.

Kate chuckled and came over by the sink where we keep shot glasses for testing the kombucha. Most of the barrels in here have spigots, and she bent down and filled up a shot glass next to the barrel she’d been checking when I walked in. “Well, if you bought tickets, who else would be coming?”

“Well, me. I don’t know, maybe Kevin.”

She rolled her eyes and tried a sip. “Kevin?”

“What’s wrong with Kevin?”

“You’re going to take a guy to a play?”

“It’s the twenty-first century—”

She chuckled. “I’ll remember that, boss.” She sipped the rest of the shot glass. “Mmm, I think this one needs another day.”

“Too sweet?”

“Little flat.”

“Yeah, we’ll give it one more day.” I hate it when the brew goes a little weird, makes a lot more work when it comes to flavoring, not to mention keeping the quality. “Will you double check the temperature?” Long as the temperature’s right, it usually corrects itself.

“Sure,” Kate said.

We worked while we talked, taking samples, filling jugs, that sort of thing. 

“Are you going back out tonight?” Kate said.

“I’m not going to miss the play—”

“I mean after.”

I sighed and shook my head, setting down the cleaning rag. Truth was, even though I had left the Order, I hadn’t divorced myself from the supernatural world. While ninety-nine percent of the world refused to see magic and the monsters it bred, my eyes had been opened and had refused to shut.  

“I don’t know,” I said, absently rubbing the leather wristband Ann had given me. “Everything I’ve found says the next hit’s going to be in the Old District part of town, but I’ve been up and down those streets hundreds of times.”

“You can’t keep doing it alone—”

“Kate, listen—”

“I’m serious. What happens if you slow down? You’re staying up later and later, and it’s going to catch up. Let me go with. It’s what the training’s for, isn’t it?”

I nodded toward the oaken barrel next to Kate. “Make it open with a binding.”

“Yeah and have it spin off and break a barrel.”

“Just try it.”

“Kevin will kill me.”

“They’re my barrels anyway.”

“And besides,” Kate said, “I’m not talking about guns blazing, bindings flaring; I’m just talking about someone to keep an eye on you. You know, like the getaway driver or something.”

I nodded. “Just do it. You open that, fill a shot glass, you can come tonight.”

I shouldn’t have taken her when we went looking for Beth; that was my mistake. She’d panicked and rightfully so. We’d been lucky that no one was there. But also, she’d trained a lot. I’d taught her jiu-jitsu, striking, shooting, knifing, sneaking, and truth was, she wasn’t the same as when we’d looked for Ann—Beth. 

“Alright.” She placed her shot glass underneath the spigot and concentrated. 

And the air thickened with the pressure of channeled magic. Air bindings are the easiest to channel. We’re already so intimately connected with the air, that it doesn’t take much for your soul to reach out and spin it to your bidding like it were another appendage. Some bindings take months, or even years, to learn, but air was fast, evocative, and the easiest to train someone on. The back of my neck tingled, and for just a moment it was like the sweet caress of Ann’s hand tickling my skin, inviting me to come back to bed. I hadn’t practiced magic in years, taught it to Kate so she would be safe, sure, but I didn’t practice it—and yet, every time I saw it, felt it, it called, called its sweet songs come back, come back, come back to me. I swallowed. The spigot handle blurred for just a second, and the pressure, the call, vanished.

Kate exhaled and breathed hard.

“Well, it was a good try—” I began.

A single drop fell from the spigot and into the shot glass. “Did you see that! Oh my god, I did it! I did it!”

I blinked. 

She spun toward me, lifting a finger. “You never said how fast I had to fill the glass.”

“Did you mean to just make it drip?”

“Well, I really didn’t want it spraying. I thought I’d try to just squeeze it, you know.”

I nodded and smiled. “That was good. Damn. That was really good. I’ll pick you up after the show.”

She blushed a little. “Really?”

“If you can do that, then you’ve got some talent, kid. And you’re right, two sets of eyes can be better than one. But, you have to promise you’ll do exactly as I say.”

“I promise.”

“Even if it’s just sitting in the car.”

She nodded. “Promise.”

“Okay.” I sampled another barrel, and it came out just right, smooth with just the right amount of bite, perfect base notes for the Original flavoring. “Mmmm, this one’s ready.”

