I’m standing in my showroom, and I think I’m going to throw up. Double over and vomit, and then curl up on the floor and sob. I’ve been holding it together. Fighting every impulse to grab Ellie and my toothbrush and hit the road, searching for my sisters.
I know that won’t get them back. We have leads, courtesy of Connolly, and we need to methodically pursue them. First, though, we need to check on the cursed tea caddy. That itself is a clue of some kind. We just don’t know what it means.
To quell panic, my impulsive mind needs plans. They are the guardrails for my bumper-car brain, restraining its wild pinging and keeping me on track. So I had come up with a plan.
1) Get Connolly’s info.
2) Form initial plan.
3) Pick up Ellie and hit the road.
2a) Oh, shit, the cursed tea caddy, which was almost certainly not a random drop-off and therefore connected to the Necklace of Harmonia auction and my sisters’ disappearance. Must investigate that first.
2b) While sidetracked, ask Jonathan to get Ellie so I can hit the road immediately after, minimizing the delay.
I’d been pleased with myself for assimilating the detour so well. In the interest of further efficiency, Connolly dropped me off while he parked. All I needed to do was find the tea caddy. So I walked in and . . .
I walked in and found this, and it’s as if someone has slammed a wall into my path. I want to throw up and cry and say “I can’t do this.” My sisters have been kidnapped, and their lives depend on me—me!—and I am not the hero they need. I’m the one who should have been taken, and Ani should be hunting for us.
The bell over the door jangles, announcing Connolly’s arrival. His footsteps enter and then stop short, and I feel his gaze on my back.
“Did you forget where you put the box?” he asks.
I don’t answer. I just stand there, staring at the ruination that was my showroom.
“We need a more methodical way of looking for it,” he says. “You can’t just go ripping things up, Kennedy, however upset you might be. Someone will think you’ve had a break in.”
And there it is. A beacon in the darkness, showing me the way back. Giving me a target for everything I’m feeling right now, my despair solidifying into a lightning bolt of rage.
Before I can get out a word, he takes another step and sees the destruction. Really sees it. Not just one dresser with its drawers pulled out or a single vase accidentally toppled and shattered, but smashed china and splintered wood covering my showroom floor.
“Oh,” he says. “You did have a break in. I hope you had insurance.”
Something inside me snaps, and it must show on my face, because Connolly has the sense to inch backward before he stops himself and pulls up straight.
“Good insurance is—”
“Finish that sentence, and I swear, I won’t shoot past you this time,” I say. “And if you dare—dare—to try selling me insurance right now, I’ll use real bullets.”
His eyes chill. “I would never be so gauche. I was simply saying that if you do have insurance, it will be covered, and if you don’t—” He stops there, wisely clipping off the rest.
“I have insurance,” I say, “but I have no idea whether it covers someone breaking into my showroom and intentionally—” I look around, the words seizing as my eyes fill again. I blink back the tears. “I don’t know whether I’m covered, and right now, it doesn’t matter. It just . . .”
It hurts. I’m looking at the destruction of pieces I nursed back to health, uncursing and repairing and polishing. Now they are corpses around me. That shouldn’t matter. My sisters are so much more important. This just feels like gasoline thrown on a fire I’ve kept tamped down to a manageable size.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, turning away abruptly. “It can’t.”
“But it still does.”
His voice is soft, and it startles me. He stands in the dim light, watching me. Just watching, not judging, and that single droplet of kindness feels like a wave of it, and I want to throw my arms around his neck in gratitude. I imagine how he’d react to that, and a bubble of laughter rises, chasing away the despair.
“Thank you,” I say.
I survey the damage and exhale. “Insurance should cover it. I have a good policy. More than I could afford, honestly, but this isn’t the best neighborhood.”
“I doubt this is random vandalism, Kennedy. That would be highly coincidental.”
“I know.” Another deep exhale. “Let’s just—” I stop short. “The tea caddy. What if they were looking for that?”
As I run through the debris, Connolly strides toward my tiny office.
“The door has been jimmied open.” He pops his head in. “If the box was in your office, I’m afraid it’s gone. The room has been thoroughly searched.”
“Then it’s a good thing it wasn’t in there.”
“You don’t lock up cursed objects?”
I ignore him and drag aside a toppled armoire. Under it, the floorboards seem no different from the rest, but my practiced fingers find the latch. A section of the floor springs up to reveal a very old safe door. I enter the combination and open it. Inside is a large cavity, big enough to hold pretty much any antique smaller than that armoire. Clutching the edge, I reach down until my gloved fingers touch the tea caddy. I lever up and hold it overhead. Connolly bends to inspect the hidey-hole.
