The Accidental Familiar

Accidentally Paranormal Series, Book 14

Dakota Cassidy

Chapter 1

You’re talking. Like talking-talking, as in your mouth is moving and words are coming out. Words, I might add, that make total sense.”

“Totally fucked-up, right?”

Poppy McGuillicuddy snorted. So totally.How is it even possible that you’re talking to me?”

“You have three choices.”

She gulped in the chilled autumn air, inhaling the scent of damp fur and the lingering stench of cheap booze before she sat up straighter and looked the talking cat in the eye (the talking cat).

“Okay, give me my choices. I’m listening.”

The tiny, round black cat began to pace the length of the brick garden wall they’d sat upon when Poppy had demanded she needed air after their “accident”.

The cat stretched, arching its rippling spine, the blue-black of its fur shimmering under the street lamp at the end of the driveway. “First, I just have to make mention. Cooler than coolio costume. Big KISS fan here.”

Poppy preened, fluffing her Afro wig and puffing out her chest to accent the shirt she wore, nude in color with glued-on patches of cotton balls she’d dyed black to mimic copious amounts of chest hair.

“Thanks. I worked extra hard on the star over my eye. Rock and roll hootchie-koo.”

“It totally shows. I’d know you were Paul Stanley if I was blind. Kudos for not going with the obvious choice, too.”

She flapped a hand at the cat and smiled at how clever she’d felt when she’d put this crazy costume together. “Gene’s so overdone. Plus, there’s the tongue thing, you know? I’m just not qualified. Anyway, where were we?”

“Choices,” the cat repeated.

“Right.”

“So let me lay this out for you in list form. You sure you’re ready?”

“Probably not, but I feel like choices are probably moot.”

The feline dipped its shiny, dark head. “No truer words. So here it is in a nutshell. Option one: you can hear me talking to you because you’re fuckin’ nuts. Two: you’re on drugs or have been drugged, which wouldn’t surprise me with that crowd of bananapants stoners in there at that lame excuse for a Halloween party. Three: I’m really talking to you.”

Poppy looked off toward her best friend’s house, sitting just behind the garden wall, and shivered. “I don’t like any of those categories, Alex. Can I have another?”

Jeopardy doesn’t work that way, Poppy, and you know it,” the cat scolded. “Alex Trebek would be so insulted.”

She gaped at the cat. “How do you know my name?”

The cat scoffed, sitting up straight and affecting a jaunty pose. “Well, it went something like this: ‘Yo, yo, yo, girlz and booooyz! This is Poppy M to the C to the Guill-i-cudd-E in da house, spinnin’ you some oldies but goodies tonight! Who all remembers this mad-ass hit by the Spin Doooctooooors?’ So see? It wasn’t like you kept your name some big secret.”

Right. Her Run DMC impression. She’d been DJ-ing at her old friend Mel’s party before all this had gone down. And what had gone down during that party was nutters. Everything was nutters.

So she said as much to the cat as she rubbed her hands together to keep them warm. “This is insane.”

“Or maybe you are,” the feline offered, dry with sarcasm, sitting back on its haunches and eyeballing her with those wide green orbs.

Poppy cocked her head, remembering the cat’s words. “Insanity… That was one of the choices you laid out, right?”

“Yep. Because sometimes if you’re crazy, it goes hand and hand with delusions. Maybe I’m just a delusion you’ve cooked up in your nutbag head.”

Right. Maybe this was all a delusion. She wasn’t prone to them that she knew of, but how would you know you were having delusions if you were delusional?

She looked down at her phone and the number the cat had told her to call when it realized something was terribly out of whack and talked her into coming outside to handle their little indiscretion with less Blink-182 and Rick James blaring in their ears.

Poppy picked up her phone, letting her feline companion hear the endless drone of ringing on the other end. “I don’t think anyone’s going to pick up. Maybe I dialed the wrong—”

“This is Nina Blackman-Statleon of OOPS, for all your dramatic, life-altering emergency paranormal needs. Recently PA-and ratchety-ass, bag-o’-old-crusty-Paranormal-Council-bones approved as a legitimate source for the stickier paranormal events in your life. So, do tell. How can I help your pathetic, whiny soul today?”

Before Poppy was able to ask what all this talk about crisis and crusty-bones approved business was about, someone cut off the woman on the other end of the line.

“Nina!” a woman with a melodic voice chastised in the background. “Stop that! That could be a real client on the other end in dire need!”

“What, Fakey-Locks? Like they’re not pathetic when they’re all needy and clingy? Please. You asked me to answer the phones tonight, and that’s what I’m doin’. Just shut your over-glossed lips and let me handle this.”

Poppy waivered, rethinking the cat’s nutball suggestion to ring up this hotline called OOPS, one alleging it offered help when you were in paranormal crisis.

But the cat had told her to call this number as if the number itself were a lifeline to God. The talking cat said this was who to call—nay, it had insisted these were the people to bring into this so-called mess.

“Well speak, for catnip’s sake!” the persistent feline urged, nudging her elbow with its peculiarly round head. “We don’t have all stinkin’ night. We need to get this shit straightened out before Familiar Central sends someone in. It won’t look good if we dawdle. You don’t want to look bad in front of your new superiors, do you, Spin Doctor?”

“Poppy!” she blurted out her name, because for some reason it seemed important she be known as something more than the DJ. “My name is Poppy. DJ-ing is just something I do on the side for a little extra cash,” she stated with as much clarity as one could muster when having a conversation with a house pet.

“It’ll be Shit On A Stick if you don’t get crackin’.” The cat’s tail swished in an agitated semi-circle over the surface of the bricks again. “Now talk!” it hissed.

“Hellooo? You’ve got twenty GD seconds before I use my internal GPS and hunt your ass down for crank calling me,” the woman named Nina groused. “I’m gonna start counting now. One…”

Poppy closed her eyes and took a shaky, deep breath of the cold night air, trying to sort through the bits and pieces about familiars and superiors and focus on the fact that this person on the other end of the line was supposed to help her.

With a trembling hand, Poppy finally held the phone up to her ear. “Um, hello?” she whispered into the phone, attempting a calm tone.

No one was going to retell this horror story someday and call Poppy McGuillicuddy a chicken-shit. Not on your life. When witnesses retold this harrowing tale, it would always be prefaced by how brave she’d been.

“I said, how the eff can I help you?” the voice belonging to Nina, the OOPS operator, growled.

Okay, so forget valor. Shit, shit, shit. This was a mistake. A big mistake.

But the cat, the damn talking cat, nudged Poppy again and shouted over the screech of Run DMC still blaring from inside her best friend’s house, “Tell that crabby-AF, pale-faced beast of the female persuasion it’s her friggin’ reluctant-as-hell familiar calling!”

She looked down at the tiny cat with the round head and eyes the color and shape of green marbles and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming.

In and out, Poppy. Breathe in and out. Don’t panic.

“Yo?” Nina prodded, still growling and quite clearly annoyed.

Finally composed, she waded into the conversation pool carefully, because the person on the other end of the phone sounded like everything would be much less explosive if you spoke delicately.

“Your talking cat said I should call you at this number. Did I mention your cat talks? Like, it actually talks. Can I ask you something before we shift into high gear and get to the root of my phone call to you?”

There was a long sigh and then the cantankerous woman said, “You get one question. After that, I get annoyed as all hell, and if you don’t like me now—which, based on my past history with first impressions, I’m guessin’ you’re not a fucking fan yet—then you sure as shit won’t like me when I’m aggravated.”

Poppy swallowed, smoothing the leggings she wore as part of her Paul Stanley costume over her knees. “Just one question? That’s all I get? That seems wholly unfair. This is a crisis hotline, isn’t it?”

“Is that how you want to spend your one question—in negotiations?”

She blinked and came to her senses almost instantly. “No! Sorry. Okay. My one question. Why does your cat talk, lady? Why am I sitting here, outside what was supposed to be a fun, easy DJ-ing gig for some extra vacation money at my best friend’s Halloween Party turned waking nightmare, with a talking cat?”

“Put the GD talking cat on the phone, Cupcake,” Nina’s husky voice demanded.

