Anna Cerasola pushed one more table against the tall bookshelves that lined the room and held her arms out from her sides to gage the space. It would have to do. She sent a critical eye toward the polished shelves and the beautiful selection of books on display in her tiny bookstore. Even in Rome, there were large chain bookstores that pushed independent shops like hers to the brink of extinction, but the Italian love for cozy old spaces had kept her business going.
Well, that and a rare collection of ancient grimories.
The public shop would be doing much better in the near future, thanks to the sulfurous stench that had closed the glamorous chain store. That unfortunate event meant the publisher of Culinarily BeWitchery had to scramble for a new venue for a major book signing event. Somehow, Anna’s little shop had received the frantic call from the publisher’s office and she had immediately agreed to host it. Even with all of the work she’d have to get done to host the event, it was a bargain – the publicity alone would keep her bookstore buzzing for weeks.
Anna considered herself uniquely qualified to host the signing. Not only was she an accomplished cook, she was an accomplished earth witch as well. The publisher had no way of knowing that well-hidden secret, but coincidence was a wonderful thing and Anna smiled to herself. A mainstream book signing in a shop that held magically protected vaults in the basement. Who said life was boring and downhill after fifty?
Simon LeCress, celebrated author and chef, was scheduled to appear at ten o’clock that morning and Anna still had so many things to do to get her space ready. There were stacks of books to move and tables to arrange so the people could stand in line and get a signed copy of the new bestseller about healthy cooking based on the unlikely marriage of ancient herbal magic and gourmet cuisine. Anna laughed at the thought: magic was coming to the 21st century on the coattails of celebrity chefs.
Magic had found a new identity in the modern world. Once, the practitioners of earth magic who brewed potions and spells in cauldrons over open fires were burned at the stake or dismissed as charlatans. Celebrities like Simon LeCress were now considered modern messiahs who had tapped into the ancient wisdom that the masses had pooh-poohed in favor of hard science. The wisdom of the earth witches was making serious progress with recipes to cure a cold or guarantee a romantic evening. What a difference a few centuries made.
A delay in shipping to the other bookstore saved the boxes of Culinary BeWitchery from exposure to the sulfur. The boxes had been diverted to Anna’s store late the previous night and she had spent the evening stacking them under tables and creating a rather stunning display in her front window to lure the customers in. The publisher had arranged for an article to appear in the previous evening’s paper and on all over the internet, alerting the public to the change of venue. Anna had printed it out and pinned it to the wall behind the cash register. It was quite a stroke of luck for her.
The crowd started forming two hours before the culinary genius was to arrive. Anna watched as people queued up, and opened early to let the fans in to browse and purchase the copies they hoped to have signed. As she’d hoped, people began milling about purchasing not only LeCress’ book, but others on magical topics and herbal remedies as well. Anna was poised for a record-setting sales day.
The publisher had sent over three interns to help with the crowds and Anna quickly assigned tasks to the eager young workers. They were enthusiastic and helped new customers with such charm and efficiency that Anna wished she could hire them all.
“Lovely little shop.” The tall woman said in English, laced with a German accent. She handed several euros over the counter to Anna. “I’ll have to tell my friends about it.”
“Please do! If there’s anything you’re looking for, I can order it for you in any language.” Anna replied in Boston accented English. Rome was such a wonderful mixture of languages and culture. For Anna, the daily practice of switching between her native tongue and Italian or French or German was exhilarating and it kept her mind sharp.
A murmur started near the doors as Simon LeCress swept aside the crowd with a dramatic flair, entering into the bookshop amid a small entourage of harried looking assistants. He flicked his hand vaguely in the air, to acknowledge the whispered awe and quiet applause. His white chef’s coat gleamed in the tiny store, and he looked with disdain at the antique library table Anna had set up for him.
Anna pushed out from behind the sales counter with her arms folded in front of her. Her navy blue shift dress made her look taller and more imposing than her five feet three inch height would suggest. Her black hair was shot through with streaks of stunning silver and her jet eyes flashed in challenge at the arrogant chef.
