Damsel Under Stress (Enchanted, Inc. #3)


He deftly flipped a slice of French toast. “There’s coffee in the pot if you want some.”

“Owen,” I warned.

“Yes, I worked late. I wanted to finish before I left for Christmas.” He arranged everything on plates, which he carried to the small table in one corner of the kitchen. Unless he’d cleaned house significantly in the last couple of weeks, the dining table was probably too full of books for anyone to be able to eat there. “And breakfast is served,” he said.

“It looks great,” I told him as I took my seat at the table. Loony immediately jumped into my lap, but Owen snapped his fingers and pointed, and she jumped down again, looking offended.

“I hope you don’t mind that we didn’t go out to eat,” he said as he took his own seat. “It’s easier for us to talk this way.” He grinned and added, “And you’ll need your energy for what I have planned today.”

“Now you’ve got me intrigued.” I ate and complimented him on the food, then finally said, “So, what did you discover from all your extra work?”

“Nothing.” He sounded discouraged. “It didn’t match any of our current employees.”

“On the bright side, that does mean we don’t have another mole or double agent.”

“But on the not-so-bright side, it also means there’s an outsider who can get through every layer of security we’ve got.”

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.” I ate some more, keeping my mouth busy with the food so I wouldn’t be tempted to say something stupid. After a while, though, I couldn’t help myself. “Could it be an ex-employee? I mean, other than Idris. Someone who might not be in your current files but who would know something about how to get past security? I don’t know if you could magically change the locks, so to speak, but that would explain someone being able to get in.”

“We did change the security wards after Idris was fired. I can’t think of anyone who was at a high enough level to have that kind of access who has left between then and now.”

“There’s the former boss,” I reminded him.

He frowned. “No, I don’t think so. As I said, he retired on good terms, and he’s not even living in the city anymore. It was his idea to revive Merlin, and if he were in league with Idris, that would be the last thing he’d want to do. He was the one to make the final call on firing Idris. If he wanted to delve into that kind of magic, you’d think he would have stayed on board and turned the direction of the company around.” He raised an eyebrow and flashed me a crooked smile. “And then I guess I’d have been the dangerous rogue wizard trying to bring down the company.”

“I suspect you’d have been a lot more successful than he has been.”

“That’s because I’d be the good guy.”

“Yeah, because the good guys always win in the real world. Meanwhile, I may have found something else.” I briefly told him about Philip’s predicament and the skeletal creature in the office.

“I haven’t heard of anyone else using that kind of creature,” he said. “It seems to be unique to Idris. If he’s allied with someone like that, then it could mean he’s found funding, and it means there are people within the establishment who might support his goals. That widens the scope of our problem somewhat.”

After we finished breakfast and washed the dishes, we bundled up against the cold, then headed outside, where we walked side by side down the street. We took the subway and got off at Thirty-fourth Street for a quick peek at Santa at Macy’s, then headed over to Fifth Avenue. We worked our way up the avenue, stopping in front of each elaborately decorated store window. I felt like a little kid, back in the days when I’d been utterly enchanted by the tinsel and lights strung around the shop windows on the town square back home.

At one particular store, Owen made a point of steering me to the front of the crowd to get a good look at the window. It was an intricate woodland scene, with fairies fluttering over a toadstool village inhabited by gnomes while snow drifted down from overhead. This wasn’t one of the famous department stores, but it was the most exquisite window I’d seen yet, with the figures looking incredibly lifelike. They even had facial expressions. One of the fairies winked as she fluttered past the front of the display window. After we’d watched the window for a while, I realized that the patterns of the figures didn’t repeat. They were spontaneous and random. I started to blurt, “These are for real!” but caught myself just in time and whispered it to Owen instead.