Read on for a sneak peek of Black Market Witch, the 7th book in the Red Witch Chronicles. Find the full series reading order here.
August 22, Evening
Red guarded the entrance to Lili’s Diner. The clientele had been rowdier than usual lately. She slapped a mosquito on her arm. It was the only bloodsucker in sight.
Give it time.
Charm only looked like a quiet seaside village. It rested on a paranormal fault line between dimensions. The previous public health ordinances had lifted, but the human townspeople were still timid. Maybe they’d noticed the murder rate had declined when they stayed inside doing puzzles.
It left the night to the supernaturals.
At the bar counter, Herman the possum shifter chugged beers with Dale the human mechanic, who had an iced tea. Stace Bonner and Jackson Gonzales were in a hushed argument in the last booth in the retro red vinyl row. Zach Sanchez whizzed in and out of the back room with beer crates, delegating to his blue-shirted employees as he went. Other regulars clustered at the tables in their usual spots.
Bouncer was Red’s title tonight, but she pitched in where necessary. She didn’t need a part-time job with her mysterious inheritance. It was merely nice to leave the house for something besides a monster mash.
Vic Constantine power walked from the bar. Maudette the waitress examined his retreat. The older brunette pursed her pink-painted lips in annoyance as she poured shots. He trotted quicker from the stare to Red. “You look lonely over here. Slow night, huh?”
“I like it.” Red crossed her fingers, then knocked on the wood door to avoid jinxing herself. “I texted the cue to stop serving Herman, so it should stay that way.”
A Black hunter, who’d arrived from out of state with a tall farmer-looking white dude, took a dose of liquid courage at the bar. He asked the waitress, “So, is that Asian guy your boyfriend?”
The break in songs on the radio made his words carry to the door. Maudette replied louder than necessary. “That’s a good question.”
“Great,” Vic grunted. He stared too intently at a displayed hubcap on the wall. Every inch of the folksy hometown dinner was covered in local memorabilia and kitschy flair. It looked like half the small-town eateries that they’d passed through in the west. It wasn’t that interesting after a summer here.
Sweat darkened Vic’s Black Sabbath shirt around the armpits. His mullet stuck to his neck. It might have been muggy, but it wasn’t that hot, even with the broken air conditioning unit. Open screen windows let in a nice breeze. The cricket song outside mingled with the diner’s retro rock playlist.
Red said, “Why are you all squirrely and moist right now?”
“Maudette is turning forty-one next month.” He kept his back to the bar, touching his ear like a biological clock ticked in it. “She dropped the kid question on me, dude. As in, do I want them. I’m freaking out.”
“Oh.” Red looked over his shoulder at the pretty brunette waitress, who stared holes into his back. “Hasn’t it only been a few months? A casual few months?”
“Maybe three. Four if you count the second that we came to town. What do I say?”
“I’m so not the right person for this question,” Red said. “However, if it were me, I’d want the truth. No matter how hard.”
Vic grumbled, “You say that when it’s a hypothetical.”
“Well, my maternal instinct’s definitely dormant at twenty-six. But if I wanted something big like that, I personally wouldn’t want to waste time. Either way, you should be talking to her about this.”
“I’ve never thought about it, really. I like kids, but I’m a hunter. I don’t have a legacy— Hey!” He grinned and pointed at her. “Wait a second. You’re not twenty-six. Well, I mean, you won’t be in an hour. Tomorrow’s your birthday.”
“Oh shit, you’re right. I didn’t even think about it.”
“Me neither. I even gave you a present on the usual day,” Vic said. August 2. It was the day he’d found her.
“We were close on the month, though,” Red said. “Does this mean I get another present out of you?”
“How’s about I save your life sometime?”
She laughed, then shielded her eyes against the sudden glare of headlamps.
A police car parked at the diner. Sheriff Aisha Callaway stepped out in uniform. Her brown eyes didn’t miss a detail of the crowd as she walked to Red and Vic. The regulars shrugged and went about their business while the out-of-towners averted their faces.