LeCress sneered at her and his muddy brown eyes fell on the hard backed chair she had set up for the guest of honor. He shoved the chair to the side with a shudder, as if it were filthy. Anna felt a jolt of electricity snap in the air around her and she forced herself to resist the urge to smack the sneer right off the man’s face. It was rare that someone could set her teeth to grinding within five seconds, but LeCress had somehow managed it.
His white hair was curly in the way that reminded her of wool – steel, not lamb. His face was lined in a permanent scowl that shouted disdain for lesser mortals. His brow was even creased with a single deep slash right between his eyes. No doubt LeCress spent most of his time with his white brows drawn together in disdain.
Anna met his sneer with a scowl of her own and LeCress turned toward an intern to growl an order of some sort. Anna watched the poor girl dart out the door at the command. A tall man with a hawkish nose leaned toward LeCress and whispered something. Instantly, the brow crease subsided on Chef’s face and he tried to look more approachable and arrogant. Anna held back a snort. She stalked closer to the man, her curiosity over his attitude getting the best of her.
With a snap of his stubby fingers, LeCress beckoned a young woman to his side.
After a few whispers, which LeCress seemed to growl in the woman’s ear, she scurried off behind Anna’s register and retrieved the leather chair Anna herself had been sitting on before the Chef arrived. Anna couldn’t resist passing her fingers over the chair as the harried assistant wheeled it passed her with an apologetic look. The younger woman shoved it behind LeCress. He sat and gave a small jolt of surprise followed by a shrug of concession. The chair would do, provided nothing else was available. Anna hid her smile; the jolt had gone unnoticed by the old fraud.
Anna crossed her arms in front of herself and studied LeCress for a moment. She was certain there wasn’t anything special about the man. He hadn’t even greeted her, as if she were one of the hired staff; there only to serve the grand chef de cuisine. She felt her hackles begin to rise, but after a few deep breaths she focused again on the lines of women waiting to make purchases. Revenue was better than retaliation.
The publisher had supplied waiters and they wove their way through the crowd, presenting the fans with small crackers and herbed cheeses on great silver platters. One server swooped by Anna and she swiped a chunk of bread spread with creamy goat cheese and a variety of herbs. Anna sniffed at the cheese, trying to identify the herbs, but before she could lift it to her mouth something banged against her legs, knocking her into the sales counter. Anna looked down and found the soft brown eyes of a large blackish dog gazing back at her. The dog grinned and flicked its ears.
Anna gasped in shock as the dog lunged at her. A large paw connected with her wrist and the crostini slipped from her fingers. It fell to the floor, and when Anna bent to pick it up, the dog batted it away again and dove after it. The bread skittered across the terrazzo tiled floor and slid under a bookshelf. The large dog dashed after it, tail wagging and nails scraping on the tiles.
“Is that your dog? Does he bite?” One of the assistants asked Anna, in a worried voice as customers were nudged and jostled by the animal.
Anna shook her head and smiled at the assistant who looked suddenly panicked. Anna didn’t need to see the dog to know his location. The gasps of surprise and enthusiastic utterances of “good dog” in three languages, let her know that the dog was meandering through the shop, greeting the customers and acting like a big, friendly oaf. Anna waved the assistant off and offered a cheerful “I’ll take care of him.” She patted the woman on the arm and followed the ill mannered dog through the crowd to the front door.
Holding the door open, Anna leveled her gaze at the dog. “Shoo!” She commanded, pointing out to the street. The dog grinned at her, tail wagging enthusiastically, and exited the shop in the most obedient way. Anna watched as the animal padded down the Via Conti and disappeared from view. With a sigh of relief, Anna wove her way back through the crowd.
The murmurs of the waiting fans seemed more subdued, and the air inside the shop had taken on a fresh aroma. Anna glanced at the faces of those waiting for LeCress to sign their newly purchased cook books. She noted their slightly dilated pupils and flushed skin.
A server proffered the tray of cheese in front of Anna and she politely shook her head. Magic my ass! She thought.
