Bone to Pick, Page 1Olivia R. Burton
Bone to Pick
Bone to Pick
Bone to Pick
An Empathy in the PPNW short story
Olivia R. Burton
The Preternatural Pacific Northwest is a world just like our own—except for the hidden fairies, werewolves, vampires, and humans who can wield magic. The Empathy in the PPNW series follows Gwen Arthur, a cowardly, gluttonous empath who can’t seem to help getting caught up in preternatural chaos. All she wants in life is a never-ending supply of cupcakes, but instead she keeps finding herself face to face with creatures that might eat her alive. Learn more at http://www.OliviaRBurton.com
Bone to Pick takes place after Mixed Feelings the first novel in the Empathy in the PPNW series.
© 2016 Olivia R. Burton. All Rights Reserved
Bone to Pick
I was crunching through a mouthful of offensive lettuce, irritated that Chloe had told the sub shop to put it on in the first place, when a wizard barreled into my office. I didn’t know immediately she was a wizard; she wasn’t wearing puffy robes or waving a wand about, but I could still tell she was different even before she spoke.
“You’re the empath?” she asked.
I stared at her, lost. My power to feel the emotions of those around me wasn’t really common knowledge. Not only do I not tell people about it, but most people wouldn’t have believed me anyway. The preternatural side of the world is terrifyingly good at hiding itself from humans. And, while I’m not terrifying in anything except my stomach’s capacity to hold sugar in ridiculous quantities, my empathy remains easily hidden as well.
Or, at least, it usually does.
“I’m… what?” I asked, feeling lettuce and a dollop of ketchup plop out of my mouth onto the wrapper. The woman glanced down for a split second before shaking her head rapidly as if in apology.
“Sorry, I’m a wizard,” was her explanation. I couldn’t even chew. Was that supposed to make things better?
She waited me out for maybe a minute, standing inside the doorway like the conversation was normal. Her posture was casual, her outfit on the wild side. It was chilly out and she was dressed in layers of colorful knits, the strap of a beat up messenger bag hanging across her chest. Her tights were rainbow, her hair likewise. She looked fun, sure, but it seemed a little young for her. The clothes said teenager, the face said mid-twenties.
Finally, I forced myself to swallow, setting my sandwich down as I asked the only thing I could think of. “Like Potter or Dresden?”
She snorted, striding in to lean her hip on the edge of my desk and dip her fingers into my dish of candy. I frowned at the action—she hadn’t even asked and that was my candy—but said nothing. I still wasn’t sure she was for real. Maybe she was a lettuce-induced hallucination and I finally had the ammo I needed to justify never eating vegetables again.
“Amateurs, both of them. You could compare me to Gandalf if you really wanted to.”
“I don’t think Dresden was really an am—“
“I never actually watched the show,” she said, cramming her mouth with multi-colored sugar. “It got cancelled, like, immediately, and I don’t really watch much TV anyway.”
“They were books before the—“
“That’s not what I came here to discuss,” she insisted, and I felt her irritation spark against my skin like sticking my finger in a light socket. That intensity had been there from the second she walked in, kind of like human emotions, but a few notches up. I can’t always tell at first what someone is if they’re not human, but I can at least recognize that they’re different.
And, from the look of her, she was as different as one could get.
“Sorry,” I said automatically, jerking away from the feeling of her annoyance. I don’t like anyone’s annoyance, but hers seemed extra prickly. “You were talking about,” I couldn’t believe I was about to say this, “wizardry?”
“No, I was talking about empathy. Yours specifically. I need your help.” She waved her right hand as if gesturing for someone to get to the point and dipped her left into the dish again. She was going to clean me out if I didn’t get rid of her soon. “I’ll pay you. You don’t seem the charitable type.”
“I… don’t?” I couldn’t argue, really. Of all the adjectives attributed to me, ‘charitable’ had certainly never been one of them. “I’m still a little lost on what you’re—I mean, how do you know I’m an empath?”
“Heard it through the grapevine.” She winked like I should know what that meant. I had no idea. Despite technically being part of the preternatural world, I know very little about it. Since my last brush with magic had involved monster fairies and kidnapped children, I really wanted to keep it that way.
“I don’t really hang around in any vinyards. I think you’ve got the wrong girl. I’m a therapist.”
“No, you’re it.” She smiled, munched on a few more candies. “There’re only two empaths with your power level in the area and the other ain’t got your skill set. So, here I am. What you charge for this sorta thing, anyway?”
“For what—charge? I’m—two empaths? Wait, power level?” I suddenly had a lot of questions and I wasn’t even sure I wanted the answers. I just wanted to pick the lettuce off my sandwich and eat the rest in peace, dammit. “You know what, I can’t actually help you. Go see the other empath, okay? I don’t do… whatever it is you need.”
“You do exactly what I need. I heard you got those kids back, for instance. This thing I need isn’t a child, but it’s nearly as important.”
My gaze flew from my dwindling pile of chocolate to her face. How the hell had she known about the kidnapped children? The only people who should have known were my best friend Chloe and a werewolf I couldn’t stand named Mel and I as sure neither of them had been posting about it all over Facebook.
