Three Mages and a Margarita (The Guild Codex: Spellbound Book 1) by Annette Marie


  I looked down. Crap, it was.

  “How come you’re home so early? Are you sick?”

  “No …” I muttered, tugging at my ponytail.

  “Tori,” he groaned. “Not again. You got fired, didn’t you?”

  I nodded.

  He puffed out a breath. “What happened this time?”

  I told him the story through his bedroom door as he changed clothes. While talking, I pulled my arms into the baggy striped t-shirt and turned it the right way around. Justin reappeared, his scowl made more severe by the short beard he’d grown at my suggestion. It had been a great call. He looked way more policeman-tough now.

  “She shoved you and spilled all your drinks? They should have thrown her out!”

  “They might have … if I hadn’t whacked her upside the head.”

  He sat on a tall stool in front of the kitchen counter that acted as our dining table. “How do you do it, Tori? If there’s a crazy customer within ten miles, they always end up in your section.”

  “Maybe I bring out the crazy in people.” I flopped onto the sofa. “Maybe it’s magic.”

  He rolled his eyes.

  “Or aliens,” I suggested. “Or … magic aliens!”

  He snorted but didn’t argue with me. No matter how often he refused to engage in the topic, I would keep ragging on him until he got his head on straight. I couldn’t believe my own brother had become a magic conspiracy theorist. I’d believe in aliens first.

  “I’m sorry, Justin,” I said more seriously. “I’ll get another job ASAP so I don’t miss any rent payments.”

  “I’ve told you every month since you moved in that you don’t need to pay rent. I’m happy to have the company.”

  “Living downtown is expensive as hell.” I didn’t add that my presence here over the last eight months was preventing his steady girlfriend from moving in with him. Plus, he was putting up with all my crap cluttering his one-bedroom suite.

  “Cheer up, Tori. You’ve found a new job after each …” He trailed off, maybe realizing that pointing out how I’d blown six jobs in eight months wasn’t encouraging. “You’ll find another one in no time.”

  “Yeah,” I agreed listlessly.

  He glanced into the spotless kitchen—my small contribution to the household that I held to like a Lysol-worshipping nun—then threw me a grin. “Let’s order in tonight.”

  “I should save my money since—”

  “My treat.” He grabbed his phone off the counter. “The usual?”

  “Sure,” I agreed guiltily. I would extra-clean the bathroom tomorrow to make up for it. He’d be able to eat out of the sink if he wanted.

  While he called in the order, I unearthed my laptop from beneath a stack of socks waiting to be folded. Settling onto the sofa, I flipped it open and fired up my browser. Unsurprisingly, I had the job posting website bookmarked.

  I’d lost my job, but I’d have another one within a week even if I had to sell my soul to get it.

  Pausing in front of the display window, I took a deep breath and smiled at my reflection. Smile, relax. Smile, relax. I needed to appear perky and confident, not bedraggled and exhausted. My hazel eyes, identical to Justin’s, looked dark as coal, but the dusty glass couldn’t dull the vibrant red of my hair. I scrunched my ponytail with one hand to revive the curls, but it was hopeless.

  I stepped back from the window and squinted at the sky. Bright sunlight sparkled merrily, and the breeze carried the salty tang of the ocean, only a few blocks north. People strolled up and down the charming redbrick sidewalks, passing old-fashioned streetlamps and storefronts nestled in tall Victorian-style buildings. Gastown was the oldest neighborhood in the city, a popular tourist destination full of cafés and restaurants.

  Across the redbrick intersection was one such café. The yellow patio umbrellas resembled a garden of monster-sized flowers, and servers in cute periwinkle blouses bustled among the tables. The place was packed even though it was only four o’clock—too early for the dinner rush, but no one had told this café that.

  Busy was good. Busy meant lots of staff.

  I practiced my smile one more time, then crossed the street and entered the air-conditioned interior.

  “Hi,” I greeted the hostess brightly. “Is your hiring manager in today?”

  “Yeah,” the girl replied in a bored drone. “I already called her. You can wait there with the others.”

