I worked with a bunch of freaks. Like, major freaks. The kind that go bump in the night and howl at the moon. The kind that can curse you with more than just bad words. The freaks that ride brooms, drink blood, and sprout fur.
And for the most part, I love it. For a girl who had a rather unhealthy obsession with faerie tales growing up, this was a dream come true. The day almost eleven years ago that the paranormal world decided to reveal itself to the world was, quite possibly, the greatest day of my life. All my young girl fantasies of magic and true love were actual possibilities. I was giddy with validation. It was enough to make my thirteen year old self dig out the old princess costumes, complete with tiara and scepter, and prance around the house for days, spinning in giggly circles at random moments and insisting that my family refer to me as Princess Andrietta Cordelia Erickson. I slept with my plastic-glass-slippers on and sat sighing by the window in my bedroom, waiting for my prince or a white knight to come rescue me from my dull life, whisking me away on adventures.
To be honest, my twenty-four year old self isn’t much different. I still dream. I still sigh. I even still occasionally twirl. I have, however, modified my wardrobe to more age appropriate attire, putting the princess gowns and tiara back in storage. I go by Andi rather than Andrietta, and my middle name was never actually Cordelia. And rather than sitting at my bedroom window, gazing out at the horizon for my prince, I sit at a desk as the receptionist/office manager of the Para-wise Investigations wing of a private investigation firm. And it. Is. Awesome.
And then there are days like these.
“Who bewitched the freaking copier? It keeps blowing raspberries at me.”
The fluffy kitten sitting beside me at the small table snickered behind a little paw. Lil, a blond witch so beautiful it made my eyes hurt and my molars grind (no, not a jealous reaction at all…), sipped her coffee, not even bothering to look up from her newspaper. Because this was hardly unusual here.
“If you offended it, you have to apologize,” she replied with her typical cool calm.
Lucy Lyle, with her usual irritation, scowled. “Offend it?” she repeated, brows drawn together tightly. “It’s a machine. How in the world would I have offended it?”
Lil gave her a level eyed look. “You being you, I have no doubt that you found a way.”
Lucy gave a little growl of her inner wolf, her fingers crumpling the paper she held. Her irritation was so high, her red hair practically stood on end. “It spit toner on my favorite boots. I am not apologizing to that hunk of junk.”
Lil shrugged, unconcerned, and returned to her paper. “Then I suppose you’ll have to find somewhere else to copy your stuff.”
“Damn it, Lil, just take the spell off. I have a meeting in fifteen minutes. I don’t have time for this.”
Lil let the paper fall onto the table. “It’s not my spell, and breaking it is a bit out of my skill set.” She tossed a telling glance at the cat. “Find this one’s mistress and take it up with her.”
Lucy’s lip curled at the feline. “Ollie, where is Ana?”
Ollie hissed, a surprisingly menacing sound from something so small. A rumble rolled in Lucy’s chest as her eyes lit with the eerie glow of her wolf. Great, if they got into a literal pissing match in the office again, Eddie would have a fit about the carpet cleaning cost.
I slapped my palm on the table, grabbing their attention. “If I see even the hint of a furry leg lifting in this building, Lucy, I will lace your coffee with silver. And Ollie, there will be no more marshmallow cream kept here for you.” I glared at each of the animals to make sure they understood. As they settled back again, reluctant yet contrite, I turned to Lil. “Can’t you just break the spell so we can all go about our day in relative peace?”
The wiccan beauty shook her head. “Sorry, not my area. My strength is in glamour and memory charms. Ana’s hexes are too strong for me to break.”
I looked to Ollie, who had decided now was the perfect time to groom himself. “Come on, Ol,” I said coaxingly. “Help me out. Where’s Ana hiding?”
If I hadn’t seen it many times before, I wouldn’t have believed his kitty shoulders shrugged and his eyes rounded with repentance. But I had, and I did.
“He said she had an errand to run,” Lil translated drolly. “My guess is the convenience of that is not a coincidence.”
I sighed and quirked a brow at Lucy. “I’d tell you to go apologize to the thing, but you’d probably just make it worse.” I held my hand out for the papers.
She looked like she was about to argue, but pressed her lips together and relinquished the crinkled pages. Because we both knew I was right.
