This was probably a terrible idea, but it wasn’t like she had a choice.
Jessica Northwood glanced down at the flier she’d pulled off the bulletin board at the Westward Underground staffing agency two hours ago.
‘Winthrop & Dirledge Security Banking: Now hiring to fill one Apprentice position. In-person enquiries only. Experience with minor organizational spells preferred.’
Her nose wrinkled at the thought of standing behind a desk all day, handling people’s money and pretending to smile while counting down the clock. But at this point, if someone came to her to break a hundred-dollar bill, she’d be handling more money than she currently had in her own bank account. That needed to change yesterday.
“As long as I don’t have to wear a collared shirt, I’ll take it.”
With a shrug, Jessica folded the flier again, shoved it into the back pocket of her jeans, and stared up at the marquee above the rundown, two-story building in front of her on 8th Street. The huge, cursive letters had once been painted black with a gold outline, but the cheap, dull gray of the metal beneath now showed through.
I really hope apprentice and intern aren’t the same thing here.
The minute her fingers wrapped around the brass doorknob below the frosted glass, a jolt of cold magic—like static electricity from a block of ice—ran up her arm. Jessica jerked her hand back, sucked in a hissing breath, and scowled at the building. “Great first impression. Thanks.”
Then she tried the door again, which opened without another greeting shock, and the little bell hanging from the other side of the door jingled.
Jessica stepped slowly inside, letting the door shut behind her. This time, the bell didn’t jingle but let out one harsh, dry caw. She turned to see the little charm hanging from the top of the door; a black metal crow stretched its wings, dangling from the string around its neck while the actual bell hung perfectly still beneath the crow’s outstretched talons.
She smirked and turned back around. “Hello?”
Winthrop & Dirledge’s dusty, dim-lit lobby—if she could even call it that—was completely empty of people, at least. The shelves lining both sides of the room were stuffed to the brim with old books, jars of clay and multi-colored glass, a stuffed owl perched on a suspended branch, orbs on pedestals that flickered with blue and purple light before winking out completely, and one very large, heavy-looking metal cash register from the 1800s missing half its buttons.
It seemed a little weird that that would be on the shelf instead of the desk centered in the back of the lobby, but as she stepped farther inside, she saw the register drawer crunched and hanging open like someone had knocked it unconscious.
She took in the worn, dark-red area rug on her left, the two tattered armchairs, the low coffee table between them with a tray, teapot, and two blue china teacups. One of them still had tea.
“Anyone here?” she called. “I stopped by about the ad for an—ah!”
Jessica yanked her foot back at the feeling of something large and rough skittering over her sneaker. A huge, sand-colored lizard with green stripes down its back skittered across the floor toward the desk in the back. The thing stopped beside the desk, turned back to shoot her a wary glance, then scrabbled around the corner.
“Confucius!” a woman shouted. “I told you to stay where I can see you.”
“Um…” Jessica blinked and glanced around the lobby. “Hello?”
“The apprentice!” The woman’s head popped up from behind the desk, her gray curls piled on the top of her head. “Yes. Thank you for coming.” Grinning, the woman finally settled her gaze on Jessica, looking her over from head to toe. “Let’s talk business, then.”
“Great,” Jessica said. “Ready when you are.”
The woman lifted the huge lizard apparently named Confucius, set him on her shoulder, and scowled down at him. “Let’s see how well you enjoy constant supervision, huh? That’ll clean your act right up.”
The lizard clawed at her shoulder, its back legs digging at the back of her shirt before it stretched up to take a huge bite of her disheveled curls.
“Ah-ah-ah…” The woman lifted a finger toward the reptile’s face, and when a bright-blue light sparked at her fingertip, the lizard promptly released her hair and seemed to settle down. When she looked at her visitor, she nodded again. “I’m sorry. Remind me one more time why you’re here.”
“You just…” Frowning, Jessica forced herself not to call out the fact that the woman had just acknowledged both an apprenticeship and talking business. Because she needed this job, even if her potential new boss couldn’t remember her own words from thirty seconds ago.
Jessica pulled the flier from her pocket again. “I’m just looking for a job.”
She approached the desk, eyeing the lizard the whole time. Is that thing mean-muggin’ me?
