He leaned back, his leather chair creaking as he rested his hands on the desk before him.
Larry McGregor cowered in his seat, back hunched and shoulders jutting out as he stared at the room. There was no light on in the office, and dark shadows danced over Larry’s face.
“Please, just give me another chance. Another chance,” Larry begged, words quick and spluttering like blows from a whip.
The other man didn’t say a word. He remained there, still and silent, as he watched in the half gloom. His eyes were practically luminescent, the deep blue pools achieving a color rarely seen. “You had your chance,” he said, voice a rumble like the ocean during a storm.
“Please, just one more chance. Give me just one more chance!” Larry pushed up from his chair, got down on one knee in a supplicating position, and brought his hands up as if praying to God. And in many ways he was – except this god wouldn’t listen.
The man behind the desk rose slowly, clutching a hand onto the polished mahogany wood and pushing up. The chair clattered over behind him as he took one strong step toward Larry.
Along the side of the room, a large plate-glass window offered an unrivaled view of the city beyond. At 3 o’clock in the morning, with its lights aglow under the dappled starlight from above, it looked like a painting, each stroke carefully selected by a master. The view, however, couldn’t match the godlike man as he made his slow, deliberate way across the room. He was wearing a fine, pressed suit made of the most expensive Italian wool. It couldn’t hide his build. With broad shoulders, a tall frame, and an angular jaw, he looked like a carving from old. His stature was nothing compared to his eyes. Set in a strong face, outlined by a halo of golden hair and a thick flax-colored beard, he almost didn’t look real.
But real he was.
His muscles and joints creaked as he leaned down and locked a hand over the back of Larry’s neck.
“No, please, stop. I’ll do anything, absolutely anything if I’m given one more chance,” Larry begged.
Larry’s face slackened with desperation, for even though he was terrified, he was still frozen by the look playing in those impossibly deep blue eyes.
“Will you really do anything?” the other man repeated, voice once more like an angry ocean being swept around by a violent storm.
“Yes. Yes. I’ll do anything. Just one more chance.”
“Two weeks ago, you sold this item.” The man reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He unlocked it with a slow move of his thumb. The screen was already waiting on a picture, a picture of a simple box. Ancient, made of old, chipped, dark-brown wood, it had a single rune carved over the top by a hasty hand. It was almost as if the craftsmen had been forced to finish the box at the point of a sword.
Larry gasped, his shuddering breath shoving hard into his torso as he almost crumpled forward. The other man wouldn’t let him.
“Two weeks ago,” the man repeated slowly, each word like a drumbeat, “you stole this item from my office. I want it back. You have two days. If you fail—” He didn’t finish. Instead, he turned and walked back to his desk. Picking up his chair in a smooth move, he sat. Just as he did, the door behind Larry opened with a creak.
“That… that box – it will be impossible to get back—” Larry began.
The other man tilted his head and stared with the power of 10,000 suns. “Then it will be impossible for you to live. For, Larry McGregor, unless you bring that to me in two days, you will die.”
“No, Larry, I can’t work tonight. Are you serious? I already told you I need the day off. My grandmother’s barely got a week. Do you have any idea what my mom will do to me if I miss saying goodbye to her?”
“But you need money, don’t you, kid? Rent’s gone up again, hasn’t it?” Larry said in that smooth, sanctimonious voice that half made me hate the guy and yet always made me chuckle at his sheer ballsiness.
“Yeah, sure, I need money. But she’s my grandmother.”
“And you can thank her when she leaves you a chunk of cash in her will. But right now I need your help, kid. Who’s more important? A grandmother who always hated you because you didn’t live up to her crippling expectations, or me, a guy who dragged you out of the gutter and gave you the job you always dreamt of?”
There was so much wrong with that statement. Firstly, he hadn’t dragged me out of the gutter. And secondly, I really doubted late-night waitressing gigs for a somewhat shady catering company was my dream job. I didn’t actually know what my dream job was, but I was relatively certain serving alcohol and finger food to inner-city businessmen wasn’t it.
I brought a hand up and peeled my curtains back, gazing at the view. I pressed my phone closer to my ear and glared at the clouds as they marched across the horizon. The last few days had been miserable. It was meant to be midsummer, but I couldn’t tell that with the gusty wind chasing through the streets and rattling everything that wasn’t tied down. It felt more like deepest winter.