She approached LeCress from the side, leaning in to him and brushing his arm with hers. Through her leather soled shoes, she channeled her energy into the wooden floor at the exact moment of contact. She had expected a bit of a jolt of energy from him; it was what happened when magic met magic. Instead, only a faint ordinary buzz of humanity emanated from him. Magic met very weak magic in that brief touch and LeCress obviously didn’t feel Anna’s diverted energy at all. Chef was a complete fraud posing as a powerful earth witch. Anna picked three books out of the box beneath the table the guest of honor was using smiled politely at him.
“We’re selling so many, I want to keep the display full.” She offered, patting his arm and feeling no tell-tale energy from him.
“Of coarse you are. I’m surprised so many people have come to….this…” Chef waved a dismissive hand at Anna’s shop as if it were beneath him. He tried to smile at her, but his cold brown eyes didn’t change. He was used to people doing things for him, and Anna imitated his snide smile. Weasel, she thought, figures a real witch wouldn’t be flaunting magic like this jerk does. Time for a demonstration of real power.
Anna headed into the back of her shop and when she was certain nobody was looking, she snipped a bit of moleskin off a small pad and slipped it into her pocket.
Due to the large crowd and the constant flow of shoppers through her little shop, Anna remained open throughout the traditional break in the middle of the day. The remainder of the day passed in much the same way. LeCress snapped his fingers at his assistants, and pretended to be the mystical chef who knew how to infuse gastronomic excellence with medicinal spells and charms.
An elderly man was one of the last customers to have his copy of the book signed. There was something familiar in his hobbled steps and hunched shoulders, but Anna could not place him. She watched him purposefully graze his hand across the author’s, before he shuffled out the door, pausing to pet the large black dog which had taken up residence, thankfully outside Anna’s shop, in the gathering twilight.
LeCress and his small entourage left the shop and everyone save Chef thanked the owner. Anna smiled in what she hoped was a simpering manner as she grabbed LeCress’ hand and slipped a small square of moleskin on the inside of his chef’s coat. She smiled and wrinkled her pert little nose and said with as much sincerity as she could muster: “I do hope you’ll remember my little shop for a very long time.”
With a bored nod, Chef walked out into the night. Anna watched and her face broke into a wide grin as he reached a hand up to scratch the back of his neck. By the end of dinner, Chef would need to consult his own book to find an herbal cure for the worst case of hives he’d ever have.
Night had fallen, and Anna’s stomach growled. She would close up shop and treat herself to some good pasta down the street at Ancones. Maybe even stop for a little gelato while she took her nightly stroll. Even after being on her feet most of the day, a walk sounded like a good idea. Anna wasn’t used to spending so much time inside her shop, and the thought of fresh air and a nice treat was too tempting. Before she locked the door, she set the wards to keep unwanted intruders out of her shop. Despite the high-tech security alarm supplied by a local firm, the magical wards were necessary protection against non-traditional thieves.
Murmuring the incantations, she went from corner to corner of the room, a bundle of burning sage in her small hand. To check her work, she glanced up at the glowing blue light above the door. The fairy light glowed reassuringly that the enchantments were invoked. Ann then took the money out of the till and stored it in the back room, well concealed under an invisibility charm.
When Anna left the shop, she was disappointed to discover the dog had wandered off while she tidied up. Home to his master, Anna thought as she walked toward the piazza.
Ancones was still busy as the waiter showed Anna to a small table inside the restaurant. Between greeting friends and neighbors and answering questions about the great Chef in the most diplomatic terms she could manage, Anna forked down bits of gnocchi and sips of a rich red wine. A few times, she thought she saw the form of a large dog across the piazza, but animals wandering about Rome weren’t unusual, so it probably wasn’t the same dog.
After dinner and a passeggiata with pistachio gelato, Anna returned to her shop. The faint blue glow of the fairy light signaled all was well. Had the light turned to an ugly green glow, Anna knew she’d find burglars inside the shop, fast asleep because of the wards. It was a neat spell she had perfected decades ago in New Jersey. When someone broke in, the wards would immediately trip. Since any witch worth their weight could disable an electronic alarm by sending a burst of power into the system, the wards were necessary protection against supernatural thieves.