“Hey, Aisha,” Red said. “Off the clock and ready for a drink?”
“I wish. There have been reports of unusual animal behavior. My deputies have them under wraps for now. The spooky squad got used to playing on the streets, but the lockdown is over. Pass on the friendly warning to Jackson and his people.”
Vic chuckled. “What? You don’t want to argue with the stubborn son of a bitch yourself?”
Red elbowed him as she noticed Stace approaching.
Stace crossed her arms stiffly over her checkered tie-neck blouse. Petite and cheerful with a supermodel’s bone structure, she could stop traffic with a smile. Not now. She looked surly for a fairy. “Is there a problem, Sheriff?”
Callaway matched the stiff pose. “I’m on my rounds.”
Stace said, “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I found enough.”
Stace narrowed her eyes. “Hmmmm.”
Red pasted on a smile to play diplomat instead of bouncer. Some days, she’d swear the two Black women were buddies, but they were still testing each other out as allies. Jackson was supposed to be the top werewolf around these parts, but Red always thought Stace and Callaway acted more like two meeting alphas.
“Thanks for the heads-up, Aisha.” Red shot a warning glance at Stace to be nice. The sheriff had looked the other way when the family friendly diner for humans had turned into a supernatural speakeasy to survive the summer pandemic. “It’s very thoughtful that you’re looking out for us. Again.”
Callaway waved. “I’m off then. Make good choices.”
After the cop left, Vic asked, “Was that advice for me or you two?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Stace said. She smiled at him, bouncing on her toes. “So, Maudette was telling me that you guys are getting serious. You and her and Jackson and I should go on a double date. Wouldn’t that be so much fun?”
“I need a drink,” Vic said, sweating again. He walked to the bar, took a gander at who was behind it, and pivoted to hide in the men’s room.
“What’d I say?” Stace pouted.
Red cackled at his panicked exit. The idea of a double date scared him more than demons. “It’s not you.”
“I’m sure Maudette will fill me in tomorrow. Patrol time. See you back at the house.” Stace hugged her. Pink fairy sparkles glimmered around her ankles, and she shot into the trees surrounding the diner. The half-fae Hero could find plenty to hunt in there.
An enormous cemetery lurked behind the old-growth oaks and firs.
Red returned to her post at the front. She rested her hand on her new hunter’s kit belted to her waist and upper thigh. Charged selenite crystals were embedded in the leather to amplify her magic. The tiered pouches contained all the things a modern woman needed—pepper spray, a switchblade, and a blessed silver cross.
She said good night to Dale as he left. It was her only patron interaction until a rusted gray van backed into a front space.
A solo woman hopped from the driver’s side. She tossed her high black ponytail like a whip. She was pale, but she wasn’t a vampire. A silver cross hung between her small breasts. In her late twenties, she wore dark leather everything—corset, pants, and trench coat.
Inside the diner, the shifters didn’t react. They usually sniffed the air when a stranger of their own kind arrived. The other woman must be human.
Red prepared her usual spiel about no violence, no weapons. At least openly. The place couldn’t afford a sanctuary spell like an alchemist’s casino, but Zach possessed a unique empath way of stopping trouble and a shotgun under the bar if that didn’t work. She said to the hunter, “Heya, welcome. We have a few rules.”
“Never cared for those.”
Red rattled off the policies anyway. The other woman walked inside before she finished.
“Dash?” a tall white man in plaid said. He was one of the hunters drifting through and waved the newcomer over to the bar. “When the hell did you get into town? You gotta meet my buddy, Vic Constantine.”
Dash smoothed her hair, looking around. “Victor Park Constantine? You mean it?”
Thump. The loud clatter distracted Red from spying on the new chick. Herman had fallen off his stool, splashing booze all over himself. He was supposed to have been cut off from the bar. Whom had he wheedled into giving him a drink?
“Jackson!” She called over the diner’s assistant manager and only staff shifter, then jogged to the drunk possum and untangled the stool legs from his own. “Herman, we’ll get you a coffee and call Dale to pick you up.”