“There’s some irony here, in the fact that I’m the only human in a group of you powerful paras, and apparently I’m the only one who can fix this. Now, go clean off your boots with that stuff I bought the last time Ana cursed Eddie’s printer,” I instructed on my way out of the room. “It’s supposed to remove hex related stains.”
I found the copier still pouting from its encounter with Lucy’s prickly personality. I soothed and petted and convinced it to run off a few copies, and even collate and staple, before I hurried back to Lucy, promising to come back later to look at a belt it said was feeling a little off lately. I welcomed the client for Lucy’s meeting and got them some coffee, then took calls about a stolen wand, a hex on a woman’s garden that animated all the plants who were now all declaring war on the neighbors, a possible cheating werewolf, and an interesting one for an insurance company concerned that a policy holder had consented to become a vampire in order to collect his life insurance, which constituted fraud. I worked on the billing and ordering, payroll, and then soothed the copier again after Ollie expelled an impossibly large furball top of it.
Ana breezed into the office just before lunch, doing her best impression of completely innocent. Since she likely had no idea what innocent looks like, it was a pretty lame impression.
“If you don’t get that spell off the copier, I’m sending it to Lucas for his home office,” I warned before she could slip past me. Her husband, a vampire who worked mainly from his home, really hated bewitched inanimate objects. Something he didn’t realize until he’d married Ana.
She shrugged. “His printer could probably use the company. It’s always complaining about how lonely it is during the day.”
“It wouldn’t be lonely or complaining if you would stop bewitching the office equipment.”
“Then I’d have no one on my side when we disagree.”
Hard to argue with that.
“Could you at least make it less sensitive?” I pleaded. “Every time Lucy even looks at it, it goes into a tizzy.”
The witch snickered. “Well, that was kind of the point.” I glared at her and she rolled her eyes. “Calm down, Affirmative Action. The spell wears off on its own in the next couple of hours.”
I shook my head. “If Eddie makes us all take sensitivity training again because you keep calling me Affirmative Action, I’ll make sure you’re on any suspicious slime cases that come in for the next year.”
She cringed. Magic or no, I had the real power.
“Right. So I need to talk to Ethan about an issue with a were-poodle. Do you know where he is?”
I felt my mouth go slack. “A were-poodle?”
She waved a dismissive hand at me. “Long story and, if anyone asks, so not my fault.”
I blinked, still not sure how after almost four years I could still be shocked by anything. But the mental image of a man morphing into a little yappy dog with pink painted toenails did it.
“Have you seen him?” she asked again.
I shook off my daze. “Huh?”
“Ethan. You know, tall, dark, and brooding. Freaky eyes. Body chiseled from hot, sexy marble. Spontaneously sprouts fur and fangs and howls at the moon. Have you seen him?”
I sucked in a breath as a new image filled my mind. A more familiar picture, though just as disconcerting. I pushed it away as quickly as my hormones would allow and affected an uncaring attitude.
She blinked, like she was waiting. I blinked, like I was done.
“Can you call him?” she suggested, her brows twitching with a WTH frown. It’s cute, sometimes, that my coworkers thought they could intimidate me. Like they’re so scary just because they’re magical and I’m only human.
“And say what?” I countered. “That you need to talk to him? Why don’t you call him and actually talk?”
She pursed her lips in a pout and whined, “But he won’t help me unless you tell him to. You’re the Dog Whisperer.”
My mouth twisted. “I think I prefer Affirmative Action,” I murmured as I turned. And walked straight into Eddie, our boss. Face covered in black toner and eyes narrow and blazing.
“The copier,” he growled and I heard what sounded suspiciously like a giggle from the direction of the wiccan behind me.
“I’m taking care of it,” I assured him with a wide smile. I heard his teeth grinding behind the thin line of his lips. “Why don’t you give me whatever you needed copied, and I’ll have it on your desk in a few minutes.”
He continued to stare a hole through Ana, veins bulging in his filthy neck and a dark red hew showing beneath the black toner on his face. If he had a heart attack, I was making Ana do any mouth to mouth required, I decided as I gently pried the documents fisted in his hand away. Then I prodded his shoulder until he was turned around and gave him a little shove toward his office. When he was out of sight, I swung back around to Ana, my finger in her face.