She inserted her key into the lock, eager to be home. As she twisted the key, a low growl sounded behind her, causing her to swing around, key brandished in front of her as a weapon. The growl came again, and Anna pushed the door open behind her, hoping to make a quick escape into the safety of the shop.
A crackle of energy zipped across the pavement, making a loud sizzle as the current met with the dampness of the pavement. From the corner of her eye, Anna saw the movement; a rushing black form streaked toward her, claws aimed at her shoulders. There was no time to duck, and the great beast hit her with incredible force.
The wind was knocked out of her, and Anna stared up at the still form of the beast which had crashed into her and sent her flying through the open door and into her shop. Two men were running across the street, headed for the open door. Anna heaved herself from beneath the dog and slammed the door right before the men leapt onto the sidewalk. She shouted an incantation to electrify the door handle as she flung the deadbolt on.
Through the glass door, she stared at the men for a moment before she murmured another spell and waved her hand. A thick grey mist formed on the inside of the windows and door, concealing Anna from the men who had tried to attack her.
She had managed to escape from the two men, but the big dog that had knocked her was inside the shop with her – sound asleep because of the wards. The ward would have worked on the two men as well, but better safe than sorry. Anna would have preferred the dog remain outside, as well.
The mist she had formed over the glass widows had given away her ability as a spell caster, but since the two men had used magic first, Anna wasn’t worried about her own display. Obviously the knew what she was, and that little fact made her stomach flutter. She’d taken great pains to make sure nobody but the most trusted practioners knew of her shop in Rome.
Until the signing with Simon LeCress. Anna groaned inwardly. Of coarse it had been too good to be true. Somehow the United Coven and Alliance had found her and sent LeCress to her little shop for the signing. Once inside, they had no doubt learned the secret of the vaults in the basement. Anna had been so preoccupied with determining LeCress’ magical ability that she had completely ignored the assistants and the customers; any one of them could have been an Alliance agent. Anna spat a sharp curse into the dimly lit room. It had all been a set up to discover her little underground grimoire business. She’d been a fool to fall for it.
The wards would keep the dog asleep, so Anna quickly made the rounds of the rest of the building. Wards were still set in the back storeroom. She flipped the lights on to the cellar and could see the vast wave of electricity that kept the vaults safe. It was also intact. Upstairs, her living quarters were untouched, the wards there holding as well. Anna leaned against the wall and bit her lip. It had taken them years to make a move. So long, in fact, that Anna believed she had reached an uneasy truce with the United Coven and Alliance. All that had ended when the two warlocks had tried to zap her with an energy snake.
Slowly, she descended the stairs, checking first the blue fairy light, then the sleeping dog. Either the dog had attacked her, or had managed to save her life. She thought for a second about the dog batting the cheese out of her hand. Maybe he had saved her life twice.
She rummaged around behind the desk, pulling twine from one of the drawers and a length of good, sturdy rope, from another. Gingerly, she bound the dog’s two front paws together, and then the two hind legs together. She made sure the dog could be in a comfortable position, but would be unable to stand. Next, she looped the sturdy rope around his neck and tied him fast to the radiator in the corner of the shop. When she was satisfied with her work, she walked from corner to corner, pulling down the sleeping wards inside the shop, but leaving the ones in tact on the windows and doors.
As if on cue, the dog lifted his massive head and blinked at her. Anna regarded his eyes in the dim light cast by the bobbing globe she had generated while pulling down the wards. Cautiously, she inched closer to the dog, keeping her tone soft.
“Nice doggy. You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” She inched a little closer and felt somewhat reassured when the dog lay his head back down and flicked his ears a little in response to her voice.
Anna reached a hand out and cautiously stroked the thick fur. No jolt of energy greeted her pale hand, just the usual life force of another living creature. The dog watched her with solemn brown eyes. He made no growl or objection to her touch. She continued to stroke his head, speaking in soothing tones and inching closer and closer. In the dim light, the dog lifted his head and hitched himself around until his head rested on her ankle.
“What is your name?” She asked, in a hushed voice.
The dog blinked, and yawned.
