SHADOW OF THE WITCH, BOOK 1 SOUL TRACKER TRILOGY
Copyright © August 2019 by Melissa Lummis
I crossed my legs, eyeing my probation officer across his pristine, white modular desk. The new carpet fumes and fresh blue-grey paint on the walls were out of place in the turn-of-the-century police department. You’d never know we were inside the same building I’d grown up running down the hardwood floors late at night, my footsteps echoing, Nana and Cole Yowell’s muffled voices drifting from his office.
Detective Cole Yowell retired years ago, long before brand-spanking-new Probation Officer Jeremy Tobias hired on. My left eyelid twitched. Hard to believe he was the same trouble-making pup I’d babysat ten years ago.
My pink pencil skirt inched up my thigh. I tugged it back down, adjusting my nude stockings. Jeremy laid yet another paper on top of the growing stack of invasive, humiliating forms I was required to fill out.
Leaning forward, I scanned the document. “Really, Jeremy? ‘Frequent Visitors’? You know I don’t have a friend left in Jefferson, right?”
His deep-set, hazel eyes peered at me through wire-framed glasses without a speck of discomfort. Too solemn for my liking or our history.
“Well, who’s fault is that?” He ran a hand through his light brown hair, sun kissed highlights catching the fluorescent light. He still had the remnants of a summer tan.
I tried to swallow past the tightness in my throat. Crossing my arms over my cleavage, I lifted my chin and studied the poster framed above his head. “18 Things Mentally Strong People Do. Number 1: They move on. They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves”.
I allowed the uncomfortable silence to stretch out. Did I need to say anything? No. And I wasn’t about to.
Jeremy cleared his throat, shifted back in his chair. “Sorry, Cellie. That was uncalled for.”
Maybe. Maybe not. I stared passed him, pretending I was irritated when really, I was waiting for my throat to ease up enough to talk.
He tapped a pencil on the desk, his gaze flicking away, then back. “So. You know. The American Witches Association commuted your sentence from degaussing to probation with community service. After Melinda, ah, your grandmother, um, our department had a request in for a witchcraft consultant—”
Someone knocked on the door. It swung open before Jeremy could respond, and a loose end from my past strode in. His all-black police uniform with gold embellishments added to his commanding, alpha male vibe. To my shock and dismay, a familiar heat filled my chest, crept up my throat, and burned my cheeks.
“Kennon.” Jeremy stood, offering his hand. “You’re early.”
Kennon shook it briskly, with a firm grasp. “Something’s just come up. A case. A very unnerving one. I need Celeste’s help. ASAP.”
Determined not to show the confusing concoction of attraction and mortification, I plastered the brightest, sweetest smile on my face and rose from my chair.
“Kennon Thomas Jeffries, as I live and breathe.” Where the hell did that come from? I’d seriously thought I’d wrung out every last ounce of southern from my being.
The media didn’t take southern accents seriously, my former boss had advised. And they weren’t very kind about one, either, as I’d learned the hard way.
“Celeste.” Kennon tilted his black cowboy hat at me before lowering it into both hands.
His handsome, broad-jawed face remained frustratingly unreadable. “I’m very sorry for your loss.” He cleared his throat. “About Melinda and my delayed condolences. I was at the funeral last February but had to slip out for police business before the service ended.”
I tossed my strawberry blonde hair over a shoulder. “Thank you, but there’s no need to apologize. I was so distracted by the circumstances I didn’t really notice.”
Jesus, that sounded bad. “Oh, and the asters. They were beautiful.” The room was too hot, my palms sweaty.
“Thoughtful,” I added quickly. I twisted the silver and garnet ring on my index finger.
A flicker of emotion passed through his eyes, and just as quickly disappeared. His gaze dropped to his hat in his hands.
“I know the Matsumoto ones were her favorite.”
I was taken aback by the touch of melancholy in Kennon’s voice. It hadn’t occurred to me Kennon would have been so affected by her passing.
When I stood there not knowing what to say, he added, “Melinda was always good to me. And to the department.”
The air was so thick with tension, you could have buttered it on bread. I said loose end, but Kennon was far more than that. And the way things had ended. Well, let’s just say it had been brutal.
Jeremy cleared his throat, settled back in his office chair. “So, what’s the case?”
Kennon tucked his hat back on. “A break in.”
“Have a seat, cuz.” Jeremy pointed at the other chair in front of his desk.
“I was just getting to her community service.” He shuffled more papers, and it seemed to me Jeremy couldn’t make himself look at me.
And then it dawned on me what Kennon had said.
No. Oh. No, no, no, no, no, no. I sank back down in my seat before my knees could betray me and I ended up sprawled on the floor.
“Uh, since Kennon established a working relationship with Melinda after Cole Yowell retired, he’s going to be your department liaison.”
My chest squeezed so tight I could barely breathe. Pressing a hand to my chest, I shrank into my seat. If God wanted to punish me for my sins, he wasn’t pussy footing around.
“Um, yeah, of course,” I sputtered. “That makes total sense.”
The possibility I’d be working with Kennon as part of my community service hadn’t even crossed my mind. But damn, it really should have. Nana had never missed an opportunity to talk about her work with Kennon. I knew what she’d been up to, but I’d always changed the subject. She’d tried so hard to give me my space, but she’d commented more than once she thought I’d let too much time pass without speaking to Kennon.
Kennon sat down. Any sign of emotion gone, replaced with a stern policeman’s scowl. You know the kind, like when you get pulled over and you feel like you did something much worse than driving 10 miles over the speed limit? Yeah.
He arranged his six-foot-four frame into the gleaming chrome and blue upholstered chair. It was a smidge too small but he managed it without looking silly. I made myself sit up straight like a proper lady. Ankles crossed, feet to the side, hands clasped in my lap, knees together. I’d be damned if I’d wilt in front of him. No matter what I was feeling.
“A break in doesn’t seem like an emergencey.” Jeremy adjusted his glasses. “I assume there’s magick involved.”