Poppy paused with a frown and considered how exactly to do that. “Like, hold the phone to its ear? Are you serious?”

“Is the cat talking to you, Princess?” Nina snarled.

Poppy squirmed on the uncomfortable garden wall of bricks she’d perched herself on after this series of unfortunate events had all gone down. “Well, yeah…”

“Then is it a stretch it would talk to me, too, Kumquat? Now put the cat on the GD phone!”

Poppy pulled her cell from her ear and held it up to the cat, putting the phone on speaker. “She wants to talk to you. As in you, the cat. The talking cat.”

There was just no way around this. This was really happening. Or it felt like it was really happening. Maybe someone had dropped acid in her drink? A roofie? No. She’d be passed out if she’d been roofied. Right?

Besides, she was always careful about where she set her water. Even at a party hosted by a friend, she took precautions, because that’s just how Poppy McGuillicuddy rolled. Cautiously.

The cat blinked its overly large, utterly mesmerizing eyes and cocked its head, leaning closer to the phone. “That you, Pale One?”

“That you, Catastrophe?”

“It’s Calamity, you ridiculously, unfairly gorgeous waste of a great ass. We got some shit. Some deep, dark, murky shit going on here.”

“Like?”

Poppy heard the tension in this woman Nina’s voice. She sounded really mad. It almost sounded as if she were the parent and the talking cat was her toddler.

“Calamity? Answer the flippin’ question!” the woman roared in such a forceful way, even the leaves on the trees shook.

The cat, possibly named Calamity—Poppy couldn’t be sure because the woman on the other end of the phone had used two adjectives when addressing said cat—rasped a sigh of full-on exasperation.

“Don’t get your fangs twisted, Blood Lover Lite. Just get here and bring the ditzy blonde with all that lip gloss and hair bleach. Oh, and the nice one who sneaks me the real tuna, not that crap in the can packed in water.”

“Wanda. That’s Wanda, and if she’s sneaking you tuna, I’m going to kick her perfectly mannered ass. What have I told you about tuna, Calamity? What?”

Calamity The Talking Cat lifted her chin. “Oh, blah, blah, blah. Tuna is too rich for my touchy tummy. Blah, blah, blah. Makes me puke all over the carpet in the castle. Blah, blah, blah. You hate cleaning up the chunky effin’ puke. Blah, blah, blah.”

“Exactly. Now, tell me what’s going on, C, or I’m gonna make you wear those stupid sweaters with the glitter on them from the Martha Stewart Collection at PetSmart every day for a GD week.”

Calamity rocked back on her hind paws and gasped in outraged horror. “You wouldn’t! Fuck, those are ugly, you monster.”

“Sooo would,” the husky voice crooned with a tone screaming devilish glee. “I’d damn well grin from ear to ear while I did that shit, too. Now what’s going on? Spit it the fuck out now.”

Calamity rolled to her back, inching along the bricks to scratch her spine, her response rather cavalier, considering the magnitude of the alleged incident. “So there was an accident at a party I’m at, and as a byproduct of this accident, something happened. Not a big deal, really. Nothing I can’t handle.”

What accident, Calamity? And why the fuck are you crashing parties? What did I tell you about that shit?”

“As I recall,” Calamity drawled. “You said no wedding crashing. There was nothing about party crashing in general.”

“Don’t you mince motherfluffin’ words with me, Calamity! Now knock it the shit off and—”

There was a muffled sound, as though someone was trying to wrestle the phone from Nina, and then a much sweeter, far more affable voice came on the line. “Calamity, honey? It’s Marty. You know the one. The blonde with all the lipstick and hair bleach? Talk to Auntie Marty, Precious, and tell me what happened so we can help. Maybe it’s not such an emergency after all.”

“That’s Marty. Super nice, fashionista, not very brainy. A werewolf, by the way,” Calamity whispered as though no one but Poppy could hear. Clearing her throat, the cat continued. “So here’s the prob in a nutshell. I think. Nothing for certain here, mind you, but I think I turned the party DJ into one of my own.”

“A cat?”

“No, Marty—a familiar. I think I turned the DJ into a familiar.”

You think?” Auntie Marty repeated, her tone still almost as sweet with only a hint of an angry tremor.

There was more rustling and another muffled, “Give me the damn phone, Ass Sniffer,” before the mean one named Nina was back on the line. “Location!” she bellowed, making Poppy wince. “Now, Calamity!”

As Calamity The Talking Cat rattled off the location, Poppy looked at the inside of her wrist and ran a finger over the raised picture now on her flesh, growing more dazed and confused by the second.

Sure, there was a half-moon tattoo-ish looking thing with a sprinkle of stars across the center of it in a place she had no recollection of ever getting a tattoo. In fact, she didn’t have any tattoos at all. Her mother would kill her if she got a tattoo, but this was what had convinced the cat, er, Calamity, that she was now a familiar.

Whatever one of those was. She vaguely remembered watching Charmed as a teenager and the mention of familiars, but that had been a long time ago, and the definition of one and their place in the witch world were both very vague.

Holding her wrist up, she inspected the mark in question under the light of the streetlamps. Maybe it was one of those temporary tattoos, and this was all a joke? Licking her finger, Poppy scrubbed it over her skin, but the half-moon remained clear as day.

All right. So this wasn’t some kind of joke.

“What in the fresh hell are you doing?” Calamity asked, dancing over the garden wall, swatting at dust particles.

“Trying to figure out if this is all some elaborate prank played on me by my BFF.”

“You mean the skinny one dressed up like Kanye West, guzzling that cheap bottle of Boones Farm like it was her last night on earth while she rocked back and forth pressed up to the guy dressed like Kim Kardashian, who was at least ten years younger than her and stoned half out of his gourd?”

Poppy smiled briefly. Her pal Mel had never graduated college-level drinking. Even at thirty-four, she was still boozing it up like she was twenty. In fact, she was still dating like she was twenty.

She sighed in resignation. “Yeah, that’s her.”

Calamity snorted indignantly, the small puff of air turning to a cloud of condensation. “She couldn’t even make decent appetizers—Triscuits and Vienna sausages in a can do not a party make. Even a heathen troglodyte would turn their nose up at that crap. That in mind, do you really think someone dressed as Kanye West is capable of pulling off some shit like this?”

Poppy put her arm back at her side and looked directly into the cat’s mesmerizing eyes, trying to rationalize—or maybe the better word was minimize—what was currently happening.

“What exactly is this shit? I just have a tattoo I don’t remember getting. So what? Lot’s of people have tattoos they don’t remember getting. In fact, half my night-school college class has tattoos they don’t remember getting. Big deal.”

Calamity cocked her head as though assessing her. “Well, sure. That’s true. You could sweep this shit under the carpet with some implausible, farfetched explanation. But you’re also talking to a cat like Dr. Doolittle’s spirit took possession of your body. So there’s that. What more proof do you need?”

Poppy winced. “Like you said, maybe I’ve been drugged?”

Calamity made a clicking noise in the back of her throat. “You won’t be able to use that excuse when you wake up tomorrow, and you’re in the same boat. Because you’ll still be a familiar, and I’ll still be talking.”

Pulling off the Paul Stanley Afro wig, Poppy ran her hands through her hair and sighed again. “Okay, so if I’m not drugged, and this isn’t some version of Punk’d complete with sound effects and live animation, what is this shit?”

“This shit is bullshit. That’s what this shit is,” a familiar voice from the shadows groused.

As if out of nowhere, three women appeared, their hair billowing about their shoulders in the frigid winds of Staten Island, their strides confident, their eyes focused and glimmering in the night. Like some new millennium Charlie’s Angels, they strode toward her with confidence, all long legs, beautiful clothing, expensive perfume and glittery jewelry.

Well, except for the dark one. She had long legs and the billowy hair for sure, but she wasn’t dressed like she was going to the same party the other two women were. She wore work boots, a thick black hoodie, low-slung black jeans and a big ol’ scowl on her utterly perfect, scarily pale face.

“You Poppy?” she demand-asked, coming to stand in front of her, arms crossed over her hoodie-covered chest.

