Chapter One: Michelle
“Oaks Consulting, Michelle speaking,” I said as I answered the phone.
“Hello, this is Patrick Westmoreland from the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office. Rodriguez said you could give me some advice.”
“I’ll be happy to try. What can I do for you?” A few weeks ago Rodriguez had asked me questions for Westmoreland. This was the first time I’d talked to Westmoreland, and he sounded young.
“I’m still having trouble with the gremlins.” Gremlins were small creatures that were often the first sign of an evil presence. They were tricksters and troublemakers. “We’re seeing more of them, and more of the sensors we deployed to detect evil are sounding alarms.”
“If you’re seeing more gremlins, it might be a good idea to add surveillance cameras where most of the alarms are being triggered. You may not see anything since those sensors can be tripped by energy surges.”
“Wouldn’t we see whatever is causing the energy surges?”
“Not necessarily. The source could be miles away.”
“Shoot.” He paused before continuing. “Thank you, I think. Is there anything else I can do?”
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Rodriguez. I’d try to attract a flock of gargoyles.”
“I don’t speak gargoyle.” Frustration laced his voice.
“I do. Rodriguez and I have spread the word that I’d like to talk to any flocks people see. Before you worry about money, I know you didn’t ask me to talk to them. I’m looking for the gargoyles anyway. I have family in that area, and they’re worried about the suicides. A positive presence, like gargoyles, would be a good thing.”
“Thank you.” He sighed. “Could you e-mail me your rates and any package deals you have? There are a few things I’d like to have a second opinion on, but I can’t talk about them with anyone outside the department. I’ve looked into a few other witches, but the department hasn’t had room for them in the budget.”
“Sure, I’d be glad to send over the information. I have hourly and case-by-case rates as well as a few packages. If none of those fit your department’s needs, I’ll be glad to talk about a plan specific to your requirements.”
“That would be great.” He rattled off an e-mail address.
“Oh, before you go, if you really need advice, you can give me a call. I love talking about what-ifs.”
He laughed. “Thank you. I might take you up on that. Have a good day.”
“You too.” I hung up the phone, opened my e-mail, and sent him my information packet.
Reluctantly, I turned back to my paperwork. There was nothing I wanted to do less than type a detailed account of my last case. Reliving escaped trolls, dead humans (courtesy of hungry trolls), a near-death experience, and death threats wasn’t fun. I signed the last paper and stuffed the pile of documents in an envelope. Tomorrow it would be on its way to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and out of my life.
I’d thought finishing the paperwork would feel good, but I wasn’t any happier than I’d been an hour ago. Picking up my phone, I called Amber. Days like this called for best friends.
“Hi, Michelle,” Amber said.
“Hey, how are you? It’s been a few days since we talked.”
“I’m doing all right. I think the question is, how are you?”
“Sad? I’m not sure. Would you want to get coffee tonight? I could use some girl time,” I said.
“Sure. The Coffee Time here in town? Say six?”
“Perfect.” Good company and yummy food were what I needed.
“I’ll see you then.” She hesitated before saying, “I’m glad you called. I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“You know I’m here for you, right?” She sounded off, like something was wrong.
“Yup. I need to get back to work. I’ll tell you all about it tonight.”
“See you then.” Puzzled, I hung up the phone. With a shrug, I returned to my work; she would tell me everything this evening.
Two hours later, I got up from my desk. The business was doing better than I expected. Thanks to the trolls case, several new departments had contacted me, and I had more clients than ever. A week ago, I would have complained about all the work, but these days I needed the distraction. It kept me from dwelling on the death threats. They were probably empty threats anyway.
Purse and keys in hand, I headed to meet Amber. Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into Coffee Time’s parking lot. Seeing her car, I hurried inside. Looking around, I spotted a redhead at the corner table. I headed over, sure it was her; not many people had that hair color.
Amber jumped up and hugged me. “It’s so good to see you,” she said.
I laughed. “It’s good to see you too. Thanks for grabbing a table. This place is packed.”
“No problem. Go get some food.”
I draped my jacket over a chair. “Are you coming?”
“No, I already—”
“Chai latte and chocolate croissant for Amber,” the barista bellowed.