“You’re a very brave dog, aren’t you? You saved me.” She stroked the thick fur and tried to calm her racing heartbeat. “You knew about the bad men across the street.” She breathed the last words and rolled her neck around, realizing the tension that had crept into her shoulders. “Those wards have held off some of the nastiest warlocks and witches in Rome, Pal, so those two amateurs out there don’t stand a chance.” She whispered, glancing at the door.
“They’ll give up soon.” She said, realizing it was more of a wishful thought than a known fact. The dog lay his head back down on the floor and snuffed agreement.
Anna reached out again and patted the dog’s head. He gave a short whine of protest as he struggled a little against the restraints.
“I’ll untie you if you promise not to bite.” It was a silly statement, because the dog had let her pet him without snarling or showing teeth at all. Still, Anna wasn’t sure if the dog was friend or foe, so the restraints gave her time to contemplate the dog’s status.
He lifted his head again and draped it across her ankle. She let her hand stroke along his flank and he snuffed a little before closing his eyes. Feeling braver, Anna stroked along his shoulder and the dog nudged her arm with his nose. She continued speaking to him, and after a few minutes of petting, the dog’s long pink tongue gently licked her hand and he whined again.
Anna smiled. “Okay, I’ll let you free. Be a nice dog, or I’ll have to defend myself.” She stood and retrieved the scissors from her desk. Quickly she snipped the bindings and the dog bounded to his feet, shaking himself and wagging his bushy tail. He pulled back against the final restraint which kept him tethered to the radiator. He lifted mournful eyes to her and Anna smiled.
“Oh, the puppy dog eyes…so sad, but you shouldn’t complain. You could have broken my hip when you knocked me down. I’m not a young woman. You being tied up for a few minutes is nothing compared to the bruises I’ll have tomorrow.”
Anna patted his head as she unknotted the make shift leash from around his neck.
The minute he was free, the dog scampered off under one of the library tables she had pushed up against the bookshelves earlier that morning. He rutted around inside one of the boxes which contained copies of Culinary BeWitchery, before coming out with a parcel wrapped in a filthy piece of oil cloth and tied with twine. He dropped the package at Anna’s feet and pushed it toward her with his nose. The dog sat down and watched her with ears pricked forward and head tilted slightly to the left.
“This just keeps getting more and more interesting…” Anna said, leaning against the sales counter and crossing her arms in front of her. “I don’t suppose you can speak?”
The dog looked at her and wagged his tail. “Woof!”
“Right. Not what I had in mind. You’d like me to open this package?”
The dog stood and pounced on it, causing it to slide toward Anna.
“I have a feeling I’m not going to like this.” She said, shaking her head and picking the scissor up from the counter. With a heavy sigh, she snipped the twine. A leather bound manuscript was revealed when Anna pulled the oilcloth away. The dog whined.
Carefully, she ran her fingers over the cover, feeling the two intersecting lines surrounded by a perfect circle. As her fingers traced the cover, she released a faint bit of electricity, causing the symbol to glow slightly in the dim light.
Anna dropped the book and stood quickly, her back against the wall.
“No.” She said, emphatically. “I don’t want that here.” She pointed at the still glowing book.
The dog whined, and padded to the manuscript, pushing it toward her with his nose.
“I said no. I don’t know who you are to bring that here, but I won’t have it. You can go and tell them that. I want no part of this anymore.” Hot tears stung her eyes, and she trembled slightly. Although she didn’t even want to look at it, she could not tear her eyes away from the worn leather cover. The manuscript brought back too many memories, most of which were unpleasant.
“No.” She whispered again, shaking her head.
With a wave of her hand, she dissipated the fog that concealed the street from view. With her foot, she moved the manuscript to where it couldn’t be seen and peered out into the night. The two men were gone, and the street was deserted, except for an old man who hobbled toward her shop, leaning on a walking stick. In the faint glow of the streetlights, he looked up and even in the darkness his eyes met Anna’s.
She gasped, and murmured an incantation that immediately frosted the windows in an opaque glaze of ice.
“Damn it.” She hissed, glaring at the dog. “You get out there and tell him to go away. Take this filthy thing with you, too.” She kicked the book toward the door and pointed emphatically at it. “Go!” She commanded, and with a flick of her wrist the door swung open and crashed against the wall.
