Usually, people trained their pets, not the other way around.
I pulled the heavy wooden door to the Portsmouth Apothecary closed. The doorbells chimed as I locked up my business. I rested my hand on one of the warm glass panes and quickly refreshed the protection wards. Done with my evening ritual, I took a deep breath of late summer air and headed for home, because I had a date.
Okay, not a date. An appointment. With my cat. My talking black cat.
I wasn’t a woman whose life revolved around her pet, so let me explain.
Jameson, the cat in question, was my familiar, and he was serious about his responsibility to train me. A couple months ago, I took possession of a beautiful emerald amulet when my neighbor was murdered. Jameson came with the amulet, along with some weighty obligations. When I accepted the amulet, I became the newest member of the Sorority of Brigid. The sorority was a group of witches who practiced real witchcraft, not the stuff you see on TV. Their goals were to keep witchcraft a secret, protect witches, and prevent witches from abusing their power.
To hear Jameson tell it, the sorority should have been all I thought about, and my foolish notions about having to pay my rent or buy food shouldn’t concern me.
Yeah, well, I really enjoyed having a roof over my head, and when I threatened to toss him outside during a rainstorm, he decided I might have a point after all.
At any rate, I was on my way home for more training. He begrudgingly said I was okay with a lot of the larger and simpler spells, so we were working on precision with smaller spells. When I asked about the focus I’d chosen in my last investiture, potions, he laughed.
“Everything changes once you join the sorority,” he said.
“What changed for you?” I asked.
“I’m not a member.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid. “Is it a humans-only group?”
“No. Both the sorority and fraternity are for witches and their familiars. But when I was a kitten, they were split along traditional lines. The Sorority of Brigid was strictly for women, and the Fraternity of Free Witches only allowed men.”
“Then why aren’t you the familiar for someone in the fraternity?”
“Because I’m not evil,” he said patiently, as though he were explaining to a small child.
The jury was out on that. Some of the spells he had me casting were so difficult, I felt like my brain would explode.
I went to my family with my concerns, but they were no help. I wasn’t sure any of them ever had a familiar.
Aunt Lily said I needed to follow his training. She was certain he knew what was best for me. He was, after all, over two hundred years old and had trained at least three other witches before me.
Aunt Nadia thought I could get to him through his stomach. You know—the best way to a man’s heart. Maybe that applied to cats too.
My mother didn’t know what I ought to do. She had a more realistic view of my relationship with Jameson, because she heard more of my complaints than my aunts. She’d started coming to visit me once a week at the apothecary. She never brought up the previously sore subject of my moving home, so the visits were relaxing. If I’d known all it took for her to stop haranguing me about moving home was to get a familiar, I’d have gone looking for one a long time ago.
She thought I was stuck with Jameson, unless I wanted to give up the amulet.
I’d considered the idea and dismissed it. I didn’t want to miss out on the power it gave me, and the ability to help people in addition to my work at the apothecary. I didn’t think the amulet liked the idea of being passed on to someone else either.
Over the past month, I felt like I was becoming more in tune with Jameson. I strode down the sidewalk on my way home for a quick dinner and night of training. We’d been working on my fine control, so he had me do the most excruciatingly difficult things, like moving one piece of ice in a glass while holding all the others still. Or making only one of the fronds on my palm tree move. He even had me strengthen my personal wards into what felt like a hard shield over me.
I understood why witches preferred to train in areas they’re naturally good at. I was okay with spell work, but the level he had me working at was exhausting.
At least I slept well at night.
I walked into my apartment. “I’m home,” I called out.
Jameson was waiting for me, sitting on the kitchen countertop. I’d tried to instill in him the idea that cats don’t sit on the food preparation or eating surfaces. He didn’t care.
“Good. I’m hungry, and you’ve got a lot of training to do tonight.”
I rolled my eyes. “Same thing we do every night, Pinky.”
He cocked his head, clearly not understanding my ’90s cartoon reference. I thought he’d get it, because at least he was alive then. I was a long way from being able to take over the world. And even if I did, what would I do with it?
“Start by opening the can of salmon cat food without using your hands.”
I frowned at him. “No dinner for me first?”
“Not tonight, you’re late,” he said.
“Right. Okay, then.” I considered the cans of Purina Pro Plan he preferred. They had a ring pull to open them, but when he said no hands, he meant no hands at all—no holding the can in one hand and using a fork handle to pop the top open.
Another thing he insisted on was subtle magic. It was no good trying to keep magic a secret if I was obvious every time I tried to use it. He had a point there, but I wished he had let me start off with big gestures and then move into smaller ones. Big gestures made the magic easier to use, at least for me.