Sure, Mel had probably been using the tale as a way of bedding every single woman in the area, but I was certain he’d conveniently forgotten I’d helped and made sure all heroics had involved his rippling, shirtless biceps and firm buttocks.
That was fine with me, as I wanted to pretend it never happened, not broadcast it to every pink-haired yahoo in Seattle.
She grinned, seeing something in my panic that she found funny.
“I told you, the grapevine. Come on, Gwen, help a girl out. What’s your rate? I won’t even pay you in fairy goods. Cold hard cash, you game?”
“Your skill set, lettuce-breath. Mine’s a little different. You got the light touch and I need it. Some of what I’ve got to do needs a little finesse, you know? It can’t all be lighting things on fire and tasering guards with my fingertips. I need you and your, you know.” She wiggled her fingers up around her eyeballs as if that made it clear what she was talking about.
“My pretty face?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” she said, palming the last of the candy in the dish and eating it. “You got any more of these? They’re good. Not quite M&Ms, but something similar, right?”
“Sure,” I said, wrapping my sandwich up lest she decided to go for that next. I figured I might as well indulge her, get the whole story out of her in case she really needed my help. She was probably nuts, but I do nuts by trade. I could handle one delusional twenty-something. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Wren,” she said, holding out her hand. “Like the bird.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, shaking her hand but keeping an eye on her expression. “Pretty. So, explain to me what you want my help with? Pretend I’m very stupid, would you?”
She let out a flat, “ha!” and shook her head as if having a thought she didn’t want to share. I ignored the fact that the thought was prob
ably not one I’d find flattering.
“Okay. I’ve been hired to retrieve something dangerous before it—as the saying goes—falls into the wrong hands. It’s in a secure place and I could realistically bust in with a nice,” she snapped and I swear sparks flew off her fingertips, “smash and grab, but I’m hoping not to draw too much attention. That’s where you come in. We go in, you do your thing, I grab the item, and boom, we hit the bricks.”
“You want me to do my… empathy thing? And you think that will help?” I was certain it wouldn’t, but she was really into the idea of me reading emotions.
“I know it will. I’ve worked with your kind before. Surprisingly useful, when you get right down to it.”
“And you’re willing to pay me? To be an empath?”
“Hand to god.” She pressed her hand to her chest and I noticed her nail polish looked blackened at the ends, like she’d held her hands up to a candle. She watched me for a moment, before jerking her thumb back toward my outer office where my best friend’s desk sat empty. “You should probably make a decision before your Gal Friday gets back. I’d rather not discuss the spooky stuff around a human.”
“You’ve…” I shook my head, instantly realizing I couldn’t disagree. Chloe was human and, regardless of how she’d handled our ordeal in November, I didn’t need her getting mixed up in any other strange hijinks. She did enough for me on a day to day basis, there was no need to pile more on her plate. “I’m still a little lost.”
Wren nodded. “Yeah, I’m sensing that’s a thing with you. Here, how about this?”
She held her left hand out, palm up, bouncing her wrist as if tossing a rubber ball into the air. An orb of flame the size of a kiwi emerged from her flesh, lifting through the air for a moment before plummeting back down toward her hand.
“Be—“ I started, intent on warning her not to burn herself before I could really think better of it. The fire hit her palm and sizzled, going up in a cloud of heavy steam that arced off and sprayed me in the face, littering my desk with minute droplets.
“Careful?” she finished for me, grinning. “It’s cool, I do this all the time. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I need you pay attention.” Leaning close, she pressed into my space, her expression easygoing. “I am a wizard. I want to pay you money to help me retrieve something. You’re an empath, so I know you can tell I’m being honest. Have we got the questions out of the way, yet?”
She was telling the truth, I could feel that without a doubt. She was buzzing with a mild frustration, but that was the worst of her emotions. Overall, I wasn’t really sure what to do with her. She was offering to pay me, seemed to think I could be useful. If she really wanted me to just follow her around telling her what people around us were feeling, who was I to argue? At best, I’d make some money and at worst I’d find out she was off her rocker and be able to warn someone she was coming before she got into their stuff.
I leaned back, eyed her empty palm for a moment, before smiling up at her and trying to make it look effortless. “Well, I could use a new gazebo.”
“Excellent!” With no trace that she got my reference, she tucked her hand into her messenger bag, pulled out a little business card, grabbed a purple gel pen off my desk, and scribbled across the front of it. “I’ll pick you up downstairs tonight at seven. This is my guy. Give him a call, tell him you’re in for two hours—just to be safe, you think?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “He’ll cut you a check.”
“I thought you said cash?”
“If you want five hundred in cash, he can swing that, too.”
“Five hundred?” I tried not to goggle. “For telling you who’s feeling good about themselves?”
“Not enough? I can go as high as six, but you’d better be worth it.”
I shook my head rapidly, though I meant to be nodding in agreement. It wasn’t that five hundred bucks sounded like a fortune, but just that I couldn’t believe this stranger wanted to hand it over just because I could point out who was grumpy or hungry. “That’s—five hundred’s cool.”