“Snap your fingers or wiggle your nose or whatever you need to do and get that mess cleaned up,” I demanded with a stomp of my foot.
She rolled her eyes and waved a careless hand. “There. Happy now?” Then she shook her head and started toward her own tiny office.
I hot-footed it back to the wayward copier and heaved a sigh of relief. No more tears or wailing or snotty sniffles, no toner-based raspberries, and no paper jams. I stuck the documents I’d taken from Eddie into the carriage and hit the start button. Carefully...because it could be a trick. The freshly printed sheets slid into the tray without incident, however, and I walked them back to Eddie’s office, deciding to do a drop and run while he was still rubbing his face with the cleaning cloth to get rid of the toner rather than hang around and chat. He tended to hiss when he was upset, which kind of freaked me out a bit since, like me, he was human. Humans weren’t supposed to make those kinds of sounds, but Ana always managed to bring it out of him.
I took a quick detour to the break room to make sure it still didn’t smell like pee, and returned to my desk just in time for the doors to the elevator to swish open and expel a sobbing woman into our small lobby. She was beautiful despite the red splotchy eyes and tear tracks down her face. Her dark hair was silky smooth and stacked in some kind of complicated up-do that should have been collapsing with the shudders that shook her shoulders, but it was advertisement perfect. I could easily peg her as para. Probably a witch, since that kind of hair control would require a spell of some sort, surely. And it was too early in the day for a vampire. The differences were subtle to human eyes between the elves, witches, and shifters, but I liked to think I’d been around enough to spot it.
“May I help you?” I asked with a professionally polite smile, though I tried to project sympathy in my eyes as I held out a box of tissues from my desk.
The woman took a handful of the Kleenex and wiped at her face. “Somebody stole my wand,” she wailed, more water streaming from her eyes.
I made a soothing noise as I grabbed my notepad and paper to take notes. “That’s awful,” I commiserated. “When did that happen?”
She sucked in another stuttered breath, wiped her nose, and hiccuped. “Yesterday,” she reported on another sob. “I was mugged leaving work. They didn’t want my money or my jewelry. They just took my wand.”
I nodded as the rest of what she said became incomprehensible and offered more tissues. “That must have been so scary. Did you file a police report?”
She gave a few jerky nods. “Yes, and they said they would do their best, but they didn’t seem very hopeful, and I need my wand back. My power isn’t strong enough to do anything without it! I had to have my sister help me with my glamour this morning! She lives twenty minutes away. I can’t go to her every time I need a glamour!”
My sympathy hit a bit of a hitch, but I smoothed it over quickly and I led her to one of the plush chairs by the wall. “Of course not,” I reassured her. “And you shouldn’t have to.” I handed her a clipboard with the relevant paperwork for hiring our firm on it and a pen. “Fill these out and I’ll check the roster to see who is the best fit to take your case.”
Poor woman, I thought as I opened the schedule on my computer. Witches came with all different kinds of power levels. Wands were, to my understanding, like antennas to help focus and concentrate their power. The upper level witches didn’t need them once they learned to fully control their magic, but lower level witches, like this one, would need one their entire lives. Their wands became part of them, in a sense, like an extra limb. The distress she was feeling was probably not really about the magic at all, but rather the ache of losing a friend or family member.
“I just can’t live without my magic,” she blubbered from her seat. “I’ve been in hell all day.”
Okay, so maybe it’s a little about the magic, I amended silently.
“Honestly, I don’t know how you humans do it,” she went on, sniffling through another hiccup. “How do you bear being so weak and ordinary.”
Alright, so for some, it was all about the magic. I bit my tongue to keep caustic words at bay since I was pretty sure she wasn’t really expecting me to answer. I made another sympathetic noise, though, and hoped that was enough contribution to count as professional.
“Even without my wand, my magic is still inside me so I’m at least still above average pretty,” the witch went on wetly. I tuned her out for the rest. Really, it was better that way for us both.
When she finished and returned the clipboard to me, I set her up in a conference room with Ana. Ollie jumped onto my desk as I sat back down, staring owlishly at me with his too big green eyes. Judging me.
