You know what the song says: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
I’d never expected magic.
Never wanted it.
My mother showed me magic’s darker side when I was a child. Having a demon hunt me once I’d found my power as an adult hadn’t done much to change my mind about the chaos and trouble magic trailed in its wake.
But now mine had vanished.
I hadn’t wanted magic, but the fact that it had gone AWOL hadn’t improved my life. In fact, I was coming to the rapid conclusion that, if I couldn’t get my powers back, I was totally screwed.
The lines of code on my monitor started to blur, and I blinked reluctantly, pushing away from the desk and standing to stretch and give my eyes a break. But looser muscles didn’t
help. When I sat down again, the code remained seemingly flawless. If there was a glitch somewhere, I couldn’t spot it.
Which was a problem because spotting impossible-to-spot glitches was what I did. Or had done.
Nope. Don’t think about before.
I leaned closer to the monitor as though proximity might improve my chances of figuring out the problem. Which got me nothing but an urge to squint and lower the brightness on the screen.
It didn’t matter which way I studied and analyzed the various codes, routines, sub-routines, and databases. As far as I could determine, there was no reason why the eye-wateringly expensive computer system running this state-of-the-art, cost-the-client-a-fortune manufacturing facility was suddenly refusing to talk to the similarly state-of-the-art computer system running logistics or the one in the design department.
There had to be one, of course. The not-so-state-of-the-art messes rolling off my client’s production line in all the wrong quantities, and at all the wrong times, were compelling evidence that something had gone seriously wrong.
The company’s own tech gurus had tried to fix it.
Then they’d called me.
Normally I’d be able to find out what the problem was.
That’s what I do. I’m the TechWitch. (Yes, I named my company before I knew I had magic. The universe, it seems, has a sense of irony.) Show me a computer or a program that’s sulking, misbehaving, or generally causing havoc, and I can always find the problem, even when legions of programmers insisted there couldn’t possibly be one.
Maggie Lachlan. Computer whisperer.
Solving unsolvable tech problems had provided me with a nice little living before my life was thrown into chaos by demons and magic and death. It had taken me nine months since I’d fought a demon to even think about returning to work.
Nine months of hiding out, trying to cope with the death of my best friend and the rapid departure—stage left—of Damon Riley, the man I’d foolishly let myself fall for. Nine months in which the only real bright spots had been the fact that nothing had tried to kill me, I’d grown a lot more proficient using power tools, I knew a lot more about California’s post-quake building codes, and I hadn’t had to use any magic. But I couldn’t hide forever—I didn’t have a bottomless bank account—and I’d taken this job after a number of increasingly hard-to-resist offers.
Piece of cake, I’d told myself. Make a quick chunk of change, then go back to hiding out for a few more months.
I’m sure they say something in songs about the problems with making assumptions and counting your chickens, too.
Because whatever it was that let me find the things no one else found lurking in obscure recesses of code, it seemed to have left the building. I never made any promises to my clients about how long it would take me to solve their issues, but I figured they’d notice eventually if I continued to suck this hard.
A computer whisperer who could no longer whisper was about as useful as square wheels on a bicycle.
I’d been trying to pedal forward on right angles for two weeks now, making about as much progress as you’d expect. Last night it had finally occurred to me that this was the first time I’d tried to do my job since I’d tangled with a demon. So maybe my inability to find the answer had something to do with that…with my magic
I hadn’t tried to use magic since the day I’d buried my best friend. Last night I’d tried one of the most basic exercises I’d been taught—lighting a candle. I’d failed. Several times.
Nothing. My magic was gone. And I didn’t think it was just that I was out of practice. Or that I didn’t know a lot about magic in the first place. Yes, I’d only just found my power when the demon had thrown my life into chaos, and yes, I’d barely had time to learn the basics before I’d decided magic wasn’t for me. But magic isn’t something that vanishes on its own. I had chosen not to use it since Nat had died but even if I’d forgotten the knack of it, I should have been able to feel something when I tried. I knew how my power felt.
I knew I couldn’t feel it now.
The realization had led me to a night of tossing and turning. Lack of sleep only increased my frustration with the system I was trying to diagnose. If this job dragged out much longer, my client would start to get antsy. My contracts included a flat rate I earned no matter the result of the job, but if I couldn’t show some progress, the client wouldn’t want to keep paying my hourly rate over and above that. I kind of needed that money. I needed to get my shit together.
I glared at the screen one last time. Time to shut down for the night. It was already after eight. On a Friday. Sometimes its better to sleep on things and try again in the morning.
The blank screen seemed to stare at me accusingly as I packed up my stuff. I ignored it. I’d do some more analysis at home over the weekend, but I didn’t have to face my client again until Monday. I did, however, have to face facts. I wasn’t getting anywhere. I needed to woman up when I got home and ask my accidental housemate, Lizzie Reagan, for advice.
I might be the TechWitch, but Lizzie was an actual witch. One who was in full control of her powers and fully immersed in the magical world I’d been so desperately avoiding. In fact, she was the youngest member of the Cestis. You didn’t get much more magical than the USA’s ruling council of witches. Police, judge, and jury all in one. Not to be messed with. Which was why I was hoping Lizzie might have a
solution that would keep me from having to deal with them in any official capacity again.
