The scratch tickets don’t work as well as I’d hoped. I suppose that’d be too easy. Connolly says he’ll keep it in mind for smaller balancing acts, though he may be humoring me. As he’d said earlier, he can’t direct the luck balance. The trick, it seems, is to just proceed with extreme caution and let the bad luck sift away, grain by grain.
After the scratch tickets, Connolly slips on the shop floor and, when picking himself up, manages to both bang his shin and fart—loudly and noxiously. I help him outside and leave him on the curb while I get the car. As he waits, a passing bird poops on his sleeve and a car hits a puddle five feet away and still manages to splash him. At least it cleans off some of the bird shit.
Connolly has an extra shirt in his trunk, but we decide it’s too soon in the bad-luck cycle for that. Instead we hit a coffee shop. He goes into the bathroom to clean up . . . and breaks the faucet. So we sneak out and find another shop, where I bring him damp towels and he cleans himself with moderate success. I buy us coffee while he sits at a table, touching nothing, not even his phone—which he insisted I confiscate until he’s re-balanced. Apparently, he’s had some experience with that.
At the frozen custard shop, he’d chosen salted caramel, so I get him a caramel latte. I buy a cappuccino for myself and a brownie for us to share. At the table, I double check the heat level of his latte—I’d asked for “kids’ temperature”—and the integrity of the cup before passing it over. Then I started cutting his half of the brownie into small, unchokable chunks, earning me double-takes and titters from surrounding tables.
“This is embarrassing,” Connolly says.
I stop cutting. “Sorry. I should let you do this yourself. I just thought . . .” I wave at the knife. “I guess plastic is safe, though.”
“I didn’t mean that. Just . . .” He spreads his hands. “All this. It’s like an anxiety-dream first date.” He stops short and clears his throat. “Not that this is a date, obviously.”
“You mean it feels like the anxiety-dream version of one. Where everything that can go wrong does.”
He nods. “Right. And I’m sorry, for all this.”
“Because you’re getting shit on by birds for saving my life? I owe you a hundred cut-up brownies, Connolly.”
“You wouldn’t have been in danger if you weren’t in my car.”
“And we wouldn’t have been in your car if we weren’t trying to find my sister.” I set down the knife and push the pieces toward him. “I think we’re both feeling guilty here, and neither of us should. You didn’t lose control of the car. I didn’t grab the wheel and send us into the median. The fault lies with whoever tried to kill us.”
“It wasn’t my mother.”
He fusses with a tidbit of brownie before popping it into his mouth. “I know I haven’t left the best impression of my family, and there are people who’d think she’d do something like that. I will not say she’d never do it to anyone but . . .”
“Not to her son. Like I said, obviously.” I lean back and sip my cappuccino. “Yes, I know there are parents who’ve done that kind of thing. And I get the impression I wouldn’t want her for a mother—”
I almost say “mother-in-law” before realizing how that could sound.
I continue, “But you don’t strike me as the kind of guy who’d keep sending Mother’s Day cards to Medea. I’ve refrained from comment on anything you’ve said about them because they’re your family. That’s sacred ground.”
“I appreciate that. It’s clear you come from a very different sort of family but, yes, this is mine, and I am still part of it, as fractious and difficult as that can be.”
“So whoever tried to kill us either just chose the same model of big-assed SUV or knew which your parents use and wanted you to think it was them. Seeing them following you would be annoying, but not suspicious. Exactly as it worked out—you noticed and weren’t concerned.”
He chews another brownie scrap and recedes into thoughtful silence.
After a moment, I say, “Does this make sense?”
“That someone tried to kill us? No. We can argue that they might have just intended to give us a scare, but a massive SUV hitting a sedan at highway speeds? On a busy road? The chance of a fatal accident is always there.”
“Either they intended to kill us or just didn’t care if they did.” I stir my drink and then look at him. “How much is this necklace worth?”
“As is? It’s expected to sell for mid six figures. Remove the magic, and that would easily double. Remove only the misfortune curse and leave the youth and beauty supposed blessing, and it’d fetch ten times that. But the value isn’t the issue here. People will kill for much less. The issue is that we don’t have the necklace. We are in no way assured of getting it. I’m one contender and you’re one potential curse weaver.”