  She pointed. Two girls my age, dressed in chic business casual attire, stood off to the side, holding folders just like mine. Their résumés probably weren’t full of one- and two-month server stints, with no references to show for any of them. Goddamn it.

  I joined the girls anyway, and when the stocky, middle-aged manager finally appeared, looking overheated and unfriendly, I patiently waited my turn.

  “Thank you so much for seeing me,” I said once the other girls had left. “I can see you’re busy and I won’t keep you. I just wanted to drop off my résumé.”

  I passed her the single sheet, which she skimmed without enthusiasm.

  “We do have an opening and if we’re interested, we’ll—” She squinted. “Winnie’s Café? That was your last employer?”

  My stomach twisted. “Yes, that’s correct.”

  “Tori Dawson …” she murmured as though digging through her memory banks. She dropped her arm, my résumé hanging at her side. “I’m sorry, I don’t have a position for you.”

  “But you just said …”

  The manager glanced distractedly into the café before focusing on me again. “Look, hun. Maybe you should try a different industry. I don’t think hospitality is for you.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  She shrugged. “You’ve got a reputation. Unless they’re living under a rock, no restaurant manager in downtown will hire you.”

  I wilted. “Really?”

  “Maybe you’d do better in retail.” She handed my résumé back. “Shipping/receiving might suit you.”

  “But … I’m bad at retail too,” I finished under my breath since she’d already walked away. Stuffing the paper in my folder, I trudged back to the street. Passersby jostled me and I ducked into a shady spot beside a brick wall, staring blankly at the cute shops across the road. Most retail jobs were too slow-paced for me. Bored Tori got herself into a lot more trouble than Busy Tori. Another hard-learned lesson.

  If no one in downtown would hire me as a server, what would I do? Either I ventured out of downtown, which would require an expensive transit pass and long commutes, or I applied for a starter position in something completely new. But with no experience—or tips—the pay would be too shitty for me to ever afford a decent place of my own. I’d be stuck on Justin’s couch for another eight months. That, or I’d have to quit college once the semester was over.

  Groaning, I massaged my temples. No giving up. I’d apply at the last few places on my list and hope their managers were the rare rock-dwelling types, then head home and come up with a new game plan. I would figure this out.

  As I stepped away from the wall, the cool sea breeze gusted down the street, carrying a swirl of dust, leaves, and litter. Skirts flew up and café umbrellas tottered precariously—and a sheet of paper hit me square in the face.

  Swearing, I snatched the paper off my nose and examined it in case my skin required sanitation from the contact. I was about to toss it away—I know, littering is bad—when I recognized the layout of the text. It wasn’t difficult. I’d been staring at job postings all week.

  Maybe one of the prim and perfect applicants from the café had dropped it. Fat chance I’d land a job anywhere they had applied, but I still scanned the paper. Only three listings graced the page. The first was an entry-level bank teller position in the heart of downtown. Yeah, no. I was many things, but “quiet” was not one of them, and every bank I’d ever set foot in had been silent as a cemetery at midnight.

  The second position was for a receptionist at a law firm. Were law firm
s quiet? I’d never been in one—kind of surprising no one has sued me yet, come to think of it—but I was sure they fell in the same “quiet, dignified, stick-up-their-asses” category as banks. So, also a no.

  I squinted at the third one. Bartender? I didn’t have much experience, but I’d manned the bar a few times at various restaurants. And bartenders, unlike servers, had more freedom to tell rude customers to shove their bad attitudes where the sun don’t shine.

  But … the address. Turning eastward, I gulped. The place was firmly situated in the Downtown Eastside, a large neighborhood that half the city was too terrified to set foot in.

  Pulling my phone out of my purse, I looked up the address. Hmm, okay, so it was on the west edge of the Downtown Eastside—not as bad as I’d thought. In fact, it was barely six blocks away, though outside the safe charm of Gastown. Maybe far enough away that they wouldn’t have heard about Tori Dawson, the Server of Doom and Despair. It was worth a shot, and as the saying around here goes, you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.