“Original, right?”


We continued the morning’s prep while we talked.

“Are you really not going to take Jenny?” Kate said.

“I don’t know, she’s pretty busy. Order stuff, you know?”

“Did you ask her?”

“Well, I, I mean she said she had a lot going on with the Order, and so I just figured, you know, I’d take Kevin with or keep another seat for popcorn.”

“If you ate popcorn.” She hauled a box full of newly-bottled booch up front from the Frithwebba line.

“I eat popcorn.”

“Yep,” she said.


“Uh-huh. Mr. theres’s too many lectins in it. Just ask her out.”

“Lectins are a real thing.”

“I know,” she said, grinning.

“And we do stuff together all the time,” I replied.

“Yeah, but stuff doesn’t count.” She came back in with the empty box. “We need some more ice by the way.”

“Sure. Why this sudden interest in Jenny anyway? She didn’t come by here earlier, did she?”

“No, but do you not notice how she looks at you?”

Like I’m an idiot? “Yeah, like she’s looking for a weak spot, so she can put me in a rear-naked choke hold.”

Mischief gleamed in her eyes. “You got the naked and hold part right.”

“Oh shut up.”

“Just ask her out,” Kate said. “Come on.”

“We’re friends. That’s all.” I know Eddy would have a lot more to say about that; thank God he was asleep right now. “I’m going to open up the front. You finish up back here and come up when you’re done.”

“I see how you look at her too,” Kate said. 

I paused. “Oh?”

She wiped down one of the tap hose nozzles with a white cloth. “It’s okay to be more than just friends with her too. Just saying.”

I nodded and tried to smile but didn’t say anything else. If I told her Jenny would be dropping by—she’d get the wrong impression. Kate didn’t know my history, what had happened with Ann. And I couldn’t blame her; I mean Jenny was gorgeous, in the girl-next-door sort of way, and we’d been friends since before I could remember. But with her trying to rise through the Order’s ranks, and my night job, it just wasn’t going to happen. Better to enjoy a few booches together than try anything serious.

I walked through the office that’s in-between the storefront and little brewery. Kevin hadn’t gotten in yet, which was fine, though I’d need to text him and tell him to park somewhere else—that was going to be a fun conversation; Kevin didn’t really like Jenny—and then I walked out to the bar.

When you step into Dwarven Spirits, it’s like stepping into another time and another place. You can’t but feel a bit giddy, like your inner fantasy nerd has come out to sing. Rock lined the walls, with thick, drooping mortar. Rather than Tolkien’s pristine descriptions, I’d taken the inspiration from some of the older castles I’d seen in Germany in the Baden Würtenburg area along the Neckar river. Dwarven lanterns, complete with glowing quartz and crossed battle axes hung from the rock walls.

Tree roots twisted and climbed along the ceiling, from what appeared to be the underside of two trees, canopying over the rock-lined ceiling and walls. The roots clutched and nestled rocks And if you imagined just right, you could hear the trees humming and swaying in the wind far above the surface. I’d stained and lacquered the roots so they looked alive. 

I’d tried to get Franksburg One to come out and run a story on the place about six months ago. But they were more interested in running stories on all the shit Franksburg had to offer like disappearing redheads and other forms of corruption. I even bet that if I could get some more media attention, I’d be able to sell out all of my stock.

I’d never admit it to anyone, but truth was, each time I came in here, it just reminded me of missed dreams. Maybe I was just fooling myself like Earl had told me. But, Dwarven Spirits was my anchor, my home from home, and my escape. And dammit, I’d built it. Couldn’t help but wonder though if I’d lose it.

I rubbed my leather wristband and wondered if Ann would be proud of the place or see it just as a fantasy I liked to delude myself with.

The front door chimed, and Kevin, my friend and operations manager came in. He wore dark slacks and a purple buttoned-up shirt that fit his muscular frame and brought out the chocolate in his skin. He grinned and relocked the door. We opened soon, but not yet.

Back in the day, Kevin and I ran around in the same circles, but he’d quit the supernatural gig better than any god-fearing, reformed addict could hope for. He’d also been there after I lost Ann and then Earl and even visited me in the hospital after I’d taken a 9mm in the thigh. And—he’d been there when I told him about my vision for Dwarven Spirits.

