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


  Something didn’t add up, but the big question wasn’t what the Crow and Hammer really was.

  The question was whether I wanted to work there.

  My gaze slid to the pretty piles of money. I was still staring greedily when the front bolt turned and Justin limped inside, shoulders bowed and his police uniform smudged with dirt.

  “Justin!” I tossed my laptop onto the sofa and ran down the hall. “Are you okay? What happened?”

  “I’m fine,” he assured me. “Tackled a guy, but I fell the wrong way and ended up in a ditch. All for nothing, too.”

  “All for nothing?” I ushered him down the hall to the kitchen where he sat on a stool. “But you caught the guy, didn’t you?”

  “I did, but I couldn’t complete the arrest. All I could do was confiscate the cash he was carrying—thousands of dollars conned out of unsuspecting people. Filthy scam artist.”

  As he talked, I filled the kettle and plugged it in. For reasons I would never comprehend, Justin liked a cup of tea after a bad day. Me, I’d rather stomp around and shout at people until I felt better. Maybe he and I had gone into the wrong careers.

  “I don’t get it. You had him. Why couldn’t you arrest him?”

  Justin hesitated, then muttered, “Stupid politics, I guess. It was out of my hands.”

  “That’s bullshit.”

  “I think so too.” He tapped a finger on the counter. “Tori, I’ve got to ask. What’s with the cash?”

  I got out a mug, ignoring my stacks of money. “Rent payment.”

  “Is this all from that shift you picked up last night? Looks like you got good tips.”

  “Really good tips.” I poured hot water over the teabag and slid the mug to him. “They offered me a full-time position. Tuesday to Saturday, four to midnight.”

  He didn’t congratulate me, instead picking up the twenties from Clara and fanning them out. “Judging from your texts while you were on break, I got the impression it wasn’t going well.”

  “Me neither, but … I guess they want someone who’s tougher? The clients are assholes, but”—I nodded at the money—“they tip well.”

  “What’s this place called again? Where is it?”

  I described my night, glossing over the weirder details because, I mean, how did I explain the motto chanting at the meeting?

  “That’s a rough area. It’s not safe, especially for a woman by herself.” He set the cash down. “And no offense, but it doesn’t make sense that they’d hire you if you were throwing drinks and insulting people.”

  “Yeah, I agree it’s weird, but maybe they’re really desperate.” I sat beside him. “It’s a job, right? And I really need it. I can work there for now, and keep applying for something better.”

  “It’s not worth the risk. I can help you out until you find a new job—a safe one. Who knows if this place will stiff you—or worse?”

  “I can handle it.” I wasn’t letting Justin take care of me. He was already sharing his apartment. “It’ll only be for a couple weeks.”

  “You can’t walk home at midnight, not there.”

  “There’s a bus stop a block away.” When he gave me a hard look, I grumbled, “I’ll take a cab home.” That would eat into my earnings.

  “It isn’t worth it. Let that job go and keep searching.” He pulled the money into a single pile and slid it toward me. “Hang on to this. I’ll cover rent this month.”

  “No.” I pushed it back toward him. “If I’m going to live here, I’m going to pay my fair share.”

  He narrowed his eyes and I glared back. Angrily gulping the rest of his tea, he stood. “Why won’t you ever let me help you, Tori?”

  Not waiting for a response, he headed into his bedroom. I watched him close the door, ignoring a trickle of guilt. I was keeping things even between us as best I could—paying rent, cleaning, keeping all my stuff confined to boxes.

  I scooped up the money and stuffed it into Justin’s mail organizer. Despite my terrible employment track record, I hadn’t missed a rent payment yet and I wasn’t going to. Even if that meant a stint as a bartender at the mysterious Crow and Hammer.

  Let’s hope the place was as law-abiding as Clara claimed, because if not … ruining Justin’s career on top of mine would just be the icing on this year’s craptastic cake.

  The walk from Justin’s apartment to the Crow and Hammer took just over thirty minutes. This time, I wore sensible shoes with capris pants and a sleeveless emerald blouse. My red curls were tamed into a ponytail, my bangs swept to one side where they would hopefully stay. I was ready for another shift from hell.