She gulped, looking up into this woman’s flashing coal-black eyes. “Will a brutal beating follow if I say yes?”

The blonde woman with loads of swirly hair and clacking jewelry nudged the dark-haired woman in the ribs with a frown. “I’m sorry for how abrupt Nina is. You’ll adjust as we move forward. Forget her and focus on me. I’m Marty Flaherty, this ogre is Nina Statleon, and this,” she pointed just over her shoulder to the tall chestnut-haired lady with mahogany highlights, “is Wanda Jefferson. We’re OOPS, and we’re here to help.” Then she smiled, dazzlingly white and perfect.

As though the wind had re-inflated her sails, Poppy jumped up, putting a defensive hand in front of her. “Help with what? This is all crazy. Look, I don’t know what the cat told you or why it even insisted I call you. Forget about the fact that it can speak and has the ability to use a phone. We’ll get to that later. Now, I looked at your website online, and it says you help people in paranormal crisis. I don’t know if that means you host drug interventions for ghosts—do ghosts become addicts or were they addicts before they died and need ongoing afterlife care? For that matter, what does ‘paranormal crisis’ even mean and why am I supposedly having one?”

The woman named Nina reached for Poppy’s wrist so fast, so freakishly fast, Poppy gasped. “I’m gonna ask you to chill the fuck out, okay? Stop gettin’ all jenky with your hands because you don’t want to get defensive with the likes o’ me. Now breathe, Petunia.”

It was almost a relief to have someone give her some direction. Bending at the waist, she let her hands rest on her knees, and her head hang low. “Maybe we should start over and reintroduce ourselves?”

Nina put a hand on the back of her head, keeping her face pointed downward at the driveway. “I said breathe, Rock Star—great costume, by the way. Paul Stanley’s no fucking Barry Manilow, but you killed the makeup. Now, get your shit together. While you do that, I’m gonna kick the living crap out of my damn familiar for ignoring my house rules, and then we’ll make nice, and I’ll explain what we do at OOPS and all that bullshit.”

Poppy blinked as the blood rushed to her head in a swoosh of pounding waves. “The cat’s yours?”

Nina snorted. “It sure as fuck wasn’t my idea, but yeah. She’s mine.”

“It talks.” She realized she kept saying that, but c’mon! Wasn’t anyone else as in awe of that fact?

Nina clucked her tongue in admonishment. “Been down this road, Poppy. You’re getting repetitive. A sure sign you’re playing possum.”

She tried to lift her head, but Nina’s hand was like a vise grip, forcing her to keep her eyes level with her feet. “Possum?”

“Yeah, it’s when everyone says they’re fine while they beat their panic down, bottle it the fuck up or whatever so they can give good face, which always leads to total meltdown. It’s pathetic and ugly, and usually involves tears and loads of the sympathy I’m working really hard to get better at giving because my therapist says I suck ass at it.”

“This is your version of sympathy?”

“This is me working on being sympathetic. Don’t fuck up my flow.”

“So you’ve done this before? This crisis thing?” If that was true, that almost made her feel better. Almost. Though, she still couldn’t quite connect the dots between what had happened back at the house to needing a crisis counselor. Still, she didn’t sense these women were dangerous.

In fact, she was very clear about the notion they weren’t dangerous. Though, why the feeling was so vivid, she couldn’t say. She possessed her own kind of intuition for sure, but it was a very average sort of intuition. This? Well, this sort of intuition was different.

Nina’s patted the back of her head before her cool fingers clasped her neck. “More times than Marty’s got lipsticks. Keep breathing.”

“I’m really dizzy,” Poppy complained, her spine beginning to ache.

“It’s those pants,” Nina commented. “Always wondered how Stanley managed to squeeze into ’em without popping the top of his head off.

A soft hand reached down and grabbed Poppy’s, pulling her up and holding her firm when she stumbled from lack of blood flow. “Let her up, Nina.” The lady named Marty righted Poppy and smiled. “So tell us what happened so we best know how to help you.”

Poppy stared at the woman with eyes of cornflower blue and hair in more shades of blonde than she even knew existed, and thought about her request. She wasn’t quite sure how this had happened…or if anything had really happened at all.

Marty pressed with a warm smile, “Poppy, honey? How did this happen?”

Words escaped her.

But they didn’t escape the cat. It hopped down from the garden wall and wound its long tail around Marty’s legs. “Ask me, Bleached One. I know how it happened.”

The woman named Wanda bent and scooped the cat up, snuggling her close to her porcelain cheek with a smile. “What kind of mischief have you been into now, Miss Calamity?” she asked, her tone oozing indulgence.

Calamity purred in return, curling into Wanda’s arms. “It was an accident, I swear, Wanda.”

Nina tweaked the cat’s ear, her face stern against the backdrop of the dark night. “Quit coddlin’ her like she’s some baby, Wanda. She was out way past curfew, which is bullshit. She damn well knows better. And lay off the tuna when I’m not lookin’. It makes her puke.”

Wanda flapped an irritated hand at Nina before resuming her cuddle with the cat. “Hush. She’s just acting out because you’re so hard on her. Now, tell Auntie Wanda what happened here, Calamity, and I promise there’ll be some warm milk tonight before bed.”

Calamity purred and brushed Wanda’s cheek with her paw. “Okay, it went down like this. M to the C to the Guill-i-cudd-E was spinning records at this lame Halloween party—”

“A party you didn’t ask fucking permission to go to,” Nina growled, her black eyes narrowing as she jammed her hands into her hoodie pockets.

Calamity stopped purring and gave Nina a hard glare. “You don’t ask permission to crash a party, Beastmaster. It’s not a goddamn crash if you ask for entry. Anyway, I was chillin’ to Poppy’s beat and I got a little carried away when I broke out my smooth MC Hammer moves. I tripped on a glass of water, knocked it over on the wiring for the speakers, which I’m pretty sure weren’t up to code, and wham! Almost electrocuted Poppy. So I try to do the right thing by knocking her wee sprite ass out of the way with my magic, but I slipped and fell into her, and then we both fell—”

“Into the puddle of water!” Poppy spat as she retreated from her fog, the entire episode coming together in a clatter of memory. “That’s exactly what happened! When the cat jumped on me, she dug her claws into my shoulder, and I tripped and fell into the water where the speaker wires were. See?” She pulled her pleather jacket with the stars she’d bedazzled on herself away from her shoulder, pointing to the scratch marks to show the women.

Marty winced, leaning in closer to inspect her wounds.

Nina swished a hand at Marty, pointing to her purse. “Dig around in your mom bag there and get this kid some Neosporin, Blondie.”

But Poppy waved a hand in dismissive fashion. “I swear I saw stars and a big flash of light. Then there was this tingle…like a weird shiver that raced all along my limbs, and then the cat was freaking out and yelling at me to come outside and call you before someone, I can’t remember who, came and picked me up—”

“That bitch Cecily from Familiar Central,” Calamity interjected with a scoff. “Swear, she can smell a newb from a realm away. She’s gonna show up here and demand to take DJ Puts The Needle On The Record back to the realm so she can claim her as her own, and I’ll be dipped in cow dung before I’ll let that happen.”

Claim me?” Poppy squeaked, scanning the dark neighborhood for this woman named Cecily.

Calamity tilted her head so Wanda could scratch her neck. “Yeah. She gets like frequent flier miles for every newb familiar she sucks into her dark void or some shit. If she gets enough miles, she gets to go to some familiar retreat in Baja. Why the fuck should she get all the miles? I did this to ya, I win. That’s how it works with all familiars who are found or made—in your case, accidentally made—rather than born into the realm, by the way. If one of us finds you, it’s our duty to turn you in. Also, if that crazy hag Cecily gets her hands on you, who knows who the hell you’ll end up with. She just doesn’t care the way I do, and because this was my fault, the least I can do is try to make sure you get a good witch.”

A witch? She was getting a witch? What did that mean? Did it mean a job that paid money? Because she could use a job that paid money. God, could she ever.

Nina jammed her hands into her black hoodie pocket. “So let me get this shiz straight. Basically, you zapped a bitch and transferred some of your mojo to her, and that means she’s a familiar now, too? How the hell do you know that for sure?”