“You’ll never guess who I just got off the phone with,” Kevin said, somehow grinning even wider.

“Oh yeah?”

“Brother, our dreams for this place are about to come true.”

“Sounds like that calls for a drink,” I said. “What you want?”

“Original. Always original.” He kept grinning, and leaned his beefy forearms against the counter.

I smiled. “Original it is.” I took out a cold one from the glass fridge. The bottle’s amber with a brown paper label, featuring our wisened dwarf you see on the store’s tavern sign, with said dwarf enjoying a stein. 

“Thanks, man,” Kevin said and took a pull. 


“Let’s just say those extra barrels we’ve got—sold.” He lifted his hand in the classic “imagine with me” gesture. “The chains? We can get in, man. We’re talking Market Basket, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Whole Foods. Shit.” He took another pull, clearly enjoying himself. 

I leaned forward. “Did Franksburg One get back to us?”



“Oh yeah. Apparently, some rich heiress has been taken with the Dwarven Spirit, namely this guy right here, the patron saint of booch brews.” He tapped the the dwarf on the label. “Oh yeah, she’s been touched by the kombucha god himself.” 

“Sounds a little dirty.”

“Somebody got it to her from that show we did last week. Original’s her favorite,” Kevin continued, “and she wants it marketed.”

My heart sped up. Oh crap. I think I knew where this was going.

“And get this,” Kevin continued, “she personally called me. Me. I’m just shocked, bro.”

“Okay,” I said. “Who is it? What’s she offering?”

He made eye contact and drew out the name with dramatic emphasis. “Mara. Osgood.”

“Oh hell no.”

“What?” sounded like I’d slapped him.

“Tell her no. I don’t want anything to do with her.”

Kevin shook his head. “Tell her—bro, I don’t understand. Are we talking about the same woman? Mara Osgood, heiress of Osgood Corp, angel investor, just featured in Insider and ass tight enough you could bounce a quarter off of?”

Felt like my shirt was too tight. I hadn’t seen Mara in years. Not since I’d left the Order. Last I checked, she was becoming more active. And the fact that she reached out the same day Jenny needed help, well, I guess it put me on edge. “What does she want?”

“I thought you’d be excited, man.” He exhaled and shook his head. “This could save us.”

“We don’t need saving from her—”

“The hell we don’t. Look, we could actually grow, open up a separate brewery without the storefront, get into the chains. I mean. We need this.”

“That her plan then?” I gestured to the tables and walls. “Phase this out with a big brewery? You know what that would mean?” I picked up a bottle of Original and tapped it for emphasis. “Sub-par ingredients. Tighter ATF and FDA regulation that make about as much sense as wiping your ass with sandpaper. A freaking board that gets to decide brew times, branding, and god knows what else.”

“Not all boards are like that.”

“And not all boards belong to the Order, either.”

Kevin appraised me, half glaring, half considering. He took another drink. “It’s not even about Mara is it?”


He shook his head. “It’s still about Earl, isn’t it. Always is.”

“Answer’s no.” In part it was Earl and those connected to him. Mara had been one of his apprentices too. But more than that, Mara and Ann were close. I just—I shoved the memories down.

“Hey, Kevin,” Kate said, all miss little ray of sunshine like. She carried a basket full of ceramic mugs and began restocking the mugs under the counter. 

“Hey, Kate,” Kevin said and took another drink.

“You guys, okay?” Kate said without looking at either of us.

“Fine,” I said.

“Oh you know, talking sense into Joe is like trying to talk morality into a politician. It just ain’t gonna happen.”

Kate snorted. “Yep.”

I shook my head. “Not with her, man.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said.

“Don’t be,” Kate said and stood up. She pointed a finger at me. “Look, I know you’re my boss, but you’re also my friend, so I’ll keep it short: you’ve got a good thing staring you in the face and you won’t do it.”

Kevin cocked his head at me. “Did she call you?”

Looks like I needed to keep a tighter reign on my employees.

“I don’t know what you guys are arguing about,” Kate continued, “but Joe, after everything, I’d be thrilled to find someone who looks at me like Jenny looks at you.” She shrugged and smiled then took her basket and waltzed on into the back.