“I have experience with organizational spells, if that helps.” When Jessica reached out to hand the woman the flier, the other witch ignored it completely.
“Sure. Oh, I’m sorry. Name’s Tabitha.” The woman stuck out a hand that was just beginning to wrinkle with age, and her grip was surprisingly strong when Jessica reached out to take it.
Before the woman released the handshake, her eyes closed briefly, and her eyebrows flickered together. Then she let go, nodded, and met Jessica’s gaze again. “Very nice to meet you. Tell me, have you worked in security banking before?”
The lizard on her shoulder leaned forward, opening his mouth at Jessica before snapping it abruptly shut when Tabitha snapped her fingers in his face.
“No, actually.” Jessica pressed her lips together. “I’ve had a string of odd jobs lately. Some administrative stuff. A few bars…”
“I see. Well, yes, it’s very difficult to get any kind of stable job with a background like yours, isn’t it?”
Jessica swallowed. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, I…” Tabitha’s fingers fluttered toward Jessica’s hand, and she smiled sheepishly. “I saw it in your hand.”
“Oh.” Jessica rubbed her palms on her jeans and didn’t really know what to do with them after that. Great. That’s why she wanted in-person enquiries. She’s a scryer. “Then I guess I just wasted both our time. Thanks anyway.”
Gritting her teeth, Jessica turned and headed back across the lobby. Just my luck that the only person who wouldn’t run a background check is the only person who doesn’t actually need one.
The crow over the door fluttered its animated metal wings at her approach, but it didn’t make a sound this time. She reached out for the doorknob again and sucked in a sharp breath when that same piercing, cold energy jolted up her arm. “Seriously?”
“I’m sorry?” Tabitha called from behind the desk.
Jessica turned halfway to see the woman rummaging through a massive filing folder, hundreds of papers sticking out of the top in a chaotic array. “Do you have any wards on the door?”
Tabitha tittered. “That’s completely unnecessary.”
“Huh. Well you might wanna check it out. The door shocked me twice.”
“Okay, yes. Thank you very—” The older woman stopped, lifted her head from the filing folder, and stared at Jessica with wide eyes. “You said it shocked you?”
“Yeah. That’s why I asked if you’d put up any wards. It’s kinda painful, actually.”
“Wait.” Tabitha lifted Confucius from her shoulder, who desperately tried to cling to her now that she wanted him off, and set him on the desk. Then she moved hesitantly around the desk to cross the lobby, lifting a finger toward her only guest. “A cold little zap. Was that it?”
Jessica shook out her hand. “Uh, yeah.”
The woman’s eyes grew incredibly wide, and a slow smile spread across her lips. “Excellent. You know, you were about to walk out of here before I’d even had the chance to ask about your availability.”
“You just read my mind with that little handshake trick.” Jessica folded her arms. “You know my availability.”
“I can’t see everything, girl. The most important parts, anyway.”
“And you still wanna hire me even after you saw my… background?” Jessica swallowed, eyeing the older woman with a sideways glance. This has to be a trick.
“I don’t give a unicorn’s fart about your record or how you got to where you are now.” Tabitha stopped just a few feet away, grinning, and folded her own arms over her cream-colored sweater to eye Jessica up and down again. “What matters is that you are where you are, which just so happens to be standing in my establishment. And I just so happen to be in desperate need of an apprentice. You, my dear”—she glanced quickly at the door—“are the perfect fit.”
“Okay…” Jessica raised her eyebrows and spared a glance at the desk at the back of the lobby. Confucius the lizard was now lying on his back, mouth hanging wide open as he let out a long, soft hiss. “Are you giving me the job?”
“We both know you’re going to take it, don’t we?” Tabitha leaned forward and dipped her chin, looking just a little crazed and a little too eager. “So when can you start?”
Jessica pursed her lips, squinting at the older witch. Why’s she messing with me like this? “Don’t tell me the scryer didn’t see my availability too.”
Tabitha threw her head back and roared with laughter. “Of course I saw it. I was trying to be polite by letting you answer for yourself.”
“It’s not really that polite to read people’s minds and memories.”
“I know.” The older witch wiggled her eyebrows. “I just couldn’t help it. Come on, then. Let’s get you started with your first day on the job.”
