JEREMY PEEKED over the windowsill as a tall dark-haired man rummaged through the backseat of a car with a rental tag. Despite Georgia being one of the few states free of the cold wave hitting the US in early fall, he wore a long trench coat that made Jeremy sweat just looking at it. When an older passerby struggling with a grocery sack walked down the sidewalk near the stranger, the man ran to help her cross the street. Polite is a good start. Could my new boss be an actual good person? No, Jeremy had to be barmy to fall into that trap again. His last boss was surprisingly pleasant until he stuck two fingers up the crack of Jeremy’s pants and pretended it was a clumsy accident. Jeremy didn’t care if the new chap helped little old ladies through traffic, he was done blindly trusting employers who turned out to be scum. Hot breath touching the back of Jeremy’s neck made him jump.
“Is that him?”
Jeremy glared down at Simone, who was similarly crouched. “Yes, so stop breathing on me.” He batted at her to move away. The temp agency sponsored by the nosy do-gooding Council had to trap them on a fourth job together. “Why can’t you ever remember personal space?”
“Because I don’t respect you enough to care.” Simone crawled on her hands and knees and forced Jeremy to scoot over to give her room. “He’s not bad-looking.”
“All I ask is that he keeps his hands to himself.” Jeremy slipped a hand into his pants pocket, where his switchblade rested. He had given it a thorough scrubbing after pressing it into Grabby Hands’s nostril. Jeremy glared out the window. “I won’t tolerate a repeat of my last hell.” He heard no response and turned to his coworker, who was now quiet.
Simone stared at him and then shook her head. “You still carry around that switchblade, don’t you?”
“My belongings are none of your concern.”
Her face scrunched up. “Who raised you?”
“A woman who doesn’t judge other witches’ athames.” Jeremy looked at his watch. Since magic-for-hire figureheads were usually flashy mages who thrust out their staffs or wands at bad things while less powerful witches did paperwork, it was a shock the new man had come in before they officially opened. “He’s punctual, which is more than I can probably say about our paychecks.”
Simone groaned. “I can’t believe I got stuck on another job with the asshole-attractor.”
“Says the other jinx. Call me if we get a job or if the building is on fire.” Jeremy left the lobby and headed toward his private office. No matter how many times he requested information, the temp agency had barely told him anything about this Clive he’d been sent to work for, other than he was a wizard from another world. That meant no crime ties unless the boss quickly made seedy friends. No. He shouldn’t make assumptions. Every magic-for-hire job had gone wrong in the most disastrous of ways. Jeremy sighed heavily. Optimism be damned.
Snatches of Simone eagerly introducing herself, as if she believed the otherworlder wouldn’t run home after two months, came through the cracked opening of Jeremy’s door. He could hear pleasantries exchanged, and the promises that they would enjoy working together in the future. What bollocks. When footsteps approached his door and someone knocked softly on it, putting off the inevitable was no longer an option.
“A moment of your time, Mr. Ragsdale?”
“If I must,” Jeremy said.
The door pushed open fully, and Clive blinked at shelves from floor to ceiling lined with jars, packets large and small, various crystals, and other assortments of magical objects that were part of Jeremy’s personal collection. It was an inventory that any witch or wizard in any world would envy. “This is not what I was….”
“Not the level of competence you were expecting from the reject the agency sent you?” Jeremy crossed his arms. “I’m not offended. The feeling is mutual.” He sat a small box on his desk and placed his hands on his hips. He tapped his pointer finger on a silver pocket watch under the line of his gray vest. “Are you here for a particular reason?”
“I wanted to assure you that no matter what sort of job you experienced in the past, I wish your time in my employ to be enjoyable.”
Jeremy narrowed his eyes. “Define enjoyable.”
“Congenial and lucrative.” Clive flashed a bright smile, as if no one had ever questioned his motives before.
If his naiveté isn’t an act, he’ll be dead in a week. “Concentrate on business, and we’ll get along fine.”
“What else would I focus on?”
“You’d be surprised.” Maybe he’s not the type, and I can go my first day without threatening to kill him. Jeremy stood silently for a long moment and glanced at the door. That means leave.
“It was nice meeting you. Oh, by the way, my name is Clive.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Jeremy muttered but kept the distance between them.
Clive tipped his head and left the room.
As Clive disappeared into the hall, Jeremy briefly wondered what it would be like if Clive managed to pull his weight and turned the business into a success. It had been a long time since Jeremy could trust his coworkers not to get him killed. He smiled ruefully. It was in the best interest of all parties that Clive got his fill of aiding those troubled by magic and then moved on. Jeremy didn’t need another death on his head if Clive truly meant to play hero.
