Illicit Magic (Stella Mayweather Paranormal Series #1), page 1
Stella Mayweather Paranormal Series
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been alone. I don’t mean in the literal sense. I’ve had people around me, in the foster homes where I grew up, in school, in the places where I’ve worked; but I’ve never had a family. I’ve never had someone to love and I’ve never had anyone who seemed even remotely concerned about me, never mind love me back. It’s not an easy way to live, but I am alive, so it’s certainly possible.
I’m Stella Mayweather, a sometimes office temp, a person people seem wary of which taints my enjoyment of life, no matter how much I say it doesn’t bother me. I’m twenty-four and have long golden brown hair that falls in gentle waves from a centre parting that just happens naturally. I’ve got green eyes and, through my face is slightly sweetheart shaped (in a way that I’ve never thought characteristically pretty) and my nose slim and Roman, I think myself attractive in a look-twice-to-check sort of way. I’m slightly taller than average at five feet five but I’ve always wished for an inch or two more. What girl hasn’t?
Occasionally I click that other people think I’m good looking in a handsome way and that gives me a little rush of pride even though the description isn’t just plain pretty; but then I often chide myself that I’d rather be handsome than an oxymoron. I certainly don’t flinch when I see myself in the mirror and I try my best not to be vain.
I like the way I look.
I’m just not sure I like the things that I make happen.
Strange things happen near me, to me. Strange things happen to other people too.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about this what with my many moments of quality alone time. Over the past few months, I’ve thought more and more that all the weird things I’ve considered accidents throughout my life are because of me, rather than just a random collection of events.
I am sure these accidental, sometimes frightening, events are why I don’t have friends. People are too cautious of me for that, and when I think about it properly, I, of them. It puts a barrier between the rest of the world and me. In my lonelier moments, I’ve often thought that it’s no way to live.
I can’t stay in any job too long because of these strange occurrences; people get scared easily of things and people like me, which they don’t understand.
Unfortunately being a serial temp means some kind of reputation always precedes me. Thankfully, it always seems to include my being a hard worker first, if not bizarrely clumsy, second. Clumsy! If only! At least I get to switch jobs a lot and by the time people think I’m weird and start avoiding me, I’ve usually already moved on.
Who would want people to be scared of them? That’s what I was thinking when I checked out my reflection in the bathroom mirror at my latest temp job. It was 5.30pm on the dot; the office was starting to close down for the night and I was ready to walk home right after I dragged a comb through my hair. It needed a wash thanks to a day spent filing dusty folders in boxes ready to archive. It wasn’t one of my favourite temping jobs but the boredom and dust factor paid extra. Plus, two weeks in and I was already being slung odd looks so I couldn’t wait to be out of there and back in my flat.
I pulled a face in the mirror and rolled my eyes. No, scaring people doesn’t give me the rush of power movie megalomaniacs get. Being labelled a weirdo meant never having a boyfriend, not even a best friend, and tonight, like so many others, was going to be another dull night in front of the television, on my own.
I gave my reflection a wry smile, smoothed my hair with my hands and slipped the comb into my bag. I left the bathroom, letting the door bang slightly behind me, crossed the landing and merged into the line of people snaking their way downstairs before spreading out to cross the lobby, my boot heels echoing as they hit the tiles.
“’Night, Stella.” The burly, bald-headed, security guard, Steve, waved a hand at me and I waved back. He’d taken a shine to me and that little interaction might well have been the highlight of my day. Everyone else had ignored me. Even the unpaid intern girl had cast pitying glances at me until she took a cue from the others and started ignoring me too.
I hefted my bag strap so it rested in between my shoulder blades and braced myself for the outside chill as I stepped through the revolving door and out of the shockingly ugly seventies-constructed building.
I exhaled deeply as the cool air outside the building hit me. I flipped up the collar of my coat, dug my leather gloves out from my pockets and wriggled my fingers inside the cosy jersey lining. It might be spring but it was still cold in London and I kept my head dipped down from the wind as I started my walk home. I could imagine my co-workers going home to their families – children, parents, siblings, flatmates – but the pang of envy I’d once felt had all but gone.
Growing up, I lived with foster families, good ones and bad ones. After a while I learned to cope with the ones who didn’t seem to want me, just the cash payment. In the last few years of my teens, I never even bothered unpacking because the social workers seemed to arrive ever more quickly to shunt me to a new place.
I think they were all very glad when I turned eighteen and they didn’t have to be responsible for me anymore. I couldn’t read their minds but I could see the flickers of fear and knew that they had heard stories about me.
I walked past the bus stop, even though it was my route, because the weather was clear and still just light and the foot bus made for a good workout.
At school, years ago now, I had tried very hard not to wish for anything, not to cause a single accident, and occasionally I had friends. But peer pressure and fear of “the weird girl” plus being shuffled around a lot between homes and changing schools too frequently didn’t make for an easy childhood.