“Fifty years ago, this place was a jeweler’s shop,” I say. “This safe was one of the selling points for me. A place to store objects awaiting uncursing. Marginally more responsible than putting them into my office, right? Or leaving them just lying about.”
He dips his chin in what might be an apology. I don’t needle him further. He’ll ease back or he won’t, and I’ll just keep reminding myself this is a very temporary partnership.
I take the tea caddy to my workbench, which had once stood discreetly behind an antique dressing screen, which is now in pieces on the floor. Connolly nudges a broken wood panel with his shoe.
“This destruction seems more than someone searching for an item. It’s not as if you could have hidden a box within these panels.”
“First, we don’t know they were searching for anything. Second, if they were, how better to cover their tracks than make it look like vandalism?”
“True. But I was thinking this seems more like a statement. Or a threat. Did you have any unusual appointments lately? Someone offering you an atypical job?”
“Besides you?” I set the caddy down. “Oh, you think someone else might have been trying to hire me. Someone I refused to see or a job I refused to take. No, nothing like that. But . . .” I open the tea caddy. “Grab my phone out of my back pocket.”
He hesitates. I sigh and start to close the caddy, but he waves for me to continue and removes my phone with all the care one might use to remove a bomb from its casing.
“Raise it,” I say as I shine a penlight into the caddy.
He does, and the phone registers my face and unlocks.
“Go to my calendar,” I say. “Check my appointments from the last few days. See whether any of those names look familiar, in case someone else was scoping me out for this job. Or scoping out my showroom, hoping I kept my unweaving kit here.”
“Would the kit help anyone without your abilities?” he asks as he thumbs through my appointments.
“No, but they might not know that. And the kit would help another curse weaver. With this auction, a buyer desperate for a curse weaver could track down one without her own kit. Or one with an inferior kit. You can give my family shit for practicing our craft openly, but it means we’ve been refining that craft for hundreds of years. My kit is worth more than anything in this shop.”
I glance over at him. “I don’t suppose you offer insurance for that?”
“I could.” He doesn’t lift his gaze from my phone. “While I mostly offer the standard sort, I do insure magical objects, as well as offering more . . . general insurance.”
“General? Ah, that’s where the luck working comes in.”
I want to ask more, but this isn’t the time, and his vague response suggests he wouldn’t answer anyway. Later, then.
“Find anything?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Not in the last few days, but you do have an appointment this morning.”
“I canceled it. Left her a message earlier . . .” I look around. “You think this might be connected to that?”
“I don’t recognize the name, and yet . . .” He shakes his head and glances toward the front of the shop. “Does your door alert keep a record of when it goes off? That might tell us what time someone broke in.”
“It’s just a bell. I had to choose between a security system and insurance, and Ani said insurance was more important.”
“She’s correct.” He walks to the front door and examines it. “It’s been jimmied open. That would be easy enough to do with an old lock like this. Which is an observation, not a criticism.”
“Thank you. Yes, it’s old and shitty, and it would have been easy to break.” I poke at the inside of the tea caddy. “About that canceled appointment. Would you mind searching the name? Get more info on her? In case it’s connected.”
“Good idea.” He takes out his own phone. “Finding anything there?”
“Not yet. I’d already determined the curse yesterday. Minor joker’s jinx, but honestly, I considered leaving it on, out of respect for the weaver.”
He glances up to frown at me.
“Curse weaving is always a craft,” I say. “But the joker’s jinx is special, at least in my opinion. Ideally, it should be fun. Maybe a little wicked, but never outright cruel. To me, that’d make it a misanthrope’s malice.”
“A particularly savage curse that isn’t aimed at a specific target. A net cast wide to ensnare the unwary.”
“Yep. Cursing innocent people just because you can. That ultimate asshole move, bordering on psychopathy. The joker’s jinx is different. It can be a prank played on a certain person or it can just be a prank, like this one.”
“A random joke aimed at anyone who owns it.”
“Not the owner exactly. This is an object-based curse, which means technically I don’t need these gloves, but I’m being safe. The Necklace of Harmonia carries a curse that falls on the owner. The only way to reliably lift it is to uncurse the object while it’s still in that owner’s possession. If Eloise Hill-Cabot gifted the necklace to someone else, she could have passed on the curse . . . or she could have been stuck with it plus given it to someone else—like a communicable disease. In the disease-curse scenario, if the next owner uncursed it, that might not have helped Eloise. Just like giving medicine to the person who caught it doesn’t help the person who communicated it. But, in some cases, it’s a magical cure that undoes the curse all the way back down the line. So many permutations, all depending on the intent of the weaver. This, though, is an object-based curse. I can’t ‘catch’ it. Like your leaking pen. It would leak for anyone who used it, and you could use any other pen just fine. Now that I’ve uncursed it, it’s harmless.”