After the doors swung shut, Kevin said, “Jenny?”

“Kate has some fascination with me and Jenny apparently.”

“Jenny coming here?”

Kevin knew me too well. “Yeah she called. Something’s wrong. Asked if I could help.”

“That’s what I’m talking about, man.”

“She called on the encrypted phone.”

“I’m sure it’s serious,” Kevin said. “But you know what? This,” and he tapped the counter, “this, is pretty damn important too.”


“I go over the numbers just about every damn day. We’re screwed, Joe.”

“We’ll figure something out.”

He pointed to the doors Kate just went out of. “We’ve got fourteen barrels that we can’t sell.”

“I’ll figure something out.”

“I know, you always do. But, Joe, I believe in this place. I want it to succeed. But the truth is, if we don’t get someone like Mara, well. I mean, I’ve got two side gigs. I’ll be alright. But you? I don’t even know how you’re still paying us, but with whatever it is, it’s going to run out.”

“Not Mara, Kevin.”

He closed his eyes and exhaled. “Alright. I didn’t think of the Order angle. I was just excited. I’ll be in the back. I’ll make some calls. See if I can sell these barrels.” 

I exhaled; felt like a piece of shit.

I busied myself with the last minute details before opening, wiping down the bar, straightening chairs, when a knock came from the doors. I hadn’t unlocked them yet, since opening wasn’t officially until another seven minutes. A customer leaned in toward the window and mimed something. He wore an English cheese cutter hat, blue jacket and gray slacks. His getup made him look like he was in his early forties from a distance, but up close he wasn’t a day over thirty. While he wasn’t as big as me, he was pretty thick. He’d also been in first thing in the morning each morning for the last three weeks. Name was Lane. Was a graduate student up at the Big F-U. 

I looked over my shoulder to where Kevin had gone.

What the heck. 

I opened the door, and a stiff breeze, chill and wet and crisp with sea salty air, blew inside.

Lane smiled. “Thanks,” he said. 

“Figure I could open a few minutes early for you. How you doing?”

“Hey, I appreciate it, man.” For as big of a guy as he was, his voice was a bit high.

We made our way to the bar. 

“I’ve got a big exam today,” Lane said, plopping down on one of the stools.

“Biology, that right?”

He nodded. “Studying the microbiome, actually. It’s what got me interested in kombucha.”

“Good stuff. Want a stein?”

“Original, please.”

“You got it.” I ran his card and then filled him a charcoal brown stein full of my frothy Original Dwarven Spirit. Maybe I should consider Mara. I didn’t mean to blow up at Kevin or shoot him down; it’s just, Mara and I have a history because of Earl, and I wanted to be as far away from that history as possible. Supposedly, she hadn’t been active in the Order for years, but gods above and below, I didn’t want anything to do with it.

A few more customers filed in, and I helped them, while still chatting with Lane. Part of me wanted to say, “See Kevin, we’ve got loads of customers.” But that was just the petty part. And who knows what tomorrow would bring.

“I never asked,” Lane said, and took a pull. “Damn, that’s good. Mmm. You ever been to graduate school?” He wiped the back of his neck and looked at his hand and frowned.

“Nah,” I said. “BA in English was enough for me.”

“And you run a kombucha shop?”

I shrugged. “Wanted to since before it was cool.”

“That’s great, man. Graduate school changes a guy, tell you what.” He rubbed the back of his neck again and looked at his fingers. He humphed and grabbed a napkin to his left. “You know that the microbiome influences your mental health more than just about anything else?” Lane said.


He took another pull. “Yeah, in fact, some of my professors think that the microbiome holds the keys to the next evolutionary stage of man.”

“Such as?”

“Higher mental capacity, the ability to see more spectrums, increased strength, that sort of thing.”

“You believe them?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just a graduate student.” And he smiled. “But—” and he lifted his stein, “figure I might as well make mine as strong as possible. To the microbiome, and to Joe Joyce, the maker of the best damn kombucha on the planet.” And he downed the rest of his stein.

I smiled, but didn’t feel it, mostly because Kevin was right. But also because I don’t tell people my last name because of what happened with Earl twelve years ago. And call me paranoid but sometimes there actually is a boogeyman in your closet ready to rip your eyes out and take your soul. But then again, it’s not like it would be super difficult to find out. 