  If I was honest, the jittery anticipation pooling in my stomach was definitely more positive than negative. With an energetic bounce in my step, I inhaled the cool breeze, smelling of rain to come. I had a job, my wage had taken a huge jump, and management let me yell at customers. I really couldn’t complain.

  The bright colors and busy sidewalks of Gastown transformed into the barred windows and boarded-up doors of the Downtown Eastside, and within a few blocks, I was turning down a nondescript street. I stopped in front of a black door with peeling paint and faded lettering. Back again.

  When I reached for the door, sickening repulsion swept away my excitement. Like yesterday, I had the overwhelming urge to run in the opposite direction. Teeth gritted, I shoved through the door.

  The interior was quiet, but the rumble of voices drifted down the staircase in the corner. Only three customers were grouped around a table—a trio of familiar guys. Red hair, black hair, and brown curls were bent over a spread of paper.

  As I approached, Ezra’s head lifted. His mismatched eyes, one warm brown and one white, met mine. “She returns!”

  Aaron straightened, his grin flashing. “Back for more punishment, new girl?”

  “Don’t worry, I’m well armed.” I’d have my soda gun, after all.

  As I breezed past their table, Clara zoomed out of the kitchen with a handful of papers.

  “Tori!” She beamed at me. “I was afraid you might change your mind.”

  “Nope, not me.” I slid onto a bar stool as she rifled through the papers. Aaron, Kai, and Ezra had turned their attention to a large map.

  “I’m relieved.” Clara pulled out a paper and slid it to me, then handed me a pen. “I’m so far behind. I have six months of paperwork I can finally catch up on now that I don’t have to share bar shifts with Cooper. He’ll be delighted to go back to his usual schedule too. Working hard isn’t his forte.”

  I nodded absently as I frowned at the sheet. It didn’t look like any employment paperwork I’d ever filled out before. A logo at the top of the page displayed the letters MPD—the same acronym Darius had mentioned during the meeting last night.

  With a mental shrug, I started filling it out. All the usual info—name, birthdate, address, phone number, emergency contacts. A line near the top asked for a “MID Number” but I skipped it. Employee number, maybe? Clara could figure it out.

  I finished that one and she slid over a perfectly normal tax form. A few tables away, Aaron’s voice rose, irritation lining his words, but I stayed focused on the form. Last thing I needed was to screw it up and have the government subtract double taxes or something.

  “I’ll need to make a copy of your ID and your server certificate,” Clara said, reading over the first form. “Oh, and you forgot your MID number.”

  I dug my wallet out of my purse and passed her my driver’s license. “I forgot my what?”

  She didn’t hear me as she took my ID. “Oh, you’re from Ontario? Do you drive? We have a parking lot.”

  “I drove in Ontario,” I commented dryly. “But not here. Who needs a car?”

  She laughed. “No one who lives downtown has a car—except that dummy.” She called the last part at the three guys and Aaron flipped her the bird without pausing his annoyed tirade—something about being more cautious than a granny on an ice rink.

  Clara snorted, amused by his respo
nse. Me, I wanted to smack him for being rude.

  “Anyway,” she said, pulling a second pen from her pocket. “I’ll add your MID number while you …”

  I looked up. She was squinting at my license with a deep furrow between her brows. Then she extended my card. “I need your real ID.”

  “Uh.” I blinked. “That is a real ID.”

  “No, I mean, your real ID.”

  “Like … my passport?”

  “No, your MID!” She waved my license in emphasis. “This doesn’t have an MID number.”

  I leaned back, confused by her sudden agitation. “What’s an MID number?”

  “That’s not funny.” When I gazed vacantly at her, she visibly paled. “Tori, what’s your class?”

  “My class?”

  She pressed her hands to the bar top, eyes wide. “Your class, what is it?”

  “You mean at the community college? I’m taking—”

  “No, your mythic class!” She shoved my card under my nose, even more frantic. “Why doesn’t your license have a mythic identification number? You’re registered, aren’t you?”