THE OUT to Lunch sign with a wide smiley face was the most cheerful part of Clive’s day. Breathing a sigh of relief at the imminent break from hours of awkward silence, suspicious stares in his direction, and several mishaps in hooking up the Internet, he locked the front door of the shop. Try as she might, Simone’s warmth couldn’t hide the fact that she expected him to fail at everything, and Mr. Ragsdale had made as little contact with him as possible. As soon as the clock struck twelve for lunch, his employees sped off in opposite directions. He was sure he hadn’t caused any insult, and sniffing his armpits just in case only provided a normal midday smell, nothing untoward. Confused, Clive returned to his own car and drove to a restaurant where nostalgic tales of battles and a sympathetic ear regarding Earth Realm’s strange intricacies awaited him.
“I FELT murderous intent when I walked through the door, and it turned out to be one of my employees,” Clive told his fellow knight, Mia, as they sat in a restaurant filled with mounted animal heads and fishing equipment. He didn’t trust the rowboat dangling over their heads, but Mia assured him it would remain secured to the ceiling. “I know I’ve changed over the years, but I doubt I’ve become someone people want to kill before a first meeting.”
Mia’s beer sloshed past the edges of the bottle’s rim as she laughed. “They’ve been through a nasty set of employers.” Unlike Clive, sitting in civilian clothes without the protection of thick leather or armor didn’t bother her. The vibrant blue of her pants and shirt edged in beaded cuffs attracted the gaze of several patrons. Its shimmer in the overhead lights looked so familiar that Clive squinted to see it closely.
His breath caught. “Is that your Sky Cloak?”
Mia grinned wickedly. “You’d be amazed what a dwarf who knows his way around fairy cloth can do.” She shrugged. “I got tired of it hanging around my closet, and since there’s no chance of me going back, I decided to be bold.”
Shaving your head is bold. Desecrating the symbol of your family and…. Clive blinked. Ohhhhh. Well, that’s one way to get back at them. He cleared his throat. “How did the dwarf manage to cut it?”
“Clippers made from sharpened basilisk teeth.”
“In this world?”
Everyone had told him that he would practically be living in squalor in such a low-magic realm like Earth, but it didn’t lack all the comforts from his old world. “So where was I before you shocked me with this outfit I know you wore on purpose today? Ah, I was complaining about the demoralized castoffs I didn’t know I had to employ until half the paperwork for acquiring my business was signed.”
“Consider it a public service that works toward your green card.”
Clive leaned forward. “Is there any way I can trade them for people who respect me?”
“Not for the first year. You’ll get used to them.”
He shuddered. “They’re always watching, waiting for me to do something wrong. Especially Mr. Ragsdale.”
Mia’s eyes widened. “Tell me you didn’t get a woman named Simone Machado assigned to you too.”
Knots formed in Clive’s stomach, as if he needed any more stress. “If I did?”
One thing Clive didn’t miss from his home was the slanted gaze Mia used to give him when they were surrounded by evil mages she blamed his bad luck for attracting. The same look she was giving him right then. “Why do these things only happen to you?”
In Clive’s peripheral vision, a man pointed at the TV and began speaking excitedly. It was the distraction he wanted instead of confronting the bad news that awaited him, so Clive turned to see a man on-screen dressed in a white tuxedo flicking cards into doves. He bowed while taking off his top hat just as barely dressed men and women whipped long red sheets in the air. They swirled into a cape that landed delicately on the man’s back. Black hair billowed around his face as he drew a wand, summoning true magic. The man held a finger over his mouth, and then everything behind him went dark. Smoke enveloped the man, and he was replaced by the name Desmond the Great with a website underneath where fans could purchase tickets.
The mostly mortal eaters in the restaurant calmly went back to their meals as if nothing shocking had happened. “How can he practice so openly?” Clive hissed to Mia. The Council had made it clear to him during his immigration interview that he was not to even magically light a candle in front of a camera.
“Mortals here see him as those charlatans in the pointy hats who create pretty illusions for entertainment.”
“No one told me that was an option.”
“It isn’t. He was born in this world. I would stay away from him if I were you. His aura is pure black, and even the Witches’ Council steps carefully around him.”
Clive sank into the cushioned booth seat. “It must be nice to be flashy and not worry about being deported.”
“It’s your first day after the orientation period, and you’re already considering fame.”
“I envy his freedom, not his popularity.” Clive flicked the thin round cardboard under his glass. “It takes a while to get used to not using magic for these small things.” Most tavern keepers placed simple stain-prevention spells all around their establishments if they could afford it.