“You heard me.” Tabitha tossed a hand in the air as she headed back toward the desk. “I don’t like to repeat myself, Jackie.”
“Yes, I know.”
With a sigh, Jessica glanced back at the tiny crow charm hanging over the door, which had now resumed its inanimate state dangling on the string.
So she can’t remember my name. It could be worse. And I need a job.
She joined Tabitha at the back of the lobby again, where Confucius still lay on his back.
“Get off, you… shoo. Off!” The owner of Winthrop & Dirledge nudged the lizard with both hands until he finally flipped over and ambled slowly off the pile of papers he’d meant to turn into a bed. “Now, where is it?”
Tabitha sifted through the papers, shaking her head and muttering before rifling too quickly through the file folder to make finding anything possible.
Jessica slid her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. “I guess I can start with that, if you want.”
“You know. The… organization part.”
“Ha. No. This is… completely irrelevant. I hate paperwork, for the most part. But since you’re working here, well, it’s more than a little necessary. Just an oath contract.” Tabitha jerked one of the drawers open and rummaged around in there without even looking.
“For an apprentice job?” Jessica raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like a lot.”
“Well, yes. It’s very important. This place…” The woman looked up and scanned the ceiling.
Jessica followed her gaze to see water stains all over the panels above them and a heavy collection of cobwebs in the chandelier meant to hold actual candles.
“This place requires a lot. So it’s only fitting. Ah! Here.” She jerked out a folded, yellowed piece of paper, scattering pencils, paperclips, and a few small vials onto the floor at her feet. After slamming the paper onto the desk with one hand, she reached into the drawer with the other and pulled out a six-inch dagger. The razor-sharp point glinted in the dim light. “Business as usual.”
Jessica eyed the dagger. “Okay, look. Yes, I need a job. I am not making any blood pacts or signing away my firstborn child or anything.”
Tabitha snickered. “If you ever decide to have one, right?”
So she saw that part too. Just ignore it. “So what’s the dagger for?”
“Oh.” The bank owner stared at the blade in her hand, as if she’d had no idea it was there, then barked out a laugh. “You thought this was for you?”
At Jessica’s blank stare, Tabitha howled with laughter again and shook her head. All those messy gray curls bounced atop her head, a few of them coming loose to spill over her shoulders.
“As of right now, girl, the bank and the knife are for me. Just think of this whole thing as a formality. For the time being, as my apprentice, that can be your main concern. Okay?”
Jessica puffed out a sigh. “I’m guessing I can’t just fill out a W-2.”
Tabitha batted her eyelashes, dipped her head, and slid the paper down the desk toward her new employee. Then she searched the desk and the items scattered on its surface before she huffed and reached out toward the lizard.
“I swear, you conniving reptile,” she hissed. “How I get anything done around here is beyond me.” She snatched the pen she’d apparently been searching for out from beneath Confucius’ front legs and handed it toward Jessica. “Just sign on the dotted line. I’ll take care of the rest.”
With wide eyes and a tiny, disbelieving smile, Jessica carefully took the pen but didn’t immediately put it to paper. She couldn’t take her eyes off the older witch grinning at her. “Just one signature?”
“Can I read the contract first?”
“Well, I’d call you an idiot if you didn’t.” Tabitha drummed her fingers on the desk and nodded impatiently. “Go ahead.”
The one-page contract laid out very basic guidelines.
The Apprentice was to follow all directions given by The Owner, including but not limited to cleaning duties, opening and closing the establishment before and after hours, maintaining the quality of customer service, ensuring the security of clients’ personal belongings, estate items, funds, etc.
Jessica paused and tapped the pen against the paper. “What’s included in this part here?”
“Included?” Tabitha shuffled toward her and craned her neck sideways to read. “It’s pretty self-explanatory. ‘The Apprentice is not to remove any items or devices, personal or otherwise, from the premises unless given explicit consent by The Owner.’ What’s so confusing about that?”
“Does that include stuff I bring in? Like my lunch or my apartment keys?”
“Well, I… Ha. That’s an excellent point, actually. What made you ask that?”
Jessica shrugged. “I’m just good at finding loopholes. Does that mean I actually need your permission to take my stuff back home with me at the end of the day?”