I brought a hand up and rubbed the center of my chest, right over my sternum. My skin was cold. Call me crazy, but my chest had been cold for weeks now. It felt like I’d swallowed a small fragment of ice, and it had become stuck above my heart.
“Come on, kid – you owe me. Now, I’m not taking no for an answer,” Larry said, words more snapped than usual.
Don’t get me wrong, Larry was hardly the politest guy in the world. If they gave out an award to slightly balding, potbellied men in their mid-50s who’d made a career out of shouting at people for dropping wine glasses, Larry would win hands-down. Still, I kind of liked to believe that underneath that extremely frosty exterior was a nice guy. Deep, deep underneath. Heck, you’d probably have to get some geologists from an oil rig to plumb the depths of his soul before you found a grain of good, but I was certain it was there. And that was the only reason why I took a deep sigh and let my shoulders deflate.
Dropping the corner of the curtain from my fingers, I whirled and marched through my room. “All right, fine. I’ll do it. But, Larry, listen to me. You owe me.”
He let out a sharp breath of his own. “Yeah, sure. I owe you like I owe Franklin Saunders. I’ll take a debt to you any day over that guy.”
I frowned. Sure, Larry talked shit. It was a combination of the fact he never slept and his liquid of choice wasn’t water but whiskey. Still, though I let most of his insane comments slide, this one was weirder than most. “Um, sorry, are you in debt to Franklin Saunders? What the hell does that mean?”
Larry took a hissed breath, one that rattled down the line and proved to me he hadn’t been conscious of what he was saying. “Never mind,” he said with a snap. “Just be here by six for prep. I’ll text you the address. And, for the love of god, put a little bit of effort into your appearance this time. This is one of the highest class gigs I’ve had in a long time, and I don’t want you ruining it by looking like something the cat dragged in.”
I made a face at my mirror as I poked at the deep, dark circles around my eyes. “Yeah, got it,” I snapped back. “But seriously, Larry. What do you owe Franklin—” I began.
I didn’t get the chance to finish; Larry hung up.
Like I said, he was usually rude, but Larry never hung up on you. You were usually the one to hang up on Larry. He could talk your ear off, and he often did, warning me with colorful insults to do my hair and makeup so I didn’t look like a dog-eared doll (his words).
Frowning at my phone, I chucked it on the chipped wood dresser before me and went back to poking the circles under my eyes. I sure would like to look nice tonight, but the fact was, I’d barely slept in weeks. I was working around the clock in four different casual jobs, and it still wasn’t enough to pay the bills. So yeah, Larry was right – I didn’t exactly have the luxury of passing up this job. And maybe he was right about my grandmother, too. She’d never liked me. I’d never been able to match her crushing expectations, as Larry had put it so succinctly.
It hadn’t always been that way. Back when I’d been a kid, she’d doted on me, giving me anything I asked for. But something had changed. If you asked her, it was me. I’d changed when I’d grown up, when I’d no longer been the angel she’d loved. According to her, sometime in my teens, I’d started down a bad path. According to my dear grandmother, I’d lost my morality. And to her, morality was everything.
Frowning at my reflection in the mirror, I pushed back and bared my teeth at it. “It was always different for you, wasn’t it? Nona, you grew up in a world where you didn’t have to struggle to survive. Everything was handed to you on a silver platter. You had money, you had prestige, you had class. And I’ve got nothing,” I said as I tried but failed to swipe a hand through my knotted hair. Getting even more frustrated, I gave the door a petulant kick as I walked out into my tiny kitchen.
My apartment had three rooms: my bedroom, a bathroom, and a glorified kitchen. It had just enough space for a tiny table, a tiny chair, a stove, a fridge, and a sink. It gave close quarters a whole new meaning. I didn’t have to take a single step to reach the cupboards when I was cooking, and if I needed something from the sink, I had just to pivot on my foot.
My grandmother, on the other hand, had grown up in a mansion. But Larry was wrong: when she died, there was no way I was going to inherit a cent. She’d already made it crystal clear that I’d been struck from the will. I wasn’t ready for my inheritance according to her. In fact, the old ditty had written those exact words in a card she’d sent to me barely a week ago. That same card was now lodged under my fruit bowl, a few tattered apple leaves covering it.
