The Witch Doctor Is In
The doctor will see you now!
Ashley McDonnell: Doctor. Hospital administrator. Witch.
Nick Raines: Tough guy. Secret service agent. Vampire.
Bad news comes in threes at Empire General Hospital. One: The hospital’s operating license is in jeopardy. Two: The most valuable supernatural drug in Washington DC has been stolen from a seemingly impenetrable safe. Three: Ashley McDonnell has lost her magical powers.
Newly turned vampire Nick Raines shows up at Empire General the night everything goes wrong. How will Ash turn things around when the vampire who makes her hormones hum might be the man sabotaging her career?
Maybe being a witch kept me from mastering that lesson. Because there I was, standing in my office at Empire General Hospital, contemplating an awful lot of harm—both physical and magical—to my not-so-innocent familiar. I stared at an envelope addressed to Medical Director Ashley McDonnell, with a postmark indicating the letter had been sent three months earlier.
“Musker!” I roared, even though my lazy familiar was only a few feet away.
In lieu of a return address, an enchanted logo flickered in the envelope’s upper left corner—an animated snake writhing around a wooden staff and flicking its tongue in warning. The letter came from the Eastern Empire Healthcare Facilities Accreditation Board.
“Musker!” I hollered again. My familiar was responsible for sorting my mail, making sure I saw my most pressing correspondence first. Alas, Musker was as well-suited to being an executive assistant as I was to winning the Indy 500.
But beggars—and medical directors of severely underfunded hospitals for supernatural creatures—couldn’t be choosers.
I narrowed my eyes, barely resisting the urge to set fire to the correspondence. The contents inside were probably charmed against burning, spindling or mutilating, but the last thing I needed was to set off the overhead sprinklers.
Holding my breath, I ripped open the envelope with a letter opener shaped like a miniature athame. Applying the replica of a magical knife to paper was the closest I’d come to ritual witchcraft for weeks. Running Empire General, with its seemingly endless series of disasters, had seen to that.
My gaze flicked over the formal missive inside.
Upcoming one-year anniversary of Empire General… Substantial concerns about long-term financial viability… Additional concerns about the physical health of diverse imperial patients… Team of inspectors will arrive at midnight on Midsummer Eve.
One month from tonight.
“Musker!” I bellowed one more time, stomping across my office and shoving open the door to my en suite bathroom.
Yeah, the bathroom was supposed to be a perk of the job—one tiny advantage to lure qn unsuspecting doctor to take on the impossible task of running Empire General. The on-site housing (former servants’ quarters in the converted mansion that housed the hospital) sure wasn’t a draw. And the three meals a day (hospital food—pretty much as bad as you’re thinking. No. Worse.) weren’t anything to write home about.
But the bathroom—marble floor, walk-in shower, heated towel racks, and a programmable toilet, for Hecate’s sake!—the bathroom was supposed to make me love my job. Except my good-for-nothing familiar had taken over the room our first day on the premises.
Shoving open the door, I was swatted in the face by a wall of desert air.
I blinked in the orange-red glow of the overhead heat lamps as sweat broke out along my hairline. Inlaid coils in the marble floor gave off shimmering waves like a desert mirage. Whoever had designed the high-end sweatbox had never meant it to be cranked to eleven in late May.
Whoever had designed the high-end sweatbox had never met my familiar.
“You rang?” Musker crooned, blinking slowly as he swiveled his head toward the door. He was ensconced in a padded chaise lounge, exposing nearly every inch of his muscled body to the merciless glow overhead. A tiny bronze-colored Speedo preserved his modesty. No. Wait. Musker had no modesty. He only wore the bathing suit to keep his most sensitive flesh from sticking to the chair.
“How can you—”
“Do you mind?” Musker interrupted. “You’re letting all the hot air out.”
I was his witch. He was subordinate to me in all matters magical and mundane. After eighteen years of bonded partnership, we both knew the rules, even if I’d been too busy for months to work even the simplest spell.
I stepped inside the sauna and closed the door behind me.
Musker stretched his neck in approval. I brandished the accreditation letter and shouted, “I just found this on my desk!”
His broad mouth curved in a smile. “I worked late last night, sorting the mail.”
“This was sent three months ago!”
A lazy blink. “There was a lot to go through.”
“We could have spent the past twelve weeks preparing for inspection! There’s only one month left before the accreditation board gets here!”
Musker shifted on his chair, exposing more of his lean flank to the overhead heat. “You know as well as I do that things will just come undone if you start organizing too early.”
“I know nothing of the sort!” My voice echoed off the marble walls. “We have records to file! Inventories to complete! Patient histories—”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Musker said, his eyelids drooping as if he were about to fall asleep.
I should have summoned my powers to fry his lizard skin. I should have thrown him out the hospital’s front door into the dark and rainy night. I should have let him sleep under a cold and clammy rock forever.
But I couldn’t do any of that.