“Yes, and this one is a big deal.” Kennon leaned forward. “They broke into the courthouse.”
“You’re kidding.” Jeremy pushed the remaining paperwork aside, he’s expression animated.
“How on earth? What did the video cameras catch? The wards?”
Kennon shook his head. “Absolutely nothing.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened, his eyebrows rose.
Despite my current discomfort at sitting less than a foot away from the former love of my life, I was suitably blown away.
“How is that even possible?” I asked. “The courthouse must have all kinds of wards and technical security.”
Kennon gave me a curt nod. “That’s what I need your help with. How did they do it without tripping a single ward or alarm or getting caught on video surveillance?”
That would be quite the trick, but my mind was already busy unraveling the problem. “There’s several ways to avoid being caught on video, but avoiding wards is a whole other thing. It depends on who set them—”
“Rachel Brown and her coven.” Kennon sniffed. “They’re contracted with the county.”
I bit my lip. “Well, crap. This truly is a mind-bender. I’d have to consult Nana’s library. And Rachel, of course. I doubt any run-of-the-mill witch or supe could have pulled that off.”
“Already left Rachel a message. Waiting for her to get back to me.”
Rachel’s family was one of the original town founders, the Browns. And Rachel’s coven—well, it used to be Rachel’s grandmother’s—was one of the most powerful on the east coast. Heck, probably in all of the Americas. Maybe the world.
“Why don’t we wrap this up so you and Kennon can get to work?” Jeremy gathered all my papers and tapped them into a neat stack.
“We’re pretty much done here except for the community service bit. You’re required to provide ten hours per week, so you’ll need to keep track.”
I squirmed in my seat, trying not to look at Kennon. Ten hours a week? With my ex? Oh Jesus.
“How does that work? Are you talking ten hours on the job, like in person? Or do research hours count?”
“All of the above.” Jeremy clipped the papers onto a board.
As I leaned forward, reached for the clipboard, I caught a whiff of Kennon’s cologne and my brain short circuited. But it couldn’t be cologne. He’d never worn cologne. I took a deep breath, leaned back in my seat. Peppermint soap blended with that all-male scent of his.
God, it had been literal years, yet my memory of it hadn’t dimmed one bit.
Without making a sound, I exhaled long and slow.
I crossed my legs, tugged at the long bell sleeve of my white mod blouse. I reminded myself all alpha werewolves gave off a heavy mating vibe this close to the full moon. But still. A shiver coursed through me. Shifting in my seat, I silently cursed the hormones rushing eagerly through my veins. They woke up parts of me I thought had been put to sleep.
Kennon crossed a cowboy boot over his knee.
“And,” he leaned toward me. “I want you to keep your own time sheet.”
When I involuntarily leaned away, his eyebrows rose.
He eased back in his seat. “I want to make sure you don’t feel like we’re taking advantage of you.”
A flock of butterflies rose in my stomach. “Yeah, okay. Like tracking billable hours for my clients.”
I unclipped and straightened the stack of papers onto the clipboard Jeremy had placed in front of me. Not that I would ever represent another important PR client as long as I lived.
I flipped through the stack, pretended to study one of the papers. Bashfulness, of all things, overcame me. Something I hadn’t felt in years. The Celeste Bronson I’d been in high school blinked and woke up inside me. I struggled to find the right words, to say something, anything that didn’t make me sound like a stupid teenager.
Damn it. I’d worked too hard to put that shy, moonstruck girl behind me. Way too hard.
What had the last decade been about if I couldn’t face my past with the strength and self-assurance I’d so carefully cultivated? Where was the woman who didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought of her?
“Celeste? Is that agreeable?” Jeremey tapped his pencil on the desk.
“Huh?” I jerked my gaze to Jeremy and then to Kennon. “What?”
“Uh, Kennon suggested you accompany him to the courthouse today. This afternoon.”
I pressed my lips together, hard, and set the clipboard down. I wasn’t ready to be alone with him. Not yet. I needed a chance to bolster my courage.
“I have some things I need to take care of at Nana’s shop,” I said without looking up. “The soft opening is this week.”
When Kennon didn’t respond, I added, “Is that okay?”
“Sure.” Kennon laid his hand on my chair’s armrest. “If it isn’t going to take too long.”
I stared down at his hand, raised my eyebrows.
“I’ll really try to be considerate of your time. But honestly, there will be times—like this—when we’ll need to move fast on a case. I don’t have any other consultants who could handle it. You’re the only qualified soul tracker in five counties.”
My sat up straight, my spine stiff, my embarrassment and resentment over his effect on me totally forgotten.
“Soul tracker?” My tongue fumbled with the words.
“Well, yes.” He leaned in, his tone softening, his hands carefully clasped in his lap.
Kennon’s expression lost it’s sternness. His face softened, his eyes somehow…I don’t know . . . opened, but not in a physical, tangible way. It was like he was letting me inside. I remembered that look so well. I swallowed past the memory. Our first date.
We’d left the basketball game, just to talk. We’d been sitting on the picnic table by the football concession shack. He’d listened to me so intently as I told the story of the night my parents died. When the cold rain pelted down it was if it didn’t exist. He made me feel like I was the only person in the world. It was just me. My story. Us. That look had been alluring, magnetic, intoxicating even.
It was downright heart-stopping now.
“Is there a problem?” Jeremy asked.
I opened my mouth, closed it. Finally, I said, “I, I didn’t realize you were expecting me to soul track.”
Both men stared at me in confusion, but Jeremy was the one to ask. “Uh, what did you think this assignment was?”
I turned in my seat, waving a nervous hand. “I thought I was supposed to consult on witchcraft. You know, cases involving possible witchcraft? Like Nana did?”
“Well, yes, but Melinda did a whole lot more than that,” Kennon said.
“You of all people should understand.” I gripped the arm of my chair too tight. “I can’t soul track.”
