Slouch Witch – Helen Harper

The man didn’t look like much at first glance. Taller than me but weedy, with an oddly bulbous head perched on top of a white, scrawny neck. He was smartly dressed, with a suit and tie, but I should have known better than to assume that clothes maketh the man. I’d had some ridiculously wealthy people in the back of my cab in the past and the most affluent of them looked as if he’d been sleeping rough for three months. Maybe that was why he had such a healthy bank account – because he didn’t waste time on things like shaving or brushing his hair or, um, washing. Anyway, this man, the one holding a thin arm up to flag me down, looked like a strong gust of wind would blow him over. Judging from his pale skin, he didn’t get outside much. Perhaps he had a fear of strong breezes. Whatever, I figured that one more customer would be good enough to see me through until the end of the week. I hoped, however, that he wasn’t travelling far. I’d kicked people out before for requesting destinations that were going to take hours to reach. Not the done thing, but I have a life too. I’ve got better things to do than spend all of it driving people around and having the same conversations over and over again about their holidays or the weather or the latest goings on in Enchantment over on Channel 5. Not that I dislike my job – far from it – but I don’t live to work. I’m not deranged.

I pulled up at the kerb and he got into the back, sitting directly behind me. ‘Cutteslowe,’ he grunted. Then he glanced at me and did a double take. I get that a lot; for some reason, people always seem to find it surprising that a woman drives a taxi. I have no idea why. It’s not as if it takes a special skill set that I don’t have because of my gender. Having some dangly bits wouldn’t make holding a steering wheel and finding my way around a small city like Oxford any easier. No, my breasts do not impair my ability to drive. And yes, I can park. I’ve heard all the jokes.

They’re never funny. Men can be witches and women can be taxi drivers. Big bloody deal. ‘Absolutely, sir,’ I murmured, flashing a smile in the mirror. I didn’t receive so much as a crack of a grin back. It suited me; the quiet ones are less work. I pulled out, making the driver in the battered BMW coming up behind me gesture in my direction with an angry scowl. Now, now. He had plenty of room to slow down. I reckon that anyone who gets irritated by something like that needs to sort their life out.

If you’re getting stressed out by having to brake slightly, what happens to your equilibrium when your pipes burst or your kid gets suspended from school or your mum is diagnosed with cancer? It simply isn’t worth the effort to sweat the small stuff. My passenger didn’t notice. He was fiddling with his jacket and his left eyebrow was twitching furiously, as if someone had attached it to an invisible piece of string and was yanking at it from above. I could have calmed him down, I suppose, but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference in the end. Instead I turned up the radio and got a hustle on. The faster we made it to Cutteslowe and I dropped this guy off, the faster I could get home and put my feet up. We were just pulling off the main road towards the little suburb when I felt it. I hadn’t even noticed him lean forward – I’d been too preoccupied with the bus right in front of me – but when the cold metal pressed against the back of my neck, I knew exactly what was going on. ‘I want all your money,’ he hissed. ‘Now.

’ A gun. Great. Why did I always end up with the psychotic idiots? I licked my lips. ‘Do you want me to get the money or do you want me to avoid ploughing into the back of the bus?’ I asked. ‘Because I’m not sure I can do both.’ There was a momentary pause. ‘Pull over here. And don’t think I won’t pull the trigger just because you’re a girl.’ I considered a smart response but in the end I shrugged and did as he asked. I turned off the engine but otherwise didn’t move.

‘Give me your fucking money.’ Perhaps he thought I was hard of hearing and it was important to repeat his request with added emphasis to make sure I didn’t misunderstand his intention. I pursed my lips. ‘I don’t have much. None of us ever carry much. You know, in case someone puts a gun to the back of our head and demands it all.’ ‘Listen, bitch…’ ‘All I’m saying,’ I continued blithely, ‘is that perhaps you should weigh this up a little more. Risk versus reward. I’m not sure you’ve really thought this through and I’d like to give you another opportunity to do that.’ I softened my voice to show him that I was in earnest.

‘Everyone deserves a second chance.’ Unfortunately, my lanky gentleman wasn’t listening. He pushed the muzzle of the gun deeper into my flesh. Okay, that hurt. And I was starting to get irritated. ‘I’ll give you one last chance,’ he told me, ‘before I splatter your brains all across your windshield.’ I wanted to tell him that my brains were located where you’d expect and that if he pulled the trigger right now it would be my windpipe that would see the damage; my brains would remain intact. Somehow I didn’t think this was the time for an anatomy lesson. ‘Okay,’ I said soothingly. ‘I have a cashbox in the glove department.

