“Are you telling me that there’s a real Voldemort?” Jane asked, what little color she had leeching from her face. Andrea smacked Jane’s arm and rolled her eyes. Jane winced and cried. “What? It’s a legitimate question!”
I chuckled despite myself. “These rebellious family members said that the witch who can’t harm can’t heal, that there has to be a balance of both. And unfortunately, this philosophy led to a few . . . well, let’s call them magical amputations. This was unacceptable to the main contingent of McGavocks, and they asked these rogue relatives to leave.
“So that branch left the village and settled halfway across the country. Several of the witches married into the Kerrigans, a local family who raised their children according to a more strident magical philosophy. While the McGavocks flourished and enjoyed plentiful harvests and peace, the Kerrigan branch got more aggressive and bitter—although as a side note, they have made a considerable amount of money in the last century or so manufacturing small arms. Anyway, the Kerrigans went out looking for problems to ‘solve’ with their magic. Because, in their opinion, some people just needed smiting. And eventually, that included members of the McGavock family, which started a vicious cycle of retaliation and misinterpretation.”
“It’s like the magical Hatfields and McCoys,” Andrea marveled.
“You’re not entirely wrong,” I admitted. “We lost people on both sides, to violence and curses. About three hundred years ago, the two matriarchs of the families met and agreed that matters had gone far enough. They selected four objects representing each of the elements and blessed them with magic from both sides. These objects, which they called the Elements, were scattered to the winds, given to strangers, sold to tinkers, that sort of thing. The matriarchs agreed that the family that found all four objects first would be able to bind the other branch.”
“Like magical Pokémon?” Andrea asked.
“If I wasn’t under an enormous amount of stress, I would find that funny,” I assured her. “The potential of losing our magic was a considerable risk, a risk I can only imagine was inspired by desperation. It took decades, but we rounded up the Elements first and bound the Kerrigans from doing magical harm. For the most part, they’re no more powerful than the average disenfranchised teenager who has seen The Craft once too often. The most they’re able to pull off is a stirring of air, which, honestly, could be done with a strategically placed fan, so it’s not terribly impressive. But every one hundred years, on the night of the summer solstice, the binding has to be repeated by the family’s strongest witch. This leaves a small window of time in which the Kerrigans have the chance to obtain the objects and undo the binding, reversing it onto my family. They tried it once in the early 1900s, and my nana Fee’s great-grandmother laid down a witchcraft bitch-slapping of epic proportions. I also hear there was a mighty non-magical slap involved. And now it’s my generation’s turn, and by some bizarre accident of birth, the so-called strongest witch in my family happens to be sitting here in front of you.”
A Cheshire cat’s smile split Jane’s face. Andrea held up her hand and said, “No!”
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask!” Jane huffed.
“Whatever juvenile, ill-conceived test of her abilities you were about to demand could only end in tears.”
I stared at both of them. These were the people Mr. Wainwright had entrusted with his shop? They were the ones who were supposed to help me track down the Elements?
I was doomed.
“Sorry, Nola, you were saying?” Andrea asked, pouring me another cup of coffee.
“Under normal circumstances, the binding wouldn’t be a problem,” I said. “It’s just a minor incantation spoken over the artifacts. Around the time Mr. Wainwright visited all those years ago, Nana got rather worried about an increase in Kerrigan-related violence. She saw that he was trustworthy, that he was devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. So she took the objects out of the family vault and entrusted them to his care. She thought they would be safer with him.”
Both women winced, the corners of their mouths drawing back sharply. Jane said, “She probably should have rethought that. I don’t want to alarm you, but when I first got here, the shop looked like an episode of Extreme Hoarders: Book Edition.”
“I have a basic idea of what I’m looking for. There are some old sketches. Why Nana Fee didn’t think to take some pictures, I have no idea. But according to my family, she was incredibly secretive about the objects. She wouldn’t show them to anyone, for fear of the infamous McGavock loose lips. In other words, my aunt Margaret.”
“Quick question. Why the solstice?” Jane asked.
“Solstices are considered times of beginnings, endings, new cycles, so it made sense. And I guess no one wanted to travel to meet on the winter solstice.”
Nodding, Jane pushed up from her chair and paced a bit, straightening a picture frame here, shelving a book there. Andrea seemed to understand that her employer’s silence meant something, so, along with her, I waited patiently for the other vampire to speak. When she finally came to a stop, she said, “So, basically, you need to rifle through my stock and my records to determine if any of those objects are still in the store. And if they’re not, you need to use any information you find here to try to track down where they went?”
I nodded. “Yes. Please.”
Jane shrugged her shoulders. “OK.”
“No other questions?”
“No,” Jane said, shaking her head. She stepped closer, her eyes narrowing suddenly. “Understand that we will be monitoring what you do very carefully. You will not be given free access to the shop. You will not be given a key. And if you try to tell me how I should be running things, so help me God, I will—”
“Jane!” Andrea barked.
Jane cleared her throat, seemingly forcing herself to relax. “Sorry. One day, we will get you drunk and tell you about your great-uncle Emery.” Andrea shuddered violently.
