I’m home, my mind still churning through my dilemma. I texted and called my sisters leaving Connolly’s office and again walking home from my showroom. They aren’t answering, which could mean they’re annoyed at me, but it more likely indicates cell service is down in Unstable, again. That’s the problem with living in a place where the average resident is still on dial-up internet. The psychics of Unstable have a direct line to God, Fate and the future. To Boston? Not so much.
When I push open the door to my apartment, a black cat sits on the kitchen counter while my favorite bone china mug rests precariously on the edge, where I absolutely did not leave it. One small kitty paw rests against the mug. Green eyes meet mine . . . and the mug creeps toward the edge.
“Don’t you dare, Ellie.”’
“Yes, I know we ran out of wet food, and you hate kibble.” I reach into my shopping bag and hold up a can. “Better?”
She considers. Then another nudge sets the mug teetering.
I snatch out a can of tuna and wave it. “There. Happy? I felt bad, so I bought you a treat.”
She sniffs and hops down to wait by her dish. As I mutter, her purr drowns me out, the sound as loud as a buzzsaw. I shake my head and open the can.
I’ve had Ellie nearly four years, ever since someone dropped her off at our house in Unstable, claiming she was cursed. According to her former owner, Ellie was the thirteenth cat in her litter. She’s also completely black except for a white spot on her chest that bears an uncanny resemblance to the evil eye. She isn’t cursed, though. She’s just an asshole. In other words, as Ani would say, she’s a cat. True, but Ellie inherited the asshole gene more than most of her species. Hence her full name of Elohssa—asshole spelled backwards.
Once Ellie is fed, I start pacing the apartment, which takes about ten strides. With each revolution, I check my phone. Nothing from Ani or Hope. My texts are delivered but unread. Damn it.
I plunk onto my sofa. Ellie takes her spot on the arm. She isn’t the world’s cuddliest cat. Oh, she acts like it, rubbing up against your legs and purring her buzzsaw purr. It’s a trap, one that has left scars on both my sisters. I’ve learned the pattern. Two pats are acceptable. A third will draw blood. Mostly, she just sits nearby. And she listens. Say what you will about Ellie, but she is an excellent listener.
“So I have a problem,” I begin, and she stretches out, getting comfortable.
I tell her about the ex-hex.
“I want the job,” I say. “Connolly’s paying well, it would look good on my resume, and it might lead to more work. The guy is about as warm and cuddly as you, but I can work with that.”
She rumbles in sage agreement.
“The thing is, a poorly woven curse can fray and infect those in the vicinity. My love life already sucks. What if I catch the curse, and I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely celibacy?”
Her look tells me I’m overreacting. Or, possibly, that I’m already on that path, so don’t go blaming it on a curse.
“Yes, I suppose the chances of me catching the hex are slight. The problem . . .” I thump my head back into the sofa. “Arghh! The problem is that I’m a nice person who wants to do the right thing.”
Ellie gives a disdainful sniff.
“Hey,” I say. “If I wasn’t, you’d be living in a barn right now. Or a houseful of small children with grubby hands that love to pull kitty-cat tails. While I can complain about not wanting to catch Connolly’s curse, the truth is that I should fix it. The guy might be arrogant, but he isn’t a monster. He recognizes that his decorating tastes don’t suit everyone, and he’s paying me very well to give his staff a nice room. I want to undo the curse for him, and if that makes me a sucker, so be it.”
Ellie cleans one paw.
“Fine. Yes. That settles it. I need to uncurse Connolly’s mirror. The next problem is how. I’m not supposed to meet with him again until Monday. By then, he may have moved the mirror. Also, I need time alone with it. Time when no one’s going to walk in and ask what I’m doing.”
I pull my legs up under me and consider the matter. “Clearly, the answer is that I need to break in tonight. I’ll take my lock picks and disarm his security system . . .”
Ellie’s green eyes narrow.
“That was a joke,” I say. “I can barely open the bathroom door when the lock sticks. This is going to require finesse.”
I don’t fail to catch the cat’s look then, the one that says, if finesse is what’s required, this mission is doomed from the start. I stick out my tongue and push up from the sofa. Time to grab my kit. I have a curse to unweave.