So here I was, well into adulthood, living in a not particularly nice flat in a not particularly nice part of London, working temporary jobs for an agency who had my virtues down as “clumsy, but at least turns up, types fast and doesn’t steal anything.” The latter point, I gathered, was the only thing that ensured I got jobs despite the rumours that I was odd. My semi-feeble salary went, mostly to renting the not particularly nice flat, which was really a euphemism for “grubby, overpriced studio for people out of choices,”
And here, again, not quite soon enough for my liking, was my walk home, after another day of keeping my head down. It was all basic stuff wherever I worked; I filed, made tea, booked people in, made boring phone calls and any other menial task the regular workers felt was too beneath them. In a rare moment of extravagance, I bought a little, red, digital music player so I could listen to music or audio books during the most boring jobs, like my current one archiving files; and mostly felt glad to be left alone to get through the daily nine to five.
Every so often, an incident that couldn’t be reasonably explained away happened and then I’d be shuffled off to another post for a few days or weeks.
Striding onward towards home, I thought back to last autumn. I had managed an entire two months on a reasonable weekly rate at an office supply firm which only ended because my pot-bellied, sweaty boss, Albert, had put his hand on my thigh, a little too far up, a little too intentionally and far too forcefully, at the Christmas bash. My concentration was destroyed and a fully loaded bookshelf, previously bolted to the floor, uprooted itself and landed on him, missing me by a hair’s breadth. No one could work out how it, the bookshelf, had shaken itself from its bolts. I later heard the odious Albert was in hospital for quite a while.
I would have f
This had all been gleaned from my loose-mouthed manager at the temping agency in Charing Cross while she assessed me in the New Year with her unwavering eyes and contemplated whether she agreed I was as weird as her co-workers thought. Evidently, she didn’t mind as she kept sending me work and I kept turning up and she kept getting her commission. That her co-workers had called me a witch was something she was polite enough to keep to herself. I had glimpsed it on an email that sat on her computer when she turned away to pick up a printout with the details of my latest assignment.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had the word “witch” hurled at me, but it was starting to rattle me, especially given the spate of recent murders.
So far, my lonely life was working out, sort of, until today. Everything was boringly normal.
Somehow the universe had lost the memo that it was almost summer and through the course of the day, the sky had turned from pale cloudy blue to a dull sludgy grey wetting the air with the afternoon rainfall. The last of daylight had just about slunk away, leaving dusk licking at the fringes of my solitary little world. I wished I didn’t have to trudge home but I got on with it one foot after the other, little steps that took me closer to the not particularly nice flat and a microwave dinner that I’d eat on the sofa in front of the TV.
That was my plan until I was halfway home. It was a simple plan, a boring plan, but it was mine.
Until all hell broke loose.
Every step away from the monstrous architecture of my current office block took me further from the safety of bustling buildings and the broad-windowed coffee shops and delis that lived on every corner. Just these few miles alone housed hundreds of thousands of people every day before they dispersed like homing pigeons into the suburbs.
It had taken me only twenty minutes to leave the homeward-bound crowd behind as I plodded further north, every footstep taking me into the quieter surroundings of London’s residential streets. With my shoulders hunched up and my eyes on the pavement, I took little notice of people around me as I slipped past them. As usual they were merely on the periphery of my consciousness; faceless people that were barely worth acknowledging as I walked on auto-pilot through these familiar streets. It was safer for them that way. Safer for me too.
The noise that jolted my brain awake from its post-work stupor wasn’t anything unusual, but it was... out of place. A single footfall, a heavy one, then there was a shuffle and a stomp of feet. Most impressive was the quiet that surrounded that first stomp. It felt – and I struggled to put the thought together coherently – the quiet felt wrong.
I blinked and felt the muscles in my face twitch as I went on alert. I hadn’t even noticed that the street noise I’d been ignoring so intently had slipped away entirely. I strained to hear what I was missing. No dogs barked, no doors opened or closed, and the hum of engines seemed to have stopped in time.
I barely slowed my pace but my body and brain were on alert. I tipped my chin upwards, blinking at the wet air and wrinkling my nose to sniff the silent breeze, not sure what I should be looking for but knowing that my senses were telling me to be wary.
Like most city-dwellers, I’d perfected my mental blinkers so I could ignore the constant humdrum of activity that occurred all around me in the capital. So far, my thoughts on my walk home had been as mundane as they could possibly be; what I needed to add to the grocery list, what show might be on my elderly TV later, should I buy some thicker tights for the cold spring, and why had I worn a skirt when it wasn’t quite warm enough yet? Those fleeting thoughts were safe, familiar, unlike the strange awareness of activity that I felt permeating the air now. I’d been focused on the mundane trivialities of my life and neglected to take note of what was going on around me. I hoped I wouldn’t pay for that mistake.
I didn’t know what evil smelled like, if it could even have a scent, but I was sure I could feel menace in the air. It was thick and heavy, like leftover cigarette smoke clinging to day-old clothes and it was reaching towards me. Acrid and poisonous, more so than the usual fuel-scented city smog that drifted across the pavement at this time of day, mixed with the hour-old rain... A cold chill dashed down my spine and I shivered.
