What I do is an art.
It's something that comes from the spirit. For me, it takes a force of will, knowledge of my own abilities, and using tools I trust. Part of it is learned, but much of it relies on natural talent and aptitude. The theory can be studied, but it takes more than that for someone to be great at it. It's a process and a labor of love. I excel at it through a mix of raw skill, practice, and luck. It is my livelihood, my passion, and my most addictive hobby.
The name's Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. I own the Stars and Scones Bakery and Coffee Shop in River North, Chicago. I'm the best there is at what I do. And what I do... is bake.
That, and put out fires. Metaphorical ones, I mean. Not literal fires.
I walked into the back room where my barista was hiding. Bob had a sixth sense about when I was about to yell at him and tended to hide in the coffee pantry. Unfortunately for him, we'd worked together for a few years now and I knew his habits.
Bob's bad habits are what had me so incensed. "Bob. Bob! Why are we out of scones at ten o'clock?" I checked behind the giant batter mixers, between the cooling racks, and the tiny crew room, looking for my elusive employee. "If you were giving out samples to the co-eds again, I'm taking it out on your hide!" I lifted my giant wooden spoon like a scepter. I always kept it with me, tucked into the cord of my apron, a tactile symbol of my power.
It'd be more than just a symbol when I found Bob.
Molly looked up from the large ceramic bowl she was stirring like a girl possessed. "He's probably hiding."
"No, really," I drawled. "Where?"
She shook her head. "I'm not helping you. Bob would never forgive me."
Not only did Bob lose all my scones, he was turning my apprentice against me. Molly was supposed to be learning responsibility and maturity and so on, not the sort of lessons Bob was teaching her. "Stir faster. It's called whipped cream for a reason."
She turned big, surprised eyes on me. "Really? That's why? I just thought the cream was kinky."
"Argh!" I covered my ears with my hands. "That's on the list! The list of words you don't use until you're eighteen!"
Molly rolled her eyes. "Okay, boss," she said light, in that tone that meant she would listen until the next time she saw an opportunity to mess with me. I had such respect for Charity since taking Molly on part-time. Normal teenagers were fueled by crappy processed food and soda; Molly subsisted on the frustration of her caretakers, like some really weird vampire.
I was about to resume my manhunt for Bob when the bell on the front counter rang with one crisp, long note. I deflated a little; unleashing my wrath on my customers would be bad. "Stir, minion," I commanded Molly with a poke from my spoon before jogging out of the kitchen.
Murphy was leaning on my front counter, hand hovering above to bell, ready to ring again. I shot her a tired look and she smirked, but obligingly moved her hand away, instead tapping the pastry case with one finger and raising her eyebrow at me.
"You're out of--"
"I know," I growled. "Bob probably gave them away. I just made a batch."
"You know, when you name your shop Stars and Scones, customers expect there to be scones," she pointed out, because Murphy lived to wind me up. It was a favorite past time of hers. That and slamming people much larger than her onto an exercise map. She ran the Akido studio two blocks down. Tiny but powerful was Karrin Murphy.
I started to get together her usual. It was an hour until her first class started and she always came by for brunch. Jasmine tea, a bowl of fresh fruit I picked up specially for her, and a BLT with avocado-mayo spread. "I know. But I don't have 'em. You don't even like scones."
"I like the blueberry ones. You never make those anymore."
"Too easy. Gotta test myself." I made a mark under her name on a chart I kept behind the counter. I let her go weeks at a time without paying. I knew where she lived and worked. I could show up and annoy her if she didn't take care of the tab. There was one time she forgot, and I enacted revenge by covering her motorcycle in cake icing and fondant bows. I thought it had been funny. She.... hadn't.
"Well, I hope the co-eds enjoyed their gourmet scones."
"I'm going to kill Bob," I told her earnestly.
"Was bound to happen eventually," Murphy said, unconcerned. She took her food and grabbed a seat at the bar, tucking in. "Don't do it in the kitchen. Health code violation."
With Murphy taken care of, my hunt could resume. I waited a cursory ten seconds, trying to seem like a sane, responsible shop owner before I darted back to the kitchen. "BOB!"