I still wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. Burn it? Chuck it out the window? Write a quick, snarky reply and send it back to her along with a gorilla gram? Or should I keep it because, like it or not, Nona was on her way out, and this would be the last letter I would ever receive from her?
My belly gave a sudden rumble, and I turned to face the fridge. Opening it with my foot, I stared glumly at the contents: one half eaten packet of Chinese take-out that was several days old.
I grabbed it, sniffed it experimentally, winced, and shrugged my shoulders. It was the best I could do. Grabbing a used plastic spoon from the counter, I sat down at my cracked Formica table.
As I settled down to eat my old Chinese, I plucked my phone out and began texting my mother, telling her I wouldn’t be able to make it to Nona’s. She was currently holed up in her mansion in a room that had been renovated with specialist medical equipment.
Even though I’d only gone to see her a few times over the past few months of her palliative care, for some reason that room was seared onto my eyeballs. I could even hear the hiss of her oxygen machine.
Rubbing that particular image from my mind as I pushed my fringe from my eyes, I leaned over my phone.
I lied, quickly coming up with a better excuse than I had to work. Then I sat back and downed my Chinese in a few unpalatable gulps.
Even though I’d just gotten up, I headed back to bed. I had a feeling tonight would be a long one.
The room was dark, gloomy, a musty scent filling the air. Running along with it was the sharp smell of fresh blood.
Hank walked forward, hands in his pockets. He tipped his head down and nodded at the box on the plinth. “Tell me we finally found it?”
A man stood behind the plinth in a long, dark robe that touched the dust-covered floor. The robe was completely black except for red accents of perpetually fresh blood rimming its sleeves and collar. The blood dripped along the fabric until it splashed onto the floor.
The man inclined his head to the side, bringing up a hand as it escaped from his long sleeve. His hand caught the light. It was gnarled down to the bone, nothing more than a thin sheet of skin stretched across joints.
Hank didn’t shudder back in fear; he’d seen much worse and done much worse. “Tell me it’s the right box, finally. Tell me we’ve got our hands on it?” he demanded once more.
The other man ignored him as he picked up the box carefully with the gentle touch of a soldier brandishing a live grenade. The old man tapped one of his twisted, skin-covered fingers along the wood. A dull, resonant thump echoed through the room. It sent a thrill racing up Hank’s spine.
“I need fresh blood,” the old man announced.
Hank didn’t wait. He shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a vial, chucking it at the old man.
“And the victim?” the man asked.
“Killed in all the right ways. It’s as fresh as fresh can be. Just what you need.” Hank’s words were quick, snapped, all his attention locked on the box and the promise within.
The old wizard didn’t waste any more time. Carefully, he undid the lid of the vial, and with a single word echoing under his breath, he tipped the blood over the box.
At first, nothing happened, and Hank’s heart sank. Then an explosion of magic covered the box, blue flames sparking so high Hank had to take a step back and protect his face.
As he let his hand drop, an enormous grin cut across his face. “Finally, finally, we found it.”
The wizard didn’t reply. Instead, he brought his hand down, and despite the licking blue flames, he plunged it past them to run a gnarled nail across the wood.
Though a protection spell ran along the wizard’s hand, it wasn’t strong enough to completely protect him from those dancing flames. The old man gave a hiss but did not stop running his nail down the length of the box.
“Open it,” Hank insisted as he pressed forward. The heat from the flames simply wasn’t there, and yet he knew if he reached a hand out without the right protection spells in place, the flames would consume him. It took practitioners of the strongest caliber to be able to push the power of that fire back.
The wizard continued to rake his fingernail across the runes carved into the wood, but the flames kept licking higher and higher. With every second, his protection spell ran out, until, with a rattling gasp, he jerked back.
“Open it!” Hank screamed, spittle flying from his mouth.
“I cannot,” the wizard conceded as he drew his damaged hand back into the protection of his blood-soaked sleeve.
“Then find a way.”
“I will,” the wizard promised.
“And keep that thing safe, for god’s sake. Who else knows about the box?”
“Only the fools who sold it to me,” the wizard replied.
“Have them eliminated at once.”
The wizard nodded his head down low.
“Right.” Hank shoved his hands back into his pockets. Before he could turn and leave, he shot one last, lingering look at the box. Within was the power to change everything. Whosoever held that power would hold the world in their hands.
The rest of The Frozen Witch Book One is available from most ebook retailers.