A Null for Hire Novel Book One
By Terri L. Austin
Genre: urban fantasy
They call me an abomination. A mutant. A curse on their kind.
I don’t let it bother me. Much.
My name is Holly James, and what they say is true. I’m a freak of nature—a null. My mere presence zaps the magic from Others, rendering them powerless. That’s why they hate me. But here’s the kicker: I’ve found a way to profit from my lack of mojo.
Whether it’s acting as a mystical wet blanket in a dispute between pyromancers or keeping hormonal shifters from changing during a sweet sixteen party, I provide a highly specialized service. For a hefty fee.
When a young witch turns up dead, clutching an amulet cursed with black magic, my estranged grandfather asks for my help. In return for nullifying the necklace, Gramps promises to find my missing mother—a witch who vanished after my birth. Of course there’s a catch. He wants me to assist Cade McAllister, the arrogant sorcerer in charge of investigating the case.
Cade resents my existence, let alone my attempts to help. Still, I’ll do whatever it takes to find my mom. For my own peace of mind I have to know what happened to her, and I won’t allow anything to get in my way. Not even this crazy, irrational longing I feel for a hot sorcerer with the sexiest scowl I’ve ever seen.
Thaddeus Aldridge was a loon. What else would explain hubcaps and rusted mufflers hanging from a tree in the front yard like ripened fruit? Or the army of ceramic gnomes lined up in formation on the sparse brown lawn, waving gardening implements like weapons?
His ramshackle property stood six miles from the highway. The narrow, two-story house was missing more paint than not. Faded red shutters hung cockeyed next to filthy windows. On the sagging porch sat a ripped, floral sofa. On that sofa sat an old man wearing overalls—no shirt—chain smoking and using a Folgers coffee can for an ashtray.
Cade parked in front of the house and we stepped out into the heat. No wind moved the heavy, humid air.
Before we took two steps toward him, the old man stood, flicked the butt in the can, and grabbed a gnarled wooden wand from his pocket. “Get off my land. This here is private property.” He raised the wand, pointed it toward us, then looked at it with a frown. His eyes shot to me. “What the Sam Hill?”
“I’m a null.”
Surprise flashed across his features as he made a move to dash inside but Cade was there before him, blocking the screen door. “Sit down, old man. We’re just here to talk.”
The heavy scarf draped around my neck itched, and I rubbed at it while I climbed the weathered, rickety porch steps to get a better look at the loon in question. Thaddeus Aldridge could be summed up in one color: gray. Gray hair, gray stubble, gray skin.
His sunken brown eyes shot angry daggers at Cade. “I don’t have to talk to you.”
Cade crossed his arms. “According to section three-thirteen, subsection B of the Code—”
“Don’t quote the Code to me, son, I wrote the damn book.” He stomped back to the sofa and fell onto it.
“My name’s Cade McAllister. I’m a Council Investigator.”
“I don’t give a hot goddamn who you are. This is my house, and you brought a null here. Now I’m gonna have to redo all my wards. You know how long that’ll take?”
Cade walked from the door to perch his ass on the porch railing. I copied his move.
With a sigh, Aldridge lit up a smoke, squinting as he inhaled. He ran a thumb over a groove in the wand.
Wands were passé. Even Gran didn’t use a wand back in the day. They were a crutch. If you rely on your wand and find yourself without it, you’re screwed.
“Where’s Vane?” Cade asked.
The old fart puffed away. Soon his head was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. “How should I know? That boy don’t inform me of his comings and goings.”
Cade turned to me. “Go check inside. See what you can find.”
On the one hand, I really didn’t want to go into the house. Who knew what disaster lurked there? On the other hand, I was suspicious that Cade might discover some clue and not share it with me. No matter which hand I chose, it was a lose-lose proposition.
I looked into Cade’s eyes, widened mine in warning, and poked his chest with a finger. “We’re partners, don’t forget.”
When I walked inside the house, letting the screen door slam behind me, I heard Aldridge’s wheezy laugh. “I reckon she’s a handful.”
“You have no idea,” Cade rumbled.
The place reeked with sixty years’ worth of stale smoke that was probably embedded into the walls and scarred wood floor. Newspapers, old coffee cups, and dust covered every surface. I walked to the kitchen. It was even grosser in there. Years of food had been cooked onto the stovetop. It made the burger I’d eaten earlier rebel in my stomach.
I took in the kitchen and spotted the phone. He had an old-fashioned, yellow rotary attached to the wall. Rotary, for God’s sake. No redial, no phone history.
But next to the phone, I found a number written in ink on the peeling wallpaper. I didn’t use my cell because I didn’t want it to show up on caller ID. So with two fingers, I gingerly picked up the receiver and spun the dial.
A deep voice answered. “Hey, Gramps, what’s up?”
“Um, hi. Is this Vane?”
“Who the fuck is this?”
I swallowed. “My name is Holly James. Cade McAllister and I are—”
He hung up on me. Son of a bitch.
I grabbed my phone, entered the number in my address book, and walked back outside.
Cade had his chin propped in one hand as he nodded, listening to the old man.
“Probably using some ancient black spell to mask the signature,” Thaddeus said around a cigarette. “But when you run into the caster, you should find a trace of it on his aura.” He stopped to hack before spitting into the coffee can. “Sorry ’bout that. Anyway, you can’t hide a dark aura for long. Not without a continual supply of sacrificial blood and blowing through a lot of power. It always leaves a stain somewhere.”
Cade glanced at me, his eyebrows shooting up. “Find anything?”
“I called Vane, and he hung up on me.”
Thaddeus sniffed. “Yeah, he don’t like to talk on the phone none. Especially to strangers. And if’n he knew you was a null, he’d be even less inclined.”
“Well, thanks for your time.” Cade held out his hand, and the old man shook it. “Good to talk shop with you.”
“Come back and see me, son. But don’t bring this one.” He jerked his head in my direction.
I rolled my eyes and made my way to the Ford. As I did, I held the ends of the scarf up to my nose. I stank of cigarette smoke. Blech.
Cade took the gravel road leading to the highway. I slid my gaze to him. “I have Vane’s number.”
I waited a beat. “What did you mean back there about talking shop?”
“Thaddeus used to be an investigator himself. He’s still sharp.”
“Learn anything new?”
“Did he tell you about Vane?”
“No.” He turned on the radio to block my questions.
I reached out and hit the search button. I was tired of classic rock. I stopped on a country station. “So what is Vane Aldridge and how did he know London? Why would he want to kill her? Bigger question, why would he want to kill Stephanie?”
“He didn’t kill anybody, Holly. Vane works for the Council.”
I stared at him in silence for a full minute. “What the hell, Cade? Did you know this all along?” I smacked my forehead. Of course he did. That’s why he’d tensed up when Mick Raven said the name. “How long were you going to keep this from me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
Seething, I stared out the window. What else was McAllister hiding? Probably a whole host of things. That just jacked my anger up even further. “What does Vane Aldridge do for the Council?”
“He enforces their decisions.”
Terri L. Austin is a mild-mannered writer by day and a reality TV junkie by night. She lives in Missouri with her family, and loves to hear from readers.