Wallace wasn’t a woman easily discouraged, but the facts were stark. The whole come here and practice witchcraft idea? Not working. Not at any level. She was done pretending. Done smiling after she failed again. Done with pretending she belonged here. Just, you know, no more.
No more. She’d ducked into Maddy’s kitchen to steal a few minutes of dignity for herself, but she was conscious the social clock was ticking down. If she stayed here any longer, she’d be conspicuous by her absence, and Randi would for sure key in on that. Sad truth: Randi was a lioness, Wallace was the weak gazelle.
She remained at the kitchen sink with her head bowed and a paper cup of water in one hand. Pep-talking herself. No more feeling defeated and sorry for herself. Buck up, lady. You’re used to not belonging. Get over it, and get on with it. Like that, with some useless affirmations thrown in for good measure. I am a good person. I work hard. I am kind to kittens and puppies. Most people like me. She could be the nicest person in the world, and she still wouldn’t be able to do magic.
The kitchen where she was hiding out was in the Kensington, California home of Maddy Winters. The house had a killer view, a pool, and an open, airy plan. It was also one steep hill, two bus rides, and one long, long walk from Wallace’s South Berkeley rental.
The thought of going back in there with the others made her ill, even though after tonight she was done. There was no point to her being here. When she got home tonight, she was going to email Maddy that she wasn’t coming back. Nice and tidy, with the added benefit of no drama. No one had to fake being sad or regretful. She drank her water, refilled the cup, and turned around.
Her stomach twisted into a knot of razor blades.
Randi stood so close Wallace had to lift her cup over her head to have any hope of not spilling water all over her, Randi, and the kitchen floor. Since Randi didn’t move back, Wallace leaned against the counter.
Randi looked at her and saw a sick gazelle. Fine. All Wallace had to do was get through this evening. She could deal with Randi until then. Maybe just long enough to say she had a headache and wanted to go home.
“God, Wallace. Knock me over, why don’t you?”
“I did not—” Her paper cup flashed hot, and her stomach turned into a black hole. Luckily, the contact burn stopped as quickly as it had started, and she managed not to drop her water.
Randi darted a look at the cup. Expecting singe marks? “Do you have to be so clumsy?”
“Sorry if I startled you.” She wasn’t. She really wasn’t. In fact, the only thing she was sorry for was apologizing. Randi’s pettiness with the water was an emphatic period to her decision. If she hadn’t been entirely sure she was going to send that email tonight, she was now. Weeks of being relentlessly polite had failed. She wasn’t going to try anymore. “I didn’t know you were that close.”
Randi flicked her blonde hair behind her shoulders. Some witches flat out hated people like her. Where people like her meant not very talented. In fairness to Randi, the other reasons for her issues with Wallace appeared not to be a factor. Some people were not nice. That was Randi. “Like you didn’t hear me come in.”
She met Randi’s gaze, as wide-eyed and fake as possible. “Sure didn’t.”
“You are nothing. Nothing, you hear me?”
Instinct kicked in, and Wallace replied in cool tones. “You need to leave me alone.”
“Really?” Her eyebrows shot up. “Or else what?”
No one was here to see so, no surprise, Randi bumped her again, smiling the whole time. Water sloshed up against one side of her cup. The black hole in her mid-section shifted. It was like being on the ocean in bad weather.
Wallace spoke through her nausea. “Go away.”
Randi glanced over her shoulder at the archway from the kitchen to the entry. The others were still around the corner in the living room, but she lowered her voice anyway. “Nobody cares who you are, or where you come from, or how hard your life was. Kiss Maddy’s ass all you want, and you still won’t matter. Not here. Not with us. You can’t do anything that matters.”
She willed the woman to settle down. The calmer and more peaceful Wallace was, the calmer others were. During her years of being picked on as a girl, taunted for being poor, for being an orphan, for being tall, being black, too smart, too dumb, not black enough, for being different, she’d learned to bring calm to a tense situation. Since then, she’d elevated that gift to an art form. Survival and all that. “You need to leave, Randi.”