  “Registered for what? Clara, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

  Panic flashed in her eyes. “Oh my god. I don’t believe it.”

  “Don’t believe … what?”

  “You’re human.”

  I blinked again. Squinted. Rubbed one ear like I might have misheard. “Beg your pardon?”

  Clara dropped my ID on the bar and hid her face behind her hands. “Darius is going to kill me. Why didn’t I check your ID last night? I’m an idiot.”

  “Clara,” I said, alarmed and confused in equal measure. “I swear it’s a real ID. I’m twenty-one, old enough to bartend, and—”

  “That’s not the problem,” she moaned. “How did you even find out about this place? About the job?” She whipped her hands down. “Do you have a mythic relative? Did they tip you off about the job? Please tell me you do.”

  “What’s a mythic?”

  “Oh god. I’m in so much trouble. I never should have—but you were perfect. You weren’t scared of anyone—not even Aaron! I thought you were some badass mythic who wanted to bartend, but you—”

  “Get over yourself, Aaron.” Kai’s angry voice rose over Clara’s. “We’re not doing this your way—not again. Your plans always end in fireballs and explosions.”

  Fireballs? Explosions? I glanced at them as Aaron snapped, “What’s wrong with that?”

  “Tori.” Clara’s panicked tone drew my attention back to her as Kai and Aaron continued to argue. “Last night, did you see anything?”

  “Huh?”

  “Did you see anything … unusual?”

  “Did I see anything unusual?” I repeated blankly. “Like what?”

  “Say that again,” Aaron shouted furiously, “and I’ll toast your pale ass to a healthy crisp!”

  His hand shot into the air—and fire burst from his fingers. The red flames danced across his skin, sparks raining down on the table. Curling his hand into a fist, he cocked his arm back, aiming for Kai.

  “Aaron!” Clara shrieked. “Put your fire away!”

  He froze in mid-motion, his fist still blazing. “Clara? What’s wrong?”

  “Put it out!” she yelled, her voice high with panic. “Now!”

  He flicked his fingers open and the flames vanished. “Jeez, don’t get your panties in a twist. I wasn’t actually going to roast him.”

  “Just—just shut up for once in your life, Aaron!” Clara pressed her hands to her head like she was trying to squeeze her brain. “This is already bad enough.”

  “What’s bad?” He pushed back from the table and strode over, Kai and Ezra on his heels. “What’s going on?”

  I didn’t move, my eyes fixed on his hand—his hand that had been engulfed in flames. Did that count as unusual?

  “I screwed up,” Clara groaned, covering her face again like she couldn’t stand to see me. “I didn’t check her ID yesterday.”

  Aaron slid my driver’s license off the bar top and read it. “Victoria Dawson? Your name is Victoria?”

  I shook off my shock to scowl at his sniggering tone.

  Kai plucked the card out of Aaron’s hand. “There’s no MID number.”

  “Is it a fake ID?” Aaron asked with amusement. “Did you hire a rogue, Clara?”

  “Worse,” Clara whispered. “She’s human.”

  The three guys stared at me, and I stared back without the slightest idea what the hell anyone was talking about. But more important than the incomprehensible conversation was the fact Aaron’s hand had been on fire, and I couldn’t figure out how it could possibly have been a trick.

  “No way,” Aaron finally said. “What’s your class, Tori?”

  I pointed at his hand. “Was that real fire?”

  “Oh, shit,” Kai muttered. “How did she get past the repelling ward on the door?”

  “How did she know about the job posting? She doesn’t even know what the MPD is.” Clara pulled a stool from the back corner behind the bar and dropped onto it. “Darius is definitely going to kill me.”

  “So …” I straightened on my seat. “You guys planning to explain what you’re all going on about?”

  “No,” Clara said. “I’m sorry, Tori, but I can’t hire you. You shouldn’t even be here.”

  Sharp disappointment shot through me, followed by stinging rejection. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. This job was too good to be true.

  Whatever they were talking about, I wouldn’t beg for an explanation. If they didn’t want me here, I was gone. I pulled my license out of Kai’s hand and returned it to my wallet, then slung my purse over my shoulder. Clara didn’t meet my eye as I got to my feet.