I need to lean across.’ ‘Don’t try anything funny.’ Maybe it was his tone of voice but more likely it was his choice of words. In any case, when I stretched out to open the glove box with my left hand and sketched out a rune onto my thigh with my right hand, I knew exactly what I was doing. And, yes, I thought it was pretty funny. ‘What the…?’ he spluttered. ‘What the fuck?’ He yanked what had been a lethal weapon away from my neck and stared at what was now a banana. Clichéd, sure, but it made me smile. ‘I wouldn’t recommend trying to eat it,’ I said sunnily. It might look like a banana and feel like a banana but magic could only go so far.

Unfortunately. His eyes swung from the banana to me and then back again. I didn’t think it was possible but he seemed even paler than before. ‘You’re a witch.’ Duh. ‘Yes, I am,’ I replied pleasantly. ‘What is a witch doing driving a cab?’ That was a long, long story that I certainly wasn’t getting into with this guy. ‘I did give you the chance to change your mind,’ I told him. His eyes shifted as he calculated the odds. I reckoned it was about fifty–fifty whether he lunged for me or made a run for it.

Fortunately for both us, he chose the latter. He grabbed the door handle and tugged furiously but, of course, it didn’t open. Central locking. I was feeling generous, though, because I activated the button to open the door and he fell out. He scrambled to his feet, almost tripping over them in his haste to get away. Then he veered down the road, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a double-decker bus. I watched him for a moment or two as he sped away towards the pavement and his supposed freedom. The smart thing to do would be to let him go; less hassle on all accounts. But there was a niggling voice in the back of my head that told me he’d be free to try this again – and on someone with fewer defensive abilities than me. I couldn’t do it.

I rolled my eyes. Some days I wish I didn’t have a conscience. I counted to three under my breath then raised my hand and drew out another rune. There was a loud crack and a heavy tree branch crashed down onto the head of my would-be assailant. He collapsed instantly. ‘Stay here,’ I murmured to the taxi. I shoved my hands in my pockets and, whistling, wandered over towards the idiot who’d ruined my day. A passing car stopped and a dark-haired woman leapt out and ran towards him. I supposed from this angle he did look like a victim of an arboreal attack instead of someone who’d received his just desserts. I reached her as she began tugging at the branch that was pinning him down.

‘I wouldn’t do that,’ I remarked. She stared up at me. ‘This man is trapped! He needs our help.’ She yanked at the branch again, although all she succeeded in doing was to get several small twigs caught in her designer jacket. There was a ripping sound as the expensive fabric gave way. I winced. ‘We might do him more damage. It’s always safer to wait for the professionals,’ I advised. ‘And believe me, this guy is not worth the effort.’ She shook her head in dismay.

‘One minute you’re walking along the street, minding your own business and munching on a banana, and the next a tree is lying on top of you.’ I nibbled my bottom lip. ‘I wouldn’t really say tree. Most of the tree is still standing.’ I eyed the banana, which was still in his hand. Hmm. I glanced at the woman. ‘Do you have a phone? You should call the police.’ Cheeks flushed from her exertions, she swung her head towards me and gaped. ‘Police? This man needs an ambulance!’ ‘He was running down the street with a gun in his hand,’ I pointed out.

‘Gun? But…’ She faltered as she looked down. Reversal runes are complicated for most witches, especially when you only have a second or two to spare and you are technically only a First Level Neophyte. But I’m not most witches. The brunette’s mouth dropped open and she took a step backwards. ‘I swear that was a banana.’ I offered a reassuring smile. ‘Shock will do that to you. Your brain panicked when it saw the gun and didn’t want to register the truth. It’s fairly common during stressful situations.’ She passed a hand over her eyes.

‘I’m normally very calm under pressure. But it’s been a long day.’ I certainly agreed with her on that point. I thought mournfully of my sofa and the time it would take to give a statement to the police. Arse. *** It was very dark by the time I made it back to my block of flats and the sting of cold was definitely in the air. My timing sucked. If things had gone to plan, I could have grabbed my usual parking place beside the door. Instead it seemed that all my neighbours were already back from work and had nabbed the best spots. I scowled and trudged to my front door.