  Feeling hopeful, I stuffed the paper into my purse, tucked my folder under one arm, and strode east. Just follow the redbrick road.

  Disappointingly, the red bricks ended after a quarter block, but the three- and four-story buildings with cute shops continued to border the street. Just when I was starting to feel pretty good about things, I passed a shopfront with empty windows. Then another. Within a block, the doors were blank and the windows covered. The number of pedestrians dwindled to a handful, and they walked quickly.

  Chin held high, I lengthened my stride, my strappy but comfortable sandals slapping against the sidewalk. Could I run in these if I had to? Probably. Fear was a great motivator.

  I wasn’t scared yet, but as I hurried past a heavy-duty chain-link fence with barbed wire on top, I started to doubt myself. Maybe I should go back. What shops there were had thick bars over the windows. Even if I was safe enough in broad daylight, what about late-night shifts—assuming I got the job?

  I replayed the café manager’s declaration in my mind. No restaurant manager in downtown will hire you. Screw that. If I needed to carry pepper spray to and from work, then so be it.

  Increasing my pace, I strode toward the next intersection. I had to be close, but all I saw was a bike shop called “BIKES” and a tattoo parlor with bars across the windows and the door. Pulling out my phone, I checked the map again, then rounded the corner, walked twenty yards up the street, and stopped.

  A black door stood in front of me, tucked into a shadowy nook with no overhead light. Faded print in Ye-Old-English lettering declared, “The Crow and Hammer.” Painted beneath was a black bird with its wings spread ominously, perched on an ornate mallet.

  The cube-shaped building featured barred windows on the second and third floors. Its northern neighbor was a shorter building with boarded-up windows and construction tape across the doorway. On the other side was a cramped parking lot with a dumpster and two cars. My gaze returned to the painted crow with its flared wings.

  Breathe in. Breathe out. Okay. I could do this. Stepping into the shadowed alcove, I reached for the door.

  Chapter Three

  Before my fingers touched the peeling paint, an overwhelming urge to turn around washed over me like a bucket of ice water. I didn’t want to be here. The need to walk away—or better yet, run away—roiled through me like a physical sickness. I wanted to be anywhere but here and if I didn’t retreat now, I would … what? Get eaten by a boogeyman on the other side of the door?

  Damn, since when was I such a chicken? Teeth gritted, I grabbed the handle and yanked the door open.

  My bad case of nerves passed the moment I stepped inside, but honestly? The interior wasn’t any more reassuring than the exterior. Heavy beams in the ceiling, wood finishes, and dim lights gave it that dark English pub feel, and it was much smaller than it appeared from the outside, with enough tables and bar stools to seat maybe fifty people. The chairs were cast around like a stampede had charged through the front door, and though it was clean-ish, a strange smoky smell hung over the place. Not cigarettes, not drugs, not wood smoke, but … something.

  Oh, and did I mention the place was completely empty? It was early for the dinner rush, but empty was not a good sign for any business.

  Since I was too tough—or too stubborn—to sneak back outside and pretend I’d never set foot here, I soldiered onward. The door wasn’t locked, so that meant they were open, right? Winding around the scattered chairs, I approached the bar at the back. Centered on the wall was a massive steel war hammer, the metal nicked and tarnished, the wooden handle dark. I eyed it warily, hoping it was firmly anchored in place.

  Setting my folder on the thick wood bar top, I tried to peek through the gaps in the saloon doors behind it. “Hello?”

  A muffled voice answered from somewhere beyond the saloon doors. So someone was here. Someone who was busy, apparently. I waited, shifting from foot to foot. Since I was just standing there, I nudged the nearest bar stool under the lip of the bar. Then I reached over and tucked the next one into place. And since I’d done that, I fixed the other ones too. Much better.

  With a peek at the saloon doors, I straightened the nearest table. What a mess.

  The doors swung open and a woman half fell out of the room beyond. Short, plump, and maybe ten years older than me, with dark hair twisted into a messy bun and bangs that were streaked with blue and red. Clutching a stack of folders so thick they threatened to disgorge paperwork, the woman looked around wildly before spotting me.