Calamity harrumphed at Nina. “All you gotta do is look at her wrist. She does have The Mark, Keeper of My Cage. It’s just like the one on the underside of my paw. We all have ’em.”

Poppy immediately began to back away, but she held up her wrist so they could all see the half-moon shape, which, as was becoming increasingly clear, apparently represented her status as a familiar.

“Hol-ee shitballs,” Nina muttered. “And you’re sure this means she’s like you? I thought familiars were all animals?”

“That’s because you don’t listen when I’m trying to school your sorry ass, Half-Breed!” Calamity exclaimed in a tone screaming exasperation. “Familiars come in all sorts of shapes and sizes these days. Animals are the least likely suspects for prying human eyes, but there are plenty of uprights to be had nowadays. You’d know that if you’d just become a little more involved in the community, you dolt!”

Nina snarled, reaching for Calamity, but Wanda took a step back to avoid her.

Suddenly, Poppy couldn’t take it anymore. Scooping up her Paul Stanley wig from the brick wall, she shook it at the group as though it would ward off impending danger.

“What does like her mean?” she shouted. Everything was moving at the speed of light while she was still stuck on the fact that a cat could talk.

Calamity sighed in what sounded like resignation, as though Poppy should know exactly what she was talking about. “It means we gotta get you to Familiar Central so you can get in the good line to get a nice witch. You do not want to wait for them to assign you somebody or you’ll end up like I did, with a leftover with anger management issues. That’s how I landed this crazy half-breed, scowling-at-everything-that-moves bitch on monster truck wheels.” Calamity lifted her jaw in Nina’s direction.

“A leftover…” Poppy muttered, but that didn’t slow Calamity’s tirade even a little.

“Now, I admit, I was lazy as fuck, and I should’ve gotten my shit together a lot sooner than I did when my old witch died. I lollygagged, hung out, threw back a bunch of brewskies, watched a lot of shitty reality TV and in general took a break from all the hocus-pocus crap. My old witch was a handful. But who knew I’d end up with the bottom of the barrel just because I was on sabbatical? And to add insult to injury, I ended up with an ogre who’s half vampire. Like I know a friggin’ thing about vampires. But there was no talking the head honcho out of this match made in the inner circle of Hell. So here I am—stuck with a psychotic, nay, violent, half-vampire/half-witch. Forever.”

Nina eyeballed Calamity, and to say she wasn’t exactly pleased was likely an understatement. But oddly, her next words were far more levelheaded than Poppy would have expected, even though her fists were tightly clenched at her sides and her teeth could quite possibly crack from the pressure of grinding them.

“We’re working through some shit. Boundaries, rules, crap like that.”

“Yeah,” the cat scoffed, curling into Wanda’s protective hold. “Boundaries and crap. That’s what we’re working through. I hope that helps you sleep at night. Oh, wait. You don’t sleep at night, do you, Blood Sucker?”

Marty grabbed one of Poppy’s hands and held it to her chest, her warm, smooth skin soothing Poppy, lulling her into a sense of security. Probably a false sense of one, but still a comfort. “To say Calamity was a surprise is an understatement. She and Nina are in the adjustment phase of their relationship—still working out the kinks, you know?”

“You mean the phase where she doesn’t fucking do what she’s told?” Nina asked.

Calamity crawled to Wanda’s shoulder and perched herself there. If cats could give dirty looks, she was shooting daggers at Nina. “I’ll say this one more time, Pale Face. I am your guide, your helper, your GD advisor to the magical realm. Not your slave in perpetuity. Got that, you colossal PITA? You can’t tell me what to do. I’m a hundred and fifty years old, not ten!”

Wanda chuckled and scratched Calamity under the chin, burying her face in the cat’s neck. “You tell her, Snookiepuss.”

Nina openly gaped at Wanda, her flawless face a tight mask of anger. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Wanda? Why the hell are you taking her side? Stop gettin’ in the middle of our shit, for Christ’s sake! If she didn’t behave like a motherfluffin’ kid, I wouldn’t treat her like one! I’ve been chasin’ after this toddler on steroids since she got here, putting out fire after fucking fire just as she lights another damn match. Now mind your damn P’s and Q’s!”

Marty popped her glossed lips and clapped her hands, a cheerfully forced smile on her face. “Ladies! Knock it off!” she shouted then squared her shoulders and smoothed her faux fur vest over her waistline. “We have no time to spare while the two of you argue over how Nina parents her unruly familiar. We have a job to do. Let’s do it before this Cecily shows up and steals Calamity’s thunder or Poppy ends up with an ogre like Nina for the rest of her days. Now, what do we do next, Calamity?”

Calamity hopped from Wanda’s shoulder to the ground and stretched. “It’s a doozy of a ride. You sure you’re up for it?”

As Poppy listened to Calamity’s explanation and watched the drama between the women unfold, she remained quiet, dealing with this new feeling she had. This new certainty was maybe a better word.

She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what these women spoke was the truth. There was no second-guessing, no quibbling. She instinctually knew the cat really could talk. Nina really was half-vampire, half-witch, and Poppy really did have to get to this place called Familiar Central.

She didn’t quite understand this innate sense of the truth; she wasn’t even sure how she was keeping from freaking out about the fact that Nina was a vampire-witch.

Maybe that would come later? For now, she had to take care of this. There was a pressing urgency in her gut that said she needed to trust her instincts.

“Does this familiar thing pay?”

“Like in money?” Calamity asked, cocking her round head.

She needed money. It wasn’t likely Mel was going to pay her now after she’d obliterated her sound system. To make everything worse, she was surely on the verge of being booted from her apartment if she didn’t come up with three months’ rent by next week.

Old Mr. Rush, her landlord, was an understanding guy, a great guy, in fact. But he couldn’t live on nothing any more than she could. And that’s what she’d been paid for spending almost four months on the road in a show that had such low attendance, the audiences were all but taking naps.

Nothing.

That son of a bitch Randall Cranston had run off with what little profit they’d made, leaving her and the rest of the cast high and dry.

She hated leaving her apartment and all the incredible people who’d been her neighbors for almost five years now, but she’d come to the realization her choices were growing slimmer by the day.

She’d even considered going back to her parents in Cincinnati. While she loved them, she didn’t necessarily want to live with them and their paneled walls and meals with a Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy! double whammy anymore.

So this was a possible answer to all her financial problems.

Besides, she’d done crazier things for cash.

Finally, she said, “Well, yeah, I mean in money. I have to eat.”

“Not in money, no. But it does include room and board. Er, mostly…”

Calamity’s vague answer went by the wayside, almost unheard after the words “room and board.” Looking down at the cat, Poppy nodded with total calm. “I’m ready.”

For the first time since she’d met her, Nina grinned as she scanned Poppy’s face, her glimmering eyes searching. “Holy fuck. You’re serious?”

She was. She didn’t know why she was, but she was. “I am. Let’s go.”

Nina gazed down at Calamity and pointed a long finger at her. “Then let’s get it on before she comes down off her high o’ crazy and changes her mind.”

“Did you bring your wand?” she asked Nina, stretching a paw forward.

Nina made a face, the hard lines of her jaw tightening. “No, I didn’t bring my fucking wand. That shit is like holding a hand grenade. I never know whether I’m going to blow crap up or turn it into a friggin’ animated ice sculpture. I’m not good enough at it yet to carry it around full time. Christ, it was much easier just being a vampire. All I had to do was flash my fangs and shit got done.”

Calamity clucked her tongue. “What have I told you about your wand, you beast? Ya gotta keep it with you at all damn times. It’s like leaving an organ behind.”

“I don’t have any organs.”

“Okay, it’s like leaving your sunscreen behind. Crucially important. I’ve only told you that a bafrillion times, Nina. You do know you just made this shit much harder?”

Poppy blinked. Nina had a wand? “Why does that make shit harder?” she asked.

Calamity snorted. “Hold one minute, and I’ll show you…”

Chapter 2

I think I’m broke,” Poppy moaned as she hoisted herself up from the hard-tiled floor they’d been dumped on, looking down in disgust at her leggings, which now had a jagged tear in them. A stray cotton ball from the chest hair she’d made for her costume fell to the ground in a sad plop, and her wig was a tangled mess on the floor.

