“I thought panda bears were supposed to be all sweet and cuddly,” I muttered, stepping carefully around an outcropping of jagged rock.
“In my experience, they can be nasty little sneaks,” a slightly creaky voice said. My head snapped up, and I found a thin, elderly version of Mr. Wainwright sitting before me on the outcropping. He was sitting cross-legged, wearing the same sort of quilted pajama-style jacket and trousers I’d donned. “Especially if they think you have something edible on your person. Lost a pair of pants to a panda once. Lesson learned: do not keep beef jerky in your front pocket.”
My jaw dropped, and my eyes flicked toward the panda, whose baleful expression now said, “Don’t look at me. I’m only here for the buffet.”
“What is this?” I whispered.
“This is a dream,” he said, stretching a cool, dry hand toward mine. And when I was unable to respond, he shook it gently. “And I’m your grandfather, or at least, your subconscious’s idea of what your grandfather would look and sound like. Can I just say it’s wonderful to meet you? I have to say I’m a little surprised it took you this long to show up. But no matter, we’re here now, and we can get to know each other under the watchful eye of that gluttonous panda.”
“Mr. Wainwright? Really?”
“I never thought—I never dreamed I would have this opportunity.” As he smiled broadly, his eyes disappeared. “Do you think you could call me Grandpa?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think I can,” I said, my face still frozen in an expression of shock and confusion. “Can you tell me where you stashed the Elements, so I can pick them up and can go home?”
“No, I told you, I’m not really your grandfather. I’m a figment of your subconscious. I don’t have any answers or information that you don’t already know.”
“That’s supremely unhelpful.”
Mr. Wainwright frowned. “Isn’t there anything you’d like to ask me that’s not related to the Elements?”
I stared at this sweet-faced old man with his conical straw hat. There were a lot of questions running through my head at the moment, most of them more hostile than I’d anticipated. How could he have abandoned my grandmother, who loved him? Did he realize how different my mother’s life would have been—how different she would have been—if he’d stuck around? Did he really want to know me, or was this only his way of socializing now that he was dead?
I kind of wanted to slug him, which was just confirmation that the panda was right to judge me.
“No,” I told him. “I didn’t come here for a family reunion. I came here because Nana left the task to me. I didn’t have a choice.”
Mr. Wainwright eyed me speculatively. “Well, I see Fiona passed her obstinate nature on to you. Good for you, I suppose. I guess I wouldn’t want you to make this too easy for me.”
“What exactly is ‘this’?” I asked, gesturing at the rural Chinese landscape.
“It’s whatever you want it to be,” he said. “It’s your dream. It’s your way of processing all of the information and emotions you’re absorbing. Sometimes people know the answers to their own questions, but they’re either unable or unwilling to express them.”
“So you’re my id’s bitchy spokesman?”
“I’m not comfortable with that label,” he said, wincing.
“Well, it’s my label, and I’m sticking with it.”
Mr. Wainwright lifted a bushy gray eyebrow. “Just to annoy me?” I nodded. “Good girl. Now, since you seem single-minded in your line of conversation, I have a piece of advice for you.”
He grinned impishly, hopped to his feet with surprising spryness, and slung a heavy rucksack over his shoulder. “You’re trusting the right people, for the most part.”
I turned toward the panda, who was shaking his head at me. “What?” I cried. “How has this been helpful?”
“And Nola?” Mr. Wainwright was already yards away, but I could hear him clear as a bell—an advantage, I supposed, to dream logic. He winked at me. “We always have a choice, dear.”
True to her word, the moment Jane opened the shop the next night, she welcomed me into the storeroom and helped me sort through the last of Mr. Wainwright’s dirty, much-abused cardboard boxes. Jane told me of the first night she wandered into the shop after a disastrous flirtation with a career in telemarketing. The store was crowded with messy, decrepit bookshelves, one of which nearly collapsed on top of Jane. The former librarian was in physical pain at the sight of such disorder and began organizing the titles. Mr. Wainwright found her like that, surrounded by neat stacks of books, and hired her as his assistant on the spot.
“Until I was hired, the storeroom was like that village in Brigadoon. Wainwright would find something—a book or artifact—and shove it in here, and then a bookshelf would fall against the door, and he would lose track of it for a decade or so. I’m sorry. I wish I could remember more details of what I sorted through, but to be honest, the weeks after your grandfather’s death were a blur. I could have chucked Excalibur into the recycling bin, and I wouldn’t have noticed,” Jane said, carefully lifting what looked like a mummified monkey’s paw from its cardboard tomb. My shoulders slumped as we sifted through the remaining boxes and found nothing.
“Why did you keep these, if you don’t mind my asking? There doesn’t seem to be much of value here,” I said.
“Something in that box over there bit Jane’s hand, so she gave up and declared that she was done,” Andrea said from the doorway of the storeroom.
I dropped the box I was holding.
Jane winced, grabbing at her head. “Nola! Jell-O shield! Panic makes your brain sound like a car alarm!”
“There are spiders in these boxes?”
