Chronicles of Applecross
Publisher: Escape Publishing
Date of Publication: 22 April 2015
Number of pages: 225
Word Count: 80,000
The final installment of the Chronicles of Applecross trilogy finds Lora left in charge – and quickly losing control.
Lora Blackgoat is in charge. But after losing a lucrative contract, it looks like she’s also running her beloved benefactor's mercenary company into the ground while he's away on holidays. Her problems double when she discovers Roman, exiled nephilim warrior and current confusing love interest, is brokering a dangerous peace agreement.
When a new enemy emerges from across the ocean, threatening to tear the city apart, Lora finds herself taking on new and surprising allies, finally acknowledging the prophecy that haunts her and using it to her advantage.
Headmistress Poulter hadn’t changed. She scared the crap out of me when I was ten and she scared the crap out of me now, even though I was a mature, genuine grown up and sitting in Blackgoat Watch’s big boss chair. Poulter’s body was all sharp angles under a shapeless dress, her iron-grey hair scraped into a tight bun. I was trying to pay attention, I was, but Poulter had been talking for a good ten minutes about her missing cat, Blinky, and I was finding it hard to focus.
Not for the first time I mentally cursed Gideon, my benefactor and boss of Blackgoat Watch, for ducking out of the city with my adoptive mother, Orella. They’d left Harken a month ago on a holiday to the sunny continent of Eral and Gideon had left me in charge of Blackgoat’s stable of Runners for hire. This meant I had to meet clients and smile and be nice. Which was hard. Especially when Poulter kept referring to Blinky as her missing pussy. Harder still was not fidgeting when Poulter fixed me with that look, the one that suggested she could see every sin I’d ever committed. And if I was being honest, there’d been a few since I’d last seen her at the age of 14, when I’d decided my academic career was over and my Runner career was about to start.
Reuben Crowhurst, a fellow Runner, sat beside Poulter wearing a suitably concerned expression that I suspected he’d been practising. In fact, his support for me in my temporary role as boss had been so efficient, I was suspicious that he was going to hit me up for a raise while Gideon was out of the country. He was also a griorwolf, not that he readily advertised the fact he could go all beast-monster if he lost control of himself.
‘Of course we understand how difficult this is,’ Crowhurst was saying. ‘Not only was he your pet, but the school mascot.’ He smiled at Poulter, giving her the full, charming Reuben Crowhurst treatment. I had to admit, he looked pretty smart today. His blond hair was brushed neatly, beard freshly trimmed, and he wore crisp charcoal pants and a snappy, velvet-trimmed vest. A ruby earring winked from one ear and he smelled of a very manly cologne.
One corner of my mouth curled up. If Crowhurst thought he could hit me up for a raise while Gideon was away, he was going to get an education. I tried to focus on the conversation, mentally calculating how much I could bill for searching for a cat. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be enough to see us out of the financial hole Blackgoat had recently fallen into, which wasn’t really my fault.
‘Lora Blackgoat. Are you paying attention?’ Poulter’s voice was a cane-crack across my thoughts and I gave a guilty jump.
‘Ah…yes. Pussy. I mean, cat. Missing. Blinky.’ I glanced down at my notes, which consisted of curly doodles and a couple of hex symbols. ‘That about sums it up, right?’
‘I can tell she’s not listening to a word I’ve said.’ Poulter shifted her glare to Crowhurst.
‘She always used to get that look, like nothing else mattered but her.’
‘I’m listening, I’m listening,’ I protested. ‘I’ll send someone over first thing tomorrow to start asking around. See if the neighbours have seen him.’
Poulter’s eyebrows pinched. ‘I’d rather you saw to this personally, Lora.’
Crowhurst gave me a significant look, which I knew meant I was supposed to agree with the client.
‘Of course,’ I said through clenched teeth. ‘I’ll look after this personally, Lady Poulter. First thing tomorrow.’
‘You couldn’t start today?’
‘Unfortunately, I’ve got another appointment this afternoon. But I can assure you, I’ll be there tomorrow, very first thing.’ I made a show of checking my notes. ‘Can you tell me if there’s anyone who’d want to do your pussy mischief?’ I kept my face straight, but a flush crept up Crowhurst’s neck. He shot me a warning look.
