Ani had crawled out through a window after prying off rotted boards, which cost her two fingernails and earned her three splinters. Meanwhile, the front door had been both unlocked and not quite shut, a literally open invitation to escape. She’d sensed a trap and taken the hard way.
There’s nothing inside the shack. I’d joked about hunters bringing lawn chairs, but that must be exactly what they do. Ani’s captors dumped her on the floor without even a bottle of water. As she points out, her bonds were obviously loose on purpose and the front door is open, so she wasn’t in mortal danger. I can still be furious on her behalf.
Ani and I check the interior while I ask Connolly to scope the exterior, mostly so he doesn’t need to squeeze through a filthy window and I don’t need to endure his silently palpable agony as he ruins a second shirt in one day.
Once outside, we stand ten feet from the front door.
“I’ll open it,” Connolly says. “I’d like you both to take cover. While it certainly seems to only activate a signal, we can’t take chances. You two—”
I pitch a rock at the ajar front door, hitting at the right angle to swing it open . A light on the black box flashes red.
“Or we could do that,” Connolly says.
“Nice throw,” Ani says. “The Unstable Unicorns miss you.”
To Connolly’s raised brows, I say. “Softball team. Also the name of the local soccer team, the bowling team and the knitting club.” I look around. “We should withdraw to a safe spot to watch—”
My phone vibrates. I lift it to see a blocked number. Connolly reaches out.
“I can handle my own spam calls,” I say.
“I was thinking it might have something to do with the necklace. Another potential buyer looking for a curse weaver.”
“All the more reason for me to take it myself.”
I hit Answer. “Hello?”
The voice sets my teeth on edge. It’s mechanically distorted, which is creepy, but the tone still comes through, and that’s the part I react to. A smarmy roughness no filter can mask.
“It’s Ms,” I say.
Silence. Then, “What?”
“You called me Miss. I prefer Ms. Just establishing that right away, since this seems to be a first contact. I’m Ms. Bennett, and you are . . . ?”
It takes a moment for a response.
“You don’t know what’s happened to your sisters, do you?” he says. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be quite so impudent.”
Impudent? Something tells me that by the time I finish this call, Connolly’s condescension will feel positively heartwarming.
“You mean because my sisters are missing,” I say.
More silence, and I get far too much satisfaction from throwing him off again. Then I realize Connolly can overhear, and I expect him to wave wildly, telling me to take it down a notch. He’s only listening, though, same as Ani. I ease the phone from my ear to make that easier.
“You seem less concerned than one might expect,” the man says.
“Oh, I’m concerned. They’re my sisters. I’m presuming you know something about their disappearance, and if so, you’ll tell me, because that’s why you called. But bear in mind, please, that there’s a reason you’re calling me. I’m the one who doesn’t live at home. The one who left. I love my sisters, but we don’t get along.”
Ani looks confused. Connolly nods, as if he understands what I’m doing.
When the man doesn’t answer, I say, “I know something’s stirring in the magical world. People keep trying to hire me to undo a curse. Something about an auction? A necklace? I never listen long enough to get the details. I’m not for hire. Neither is Turani, and if someone came waving a blank check, she’d still send them packing. Hope, though? Hope’s a little different.”
He’s quiet. I could think he’s hung up, but whatever is distorting his voice is also amplifying his breathing. He’s listening. Learning. I’m making a point here with my lies, and I must spin them to Hope’s advantage.
“Hope’s a kid,” I say. “Twenty years old. Never lived outside Unstable. She was going away to college, but then our mom died, and there wasn’t any money.”
Not true. Hope had been on a gap year to help with Mom, and she extended that to rethink her future.
I continue. “She’s desperate to get out of Unstable, but Turani holds the purse strings tight, and curse weaving is the only job Hope’s ever had. So if someone tried to hire her, she’d have gone for it. But they’d need to get past Turani first. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there, since you have them both. But I’m guessing you’re calling me, because I’m the curse weaver you actually want.”
He’s going to tell me that Ani is free—as he knows from that door signal—but that if I want my other sister, I need to uncurse the necklace.
So when he says, “No, Ms. Bennett, I don’t want to hire you,” I’m the one thrown.
I manage a strained. “All right.”
“You aren’t part of the family business,” he says. “You can call that a choice, but from what I hear, it’s a lack of actual ability.”
I open my mouth to protest and wisely snap it shut just as both Connolly and Ani turn warning looks on me.
“Don’t fall for it,” Ani mouths.
She means he’s trying to get a rise from me and make me eager to prove my worth. I pretended I wasn’t freaked out about my sisters disappearing, and he’s pretending he doesn’t really want to hire me.
“What’s your specialty again?” he says. “The jester’s joke?”
“Joker’s jinx,” I say before I can stop myself.