“You already ordered,” I finished. While she retrieved her food, I got in line. As was my usual luck, I got stuck behind someone ordering three coffees, four lattes, a tea, and a hot chocolate.
“What can I get you?” the cashier asked. The poor girl looked exhausted after the last customer.
“Can I get a triple chocolate, no coffee, iced and blended latte, and a spinach-and-feta-stuffed croissant?”
“Sure.” She looked relieved to get a simple order.
After paying, I headed back over to our table. Amber was halfway through her chocolate croissant, with glassy eyes of chocolate-induced bliss.
“It’s that good?” I asked.
Amber nodded, still chewing. I heard my name, walked over to the counter, and grabbed my food. By the time I was back, her croissant was gone.
Amber studied me. “Is that case still bothering you?”
“Yes.” The drink was as delectable as always, with chocolate milk, chocolate chunks, and chocolate syrup on top. “I don’t know why, but I can’t shake it. When I told everyone about the threats, I said it wouldn’t change the way I live my life, but it has.”
“Of course it has. Knowing someone wants you dead would change anyone’s behavior.”
“But that’s the thing, Amber. No one in that case was going around killing people. It seems more like theatrics than anything else.”
“And maybe it is, but you should still be careful.”
I looked up from my food. “I am being careful. I’ve added extra protections to my apartment, and Landa did the same to the lodge. It’s safe.” Landa and her husband Mander owned the lodge. It was a bed-and-breakfast tailored to the needs of magical races and creatures. Most people stayed for a night or two, but I was one of the long-term residents.
Amber gripped my hand. “I know it’s safe, you know it’s safe, but that doesn’t change the psychological effect of the threats. Who knows? Maybe that’s what they wanted to do, get inside your head.”
That explanation fit what I knew better than anything else. Maybe I was overthinking everything and should let it go. If they wanted to hurt me, they knew where to find me. “Thank you.”
“Hey, that’s what friends are for.” She smiled.
I studied her. Her face was paler than usual, with circles under her eyes. “What’s going on with you? You sounded worried on the phone.”
She played with her drink and avoided looking at me.
“What’s going on, Amber?”
“Well, um, I’m sure it’s nothing, but I think I’m being stalked.”
“What! Why didn’t you say something sooner?” I hadn’t been the easiest person to talk to lately, but she could’ve told Tiffany. Tiffany was a private investigator, and this was the type of thing she dealt with every day.
Amber kept staring at her drink, as if it had answers.
“Did you tell Tiffany?” I asked.
She finally looked at me and shook her head. “No, I haven’t told anyone else.”
I took a deep breath, trying to calm down. “Okay, start at the beginning. What happened?”
“A few weeks ago, I started noticing odd things. At first it was a feeling, but once I started paying attention, it was creepy. The same black Jeep was behind me every day as I drove to work. Then I started seeing it when I was doing errands. After that, I started to see this one guy everywhere I went. About a week ago it got worse. The Jeep followed me everywhere, and the guy was always around.”
“Do you know who he is? Did you get a plate number on the Jeep?” The police couldn’t do anything without details.
Amber dropped her eyes. “I’ve never gotten a look at the plate. It’s usually in my rearview mirror, and Georgia only issues rear plates. As for the guy, I don’t know who he is. He looks kinda familiar, and I think he’s a shifter.”
Well, that was a help. “Why do you think he’s a shifter?”
“It’s the way he moves. I don’t know how I know, but he’s a shifter.” Amber took a long drink, as if the latte would make everything better.
“Have you thought about going to the police?”
“With what? That a black Jeep and a guy are following me? They can’t do anything if they don’t know who’s stalking me.”
I leaned against the table, wishing that life would give us a break. “You never know. They might be able to help.”
Amber shook her head.
“What if Tiffany followed you? Then she could take pictures of the Jeep and guy.”
“No. I don’t want her involved. She’s no match for a shifter, and I don’t want her getting hurt.”
“What can I do to help?” I asked.
“I don’t think you can do anything. I wanted to talk about it to see if you could think of something,” Amber said.
“You haven’t liked any of my ideas.” I wanted to help, but she was tying my hands.
“I know.” She pouted. “I’m probably imagining it. Odds are we work, live, and shop in the same areas. Canton isn’t that big of a town. It could happen.”