Shit. Hal’s House of Howl was never going to take this costume back now.

But that was okay because a place to sleep was in the offing. Room and board, baby.

Calamity hopped around in front of her with a scoff. “You can thank the vampire for that. It’s a bumpy enough ride to the realm even with the wand. But using the wand’s like flying first class. When we just use straight-up magic, you’re in the cheap seats.”

“I said I forgot, okay? Jesus, get off my jock, would you?” Nina groused as she rose on her long limbs from the pristine white floor and rolled her head on her neck.

Now Calamity did a little dance and taunted, “Is that how you’re supposed to use your words, Vampire? Doc Malone would be ashamed.”

Poppy worked her way up the wall using her palms as she took in the long, sterile hallway leading to a wide white door. Bending at the waist, she scooped up her fallen wig. “Who’s Doc Malone?”

“Our witch therapist. She’s helping me to cope with this damn boil on my ass,” Nina snarled, flashing her teeth.

Calamity hissed right back at Nina. “Oh, shut your pie hole. It’s the other way around. If not for Doc Malone, I’d have zapped your supermodel butt to Mars by now.”

Wanda had somehow managed to remain infuriatingly upright during their journey, wherein one minute they’d been standing in her friend’s driveway, then the next, squeezed like sausages from a casing into this hallway. “Come to Auntie Wanda, Calamity,” she cooed, patting her knee.

Nina’s beautiful face scrunched up in confusion. “Wanda? What the shit? Stop babying her while she laps this attention up like milk.”

And then Wanda made a face at Nina, rolling her eyes as she smoothed stray strands of her hair back in place and her posture took on the look of royalty. “Hush, you animal! How many times have I told you, you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Why must you always be so hard on her? She’s just a little thing who’s been thrust into our world without consent. She needs love and attention, not berating.”

Nina narrowed her eyes at Wanda. “Fuck your vinegar, and yeah, she’s so little and lost she managed to turn someone into a familiar. She might be little on the outside, but her inside is big on trouble. Quit coddling the out-of-control cat or I’m gonna whip up a spell and turn you into a damn mannequin in the girdle aisle at Macy’s.”

Calamity swirled in and out of Wanda’s ankles, clearly pleased she had such a devout ally. “Don’t worry, Wanda. She can’t even turn water into a Capri Sun. No way she can turn you into a mannequin. I’ll protect you.”

Wanda giggled, reaching down and stroking Calamity’s back.

Nina’s outraged expression as she circled the pair made Poppy press herself to the hallway wall, clinging to her wig.

“I said knock it the fuck off, Wanda, or—”

The clack of Marty’s heeled boots as she finally rose jarred Poppy, and made both Nina and Wanda turn their heads in her direction. “I can’t even believe it’s me saying this, but if the two of you don’t quit with the arguing over Calamity like she’s some kind of ribeye in the height of a zombie apocalypse, I’ll put you both through a wall. Got me? Wanda, I don’t know what’s happening with you these days, but you’re doing everything you possibly can to provoke Nina, and I’ve about had it right up to the tip of my bleached-blonde roots! Since when am I the one who has to mediate? Does anyone see the absurdity in this?”

When no one answered Marty with anything other than pursed lips and angry eyes, she continued, her gaze fixed on Wanda. “Last I checked, it was your job, sister, but lately, you’ve been all wrapped up in devilishly poking Nina, using Calamity as your stick.”

And still, they all remained freakishly quiet.

But Marty wasn’t done. Then she strolled toward Nina, her hair swishing about her shoulders, her index finger in motion. “And you, Wicked Half-Witch of The East—cut it the hell out! You’d better find some kind of common ground with Calamity and find it soon because she’s here forever, or I’m going to put you in the ground. Clear?”

Neither woman said anything, but they didn’t have to. Their flashing eyes and tense body language said it all. Something was happening between them all. And it wasn’t just a spat. It was more like a shift in dynamic, a change in the terrain of their friendship. Poppy was sure of it.

Now Marty squatted down beside Calamity and cupped her jaw, her blue eyes intense. “Pussycat? You’re enjoying playing both ends against the middle. Under normal circumstances, because it makes me giggle my ass off to see Nina so riled, I’d enjoy this almost as much as I enjoy an eyeshadow that doesn’t crease. But this becomes a real thorn in my side when we have a client who needs our help. So cut it out, since, as I recall, big bad werewolves love to chase little kitties cuz little kitties are mmm-mmm-good—especially ones full up like fat sausages with magic. Capisce?”

Calamity blinked, shifting from paw to paw, her tone subdued now. “Got it.”

Marty stood and brushed her thighs off then smiled. “Now that we’re clear, tell us where we go from here, Calamity. Poppy is waiting.”

And she was waiting. Watching and waiting as these women argued, trying to understand the dynamic between them all, yet instinctively knowing they each had a deep, abiding loyalty to one another.

And that was freaking her out. How could she possibly know how deep their roots went?

Yet, she did. She’d gamble her life on it.

“Okay, so let me just give you a couple of helpful tips before we get inside,” Calamity said, forcing her to focus on the task at hand.

Reaching into her jacket, Poppy pulled out an elastic band, scrunching her hair into one hand and wrapping the band around it with the other. This felt like a hair up problem.

Tightening her ponytail, she plopped her wig back on her skull and squared her shoulders. “Okay. Tips. Hit me. I’m ready.”

Calamity began to walk the long hallway to a door at the end of the white walls, her tail swishing back and forth. “Never leave the line. For the love of Jesus and all that’s good, never leave the line. I don’t care if you’re on fire and your head’s about to pop off your tiny shoulders. Do not leave the line.”

Poppy trudged behind the cat, wishing she’d changed back into her street clothes before doing something as important as being inducted into the Familiar Hall of Fame. Surely that called for something more appropriate than a Paul Stanley costume.

“Why can’t I leave the line?”

“Because one wrong move and you could end up like me. With someone like her.”

Shut up, Calamity,” Nina warned with tight words, the clomp of her feet heavy against the tile.

But Poppy scoffed. “You don’t really feel that way about Nina, and you know it.”

Aw, hell. Had that just popped out of her mouth? Why would she say something like that at such a tentative time in their newly minted relationship? Furthermore, how could she even know a personal detail like that?

She didn’t know these people from a hole in the wall, and suddenly she was the authority on their deepest feelings? The guru of deep-seated emotions?

Calamity stopped in her tracks and swiveled her head. “What do you know from shit about how I feel?”

Poppy stopped, too, nervously twisting a curl in her wig between her fingers, worried she’d offended Calamity. “I…I don’t know. I just know…I mean guessed. I’m a good guesser.” But that wasn’t entirely true. This wasn’t some guess. She knew. Like bone-deep knew Calamity loved yanking Nina’s chain.

They clashed because she and the vampire were so alike. Yet, she also respected her, and coming to terms with that was part of Calamity’s trouble. Calamity didn’t want to care—or maybe invest was a better word—in a relationship with another witch after losing the last one. It hurt.

But Calamity was having none of it. “Oh, fuck that noise. Forget I asked.”

“Fine. Forgotten. Now, what else do I need to know?” Poppy asked as they came to a halt outside a heavy rectangular door.

But Calamity didn’t have time to answer before the door swung open and chaos ensued.

* * * *

Poppy yawned as she waited in the line titled First Time Familiars with Calamity and the women of OOPS. The moment the door in that hallway had popped open, and the masses of people and all varieties of the animal kingdom milling about had filled her vision, she’d somehow taken it all in stride.

She’d eyed the long lines with black signs above them and white lettering that read Familiar Renewal and Change of Familiar Address as though they were perfectly normal. It didn’t seem like such a big deal that the armadillo two spots back and one line over was shooting the breeze with the zebra in the next row.

She’d viewed the never-ending chain of glass windows with peepholes and the most colorful people animatedly working behind them like they were a row of those protected windows in a bodega, and she was just here to grab a bag of chips on the way to her next shitty job.