The dog stood staring at her. His ears drooped and his head lowered. His big eyes moved from Anna to the door and he sat down with a thud and trembled.
“I said go!” Anna commanded again. She pointed out the door and felt her own hand shake. The man across the street continued hobbling toward the shop and Anna held up her hand.
“Don’t even think about it.” She warned, her voice deadly calm.
“Anna.” He said from the dark street. “Just listen for a moment.” His voice was soft and instead of coming in on the night air, it sounded as if he spoke the words directly into her ear.
“You have nothing to say that I’d be interested in.” She replied, her voice quivering. She hated that sound.
The man kept walking toward the shop and while Anna was not afraid of him, she dreaded seeing the look in his dark blue eyes. She didn’t want to hear the reasonable tone of his voice. The dog stood and walked to Anna’s side with his bushy tail tucked beneath him. He sat next to her and faced the man in a subservient manner.
“You’re the only one who can help. You know that.” The old man’s voice was so patient, as if he were speaking to a small child.
“I helped once before.” She replied, watching him approach. “I think we all remember how that turned out.” Her tone had become bitter, and old tears threatened to well up in her eyes. She would not be intimidated into helping again.
“It was part of our bargain, though.” He said, standing in the doorway and glancing into the shop.
The dog wagged his tail beside Anna, brushing her leg with it. When Anna glanced down at him, he gave her a great doggy grin, ears laid back in a hopeful look. “So then you’re part of all this.” She said, stepping away from the dog.
The dog sat and regarded her with one ear raised and the other sticking straight out from the side of his head. A ‘who me?’ look if ever there was one.
The man from the street stood in the door way. “I’d prefer it if we could speak inside, Anna.” He said, gesturing to the blue fairy light. “It would be much better than chancing our conversation being overheard.
Anna waited for a few moments, contemplating her options. With a resigned shrug and a hard set to her jaw, she waved at the fairy light and growled a few words of Latin. The man stepped quickly across the threshold, and with a great gust of wind blew the door closed with a loud bang. Immediately the stoop was gone from his shoulders and a great mane of silver hair appeared beneath the plaid cap. The glamour fell away and his regal features sharpened.
“You always did like to show off, Kingston.” Anna said wearily, turning away from him and sitting down heavily on the stool behind the counter. “So what honor are you bestowing on me this time?” The sarcasm was thick and her throat hurt from unshed tears.
Kingston shook his head sadly. “I’d prefer to think of it as a favor. Between old friends.”
Anna’s harsh laughter earned her a puzzled look from the dog.
“Rufus here went through a great deal of trouble to make sure that book got to you.” Kingston approached the dog and ruffled the fur on the animal’s neck affectionately. “It was a long journey, wasn’t it, old friend?”
The dog regarded the older man with weary eyes. With a low whimper, the dog lay down and placed his large head between his paws. Kingston pulled up a chair and sat down at the table where LeCress had signed his books. He gestured to another chair, inviting Anna to sit next to him. He rested arms on the table in a relaxed pose.
“Rufus?” Anna inquired, rubbing her temples and trying to concentrate. There was something familiar in that name; it tickled her memory somehow. Anna sat wearily in the chair and looked from the dog to the man next to her. Kingston Pon was never a man to trifle with. The relaxed and casual pose he maintained did nothing to stop the pounding of her heart and her head. Anna needed to think.
“You remember Rufus Albrecht, don’t you? Marco would know him.” Kingston settled back a little in the chair and shrugged.
Anna felt her features harden into a mask. “Marco knew a lot of things. He knew he’d never live to see his daughter grow up, for instance.”
Kingston sighed and cast a glance at Rufus. “Rufus knew that he had to get that book to you, Anna. You’re the only one with the connections and powers to hide it. You’re one of the last guards.” Kingston smiled a humorless smile. “Maybe the only guard left.”
Anna felt the dry laugh escape her, like twigs scraping against glass. “Not the only one left, Kingston. You know that as well as I do. There are others who will hide your precious little book for you, yet Rufus brings it to me; the only one who wants nothing to do with the organization. Ever.”