  I was about to walk to the door with all the dignity I could muster, but a niggling curiosity stopped me. I swung back toward Aaron. “Hey, um, before I go, could I … see the fire thing again?”

  Surprise flickered across his face, then he grinned.

  Clara straightened sharply. “Aaron, don’t—”

  He extended his hand toward me, palm turned up. Sparks flashed over his fingers, then flames ignited on his palm, racing over his skin like he’d dipped his hand in oil. Warmth bathed my face. Holy shit, it was real fire.

  Grin widening, he flexed his fingers. The fire burst outward, engulfing his hand, then raced up his arm and over his shoulder. I jerked back, the heat blasting my exposed skin. He relaxed his arm and the flames extinguished, leaving his skin and shirt unmarked.

  “Whoa,” I breathed. “That was cool.”

  “No, it was hot,” Ezra corrected.

  Clara growled. “Aaron, you are breaking—the—law. Stop showing off. She needs to leave.”

  “Oh, come on, Clara. She won’t blab. Right, Tori?”

  “Nope,” I said with a pop on the P. Besides, who would I blab to? I looked at Kai and Ezra. “Can you two light yourselves on fire too?”

  The corner of Kai’s mouth lifted in an amused smirk. He clenched his hand into a fist and white electricity crackled up his arm.

  “Fire is overrated,” he said.

  I turned eagerly to Ezra, but he sighed glumly. “My element isn’t flashy. I’m just a boring aeromage.”

  “What’s that?”

  He waved his hand vaguely and a puff of wind spun around me, whipping my ponytail into my face. I shoved my hair back, goggle-eyed.

  “If you three don’t cut it out,” Clara growled, “I’ll report you to Tabitha.”

  Aaron flinched. “Don’t do that. She’s just itching to write me up.”

  “Tori, you need to leave now. Please.”

  “Hold on,” Kai said. “It isn’t illegal for humans to work for guilds.”

  “No, but there are a million regulations we can’t meet.” Clara shook her head. “That aside, it would never work. She’d get eaten alive.”

  “She seems tough enough,” Ezra disagreed.

  “She was tough yest
erday because she didn’t know she should be afraid!” Clara pointed at Aaron. “She doesn’t know the Sinclair name. She threw a drink on you because she had no idea you could light her on fire in retaliation.”

  “She’s hilarious.” Aaron beamed like he treasured the memory of my margarita-throwing meltdown. “We should keep her.”

  “What?”

  “You need a bartender,” Kai pointed out. “Desperately. Give her a chance, see how she does.”

  “But …” Clara shook her head again. “No. It’ll never work. She won’t want to bartend for a guild anyway.”

  “A guild?” I echoed.

  “See? She doesn’t know anything. She—”

  “Clara,” Ramsey the cook hollered from the kitchen. “The repairmen are here!”

  Clara looked wildly from me to the saloon doors. Ramsey stuck his head out, his dark hair swept over one side of his face.

  “Repairmen,” he repeated. “For the freezer? They’re waiting for you at the back door.”

  As he vanished into the kitchen, Clara glowered at Aaron, Kai, and Ezra. “You three, keep your blabbermouths shut. Tori, I’m really sorry, but you need to go.”

  With a final warning glare at the four of us, she rushed into the kitchen. The saloon doors were still swinging when she popped out again, a finger pointed accusingly at the guys as though she’d expected to catch them in the act. “I mean it! I’ll be back in a minute.”

  She disappeared. I waited to see if she was really gone this time, then glanced at the three guys. Three … mages.

  With a sly smile, Aaron pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, slid his driver’s license out, and handed it to me. I blinked down at it. Beneath his photo, the same logo from Clara’s paperwork stood out boldly, a ten-digit number beside it.

  “Oooh,” I murmured. “So that’s an MID number.”

  “Mythic identification number,” Aaron said. “A mythic is anyone who can use magic, and we’re all registered with the MPD, an international regulatory body.”

  “Will you get in trouble for telling me that?”

  He shrugged and slipped the card back into his wallet. “I’m always in trouble.”

 
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