Here she was in a strange realm, as Calamity had called it, with even stranger people, waiting to find out who she’d end up spending forever with as their magical guide without an inkling about what a familiar was or what their place in this weird society was, and she was feeling completely unaffected.

Not numb, per se, just unaffected. And since she’d gotten past the talking cat thing, the vampire/werewolf with these women thing made sense.

Though in a moment of complete honesty, she had to admit, she’d run the words room and board in a continual loop inside her head in order to assure herself this wasn’t as crazy as she was supposed to think it was.

“This is worse than any DMV I’ve ever been to.” Running a hand over her temple, she massaged it with her fingertips. “What’s the dang hold up?”

“It’s a Friday night.”

She looked down at Calamity, who sat on her haunches, her wide eyes only occasionally blinking. “A popular night for turning unsuspecting victims into familiars, I gather?”

“I apologized, didn’t I?”

Poppy cocked an eyebrow. “No. I don’t think you did.”

“Fine. Sorry. Hashtag regrets.”

“Accepted. So talk to me about room and board. Is it the kind of room and board you get when you live in the basement of your employer’s house? Or the carriage-house kind? Do I get time off? Sick days? Health insurance? Are snacks included?”

Nina nudged her shoulder, looking down at her with those intense coal-black eyes. “Okay. What’s the rub? Why aren’t you crying and carrying on? Why the hell aren’t you freaked the eff out after everything we told you about us? After what we showed you? I’m a vampire, for Christ’s sake. You know—bloodsucking, night-loving, fang-flashing vampire?”

Poppy shrugged, fanning herself. God, it was hot in Familiar Central. As they waited in this line as long as a checkout at Walmart with only one register open, Nina, Marty and, intermittently, Wanda, had explained how they’d come to be OOPS, what their paranormal standings were, and even some of the cases they’d been involved with.

She knew she should be frightened. She knew she should refute the very idea one iota of this was real. She knew these events should leave her questioning her sanity for even considering what they’d told her was true. She knew her calm acceptance of was likely frightening to an outsider looking in.

But she couldn’t. Like, literally couldn’t deny the validity of their tales. Not even when Nina went the extra mile and flashed her fangs or earlier when Marty shifted in the Ladies’ Room for Familiars.

She’d watched it all with as much unflinching disinterest as she was watching what was unfolding in front of her right now. As if it were every day you saw someone’s flesh and bones virtually morph in a public bathroom.

In fact, the only thing she’d added to that scene straight out of American Horror Story was her distress that some poor soul was going to have to sweep up all the hair Marty had shed.

“Poppy? What gives?” Nina prodded, tapping the toe of her work boot as though she almost hoped she’d collapse and tremble at her feet in fear.

But she just shrugged and sighed. “Yeah. I get what it means. I heard every word. I heard about Carl and Darnell. I get the comparisons to Sean of The Dead, Teen Wolf, and so on. I’ve watched them. I already told you I get it. How many ways can I say that before you believe me?”

In fact, the longer they stood in line, the more rooted this certainty became. Yeah, so you’re a vampire. Whoopee.

Nina shook her head, her gloriously silky dark hair shifting over her shoulders. “So you get that your life’s now changed forever, right? You get that you can’t go back to doing whateverthehell you did for a living, that you can’t tell your family and friends about this? That you’re a walking, talking episode of Supernatural?”

Why was Nina so determined to drill this point home? They’d each taken a turn at reminding her how different her life was now, moving forward.

Finally, Poppy asked, “Is crying what you want to see? Because you know you don’t like tears, Nina.”

Nina popped her lips, cracking her knuckles. “How the eff do you know what I do or don’t like?”

Poppy blinked, astonished she’d said those words out loud. Yeah. How the eff did she know?

Licking her lips, she winced when she answered, “I don’t know. I just do. Tears make you uncomfortable. Compliments more so.” Eek, had she said that, too?

Nina frowned, glaring down at her.

She’d definitely said that. Bad, Poppy.

Nina poked her, jabbing a finger between the muscles connecting her collarbone and shoulder. “What are you, fucking psychic, Madam McGuillicuddy?”

“Next!” an authoritative voice behind the glass windows yelled.

Calamity bumped her calves with a swish of her hip. “Shit. That’s us. Now remember what I said, P. Shut up and let me do the talking. You do not want to end up with one of those ratchety-ass, last-century mothereffers who still think Salem’s Lot is a documentary.”

Okay, so if she wasn’t feeling terribly freaked out before now—not even about discovering vampires and werewolves were real—her frame of mind had definitely changed. She was on the precipice of being assigned her witch, someone she had to help. It wasn’t the paranormal part that had her freaked out, or the immortality Calamity spoke of either.

It was the part about guiding someone using her advice as their narrative. It was bananapants.

How could Poppy McGuillicuddy, the girl secretly voted least likely to succeed, possibly guide anyone anywhere?

Her life had already been a flippin’ mess before she’d left for the road. She lived in a tiny studio apartment—one she barely held on to each month doing odd jobs, like DJ-ing parties for instance. And if not for the people in her building, people she loved, and their kindness, she’d have likely starved to death by now.

She’d failed miserably at becoming the next Broadway sensation a long time ago and now only got gigs in the chorus if she was lucky, because, by industry standards, she was an old hag—even if she could still do a split at the ripe old age of thirty-four.

She had twelve dollars in her checking account. Two in her pocket. And she’d had to ask for more from her buddy as part of her DJ-ing fee in order to catch public transportation home after the party.

She had no career, no purpose, no solid plan for the future beyond next week when she had to figure out a way to cough up her rent. So the question was, did familiars collect paychecks? Have 401ks? Bennies? She couldn’t live on air. She barely did now.

But the biggest question of all? How was she expected to help someone else when she had enough trouble helping herself? It wasn’t like she was decision maker extraordinaire. She was considering doing this familiar thing for room and board after a vampire/witch, a werewolf, a talking cat and a half-vampire, half-werewolf had told her it would all be okay.

That struck more fear in her heart than any vampire could.

Room and board, Poppy…

Marty tapped Poppy on the back with a warm smile, startling her from her mantra and pointed forward with a perfectly painted crimson nail to where there was a gap in the line. “Poppy, honey? I hate to nag, but let’s move this along. I have a mani/pedi tomorrow at ten sharp, and I don’t want to wake with ugly bags under my eyes.”

Jarring her from her downward spiral, and with a refusal to give in to all this whining Nina complained about, she blindly moved forward, stepping around a small crowd of people who’d begun to bleed into their line.

Someone from behind gave her a sharp nudge to her shoulder blade. “Go, already, would ya!”

Reaching forward to prevent crashing into the person who’d somehow magically appeared in front of her, she instead smashed right into her, smacking her head against the reed-thin woman’s back as she pitched forward.

The beautiful redhead righted herself and hissed her displeasure, her hazel eyes flashing an angry message at Poppy. “Watch where you’re going, you imbecile!”

“Oh, pipe down, for Christ’s sake!” Nina growled in the woman’s face, flashing her fangs. “It was an accident. Now move along before I give you something to really get hot about.”

Without another word, the vampire grabbed Poppy’s hand in her steely grip and pulled her around the much taller woman, planting her at the window of First Time Familiars. “Now. Go get your witch and make it snappy.”

As Poppy stood before the glass window and a stout woman with cat eyeglasses and hair resembling one of those poofy, spouting fountains at the Bellagio, she took a deep breath, the wheezy tremble of it making her wince.

She didn’t pay attention to the commotion behind her or the sound of Wanda snapping, “Behave like a lady, for heaven’s sake!” to someone.

Instead, Poppy looked straight ahead through the peephole into the glass and directly into her future’s fate.

Chapter 3

I told you not to leave the line, didn’t I?” Calamity asked, nudging her platform boot.

Straightening her wig, Poppy scowled down at Calamity. “I didn’t leave the line. I tripped and moved up because Nina threatened the redhead with violence. There’s a difference. One is a willful act, the other is an accident. You know about those, right?”

“And now look,” the cat said, deadpan.

Okay, so her new assignment wasn’t the ideal of ideal.

The woman behind the glass tapped it, recapturing her attention. “Paul Stanley, right? Rock and roll kootchie koo!”

