Heart of Darkness
Someone is illegally siphoning magic from the font of the Clan. When Meriel Owen, next in line to control the largest organization of witches in the country, discovers that it's the hot owner of a notorious underground club, she strokes an unusual deal that may plunge them all into the heart of darkness.
Meriel sat, taking notes as her mother spoke from the head of the table. The pale, late autumn light spilled through the windows of the seemingly normal conference room, casting shadows on the far wall. The tastefully expensive clock and nondescript black-and-white framed photos made the space look like a law firm instead of the headquarters of a witches’ clan. A boring, non-offensive space that seemed to lack any point of view at all. This was most likely a deliberate choice, but Meriel thought pretending not to have a POV when you were someone as opinionated as Edwina Owen was absurd. But it wasn’t her place to make decorating choices. Not yet anyway.
So she sat in a moderately comfortable chair around an intentionally imposing table with the same fifteen people she’d spent her days with for as long as she could remember. How sucky was it that it was days like this that made her wish for law school again? What sort of whackadoo actually missed law school? But in law school when she excelled, it was without the context she carried in her life here. The next in line. The princess. Magickal royalty. Blah. There, she’d just been another overachiever struggling with the realities of being in a room full of people just as smart, and in many cases, smarter, than she was. That sort of bumpy ride had been a novelty.
But this was her future and she took it seriously even if she had a stack of other things to do at the moment. Meriel really didn’t have the time for this assignment, but Clan Owen’s investigator, who also happened to be Meriel’s best friend, Nell, was still out on her honeymoon and wouldn’t be back for another few days.
Really, Gage, who was Nell’s second-in-command, would be a fine substitute. But as far as Edwina Owen was concerned, as the next in line to run Clan Owen, Meriel was expected to pick up the slack when necessary. Rather like working in the mail room or running the copiers, it trained in the overall running of the clan.
Whatever, at least she’d get out of her house for the evening instead of sitting around reading legal briefs or ordering a movie on demand and eating too many spring rolls. Mmmm, spring rolls . . .
The lull in sound meant her mother probably expected an answer and it was time to pay attention instead of thinking about fried carby goodness.
She sat, back straight, and met her mother’s eyes. “I have the file. Nell briefed me before she left. I’ll head to the club tonight to see for myself what’s going on.” She continued to hold her mother’s gaze. It wouldn’t do to show Edwina Owen, the leader of Clan Owen, any weakness. Some predators ate their babies, Meriel knew. She’d actually said that to her mother once. Her mother had replied, “Then you should never give me a reason to do that.” Not really warm and fuzzy, Meriel’s mother.
“Take Gage with you.” It wasn’t a request. Very little of what Edwina said ever was. In this case, as was most often the fact, she was right. It wasn’t like Meriel was unused to having guards with her. She wasn’t helpless, but she had no problem having an expert on the job with her.
“I’ll be picking Meriel up this evening at ten,” Gage spoke from his place near the door.
Edwina looked very pleased the whole world was following her command and Meriel fought the smile edging the corners of her mouth.
“Excellent. Brief me in the morning then.” Edwina dismissed her with the flick of her fingers. Meriel gladly took her up on it and got out of the room as quickly as possible.
“She scares me,” Gage said as she passed him in the hall on her way to her office. She totally did not look at his butt or the way the denim was faded in all the right places. That would be wrong. Heh.
Meriel, who was not having nasty fantasies about a coworker, tried to emanate total professionalism for about five seconds before she simply rolled her eyes. “Whatever. She wants you to be scared, she likes it. Gets off on it even. Some men like that. My dad for instance and I don’t know why I brought that up because, um, ew.” She shook her head to dislodge that thought. Oh yeah, Gage’s ass. She smiled at that much more appetizing mental image. “I’ll see you tonight then? So you can protect my honor and stuff?”
He grinned. “Your stuff is awesome and I’m sure you can protect it yourself. But yes, I’ll be there with bells on. Or not with bells, that would be noisy and annoying, but I’ll be there.” He sauntered off and she snuck one last peek at his ass. She wasn’t a saint after all. It was a spectacular ass and, like any great work of art, should be admired. It was her sacred duty as an American. And stuff.
Efficiently, she made her way through the office to her side of the building. Clan Owen’s headquarters took up the entire thirtieth floor of a high-rise in downtown Seattle. They were much like any other business, with a secretarial pool, legal department, accountants, sales reps even. Only their employees were all witches.
Twelve generations of Owen women had run the clan. The first Owen witches came to California in 1847. They’d come a long way from the dry-goods stores and illegal booze operations that had given them their first financial roots in the region. Now, the clan was a multimillion-dollar business and an unquestioned powerhouse in the world of witches.
