Penny did, however, think it was rather hilarious that of all the people in the family, I’d been the one who inadvertently destroyed our heirloom.
“You are hereby the worst witch in the family!” she hooted. “I mean, clearly, it’s a tragedy, but the fact that you did it, and not me—”
“Too soon, Penny.”
“Stephen came by the clinic,” she said, in a quick change of subject. “It was rather shocking, him just showing up out of the blue. I know he avoids coming here unless it’s absolutely necessary. Anyway, he seems to think you’ve lost your mind. Did you really break it off with him?”
“I’m not sure. The conversation didn’t end with kissy noises, that’s for certain.”
“Well, if you did, I, for one, am glad. I was getting tired of talking to him. And I didn’t even have to sleep with him.”
“So, other than casting doubts about my mental capacity, what did Stephen have to say?”
“Nothing memorable; it was a conversation with Stephen. You know I only pay attention half the time he’s speaking. But do us a favor, and call him to settle things, so he stops pestering us? Uncle Seamus’s hexing hand is getting itchy.”
“I’ll call him and clear things up,” I promised. “Just not today.”
“And who, may I ask, is the person you are choosing to spend time with instead of our dear Stephen?” As I made an indignant squawking noise, she added, “And don’t try to deny it, I can hear that ‘I just did naked things’ quality in your voice.”
“I didn’t do naked things,” I said primly. “We were only seminude.”
It was true. Jed had left his socks on.
Penny gasped noisily. “Seminude as in shirtless?” she cried. “As in your shirt-hating neighbor? You got seminude with the gorgeous, shirt-hating neighbor?”
“I will neither confirm nor deny.”
“Well, it’s about time you started making stupid decisions. It was getting lonely out here on the ‘screw-up’ limb of the family tree.”
“And who told you that getting your boyfriend’s name tattooed on your ankle was a good idea? You were limited to men named Dave until you saved up enough to have it removed. Now, if all you’re going to do is mock my not-so-youthful indiscretions, I’m hanging up.”
“No, wait!” she cried. “Just tell me one thing.”
“The last time you saw him, was he wearing ripped jeans and a muscle shirt?”
“No!” I exclaimed, before adding, “Not today . . . Did you know they call them ‘wifebeaters’ here?”
“Well, that’s off-putting.”
“Tell me about it.”
“No.” She pressed me. “You tell me about it. What’s this Jed like?”
“He’s just a nice man who lives next door.”
“And he’s good-lookin’?”
“Ridiculously so.” I sighed. “But nothing serious is going to happen, because that’s not why I’m here.”
“Right, the whole family expects you to shut yourself off from the waist down.”
“No, but I’m pretty sure Stephen would want me to,” I muttered.
“Well, that would be the only way I would survive sleeping with Stephen.”
“Shut up, Penelope.”
After several very expensive minutes’ worth of harassment from Penny, I hung up on her. But she did ask whether I would qualify Jed’s arse as “squeezable.” The woman had it coming.
Eager to shake off the images of Penny sexually harassing my neighbor, I went to the sink to start tea. There was a squarish window over the sink, with a pretty blue flower box outside overflowing with white impatiens, thanks to the work crews. I was loath to admit it, but I was afraid to look out the window into the back garden. The clouds had cleared, and even the half-moon was bright. And I was convinced that the moment I looked up, I would see a Chupacabra pressed against the window like a suction-cup Garfield doll. But damned if I didn’t accidentally look up anyway.
I shouldn’t have.
Near my brand-new arbor, I could see something moving. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. It stood on two feet and seemed human. The shape seemed thinner than last time, larger, but I was viewing it from another angle. It crept past the arbor toward the house. Gasping, I dashed toward my kitchen door and flipped the lock. I fumbled for the light switch, and the room plunged into darkness. The outlines of the trees stood in sharp relief without the interference of the kitchen light. The shape stilled, swinging its head toward the house. I backed away from the door, wondering if it was smarter to run upstairs or out the front door. Of course, this had to happen on one of my “powerless” days, so I couldn’t even work up the juice to neutralize whatever it was if it broke into the house.
A voice sounded behind me. “What are you doing?”
Shrieking, I pivoted on my heel and swung my fist as hard as I could.
“Ow!” Jane cried, dropping to her knees and clutching her chest. She glared up at me and wheezed, “Why did you punch me in the boob?”
Jane and Jolene were standing in my kitchen. Well, technically, Jolene had collapsed to her knees, cackling with laughter. And Jane was crumpled on the floor, hit by friendly fire. I looked toward the back garden, but the shape had disappeared.
“You startled me!” I exclaimed.
“How does ‘startled’ end with me getting punched in the boob?” she griped as I helped her to her feet. “If this is about Jed driving you, that was Andrea’s idea, not mine. Personally, I don’t really like the guy. His thoughts are all cloudy. Makes me uncomfortable.”
“You have vampire strength and speed. How could I hit you in the first place?” I countered while Jolene continued to hee-haw.
“I don’t use my vampire speed when I’m around human friends, whom I expect not to punch me in the boob. And how is superstrength supposed to make this hurt less?”