He snorts. “Pranks. This is the most famous cursed object of all. The Necklace of Harmonia. It’s not a child’s hex.”
Connolly’s sharp look warns me not to share his theory. My responding look politely asks him to give me more credit.
The man’s insults remind me of one of our neighbors in Unstable. She writes children’s books, and she’s always being asked when she’ll “graduate” to adult fiction. Same goes for the joker’s jinx. As curses go, it’s usually the most benign. Playful. Lighthearted. Even childlike. That does not mean it’s easy to weave. It also doesn’t mean it can’t be wicked, like a curse that seems to grant the blessing of eternal youth while punishing you for your vanity.
“It’s obviously a lover’s lament,” the man says.
He sniffs. “The fact you even use that cheesy phrase betrays you as an amateur, Miss Bennett. The proper name is lover’s lament for a reason. It’s a category of hexes designed to punish an inconstant lover. That may be an ex. It may also be a current partner. All that matters is that the party requesting the curse feels betrayed by a lover.”
Connolly is definitely benefiting from this conversation. In comparison, it’s going to be so much harder to accuse him of treating me like an idiot.
“Now, I’m sure you aren’t familiar with the background of the necklace,” the man says.
I clamp my jaw tight against a rejoinder. Or worse, sarcasm. That would feel good. So would reciting the entire history of the necklace—or the origins of the term “lover’s lament” and the full breadth of the curses both it and the joker’s jinx cover. But I’m quickly realizing this will go better if he feels he has the advantage.
He proceeds to blah-blah about the background of the necklace. I roll my eyes, and Ani rubs my back, telling me I’m doing fine. Connolly could leap into the silence to pantomime a new plan. But he just listens, and their tacit approval helps.
“Fine,” I say when he finishes. “You’re right that it sounds like an ex—a lover’s lament, and you’re right that it’s Hope’s specialty. I presume then that you’re calling to negotiate for Ani’s release?”
“No, your sister is already free. I’m sure you’ll hear from her soon. This is about you.”
“I . . .” I glance from Ani to Connolly. Both shrug their confusion. “I thought you didn’t need my skills.”
“I don’t, but as you said, you’ve been contacted by other interested parties. I believe one is Aiden Connolly. Yes?”
Connolly snaps upright, face tensing. I motion to ask if I can admit it. He considers and then nods.
“You’ll have to be more specific,” I say. “I’ve had a few offers.”
“You couldn’t miss Mr. Connolly. Only a few years older than you but acts like he’s twice that. Thinks very highly of himself and his abilities, while forgetting the silver spoon wedged in his mouth from birth.” A pause. “No, in Aiden Connolly’s case, that spoon is definitely wedged up his ass. He’s a sanctimonious prick.”
With every word the man says, Connolly’s eyes harden. By the end, I have to pedal backward to keep him from grabbing the phone.
“Right,” I say. “Aiden Connolly. The cute ginger. Kinda uptight, but I’m not sure sanctimonious is the right word if he’s trying to score a black-market cursed necklace.”
“Which is why young Mr. Connolly doesn’t belong anywhere near this auction. That’s where you come in.”
“You want me to . . . do what? Convince him not to bid? We’re not exactly drinking buddies. Hell, pretty sure he doesn’t have drinking buddies. Unless you count knocking back single malts at the old-boys club.”
I mouth a “sorry” for Connolly, but he waves it off.
“I’m not asking you to go out for a beer with him, Miss Bennett. Though I’m sure you have a few seductive wiles to fall back on.”
Wiles? Now I know why this guy wants the Necklace of Harmonia. He’s almost as old as it is.
“Hey now,” I say. “I don’t do that kind of stuff. You have my sister, so I’m willing to negotiate—”
“Use your charms at your discretion, Miss Bennett. I only pointed out that Mr. Connolly is a young man dedicated to furthering his business interests. Men like that are susceptible to girls like you.”
I chomp down on everything I want to say. Ani’s expression says she’s doing the same on my behalf.
He continues. “Men like Mr. Connolly are so busy scrambling up the corporate ladder that they don’t have time for unpaid companionship.”
Connolly’s brows furrow, as if he’s heard wrong, unable to put “unpaid companionship” in context. I see the moment it hits, the horror and then the outrage as he gestures and shakes his head. I bite my cheek to keep from laughing. Seems whoever this bastard is, he’s an equal opportunity insult artist.
“Yeah, no,” I say. “Aiden Connolly doesn’t strike me as a guy who needs to pay for it. But whatever. Now you’re proposing . . .”
“That you accept his offer. Promise him the uncursing. Convince him you can do it. And then, when it’s time to bid, back out.”
“Quit once it’s too late for him to find a replacement. Which forces him out of the auction.”
