Arthur prepares for battle . . . with the bank, the account books, and the sales computer. This is almost a nine years after O. Familiar.
Arthur drove first to the warehouse. He noted Rendor’s car, and two others belonging to older Hunters. Good. The young pups would hesitate before testing any of them. They should not, not here, but impulses oft times conflicted with good sense. Arthur eased out of the vehicle and entered by the side door, away from the loading area.
Voices carried from the loading dock. “How many pounds of herbicide?” Ivan demanded.
“Six thousand, five hundred. Florian and Marius say that Oberst has threatened to kill whoever thought it a good idea to ship so early.” Laughter under Rendor’s words. “He has to store it until fall. Florian asked Marius to trade places until Oberst calmed down.”
Laughter in reply. Constache coughed, then declared, “Marius refused.”
“Indeed. The plea of shared blood and birth was not sufficient to convince him.” More laughter.
Arthur ignored the guffaws and went to his small office, then slipped into the hidden sleeping and storage area. He changed from Hunting garb into his preferred style, ate more, and braced for the day. With a quiet sigh he turned on the computer and found reading glasses, then began sorting e-mail and internet orders. The internet had made the shop profitable beyond his hopes, but it demanded so much of his time and attention. He needed to give the child access, so that she could do some of the work. Two orders from Germany gave him pause. He would have to consider that. Shipping and customs might well devour any profits.
He worked on orders, then read the latest news about shipping and customs. Items from Europe no longer suffered delays, but English and Irish goods would take at least two weeks beyond scheduled. He removed the glasses and polished the lenses. Lady be praised that he did so little business with the English clothing suppliers.
Arthur logged out. He took the printed orders and packaged what he could. Rendor and Arkady carried some of the boxes and parcels to the shipping dock without being asked. Arkady’s nose remained somewhat flatter than before, just as his respect for his elders remained far greater than before. Most of the younger Hunters had learned from Arkady’s poor judgment. Most, but not all. Rendor cleared his throat.
“Sir, Deborah contacted Dumitra. The too-large owl has been seen near both the urban garden, and the place where the covens meet.” Arthur’s nephew-by-marriage frowned. “It has not bothered my lady or her mother recently, but they distrust the creature.”
“They are wise. I am warned, and will pass the warning.” He glanced around. Several other Hunters or inactive Hunters lingered, listening. He spoke more loudly. “A second beast stalked yester night, perhaps seeking to prey on the first creature, perhaps hunting Hunters. It was not asked its intentions.”
Grim chuckles greeted his words, and the others made signs of acknowledgement. They went wary. Arthur tucked the orders into his bag and departed. He stopped at the tea shop on his way. A matron ahead of him in line hid a yawn, then grumbled, “Well I heard that the city said no fireworks this year because of the river being too low.”
Unkind snorts greeted her words. A man with a laden drink-carrier said, “Nah. The real reason is that they busted the budget on the new park equipment, the stuff that collapsed the second week after they put it in, and replacing it took all the fireworks funds.”
“I’ll believe that. What cheap junk,” a third person declared.
Arthur listened with one ear. The scent of fresh-baked pastries flowed through the shop. He considered the cost of the little golden buns and filled croissants against what the goth shop’s shipping bill had been the previous week. The pastries won. As he drew closer, he observed the small “two-for-one” sign. Even better.
The owner smiled as he reached the order counter, her hand poised over the register’s keys. “Good morning, sir. Your usual?”
“Good morning. No, thank you. I would like the tea of the day, large and hot, a small mocha, and four of the lemon crescents, and two of the chocolate.” Skender and their remaining sister gave him endless grief over his fondness for chocolate.
The lady smiled even more broadly. “Large tea of the day, small mocha, four lemon, two chocolate crescents. Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“No, thank you.” He stepped aside without being reminded, paid and collected his order.
Traffic remained light, and he reached the shop with steam still rising from the tea. He let himself in the alley door. The alarm’s delay warning failed to chirp. That should not be. He heard music coming from the main shop at a low volume. “Now you’re in trouble,” a smooth tenor voice called, followed by snickering.
“How can I be in trouble for being early? No, do not answer that, Master Tay,” came the weary reply. Arthur frowned as he set the bag down and unlocked his office door. The child should not be present. He had told her not to come in early.
The source of the first voice, a ring-tailed lemur with silver-white head, forefoot, shoulders, and tail, slunk into the workroom, then walked toward him. “Yes, Master Tay?” he inquired in his own speech as he moved the bakery bag out of paw’s reach.
A quiet sigh, and orange eyes too experienced and wise met his own. “Shadow was asked to attend the Memorial Day service. Last night he dreamed of the past. Silver could not return to sleep, and so came here to finish what she left undone yesterday.”
