I sit up front, and Connolly drives. He might seem calm, but as a kid I endured the female version of Travis—the girl who decided it was her mission to grind my confidence into the dirt. As an adult, I look back and realize she’d been envious. She was the only child of divorced parents, both of whom seemed to want a child-free life. I had what she did not, and she took it out on me. Yet even though I understand and feel sorry for her, my stomach still clenches when I see her around town. Connolly acts as if he was immune to Travis’s insults, but that doesn’t mean he is.
He’s quiet, focused on his driving, which is actually really good once he’s not trying to multi-task with business. When we’re back on the highway, he checks his blind spot and uses signals and everything. We’ve been on the road for about twenty minutes when he says, “I’m sorry you were subjected to that.”
“I loved the part where you were about to knock him flying.”
His lips twitch. “More like knock him staggering.”
“I suppose I should say that violence doesn’t solve anything, but I kinda like guys defending my honor. I’m old-fashioned that way.”
Ani makes a noise in the back seat. I ignore her.
“Moving right along,” I say. “Any chance Travis could be involved with our kidnapper? He doesn’t like you very much.”
“If not liking me very much is the criteria, our suspect list will be very long indeed.”
“Made a few enemies, have you?”
He goes quiet.
“I was kidding,” I say.
“And I almost wish I could say yes. With power comes enemies, and I can’t claim more than disgruntled business rivals. In this field—the trade in magical objects and skills—I’m still a novice. Right now, I don’t intimidate more than hapless employees, and that’s unintentional. If anyone actually dislikes me, it’s because of my background.”
“For some, yes. With most, though, dislike stems from my station. I have money. I was raised in a certain way, with certain expectations, and it can make me . . .” A sidelong glance as his eyes twinkle. “A bit of an asshole.”
“Hey, I didn’t say it. This time.”
“But you can. Because I am, and I’m not particularly inclined to change that. It serves me well.”
Ani makes another noise that we both choose to ignore.
He continues, “The point is that I would be more surprised if Hope’s captors liked me. In fact, I’d be disappointed. You saw how Travis behaves. He has always felt threatened by me, and he has always lashed out. Now that I can hit back, his behavior has only grown more juvenile. He feels more threatened by me at twenty-eight than he ever did at twelve. Hope’s captor’s insults are designed to belittle me. If that means he feels threatened, then I’ve made progress . . .”
He trails off. “And that has nothing to do with finding your sister. I’m surprised you didn’t cut me off a while back.”
I shrug. “I decided to let you have it. In thanks for defending my maiden honor.”
Ani snorts at that. She knows I’m really just letting Connolly talk to clear his head after Travis.
“You said you’re new to this . . . whatever this is,” I say. “Trading in cursed goods?”
“No, no. I mean, yes, I’m new to this particular business, but it goes much deeper than cursed goods. There are many ways to turn a profit from our talents.”
“The black market?” I say.
He makes a face, and I remember Hope’s captor mocking Connolly for his ethics.
“Gray market?” I say.
“Yes, that’s a good way to describe it,” he says. “There is a black market, but the ‘gray’ one conducts an otherwise legal trade in magical goods and services. The gray comes from the fact that our powers give us an unfair advantage. One might say that you operate in the gray market yourself.”
He pauses, as if waiting for an argument. He’s right, though. My curse weaving gives me an advantage in the antique world. I’m not intentionally ripping anyone off, but I’d be the first to acknowledge that gray area.
When I don’t comment, he says, “What you’re doing now is small scale. It could be larger if you enlisted other curse weavers and expanded the operation, intentionally seeking out cursed objects across the country. The next step would be to involve others with magical talents, who would provide leads on cursed antiques.”
“I don’t think Kennedy is looking to go corporate with this,” Ani says.
“And that wasn’t business advice.” He changes lanes. “It could be, if she wanted it. But I don’t presume that what works for me works for everyone.”
He glances in the mirror to meet Ani’s gaze, and she gives a grudging nod.
He continues, “What I was doing was answering Kennedy’s question with an example. That is how the gray market operates. For the last few years, I’ve been networking within it, mostly by offering my services as a luck worker.”
“Working for them?”
“Yes, I much prefer to work for myself, but here I must enter on the ground floor. This necklace auction is the first time I’ve acted on my own behalf. In other words, I’m a new player. That means I know some others, but I’m not embedded enough to know them well. I’d need help narrowing the field if you want to find out who has Hope. I’m not sure that’s what you want, though—to find her rather than meet her captor’s demands.”
Before I can answer, Ani says, “We’re meeting his demands. By having you back out of the auction.”
Connolly lets out the softest sigh. “Again, it isn’t that easy. I’m also not convinced Hope is the best one to uncurse the necklace. I don’t think it’s a lover’s lament.”
“Then what is it?”
I take over and explain as Connolly drives.
Unstable is the prettiest town in Massachusetts. Okay, I may be biased, but as we turn onto the main street—Bishop—my heart swells, and every muscle relaxes with the unmistakable relief of being home.
It’s a postcard-perfect New England town, and everyone works very hard to keep it that way. We’re too far from the ocean for fishing and too far from the forests for logging. The earth isn’t quite suitable for crops, either. Our number-one industry is tourism.