Kennon’s eyebrows drew together. “What? Of course, you can. I don’t understand. Why?”
How could he say that? “I mean, I can’t.”
The pulse in my neck throbbed, the beginnings of a headache pressed behind my eyes. I worked my ring around my finger with my thumb, over and over, sucked in a breath. Blew it out through trembling lips.
Both officers shifted in their seats. Kennon leaned closer. “As Melinda’s sole living heir, didn’t her powers pass automatically to you?”
I bit back a sharp retort. Had he really forgotten? Of course, I couldn’t blame him if he chose to forget everything about me. Everything.
I swallowed. “That’s not how it works.” And I was very glad. Very glad.
Kennon cocked his head, dropped his booted foot to the floor. “You’re going to have to refresh my memory, then.”
Jeremey cut in. “So, you were convicted of using your soul tracking against a human, without their consent or knowledge, for personal gain. How does that happen if you can’t soul track? I admit, soul tracking is not my forte.”
He gestured between himself and Kennon. “We’re werewolves, not witches, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Okay, so I could appreciate Jeremy’s point. Every werewolf, shifter, and witch clan in Jefferson County had its own specialties and traditions. And we guarded our secrets very carefully. But I’d confided in Kennon. He knew. Was it stupid of me to feel hurt that he’d forgotten?
The woman in both my paternal grandparents families—the Bronsons and the Devaroes—were soul trackers. But there weren’t many left in the world these days because it wasn’t just an inherited trait.
You had to choose it.
You had to go through a ritual and consciously take it on.
I’d told Kennon all those long years ago.
“I have never taken on the mantel of soul tracker for my family and I never will. I have never used soul tracking magick. Despite the AWA tribunal finding me guilty.”
Jeremy rubbed his mouth. “Celeste, you don’t understand your situation, do you?”
His forehead creased. “You have to soul track. Your probation is contingent on it.”
My stomach dropped. “What?”
Something sour and metallic coated my tongue. “That wasn’t what they told me.”
I grabbed the clipboard, paged through the papers, looking for that part. “There’s some misunderstanding. They told me I would serve as a consultant. Just a consultant.”
“Yeah, as a soul tracker.” Jeremy reached for my clipboard, but I gripped it tighter, paging through the same documents, again, not seeing the words.
“Cellie,” he said giving a little tug on the clipboard. I glared up at him.
“If you refuse to serve as a soul tracker, you’ll be in violation of your probation. “
“No, that’s not what August Shierling said. He said…” But wait. What had the director said at the sentencing?
“But my lawyer said. . .” I bit my lip.
“Wait.” What had he said?
Jeremy pulled on the clipboard, again, and this time I surrendered it. My fingers tingling, icy cold. He pulled a couple papers from the bottom of the stack, handed them to me.
“It’s all there. ‘To serve as a preternatural consultant in whatever capacity required, including—no—specifically soul tracking, to the Jefferson County Police Department’.”
He let that sick in. A heavy ball of lead settled in my stomach.
“If you don’t comply, your case goes back to the AWA and you will be degaussed.”
Degaussed. A wave of dizziness swept over me. I grabbed the official papers, searched frantically for the verbiage and found it, despite my blurred vision. It was all there in black and white: soul tracking. My stomach revolted. I thought I was going to be sick.
I felt exactly the same as the day I’d been sentenced. I’d sat in the tribunal, cold and sweating, while August read my sentence to be degaussed. I’d gripped the table; afraid I would throw up right there.
August Shierling had paused, took a deep breath, then read, “to be commuted”. I gasped out loud, gripping my lawyer’s elbow to keep from collapsing in relief. I’d never forget the pained look on August’s face as he read the rest, “to eighteen months’ probation and community service as a preternatural consult at a location to be determined by the tribunal” .
But he’d never mentioned soul tracking. My lawyer never mentioned soul tracking. I would have sworn on Nana’s grave I would have remembered because I would have protested.
My mind twisted in a whirlwind. What the hell was happening? Jeremy cleared his throat and came back to reality, to his office, to the painful reality of my situation. I was gripping the crumpled papers in my hand so tightly my fingers had gone numb.
Kennon touched my arm. “They’ll go through with it. I’m sure you heard about Katie—”
“Of course, I heard about Katie.” I snapped, jerking away from his touch. “It was all over the D.C. news. The protests, the bombing.”
He dropped his hand. “The Feds have put a whole lot of pressure on the American Witches Association since Katie’s trial.”
Jeremy added, “Word among law enforcement is if the AWA doesn’t get a handle on their own kind, the preternatural branch of the FBI will do it for them.”
“And nobody wants that. You know how they handle rogue werewolves.” Kennon watched me intently, his gaze searching my face. “Weres are still in the battle of our lives to wrestle justice back into our own hands.”
I turned away, made myself breathe, eased my grip, and scanned the wrinkled documents in my hands. The words doubled, blurred. The room narrowed down to a tunnel of light. Soul track or be degaussed. I laid the papers on the desk, smoothed them out, tried to calm the rising panic. Deep breath, Celeste. I thumbed my ring.
Soul tracking had destroyed my grandmother, ate away at her until it had finally taken the ultimate prize. Her life.
Degaussing was the stuff of nightmares, as our quiet little community knew firsthand.
Katie Brown? Rachels Brown’s grandmother? The most powerful witch I’d ever met, had been degaussed.
Some said dying horribly in the process had been the best possible outcome.
The point of degaussing wasn’t to kill. That was just an unfortunate side effect. About fifty percent of the time. The point of degaussing was to strip a witch of her magick.
Every kid of the craft half gleefully, half fearfully passed on the horror stories about the ghastly machine that sucked your magick away. If it didn’t kill you, it left you an empty husk, or worse. It was the most diabolical contraption created by the non magickal to try to combat and control the magickal.
Humans assuaged their fear of what they couldn’t understand by contriving technologies they believed evened the playing field. And each and every device was despised by the supernatural. They were abominations that did far more harm than good.