I pointed my index finger and flicked it from right to left to open the cat food cabinet. One more gesture had the can floating onto the counter. I considered how to open it without my hands. There were a couple ways I could do it, but which was best? I could force the can to stay on the counter as I levitated a fork and used the handle to open it. I could try the metal shearing spell to cut the top of the can off, or I could try to make the can explode and hope I was fast enough to catch the food and direct it into the bowl.
I wasn’t feeling up to cleaning off the walls if I didn’t catch the exploding cat food, and using a fork didn’t seem impressive, so I went for the metal shearing spell.
I started the can slowly spinning, then I focused my mind on creating a sharp point just above the inside edge of the can. I lowered the sharp point, and thin curls of metal started peeling away from the lid. It was working! I pushed the point down and felt more resistance. I increased the can’s rotation speed, and within two seconds, the top of the can was cut off.
At this point, he would let me take the lid off and dump the food into his bowl, but I was so pleased with myself that I decided to show off. I levitated the lid to the recycling, then slowly lowered the can to his empty bowl. I upended it, gave the bottom a sharp magical tap, and smiled as the food fell out into his bowl. Success!
The can levitated to the sink to be rinsed, and I was done.
I beamed at my cat.
“Moderately acceptable. Now, what are you going to eat?”
“Moderately acceptable? Are you kidding me! Did you see what I did there? I held the can down, and made it spin, and used a sharp blade of air—of air!—to cut the lid off. I did great.”
Jameson didn’t have many facial expressions, but he was a master of using his tone to get his feelings across. “I can only hope your standards will rise as you get better at your spellcasting. For now, I’ll say you were well within the bounds of acceptable.”
I turned my back on him and opened the fridge. My spells usually rated “marginally acceptable” or “I suppose that will work too,” so I probably should have taken his words as a compliment.
I’d had teachers who believed they shouldn’t praise students until they were perfect, and although I didn’t thrive that way, I could work with it.
My fridge was mostly empty. I worked a lot and ate dinner at Proctor House at least one night a week, where Aunt Nadia forced leftovers on me. She loved me, and this was one of the ways she showed me. Maybe tomorrow night I’d head over and see what they were having.
But for tonight, dinner would have to be frozen pizza.
I opened the heavy glass door to the Crispy Biscuit and scanned the mostly occupied tables, searching for my friend Mina. The Biscuit was busy, like it was every Saturday morning, and it took a minute for me to look through all the tables I could see from the door.
I hadn’t seen Mina since she left for college a year before I graduated from high school. I didn’t have many friends then, and I hardly had time to make new ones, so I took care to keep the ones I had.
“Isabella, over here!” I heard her call.
I turned to her voice and saw her waving her arms to get my attention. She was wearing a fuchsia tank top that contrasted with her long lime-green hair. How had I not seen her immediately?
Mina had never been a shrinking violet, and as she stood up and met me in the aisle to pull me into a tight hug, I knew nothing had changed.
“I’ve missed you so much,” she yelled in my ear.
I squeezed her back and broke the hug before she had the chance to do lasting damage to my hearing.
She grabbed my hand and dragged me to our booth. I sat across from her and stared at her for a moment. She had a worried expression, but it broke when she smiled. “You look amazing. Tell me everything.”
“Well, I inherited a business, and it’s taking everything I’ve got to run it. I’m perpetually frazzled.”
“Really? What kind of business?”
“It’s an apothecary. I spent about a year as an apprentice before it became mine.” I stopped talking as thoughts of finding Trina’s murdered body flooded my mind.
Mina touched my hand. “Hey, are you okay?”
I looked up at her. “Yeah, sorry. It’s just that I inherited the apothecary after my mentor was murdered.”
She frowned. “That’s horrible. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Instinctively, my hand went to the amulet I hadn’t taken off since I’d gotten it back from Chief Dobbins.
“Oh, nice necklace,” Mina said.
I’d gotten tired of explaining the good things that had come to me lately were mine because someone had died: the apothecary, the amulet, and Jameson. It was starting to feel ghoulish. “Thanks. It was a gift from a friend. Enough about me. How about you? What was your major again?”
Mina laughed. “Equine therapy.”
I furrowed my brow. “Like being a physical therapist for animals?”
She straightened the sugar packets in their small container. “No, like using horses to help people’s mental and physical health.”
“That sounds like you—always helping other people. And fun, if you like nature and being outdoors all the time.” Mina had never been big on the outdoors, but people could change.