Jackson Gonzales, a dark-haired werewolf, stomped up to them. His linebacker shoulders cast the balding shifter in shadow. “You’re embarrassing yourself and the rest of us.”
“It’s late, Gonzales. I work hard,” Herman slurred from the floor. “I almost finished the air con here. For free!”
Jackson said, “Dignity is what separates—”
Red cut off the customary start to his lecture to Herman. It could last fifteen minutes if Jackson was on a roll. She didn’t want a scene. “Use that wolf strength and get him up for me. Dale already left but will turn around if we call now.”
“No, I’ll take Herman home. I have Gatorade and aspirin for him in the truck like usual,” Jackson said, helping the old possum to his feet.
“Did you get more of the purple kind?” Herman said, his annoyance fading as he was led outside.
Red righted the toppled stool, waving Maudette away as she mopped up the spilled beer. Herman had absorbed most of it on his electrician’s jumpsuit. He was lucky that Jackson always gave him a ride after a scolding. Leaning over the counter, she tossed the dirty rag into the sink, then used a hand sanitizer pump as she heard the creak of leather on leather.
It was Dash.
Red avoided other hunters. They all thought she was dead, and for now, she wanted it that way. If she ignored the other woman, would she go away?
“Hey.” Dash cozied closer to the bar. “So, you’re human, right?”
“Yup,” Red said. This conversation starter went two ways, either a request for info on a bounty or a venting session about supernaturals. Neither interested her.
“You’ve worked here a while?” Dash waited for another monosyllabic affirmation. “You must know Victor Constantine.”
More than Red wanted a rando to know. “I’ve met him.”
The hardboiled hunter demeanor melted. “Is he still here tonight? My friend was going to introduce us, and now we can’t find him.” Dash noticed her own dreamy tone and continued in a deeper, more serious voice. “I have a job.”
“I last saw him by the john.”
Vic walked over to them. “Who?”
“You,” Red said.
Dash shook his hand. Her gaze savored him as if he was everything she’d dreamed. “Mr. Constantine, I’m Dash. Can I talk to you for a moment alone?”
“Call me Vic.” He directed her to an empty booth. “Step into my office.”
Maudette darted to Red once the two hunters were out of hearing range. “What’s your read on that one?”
“She’s a poser wearing a whole cow hide.”
“You don’t dress like a vegan either.” Maudette squinted at Dash. “Judging by her blonde roots, y’all might use the same box hair color. You hunter girls are a complete type, I swear.”
“I’m nothing like—well, maybe we do have a look,” Red said, touching her own dyed black hair. She reflected sheepishly on the jackets in her closet. Those were practical, protective from both road rash and claws. It wasn’t like she tried to fight in tight leather pants. Except that one time…Humbled, she reconsidered Dash out of the corner of her eye.
Maudette was less discreet. She wrung out a bar rag like she was choking it.“I’m serious. I had to pour beer with a straight face while she gushed about wanting to be his apprentice. Said she’d settle for being his girlfriend. Heard the position was open.”
Red wanted to ask which one but figured it would be the wrong question. “Vic likes you and dislikes—and I’ve calculated this with Lashawn, so the math is solid—nearly 95.4 percent of people he meets.”
“That’s 95.4 percent reassuring. Thanks,” Maudette said and went to take a drink order.
Red floated back to the front door, keeping an eye on Vic and Dash’s table. She couldn’t see the other woman’s face from this angle, but he soaked up the attention. Was he going to give her an autograph next?
Patrons loitered by the exit with long small-town goodbyes. They blocked Red’s view. When she caught sight of Vic again, his delight had disappeared. His face said that he wanted to be anywhere else, even if Red couldn’t hear him over the diner speakers. Dash leaned over their table toward him, gesturing like a lawyer bringing her final argument to the jury.
“…but still, I’m not interested,” Vic said. His voice carried over the diner in a break between songs on the stereo. He retreated to a barstool in front of Maudette.
The waitress smiled, wiping the counter.