Kennon touched my arm, startling me. “Cellie?” The timber of his voice, his touch, my nickname. It felt too intimate for whatever we were now.
I pushed the court document back to Jeremy with a trembling hand.
“I can’t believe that horrid machine hasn’t been outlawed.” I reached for my salmon pink, patent leather purse, rummaged around for my lip gloss while I tried to get my shaking hands under control.
Kennon frowned. “If you’re even contemplating that route, you need to talk to Rachel Brown.”
His cell phone rang. He pulled it out of his shirt pocket, glanced at the screen. “Excuse me. I have to take this.”
He tapped on his phone, then put it to his ear. “Hello?” He stood and walked out the door.
With Kennon out of the room, a bit of the strain eased, and I mustered some semblance of my professional demeanor.
I zipped up my bag, set it back on the floor. I glanced toward the door Kennon had closed, then lowered my voice. “I never took on the soul tracker mantel, which means I could never have done what they accused me of.”
Jeremy tapped his pencil on the desk, again. I wanted to rip it out of his hand and break it in two. He needed to say something instead of staring at me like, well, uh, the convicted felon I was.
“I hear what you’re saying. But tell me, why did they find you guilty? What evidence did they have?”
I swallowed. This was the thing I couldn’t explain. “Well,” I pressed my lips together, now covered in the faint flavor of coconut and honey. “Um, they seemed to think they’d found a shadow of my magick on the Senator’s laptop.”
I leaned forward, knocking the clipboard in my haste. I fumbled trying to catch it and it clattered to the floor.
“But I didn’t. I mean,” I bent over to grab it. “I did, but not the way they think.”
I quickly straightened, tossed it on the desk, and hurried on. “I wasn’t casting spells. Not intentionally, at any rate. I was the Senator’s PR rep, for Christ’s sake. Of course, I came into contact with his office, his laptop. His staff. That witch’s shadow didn’t happen for the reasons or the way they think. And it was NOT a soul tracker’s shadow.”
I was talking fast and furious, my voice rising as I tried to stave off the doubt growing behind his eyes, trying to get it all out before Kennon came back.
The door opened but instead of Kennon, this time Jeanine, Jeremy’s assistant, stuck her head in. “Everything okay?”
Jeremy waved his hand. “All good. I don’t think Celeste realized how loud she was getting.”
As I recalled, Jeanine was Loralei Bradley’s granddaughter, closer to Jeremy’s age. Not even in middle school when I graduated high school. Maybe 22, now? She looked uncertain, her long dark hair pulled back with a silver clip.
She glanced from Jeremy to me and then nodded. “Sorry to interrupt.” And she quickly closed the door with a soft click.
I took a deep breath and forced my voice to a normal level. “I’m sorry. I know I keep saying it, and maybe everyone who comes in here says it, and that makes you doubt me, but I swear on Nana’s grave I didn’t do it.”
When he just stared at me, I sighed. “Look, I gave up magick years ago. The day I left Jefferson. Believe me when I say I did not cast a spell on that tech and certainly couldn’t have cast a soul tracker’s spell. That shadow of my magick they found? It had to be a complete accident.”
And it was. An accident. I remembered the moment it happened. The Senator was showing me the latest social media nonsense on his laptop. I didn’t know at the time it was the beginning of the end for me. Something in me had reacted to those troll’s tweets and the clickbait headlines. My magick rushed unbidden to the surface, racing under my skin, looking for an escape.
I pressed it back down but not apparently before it left a trace. The fact remained, however, that aberrant shadow could not have done what they said it did. And the tribunal should have known that.
“I swear I never used soul tracker magick to locate that woman. I couldn’t have, because I never took on Nana’s powers. I never got involved with the Senator’s personal life. And certainly never, ever messed with his computer, his emails, or the tech guy’s memories.”
Jeremy sat regarding me, his pencil now still between his fingers. I’d unloaded a lot more than I’d intended. Had I made a huge mistake? I’d kept so much of it to myself the past six months on my lawyer’s advice, I guess some part of me wanted to set the record straight. Recruit just one ally. And once upon a time, Jeremy had looked up to me.
I still couldn’t believe the arrest had actually happened. And all that followed seemed like a bad dream. I’d truly thought the truth would set me free.
What a load of horseshit.
Justice had not prevailed.
“Then do you think someone framed you? Is that possible?” Jeremy’s voice was low, contemplative.
I clutched eagerly at the faint ray of hope in his voice, gripped the edge of his desk. “I think that’s exactly what happened. But I have no proof, no suspect, and no idea why someone would do this to me.”
There was another knock at the door before Kennon swung it open. “That was Rachel. I’m headig over to the community college to meet with her.”
He regarded me with a pensive look, his thumb hooked over his belt. “I know you have to get back to Melinda’s shop, so how about I stop by afterward?”
“Sure, I guess. I don’t know how much help I’m going to be, though.”
Kennon slipped his cell back in his shirt pocket. “We’ll talk.” He touched the rim of his hat. “Jeremy.”
The men nodded at each other and Kennon left. Jeremy glanced at his phone. “Let’s get this paperwork done so you can get out of here.”
He smiled, but it fell flat. I was way past any mood-lightening attempts. Although, I harbored the wisp of a hope I’d convinced him of my innocence.
“You’re opening the store this week?” The change in his tone told me we were done talking about heavy things.
My back ached. I stood on high heeled, buttery suede boots and stretched, trying to release some of the stiffness. “Yes. Soft opening this week, grand opening on Samhain.”
Jeremy laughed. I liked the way it sounded, like old times. When things weren’t so hard or so messed up.
“Well, for a witch who claims she doesn’t want to have anything to do with magick, re-opening Southern Charms on your highest holiday was an interesting choice.”
I gave him a lopsided grin and shrugged.
He was right, of course. But I wasn’t re-opening my grandmother’s apothecary and charm shop to practice witchcraft. I was doing it to make a living. No one in their right mind was going to hire me for public relations work. Or to sling burgers, for that matter.