I did not quite know how to respond to that, so I said, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
I rolled into the driveway to find Jed frantically moving some tools into his part of the house. It was cloudy, the banks of wispy fog moving over the waxing moon in patches. Given the dim lighting, I wondered how he was able to see. I would have smashed my face into the porch steps by now.
Jed practically flinched when he saw my car, such as it was, pulling to a stop on the gravel. Irritation, fueled by the gnawing tension left behind when I bared my soul to the vampires, flared in my belly. Really? He wanted to avoid me that badly? The sight of my seminudity was so unappealing that he was eyeing the open front door with desperation?
That seemed like an overreaction.
I threw open the car door. As my sight adjusted to the scant light of the porch lamp, I watched his eyes dart from me to the sky and back again. He seemed skittish, like a colt not quite sure of his master’s goodwill. His sandy hair fell over his eyes, giving him the perfect excuse for not looking up. A strange energy emanated from his entire body. A sort of restlessness of his cells, as if he was going to jump out of his skin at any moment. Was he on something? He seemed so healthy, too healthy to be a drug user. And his jumpy, erratic energy was different from that of my mother, who’d made enthusiastic use of every recreational substance she could get her hands on. His head snapped up, and he pulled an angry face, as if he could feel me staring at him.
“What?” he demanded, keeping a wary eye on the moon as the clouds slipped away. He was nearly flinching, as if he expected a slap instead of silvery light.
“Jed, is everything OK?” I asked, following him up the porch steps, under the protective shelter of the porch. The closer we moved to the house, the less agitated he seemed.
Once inside his front door, he said, “I’m sorry. I’m bein’ rude. I’ve just had a long day. Work stuff. I was just about to warm up some chicken and dumplin’s. How about you take over the stove while I take a shower? And then you can help me eat some of it?”
“You invite me to dinner, and I end up cooking? What sort of swindle is this?”
“You’re not cookin’, you’re warmin’ up,” he told me, eyeing the leather portfolio in my hand with some interest before turning that handsome grin on me.
“And I can’t use the microwave to do this?”
I was firmly antitechnology when it came to tea, but I didn’t see the point in dirtying up a bunch of dishes if I didn’t have to.
Jed unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it into a little laundry room off the kitchen. Oh, come on, now. I was starting to think he was doing this to provoke me. “Mrs. Reilly’s dumplin’s have been known to explode when nuked.”
I thought about the warmed-over chicken and rice casserole in my fridge and the prospects of trying to piece together a meal at this time of night. “Yes, if you explain to me what a dumplin’ is.”
He chuckled and dropped a heavy leather toolbelt near the front door. “You have your choice; you cook, or you eat dinner with someone smellin’ like he’s been diggin’ ditches all day.”
“Cooking sounds like the lesser of two evils,” I said, shuddering.
I placed the sketches in a drawer in my own kitchen, peeled my contacts out of my dust-plagued eyes, then locked my front door before rejoining Jed in his kitchen. He was setting out a large pot, French bread, and butter on the counter.
“Next week, I’ll invite you over to make me dinner,” I muttered, feigning indignation and trying hard to ignore the way he was stretching his massive arms over his head, making his shirttail ride up. This just wasn’t fair.
“Well, it would be the polite thing to do,” he said, grinning at me while he kicked off his boots, and I was thankful that he at least left the jeans on. I opened the fridge, boggling at the sheer number of labeled Tupperware containers stacked inside. “Just keep stirrin’. You don’t want it to stick.”
“If you don’t want to discuss your harem of church-lady caterers, can we talk about your tendency to strip in front of me?” I called after him. I dumped the congealed dumplings into a pot as he jogged up the stairs.
“Don’t pretend you’re not lookin’!” he called back.
I rolled my eyes but stirred as instructed. The food smelled delicious, particularly after I warmed up the loaf of crusty bread in the oven. Standing at the stove gave me time to look around Jed’s side of the house, which was considerably more comfortable than my own. He’d painted the walls a light, creamy beige, making the rooms airy and bright. It was a vast improvement over the dark, cavelike spaces on my side. The polished living-room floor was covered with an extra-large blue rag rug. He’d added a few sturdy, no-nonsense pieces of furniture in each room, but there were few personal touches. No pictures, no knickknacks. Several large bookshelves flanked his windows. When I got closer, I could see that they were full of language guides. Moon Phases, A Chinese to English Dictionary, Hieroglyphics, Translating Gaelic, The Dummy’s Guide to Understanding Ancient Sanskrit. The rooms told me very little about Jed as a person, other than that he had good color sense and hated reading subtitles in foreign-language movies. Or he’d bought a bunch of coffee-table books at a garage sale.
By the time Jed trotted down the steps, smelling pleasantly of Dial soap, I had the table set and the dumplings dished. I was bending over the oven to retrieve the bread when I heard, “This is why men like to watch women cook. It has nothin’ to do with bein’ sexist. It’s the bendin’ and liftin’.”
“Which is also sexist.” I turned to offer a rude response, only to find him wearing another pair of arse-cupping jeans and a T-shirt that showcased his indecently large biceps. I was standing in the presence of living, breathing arm porn.