Dash left, wrapping her trench coat around herself, forehead puckered in confusion. Guess this wasn’t how she’d imagined her fangirl encounter ending.
Red watched the woman speed out of the parking lot. Mud covered the license plate, but it wasn’t an Oregon one. Dash barely paused at the crossroad stop sign. The gray van looked almost yellow in the glow from the light pole.
It was the same make and model as the Millennium Falcon. Creepy.
Red joined Vic at the bar. “I take it that you didn’t want the job.”
“No, he didn’t.” Maudette leaned over the counter to kiss his cheek. A holler from Zach Sanchez in the kitchen made her retreat after one more peck.
“It isn’t like she thinks,” Vic said. “It’d be flattering if it were. Last year, the offer might have been. Dash wanted my help on a werewolf hunt.”
“Not a feral then,” Red guessed. He had a code about only hunting killer wolves.
“She offered me the teeth.” Vic took a glum chug of his beer. He’d made a reputation as a werewolf hunter nicknamed “the dentist.” Things had changed after his brother was bitten and joined Team Wolf. “I told her that I don’t operate like that anymore.”
“I’m glad Lashawn wasn’t here for that.”
Red said, “He’ll be back from Seattle tomorrow, right?”
“I need to make sure he knows where I hid the key at home and where the new booby traps are.”
“Oh my God, go call him right now!” She shooed Vic. “What if he comes back early?”
“Good point.” He retrieved his phone from his jeans and walked outside the noisy diner.
Zach emerged from the kitchen and leaned against the bar. He wiped his brow. “How does it look out here? I’ve been busting my back on that delivery.”
“Herman got his weekly ride home, but other than that, I’ve been more like HR than a bouncer.” Red handed him a napkin. “You’re looking pretty shiny. Isn’t it late for a delivery? It’s almost midnight.”
“No, it’s not.” The empath checked his watch and waved to Maudette, who idled by the bar’s stereo. “Now, it’s midnight.”
Tom Petty blasted from the speakers, one of Red’s favorite songs—“Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Zach presented a round of Fireball whiskey shots on a tray and insisted she have two. Stace appeared from the kitchen, holding a cake with Callaway.
“You remembered.” Red gawked at the unlit candle witch on the purple frosting. It was adorable. The writing on the cake read, Have a bewitching birthday!
Stace bristled at the suggestion. “Like we’d forget it.”
Zach laughed. “We remember more of them than you do.”
“And a one and a two,” Stace said, leading Red’s friends to sing “Happy Birthday” with the rest of the diner patrons as backup. A few others, like Olivia Benston and Josh from the comic book shop, arrived in time for the singalong.
Callaway set a gift on the counter and gestured to Stace. “It’s from both of us.”
Red unwrapped it to find a handmade scrapbook. A picture of herself and her mother was pasted on the cover from a home movie screenshot. She wiped away a happy tear. “You guys put this together?”
Callaway said, “I gave her the scrapbooking bug. I warned her it was like crack.”
Stace giggled. “A lot of love and Pinot Grigio went into this project. Zach and I gathered everything we could. Found more than we expected, but I still had to pad out some pages with little stories.”
“Is this why you guys have been weird lately?” Red asked.
Callaway said, “For a clandestine superhero, Stace is bad at secrets. She almost asked about the last-minute sticker run in front of you earlier.”
Red pulled the women into a group hug. “This is the best present ever.”
Zach held out an envelope sheepishly. “I got you a gift certificate for bowling and free hot wings.”
“That’s great too.” Red hugged him. “Thank you so much, guys!”
Callaway gestured to the candle on the cake. “Imagine it’s lit.”
Red lifted her hand, summoning magic within her and channeling it through her mother’s ring. “I don’t need to.”
The candle ignited.
She closed her eyes and wished for the only thing she really wanted in the world—to keep her friends safe and happy. Snapping her fingers, she drew back the tiny flame. It extinguished without a single smoke curl, sending her birthday wish to the universe.
It wasn’t answered.