It’s seven PM, and I’m inside Connolly’s offices, wearing the best disguise for the job: no disguise at all. While I’d only seen a few employees flitting about earlier, they were all under forty. That means at least a few will be ambitious enough to work later than the boss.
Most I saw were also male, and I caught a few admiring glances as I walked through. I’m not the prettiest Bennett sister—that would be Hope. I’ve been told my skin is my best feature, which always feels like groping for something nice to say. I am blessed with clear light olive skin, though. Straight black hair swings past my shoulders, left loose tonight. Guys have called my eyes everything from mahogany to chestnut to rich oak. In other words, brown. And apparently wooden. I have an average figure, unblessed by Ani’s curves, but good enough to have the doorman’s eyes roaming below waist level as I head into Connolly’s building. If women compliment my skin, for guys it’s all about my legs.
My first stop was the building’s parking garage, where I found the numbered spots for Connolly’s business. I presume he gets the first, but one through five were empty, and the two cars remaining in his section were a pickup and an old smart car. Neither strikes me as his style.
Then it was past the doorman, too busy checking out my legs to question my right to be in the building. An elevator ride takes me to Connolly’s office suites. The main door isn’t locked, and I walk in to find a janitor mopping the floor. A female janitor. Not ideal but . . .
“Oh my God,” I say, breathlessly, as if I’ve run up thirteen flights of stairs. “Thank God someone’s still here. I need access to the solarium.”
“The what?” she says, leaning on her mop.
I wave my free hand. “The—the atrium. Or the solarium. The room with all the windows. I’m redecorating it, and I got home to find my cell phone pictures won’t work. I need this.” I gesture to the camera around my neck.
Her wrinkled face pinches. I raise my voice a little, letting it echo through the empty halls.
“Cell phones just aren’t good enough. They don’t have the right F-stop and lens aperture and exposure rate.” I throw out random camera terms and pray she isn’t an amateur photographer. “I need proper photos and— Oh!” I bounce on my toes and wave at an employee leaning from his office. “Hello! Can you help me, please!”
Now this guy is exactly what I was hoping to find here. Late thirties. Average appearance. Slightly harried. Staying late at the office because no one is waiting at home. Hopefully not gay, but if so, I can work with that—appeal to any big-brother sense of responsibility toward a young career woman.
I wave frantically, and he comes out, hesitantly at first. Then his gaze sweeps over me, and he straightens and runs a hand through his hair before he strides out.
“May I help you?” he says, his voice lowering an octave with each word.
I explain the situation so far.
“Also measurements.” I hold up a tape measure. “I need the width of the doorway, to know what size of furniture I can get through. Also the distance between outlets and immovable obstacles and . . .”
I exhale, drooping. “I know I should have gotten all this earlier. Or made an appointment. But this . . . It’s not my usual gig. I’m an antiques dealer. A job like this is huge, and I got frazzled, and Mr. Connolly . . .” I lower my voice, as if the man himself might be watching through security cams. “He’s kind of intimidating.”
The employee chuckles. “Kind of? I’ve been here three years, and I’m still afraid to ask for a key to the washroom.”
“Well, then I don’t feel so bad. I just . . . I got nervous and I snapped a few cell phone shots and then at home, I realized that wasn’t nearly enough. I just need, like, thirty minutes in there. I’d take twenty if thirty is too much. I know the room attaches to his office, but I’m presuming that door is locked.”
“Definitely locked. I don’t think Steffie even has a key.”
“Good. Then there wouldn’t be any problem just letting me into the solarium.” I turn to the janitor. “Do you have the key for that?”
She shrugs. “No need. Just a few pieces of old junk on a shelf. Mr. Connolly’s office is the only room he wants locked. ” She turns to the employee. “Including the washroom.”
“Er, right. I . . . knew that.” He gives a strained chuckle. “Well, no more running downstairs to the coffee shop for me.” He sweeps an arm along the hall. “Come along, Ms . . .”
“Bennett,” I say. “But you can call me Kennedy.”
He beams. “Let’s get you situated in that room then, Kennedy.”