“Yeah.” Poppy rolled her eyes and made the universal sign for rock and roll, still reeling from her new assignment. “KISS forever,” she offered woodenly, the grease paint on her face beginning to smother her skin.

Gladys, according to her nametag, and the woman in charge of assigning familiars to their charges nodded her approval from behind the window. “Well done on the chest hair. Very creative.”

“Thanks, now where were we?”

“Your warlock,” Gladys ever so kindly reminded while she all but tapped her toe.

Again, Poppy attempted to hide her surprise, because no one but her seemed to think a male assignment was out of the ordinary. “He comes with room and board, right?”

“They all do, honey. Some roomier and board-ier than others.”

“But a warlock? That’s a guy witch.” Guy witches had familiars? Was that common? This was nothing like Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.

Her warlock’s name was Ricardo—or Rick, as he preferred to be called—Delassantos, and he lived just outside of NYC in a fully refurbished warehouse—which, according to Calamity, was a sweet start to a familiar/warlock relationship—even if he was a man. Digs were very important, as outlined by Calamity and her stories about some of her more quirky living quarters as a familiar.

Rick, along with his partner, was a property developer/entrepreneur, self-made and worth millions, which was also good if you listened to Calamity and again, despite the fact that he was a man. A rich warlock meant no scrounging for cash to buy your supper by performing cheap magic tricks in the subway.

All that aside, she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that she was supposed to advise a man. Oh, this poor soul Ricardo/Rick was in for some good times.

Gladys tapped the sill of the window in front of her and pointed, using her festively painted orange-and-black fingernail. “You got a problem with a warlock? Because you can always go over to the line to your left and ask for a refund. The Wish I Were Anywhere But Here line. See it?”

She did, and it was pretty dang short. Which spoke volumes on behalf of familiar customer service.

“Aw, hell no you won’t!” Calamity whisper-yelled as she paced the ledge of the window. “You don’t wanna know what happens to complainers in the realm. You get a reputation for being difficult. Why do you think I haven’t asked for a refund for the blood-lover here? Because if nothing else, at least she mentally resides in this century. Like I told you before, no way was I gonna end up with one of those old-ass mothereffers who live in a drafty castle with no Wi-Fi or even electricity while I snuggle up to a herd of sheep on a moor in No Mans Land.”

Marty snaked her head around Poppy’s shoulder and clucked her tongue. “Gosh, I’m hungry. I feel like a snack, Calamity. How do you feel about being my snack?” she asked, her words dripping with menacing sarcasm. “Last chance to shut that yap of yours before I pick your flesh from my teeth with your tiny bones.”

Calamity’s fur rippled, but her tone was instantly contrite. “Okay, fine. Sorry. I’m just saying, bad shit happens when you complain. Now take your lumps and like it, newb.”

Gladys blinked, her blue-frosted eyes wide, her lips pursed into a thin line as she waited for an answer. “So?”

Poppy gulped, shifting her stance. “Nope, Gladys. Not a one. I’m here to do whatever I’m supposed to do. You’ll never hear Poppy McGuillicuddy complain.”

Gladys thrust some paper through the small peephole and pursed her thin lips. “Then sign there and initial here and then I’ll need a blood sample.”

Twisting the length of her ponytail, she grew more agitated. “Sign? What am I signing?”

“Your life away, of course.” Gladys gave her a “duh, stupid” look, as though she were the one who was half-baked for thinking she was doing anything else but.

Her eyes flew open wide, her legs growing limp. “My life?

Gladys sighed, her plump shoulders, encased in a sweatshirt with a shiny bedazzled purple pumpkin, rose and fell in clear disgust. “This says you’ll serve your warlock until one of you goes to the great beyond. It’s all very standard. Didn’t the familiar who inducted you tell you that?”

Poppy looked to Calamity, who nodded. “Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you. This is a lifetime gig. When you sign on, you sign on for life.”

All that certainty she’d been lobbing around like so much confetti evaporated into thin air and panic began to set in. “Life?” she squeaked. That was crazy. How could she promise a lifetime to someone she didn’t even know? Didn’t you only do that when you got married?

But Gladys was having none of it, as indicated by her scowl. “Look, Ms. McGuillicuddy, if you have a problem, there’s a line for it, but you’re holding up this one, and I won’t have my efficiency rating slip because of you. Now either sign or move the heck along.”

Wow. Harsh. “What happens if I don’t sign?” She had to ask. She wasn’t just going to sign her life away without at least some details.

“You go to the Bad Place,” Calamity whispered, her tone bespeaking unknown horrors.

“The Bad Place? You mean to tell me your people punish me for not agreeing to lifelong servitude with a man I don’t even know because I won’t sign my life away? What kinda third-world country are you running in this realm?”

There was a collective gasp just before the enormous room, milling with people, went silent. Everyone stopped and stared at the newb with the big mouth and the fake hair on her chest.

But the biggest gasp of all came from Calamity, who she’d obviously offended. The feline let out a low growl, hunching her back. “I’ve never been so insulted in my damn life! We’re not servants, you uneducated, ill-informed human! We’re respected, and in some cultures revered! There are statues made of us. Days set aside in some cultures to celebrate us! We’re advisors. Life coaches. Magical guides, and we keep the balance of the realm so the temptation to use magic isn’t used for evil, Ignoramus!”

Oh.

Suddenly, it all became clear. It wasn’t just Calamity’s rant or the ugly stares of her fellow newbs, it was that certainty returning, full on, deep in her gut. She had to do this. She was meant to do this.

Grabbing the pen without another thought, she scribbled her name with flourish.

And just like that, it was done.

* * * *

The impact of their fall was buffered only by the fact that they hit a pile of garbage, the stench clinging to her nose as the whoosh of air they created when they landed rose upward.

Poppy lay there for a moment, staring up at the multitude of stars in the inky black of night, trying to catch her breath as she rubbed her arm in the spot Gladys had taken her blood sample.

She held it up and examined the crook of her elbow under the half moon. “Wow. Gladys is a harsh opponent when it comes to a needle.”

Marty sat up, jackknifing to a sitting position, a piece of stray paper stuck to one of the swirly curls of her hair. “Where the heck are we?” she groaned, hopping upward and holding a hand of assistance out to Poppy, who took it with a matching groan.

“At Poppy’s new gig,” Calamity offered, circling the group as they each began to rise to their feet.

“Already?” Poppy squeaked, looking around to assess her surroundings. They’d landed in front of what looked like an abandoned warehouse on an all but deserted street, the tall gray and red brick structure with window after tall, dirty window looming upward in the cold night. The very air of the building was gloomy and dark, making her shiver. “So they just dump you here in a pile of trash? No directions? No getting-to-know-your-warlock pre-introductions? Just tag, you’re it—go be a familiar, Grasshopper?”

Nina cracked her knuckles, staring down at Calamity, the backdrop of the dark night making her pale skin almost glow. “So are we done here?”

Alarm skittered along Poppy’s spine, making her blood go cold. They were just going to leave her? Forever? What happened to all those stories about friends for life and ride or die?

She had no one. It wasn’t like she could call her mother and say, “Hey, Ma. I need your advice. Due to a crazy-as-fuck accident, I’m now a familiar. I have magic, Ma! But I also have a man I’m supposed to partner up with. A man I guide through life forever. Can you believe I actually had to sign a paper that said I’d do this forever? So…got any advice?”

Her mother would pass out in her corned beef and cabbage. These women and this talking cat were all she had, and she wasn’t letting them go so easily.

“Done?” she squawked. “Wait. You’re all just going to leave me here as though I were some unwanted newborn you’re dropping off on the steps of a church?”

Nina snorted, jamming her hands into her hoodie. “Dramatic analogy, but yeah, if you wanna look at it like that. We got ya to the realm, didn’t we? You got your assignment. You’re not in a state of total fucked-up. There were no tears. No denial. You seem okay with your new lot in life, which, I gotta say, I admire because shit doesn’t usually go down like this. You’re a badder bitch than most. So what the fuck do you need us for?”