“I don’t miss cleaning after horses every day, or stepping in shit.”
Clive laughed. “That’s the truth.”
“So what’s your next step?”
He should have known that Mia wouldn’t let him change the subject for long. “I hope my latest employee shows up with more positivity. Now that I’ve whined and remembered that a few hiccups in this world are still many times better than the ungodly mess we left behind, I will bravely finish the day.” Clive held up his bottle. “But tomorrow I will win my employees over with earnestness and initiative.” He scratched his chin. “There aren’t too many other worlds I can run to if I fail.”
“May your sword kiss their blood… wait, no bloodshed.” Mia’s mouth wrinkled in thought as she must have been trying to recite a saying not about battle. “Ah. May your business acumen kiss their loyalty.”
“I’ll accept it.”
They clinked their bottles together.
The server came by with a tray and deposited their plates on the table.
Clive frowned at the golden brown food in front of him. “This is the vegetable platter?” He poked one of the firm odd-shaped lumps with a hint of green peeking under the crust.
“The veggie platter is fried.” The server’s hands hovered near his plate. “Do you want me to swap it for another dish?”
“No,” Mia said with a wide smile. “He’s new to town, and this is his first time trying foods like this.”
The server winked at her. “If you’re sure, I’ll leave y’all, but please let me know if you change your mind.” She walked off, and Clive eyed his devious fellow knight.
“You knew what I ordered.”
“Yes, I did.” Mia pointed at the plate. “Go on and be a good Southerner.”
Clive looked at his food in disbelief. “The description said pickles too.”
“Welcome to Georgia.”
CLIVE ADJUSTED his tie as all three employees sat in front of his desk. The Amazon, Edarra, sat a few inches over her coworkers’ heads, but she was just as fidgety as them. “I suspect that you’ve worked with other companies where the conditions were not ideal. I assure you that Witches for Hire will run smoothly, and I will lend you my ear to suggest improvements,” said Clive. All three employees looked away from him and creaked in their seats. Clive entwined his hands under his chin. “I want us to operate as close as family.”
Ragsdale winced and Simone groaned.
Edarra did a half shrug. “I like being a family.”
“With two strikes, you’d like pineapple skin,” Ragsdale muttered. “I’m sorry, but the best way we can get along is to treat this place as only a business and keep things impersonal.”
“I like your gumption, but let’s avoid words like family.” Simone aimed a glance at Jeremy that was no friendlier than his. “That’s not possible for some of us.”
“That we agree on,” Ragsdale said.
Of course there’s tension between these two. Clive wanted to roll his eyes to the ceiling, but it would seem disingenuous after his speech. For the love of all Praian gods, please don’t let it interfere with me obtaining my citizenship. He cleared his throat. “As I said, I hear your fears, and I’ll find a way to create a working relationship that all of you are comfortable with.”
“I can live with that,” Simone said.
Everyone stared at Jeremy expectantly. His shoulders slumped as he sighed so heavily that Clive worried he would pass out from such a large expulsion of air. “If I must.”
I can’t expect miracles with this bunch, so I’ll take whatever little improvements I can get, Clive thought. “I think we’re off on the right foot.”
JEREMY WATCHED Simone ready her coffeepot with her back to him as the water in his teapot, delicately painted with butterflies, came to a boil in the small kitchenette. “Eventually Edarra will be too busy on a case, which means we will have to assist each other. I believe speaking will be a requirement.”
“I can only wish that day comes later rather than sooner.” Simone still wouldn’t look at him.
“Do you think I wanted that night to end so badly?”
Simone slammed a box of sugar cubes on the counter as she finally faced him. “It doesn’t matter what you wanted. I killed a dude in front of my kids because God knows what those assholes were going to do to us. But you—” She smiled and shook her head as she turned back to her coffee. “It happened, and despite the piece of shit that you are, I’ll do my job properly.”
The truth was on the tip of Jeremy’s tongue. What he had done, what their only good boss had done to protect him. “I—”
“That smells delicious. Do you mind sharing?” Clive grinned obtusely.
Jeremy’s shoulders hunched. It serves me right for having this conversation here. “This is from my personal stock.” He took his cup and teapot and hurried to his office, closing the door with his foot. Ruining his day further by letting his tea grow lukewarm was unacceptable. I’m being silly. The trouble blew over, and telling her the truth would only endanger her again. Jeremy placed his teapot on his desk and poured the bubbling water into his cup. All I have to do is get through today, and then the next one. If the wizard is too much trouble, I can get myself fired and move on from this bloody nonsense.