Like every firstborn daughter of the leader of Clan Owen, from birth, Meriel had been shaped to lead. Taught, formed, molded into the kind of witch, the kind of woman who could hold the clan together and keep it prosperous and powerful for the next generations.
Edwina had not been the kind of mother to kiss boo-boos and bake cookies. She’d raised Meriel to be hard and canny. Meriel liked to believe she got the canny part without the hard.
And one day she’d kiss boo-boos and bake cookies and still manage to run the clan just fine.
She stopped by her assistant’s desk, picked up mail and messages and closed her door, and the rest of the office out.
The day was nice enough and she let it pull her attention from work for a moment to take in the beauty of the water glittering in the sun, of the ferries dotting the Sound.
With a happy sigh, she kicked off her shoes and opened the file folder on her desk—the dossier on the man she’d be speaking to that evening.
This man had just appeared in Seattle and had set up a nightclub in the middle of Owen territory. For months it appeared he only ran the club for humans, which is why they didn’t notice him at first.
She didn’t know exactly when he’d opened up the part of the club for others, but he’d been using magick from Clan Owen’s font to power some wards for a few months and it had just been noticed two weeks before.
One, it agitated her that it took so long to be discovered.
Two, despite her annoyance, she was impressed.
Whoever he was, Meriel understood that it wouldn’t do to underestimate him. She hadn’t achieved bonded full council status yet, but she wasn’t stupid.
She was curious though.
A knock sounded on her door and before she could speak, her mother came in. Not breezed in, not strolled or barged or anything of the sort. No, Edwina came in and occupied nearly all the oxygen in the room.
“I’ve just received an interesting phone call.”
Meriel didn’t bother to ask her mother to sit. Edwina would do what she wanted to do. She pulled out a notepad and a pen and looked up, ready to take notes.
“There’ve been some developments in New Mexico. Three witches are missing from a local coven just outside Albuquerque.”
She’d been an attorney long enough to know silence got you more information than a lot of leading questions when you were interviewing someone. So she simply waited for her mother to give her all the details.
“One of the women has been missing for eight months. They believe she is dead. Another male gone for six months and this last one went missing two weekends ago.”
“Were they all active within the coven? Or loners? Drugs? Trouble at home or work?”
Her mother nodded her head once, as if reassuring herself Meriel was indeed not a total idiot.
“None of the three is very active. They don’t have a font, but the parents of one of the women are leadership. Which is why it got to me at all I expect.” The unspoken was that no one would have cared about the other two because no one was watching out for them.
The very idea of it burned in Meriel’s belly. The very fact that her mother wasn’t similarly offended also burned. This could be a totally nothing issue, or a big problem. Simply refusing to examine it very closely wasn’t, to Meriel’s mind, a very effective way to run things.
“Why these people? Is it connected to some of the similar stories we’ve heard lately?”
Her mother simply went forward as if these questions meant nothing. “I know you like open communication with other witches, even those who are clanless. I’m going to have you be the point person on this for the clan. Until Nell returns on Monday, work with Gage.” She stood and then handed a file folder to Meriel. “That contains all the details.” Again she paused, taking a breath. “I’m not convinced this is a problem. People disappear, Meriel. We don’t know enough about any of them to get worked up.”
It must have been a herculean effort to not show the sneer in her voice on her features. Meriel bit her tongue and reminded herself she’d run the show differently when her time came.
She took the file, looking over her mother’s beautiful and very precise handwriting. Edwina may have thought the call was crap, but she took good notes. Meriel would head over to talk to Gage about it to get his opinion once her mother had gone.
“If they were in a clan, they’d have taken better care of their people. This may not have happened. People do themselves all sorts of damage. You know this as well as I do.”
If she spoke, she’d say something bitter and she didn’t want to. Didn’t want to spend any more negativity on the day. Or on her mother.
One brow rose in challenge. “Go on. Say it. If you’re going to take over for me, you need a spine.”
It was difficult, but not impossible to rein her magick’s response to her mother’s taunt. There was no winning by Edwina’s rules. So she refused to play by them. “I’m not playing this game with you. Also, there’s no if and you and I both know it. Thank you for this information. I’ll handle it from now on.” And she was sure the witches in New Mexico would appreciate not being made to feel as if it were their own fault for getting kidnapped or killed or whatever may have happened down there.
Edwina narrowed her gaze and Meriel gave her blank face right back. She’d groomed her blank face over many, many years. Considered it perfect. It was the only way to win with her mother, who pushed to get a response. One of these days though, oh, Meriel would give it to her, all right.
“Thank you.” Meriel said it again, holding her mother’s gaze.
Edwina sighed and moved to the door. “Keep me apprised.” And left.
Meriel read through her notes and headed to Gage.
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