Well, that wasn’t the entire reason.
If I were being honest with myself, I was also re-opening Southern Charms because I wanted to feel closer to Nana. We’d practically lived at the shop. Literally, when she knew bad weather was coming. She didn’t like to drive in the snow and ice. So, she’d pack our bags and we’d stay in the upstairs apartment. Pretend we were on a road trip. Or on some mystery adventure, if the power went out.
That old building was saturated with memories.
I dropped back into my chair and picked up the clipboard. When I was done with the paperwork, we scheduled my next appointment.
Jeremy sent me on my way with a reminder he or a representative of his choosing could show up unannounced at any time. I didn’t relish the idea. I liked my privacy and autonomy. I’d endured enough of the media’s and the fed’s invasion of my life, not to mention the weirdos who’d stalked me online and eventually in the real world.
One guy had staked out my DC apartment building during the. Despite the keycard security system, he’d gotten in. And left a disturbing present splattered on my apartment door. My skin still crawled. He’d even used a fake account to post a picture of himself pointing to the gold numbers above my peephole. His face wasn’t in the picture and he wasn’t pointing with his finger.
I recoiled from the memory, pulled open the heavy front door to the precinct, and emerged from the police department into the bright light of mid-fall. The afternoon sun filtered through the red, green, and orange canopy of leaves over the sidewalk.
The air was a little cooler than when I’d dressed for the meeting. I wrapped my arms around myself and rubbed my arms. The white cotton blouse wasn’t designed for the fall mountain air. And I’d left my jacket at the shop. The bell sleeves made the whole outfit.
Standing on the sidewalk, I dug my cell out of my bag and checked my messages. One from Ninovan at the shop asking about the new shipment. I tapped a reply, then sucked in a breath as a text from my ex, Robert, popped up.
I’m really sorry about how we left things. Can we talk?
My mind went blank. I tucked my cell in my purse. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to talk. He was sorry about how “we” left things? I fished out my gold Dior sunglasses and slipped them on. I only had so much energy these days and I wasn’t about to waste it on him.
But my heart. I touched my chest. Still hurt. Still longed. Could I blame it? We had pinned so many of our hopes on Rob.
I turned to head downtown and ran smack into a tall, dark-haired man.
“Oh! I’m so sorry!” I stumbled back, one Manolo heel tottering.
He grabbed my arm, saving me from twisting my ankle. And possibly breaking the heel. “You okay, lady?”
A young man frowned down at me, tossing dark curls out of his eyes. They narrowed. “Cellie?”
I blinked a few times, uncertain who he was. “Yeah? Uh, thanks.” I pulled my purse up over my shoulder.
He smiled, but it didn’t reach his blue eyes. And I suddenly knew who he was. “Caden? Oh my God. You’re all grown up.”
He steadied me with a hand on my arm. “You sure you’re all right? Didn’t mean to slam into you like that.”
Caden Hudson had been another one of my babysitting gigs. I babysat a lot back then. Even though I worked at Nana’s store, I’d wanted to make my own money and babysitting paid rather well, when you were reliable.
“I’m fine. I’m sorry. I was looking at my phone and not paying attention.”
Caden glanced around, seeming uncomfortable. “Hey, no worries. I was kind of doing the same thing.”
He held up his cell, and I swear he blushed. “Texting my girlfriend.”
I heard myself laugh. “Well, that’s sweet. Hey, how are your grandparents?”
Caden frowned, peering over my head. I turned to see a couple leaving the police department. They looked familiar but I couldn’t place them.
“They’re good. Being a real pain in my ass, but they’re good.”
His cell dinged, and he glanced at the screen. “Uh, love to catch up, Cellie, but I’m kind of late.”
I shifted my purse strap, trying not to show how unnerved I was. “No worries. Good to see you.”
He started walking away, but paused to say over his shoulder, “Good to see you, too.”
He glanced around uneasily, almost running away from me. I couldn’t blame him. Must people were uncomfortable and in a hurry to get away from me these days. I paused, taking a moment to look around at the quiet side street where the police department entrance was located. What was he doing down this way? There wasn’t much else down here, except that new print shop. Oh! And Delanico’s Butcher Shop! Of course.
Caden had turned around, walking backward with a big grin on his face. He held a hand way up above his head, thumb, pointer, and pinky finger extended. “Don’t let the trolls get to you!”
He winked. “They’re just sad losers who live in their parent’s basements and love to make people as miserable as them.”
Then he saluted me, and without waiting for a reply, twisted around and bounded down the sidewalk. I watched as he swung open the glass door to the butcher shop and disappeared inside.
It was a long story, but Caden and I had a formed a tentative friendship as babysitter and babysittee. The last time I’d seen him he’d been struggling not to cry because he knew I was leaving in a few days for college. He’d been twelve when tears were not cool.
Instead smiled sadly, gave me a cool-guy fist bump, and said, “It’s not like I need a babysitter anymore.”
But the smile hadn’t reached his eyes.
I headed downtown, wondering if I should I take on Nana’s magick or be degaussed? I was absolutely convinced both options would destroy me, each in their own way.
I guess the reality I needed to face was which way did I want to die? I took a deep breath as I hurried down Main Street, past Capo’s Deli. The aroma of sliced Italian meats and freshly baked rolls drifting out the open doorway.
At the corner of Thomas and Main, I paused, waiting for the light to change. I really didn’t want to die. Despite everything. As I let self-pity gain a foothold, an elderly couple emerged arm in arm from Gayheart’s Diner. The greying black woman caught sight of me and raised her hand with a big smile.
“Oh hi, Mrs. Gayheart!” I called out.
She was an old friend of Nana’s and owned the diner. Her husband—I couldn’t remember his first name to save my life—glared at me, grabbed her elbow, and steered her away. Not to be deterred, Mrs. Gayheart jerked her arm free and turned back.