I was the reason they were only four instead of five. Antony, one of their members, had tried to help me rescue Nat, my best friend, from a demon. We’d failed. Nat and Antony had died. I really didn’t want to face the others. The fact that they, apart from Lizzie, had left me mostly alone for nine months seemed to indicate the feeling was mutual.
My anxiety over asking Lizzie for help only grew on my trip home. The elderly electric car I’d bought when I’d moved back to Berkeley groaned up the hill toward Tilden Park, the artificial hum of its engine underscored with noises that didn’t sound good. I really needed to get it checked out. I’d picked it up for a bargain price, and it had done well enough when I wasn’t straying far from Berkley, but in the last few weeks it had started showing its age.
My grandparents’ house—mine now—was located in the North Berkeley Hills. Before the Big One, it had been one of the most expensive areas in town. But high real estate values hadn’t spared it from damage in the quake, though it had fared better than the areas down by the beach. The streets were now a mix of brand-new mansions rebuilt fast by those who could afford it, vacant blocks that hadn’t sold after the owners had decided California was no longer the place to be post-quake, and half-wrecked works in progress like mine, slowly being put back together as cash became available.
My house was in a quiet area, close to the park, and when my grandparents bought it, it had definitely been the worst house on the street. Grandpa had done it up lovingly over the years, but it had still been one of the most modest places in the neighborhood. I was trying to restore it to a little of its former glory. But rebuilding was expensive these days. There were exacting new standards for quake safety to be met, not to mention the environmental requirements. I probably would have qualified for one of the grants the city gave out for reestablishment, but I figured there were people who needed it more than me. I could do it on my own.
As long as I was working. My bank account was beginning to look very lean after my time off. Hence not wanting to drop chunks of cash on a new car. I just had to hope my mechanic could work a miracle to keep me on the road.
Much like I hoped Lizzie might work a miracle and help me get my mojo back.
But when I pulled into the drive, the house was dark, other than the automatic porch light blinking on as the motion sensors caught the car. I watched as I killed the engine, but apart from the front hall light flaring as the housecomp started its “somebody is home” sequence, there was definitely no other sign of life. Just the house, the latest ramshackle pile of renovation rubbish on the front lawn, and the geraniums growing on the porch, as usual.
I didn’t know whether I was relieved or disappointed. To distract myself while I pondered how exactly to tell Lizzie, I wandered into the kitchen to investigate dinner options. Lizzie was more of a cook than me, but she wasn’t Nat’s level of domestically obsessed. She usually left me something if she’d cooked before I got home, but clearly she’d been out all day. There was no message on my datapad, so whatever she was doing, she hadn’t let me know.
That wasn’t unusual. When she moved in, I’d made my stance on avoiding magic clear, so she tended to be cagey about her movements when she was doing something involving the Cestis or her witch life. The only thing she’d put her foot down about was the silver bracelet that currently circled my right wrist. It was somehow connected to the wards Lizzie had laced the house with. I hadn’t asked for details, just followed her instructions that I was to wear it. I only took it off to shower or if I was doing something on the house involving the kinds of tools it wasn’t safe to wear jewelry around.
I blasted a frozen burrito, added a handful of baby carrots and some arugula to fool myself that it was vaguely healthy, smothered them in enough dressing to cancel out the vitamins, and carried it all into the living room. My home office was still unfinished, so I’d set up a temporary desk in there.
We’d had the weather screens installed downstairs a few weeks earlier so that the living room, kitchen, and our temporary bedrooms were pleasantly cool despite the warm night. Spring had brought decent rainfall, but the weather was heating up fast, as it did these days. We had to hope the rain and the continued re-greening projects would keep the fire season from being like the bad old days. I avoided my business email as I chewed, distracting myself with newslinks and general web nonsense.
I was too hungry to eat slowly, and fifteen minutes later, I was back in the kitchen, washing my plate and silverware and wondering whether I should find something to stream or just attempt to go to bed. Without Lizzie in the house, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep easily. I trusted her wards, but having a demon invade your dreams for years didn’t make for easy sleeping, and even though my demon was gone, the insomnia that had plagued me since my teens still paid frequent visits.
So streaming it was. Lizzie and I were working our way through the many series of our current retro binge, but I couldn’t do an episode without her. Instead I called up a real oldie—one of the ancient Hollywood musicals my gran had loved—and put it on while I tried to settle on the sofa.
I got about halfway through before I decided that not even fabulous frocks, sequins, and elaborate dance sequences were holding my focus. Maybe an hour of hanging drywall in the upstairs hall might wear me out enough to sleep? But I only got as far as the kitchen when the housecomp chimed, then announced I had an incoming call from Cassandra’s Cauldron.
A shiver ran down my spine. What the hell was Cassandra Tallant doing calling me at nearly midnight? She was the Cestis’s oldest member, and I hadn’t spoken to her in months. I doubted she’d suddenly been seized by the urge to call me for a casual chat.
“Answer. Voice only,” I said to the comp, leaning against the counter and wrapping my arms around myself.
“Maggie?” Cassandra’s crisp voice came out of the speakers, clear as a bell tolling a warning. “Can you come to the store and get Lizzie? She’s hurt.”