“I assigned Ana because she’s the best woman for the job,” I said defensively. “Not because I’m hoping she’ll throw a little shade the client’s way. Or hex her. Or feed her to her in-laws for breakfast.”
His little huff was obviously sarcastic. I didn’t need to be magic to know that.
Or maybe it was doubt. That was possible, too. And fair.
The elevator doors opened again and off stepped another beautiful couple. They looked around for a moment before their eyes fell on me where I waited with my professional smile in place.
“May I help you?”
The woman, a statuesque blonde with golden eyes, narrowed her gaze on me. She shot a look at the large plaque on the wall behind me, then back at me again. “I’m sorry,” she said with a confused tilt of her head. “We’re looking for the paranormal investigation firm.”
I nodded, standing so I was at chest level with her instead of navel. “That’s right,” I assured her. “Do you have an appointment?”
The man, who was built like a mountain and had bright silver hair and pointy ears, frowned. “But you’re human,” he stated obviously. “I mean, aren’t you?”
My smile tightened in effort to stay in place, but before I could respond, he went on accusingly. “I know a human when I see one.” His biceps bulged as he crossed his arms over his mammoth chest. Glamour, I deduced silently. Elves were not exactly known for their muscles. “They’re so plain and uninteresting, it’s not exactly difficult,” he continued to offend. Then he chuckled at his own wit. He was the only one. Ollie’s tail flicked back and forth as he studied the oversized elf. Then he licked his paw, claws fully extended.
The woman gave me another suspicious look, as though checking for signs that I was magical, then scowled. “You’re right,” she declared, offended. “She is human. You are human.”
“Yes, I am,” I confirmed pleasantly.
“It’s a scam!” the woman bellowed, her cheeks reddening. “You are not a paranormal firm! You are just trying to trick us into hiring you, preying on desperate paras. Just another human wanting to take advantage of --”
I slapped a clipboard against the desk, the loud crack halting the tirade as the couple jumped. My smile was completely gone, as was my patience. Instead, I settled on a glare.
“First of all,” I spoke firmly, as one must do with temperamental toddlers, “the firm is not exclusively paranormal in either its employees or its clientele. This floor is, however, dedicated to the paranormal division of the firm, which handles the cases with supernatural elements. The investigators here at Para-Wise are, at the moment, all paranormals, if that is what you are hoping for. I am not an investigator. I am however, the person in charge of this office, so if you would like to make an appointment to discuss your case with one of our PI’s, you’ll have to go through me. I will give you a bit of free advice, though. Your current dramatics and insulting behavior will not get you that appointment.” The couple gasped and stared at me as though I had somehow sprouted two heads. Which was ridiculous, since, as we have established, I am only human.
With great effort, I pasted the smile back on my face, albeit a little less pleasant. “Now, should we start over?”
With a huff, the elf man took his partner’s arm and turned them around, stepping toward the elevator. Their outraged exit was foiled, however, when Ollie leaped from his perch to the floor and took a little swipe at the mountain man-esque’s shoe with his needle-like claws. There was a small popping sound, a little wave through the air like heat rising off the asphalt in summer. The next moment, the elf man’s muscles were gone. As were several inches of his height. In his place was a man barely an inch or two taller than me in clothes far too big for his scrawny frame. The woman shrieked down at him as though she’d seen a mouse and dashed ahead. Her companion stumbled after with stuttered excuses and curses, tripping on the pants that had pooled around his ankles.
As the doors slid shut behind them, Ollie turned back to me, tail high with pride, and chuckled. I smiled at him, making a mental note to bring him some extra marshmallow cream the next time I went to the store. I lowered myself back into my chair and was just taking a calming breath when Lucy came storming around the corner, her boot in one hand as the other made a fist waving in the air at Ollie.
“You peed on my boot!” she howled, her eyes taking on the angry glow of her inner wolf. “I’m going to eat you and use your carcass as decoration on my wall, you overgrown furball!”
With what I was pretty sure was a laugh, Ollie took off around the other corner with Lucy in hot pursuit. I braced my hands on my desk, ready to chase after them and restore peace, but was stopped by Lil…whose face was covered in toner. Instead of pushing up as I’d intended, I slumped, letting my head fall onto the desk. Right on top of a piece of cardstock with fancy lettering on it.
And my day went downhill from there.