We nearly knocked each other over as I slammed into him, right around the corner. He had his arms full with a bag of fresh coffee beans. "Where's the fire, boss?" He gave me a guileless blink, a picture of innocence.
I was not fooled, and smacked him in the arm with my spoon. "I told you about giving away product to the college girls! They come in here just because they know if you're working front, they don't have to pay for anything!"
Bob sighed luxriously, eyes rolling up to the ceiling. "Oh how I wish those lovely ladies had been by today. I've had no one to look at but you, that red-headed linebacker, and the off-limits apprentice." He cast a look over his shoulder at Molly that was too keen for my tastes.
I whacked him again for good measure. It wasn't abuse. My employees wouldn't know I cared if they didn't get spooned a bit.
Then again, the one time I accidentally said that aloud, Bob had laughed himself sick.
"Eyes back here. I'm still missing a full rack of scones."
Bob huffily turned to regard me again, this time actually seeming to think about what I was saying. "Which ones?"
"The cinnamon ones with the apple preserves. The ones I spent all morning on."
His brow furrowed. "I didn't see those. When did you put them out?"
"When did I--" I blinked, a new, not-Bob excuse forming in my mind. "You didn't grab them from the oven?"
Bob shook his head slowly. "I had no idea I was supposed to. Molly usually does."
"Molly was late this morning, remember?" Cogs turned in my head. If Bob didn't get the scones out and Molly wasn't here to do it for me, that meant...
Just as I figured it out, I heard Molly call my name in a high-pitched, panicked tone. Right after that, the smoke alarm went off.
"Scones are up!" Bob said, entirely too cheerful.
I grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran to the ovens.
I put out a lot of metaphorical fires in my bakery. Occasionally, though, I end up putting out some literal fires too.
When I eventually emerged from the kitchen, having put out a small fire and gotten rid of the charcoal remains of what had been a batch of scones, my patrons burst into applause. I rolled my eyes, but gave a showy bow before punching Bob in the arm. "You're on dish duty tonight."
He squawked indignantly, rubbing his arm where I'd hit him. Drama queen. "The scones were not my fault!"
"Getting everyone in the shop to applaud me was," I told him.
"Well, I can't come in tonight. I have a date, I'll have you know," Bob said.
I didn't bother hiding the skeptical look on my face from him. "Really?"
He frowned. "Well, I could. Surely someone attractive will come in today." I nodded to the people we had in the foyer, who I didn't think were too shabby looking. "Most of them are off-limits."
It was true. The thing about Bob was that he was great for business. He was a passable cook, a great barista, and was handsome in a studious, British way. He was a little shorter than me, had a penchant for fancy waistcoats, and was very charming when he wanted to be. He also was a terrible lech, but I couldn't keep him hidden away in the back room. When Bob worked front, there was a small but noticeable increase in sales. I blamed the accent. Everyone loved the British accent, even if that baffled me. I'd grown up with Bob's voice, so it didn't impress me.
But he was right; I'd banned Bob from harassing our more loyal clientele. I figured if they came in often enough, they were here for the food, not for Bob's sexual innuendo. Quite a few people were off-limits. The red-headed college guy who was always working on his laptop with a stack of philosophy books wasn't interested. Molly's boyfriend Carlos, who always came in on her break, could probably give as good as he got when it came to flirting but was obviously taken. I didn't need to tell Bob that Murphy was a no-fly zone; she'd nearly broken his arm the first time he got friendly with her. The entire Carpenter family, of course. I hadn't explicitly said my ex Susan was off-limits, but watching their to-and-fro had apparently made me so grumpy, Bob actually backed off.
Bob looked to the door. "Speaking of people I'm not allowed to have," he murmured, gave me a wink, then vanished to the back.
I looked up and groaned as the door's entry bell chimed and my least favorite customer came inside, accompanied by my favorite customer. Funny how that worked out.
John Marcone was the bane of my existence. He was a suave lawyer-type who was one of the name partners of a nearby firm, Vadderung, Marcone, & Associates. He was the type of guy who'd play the corrupt, amoral lawyer in every single crime drama that required one. He wore tailored suits, had perpetually shiny shoes, and a feline grin. According to the rumor mill, he'd lived in New York for a few years, working as consigliere for one of the Families before having to retreat to his hometown of Chicago lest he be 'disappeared.'