Randi took a step back. “Who do you think she wants around in the long run? A no-talent like you? Or someone like me?” She set her weight on one hip. “I really don’t think there’s going to be any contest.”
“Contest.” Calm. There was nothing here but calm. She had too much practice dealing with people who made Randi look like BFF material. “There’s no contest. If there is one, then, I promise you, I have not been competing.”
“We both know you’d lose.”
For half a second Wallace was convinced Randi was going to shove her into the kitchen counter. Wallace called on every inch of her calm. There would be no violence. No. None. Nothing. Violence was unacceptable. Unbearable. She lifted her free hand. “You win. I lose.”
Randi hooked a finger in the cup Wallace held and jerked.
Water went airborne.
For the second time in one night, the pit of her stomach turned into a black hole of pain. Her usual reaction to conflict had already made her sick to her stomach. Now there was the unpleasant addition of knife blades shredding the edges of that tremendous, flexing, hollow.
She was so, so tired of this BS. There was a hiss and a pulse of heat and then steam wafted in the air. The slicing pain in Wallace’s stomach got worse, to the point where she really thought she was going to heave.
Randi staggered back then bent over, gasping, one hand on her upper chest. Her mouth and eyes twisted up. She didn’t look too steady either. In fact, she looked like she was going fall over. “What the—”
On instinct, she reached for Randi and got her hand slapped away for her trouble. Fine. Point made. No more being nice.
Randi clenched her hands. “You no talent street bitch.”
Street bitch was Randi’s favorite rhyme for “street witch.” A term, it so happened, that barely applied to Wallace, and one Randi didn’t use when others were around to hear.
“What the ever loving hell?” Maddy Winters strode into the kitchen where Wallace and Randi stood. Her pointy-toed shoes clicked with authority, and her eyes were big and wide and fixed on Randi. The woman was all of what, five feet tall and a hundred pounds soaking wet? That was not the way Wallace ever wanted Maddy Winters to look at her. “Randi?”
There wasn’t a single person in this house who wasn’t afraid of Maddy when she was angry. “I can explain.”
Thank God for any favors to come her way on her last day at Maddy’s house. Maybe it wasn’t nice, but she was glad Randi was about to get in trouble for the unauthorized use of magic. She deserved it. Her hand still ached from that petty trick with the cup.
Maddy tapped her toe. “I’m waiting.”
“I’m sorry, Maddy.” Randi smoothed her golden hair into place. “I guess I overreacted.”
“I was getting a drink, and she came in.” That familiar scorn hardly reached her now. Wallace consoled herself with the fact that after tonight she’d never have to hear it again.
Maddy shot Wallace a glance. Wallace kept her expression neutral. Nothing would touch her, not even Randi’s implication that Wallace was some sort of cootie-carrying serial killer, which was hilarious, come to think of it. “And?”
Randi was all about the incredulity. You’d think she was the sweetest person in the whole world. “She jostled me.”
In the face of another outright lie, Wallace lost a bit of her I don’t give a shit about this attitude.
“She ran into me. On purpose.” Randi pointed at her. “And I was just so hyped up from our practice, I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t mean it, Maddy. Honestly, I didn’t. You know I’m working on my control.” Randi’s saccharine smile disappeared when she faced Wallace. “I apologize. I should not have used magic against anyone, but especially not someone as defenseless as you.”
From her place of disturbed serenity, Wallace summoned a smile. Her stomach stayed an aching void, and it was making her lightheaded. God, she wanted this to be over. Back to no one paying her any attention. She’d sit at the edges of the group, failing at everything, and they’d all leave her alone. Well, they would if she came back, which she wasn’t going to do.
“I got fed up.” Randi bounced up on her feet. Quite the trick in those shoes. She looked to Maddy for support. Wallace couldn’t tell what Maddy thought, but nothing good, considering her frown.
“Fed up over what?” Maddy said.
“Wallace. We’re all fed up with her.”
She’d seen this dynamic played out way too often to think this might come out in her favor. Never had. Never would. Never could. All the same, none of the words affected her. She was serene.
“I’m sorry, Maddy, but she contributes nothing. It’s so much easier when she’s not here. You must have noticed that. And then she was in here giving me a hard time all because she’s jealous.”