“Ah. Thank you.” Arthur set the drink carrier on his desk, dropped the office bag onto the chair, and locked the bakery items into his desk drawer. He glanced at the message board to see if any new messages awaited. Only one, a reminder about a pending fire inspection. He made a small check mark beside it, then glanced through the bead curtain into the main shop.
The child stood behind the counter, entering sales into the main ledger book. She wore a long-sleeved, high-collared grey blouse with a hint of blue to it, and a long black skirt, both with darker grey lace on the hems. Hunter colors, as befitted her role of wise-Huntress. A small black top hat and miniature veil perched on her grey and dark-blond hair. She turned her head, attention fully on the large book, and he caught a glimpse of the silver-white streak in her eyebrow and hair, the sign of backlash’s fiery kiss. Blue-grey eye-shadow and liner—and reddish-black lipstick over pale base—marked her as another who favored the goth sub-culture. She leaned forward to inspect something. Her silver St. Michael’s medallion gleamed for an instant as it swung. The flash of light matched his flash of pride. She had acquitted herself very well on her first Great Hunt.
“Mrs. Lestrang,” he called, voice quiet so as not to startle her. She turned and curtsied. He acknowledged the honor. “Bring the ledger, please.”
“Yes, sir.” She sorted the unfinished receipts with nimble fingers, then carried them and the heavy book through the bead curtain and into the workroom. He led her to his office and gestured to the desk. She set the book down and turned to go.
“Sit, please, and break your fast with me.”
She hesitated for the space between heartbeats, then said, “Yes, sir.” By the time he shifted the order pages clear and opened the drawer protecting the bakery bag, she had fetched small, mismatched paper plates and napkins. He gave her the mocha, then served himself from the bag. Only when he finished did she sit and take the remaining treats. The bakery had added an extra, one of the small, round buns, and she left it for him, as was proper.
After both had eaten a little, he said, “Two abyssal creatures required attention.”
She set the mocha down on his desk and began touching the tips of her fingers, counting. “Sir, if I recall correctly, that is nine in three weeks. That . . .” Her brow wrinkled as she frowned. “That should not be, not in this season.”
“So says the senior Hunter as well, and you recall correctly.” He sat back, tea in hand. The heat soothed the little aches in his fingers. “Twice in two months we have found evidence of gates.”
Master Tay coughed, and the child lifted him into her lap. She said, “I sensed one, and Art may have sensed a second, although he was not certain.” Her expression shifted from concerned to weary. “That was the night the role-playing game went awry at the university.”
“Ah.” His nume fiiu, named-for boy child, had dealt with the magical mishap with commendable swiftness and firmness. “Rendor says that the over-large owl has returned.”
Tay covered his eyes with one paw. “Blast. Bothering healers again?”
The child startled and gave her Familiar a strange look. Then she met his eyes. “Sir, Tay has a point. The last time the owl lingered, it lingered near Dumitra, her mother, Mistress Cimbrissa, and Deborah. And was seen at St. Margaret of Scotland just after the fire.” Dark almond eyes became wary. “And at the site of the drug factory. I do not care for this.”
He wanted to thump himself. Why had he not seen the pattern? “Nor do I. A fire lit to destroy books and items of physical and spiritual healing.” He drank. He preferred black to green tea, but the fruit and mild clove under-flavors blended well and left no bitterness. “Master Tay, can the owl be Hunted?”
Orange eyes met his. “If you seek permission, none is needed. If you mean Gears and Wings assisting, no. They are no longer sufficiently strong. If you mean the one who Hunts in shadow,” he turned the silver-bleached paw up, revealing still pink pads. “He yet abides by the law.” The paw swept forward and snagged the un-eaten end of a lemon crescent from his mage’s plate. “But I don’t!” The lemur dove off her lap and raced out of the office, trophy in maw.
Arthur fought to hide his laughter and failed. The child covered her face with her hands. “Rodney is a terrible influence,” she moaned. She lowered her hands. “Except Tay stole part of my dinner the first time we met, so for once I cannot blame my Hunting partner’s Familiar. I’m sorry, sir. He knows better.”
Indeed, the small master did, which was precisely why he’d done it. Arthur drank more tea. The child finished her mocha. She had fully accepted her husband’s faith, and he ought not have gotten the coffee for her. But she loved the drink still, and did not refuse his gift. Arthur savored the flavors in the tea, then finished the second chocolate croissant. Cimbrissa had scolded him about his weakness. As few pleasures remained to him, chocolate was the least of little vices. At last he said, “Ask Shadow about gates, please, and about other creatures that should not be present.”
He waved his right hand, dismissing her. She stood and departed, after she swept the desk for crumbs. He considered the golden brown bun. A wise Hunter would save it for later. But he was not numbered among the wise, as Skender oft times reminded him. The bun contained almond paste, a fitting combination with which to conclude his repast. He washed his hands, disposed of the bag and empty cups, and turned his attention to the ledger.
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