“I need to talk to you about the Chamber’s booth at the festival. I’ll stop by Thursday with some of my scones. I know they’re your favorite.”
“I’ll make tea,” I called back. I couldn’t help grinning as I waved again.
Satisfied, she adjusted her hat, then took her husband’s arm. I would have loved to hear what she was saying as they walked away. From the tone of her voice, she was letting him know exactly what she thought of his manners.
The light changed and I kept my head down as I hurried along Thomas Street, the center of Jefferson’s historic downtown shopping and dining district. I didn’t recognize most of the people wandering toward me down the sidewalk. Leaf peepers, I assumed. That’s what locals called the tide of tourists who swept in from the city in the fall.
They’d stay in the local boutique inns, and bed and breakfasts. Hire limousines to take them from winery to winery, and then shop and dine in the town’s many quaint and upscale shops and restaurants. The tide would keep rolling in well after the leaves fell, too. Thanksgiving, Winter Solstice, Christmas, when most shops finally turned a profit.
Which is why I wanted to get Nana’s store open as soon as possible. I needed to take advantage of the season, and well, Samhain just so happened to be next week. The perfect grand opening for an apothecary-slash-charm shop. Of course, how I was going to make my living was a moot point if I only had days to live.
I unlocked the front door to Southern Charms, the Victorian shopkeeper’s bell announcing my entry as I swung open the door.
“Ninovan?” I locked the door behind me, dropping my keys in my bag. “Quil?”
No one answered. The storefront was quiet, except for the hum of the heater. They must be running errands I’d asked them to. I glanced around the place, grateful things were finally coming together. I made my way past the tea set up in the front bay window and around the new display of crystals and antique apothecary items Ninovan must have finished while I was gone.
Different colored bottles, little silver spoons, and glass dosage cups were artfully arranged. Along with shimmering chunks of amethyst, smoky quartz, and labradorite to catch the eye. I admired Ninovan’s natural talent. Whenever I tried to create a display like that, it ended up looking too organized, too orderly. I lacked that certain something my grandmother, and apparently, Ninovan had in spades.
Slipping behind the big glass counter, I tucked my purse under the old register I’d kept for the aesthetic. Quil, Ninovan’s partner, had set up my new computerized system right next to it. The sleek, white tablet in its space-age stand looked so odd next to Nana’s brass and wood antique. I fingered the big, worn buttons on the old register, the ones with 05 and 10 stamped on them.
To say I felt guilty staying away all these years was an understatement. Nana had been more than happy to visit me in D.C—she still had tons of art friends to visit and adored spending long afternoons contemplating the many galleries. But I knew deep down she would have loved to have me home for the holidays. At least once would have been nice.
I turned away, closed my eyes. Maybe Nana wouldn’t have died alone. The only way I would have willingly risked coming home was if I’d volunteered to be degaussed. Stripped me of any last remnants of my magick.
Now I was being forced to choose between degaussing and my worst nightmare, becoming a soul tracker like my nana.
I glanced around the shop, up at the tin ceiling painted white. At the warm light bathing the displays on the glass shelves.
Maybe I should just get the degaussing over with? How long could I live here before something bad happened, again?
The back door chimed, followed by Ninovan and Quil in the middle of a conversation. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and hurried to the storage room, my heels clicking on the hardwood.
“Ninovan? You need any help? Quil?”
“No, we’ve got it.” Quil’s gruff voice answered.
I opened the white stock room door to Quil with his arms full of boxes. “These are the last of them.” His jet-black, straight hair was pulled partially back from his amber face. A stark white scar slashed through one eyebrow.
I smiled as I stepped aside to let him into the shop. “Thanks so much. Both of you have been a huge help. I don’t know how I would have done this all on my own.”
“Don’t mention it.” Ninovan returned my smile as she followed Quil with more boxes. Her white sweater contrasted with the black ponytail trailing down her back. She’d wrapped it with a leather thong in a crisscross pattern. “It’s the least we can do.”
Quil and Ninovan set their boxes on the glass counter. Quil pulled a knife from a sheath by his back pocket. It was an unusual pocketknife. Very simple, old-world technology with a wooden handle the blade tucked into. He turned the metal safety ring and popped the blade free. He turned the ring again to lock the blade in place, then slit open the packing slip. He handed me the folded papers then continued to open the boxes.
I glanced over the invoice with a jolt of pleasure. “Oh! This is the fun stuff.”
Despite everything, I grinned over the itemized list. “The Tarot cards!”
The thrill bubbling through me surprised me. I was the proverbial kid on Christmas.
“And the oracle decks. Runes, too.” I couldn’t stop smiling.
Ninovan unpacked stacks of colorful boxes, setting them on the glass case. She pulled out deep green, garnet red, and midnight blue velvet bags.
“Oh, look at these. How beautiful.”
Setting the decks aside, I ran my fingers over a red velvet bag, pulled it open, and poured a few red jasper runes into my hand. They clinked as I rolled them between my fingers, watched the light play on their polished surface, and in the rune etchings. Tucking them back in the bag, I grabbed the tablet that served as my register and busied myself taking inventory, scanning items, while numbers and quantities filled spreadsheets.
Touching the cellophane-wrapped decks felt good. Unwrapping the crystal runes and flipping through glossy pages of the occult books I’d ordered steadied my nerves. They were more for the tourists than the actual witches who lived here, but witches liked the fun stuff, too. At least, I did. At any rate, my mind was busy doing something other than ruminating over my ruined life and impossible choices.
I scanned and Ninovan organized the items I was done with into categories.
She wiped her hands on the seat of her jeans. “I was thinking you could put all this in the back by the bookshelf. Use that end of the display counter for the runes and decks. Put the books on the shelf by the couch. You know, make it a cozy reading corner. You might want to set out sample decks. If you don’t mind serving tea back there too, then people would spend more time.”