Poulter sniffed. ‘There have been a few troublesome students of late. One in particular. His name was Kalin and he led a rotten pack of them. I expelled him last term for stabbing a teacher with a pencil.’
‘What’s Kalin’s family name?’ I asked.
‘He had none. He was from the orphanage.’
‘I heard he disappeared last month. I don’t know the particulars.’
‘Rest assured, we’ll have answers for you soon enough about Blinky.’ Crowhurst stood, letting me know this would probably be a good place to end the interview. I stood as well, grateful that Crowhurst was around. If I had to be honest, he’d really stepped up and helped smooth over my rough edges when talking to clients. Maybe the bastard did deserve a raise.
‘Thank you for calling Blackgoat Watch, Lady Poulter,’ I said.
Poulter’s eyes narrowed. ‘Did Gideon really leave you in charge of this organisation?’
My chest burned and I realised I was holding my breath, trying to dazzle her with my dimpled smile. But Poulter didn’t look particularly charmed by it, so I exhaled and rubbed my cheeks with a scowl. ‘Yes. I was left in charge. Why?’
Poulter glanced at Crowhurst. ‘You are helping her, aren’t you?’
Crowhurst gave Poulter a noncommittal shrug, then manoeuvred her gracefully out of the office, filling the air with easy small talk. I slumped back into Gideon’s chair, the leather squeaking. Opening the top drawer, I pulled out Gideon’s vodka stash and picked a glass that wasn’t too dirty. I poured myself half a shot. I was still staring at it when Crowhurst walked back in and frowned at the glass. I hesitated briefly before topping it up.
‘That doesn’t look like a great idea,’ Crowhurst said.
My eyes rose to his meet his steady gaze. ‘Were we in the same meeting? Come on. A missing cat?’
Crowhurst sat with a sigh. ‘Business is slow. We have to take any job we can for now.’
‘Business is more than slow.’ I nudged the full shot with a finger, watching the clear liquid slop over the edges. Blackgoat Watch had recently been slapped with a bill for back taxes. Gideon hadn’t been too worried, since I’d been offered a profitable contract by the Order of Guides, a militant organisation associated with the powerful Church of Higher Path. The Order had mistakenly taken my white hair to mean I was a Witch Hunter, despite my assurances that I wasn’t. I couldn’t sniff out a witch or warlock if my life depended on it. But the Grigori priest who ran the Order in Harken still wanted me to work with their Regulators for a season in a Witch Hunter capacity, hunting heretics, keeping the peace and generally poo-pooing all things fun.
With the earnings of my contract, Blackgoat should have been fine. But two things had happened in the last year to change that. Firstly, raiding pirates had affected sea trade routes and it was bad enough that the city was dragged into a recession. And the second reason? My contract with the Order was terminated after only three weeks. I was cited as being uncontrollable. Unpredictable. Not a team player. Of course, if anyone was to blame for this mess it was Gideon for green-lighting the idea in the first place. As if I was going to fit in with a militant religious order. Don’t wear skirts. Don’t wear heels. Don’t wear your hair down. Don’t show up drunk. All those rules had made my head hurt. Still, it had been quite unfair when everyone suspected me of starting the fire in the sacred library.
‘What do you think we should do?’ I pushed the shot glass aside. My moment of weakness had passed and now I just wanted to sulk in a dark room.
‘We’ll do our job,’ Crowhurst said. ‘Because we’re professionals.’
A crashing sound came from the ground floor, where Blackgoat’s reception and kitchen were located, and muffled shouts sounded through the floorboards. Crowhurst and I exchanged a startled glance, then sprinted for the door. Crowhurst yanked a dagger from his sleeve and I grabbed my goat-headed duelling cane. Downstairs, we followed the noise to the back courtyard, where a group of Runners shouted encouragement at two grappling men.
‘Break it up!’