“She didn’t say spiders,” Jane muttered. “Your grandfather collected a lot of bizarre artifacts. Some of them were ‘interactive.’ ”
Jane didn’t look up at me while she said this. In fact, she hadn’t looked me in the eye since I’d arrived earlier in the evening. I couldn’t help but notice that she and Andrea were a bit off-kilter. They kept glancing at the door and then at the clock, and they seemed to be having quiet, quick arguments whenever I was out of earshot. And every time I tried to ask them what was wrong, they asked me random questions about magic. Did I have a familiar? (No, but I did have a lovely tank full of tropical fish.) Could I really cast a love spell? (Yes, but relationships based on love potions or spells were notoriously fickle and required nearly constant contact with the subject to maintain the “thrall” of the caster.) What did witches do on Halloween? (In my case, stayed home and tried to avoid the costume party at my uncle Jack’s.)
The interrogation was becoming rather annoying, a compounding factor on top of my “panda dream” tension. I didn’t know what to make of my grandfather’s presence in my dreams. It had been easier, I supposed, to think of Mr. Wainwright in terms of his faded photographic image. Talking to him, having him ask me to call him Grandpa, was a strange mixture of getting what I’d wanted for years—a grandfather—and confronting feelings I wasn’t quite ready for.
With the storeroom search at a standstill, Jane sent me out to my car to retrieve the sketches of the Elements while she made me some tea. I was in such a tizzy to start the search that I’d left them in my passenger seat. When I returned, a tall, handsome man with dirty-blond hair was standing behind the bar, making some notes in a ledger.
“Well, hello there,” the man drawled. “Dick Cheney. What can I do for you this fine evening?”
Dick Cheney, my landlord. It was odd that I hadn’t seen him enter the shop, but Jane said she and the rest of the staff often used the back entrance. I didn’t particularly care for Mr. Cheney’s impish grin or his insinuating tone, which, now that I knew Jed, I recognized as a classic flirtatious opening. Considering that he was married to Andrea, I did not find this flattering in the least. He seemed so . . . not quite trustworthy. The tacky “Come to the Dark Side—We Have Cookies” T-shirt, the shaggy hair, the smirk.
“I’m Nola Leary. Jane’s helping me with some research,” I said coolly. “And if you have time, I’d like to talk to you about a not-so-small pest-control issue at the Wainwright house.”
“Ah, the new tenant,” Mr. Cheney said, a wide, friendly grin breaking through that smirk. He set his bottle of synthetic blood aside, took my hand in his, and pressed it between his cool ones. “A marked improvement over your predecessor. Cranky old woman with a lot of cats. Awfully fond of mothballs.”
“Is that what the smell is?” I asked as Jane and Andrea emerged from the back of the shop. Both stopped in their tracks and exchanged significant glances when they saw that I was talking to Dick. What was with the two of them? Was I in danger? Was Mr. Cheney in the habit of dragging renters into dark alleys and making snacks of them?
“Um, Dick—” Andrea started, but Jane stopped her.
“Iris said you were from Ireland!” Dick exclaimed, the soul of cheerfulness. “I only detect the slightest bit of an accent, but it’s there.”
There was a pregnant pause. Andrea clapped a hand over her face. “He’s trying to come up with a good Lucky Charms joke and/or nickname.”
“Leprechauns are also an option,” Jane told me.
I gave the vampire my sweetest smile. “Mr. Cheney, are you interested in a debilitating crotch injury?”
He shook his head emphatically. “No.”
“Then you should probably keep those jokes to yourself.”
Dick beamed at his wife. “I like her.”
Andrea sighed. “Dick, sweetheart, Nola claims to be Mr. Wainwright’s granddaughter.”
The news seemed somehow to stun my landlord. He nodded slowly, his face sagging and blank, as if he’d just been struck by a frying pan. “Well, of course, she is.” And suddenly, the vampire threw his arms around me in a spine-cracking hug and lifted me off the floor. “Oh.” He sighed, giving me a long squeeze. “I am so happy to meet you.”
“Can’t . . . breathe,” I wheezed into his shoulder, and he loosened his grip immediately.
“I can’t tell you what a surprise this is,” he said, a pleased smile breaking through the shell-shocked expression. “I thought Gilbert was the last, you see. But now here you are, and you’re just so beautiful. Look at you!” He took my face between his hands and scrunched up my cheeks. “You—you’ve got Gilbert’s eyes. And his nose! Look at that, Andi! She has his nose! Isn’t she gorgeous?”
Jane cleared her throat. “Dick?”
Dick gave me an apologetic smile. “Crossing a line?”
I nodded, my eyes wide and alarmed, like one of those upsetting anime characters.
“Dick and Mr. Wainwright were really close,” Andrea told me, carefully removing Dick’s hand from my face.
Dick looked in Jane’s direction and seemed to be thinking furiously at her, which was rather funny to watch. Dick would squint. Jane would make a vague gesture. Dick would squint even harder. Jane would shrug.
Meanwhile, Andrea retrieved the sleeve of sketches I’d dropped on the floor during Dick’s hugging tirade. “These are beautiful, Nola. Even if they weren’t of historical value, your nana had a wonderful eye for detail.” She carefully shuffled through the old papers. “So each of the artifacts represents one of the four elements?” she asked, while Jane tried to give a Dick a brief summary of why I was in the Hollow and what the hell Andrea was talking about.