We didn't get along.
The first time I met John Marcone, it was because another coffee shop in my corner of River North had gone out of business. I didn't exactly drive them out, because that would imply intent on my part, but my business was booming, so that might've had something to do with it. Apparently, Marcone had been using the other shop for his caffeine fix and had to find a new place after his went under. And in the area, it was Stars and Scones or one of the myriad Starbuckses or Caribou Coffees.
When Marcone came in, I had no idea who he was. To me, he was just a suit who looked like he'd been run ragged and had an attitude problem. It'd been the middle of the morning rush and he'd jumped to the front of the line. "Excuse me, I need a hazelnut latte with an extra expresso shot."
I gave him a slow blink. Too slow; his foot started tapping. Bob moved to fill the order and I gave him a head shake. "There's a line," I said to the man.
He snorted, like I'd told a joke. "I'm late for a meeting. I need the latte now."
I looked at my customers conspiratorially, sharing a non-verbal who does this guy think he is with them. "That's really not my problem, pal."
"As I understand it," his gaze flicked down to my chest, like he was checking for a nametag. There wasn't one because I found those things annoying, but it was a massive tell for the man. He was the type to find your name and use it against you, saying it with molasses-thick cotempt like having your name meant he owned you. I hated people who did that, treated food service people like crap. "This establishment drove my usual cafe out of business. I only found out this morning. Now I'm late."
I crossed my arms and leaned on the counter. "Sorry about your crappy morning, but you still can't skip ahead. Now, if you want to wait like everyone else, I'll be glad to get you taken care of and even give you a free pastry. Tradition here at Stars and Scones for first-timers."
The man stared at me. "Stars and... Scones."
I beamed at him. "That's what I called it." I twoodled my fingers at him. "Harry Dresden. I run the shop."
The man suddenly smirked. "Pleasure to meet you. John Marcone."
He said it like it was his personal Open Sesame. Someone in the line inhaled sharply, so maybe he was someone important to someone.
But not to me. "Same. Back of the line, please."
His smirk dipped into a displeased frown. "If you agreed to make my latte, I'd be on my way by now and you'd have half your customers taken care of."
"Yeah, but that'd be against my religion," I said cheekily. He had a point, but you had to shut down stubborn customers like him right off the bat. Give them a little leeway and they'd try to walk all over you.
Marcone's eyes dropped to my neck where my silver pentacle hung, laying on top of my apron. He looked around, at the rather... esoteric design of my shop. One wall was covered with movie and music posters and a few Art Nouveau tarot card designs one of my D&D group made for me. Behind the counter was a mural of the Wheel of the Year. Murphy once called my spread hipster, but I kind of liked it and its confused see-sawing between pretentious and comfortable. There were rugs overlapping on the scuffed wooden floor and mixmatched chairs surrounding thirteen tables of various shapes and sizes. It was homey, if odd.
But it could be misconstrued and I could see the disapproval on John Marcone's face. "I see. I had no idea one of the branches of Neo-Paganism had such staunch rules on the topic of cutting in line," he said, voice heavy with disdain.
I stared at him for a long moment, deciding that I really, really didn't like this guy. "Bob. Make the drink," I ordered quietly, and for once my barista obeyed silently. Marcone reached into his coat pocket, likely to pull out a wallet. I waved a hand. "Don't worry about it. I don't usually make people pay for their drinks before I throw them out."
Marcone gave me a completely bewildered look. "Excuse me?"
"I'm going to give you your latte. Then you're going to get out of my shop and go to your important meeting with your power suit and your smarmy smile. I don't know who you are but you don't scare me, you just piss me off. Maybe you make six or seven figures, but you can't afford some common courtesy in a place where you're a guest." As I spoke, I backed away from the counter and picked an amaretto dark chocolate pastry out of the case and bagged it. "Yes, we sunk your dinky little cafe and its store bought bakery goods." I shoved the bagged sweet across the counter at him as Bob finished the latte and offered it to Marcone. "I made that from scratch. Enjoy it, it's the only thing you're ever getting from this place." I grinned malevolently at him. "Also, it's Wicca, but I'm lapsed. Given it's Sunday, I bet you know something about that, right?"