My shout was drowned in a chorus of cheers and no one paid me any attention. Crowhurst tried to pull the brawling men apart and copped a jarring knock to his chin for his trouble. The Runners cheered louder and Crowhurst retreated, rubbing his jaw with a pained expression. I clicked the button on my arm-rig and a three-shot derringer snapped from my sleeve. I lifted an arm and fired once in the air, the sharp crack bouncing off the courtyard’s tall brick walls. The Runners fell silent and the fighting men drew apart, chests heaving and clothes dishevelled.
‘Everybody out.’ I shoved the gun back up my sleeve, then pointed at the two Runners who had been fighting. ‘Everyone but you two.’
No one argued. Stories about me had circulated around the city, to the point that they had entered a kind of urban legend status. Stories about the female Witch Hunter who could wield Outland weapons, guns that were a vast improvement on the flintlocks and wheellocks that operated within The Weald. Whatever mojo kept the realm hidden from the modern world also prevented modern machinery from working here. City philosophers had often cited this as a ‘state of grace’ and a sign of The Weald’s purity. I took it as a sign the city philosophers didn’t get out much. The fact that I’d never had trouble with modern machinery stalling inside The Weald was a little secret I’d tried to keep to myself. Being able to blend into the background was what kept you alive in the Runner industry.
The two fighters glared at each other, fists clenched by their sides. One was a slender man called Bone, while the other looked like a shaved gorilla and called himself Grubber. From his giant size I was pretty sure he was otherkin, but he hid it well enough I never asked. After all, it was common enough for otherkin to hide their unusual features, a result of their mixed blood of mystical races, especially with the prejudice that still existed in the city against them.
Crowhurst loitered, obviously thinking I wanted him to stay. Like I couldn’t bust balls on my own.
I served up a stern frown, channelling my inner Gideon. ‘What in hellfires is wrong with you two? What if a client had walked in and seen this pathetic excuse for professionalism?’
Grubber scowled. ‘He insulted my wife.’
‘What’d he say?’ I asked
‘He said my wife is so fat, I’d have to roll twice to get off her.’
Bone rubbed the back of his neck. ‘I meant it nicely. She’s just a lot of woman.’
I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed. I was at a loss as to how to proceed, but when in doubt, I knew to start yelling at someone. I fixed Bone with a glare and raised my voice.
‘What’s wrong with you, making jokes about a co-worker’s wife?’
‘You know she’s sensitive about her weight,’ Grubber muttered.
‘Easy now.’ Crowhurst stepped forward, hands raised. ‘I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding. I’m sure she’s a real lovely woman.’
‘You making fun?’ Grubber bristled at him. ‘You got something to say about my wife as well?’
‘Nobody wants to crack any more jokes about your wife,’ I told Grubber. ‘And this isn’t the place for you two to be fighting and breaking furniture.’ I stabbed a finger at Grubber.
‘Don’t be so sensitive.’ My finger shifted to Bone. ‘And you…keep your opinions to yourself. Now, both of you get the hell out of my sight.’
Grubber and Bone scowled at me, but I just planted my hands on my hips and glowered back. Just because they looked tough didn’t mean I couldn’t plant my velvet brocade boots between their legs and fell them like trees. Plus, right now I paid the bills and that pretty much ensured I got my way. Grubber and Bone righted the chairs and shuffled out of the courtyard, glaring at each other. Crowhurst bought his hands together in a slow clap.
‘Well done, boss. Saying things like you mean it. You’ll have this place ship-shape before Gideon gets back, no problems.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ I sighed. ‘Except the best job we have on the books is searching for my old headmistress’s missing cat.’
‘You mean, her pussy?’ Crowhurst shook his head. ‘I nearly swallowed my tongue when you asked who’d want to do it mischief. You shouldn’t make fun of our clients.’
I snorted. ‘She did bring out the juvenile in me. But if we don’t pick up some jobs soon, Gideon will be coming back to a bankrupt company. Maybe I should turn this place into a bar and dice joint.’
‘You’d just drink and gamble the profits away,’ Crowhurst pointed out. ‘Maybe you should write and let Gideon know how bad things have gotten.’