Ninovan was already behind the counter playing with ways to arrange the decks. She peered up at me, her dark eyes fringed with heavy lashes. “This place could become a hangout. More customers, spending more time, means more sales.”
“You sure you never did this before?” I teased.
I only knew the basics about their previous lives, but I was always hoping for more tidbits.
“That’s exactly what Nana created here. She also offered readings.”
Ninovan laughed, her voice light and airy in the high ceiling space. “I figured. I’ve heard the locals talk about her. And no, I never worked retail. But I think I would have liked having my own shop. A much quieter, playful kind of life.”
Quil glanced at her and something passed between the couple. Ninovan was strikingly beautiful, but it was all natural. Dark eyes, black hair, smooth, copper-toned skin. She didn’t wear makeup, except maybe a little lip gloss. I studied Quil’s deep frown lines around his mouth and the furrows in his brow that rarely went away. Except when he was looking at Ninovan. He glanced up and caught me staring.
My cheeks warmed and I dropped my gaze. I knew enough not to ask questions, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t curious. Seeing how they looked at each other reminded me as bad as my troubles were, they didn’t hold a candle to what those two had endured. My throat convulsed. Or what they had lost.
“Um, did you get a chance to bring the chest down from the attic, Quil?” I grabbed a box of books then set it on the floor in front of the white bookshelf.
Should I organize them alphabetically by author or arrange them by topic? Topic made more sense. The bookcase was sectioned off in such a way it would be easy to do, too.
“Yeah. I put it in there.” He held open the storage room door. “Do you want me to bring it out here?”
“That would be great.” I smiled up from my seat on the floor. “Thanks.”
While Quil went to get it, I climbed to my feet and made my way around the counter, squeezing past Ninovan to retrieve my purse. When I found the chest in the attic, it was locked with no key in sight. I’d wondered for a hot minute if I’d have to pick the lock or separate the hinges. But on a hunch, I checked the row of keys hung inside the laundry room at Nana’s farmhouse.
Well, my house, now, I supposed. I knew it was the right key because Nana had clipped a tag to it that read, “To the chest in the attic”. Several keys hung from hooks with similar handwritten tags, all price tags from the store. If anyone ever broke in, they’d have no trouble finding all the valuables.
When Quil returned, he first set the decent-sized chest on the coffee table by the couch then picked up the smaller cardboard box he’d placed on top and handed it to Ninovan.
“Thanks,” Ninovan and I said at the same time.
Quil broke out in a huge smile. “You’re welcome.” Ninovan laughed.
I’d been going through all my grandmother’s possessions since I’d moved back. It was harder than I thought. Every box, every nook, every unexplored crannie was a minefield of memories and emotions. Nana and I had been close. I dug the key out of the side pocket and tucked my purse back in its nook under the register.
She’d raised me since I was three years old when my parents were killed in a boating accident on Lake Anna. And since Grandpa died, we were all we’d had in the whole world.
I settled myself on the couch in front of the chest. It was a pretty, dark red lacquered wood with grapevines carved in relief. As if they were growing over and around the box. About the size of a piece of carry-on luggage, it’s high-gloss, antique lacquer gleamed in the afternoon sunshine slanting through the back window. I’d never seen it before. But that wasn’t so unusual. Nana scoured every estate sale catalog she could get her hands on.
I swear she’d dragged me thousands of miles over the years in search of just the right doodads and baubles for the store and her customers. I shook my head as I put the key in the lock and turned it, the catch releasing with a satisfying click. Slipping the key out and setting it aside, I hesitantly lifted the lid. Part of me was insanely curious about what Nana had locked away in there, but another part of me feared the emotional bombs waiting to be detonated.
On top was a cotton handkerchief embroidered with pink roses and green leaves. I stared, afraid to touch it. Lest my grief and loneliness exploded like a geyser. Nana had always carried it in her purse, or one like it. She’d had a dozen of them squirreled away. I hadn’t found all of them, yet. I made myself pick it up, brought it to my nose, inhaled, and immediately my eyes stung with unshed tears. The pressure of grief in my chest so intense it stole my breath.
I wanted another hug, just one more from her one last time.
Nana’s French perfume and the scent of her rose hand lotion lingered. I wondered if she’d had this one in her purse shortly before she died. How else could it still smell so much like her? I made myself set it aside, peered through blurry tears at the other items.
A thick, leather-bound journal wrapped in a leather thong with the Tree of Life embossed on its cover. I turned it over. It was definitely old. The leather was extraordinarily soft and supple, leading me to believe it was something Nana had used on a regular basis. Although, I couldn’t remember seeing it before.
A blue silk drawstring bag I recognized immediately.
“Nana’s deck.” I lifted it reverently from the box. “I wondered what happened to it.”
Both Quil and Ninovan stood over me on the other side of the coffee table.
“Those are more of the Tarot cards?” Ninovan asked.
I nodded. “She read them.”
I opened the bag, slipped the old deck from its cocoon. White stars on a field of midnight blue covered the backs.
“You have these where you come from?” I asked, holding the deck up.
“No, but I’m fascinated.”
Ninovan watched as I shuffled the deck and fanned them out on the table. All the colors were a bit faded, the cards worn from years of loving, diligent use. I wanted to ask a lot more questions about where the two of them were from, but I held my tongue. Quil had said the less I knew the better. I wouldn’t have to lie if I was ever questioned.
“May I?” She pointed to the cards, a large red jasper and silver ring on her index finger.
While Ninovan sat down and turned cards over, I went back to the chest. Why had Nana put these items in a chest and locked it in the apartment attic? A couple of years ago she’d stopped leasing it and moved in part-time, mostly during the winter months. Ninovan and Quil were staying there now.
Under the journal and cards was another journal and a collection of what I surmised were spell craft items. A brass bell, a set of handmade beeswax candles, various crystals, some bagged herbs, and a few other things wrapped in the embroidered handkerchiefs I’d been searching for.