I looked her in the eye. “Are you trying to convince me or you?”
Amber dropped her eyes. “Both? Can we please talk about something else?”
Rolling my eyes, I started my yearly rant about how much I disliked the winter, all the while trying to figure out if coincidence could stretch so far.
The next morning, I hurried through breakfast and back to my office. Two hours later, I’d made more healing charms, added several oils and herbs to my kit, and was back at the paperwork.
Someone knocked on my door, and I called out for them to enter. It wasn’t locked. Landa walked in, carrying a small tray.
“I thought you could use a snack. You didn’t eat much at breakfast, and I was worried about you.” She set the tray on the coffee table before pouring each of us a cup of tea.
“Thank you. I was thinking about things and didn’t eat as much as I should’ve.” I picked up a plate with half an egg salad sandwich and a thick slice of gingerbread cake. She settled next to me on the couch.
“Not a problem, dear. I worry about you. You’ve been a bit different since the dreadful events with the trolls.”
Looking at her large green eyes set in a small brown face, it was easy to forget her age. She often seemed tiny and childlike, but Landa was a brownie, hundreds of years old and still in her prime. “Knowing how close I came to dying, for such foolish reasons, has made me rethink things. I love my job. Working with the police is fun and interesting, but I think I forgot that my job is to provide magic. I’m not a cop or hero. I’m simply magical support.”
“I know the threat of losing business scared you, but if they don’t value your services, you don’t want to work with them. Not every client is worth keeping.”
“True. With everything that was going on, I wasn’t able to think things through. I need to be better at keeping my focus.” I floundered, not sure how to say what I was feeling.
Landa finished the thought for me. “And that will be easier when everything isn’t going wrong at the same time.”
Smiling, I answered, “Exactly. Thank you, Landa. You always know what to say to make me feel better.”
“Child, it’s not difficult. I’ve known you since you were born.” She hugged me before leaving. “Enjoy the peace while you can. It won’t last.”
After finishing the gingerbread cake, I tidied up my workroom. A client was on the way, and charm components were strewn everywhere.
My phone, always ready to disrupt my day, rang.
“Oaks Consulting,” I answered.
“Is Michelle there?”
“Speaking. How may I help you?”
“This is Bethany Travis from the Union County Sheriff’s Office. I wanted to confirm our ten-thirty appointment?”
I loved it when my phone brought me tidings of the day going as planned. “Yes, I was expecting you in”—I checked my watch—“twenty minutes.”
“Great. I wasn’t sure how long the drive would take, so I’m ahead of schedule and will be there in ten if that’s all right.”
“It’s fine. I’ll meet you at the door.”
“Not a problem,” I said, hurrying to clear the counter. With two minutes to spare, I headed downstairs.
After the events with the trolls, Union County had contacted me. They wanted occasional magical support and help disposing of the dangerous items they confiscated. Several days ago, I’d traveled up to meet the sheriff and hedge-practitioner. To my surprise, they didn’t have a hedge-witch, but a witch.
Bethany was a minimally talented witch from a large clan, the Bera. From a young age, she’d been interested in being a police officer. When it became apparent that she was only slightly more powerful than a hedge-witch, the Bera helped her find the job in Union, where she could use her abilities and be a policeman. Luckily, she was easy going and didn’t have a problem working with a clanless witch.
One of the things Union had requested was a way to reduce my cost. The simplest way I could think of was to reduce my travel time. Having items delivered to me solved both our problems. I didn’t need to spend time driving to them, and they could justify paying for more of my time.
An unmarked van rolled to a stop, and I stepped out to welcome her. Bethany had medium brown hair and milk-chocolate-colored eyes.
“Welcome to the lodge.” I stuck out my hand and was rewarded with a firm shake.
“Thanks.” She smiled and was instantly transformed from nondescript to lovely.
“It’s nice to see you again. What do you have for me?”
“A large pile of things I don’t know much about.”
“Why don’t we haul the boxes upstairs and I can take a look.” The comment reminded me of a previous conversation when I’d asked what I’d be doing. She’d hesitantly told me decommissioning illegal magical items but couldn’t tell me more than that. When I’d pressed for further information, she simply said she wasn’t sure.