“How did you even get in here?” I demanded.
“Your front door was unlocked,” Jane said, wincing as she settled into a kitchen chair. “We came by to see how your little dip in Mama Ginger’s freaky gene pool went and to give you hell over spending twenty-four hours in a truck with your hot neighbor. Andrea would have come by, but I think she was afraid you’d be mad at her for setting you up. We knocked. We called for you, but I guess you were so busy staring out your back window that you didn’t hear us. What are you staring at, anyway?”
“I think I’m going crazy,” I groaned, pouring a cup of tea for Jolene.
“Why would you think that?” Jolene asked.
“I think I saw someone in my back garden,” I told her. “I’ve seen it before. I think it’s a Yeti or a werewolf or something.”
Jolene cleared her throat. “Yeah, that would be . . . nuts.”
“I keep seeing this weird shape outside in the yard,” I said. “It seems to be watching the house but never comes close enough for me to get a good look at it.”
“It’s probably just an animal,” Jane assured me. “We get all sorts of weird critters around here. And some animals, like deer, don’t think twice about coming close to a house. Hell, if you’re not careful, they can end up in your house. Just ask my cousin Junie.”
“It was on two legs. It looked human. Just dark and hairy.”
“OK, then.” Jolene squared her shoulders and pushed the back door open.
“No, Jolene, wait!” I hissed as she stepped onto the back porch. Jane put a hand on my shoulder and shook her head. I heard Jolene take a deep breath through her nose and hold it. She looked back at Jane and shook her head.
What in the hell was going on?
Jane turned to me. “The Kerrigans. Those people you were talking about before. They wouldn’t know to look for you here, right?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, they have more resources than we do, financially. I suppose it wouldn’t take much to track me through customs, though it wouldn’t explain how they would know I’m renting this place.”
“Well, no more jaunts out of town without vampire escort. And no jaunts into the backyard after dark. Basically, you will do no jaunting of any kind. And we’ll talk to Dick about putting some extra security lights back here.”
I groaned. “Must we?”
“Yes,” Jane insisted. “And you two are going to have a long, clarifying chat. He’s let you stew about this too long. He’s wasting precious time being afraid of freaking you out.”
I frowned. “Beg pardon?”
“The other bruised boob owes you an explanation,” Jane deadpanned.
If you stumble upon a family ritual involving vampires, move along. They’re too odd and twisted to get involved with safely.
—Miss Manners’ Guide to Undead Etiquette
The next night, I secured the plaque dust in Jane’s shop safe. I opened the drawers in Uncle Jack’s cabinet, as if I could make the other two Elements appear by force of will. Two left. It had taken me nearly a month, but I’d managed to find two. I knew this was a minor miracle, and that I should have been thrilled. But the fact that Earth was broken into bits was more than a little disheartening. It had certainly taken the shine off being halfway to my goal.
I had another month. I didn’t know where to begin looking for the other two Elements. I didn’t know whether I could try contacting Nana through the die again. There had been ridiculously few clues in Jane’s sales records. So far, I’d skated by on chance. And I didn’t know how to kick-start chance.
“Nola!” Jane called. My favorite vampire’s head suddenly appeared in the doorway to her office. Her lips were twitching a little. I was so glad she could find amusement in my abject discomfort. “Can you come up front?”
Oh, right, the heart-to-heart with Dick.
That sounded wrong, even in my head.
“I would really rather not.”
Jane laughed lightly. “Look, I know what you’re thinking. Literally. And I promise you, this situation is absolutely nothing like the disturbing worst-case scenario that’s going on in your head. Could you please just come and talk to Dick?”
I peered up at her over my reading glasses, skeptical.
“I promise you, if you’re propositioned in any way, I will serve as your getaway driver,” she said, holding up her hand in a mockery of the Girl Scout promise.
“Fine,” I grumbled, following her to the coffee bar.
Dick was a vampire the worse for wear. In the weeks since I’d seen him, he’d developed little worry lines where the undead weren’t supposed to get lines. He looked tired and pale, like a man who’d been beating himself up night after night, only to stay up half the day to do it some more.
This was about as comfortable as one of those intervention shows, when the clueless alcoholic walks into a hotel room to find a circle of friends with tear-jerking letters. When I stopped, Jane prodded me to keep walking. I walked around the bar and stood at the point farthest away from Dick, which Andrea seemed to find really amusing for some reason.
Dick was making a study of the ceiling and would not look at me. Jane cleared her throat. Dick shifted his eyes to the track lighting.
“Dick!” Jane exclaimed. “Out with it.”
Dick cleared his throat. “Um, Nola, Jane tells me you seem to have some misconceptions about my intentions toward you. I just wanted to apologize for any occasions on which I made you feel uncomfortable or objectified in any way.”
“Did someone write that speech for you before you came?” I asked flatly.
“I think he cobbled together portions of those ‘leaving to spend more time with my family’ speeches given by disgraced politicians,” Andrea said, sipping fresh blood and coffee.