“You’re not greedy. I like that.” She pushed to her feet, dropped the business card on the desk and headed toward the door. “Keep it on the D.L. you get me? No humans allowed.”
“Uh,” I replied brilliantly, figuring she meant Chloe. I didn’t think of myself as being inhuman, but my best friend doesn’t have any super powers, so maybe it was best to keep her out of it. Wren was gone within seconds, leaving me to my empty candy dish and lettuce-covered sandwich.
“So what’s a wizard?” I asked as I buckled myself into Wren’s rental car. She jerked her thumb toward her chest.
“You’re lookin’ at it.”
“I mean,” I said as we pulled away from the curb. “I’ve heard of witches. What makes you different?”
“Mainly that I’m not crazy.”
“Ah,” I said, thinking of the only witch I’d met. She had a point; Merrin was sweet enough, but she was definitely a chocolate stripe short of a full Neapolitan. “That’s it?”
“The bare bones, anyway. Generally witches get the mind-type powers, though a few will poke up with some fire calling or electricity bending, but usually they’re all about the future this or mind reading that. When you get to a certain level of soul magic, you get a little scrambled.” Wren glanced at me, looked me up and down like she was considering something for a second. “Might explain a thing or two about you.”
“What’s what mean?” I demanded, deciding instantly I was offended by her assumption, whatever it might be.
“Don’t worry about it. Now, the plan is this: I’ll pick a few locks and get us inside, you do your thing, bing, bang, boom we’re there. I grab the box, maybe squeeze a few biceps appreciatively if I see fit, and we stroll out the front door. Got it?”
“What’s in the box?” I intoned, giving it my best whiny Brad Pitt impression. Wren just frowned my way, once again not getting the reference. I was starting to feel a little foolish.
“That you don’t need to know. Better if you don’t, actually. You’re not here to know stuff, just to suck a little.”
“Excuse me?” I leaned away, not sure I was comfortable with her view on how the evening was going to go. She snorted and then let out a braying laugh, shaking her head.
“You know what I mean.”
“I hope not,” I mumbled.
The rest of the drive passed without incident, though conversation was a little strained at times. I was pretty sure she hadn’t seen more than a handful of movies or TV shows in her lifetime and she seemed disappointed I knew so little about, as she put it, “our kind.”
“So you’re really just a therapist?” she asked as we pulled up outside a strip mall. “I thought for sure that was just a cover.”
“Cover for what?”
She stared at me for a moment before shrugging and shoving open her car door. “I guess nothing. Come on, we should hurry up.”
“Are we in need of some sporting goods or dog collars?” I asked, falling into step beside her.
“I don’t need anything, but feel free to grab whatever strikes your fancy.” She stopped in front of a large, independent pet store and pulled a black glove with intricate purple thread sewn through the fingertips out of her pocket. Despite the fact that it looked delicate and thin, like pulling on it too hard might tear the matte fabric, Wren yanked it on her left hand and pressed her palm to the doorknob. The locks on the door clicked audibly, and she opened the door like it was nothing.
“Whoa,” I said, instantly impressed and confused. “Was it locked?”
“Yep. Shush, they may hear us.”
“Who?” I whispered. I couldn’t see her expression clearly in the dark store, but I got the feeling from the way her emotions bubbled that it wasn’t good. “What?”
“Shh,” she mumbled again, rounding the counter to stand back from the cash register and survey the bins of dog treats and tiny racks of business cards.
“Are we robbing the place?”
“Not strictly,” she said, before pointing off to her left past racks of kibble and toys. “How many we got?”
“How—“ I didn’t finish, realizing as she pointed it out that we weren’t alone. Somewhere off at the back of the building I could feel three humans and two werewolves. I flinched against the feeling; even with the burning energy of the werewolves at the very edge of my range, it was unpleasant. One werewolf was bad enough, their emotions akin to setting myself on fire and rolling around in a blackberry bush. Two I wanted nothing to do with. “Oh, man.”
“Just five,” I said, turning back to her. I wanted to dance foot to foot and wring my hands, maybe just bolt straight for the car. I still wasn’t sure why she’d brought me, though, and if she was going to get herself in trouble doing it. “But two of them are werewolves.”
“I figured it’d be something like that. They make good muscle, if they can keep their heads in the game. There we go,” she said, crouching down behind the counter. I heard her fist knock against the laminate counter before a drawer popped open on the side. My brows shot into my hair as she grabbed a previously hidden key.
“Not anymore. Okay, I’ll get the door, you get the werewolves.”
“Get?” I demanded, watching her stride straight for the door at the back. I didn’t want to follow. I didn’t want to be any closer to the werewolves if I could help it.
“Yeah, you know,” she said, lowering her voice. “And keep it down. I’m surprised they haven’t heard us yet.”
I clamped a hand over my mouth, suddenly terrified of being heard. Wren was unbothered, her gait confident as she slipped the key into the lock and twisted toward me.
“You got a bead on them? I’m gonna push open the door and you’re gonna do your thing.”
“Yes! You know, you playing stupid passed endearing a few hours ago, and now it’s closing in on infuriating.”