I moved onto my actual customers, getting Mac squared away with his order of sourdough bread. I pointedly did not look at Marcone as I worked. Eventually he must've left, because he was gone when I looked up next.
And that should have been that. But it wasn't, obviously. John Marcone came back, like some brand of masochist that enjoyed the fact I'd lay into him at the smallest provocation. Eventually he got off my blacklist, mostly because Bob and Molly didn't listen when I said Marcone was banned. He was repentant for having pissed me off and always turned on the charm when I was around, trying to work his way into my good graces. Probably only because bribing me hadn't worked.
"I don't need a fifty dollar tip!" I yelled at him, walking up to the table he was sitting at. "No one here needs a fifty dollar tip!"
Molly, behind the counter, raised her hand. "I do! I'd love a fifty dollar tip!"
I snapped my fingers and pointed to the pastry case. "Clean. Now."
Marcone chuckled, crossing his legs at the knee and linking his fingers over them. "You underestimate your baking skills, Harry."
"Dresden," I corrected him curtly. "And no, I don't. I'm the best in Chicago. I still don't want the money!"
He sighed and tucked his wallet away, leaving the bill on the table. "Mr. Dresden, there's no need to get hysterical."
"You're trying to bribe me!" I pulled my spoon from my apron and waved it at him. His lips twitched like he was fighting down a grin. "You bought an entire batch of cupcakes and now this. Bribery!"
"The cupcakes were for my daughter, and I am not bribing you. Consider it a tip to be split between all your employees."
"That's still over sixteen dollars per pers--" I stopped. "Daughter?"
Marcone smiled. "She likes the tiramisu best."
And the day after that, I met my favorite customer, Ivy Marcone. Since then, I'd probably been doomed to lose my battle of wills with her father, John.
My apron was burnt from the minor kitchen fire and I probably looked like a mess when the Marcones came in. Ivy didn't care though, walking primly up to the pastry case like an elegant young lady instead of a ten-year-old. Her dress was a demure grey that contrasted with the pink ribbon tying her blonde hair back in a braid. She didn't press her hands to the glass like other children did. Instead, they were folded behind her back as she stood on her toes and browsed. Her face was almost eerily calm as she scanned the selection, but a smile lit up her face as she spotted the cupcakes.
I leaned on the counter to watch her because I was a sucker for kids. Marcone stood nearby, his attention divided between watching her and giving me a knowing grin.
When Marcone had first started bringing Ivy around the shop, I'd thought he was just trying to earn points with me. But Mr. Corporate Lawyer was actually a devoted single father who indulged his daughter endlessly. I'd gotten used to the two of them hanging around; Ivy had started coming in after school, having a snack and working on her homework until her father showed up to take her home. I'd grown more and more used to them camped out at one of the larger tables; Marcone often brought his own lawyer things with him and the two would work in each other's company.
If that wasn't bad enough, Marcone was painfully sweet on Ivy. For a while, I had maintained my only slightly paranoid suspicions about Marcone's intentions. Then, the two of them had spent an evening in the shop, eating a trial run of toffees I'd been experimenting with. Ivy had eventually dozed off against her father's arm.
Marcone reacted by putting their things away quietly and gently picking Ivy up to carry her out to his car. I'd gotten the door for him, saw up close how all his attention was on her, moving carefully so to avoid waking her as she slept.
Thank god for that. He was so distracted, he missed how completely, stupidly charmed I was.
It's not my fault I have a soft spot for kids, okay?
"You made the cat cupcakes," Ivy pointed out sunnily.
"Well, someone keeps eating them, so it seemed the thing to do," I told her.
She walked over to the counter and looked up at where Mister, my mammoth grey cat, sat on top of the expresso machine. Ivy made a soft clicking noise, holding her hand out to Mister.
Mister gave her a sour look upon waking from his sleep and meowed.
I poked the cat in the side. "Old grump."