“That’ll hardly be necessary in a few…weeks.” Tabitha tilted her head. A shadow passed over her face, and the woman glanced at the lizard lying on the desk with a heavy sigh. Then she blinked and shook herself out of it. “But until then, I suppose I can make a concession. We’ll just…”
She cleared her throat, muttered something without any sound at all, then tapped the paper. A dim, faded yellow light spread across the printed words, and they shifted around into a new clause of their business contract. “There.”
“So I can’t take anything I didn’t already bring in with me.” Jessica shrugged. “That works.”
“Perfect. Any other scrupulous questions?” Tabitha smirked. “No? Good. Go ahead and sign, then, Janet.”
“It’s—” Jessica sighed and shook her head. “Okay.”
Her signature filled the dotted line at the bottom, and when she was finished, she wrote her name in all caps above it, just in case the woman needed to see it to remember it correctly.
“Thank you.” Tabitha jerked the contract out from under her new apprentice’s hand, scanned it quickly one more time, and nodded. “This is exciting, isn’t it?” Her eyes widened again in an enthusiasm that just hadn’t spread to her new apprentice yet.
“Sure. Yeah.” Jessica eyed the dagger clenched in her employer’s hand again. Be polite, Jess. At least try to be professional. “And… thanks. For the job.”
“Oh, don’t thank me.” Squinting, Tabitha brought her other thumb toward the tip of the glinting blade.
Jessica choked back a laugh. “Who else would I thank?”
“Who—” The bank owner chuckled and looked up at her. “I’ll let you figure that one out on your own.”
Tabitha’s eyes narrowed as she returned her attention to the blade, which she pressed quickly against the pad of her thumb with a small, sharp hiss. A bead of blood bloomed on her thumb, growing quickly.
“After all this time, you’d think I’d have gotten used to a few cuts here and there.”
“How many other apprentices have you had?” Jessica swallowed. And what did I just get myself into?
“Oh, you’re the first. Fortunately.” Tabitha wiggled her eyebrows then brought her bloody thumb not down toward the dotted line and Jessica’s signature but to the very top of the yellowed contract. She pressed it slowly and firmly in the center above the larger, bolded words: Winthrop & Dirledge Security Banking, Owner’s Oath and Apprentice Employment.
Her thumb peeled away with an audible whisper, leaving a perfectly shaped crimson thumbprint behind. That thumbprint flashed a dull yellow, then the bank owner swiftly folded the paper in half and snatched it up off the desk. But not before Jessica saw the extra two paragraphs of fine print that had magically added themselves to the contract she’d already signed.
“What was that?”
“What was what?” Tabitha shoved the paper into the open drawer and slammed it shut.
“Your thumbprint added something to—”
“Yes, well, it’s my oath, isn’t it?” the older witch snapped. “Not yours. And it’s certainly none of your business. Not yet.” Her fingers lit up with a brief flash of blue light, which burst across the drawer before fading away again. Then she took a deep breath and grinned, her joking, careless demeanor returned, and she rubbed her hands together vigorously. “Now. First, let’s have a tour.”
Without waiting for a reply, Tabitha took off toward a doorway in the back wall behind Jessica.
The new apprentice at Winthrop & Dirledge Security Banking eyed her new boss and sidled toward the drawer with the contract. She tugged discreetly on the handle, but the thing didn’t budge. Before she could cast the quick, simple spell that had picked more locks than she could remember, another cold jolt of magical energy leapt from the drawer and crackled along her fingertips. Jessica fought back a curse and jerked her hand away, balling it into a fist. What did she add to that contract?
“Jane! Come on. We don’t have all day.” Tabitha chuckled from the doorway in the far corner. “Well, technically, we do. But I’d like to start the process sooner rather than later. We have a lot to cover and admittedly less time than I’d like.”
“Yeah, okay.” Jessica eyed the drawer again, jumping when Confucius the lizard let out a low, creaking sound like an old door opening. She shot the lizard a frown, then turned to follow her new employer out of the lobby. “We, uh… never went over how much this job actually pays, by the way.”
Tabitha snorted and stepped through the doorway. “Trust me, girl. Not nearly enough.”