“Set foot behind the bar and I’ll write you up for insubordination, Sinclair. You know the kitchen area is staff only.” Tabitha smiled coolly at Blue-hair and her friend. “Have a good night, ladies.”
Oozing smugness, the girls strolled out the door. Aaron looked between me and Tabitha, then started around the bar to join me.
“Sinclair,” Tabitha warned.
“Go ahead and write me up.”
“You’ll lose your bonuses for the month.”
I raced to the edge of the bar before Aaron could step onto forbidden ground. “It’s okay,” I said quietly, blocking his path. “I’ll take care of it.”
His eyes blazed with anger. “I don’t care about the damn bonus. I’ll help you.”
“It’s just a bit of cleaning. I can handle it.” I wasn’t letting him lose the money he’d gone all week without sleep to earn. I lowered my voice more. “If you help me, she wins.”
Jaw flexing, he reluctantly stepped back. Tabitha’s expression didn’t change, but I could sense her smugness. She won whether Aaron helped me or not. Ignoring her, I strode into the back to get cleaning supplies.
Whatever the hell the dye was made of, it was impossible to clean. The oily texture smeared over everything no matter how hard I scrubbed it, and after turning four dish rags completely green, I switched to paper towels.
Midnight came and went as I wiped and scoured and rinsed and washed everything the oily mist had touched. Tabitha returned every ten minutes to check on my progress and ensure Aaron remained in his chair, seething as he waited. The last few members made their way out, no one speaking.
Finally, I threw the last of the green paper towel into the overflowing garbage bin and straightened my aching back. All the dye was gone except for what was liberally splattered over me. I hurried into the staff bathroom and groaned when I saw my reflection in the mirror. My apron hadn’t saved my clothes—my red shorts and white top were ruined. Green smeared my skin and coated the ends of my hair on one side.
Ditching my apron, I washed my hands, arms, face, and legs. The substance came off my skin with soap, but no amount of soap, water, or scrubbing would dim the green in my hair.
I bit hard on my lip, blinking furiously. Be mean, be rude, insult me, wreck my workspace, stain my clothes. Fine, whatever. But I loved my hair and now the bottom six inches on one side were dyed a hideous green. Would I have to cut it off?
With angry movements, I finished washing up, collected my purse and umbrella, and circled back to the front. When I came through the saloon doors, Aaron was waiting. He took in my stained clothes and wet, green hair.
“It didn’t wash out?” he asked gruffly. “I’ll call Katherine tomorrow and have her come in to figure it out.”
“Figure out what?” I asked tiredly as I pulled out my cell phone.
“That dye is an alchemic potion. Katherine is our master alchemist. She’ll know how to get it out of your hair, I promise.”
I nodded, trying not to get my hopes up. As I walked to the pub door, Aaron at my side, I dialed the cab company. The phone buzzed a busy signal.
“Saturday night,” I muttered. It was late—pushing almost two. The cab companies would be swamped with late-night clubbers. I called again and got another busy signal. My back ached and my legs throbbed from crouching for two hours. I just wanted to go home, shower, and curl up with a blanket and a cup of tea. Maybe Justin’s tea fetish wasn’t so strange after all.
I called one more time and got the busy signal. Screw it. “Guess I’ll go on foot.”
“I’ll walk you home,” Aaron said.
“That’s fine,” I assured him. “I’m over in Coal Harbor off West Georgia Street and—”
“Tori.” His stern growl made me freeze. “I’m walking you home.”
I measured his uncompromising expression, then surrendered. “Okay. Thank you.”
He pushed the door open and I walked out. Conveniently, I didn’t need to lock up. There was always at least one officer at the guild headquarters, so they never locked the doors. Tabitha, obviously, was tonight’s on-duty officer.
My blood boiled at the thought of her, and I wondered again if she was the one who’d leaked that I was human. She didn’t want me at the guild, and since her fellow officers wouldn’t ban me, the easiest way to get rid of me was to make me quit. How much of the antagonism I’d experienced over the past week had she quietly encouraged?