I needed a long, hot bath with candles and chocolate and wine. Lots of wine. ‘Ivy!’ The chirpy call from the other side of the street made my heart sink but I pasted a smile on my face and turned towards Eve. ‘Hey, you just back from work?’ She jogged over, her shiny ponytail swinging, and beamed at me revealing perfect white teeth. ‘I clocked off at six so I took advantage of the early finish to go for a run.’ I looked her Lycra-clad body up and down. ‘Good for you,’ I murmured. Not that I thought six at night was an early finish, given that she was up and out the door by five thirty most mornings. The reason I knew that was because last month I’d binge-watched several episodes of Enchantment and only crawled to my pillow when the sun was rising and she was leaving for work. ‘You should come with me some time.

It’s a really invigorating way to end the day.’ I resisted the urge to point out that she is tall, fit and lithe whilst I tend more to short and plump, with breasts that have the potential to take out one of my eyes, even when I’m wearing the most advanced sports bra on the market. I like Eve, but she isn’t the kind of person who takes ‘hell no’ as an answer. It was far safer not to give any response and hope that she’d quickly move on to another topic. ‘How is work these days?’ I asked. Fortunately, my mention of her favourite subject made her eyes brighten and all thoughts of forcing me to join her fitness regime fled. ‘It’s good. Really good. I’ve got all the basic runes down pat and I’m pretty confident with Myomancy. My supervisor reckons I’ll be ready to take the Second Order exams next month.

There’s even a chance that I’ll be moved to Arcane Branch.’ I watched as she bounced from toe to toe at the thought. Eve lived, breathed and probably dreamed the Order. Or rather The Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment to give it its official title. Most people don’t bother to use its full title, probably because it sounds less like the allencompassing, all-powerful magical organisation for almost every witch in the United Kingdom and more like a happy clappy hippy enclave. ‘Are you sure you’ll like Arcane Branch?’ I asked. ‘Aren’t those guys a bit too much strait- laced geeks and sombre Simons?’ ‘Ivy!’ She punched my arm playfully but with such unintended force that I flinched. ‘Arcane Branch is where it’s at! Of course, they’re serious – their job is the most important in the country. Without them, there’d be chaos on the streets.’ She raised her eyebrows in admonishment.

‘They deserve our utmost respect.’ Yeah, yeah. I didn’t want to rain on Eve’s parade. ‘You’re right,’ I lied. ‘They’re wonderful.’ She nodded with the fervent zeal of a true believer. ‘I hope I’m good enough to meet their criteria and join them.’ I shook my head. ‘Are you kidding? If they don’t want you, it’s because they’re worried that you’ll show them all up.’ I wasn’t lying; Eve might be a little too enthusiastic about the Order for my liking but I couldn’t deny her dedication or her ability.

‘They’d be lucky to have you.’ She smiled. ‘Thanks, Ivy.’ She paused. ‘Anyway, how was your day?’ I dismissed her question easily. ‘Same old, same old.’ I grinned at her. ‘You know me. And, before you say anything, don’t worry. I’ve not forgotten that you’re away tomorrow.

’ ‘You’re sure it’s alright? I’d take him with me but…’ ‘You don’t want to advertise that you’re a witch.’ Eve grimaced. ‘Not in this case. It’s going to require a delicate touch. I’ll only be gone for four or five nights.’ ‘I’m more than happy to look after your familiar, Eve. Honestly.’ Cats I could manage, especially when they weren’t my own furry little bastard. ‘I’ll owe you big time.’ I only just stopped myself from suggesting that she cleaned my flat as payment.

We entered the main door and Eve headed straight for the stairs, casting a glance over her shoulder in my direction when she realised I wasn’t following. ‘I’ve sprained my ankle,’ I told her. ‘Old sports injury. I’m going to take the lift.’ She frowned. ‘That’s sounds painful. Let me know if you want any bandages. I know a great physiotherapist, too.’ I waved her off. ‘I’ll be fine.

But thanks.’ I nodded towards the stairs. ‘You go on.’ ‘If you’re sure…’ Good grief. I had to come up with some better excuses. I was actually starting to feel guilty. ‘I am.’ ‘Well, take care.’ Eve smiled brightly and started to sprint up the first flight. ‘See you later, Ivy!’ I punched the lift button and slumped against the wall.

It was hard work watching Eve.

.

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