“If they even knew who was in the car with you.” I stir again, my gaze on the foam as it melts into the coffee. “You must be the presumptive auction winner then. You have your parents’ backing, with their money and influence. Someone expects you to win.”
“But I don’t have their backing. Not officially. That would be counterproductive. I need to be the underdog, no threat to the big names. My parents agree—they’ve quietly grumbled in the right ears about me getting involved with this.”
“Someone knows the truth, though. That you’re a serious contender.”
“Am I?” He shakes his head. “I’m a contender. I think I can be a serious one. I need to be, for my brother’s sake. Right now though? I don’t see it, which means I don’t see why anyone would bother trying to take me out of the game. Hopefully, Vanessa will have more for us.”
“Tell me about her while we finish this up. Then we need to get back on the road.”
Connolly estimates Vanessa Apsley’s age at around forty, though the question seems to confuse him. I explain it away with some nonsense about preparing to deal with someone of another generation, but the truth is that I’m just curious.
Earlier, Connolly said Vanessa has been interested for a long time in “what he has to offer.” Is it wrong that I read something salacious into that? Is it ageist even? That a presumably older woman could only want one thing from an attractive younger man? Connolly does have talent, obviously, so I’m clearly not giving Vanessa Apsley the credit or respect a woman of her stature deserves. And yet . . .
Call it a gut feeling. I’m sure Ms. Apsley recognizes Connolly’s worth as an asset, but I get the feeling there’s more to it, and when he struggles to picture her even enough to affix an estimated age, I feel bad for the woman. I also get a very definite picture of her myself—ordinary enough that she slides effortlessly into “middle-aged,” a category covering anywhere from thirty-five to sixty.
That only matters in the sense that, if she is interested in Connolly, I’ll need to make sure she doesn’t get the wrong impression about me. That could torpedo this meeting in the time it takes to say hello.
As for other details on Vanessa Apsley, those are as scant as his recollection of her person. He knows she has money. He knows she has power and influence. He knows she is a capital M major player in the magical gray market. She’s cemented her reputation as a tough but fair dealer. Which is why Connolly has done several jobs for her.
Recently, she’d started wanting an exclusive relationship—and I’ll resist the urge to nudge-nudge, wink-wink there. That big of a commitment, though, would interfere with Connolly’s insurance business and with his plans to become an independent operator.
Connolly suspects Vanessa is one of the potential buyers for the necklace, though she hasn’t committed herself. He’s also certain she didn’t kidnap Hope or try to run us off the road. Her reputation for nonviolence is unmatched, which is why he’d chosen her as his employer.
Our goal then is to get information from Ms. Apsley without letting her know we’re after the necklace. We’ll focus on Hope’s kidnapping. My sister is missing, and we think it has something to do with the Necklace of Harmonia. I suggest telling Vanessa I’ve hired Connolly, that I knew him by reputation in the Boston magical community and asked for his help.
We’re discussing this an hour later, after we’re back on the highway. Connolly is driving again, his luck rebalanced.
“I don’t mind pretending I’m working on your behalf,” he says. “But she’ll see through it. She’s a shrewd woman and a professional in a field where people lie and misdirect as a matter of course. We may need another way to get the information from her.”
“Have you . . . ever gotten the impression she . . . fancies you?”
His brows rocket up. “What?”
“I was just thinking, maybe, if you’ve had the sense that she . . . would be amenable to it, you could flirt with her.”
“What?” His voice rises two octaves, as if I’d suggested torture.
“Nothing misleading. Just a little . . . you know.”
“I don’t know. Well, yes, I do but . . . No. I— No.”
“You sputter adorably.”
I get a glare for that, and I throw up my hands. “It was just a suggestion. We need to find a way to pump her for information, and I thought—”
He chokes. “No. There will be no . . .”
“Pumping for information?” I glance over. “It’s a figure of speech, Connolly. Mind out of the gutter.”
“I’m not the one—”
“I said to flirt with her. Mild flirtation. No pumping involved. Geez.” I shake my head. “Very light, exploratory flirtation should be enough—”
I sigh. “I get the feeling you aren’t properly committed to this mission, Connolly.”
He looks over, sees my smile and relaxes. “I appreciate your creativity. But flirtation wouldn’t help, even if it was remotely in my skill set. We’re going to need to play this by ear. Follow my lead. All right?”