The office door behind me clicked, and I turned to see Kate, all smiles, come out with a tray full of the Frithwebba bottles. “Hey, boss.” She said and swirled just enough that her Dirndl fanned. I kept my eye on Lane, and he kept his eyes on Kate. She set the tray down and began filling the cooler with bottles. Wish I hadn’t have run Eddy so ragged the last few nights. I’d have had him take a look at Lane, just in case. I about smacked myself at the thought. Kate was attractive, couldn’t blame Lane for noticing—he wasn’t leering, just noticing. Still—

Kate and I helped a few more customers, and she began falling in to easy conversation with a lady in her early fifties. Lane asked Kate to give him a sample of the Frithwebba line, then ordered a couple of bottles of Frithwebba. She handed it to him, still talking with the lady.

I grabbed bottles for a few more customers. I recognized most, if not by name by face.

Lane studied the bottle’s label, brown paper with a pencil illustration of a hot elf maiden, drinking a bottle of booch, then he looked up to Kate. “Hey, are you in the drama department over at the university?”

I frowned. But Kate didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, you see the posters for the play?”

He smiled. “Yeah, The Tempest is one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s. I minored in drama.”

“Really?” she said, and filled another customer’s mug. “Here you are.”

“Sure did,” Lane said. “The air sprite, you know, Ariel, favorite character.”

“I would have thought you were more of a Sycorax kind of guy,” Kate said.

I chuckled, catching Kate’s slight dis. It was her polite way of calling him creepy.

He didn’t get it. “No Kate, Ariel. Ariel’s perfect.” He looked down at his mug and smiled, then took the last swig. “Anyway, I best be going. Got that exam today. See you, Kate.” He looked over at me and nodded. “Joe.”

“Take care of yourself,” I said

Kate and I made eye contact. Maybe I’m paranoid, because he’d been in here every day and could have learned her name any one of times he was in here, but he’d never said it. Years ago, I would have never have wished this—but right now I wished Eddy were awake. I mean I could wake him, all it would take was turning the three, stacked circle tattoos on my left forearm. Maybe I should, but then if I needed him tonight—nah, it was probably nothing. I’d be Sir Dumbass for a few minutes after waking him up too early anyway. I was probably just worried because of Kevin and because Jenny would be here soon.

Looking back, I wished I would have listened to my instincts. 

I helped a few more customers and had all but forgotten about Lane when my phone rang. 

“You here?” I asked and caught Kate’s eye, who just smiled and nodded, while I walked toward the back. Great, Kate must have been talking with Kevin.

“Just pulled up,” Jenny said on the other line. 




When I opened the door for Jenny, I didn’t expect her to look as relieved to see me as she did. Her face had paled and red rimmed her eyes, not tired, but fierce, making her baby blues glisten. But when she smiled and hugged me, and took in a deep breath, well my heart, among other things, picked up. Maybe not just angry, but angry, worried, afraid all stirred together. She’s not a hugger, at least not where other people could see her hugging me—and I guess I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t enjoy her hugs, few as they were.

Jenny’s tall, all long legs and square shoulders that would have made any Viking shield maiden proud. She usually wears a ponytail, but today her strawberry blonde hair hung to her mid back, loose and free. Her regular job’s coaching track and cheer over at Franksburg University, and she typically dresses like she’s coaching, but today she looked like she could have been a lawyer with her gray pantsuit and white blouse. She smelled nice though.

“You okay?” I said.

“It’s bad.” She sniffled and looked over her shoulder. 

“You followed?”

“I don’t think so. But I was worried that maybe I had eavesdroppers.”


“Tell me about it,” she said. 

There were some beings that we’d encountered over the years that could pick up on cellular waves, some sort of telepathy. I think it was some sort of Fae magic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more who could.

“Come on in,” I said.


I had to push the door extra hard to get it to swing closed and when it did, it slammed and echoed in the receiving area. “Well, now that the mood’s set with that ominous boom—”

Jenny turned to me. “Bill Raines is dead.”

I stopped. “What?”

“He was found this morning, neck hacked open.”