Jealous? Maybe. Some. What wouldn’t she give for even an atom of Randi’s talent? One speck would be enough to keep the lionesses of the world off her back. Nobody, but nobody, took Wallace seriously in respect of magical gifts. She was as close to vanilla, non-magical normal as anyone could be and still be called a witch. Sort of. Some days—most days—even that much was in doubt.
“Wallace?” Maddy said.
“I was not giving her a hard time.” She did not raise her voice, and she didn’t look at Randi. “But sure, I’m jealous of anyone who can do magic.”
“She admits it.” Randi’s pleasure in that didn’t change anything one way or the other. “We need to do something, Maddy.”
Wallace ignored the emptiness biting at her stomach, that seasick-like movement.
Randi’s anger smoothed out. Maddy’s frown did not change, but that stood to reason. Maddy’s emotions were not directed at her, nor was Maddy the cause of the conflict. That was pure Randi.
Wallace stayed wrapped up, and Randi, for once, didn’t have anything to add. There. Crisis well on its way to being averted. God, she just wanted to go home and never come anywhere near Kensington for the rest of her life. She looked past Randi and crumpled her paper cup. Great. Just great. So much for a quiet, no conflict, withdrawal from these practice sessions. The others were here to rubberneck the bloody kill.
Palla and Moeletsi Tau were at the head of the group filling the archway. Both of them examples of male perfection; fit, cut, gorgeous, one white and one black. One an utter asshole, and the other the most patient being on earth. She liked being around Tau. Unlike Palla, Tau was a calming presence. When he wanted to be.
The rest of the spectators were street witches and mages. Women and a few men Maddy insisted had talent. All of them with more talent in their little fingers than she had in her entire body.
“It’s about time someone said something.” Randi shrugged and appealed to the others, though without her usual air of I am right and the rest of you are shit. Never mind the performance, it was still the same old baloney. “She’s holding all of us back. She doesn’t belong.”
Maddy held up her hands in a sharp motion. She caught Wallace’s eye and there was a thousand years of understanding there. Wallace might not be much of a witch, but there were things she had in common with Maddy that nobody else did. “Stop it. Right now.”
Palla leaned against the counter nearest to him and crossed his arms over his chest. He had a five o’clock shadow going, probably for show given what he was, and he looked scary as hell. Not for show. He nodded at Wallace. “She dead drop you?”
“Whatever that means.” Nothing good, that was for sure.
“Did she cut off your magic?” He had a deep voice, not a trace of accent. Pure white California. Someone in the back of the crowd laughed. That was directed at her since Wallace didn’t have much magic to cut off.
“No, sir.” She hated herself for that. Calling him sir. Years spent on the streets and in and out of various shelters had drilled into her the safety of showing respect to someone in authority. Especially if he was a white guy. Palla, like Maddy, had a hell of a lot of authority, and he sure as hell looked Caucasian. “No, sir, she did not.”
He gave her one of his patented fuck you, bitch glares. She didn’t take it personally. Palla was an equal opportunity hater. If you were human, he hated you. “Did you dead drop her?”
Randi whirled on Palla. “She absolutely did not.”
“That’s enough.” Maddy Winters had a lot of presence. Enough to make Palla lapse into silence. The kitchen got quiet.
She squished her paper cup into oblivion. This was it, then. Randi was right. She didn’t belong here, and now it was over in a spectacular scene that made the entire center of her body feel scraped clean of meat and bone. The middle of her stomach still felt strange, and she was dizzy. “Look. There’s no reason to draw this out.” She faced Maddy. “Thank you for asking me to come here way back when. I mean it. I’ve had fun, most of the time, learning stuff and trying things out. But I shouldn’t be here. We all know that.”
Now that she’d said the words, she didn’t want to go. She wanted Maddy to say, hell no, you have to stay. She wanted the others to say they wanted her to stick around and that Randi should be the one to leave. There was nothing from them but silence. Her purse and her coat were by the door and the door was close to the kitchen. At least the walk of shame would be a short one. Fun evening.
She stuck out a hand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Maddy. Thank you.”