"All cats are like that," Ivy explained coolly with a tone more befitting a lecturer than a child. "They'll sleep over fourteen hours a day. Some sleep away sixty percent of their lives."
I nudged Mister harder until he growled and leapt down to the ground near Ivy. "Sleep, eat, catbox. Useless animal."
"Mascots are important for PR," Marcone offered.
"Yeah, yeah." I watched Ivy turn Mister into a purring pile of fluff, petting him with both hands. "Staying or going?"
"Having some brunch before Mr. Kincaid arrives." Marcone took in my rough appearance. I subtly rubbed my face, hoping I'd gotten myself mostly clean. "It seems you've had an exciting morning. Care to take a break? Join us?"
I looked away, shaking my head. "I have a shop to run, Marcone."
"Both your employees are on duty. They couldn't spare you a few moments?"
He was always asking things like that. Just a moment of my time, just a small piece of my attention. I was reluctant to concede anything to him. I had the feeling a single step in that direction would lead to a slippery slope, and I had no idea what would be at the end of it. "Chai latte, earl grey tea?"
Marcone sighed and nodded. "Tuna and cucumber for Ivy. I'll take the panini if you could heat it up for me. And the profiteroles, please."
I got them set up before finding an excuse to duck into the back room. Molly was leaning over the oven that had the batch of scones in it earlier, black smeared up both of her arms and her cheek from cleaning. I took the steel wool and oven spray from her. "Tap in, grasshopper."
She gave me a suspicious look. "You want to trade?"
"Yeah. Go run the front, I'll finish this."
Bob looked up from icing a cake. "John Marcone's here. Harry's hiding."
Molly smiled. "Aw, boss."
"Out! I just heard the door bell," I said, pointing to the front. "Go!"
She tsked at me. "You keep doing this and he's going to think you don't like him."
"Good, 'cause I don't. Shoo!" I pushed her encouragingly. "Wash up first."
She gave me a mocking salute before bouncing away. Bob watched her, gaze firmly fixed on her... well. Her bounce.
I smacked him with the spoon. "Stop it."
"I'll stop if you admit you want to shag Marcone."
British slang, ugh. "Shag?"
Bob beamed at me. "Fuck. Make the two-backed beast. Do the nasty. Get it on. Invite him upstairs and have him pound you through--"
I covered my ears. "No! I don't! Shut up!" I threw an empty icing bag at his head. "Am I the only person here who isn't obsessed with sex?!"
Bob snorted. "Oh, Harry, you're just as bad as any of us, I'm sure. You are just the epitome of American sexual repression."
So I made Bob clean the damn oven, taking over the icing myself. Someday I would find the way to make my employees respect me and cower in fear of my retribution. And then my life would be better because I'd never have to hear another word about how Marcone and I were destined to... do all that Bob said.
I needed to hire some not-crazy people sometime. I would, as soon as I met some.
There was never a slow day at Stars and Scones. We were in a prosperous part of the city surrounded by boutiques and shops, so we had nearly constant foot traffic. We had our one-time passerbys who needed a pick-me-up in the middle of their shopping trips. We had the people who came in because we got a nice write-up in the Chicagoist or in one of the tourism guides. We also had plenty of regulars from all around the city.
Stars and Scones was catty-corner to the Merchandise Mart's Purple-Brown Line station. It was an amazing location. I sometimes got offers to have my shop moved so someone could snag the real estate, but I'd never let go. I'd survived the rent hikes over the years out of pure luck and grim determination. And it was something of an heirloom.
My father had once run a magic and novelty store out of the same spot. He hadn't been a wealthy man and was more interested in giving free magic shows to the libraries, schools, and children's hospital than anything. There'd been a sizable debt when he died and a lot of his stock was liquidated to pay everything off. I had very little to remember him by.
I'd lost everything he had when I went into the orphanage. Then I'd lost everything I had when I was adopted by Justin DuMorne. DuMorne was a man always eager to help. He'd took Elaine Mallory and me in knowing we both had some issues to sort out.
He was going to help. It had been a passion of Justin's, figuring people out. He wanted to fix us, but to do that, he'd said, he needed to take us apart to understand how we worked.