Lazy or not, Musker was my familiar. I’d chosen him my second year at the Washington Magicarium, selecting his reliquary from among all the containers stored at my school. Other girls had chosen traditional cats. Some had been swayed by sweet little familiars—bunnies or hedgehogs. A few had been attracted to powerful creatures like mastiffs or bears.
I’d chosen a lizard.
I’d chosen a lizard because the reliquary was dusty and shoved all the way to the back of the shelf. The container had clearly sat there for years, maybe even for generations. I felt sorry for the creature inside, even as I asked myself what young witch would choose to have a lizard as her constant companion?
The same girl who insisted on studying American history, along with her daily courseload of spells, runes, herbs, and crystals. The same girl—woman—who decided to go to medical school even after her mother begged her not to. (Begged and berated and downright forbade, because medical school just wasn’t done. There were too many conflicts between witchy ways and modern science. Hecate didn’t play well with the Hippocratic Oath.)
I’d been a rebel from the day I threw my first rattle out of my bassinet.
“Let’s go,” I said to Musker.
He swiveled his head in sluggish consideration. “Where?”
“My office. Now.”
My familiar might have been the laziest creature in the entire Eastern Empire. But he recognized a command from his witch when he heard one. With surprising speed, he skittered across the room toward the heated towel rack. His clothes were draped over the metal bars—a much-wrinkled khaki shirt that looked like it belonged on a safari guide and a matching pair of disreputable trousers. He slipped his feet into brown sandals, letting his toes curl over the ends like claws.
We both shivered as we returned to my office. I was grateful for the breathable air, but Musker hunched beside my desk, glaring balefully at the countless manila folders stacked there.
“First things first,” I said brightly, determined to ignore his bad attitude. “Let’s send a response to the Board, telling them we look forward to their visit.”
I reached for a sheet of Empire General stationery. The hospital’s logo was stamped across the top—a spray of stars twisted into a stethoscope. Hmmm… I could zap the design with a dose of magic and make the stars dance when the bureaucrats opened my reply.
Musker’s tongue flicked out in a gesture of distaste, but he shifted closer to my side. I settled my palm over his ropy forearm as I closed my eyes. Before I could summon the words of an animating spell, though, I shifted my position. My neck was still sweating from the bathroom heat. I twisted my hair into a messy bun, stabbing it into place with a convenient ball-point pen.
Taking a deep breath, I settled back in my oversize leather chair. This time, I brushed my fingertips against Musker’s ready palm. I’d energized dozens of designs in the past—my graduation announcement from the Washington Magicarium, invitations to potluck parties, a baby shower for a witchy friend.
I was tired, though. Hungry, too. I’d missed dinner—such as it was, with glue-like chipped beef on toast billed as the nightly special. (No, the printed menus didn’t announce the sticky consistency. Eleven months of hard-won experience warned me away.) Instead, I’d spent the time walking the hospital hallways and checking on patients. Twenty-four of our thirty beds were occupied, and we were treating our first sprite ever—
Another deep breath as I turned back to the letterhead. I touched my free fingers to my forehead, offering up the power of my thoughts to Hecate. I touched my throat, offering up the power of my voice. I touched my chest, just above the xiphoid process, offering up the power of my heart.
“Goddess help me spark this drawing,
Aid me with this mundane task.
So I might greet all with magic,
So I might serve where you ask.”
Nothing happened. There wasn’t the familiar flash of darkness, the moment when the mundane world was blocked by sheer arcane power. The design on the letterhead didn’t shift. Not a single star moved.
Disconcerted, I scooted to the front of my chair. That new position allowed me to settle the whole length of my arm against Musker’s. I repeated my breathing and centering. I closed my eyes to increase my concentration, and I recited my spell again.
Nothing. Not even a tickle of magic, the feather-soft thread of energy that had made me sneeze every single time I worked the Rota during my first three years in school.
Suddenly anxious, I stood, taking care to plant my feet squarely on the floor. I tried to swallow in my suddenly bone-dry throat. I clamped my fingers on Musker’s shoulder.
My initial grip was hard enough to make him wince. It took a conscious effort to ease back.
Three deep breaths. Thoughts, voice, heart. Familiar doggerel spell…
I stopped after three words. Magic should have welled up as I began my chant—Goddess help me. I should have felt Hecate’s holy gift vibrate through every cell in my body.
But even more than that, I should have felt my familiar beside me. His energy should have thrummed against mine, catching even the faintest hint of my power and mirroring it back like sunlight amplified across acres of desert sand.
Musker had centered me for every substantial working I’d tried since his awakening. He’d steadied me. He’d buoyed me to accomplish more than I’d ever imagined was possible.
He was my familiar, sworn and true. And right now, in the middle of the night, in the heart of the building I was sworn to administer and protect, I couldn’t feel even a hint of his presence.
I couldn’t sense my familiar.
I couldn’t reach my magic.
I was ruined as a witch.