Maddy did not take her hand. Okay, fine. She shoved both her hands into the back pockets of her jeans.
Tau rested a shoulder against one side of the kitchen archway, blocking her exit enough that she’d have to brush past him when she left. She found him a calming presence, but that didn’t mean she thought he was safe. Despite the fact that his accent melted panties at twenty paces, she could never dismiss the idea that he was always thinking about how to get into your mind and fuck you up. “I think she should not go.”
“What did you do?” Maddy was not a tall person, but it was easy to forget when she was intense like this.
Randi didn’t answer Maddy’s question. Maybe Tau’s quiet remark had rattled her, too. I think she should not go. Chilling as hell the way he’d said that, all soft and quiet and that accent. Talk about a guy who could get you hot and bothered.
“Do you know?” Maddy looked at her like she expected Wallace to tell her what Randi had done.
“She asked you a question.” Palla tipped his chin in Wallace’s direction. He walked halfway into the kitchen, and that made her nervous, that he was bothering to come this close. “Answer her.”
“I don’t know what she did.” Nausea crept up on her again. She glanced around the room. “Why would anyone think I’d know what she did?”
Palla’s lip curled. She wasn’t sure about Tau’s job, but Palla was an enforcer. Literally. He worked for the local demon warlord, same as Tau and Maddy. It was his job to scare people into staying in-bounds and to take care of the ones who didn’t. Just about all of the warlord’s inner circle were killers. They had to be these days, but yeah. She was uncomfortably aware of that right now.
You broke the rules, you paid the price, Maddy had made that very clear from the get go. Palla? He was the guy who took all your money.
“Not her,” Palla said, looking right at her. “You.”
Randi about hit the ceiling. “You can’t be serious. She did nothing.”
From the middle of the kitchen, Palla turned just his upper body so he was looking behind him at Tau. The hair on the back of her neck lifted. He said in a louder than necessary voice, ”Count off if you felt what happened in here.”
That confused everyone until they realized he was asking the people in the rest of the house to count off. Four people called off their names. That meant there were two other people in the house who hadn’t been working with their group.
“Ten of us.” Palla turned back.
It was dumb to think about him and Tau in terms of ethnicity, but it was hard not to. One of the things they’d learned from Maddy was that human-born demons tended to manifest with the physical characteristics of one or more of their human parents. In most cases, there were humans on both sides of the genetic soup that gave a demon life. Most. But not all.
“The question,” Palla said, unmistakably looking at her again, “was what did you do?”
Palla was Entelechy; a demon without human parents. So ancient he was one of the first-origin kin. The demons around here called themselves the kin. Or demonkind, but mostly kin, from what little she’d observed. The reason Palla was here instead of out enforcing shit, was that all of Nikodemus’s heavy hitters took turns with Maddy’s street witches. Just her luck, this was Palla’s two weeks of duty. He looked standard European, but who the hell knew? He was out of her league, same as Tau.
“You should answer the question.” Tau shifted so he was blocking her way out.
She knew three things about Tau; he was from Africa, he was gorgeous, and he was dangerous. Maybe he was Entelechy, maybe he wasn’t. The impression she’d always had was there were single digit numbers of people who knew anything about him, and none of them were talking. Do not mess with Tau, that was the message. If these two demons were interested in her for any reason, she was in deep, deep trouble.
“Wallace,” Maddy said.
She turned her attention to Maddy. Holding onto her calm wasn’t as easy as she needed it to be. “I can’t do anything. Nothing that matters. You know that. You’ve been watching me do nothing for weeks.”
“What happened in here wasn’t nothing.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say. I think my lack of talent is obvious to everyone. Including me.”
Maddy looked around her kitchen. “I think we’re done for the night. See you all Friday? You, too, Randi.”
That firm dismissal sent a crowd in the direction of the door. Tau made room. He got a few melting looks from the departing witches and one of the mages. If he cared, it didn’t show.
At least her walk of shame would have a smaller audience. She headed for the doorway, too, feeling Palla’s gaze on her every step of the way. Her skin crawled.
“Wallace,” Maddy said. “Can you stay a few minutes?”