“Which I appreciate.”
“Oh, don’t thank me yet. That which is uncursed can easily be re-cursed.” I tap the tea caddy. “This is the same principle. A completely object-based practical joke. The curse was cast at the same time the tea caddy was created. The cat is the key.”
“The cat . . .?” He notices me pointing at the cat on the lid and then the four paw legs. “Ah.”
“It’s a cat tea caddy,” I say. “And what happens if you drink tea in a house that has a resident cat?”
His blank expression tells me he’s never had a pet.
“Hair,” I say. “Cat hair everywhere.” I gesture to my outfit. “I have a black cat. I also have three pairs of black jeans. These things are not unrelated. And I have lint rollers—” I grab one from under the workbench. “Everywhere. Also, before you point it out, yes, I know black cats are considered bad luck.”
“It depends on the culture. Many consider them good luck.”
“Well, Ellie never got that memo. So yes, cats shed, and no matter how hard you try, every now and then, you get a cat hair in your coffee.” I nod at the caddy. “Or your tea. Store your tea in this, and it’s a guarantee. You’ll get a free cat hair with every cup.”
“A minor one, which is the best kind, and it’s why I was debating whether or not to remove it. With the jinx, the caddy is a fun conversation piece. Or a good joke gift for a cat lover. Without it? It’s just an antique tea caddy and, as you said, a little kitschy.”
“Is there any chance the minor curse hides a major one?”
“That’s what I was checking. I’m attuned to jinxes, so it’s possible I picked up on that and missed a more serious curse of another type. But I didn’t.”
I lift the box and turn it over in my hands. “One minor—and kinda cute—jinx. Nothing else. No secret hatches or bonus curses. No reason at all for someone to break in to steal it. You mentioned the possibility this was a test, but if so, I don’t know what the guy hoped to achieve. I never confirmed that I recognized it as jinxed—you overheard our entire conversation. Sure, he could storm in today, demand it back and see whether I fixed it, but the jinx is so tiny it’s hardly a test of my skill.”
I set the tea caddy down. “I hate to assume this was a coincidence . . .”
“It can’t be.”
“Then we presume there’s some meaning to the box I don’t understand.” I glance over. “Did you get anything on that name?”
He gives a start, as if reprimanded, though my tone was light. “No, sorry. I was distracted. Let me . . .” He hits a few icons on his phone. “Nothing. Nothing at all, which is odd. Erin isn’t an unusual first name, and Concord . . . Wait.” Furious tapping. “Concord isn’t even a surname. It sounds as if it could be, but it’s not.”
“Concord,” I say, picking up my own phone. “Concordia. Isn’t that—”
“Of course. The Roman name for Harmonia, goddess of harmony and concord. I thought something about the name seemed familiar. I’ve been reading everything I can find on the myth.”
“Erin is significant, too. Concordia’s Roman opposite is Discordia, goddess of discord and strife. In Greek? She’s Eris. So Erin Concord is definitely a fake name, and definitely someone coming to see me about the necklace. Someone who apparently couldn’t resist the urge to be clever.”
“Hmm,” Connolly says. “I may know who that is. In fact, I’m quite certain I do.”
“Then why don’t I call and say I can make the appointment after all.”
He shakes his head. “She wouldn’t have shown up on her own.” He glances around. “This damage is . . . not what I’d expect from her, but her hirelings could have taken the initiative. In any event, there’s no point speaking to her associates when I can get to her directly.”
“You have a number?”
“Better than that. I have her home address and a standing invitation to visit.”
I arch my brows.
“Not like that,” he says. “She’s long been interested in what I have to offer.”
“Oh, I’m sure she has,” I murmur, too low for him to do more than arch his brows in question.
“It’s a bit of a drive,” he says. “But she’s also someone I’d like to speak to about your sisters.”
I tense. “You think she could have taken them?”
“No, though I don’t know her well enough to rule it out. She’ll help us narrow down that list of suspects.”
“Because she’s interested in what you have to offer?”
I have a feeling that is not what he seems to think it is, but either way, this seems like a very good first step. I’m about to pocket my phone when I see the tea caddy. “What should I do with this?”
“I’ll bring it along,” Connolly says, reaching for my gloves. “I have a feeling it means something. We just need to figure out what.”