I took them out one by one, and under all of it was a long envelope with my name scrawled in my grandmother’s handwriting. It rested on top of a thick pile of folded, white linen. The air left my lungs. The message from Nana she’d told me about the night she died. In a dream. To be honest, I’d hoped I’d never find it.
I sat holding my breath with the vellum envelope cradled in my hands.
“From your grandmother?” Ninovan guessed.
I let out the breath I’d been holding through pursed lips.
“I had a dream the night she died,” I whispered. “She could walk in other people’s dreams. She said it was a soul tracker thing, but it’s rare.”
I sighed. “Anyway, Nana and I were having tea. Not the fancy tea she served in the shop, but our tea. Just a couple of mugs with the Darjeeling tags dangling over the edge.”
My voice hitched. “She was drinking out of the mug I made her when I was ten.” I gestured with a shaky hand. “You know, one of those misshapen things you paint ‘World’s Greatest Nana’ on. I tried to paint a purple aster. It was hideous, but she loved it.”
I took a deep breath, blew out another long, slow exhale. “She said she had something to tell me, but I would have to come home first.”
Ninovan rested her hand on my knee.
I blinked up at her, determined not to cry. “I got mad. You know? And scared. She knew I couldn’t come home, wouldn’t come home. Unless…”
My hands tightened around the envelope, crumpling it, and the toxic missive hiding inside, waiting to break my heart all over again. I’d had enough of heartbreak this year to last me an entire lifetime.
Quil turned to leave. “I need to get that front security camera hooked up.”
Ninovan rose from her seat, too, but on impulse, I grabbed her hand. “Please.”
I squeezed, feeling too vulnerable for my liking. I didn’t have a friend in Jefferson. Hell, maybe the world. At least not one that didn’t have something to lose by talking to me. Or one I had bothered to talk to in ten years.
Ninovan regarded me for a moment, her gaze shifting from unsure to gentle. She sank back down, the overstuffed couch shifting beside me.
She settled in, pulling her long, thick braid over her shoulder. She’d wrapped a white leather thong around her dark locks in a crisscross pattern. “I lost my own grandmother not long ago.”
She ran her hands thoughtfully over her braid. “It’s a unique relationship where we come from. A spiritual one.”
She contemplated the envelope in my hand. “I suspect it’s the same here. At least, for you and your Nana.”
I gave a half-hearted laugh. “I guess that’s true. Maybe not quite the same for others, though.”
I heard myself laugh that sad laugh again. “Most kids get a soft, warm granny to hug and bake them cookies. Take them to Sunday school. I got a driven witch who took me to seances and wanted to make me the most powerful soul tracker that ever lived.”
“I’m sure she was only looking out for your best interest.” Ninovan clasped her hands in her lap.
I smiled but shook my head. “I know. She loved me. Very much. Despite everything.”
I slipped a finger under the edge of the envelope flap. “And I loved her. To be fair, she didn’t get to play grandma very long. She had to be my mother, too. And she was also my mentor. And to her? I think that was the most important thing.”
I ripped the envelope open, pulled out a single sheet of paper. Nana had, above all else, been preparing me to take on her powers. Oh, she took care of me with love and affection. I never doubted she loved me like any parent or grandparent. She was warm, kind, caring. She delighted in making me my favorite desert, apple brown betty, and watching me unwrap a birthday present. She adored taking me to the county fair, the local street festivals. The apple festival.
Unfolding the paper, I steeled myself. But she’d let me know beyond any doubt how sorely disappointed she was in my choice not to practice magick. Especially my insistence on never taking on the family soul tracker magick.
My Dearest Celeste,
I don’t think this is the kind of thing I can tell you over the phone. Besides, I’m not even sure what it fully means. There’s blood on the moon tonight and I fear it’s just the beginning. For you.
For myself? That’s another matter altogether. There are so many things I never told you, and while I think I did the best that I could, I do regret leaving you without the means to navigate the upcoming storm. But let’s not pretend you didn’t fight me tooth and nail on that matter.
But really, all that means is you have to choose right this time, my stubborn girl.
I can just imagine what you’re thinking right now. How dramatic this all sounds. But we Devaroe women are born to it. And you are special, young lady, whether you like it or not.
You’re a Bronson, too. I don’t think you ever understood fully what that means.
Your willful insistence to never set foot in Jefferson again, to never practice your God-given magicks or take up your inheritance? will be your undoing. And soon. I’ve seen the signs. In the tea leaves, in the clouds. I’ve heard the river singing a mourning song, and I saw the tell-tale patterns in the first snowflakes this winter.
Things are shifting and I must hurry.
Tonight, I venture once again into the past to try to rectify the wrongs that have plagued my soul and this town for far too long. I fear what is stalking me and that I will fail one last time. I suspect some lunatic has loosed a curse, the likes I have never encountered before. A nightmare that will prove beyond even its summoner’s ability to contain. Such is the fate of the obsessed and arrogant. And selfish.
I’ve never misled you, have I? So, heed my advice this one final time, my obstreperous, beautiful, wild, willful girl. You cannot run from your birthright any longer. Some things are thrust upon us. Some things are not choices. Although these new generations delude themselves that there are no consequences for abandoning their heritage, I know differently. And so will you. Unless you do the right thing.
Maybe even if you do. I have no guarantees for you, Cellie. I cannot promise your Dark Nasty will not rear its ugly head. Each of us must face our own version. It is not something unique to you.
Read the cards, Cellie-bug. I cannot see everything where you are concerned. Unfortunately, you will all too soon understand how wretched it is not to be able to protect the one’s you love, and worse, knowing the ones you love won’t protect themselves.
Stop your foolishness before it’s too late. You have lived half a life for too long.
Everything is here that you need. There is more at stake than your own insecurities. If you won’t do it for yourself, or for me; do it for Jefferson. Do it for your mother and father.
You may doubt my motives, sweet child, but I only want what’s best for you. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted.
And I love you.
P.S. Make the apple brown betty, dear. You’ll feel better.