The back of the van was stacked full of boxes. At my widened eyes, she hastily said, “I wasn’t sure how many we could get through.”
“No, it’s not a problem as long as you don’t expect us to deal with all these today.”
“I never thought we’d get through more than a couple of boxes.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you been working in Union?”
“Three years. But before I arrived, there was an old, poorly trained hedge-wizard. The sheriff didn’t know, but anything the hedge-wizard couldn’t deal with he stuck in a box and hid. When I started, I found twice this many boxes. Over the years, I’ve slowly gone through the items and done what I could, but without the case notes, I didn’t know where to start. I’m not much of a witch, so I need all the help I can get.”
“Bethany, I’m exceptionally good at dismantling spells, and I’m not fond of doing it without a backstory either.” The back of the van was daunting, and for a brief moment I wondered if the department realized how many items they wanted me to neutralize.
She pulled out two boxes, one for each of us, and we headed to my workroom. Once we were in the room, I set the box down and asked, “Where would you like me to start?”
“I thought it would be best if you started with the things acquired since I started working with the department. I know some of the history on these, and the other stuff has been piling up for thirty years. I don’t think a few more months will make a difference.”
“Sounds good. What first?”
Bethany rummaged around in the box I’d carried up, producing a doorknob, front and back, a matching knocker, doorbell, and a doorstop. “These were taken off the house after the old woman who lived there died. Her son discovered them when he went to pack up the house. The doorknob permanently etches ‘Thief’ into the hand of anyone but the owner of the house. The doorbell sounds an alarm, and if you managed to get into the house, the stop holds the door closed and erects a barrier, preventing anyone from leaving the house.”
“Yup, it was lots of fun. I got him out of the house, but he still has ‘Thief’ on his hand.” She set the doorknob in front of me on the workbench and placed the other two off to the side. “I think you’ll have the most luck if you start with the doorknob, but you can examine them and decide for yourself.”
I nodded, my attention focused on the items on the table. The doorknob was the focal point for the spells on all three items. It determined if an individual was the owner of the house or an intruder, though I wasn’t sure how it made that decision.
After moving the other pieces to the side, I started working on both parts of the doorknob. I carefully found the threads connecting the knob to the other pieces. With a delicate application of power, I sliced those spells away from the main spell on the doorknob. First, I attempted to unwind the spells, but they kept recasting themselves. After attempting three different ways to dismantle the spells, I pulled them apart with brute force.
Moving the knob out of the way, I started on the other two pieces. Without the spell from the knob controlling them, their enchantments were simple and easy to dismiss. Slowly, I left the light trance I’d been in, stretching as I came back to reality.
Bethany looked at me expectantly. I held up a finger, grabbed my water bottle, and gulped down half of it before addressing her. “They’re ordinary household junk now. You were right about the knob being the focus. I can work on these, but I’m not sure that it’s necessary for you to be here for all of them, unless your boss wants you to watch.”
“He wanted me to bring things down and observe you for a little while. I told him it wasn’t a lack of education, but power. I can’t do what you did. Anyway, he wants to keep the original agreement. If you can work on things here for a reduced rate, he’s happy.”
“I’m more than happy with that arrangement.” Having work to do here would reduce my down time and help me make money between cases.
“Good, because I have a lot of items for you. Most of them are from the old codger who left me with mountains of junk. Some of the items have my notes attached. Oh, anything with a red tag is dangerous.”
“I can work with that. What else do you want me to work on right now? Can you see what I’m doing when I unmake these spells?”
“Can I see it? Yes, and I can follow most of what you’re doing, but I don’t have the power or finesse to do what you did with the door set.” She pulled another item out of the box, a lampshade. “A middle-aged man who was evicted from his home had this. As it turns out, he only left the lamp on when he wasn’t home. If you went in the house when the lamp was on, the shade cast an illusion on you. Several of our officers were there to move his belongings and were stuck in a black maze. I got them out by unplugging the lamp and putting a containment spell on the lampshade, but I wasn’t able to undo the magic.”