“I do. Horses are majestic animals, and they seem to know the patients are vulnerable and act accordingly.” She took a sip of water and continued. “Unfortunately, there are no facilities hiring in a five-hundred-mile radius.”
“Five hundred?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’ve sent my resume to each of them, then did follow-up calls when no one got back to me.”
“Wow. You’d think at least one of them would have called back.”
She gave me a wry smile. “Yeah, you’d think.”
“I know Bethany at the Fancy Tart is hiring. Would you be interested in working there?” I asked.
She was about to answer me when Emma, who was walking past us, yelped. Emma was in the process of a slow-motion fall. She tried to regain her balance, overcorrected, and was going to fall into us. Without thinking, I wiggled a finger and made the air behind her solid. She bumped into the air and was able to right herself, spilling only a bit of juice on her tray. She turned around and held her hand out, looking for whatever solid thing she’d bumped into, but I’d already released the spell.
“That was close,” Mina said.
“Emma, she almost fell with a tray full of drinks.”
“Oh, didn’t notice,” I lied. What? It’s not like she’d believe me if I told her what really happened.
Emma delivered her drinks and came to take our order. “Mina! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. How are you?”
“I’m great, thanks.”
From the kitchen, we heard the cook calling Emma’s order up. “Sorry, I can’t chat. Can I take your order?”
I didn’t have to look at the menu. “Can I get an omelet with spinach, onion, mushroom, and Swiss, with rye toast and a mug of coffee?”
“Of course. And you, Mina?”
“Waffles with strawberries and whipped cream, and a glass of orange juice.”
As she was writing Mina’s order, a young boy bumped into her. “Kevin, be careful,” his mother said.
Kevin looked up at Emma and said, “Sorry,” before he rushed off toward the bathrooms at the back of the restaurant.
Emma gave us a quick smile, then dashed to the kitchen to pick up her order.
Behind me, I heard the crash of plates falling to the floor. I turned around and saw a man in distress, banging the table. Detective Palmer, who was on the other side of the booth, jumped up and pulled the man to the floor.
Palmer frantically patted down the wheezing man’s pockets. Within seconds, the man’s labored breaths grew softer and stopped. His chest stopped moving up and down too.
Palmer scanned the crowd and stopped when he saw me. “Isabella, call 911.”
I grabbed my phone and dialed 911. “I’m calling for Detective Steve Palmer. There’s a man in respiratory distress and”—I looked back over at him—“he looks like he’s going into anaphylaxis.”
“Does anyone have an EpiPen?” Palmer shouted.
Emma ran into the kitchen and then fought her way through the crowd of onlookers to bring him the restaurant’s emergency auto-injector.
Palmer jammed the orange end of the EpiPen onto the now-motionless man’s leg.
“We’re sending help to your location,” the operator said to me.
“He’s not moving now, and I can’t see him breathing.”
With the phone to my ear, I turned to Mina. “Go wait outside for the ambulance and make sure they can get in.”
She nodded and walked off to the door.
Palmer was on his knees, doing chest compressions and crying. I’d never seen him display much emotion, unless it was anger in an interrogation room, and I worried this was someone he cared about.
Now that it appeared there may be a dead body on the floor of the restaurant, people were quickly paying and leaving. I swiped some napkins from a nearby table, went to Palmer and sat next to him, my leg touching his so he knew he wasn’t alone.
I stayed with him, silently, until Mina led the EMTs to us. Palmer never stopped trying to save the man’s life.
As soon as he saw their uniforms, something snapped back into place in Palmer’s mind. He stood up, surrendered the EpiPen, and began to answer questions efficiently. The man on the floor was his cousin, Dan. The paramedic who was taking care of the patient looked to his partner and shook his head.
Palmer went pale, and I steadied him. “Take it easy there, big guy.” I moved him to a seat and gently pressed his shoulder until he sat.
Chief Dobbins strode in. He looked at the paramedics, who shook their heads. “Thanks, you two can go,” he said.
He called for a coroner on his radio.
I squeezed Palmer’s shoulder and said, “I’m going to leave you with the chief.” I turned to the chief. “Please call if I can help.”
I met Mina back at our table. I sat, exhausted and upset. “Did you see what happened?”
“No, I was paying attention to you. I didn’t see anything.”
She stood up. “Me either. I paid for breakfast, you can leave the tip.”
I put a ten on the table, and we walked out.
“Friends of yours?” Mina asked.
Was he? “Not exactly. The man doing CPR is the detective who caught my mentor’s murderer. And then he caught the man who killed two of my other friends. I’ve never seen him cry, though. The other guy was his cousin.”
Mina looked worried. “Exactly how many people do you know who have been killed?”
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