“Which organization, my dear?” Kingston asked, a smile playing around his mouth.
Anna shrugged, “Either one. The CCO or the Alliance. Which ever one you’re here to plead for.”
“I would never plead for the Alliance, and you know that. Perhaps if you are not interested in the CCO, I could call back those two agents from the Alliance who were here earlier. I’m sure they would gladly take the book. It would take some doing to get them back, though. You see, I have no idea where I sent them, so if you wish to speak to them I’ll have to find them first.” He examined his nails and feigned indifference.
“I bet you sent them safely home, Kingston. Safely back to the Alliance with no memory of tonight. Isn’t that usually your style?”
“Usually. It’s best to keep them that way. If they remember things, then it’s only a matter of time before they find your little shop or one of the others.”
“So it’s a public service you provide now?” Anna shook her head in
disbelief. “You get my husband killed, and then spend the rest of your life ‘protecting’ his family? Isn’t that the story you’d like me to believe, Kingston?”
“You can believe whatever you wish, Anna. The truth remains that the Alliance has not approached any member of your family in many years. I have lived up to my part of the bargain.” Kingston said, leaning closer and peering at her.
“I’m still not taking your book.” Anna said with a cold smile.
“I only want it hidden, Anna. Rufus went through great trouble to bring it here for exactly that purpose. Look at him, Anna. He’s a dog, for Merlin’s sake!”
Anna glanced at Rufus who regarded her with a bored expression.
“What did he used to be?”
“An agent of the CCO. An independent contractor of sorts. He was a guard of the book you so carelessly pushed aside. Now, he’s been changed into this form and none of us know who did it or how long it will last.”
“How’d he get changed?”
Rufus’ ears perked up and a low growl issued from him.
Anna shook her head and glared at Kingston. Her voice was harsh when she spoke. “Did you send him here?” She demanded.
“Then the Alliance did.” Anna said with certainty. “They sent that incompetent fool here so they could get an agent inside my shop. I’m going to have to close up now. Again.” Anna felt her blood pressure begin to rise.
Kingston held up a hand. “The Alliance was here? How do you know?” The concern in his tone made Anna shudder.
“The two agents. LeCress was supposed to be at the big chain store but there was a chemical problem – sulfur, if you can believe it – I mean could they be more obvious? Yesterday, the whole place smelled like rotten eggs so they moved the public appearance here – of all the bookstores in Rome, they managed to pick my shop to host it. I was a complete fool to not see the connection.”
Rufus looked from Anna to Kingston with his ears pricked forward and a giant doggy grin on his furry face. His tail thumped wildly on the tile floor. Kingston looked down at the beast and a grin split his regal features.
“I think he has a confession to make.” He said, pointing to the dog.
Rufus leapt up and spun in a joyful circle, wagging his tail and woofing happily.
“The dog?” Anna asked, incredulously.
“He was a guard, Anna. Give Rufus some credit. I think he managed to find a way to get the venue changed and to get that book delivered right to your shop.”
“How do you know so much about this?” Anna asked, hearing the suspicion in her own voice.
“When Rufus disappeared, those of us who are left began looking for him. As luck would have it, LeCress was in town when Rufus disappeared. I’ve been following LeCress for months now, thinking he had something to do with it.”
“That incompetent fool? If Rufus Albrecht got turned into a dog, there’s no way LeCress is responsible. He couldn’t pull off a trans-species alteration spell.” Anna gestured to the dog and shook her head. “You’ve been chasing a coincidence.”
“And yet that coincidence led me to your shop, where Rufus is; after LeCress has left for the day and you were attacked by two Alliance agents. I’d say I was chasing the correct coincidence.” Kingston retorted, leaning back in his chair.
Rufus gave a low growl and lowered his head.
“I think Rufus disagrees.” Anna replied, crossing her arms in front of her.
The dog turned his eyes toward her and issued a short bark.
“See?” Anna said, feeling vindicated.
“Then you speak dog?” Kingston asked, folding his own arms across his massive chest.
“My daughter has an owl as a familiar. Feathers or fur, it’s all the same.” She replied, holding a hand out and chucking the dog under his chin.