Taking the blue striped shade from her, I prodded the spell, trying to see how it was constructed. After setting the lampshade on the workbench, I pulled a large plastic bag out of a drawer. It looked ordinary, but it was a recent innovation of mine. The bag was spelled to contain and dampen any magical event inside but wouldn’t block magic working from the outside on the bag’s contents. I shoved the lampshade in the bag and funneled more power into the spell than it could handle. The spell dissolved in a flash of sparks, leaving a slightly charred lampshade behind.
“The shade only worked when the light was on because it required a constant input of energy. In this case, heat would do the trick. When you unplugged it, you removed the energy source, terminating the continuation of the spell. The difficult part was getting in the house and disconnecting the lamp, right?”
She thought for a moment. “You’re right. A little push and the guys snapped out of it as soon as the lamp was off, though disconnecting the lamp wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”
“We should sit down over a drink one day and share war stories. I’d love to know how you managed to rescue them.”
“Sure. I don’t have many opportunities for shoptalk.”
“I know the feeling, there aren’t many of us in this line of work. Do you want to bring more boxes up? I can neutralize a few more items before you leave.”
“Sure, I’ll be right back.” Bethany was out the door before I could say anything else. Grateful for the rest, I sat and sipped the water. Disenchanting always sounded easy in theory; the reality was exhausting.
There was a knock on the door, and I quickly answered it. “Hi Landa, what’s going on?”
“I found this under the front door this morning.” Landa handed me an envelope with my name on it. The paper was soft, heavy, and expensive. Paper like this wasn’t cheap.
Landa watched me open the letter.
I know you don’t want to hear from me, but I needed to tell you a few things. I do like you and I enjoyed our date. When I called you, I wanted to have a fun evening with an interesting woman.
When I told my friends about you, I mentioned the spells you did to save the mermaid. Word passed to important ears, and my clan realized your power and potential. They had me set the tracking spell on you because they wanted to learn more about you.
Please talk to me. You are unique. Neither I nor my clan would do anything to hurt you. They would like to offer you a place with us.
You are welcome here. They know how talented you are and don’t care about your clanless state, or how you ended up that way. They see a talented witch and would like you to be part of their family.
If you don’t wish to be a member of my clan, the elders will relent. I’m sorry I let the clan’s will hurt you and our relationship. I would like to see you again.
With deep regrets,
“What is it, child?” Landa asked.
I reread the letter, trying to wrap my head around it. He liked me, but had spelled me at his clan’s request, a clan that wanted me to join their ranks, but would leave me alone if that was my heart’s desire. It felt off, strange. There were too many contradictions for this to sit well with me.
“It’s a letter from Andrew, the wizard I had coffee with in Ellijay. He wants me to consider being part of his clan and wants to see me again.”
Landa hummed. “What do you think about his offer?”
I laughed. “I think he got caught putting a spell on me, and now he’s trying to get back in my good graces. I’m not sure what they want, but they aren’t getting it from me, and any guy dumb enough to think he can get away with spelling me doesn’t deserve another chance.”
“Take some time to think it over. There may be truth in his words, and an ally is better than an enemy.”
“An ally I can’t trust isn’t very useful.”
She glared at me, clearly wanting me to see her point and not argue.
I nodded. “I’ll try not to do anything rash.”
“That’s a good girl.” Landa patted my hand before leaving.
When her footsteps had faded, I poked my head out the door. The hallway was empty. Satisfied that I was alone, I focused on the letter resting in my hand. It popped an inch in the air when a shield bubble formed around it, forcing it away from my hand. A word muttered under my breath and the letter engulfed in pink flames.
I smiled. He’d sent the letter because he felt me destroy the tracking spell. It didn’t take a smart man to know better than to confront the woman he’d wronged. Though few smart men would try to spell a better witch.
A quick flare of magic assured me I was free of spells.
True motivations aside, Andrew and his clan were a problem I didn’t need, and one that should go away with this letter. If I didn’t contact him, he would assume his plea had fallen on deaf ears. Though Landa wouldn’t be pleased if she discovered this fit of temper, I was taking her advice. I knew how to contact him; if I changed my mind, it would be as easy as picking up the phone.
When the flames ran out of fuel, I set the shield bubble in the trash and dissolved the spell. Ash dusted the banana peel and sandwich wrapper.
Copyright © 2014 N. E Conneely