Slowing just a pace or so, I casually glanced over my shoulder, twitching my head from side to side so I could toss my hair out of my collar like that was all I meant to do. From the corners of my eyes, I scanned the road but I didn’t see anything so I kept on my way purposefully, my ears primed for any sound, my muscles on alert though I couldn’t fathom why.
They say that you should trust your sixth sense. Mine never teased.
There it was again.
My hearing spiked as I tried to zone in on the direction of that heavy footfall. I didn’t have to wait long. Another followed it; then there was the faintest sound of more footsteps falling in to join the first. It was like they had just appeared, footsteps falling from nowhere. But what shook me was that they were all beating down on the pavement exactly in time. Footsteps in London – at the tail end of rush hour as everyone packed up and jostled to get home on crammed buses, the stifling tube or, like me, walking home if the distance was close enough to allow it – was hardly unusual but the staccato stomp, stomp, stomp of their regimented treads made my muscles tighten in fear. It was too weird to be coincidence.
I wanted to run.
Instead I stepped up my pace. After a moment the footsteps quickened with me.
I exhaled one long breath that plumed in the air in front of me before disappearing in the wet breeze. Somewhere behind me I heard a grunt, an ugly guttural sound. I couldn’t be sure of the distance but it wasn’t nearly far enough away for my liking.
If I hadn’t been certain before, I was now. I was being followed.
Think, I told myself. What would some kick-ass girl do? She’d run, I thought, surprising myself. No question about it. Kick-ass heroines got themselves killed. Practical ones ran. I was nothing if not practical.
I was nearly at the intersection of the main road. Seeing an opportunity to shake off my pursuers I banked quickly to the left, around the side of a twenty-four-hour Booze Bin with big posters in the window announcing cheap wine on a two-for-one deal for Friday nights. I stumbled past the crowd of teens huddled near the doorway, hoods pulled up to hide their pasty faces as they clinked their little bottles of illicit alco-pops. One leaned in to light a cigarette from the barely glowing embers of his friend’s and puffed a nasty little cloud of smoke in my face. I glared at him and he shrunk back.
Okay, so maybe I was passively-aggressively kick-ass but at least I could scare a teenybopper successfully.
A quick scan ahead confirmed that, other than that little group, the street was empty of people. I darted forward trying to put as much distance between the footsteps and me as I could. I hadn’t power-walked further than fifty feet before I realised that the footsteps had – and my heart sank a little – followed me. I hardly dared spare the time to look behind me as my power-walk turned into a sprint, my leather bag on its long strap banging uncomfortably against my hip as the contents slid around. For the third time today, I cursed this morning’s decision to wear a skirt, and, for good measure, threw in regret for my long leather boots that were really no match for a good pair of running shoes.
I jogged forward, not quite in a run, and another turning came up. I threw myself around the corner and as fast as I could, dashed full throttle into the nearest shaded driveway.
Pinching my nose between my gloved fingers, I stifled a sneeze as I shrank back against the overgrown hedge, quickly circling my head to assess my surroundings. I was in the garden of a Victorian house with
It must have been lovely once, before neglect had taken over, and I felt sad that it had been unloved. Being somewhat of a TV property show aficionado, I couldn’t help thinking that the add-on eighties porch sagging against the shadow of the street lamp was tantamount to housing abuse. However, I was thankful that I could conceal myself behind the thick overgrown privet. As I huddled in the right angle between the street and the nearest neighbour. I bent forward to rest my hands on my thighs and gasped air into my heaving lungs after the sudden sprint.
It was only scant seconds before I heard the footsteps nearby. They had either seen me come about the corner, or guessed that I had. My heart thumped inside my chest. So much for shaking them off.
The footsteps stopped somewhere in the street but I couldn’t gauge how far away even though I could hear them stamp a little as the air took on a glacial chill. The hedge was too dense to see out, or in, and without looking I couldn’t tell if they were looking towards my hiding place or away towards the main road. I hoped they would head that way, figuring I would probably seek a busy place and lights just like lone women were always told to do when they were afraid. Lights meant safety. Crap. I was definitely in the wrong place.
Sharp, murmured voices passed me on the wind. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but there was the sound of confusion and dissent; then a barked order calmed them. I caught the sole word “silence” from a low voice as it hissed past me. The footsteps shuffled and stamped again but no one uttered a word. It was like they were all listening for me. I felt like a fox, terrified and cornered, knowing that the beagles were just behind me, waiting to catch my scent.
CAMILLA CHAFER SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Armed and Fabulous (Lexi Graves Mysteries, 1)Alibi in AprilIllicit Magic (Book 1, Stella Mayweather Series)Murder in MarchIn the Line of Ire (Lexi Graves Mysteries, 13)Jeopardy in JanuaryArmed and Fabulous (Lexi Graves Mysteries)Illicit Magic (Stella Mayweather Paranormal Series #1)
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