In the end, he hadn't been that interested in putting us back together again.
Elaine would probably always be claustrophobic. I still jumped at sudden noises.
We'd had a tutor in lieu of going to school, which was "an uncontrollable environment that would be detrimental to our treatment," Justin claimed. Hrothbert, or Bob, gave us lessons, and kept quiet.
But then Elaine went... There was a knife, and Justin screaming at her, and I ended up with a long thin scar on the inside of my arm, though I never could remember how it got there, even years later. That night must've been the final straw for Bob, since he called the police. There were some court hearings, a lot of people asking me invasive questions in soft tones. Justin went to prison and Bob was rewarded by having his teaching license revoked.
None of that mattered to me. I was old enough to strike out on my own. As I did, I learned the shop my father had owned was open for rent again.
It was the only thing left of my father. I dug into it hard, working fifteen-hour days or more until I could get my feet under me.
I was never going to let the shop go. I felt like it was mine, my birthright. I had to make it work, even if at first it was just me slogging through insane hours and juggling working the front and the back. I was all alone; Elaine was long gone.
Then Bob showed up one afternoon when I was in the thick of it, dashing from the kitchen to the counter trying to keep up with both. I don't know if it was pity or a sense of obligation that drove him, but he came around the counter and started to take orders.
Life had gotten rough for Bob in the wake of Justin. It wasn't a perfect arrangement-- he'd been complicit in Justin's abuse for a long time, but he needed a job and I needed help in the shop.
Bob turned out to be... I won't say a nice guy because I can't think of someone who skirted sexually harassment so often as 'nice,' but he worked diligently, lessened my load, even learned to operate the coffee machine. When he cut out the constant stream of sexual innuendo, he was also pretty funny. Desert dry, relaxed, sometimes making me laugh. Bob's chatter made the day go faster, especially in the early days when I always felt like I was hanging on by a thread.
It was a time when I needed friends. Bob ended up being one of my closest. Having him around helped me work through some issues that were left over from Justin. I had a lot of denial going on about it, about Elaine leaving. I was just angry all the time: mad at Justin, at Bob, at Elaine, at myself for being too weak to protect anyone.
Bob, in a weird moment of somberness, told me that being hurt still counted, even if there weren't any bruises left behind.
That was why, despite everything, Bob was my friend. Every once in a while, he said exactly what I needed to hear.
The only time things slowed down at Stars and Scones was when Chicago went grey, be it from snow or rain. Like pretty much every city that had a thriving system of public transportation, Chicago was a city of walkers. And very few liked to walk in the rain.
We had a few people inside the shop. Molly was on her break, sitting with Carlos as they traded notes on their homework assignments with sandwiches and mint mochas shared between them. Hendricks, the philosophy grad, was peering through his little rectangular wire-rims at his laptop. Bob was behind the counter, reading a Cosmo.
I sat by the windows, drinking a loose leaf tea Bob had spent weeks perfecting. He'd mixed in various tastes and flavors until he got the effect he wanted. It was smooth and vaguely fruity and was clearly a take-off of Oolong, with that distinct gunpowder smell to it. Generally speaking, the windows stayed shut all year, if only because they were a pain in the ass to open. They stretched from the ceiling to about a foot off the ground and were operated by a metal hand crank. Turn the crank, and the slots of glass would fan outward.
All the cranks were rusted over from disuse except for one in the corner that only survived because of me. I used it on days like this, when the rain was pounding down onto the streets and sluicing down the windows. It collected outside, the water surprisingly clear.
I was having a zucchini muffin, watching the sidewalk become a puddle. The water grew deeper as I watched, and in my daydreams I thought about closing the window and holding back the rain as it flooded the world with cool, clean water.
Then I wondered if Bob had put something a little more recreational into this tea blend of his.
Either way, it was a nice, peaceful thought. It was kind of amazing, how quiet it'd gotten in my own head over the past few years. Five or ten years ago, I'd have been rooting for the imaginary flood to wash the world away, or something equally dark and dramatic. These days, I was okay most of the time. My past was buried and the only reminder of it was Bob and a fading line on my arm.
That was, until the day Thomas Raith walked into my shop.