  “Who are you?” she blurted.

  Was that how she greeted all their customers? No wonder the place was empty.

  I hitched my professional smile into place and grabbed my folder. “Hi, my name is Tori Dawson. I’m here about your bartending job opportunity.”

  “You are?” She dumped her papers onto the bar top and gave me a frowning once-over. “Walk-ins aren’t usually how we …”

  “Could I leave my résumé with you?” I asked, flipping open my folder.

  “Clara!” someone shouted from the back. “Where’d you go? Oy!”

  The glint of near panic in the woman’s eyes intensified. “Yes, yes,” she told me. “Just leave it. I really need someone, but I don’t have time to look at anything right now. Tomorrow—”

  “Clara!”

  “Coming!” she shouted over her shoulder. “I’m sorry—Tracey, was it?”

  “Tori.”

  “I’m swamped. People are arriving in less than an hour and the freezer broke last night and Cooper called in sick again—” A loud crash from the back interrupted her, followed by a man’s furious cursing. “Oh god, what now?”

  She dashed back through the doors, leaving her paperwork. I winced sympathetically. I’d been in her shoes before—understaffed, everything going wrong, and what sounded like an event planned for the night.

  As I laid my résumé on top of her folders, noises echoed out of the back—loud clatters and frantic conversation between Clara and the man. I studied the mess. Half the chairs were lying on their sides for crying out loud. Giving a mental shrug, I straightened the tables and picked up chairs. In ten minutes, I had the front of the house tidied up and ready to go. Nodding to myself, I returned to the bar and grabbed my résumés.

  Clara reappeared, reaching for her folders. When she saw me, she jerked to a stop, brow furrowing in confusion. I pursed my lips. Awkward. I’d meant to be gone by the time she came back.

  Eyes wide, she stared at the restored order. “You …?”

  “Just helping out,” I explained hastily. “I’m on my way now. Good luck with your event tonight.”

  “Thanks,” she mumbled.

  I turned away, making a face at the cringyness, and hurried for the door.

  “Wait!” Clara sped around the bar, my résumé in her hand. “Do you have bartending experience, Tori?”

  “Not much,” I admitted as she joined me. “But I know my way
around a bar, I learn fast, and I work hard.”

  Clara nodded as she scanned my résumé. “You have no references.”

  “Um … yeah.”

  “Are you busy tonight?”

  I blinked. “Tonight?”

  “I know it’s unorthodox.” Her words tumbled together as she rushed to get them out. “But I’m slammed already and we’ll have a full house by six. If you can work a shift, I’ll pay you in cash at the end of the night—same wage as my last bartender.”

  I brightened. A paid shift and a chance to prove myself without having to do the whole interview thing? “Sure, I’d love to.”

  Clara deflated with relief. “Wonderful! Let’s get started.” She waved for me to follow her. “Tonight’s the monthly meeting and everyone will be here. Ramsey and I will handle all the food orders if you can take care of the liquor. I’ll help you out as much as I can. Once everyone has a few drinks, it’ll settle down, but six to seven will be crazy.”

  She halted halfway around the bar. “I’m Clara Martins, by the way. AGM.”

  Assistant general manager? Finally, some luck. I’d handed my résumé to the second-in-charge.

  I shook her hand, then she led me into the back. Through the saloon doors was a cramped kitchen with stainless steel counters.

  “Ramsey!” she called. “Get over here!”

  A tall guy wheeled into the kitchen from the other end—thin, lanky, with black hair buzzed short on one side and the rest falling in spiky locks below his jawline. Chains hung around his neck, and he was wearing more eyeliner than I was.

  “Ramsey, this is Tori. She’s interested in the bartender job, so I’m having her help out tonight.”

  Ramsey’s mouth twisted. “Is that even allow—”

  “We really need the extra pair of hands,” Clara interrupted. “And we can see how she meshes with the gang.”

  She didn’t mean “gang” literally, did she?

  “Suppose,” Ramsey agreed uncertainly. He gave me a look as though measuring how breakable I was. “Welcome to the madhouse.”

 
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