“Then you can interpret Rufus’ reaction to my theory for me.” Kingston said, crossing his ankle over his knee. “I think someone caught up with Rufus and tried to get the book. When Rufus put up a fight, he somehow got transfigured into the form of a dog.”
Anna glanced down at Rufus who blinked at her with a bored expression.
“Try again.” Anna said, flicking her silver brows at Kingston.
“Then someone tracked Rufus down and when they tried to steal the book Rufus turned himself into a dog.”
“But who tracked you down?” Kingston asked the dog.
A high pitched whine issued from the beast.
“Did LeCress have anything to do with it?” Kingston asked.
Rufus laid his head on Anna’s knee and looked at her with a mournful expression.
“Nope.” Anna said, stroking his fur.
“I’ve been following LeCress for months, trying to find that book. He comes to your shop and Rufus shows up. What else could possibly be happening?” Kingston said, looking completely frustrated.
Rufus whined again and walked out in front of the table and sat down on the floor with a hard thud. He stared expectantly at Anna and Kingston.
“I think we’re going to play charades.” Anna said, leaning her elbows on the table and facing the dog. “Ready?” She asked.
“LeCress was in town.”
“Someone tried to steal the book.”
“Someone who worked with LeCress tried to steal the book.”
Whimpering, Rufus lay on the floor and looked at them.
“You brought the book to me to guard?”
Anna sighed and turned toward Kingston. “This is going to take some time to figure out. As much as I’d rather not, I think we should go upstairs to my apartment and feed Rufus. After he’s eaten, we’ll try again.”
Rufus stood and turned in a circle, looking very excited. Kingston sighed and stood up. “I know you’re not going to like this, but I’m afraid you’re on your own with this for a few days. Those two agents who attacked you are probably at the airport, wondering what they’re doing there. I hit them with a memory spell and sent them there because I’m booked on a flight back to Boston tonight and I’m going to take them with me. There’s something going on back in the States with a former agent who’s gone rogue. I really need to focus on that and keep those two agents busy so they don’t remember you or your shop. Can you guard the book and work on getting Rufus’ story until I can come back?”
Anna looked at the dog and then back at Kingston. Rufus turned mournful eyes to her again and tilted his head to the side.
“How long will you be gone?” Anna asked, shooting a pointed glare at Kingston.
“A few days. Maybe a week.” The man replied, looking at his watch. “My plane leaves in two hours.”
Anna sighed and shook her head. “Typical. You come in here and drop a great stinking mess in the middle of my shop then you jet off on another job. You never change, do you?” She placed her small hands on her hips. “Can you guarantee that nobody else from the Alliance will show up?”
“Since I wasn’t expecting the two who were here earlier, I can’t promise anything. I will keep them with me, though, so you should be safe.” Kingston reached into his pocket and pulled out two business cards. One with his name and a cell phone number and another with McGilly’s Dry Cleaning printed in large black letters. “If anyone shows up and you can’t get a hold of me, wet this card down and call the number on it. It’s my business partner Evan’s card. He’ll help you.”
“I’ll agree to keep your book for one month, Kingston. After that, we’ll have another conversation about where it goes.” Rufus whined but Anna shot him a hard look. “Don’t you even think about it.” She wagged her finger at the dog and he sat down with his ears pricked forward. “You brought me into this mess and I’ll help you if I can, but I don’t want to be part of it for the rest of my life. In my experience, the C.C.O. isn’t any safer than the Alliance and I like my quiet little life. Got it?”
Kingston took her small hand in his larger one. “I will owe you again for this, Anna. I’ll be in touch once I clear up this other situation.” Without warning, he leaned down and kissed her lightly on each cheek. “Marco knew what a brave woman you are.”
With tears stinging her eyes, Anna watched Kingston walk out the door and into the dark streets of Rome. He’d be on a flight back to America by the time she’d fed the dog, added the small leather book to the collection in the vaults, and re-set the wards. All she’d wanted was a little publicity for her little book shop, and what she’d received was a full time job guarding an ancient magical text and a whole lot of danger. Not the bargain she’d been hoping for.