Side by side, Aaron and I ambled past barred windows and boarded-up doors, and despite the warm night, I shivered. The disreputable street was quiet but not deserted. A handful of men walked quickly through the darkness, while others, tucked into nooks or sitting beside shopping carts covered in ratty tarps, watched us with empty stares.
I didn’t want to admit it, but walking alone would’ve been stupid. I was glad Aaron was with me.
“Thanks,” I said again as Victorian-style buildings and respectable shops replaced the graffiti-tagged walls. “I appreciate it.”
“No problem.” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “I’m sorry about earlier.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah, but …” He raked a hand through his rust-orange hair. “It always takes time for the gang to warm up to a new member, but I’ve never seen them this … I wasn’t expecting it.”
“It’s because I’m not a member. I’m just a … liability.” Tabitha’s word.
“You’re a good bartender. What else do you need to be?”
I huffed, pleased by the compliment even though I knew it wasn’t true. “Okay, first off, I’m not that good at bartending. If anything, I’m an amateur. Admit it.”
“You’re doing a great job.”
Smiling, I patted his arm, surprised again by the warmth of his skin. “You’ll make a good officer someday, Aaron.”
His hand brushed my arm, slid down, and caught my fingers. “I don’t want to see you go, but if you’ve had enough of those assholes, I get it.”
I resisted the urge to peek at my hand enveloped in his warm grip, my heart beating faster than our brisk pace warranted. “I can manage for another week before the MPD gives the official no.”
“Ah, about that.” He casually slid his hand free from mine, and I hid my disappointment. “I asked Clara yesterday where your paperwork was at, and it turns out Darius needs to sign off on it before she can submit it. He won’t be back for another week or more, so the official ‘no’ won’t come for another couple weeks after that.”
“Oh.” I bit my lip. One more week of cranky jerks I could deal with, but three? Was I that masochistic or was it time to call it quits?
His gaze darted over my face, reading my reaction. We crossed the redbrick intersection where I’d found the guild job printout and headed down Water Street, passing cute shops, restaurants, and cafés, all closed now. A few people strolled by, on their way home after a night out.
“How long have you been a member of the guild?” I asked.
“Six years.” He smiled as though recalling a fond memory. “Me and Kai joined the day I turned eighteen—the minimum age to join a guild.”
“There are other guilds, right? What made you choose the Crow and Hammer?”
“Honestly? I picked C&H to tick off my parents. They wanted me to join their guild, but there I would’ve always been the GM’s spoiled son, constantly having to prove my worth while everyone questioned whether my parents had handed me my success on a silver platter.”
“So you picked a guild where you could earn your place?”
“I could have done that at almost any guild. I picked C&H because it’s the opposite of my parents’ guild. They can’t stand C&H’s reputation.” He laced his hands behind his head as he walked. “The Crow and Hammer has been collecting misfits for decades—mythics who don’t fit in, people who have skills to offer but can’t get on at another guild, rogues who need a second chance. The only respectable thing about us is that when we take a job, we get it done. Always.”
“Hmm. That explains a few things.”
He laughed. “Most guilds are boring—they specialize too much. All mages or all sorcerers, or they only do specific work. Ever heard of Smoke & Mirrors?”
“Yeah, isn’t that the company that does practical effects for all the big movies—wait. Are you suggesting what I think you are?”
“They’re a guild. Sorcerers, alchemists, a few mages, and a load of telekinetics. They do all their filming on closed sets, and people think it’s to protect their trade secrets, but it’s more than that.”
“Right? They were my second choice for a guild, but I wanted to catch bad guys. Smoke & Mirrors doesn’t do any bounty work.”
We crossed another brick intersection, passing the famous Gastown steam clock, its face indicating 2:10 a.m. The breeze was warm, with that nighttime freshness I loved. I breathed deeply as we continued down the street.
“You said Kai joined on the same day as you,” I murmured. “What brought him to the Crow and Hammer?”