Poppy looked up at Nina, an overwhelming sense of fear washing over her in a swell of desperation. She gripped the vampire’s slender hand, pulling her cool digits to her chest as she blinked away those tears Nina talked about. “I don’t know!” she yelped while the unfamiliar emotion clawed at her from the inside out, but as she caught the alarmed gazes in the other women’s eyes, she quieted her tone. “I don’t know. I just do. I really just do…”

And that was true. She knew it.

But why did she know?

Surprisingly, Nina didn’t pull away. Instead, she gripped Poppy’s fingers tighter, steadying her rising panic. Nina’s next words didn’t betray her gruff demeanor, but she somehow knew the woman wouldn’t abandon her. “Fine, Chicken-shit. We’ll stay.”

“Of course we will,” Marty reassured, rubbing Poppy’s arm with her hand. “We never abandon ship no matter how steady the captain seems. Not until we’re sure you’re safe and sound.”

Wanda nodded her consent, too, planting her hands on her hips. “Ditto. So where are we, Calamity, and how do we help make this transition for Poppy smoother?”

With the swish of her tail and a wisp of confetti-like sparkle, a stack of papers the size of War and Peace appeared before crashing onto the pile of garbage with a puff of the stench of rotten sardines and stale cigarette butts.

Calamity hopped on top of it and began to pace. “Finally. Now we can really get down to business.”

“What is that?” Poppy asked, sure she’d regret it the moment the words left her big mouth.

“It’s your warlock’s life story—all neatly logged by time and date with every single life event, important or otherwise, grades, achievements, involvements, relationships, etcetera, all documented for your reading pleasure.”

Scratching her forehead, she grated a sigh. “I can’t even focus long enough to read a pamphlet on birth control, how am I supposed to read all of that?”

“In order to learn all of your warlock’s quirks, to really know what makes him tick, you need to do your research. So we’ve made things easy for you and consolidated everything into this handy tome. It’s less intimidating than it looks.”

Poppy eyed her skeptically, narrowing her gaze. “So you’re telling me you read a stack of papers like this on Nina before you became her familiar?”

“Don’t be a moron, newb. This is the half-breed we’re talking about. It was like a paragraph long. You want the CliffsNotes? Never mind. I’ll give them to you anyway. It read like this: Subject, Nina Statleon. Has big mouth. Thrives on threats and confrontation. Has really big mouth. The end.”

“Fuck you, Calamity,” Nina crowed, making Poppy snort a giggle.

“What the hell are you all doing out here?” a low, raspy voice with just the slightest hint of a Spanish accent asked.

All of the women whipped around in sync, their eyes peering into the darkness. Startled by the voice, Poppy fell into Wanda, who patted her on the back and righted her, easing the trembling of her knees.

“More to the point, who the fuck are you and why are you sticking your nose in our business?” Nina asked, approaching the stranger as though she were approaching enemy lines.

The man’s features were hidden in the shadows of the dull streetlamp, but his size was clear. Tall and well-muscled, every stitch of clothing he wore clung to his bulk like a second skin, enhancing his thick thighs and ripped arms.

The moment Nina’s stance became menacing was the moment he held up his hand and, without a word, froze her right in place. The wind that had whistled like white noise in the background suddenly stopped, as did the leaves rushing against the sidewalk in a crinkle of rustling fall goodness.

No one appeared all that surprised that Nina was instantly immobilized. So she tried to roll with her peers and behave as though a simple hand gesture freezing someone in their tracks was no big deal, but on the inside, Poppy McGuillicuddy was terrified speechless.

She’d considered lots of things while they’d waited in line at Familiar Central. Like, spells and voodoo and all manner of Bewitched. She’d tried to recall all the shows and books she’d ever seen or read dealing with witches and magic, but nothing quite compared to actually seeing it happen.

“I said, who are you?” the stranger demanded, moving around Nina’s unmoving form and closer to the group, his body language rigid and tense.

“Oh, knock it the hell off with the fancy freezing spells, ya big galoot! Stop showing off and unfreeze the pain in my ass before I turn you into the prize cow at the 4-H fair,” Calamity ordered, rising on her hind legs.

The man eyed them all, his icy stare enough to make Poppy visibly cringe, but Wanda kept her hands firmly planted on her shoulders in support and squeezed. “We’re here. We won’t let him hurt you,” she whispered, and somehow, that made everything okay—even with a freezing spell.

“Do I know you?” he asked as he moved forward, eating up the sidewalk with long, purposeful strides.

As his features become more defined, her eyes went wider. The man responsible for freezing poor Nina in place was an absolute hottie. Like, brick shithouse hot, hot, hot.

The dark turtleneck and thick down vest he wore accented his even darker features. Eyes the color of a moonless night, evenly spaced and fringed heavily with thick dark lashes, assessed them all. Prominent cheekbones with a razor’s edge and a hard, square jaw enhanced his full-ish lips and bracketed his long straight nose.

His skin was smooth and medium-toned with nary a blemish, putting his age at roughly thirty-five, if Poppy were to guess.

When he asked again, “Do I know you?” the hard edge to his tone said he’d known trouble before, and he was prepared to handle any that crossed his path.

“Ish,” Calamity responded with a calm Poppy definitely wasn’t feeling as she dropped back to her haunches and padded toward him on soft kitty feet. “Are you who I think you are?”

Who do you think I am and why are you rooting around in my garbage?” he asked, locking gazes with Poppy.

His glare made her stand taller, even though she was only five feet and one-half inch, if you didn’t count her six-inch platforms. Why he’d chosen her out of the pack of women to shoot his hateful stares at took her by surprise. But she squared her shoulders anyway and glared right back.

She probably looked like an idiot doing it in her torn Paul Stanley leggings, afro wig, and big clunky platform boots, but whatever. Nobody intimidated Poppy McGuillicuddy. She might be tiny, but she was damn well mighty.

Calamity sniffed the air around this delicious, if not possibly dangerous man and made a clucking noise in the back of her throat. “Yep. I think he’s our guy, girls.”

“Ooo, lucky Poppy!” Marty chirped, patting her on the back in approval. “Nice coup, kiddo.”

Planting his hands on lean hips encased in tighter-than-tight jeans, his eyebrow rose. Just one, but it was a perfectly groomed, raven-tipped one. “Your guy?”

“Oh, stop playing coy with us, Mr. Smexy,” Calamity cooed, winding her tail around his ankle and purring a thick, sultry sound in the back of her throat. “You know why we’re here.”

His lips thinned when he crossed his arms over his burly chest. “Explain yourself.”

Calamity reached upward with her front paws, planting them on his knees and stretching as she tilted her head to look up at him. “I’m here to hand-deliver your new familiar, Sexy Pants. Make sure when the powers that be send out that survey, you remember to mention how timely I was. It counts for points toward a new travel tote. If you give me a five-star rating, it’ll push me right over the top, and that tote’ll be mine in no time flat.”

“Ahh,” he muttered, driving a wide hand through his thick, dark hair with a raspy sigh. “I should have known. You’re from Familiar Central.”

“Yep,” Calamity declared, dropping down and dancing about on all four of her dainty paws. “So show us where to go so we can get settled and then we’ll all sit down and have a nice little getting-to-know-you session. Also, if you have some tuna handy, I’d appreciate the shit out of a bowl—packed in water only, please. This has been one of the longest nights of my fekkin’ life. Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to induct a familiar? Especially a newb. Jesus and a popsicle. It’s more paperwork than leasing a damn car.”

Marty scooped up Calamity and tucked her under her arm, sticking her other hand out to the stranger. “Introductions are in order. I’m Marty Flaherty. The bully you froze on the spot—thank you for that, by the way—is Nina Statleon. Behind me is Wanda Jefferson, and the woman clinging to Wanda as though she were the last pint of Häagen-Dazs on earth is Poppy McGuillicuddy, your new familiar.”

He lifted his square chin with a dimple in it and nodded with a curt bob of his dark head. “I know who she is. Now take her and your friend here and go the hell away. I’ve already told Familiar Central I’m good. So, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, have a good night.”

And with that, he was gone.

As in, took his gorgeous self and disappeared into the ether, leaving behind only the scent of ozone and sardines.

Well, that was a fine how-do-ya-do.

~

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