“Oh God,” I said. Bill Raines was the one who’d helped me with my binding tattoos that allowed Eddy and I to work together instead of battling for headspace. He’d been in the same league as Earl, one of the Order’s big shots here in the States. Some people liked to think of him as a US Marshal, but in the Supernatural world. He worked over at the Franksburg Metropolitan Museum as one of their curators. It’d make the news tonight. I couldn’t really call him a friend, but he was a good man. And he’d also looked after Jenny, helped guide her, helped her believe in the Order, even after Earl and I had our falling out.  

But beyond that, if Bill were murdered—that had serious implications.

“No one saw anything,” Jenny said. “Cameras didn’t. No witnesses, no forced locks, nothing like that.”

“Which isn’t altogether surprising.”

“No, but this is Bill Raines we’re talking about here. He had wards and other precautions set up there, not to mention his own talents. Someone or something should have seen. But no one did. And you know what else?” She took a step closer to me. “There’s no blood.”

I folded my arms. “No blood? As in—“

“As in not a single drop anywhere. His neck’s laid open. And there’s no trace for me to find. Nothing.”

“Did you find him?”

“No,” she said, “I was called in.”




“The Order’s keeping this wrapped up as tightly as they can. But whereas it was at the Museum, it won’t be long.”

From back when I was a part of the Order, I figured they’d do all they could to win a couple extra days to alert all of their members about the murder. They’d be worried about another group or groups banding up and kicking them off their roost. So basically, it came down to wanting to still appear strong and not like one of of their top members was too weak to defend himself. And if they could catch whodunnit before word got out, that’d let them keep their image up.


“I know how you feel about the Order, but not all of us are going down the same path Earl went down.”

“What are you asking?” 

She lifted her hands. “I should be able to see residue if there was magic used. But I can’t. I don’t know what could have done that to Bill. It was like,” she shook her head, “it was like the blood had been sucked out of him.”

Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure what would do that either. Maybe the slinkers? That’d be some serious allegations though that would end in blood in the streets. But I let Jenny continue.

“All I’m asking is if you can come and look.”

“Jenny, the Order—“

“I know. I’m not asking you to get involved anymore than just looking. If you can’t see anything, then that’s it.”

“And if I do?”

“Then that’s it. It’ll give me somewhere to look.” She met my eyes. “Please?”

The Order’s official name was The Order and Council of Knights after the Order of the White Dawn; and the biggest, real magical order in Franksburg wouldn’t let it be “it” if I found anything, or even if I didn’t. They’d been wanting to get me back in and control me for years. Part of it was because they were great at manipulation and saw any person as a potential tie back to them and a piece to be played. I’d also been operating on my own since Earl and I split, and some of them figured I was stepping on their sovereignty, and ruining chances with local law enforcement to be the sole order for controlling the supernatural (despite the fact that most local law enforcement didn’t believe two shits in the supernatural). And the last, maybe even biggest reason they wanted me back, was because for God knows why, Earl Wayne had left me his library. And the Order figured it was theirs. I was just in the way. I used to think it was because their poster boy Earl Wayne had invested so much time into me and my training, but that’s back when I was more of a dick.

But, even with all that—Jenny was my friend. I couldn’t blame her for wanting to stay in the Order, hell, I’d introduced her to it years ago, and they’d been good to her. And she was right, not all of them were going down the same path Earl had gone down, or that I had gone down while I was in it. And Bill Raines was a good man.

Jenny would never say it, not least because she actually has a heart, but, if she could bring the Order something on who killed Bill Raines, one of their favored sons, she’d be remembered and rewarded. Like I said, that’s not why Jenny was looking into this; I guess, I was just trying to give myself reasons for helping her out.

Truth was, I wanted to stay clear of the Order and their problems and their schemes. If I said yes, it wasn’t going to be just a quick look.

But there was also the very real possibility that Jenny might be a target. And that thought made me shiver.

“Joe, if this is too much to ask,” Jenny began.

Guess I’d stayed quiet for too long. I smiled, even if it was forced. “What kind of friend would I be if I only helped when I wanted to?”

She blinked several times. “You’ll do it?”

“Let me just tell Kate to watch over the store, then we can go.”

Sometimes, I think I’m just a sucker for a pretty face.