“Exactly. Then your sister will unweave the curse, and I’ll release her with adequate payment.”
Somehow, of everything he’s said, that last bit outrages me the most. Paying her says this is a valid business transaction. Not kidnapping. Not blackmail. Just business.
“I want to talk to my sister.”
“I thought you might. Hold on.”
It takes a few moments to connect us. As I wait, Connolly gets my attention. I pretend to mutter into the phone, “This better be a private line,” and he nods. That’s what he wanted to tell me. That it won’t be. Watch what I say.
A few clicks and then, “Hello?”
“Hey, kid, finally got that ticket to Hogwarts and left us, huh?”
A hiccup, and then she breaks down, like I did when I saw Ani at the gas station.
“Whoa, sorry, let’s retry that. What did you get yourself into now, Hopeless?”
More sobbing, as if my “mean big sister” act only makes her miss me more.
“It’s okay,” I murmur, channeling Ani. “How are you? That’s what I need to know here, Hope. Are you okay? They want me to back off and let you uncurse this necklace.”
“You should do what they want,” she says. “I’m fine. Really. They’ve got me in a nice place.” She pauses. “Remember when you took me to New York for my eighteenth birthday, just the two of us, and the guy at the desk thought you were cute so he upgraded us?”
“Pretty sure I’m not the one he upgraded for.”
“Pretty sure you were. Anyway, the room’s like that. No windows, of course, but I have a bedroom and a sitting area and room service. Plus Netflix and an Xbox. They asked if they could bring me anything, and I said I’d like a copy of that book you recommended, the one based on a Russian fairy tale. They said they’ll get it.”
As she talks, her voice breathless as a tween’s, Connolly’s frown deepens. I swear I can hear his thought process. Is this girl really as ditzy as she sounds?
“Code,” I mouth.
Ani catches my eye, and I shoot her a thumbs up. Hope really is fine. That’s what she’s telling us—that this isn’t a lie she’s been fed by her captors.
Tell your sister you’re okay. Tell her you’re in a comfy hotel suite and all is good.
My sister has anxiety. Nothing major, but one way it manifests is seeing articles about an accident or a crime and needing to find a personal solution, in case it ever happens to her. A month ago, she mailed me a keychain window breaker, and I knew she must have read something about people drowning in cars.
Then there was the article about a girl whose live-in boyfriend wouldn’t let her leave the apartment and forced her to tell her friends and family all was fine. For that, Hope wanted a code. A way we could let each other know whether we were speaking freely or under duress. If we talk about our shared past and tell the truth, everything is fine. If we lie, something’s wrong. Everything Hope said here is true.
Held hostage, yes, but if there’s a danger meter to such a thing, she’s at the bottom of it. At least for now.
“Hey, someone here wants to say hi,” I say.
Both Connolly and Ani look over sharply. Connolly waves a “cease-and-desist,” gesturing at Ani.
“She can’t actually talk,” I say. “But she is listening. Say hi to Sophie. You remember Sophie, right? My cat.”
Now Connolly’s brows furrow in comic confusion. Ani reaches out and squeezes my hand. Sophia is Ani’s middle name, after our maternal grandmother.
“Oh!” Hope says. “Sophie! Hey, kitty-kitty. You being good for Kennedy?”
“She’s fine,” I say. “She got out last night, and she looks a little worse for wear, but she just needs some kibble and a good brushing. I’ll take care of her.”
“I’m sure you will. You take care of Kennedy, too, Sophie.”
We talk a little more after that. We don’t say anything important. We can’t. If Hope knows more—her rough geographical location or information about her captors—she chooses not to share it, and I understand that.
Hope doesn’t want us coming after her. That much is clear. While it would put us in danger, it would endanger her, too. Right now, she’s sitting on a ledge, as comfortable and secure as can be. If we climb up—or throw a rope down—we might be able to rescue her. Or we could fall. Or she could fall. She just needs to sit tight and do as she’s told, and then her captor will put up a ladder for her to safely descend.
That’s what she’s been told. Just wait a few days, uncurse the Necklace of Harmonia and they’ll let her go. She doesn’t know anything about Connolly or the “mission” I’ve been given to guarantee her safety, and I’m sure as hell not adding to her anxiety.
“We just need to wait this out, K,” she says. “I don’t like the way they went about it, obviously, but we’ll get through this and then we’ll protect ourselves so it never happens again.”
Her captor cuts in soon after, and then Hope is gone.
“I want daily calls,” I say to him. “To be sure she’s okay.”
“Proof of life?” His mechanically distorted voice snorts.
“I’m considering this a hostage taking. You’re holding her to ensure both of us do as we’ve been told. I still need that call.”
“Your sister will be fine, but yes, I will call this number once a day and let you speak to her.”