‘No way.’ I righted a chair and sat down. My bad leg ached from the sudden rush downstairs and I ran a practised hand over the knotted muscles. A horse accident at sixteen had put me in a hospital with a fractured pelvis and cracked spine. My recovery had been long and painful, leaving me with a limp and an incurable fear of horses.
‘I can handle this,’ I said. ‘I told Gideon I’d pick up new work after losing the Order contract and I can’t let him down.’
Crowhurst folded his arms and gave me a slightly bemused smile. ‘You mind telling me how you lost the contract, exactly? You never did tell anyone, and Gideon wouldn’t say.’
‘It happened. Let’s leave it at that. But it really wasn’t my fault.’
‘I heard it was because you slept with a Grigori priest.’
‘Ewww.’ I make a gagging noise. ‘Really?’
‘Did it have anything to do with that big fire they had in their library?’
‘Just let it go,’ I snapped.
‘Whatever you say, boss.’
Tension rode up my neck and I rubbed it with a groan. ‘I really screwed things up.’
‘I’m sure you tried your hardest.’
I didn’t answer, because a small part of me wondered if I really did try hard enough. The fire had been an accident, but it had also been in a long list of infractions I’d committed while contracting with the Order. Fraternising with darkcraft users. Not adhering to the dress code. Illegal consumption of alcohol while on duty. Sacrilegious games of dice with the cooks inside the Order compound. The list was crowded. It had been a busy three weeks and I probably hadn’t been that rebellious since I was at school. Gideon had always said I had a problem with authority. Fortunately, his own vices were worse than mine, so we always got along just fine.
Crowhurst cleared his throat. I realised he was working up to saying something, but he looked worried about how I’d react.
‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘If you’ve got an idea, spit it out.’
He scratched his close cropped beard. ‘Someone approached me with a proposition. Initially I told them there was no way you’d be interested.’ He shrugged. ‘But now, seeing as we’ve got our backs to the wall, maybe you’ll consider it.’
‘What kind of proposition and from who?’ I eyed him suspiciously.
‘From whom,’ Crowhurst corrected absently. ‘And let me get more details. Make sure the money’s worth it.’
‘Sounds like something I don’t want to know about.’ I rolled my shoulders, trying to disperse my building tension. ‘So when you want to talk about it, bring beer to cushion the blow.’
In the distance, the city clock rang out to announce mid-afternoon and I knew had to get moving if I wanted to reach my destination in the Outlands that night. It wasn’t a paying job, but rather a chance to see Roman, an exiled nephilim warrior I was sort of involved with. Sort of. Gideon and Orella hadn’t been happy with my role in sneaking Roman to the Outlands, where he could recover from the madness some nephilim were cursed with. They were equally displeased with me shooting out every chance I got to see him.
‘I’ve got to go,’ I told Crowhurst. ‘I have that meeting tonight I told you about.’
His face darkened. ‘I should go with you.’
‘I don’t need a babysitter, thanks,’ I said. ‘And I wouldn’t go if it wasn’t important.’
Crowhurst made a disgusted sound. ‘Meeting up with your ex-Regulator lover boy isn’t more important than sticking around to keep Blackgoat running.’
‘I’ll only be gone the night. And it’s not just to see Roman. There’s an important sit-down happening and I was asked to attend.’
‘What kind of important sit-down?’ Crowhurst asked, eyeing me suspiciously.
I threw my hands up. ‘Just relax, will you? I told you, I’ll be back here tomorrow morning, bright and early to look for this freaking cat.’
‘Fine. But if you’re not here, I’m coming to get you.’
‘I can take care of myself.’ I stood and grabbed my cane. ‘I’m not kidding. And this job you mentioned? By all means, look into it. I’m desperate enough to try anything.’
A sly look slid over Crowhurst’s face. ‘I won’t forget you said that.’
About the Author:
Rebekah lives in sunny Queensland, Australia. An avid writer since she could scrawl on her bedroom walls, she has progressed from rainbow unicorn tales to stories of dark fantasy with lashings of romance and a sprinkling of horror.
Her vices include in-depth critiques of B grade action and horror movies and buying stationery she doesn’t need.