Unstable staked its claim to fame at the beginning of the Victorian spiritualism craze. One of the first mediums to take her show on the road came from here, and the town capitalized on that by welcoming other traveling psychics and mediums, who started adding Unstable as a pre-Boston event on their tours.
Soon mediums weren’t just stopping by for a show; they were stopping here for good. When they tired of life on the road, they chose Unstable as their new home.
The old records show lots of blah-blah about ley lines, but the truth is, Unstable is just a very pretty place to live. It may be miles from the Atlantic Ocean, but it has several picturesque creeks, all feeding into a small lake. It might not have huge swaths of New England forest, but the early settlers left plenty of trees standing, and every yard boasts majestic oaks or maples or elms. The earth isn’t great for crops, but the rolling hills are ideal for livestock, and we’re surrounded by grassy expanses dotted with cows and sheep.
It helped, too, that Unstable itself was so welcoming to those who “saw beyond the veil.” No one wants to live anyplace they aren’t wanted. In Unstable, that red carpet has been out for nearly two hundred years and even today, it’s kept fresh and steam-cleaned. The only difference is that, as welcoming as Unstable is, there isn’t really any room for new psychics and mediums looking to ply their trade. These are family businesses, like ours, priding themselves on having offered our services for generations.
The same goes for the non-paranormal trade that grew up to support the town. We have more B&Bs per capita than anyplace else in the state. Also more ice cream shops, candy stores and bakeries. There’s some flux as tastes change—artisanal everything is huge now—but mostly it’s serviced by current shops adjusting their focus.
Every one of those businesses—paranormal and otherwise—is in a building at least a hundred years old. Some have always been shops. Others are converted houses. A few—like ours—are residential homes that were built with a business entrance.
As we head down Bishop Street to the library, I sneak a glance at Connolly. Of course, I want him to be charmed, and I’m afraid of seeing the opposite—that disdainful curl of his lip as I hear him talking about the tea caddy again.
Piece of kitschy trash . . .
Instead, he looks straight ahead, as if he doesn’t notice anything worthy of either interest or scorn, and somehow that is more disappointing.
I direct him to the library, an adorable saltbox house near the east end of the business district. As we walk to the back entrance, Connolly says, “Jonathan went back to work today?”
After his best friend had been kidnapped?
He doesn’t say that, but I still hear it, and I jump into defensive mode even faster than Ani.
“This isn’t the city,” I say. “He can’t just call someone else in. There are three librarians. One is on leave. The other . . . can’t be left in charge.”
“A new hire?” he asks.
Ani opens the door first, pushing it for us before she hurries in. The smell of library wafts out, that sweet, slightly musky odor of old books. When Connolly starts to stride after my sister, I lift a hand to stop him.
“Give them a moment.”
Ani makes a sharp left and heads for the community room, where Jonathan is waiting. I lead Connolly into the library proper. A white-haired woman hurries from behind the counter, her arms spread wide, the smell of Chanel No. 5 enveloping me in her hug.
“Miss Clara,” I say. “So good to see you.”
“And you, Kennedy.” She puts me at arm’s length for a good look. “You’re growing so fast. Have you finished those Nancy Drew books? I have a few more. Also . . .” She lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I snuck in an order for those comics you like.”
“Thank you, Miss Clara.” I squeeze her hand. “I’ll look at them later.”
She sees Connolly and straightens, her gaze sliding over him, dark eyes radiating disapproval. “And who is this young man following you around?”
“He isn’t following me,” I say. “He’s with me. We’re going to talk to Jonathan in the community room.”
“Ah.” Her face smooths as she winks. “A secret project, huh? What is it this time? Another Memorial Day prank?” She pats my arm. “Just be careful with the fireworks, dear.”
“Always. Jonathan and Ani make sure of it.”
She chuckles. “They do keep you in line.” Her gaze lifts to Connolly. “Are you going to introduce me, Kennedy?”
“Sorry. This is Aiden Connolly. Aiden, this is Miss Clara.”
She looks him over again, her gaze softer now. “Connolly. A good Irish name for a good-looking Irish boy. An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?”
When Connolly looks at her blankly, she chuckles. “The answer is no, then. You don’t speak Irish. You should. It’s important to remember where we come from. The language, the stories, the traditions. Kennedy speaks Greek.”
“I . . . didn’t know that.”
“I’ll put together a little package of books for you.”
I tense, ready for him to tell her not to bother, but he inclines his head with a murmur of genuine thanks. As we head toward the community room, he says, his voice low, “It’s good of Jonathan to let her keep pretending to work here. Make her feel useful.”
“He’s not pretending. She does work here. She is useful. The memory lapses come and go, and everyone knows to just go with her flow. She can still do her job fine. She just can’t be left to work alone.”
“My mistake,” he says. “I didn’t intend any insult.”
“I know. It’s just . . . different here. Sometimes for the worse, but mostly for the better. In my opinion, at least. Depends on what you want out of life.”
“Yet you moved to Boston.”
“I did. It seemed . . .” I shrug it off. “Not important right now. Jonathan and Ani are right through there.” I point at the door. “Time to talk.”