I stayed up all night researching the history of Abbotshire. I looked into papers Dr. Ash had published, read through countless articles on the history of Great Britain and no matter how many notes I took, I couldn’t find a connection between Ash-hole and Ray besides magic – and that just wasn’t logical given what I knew about Dr. Ash.
With a dramatic sigh of frustration, I pushed myself to my feet and began pacing the floor. Basir and Ka’Tehm watched me with bored expressions. The more I thought about those photos, the more obsessed I became. I ran my hands through my hair and gritted my teeth. There was just no graceful way to get more information on the dig. If I called any of my former colleagues out of the blue and told them that I had seen an article and suspected something was afoot, they would think I was a bit wacky.
Hell, even I thought I was losing it! I sat on the couch and held my head in my hands. “I need to let this go.” I groused, feeling utterly exhausted. I stood up, feeling resolved in my decision and walked back to the kitchen. “Who wants breakfast?” I called to my companions.
I rounded the kitchen island and pulled the refrigerator door open. I grabbed bacon and eggs off the shelves and set about making breakfast while trying to get my mind off the mystery on the other side of the ocean. I scrambled and fried like a mad-woman, whipping up a pile of frittatas while I contemplated the facts and filled in with a little conjecture.
We had just finished eating in silence when the copper gong on the front porch sounded a loud tone. I glanced at my companions and a shiver ran down my spine. Nobody visited our nearly-converted barn in the woods, and the wards I had set around the property were generally strong enough to discourage even the most determined religious missionary from venturing down the long driveway.
I looked out the window. Sure enough, a car was rolling slowly toward our house. I didn’t recognize the small car, and I peered out the window as Basir landed on my shoulder.
“We have company.” I said, stating the obvious.
“Whoooo.” Basir replied.
“Well I don’t know yet.” I quipped and ducked as he slapped at the back of my head with his large wing. Owls have no sense of humor about their limited vocabulary.
“You better go take a look. I don’t like unexpected company.” I said, reaching up a hand to stroke his soft feathers. He nipped my ear affectionately and soared up to the peak of the roof and through the small door.
I watched from the safety of my house as Basir passed in front of the car and looked in at the driver. He veered out of the way of the moving vehicle and landed in a tree where I could see him. I held my breath and let it out in a whoosh when he lifted his wings in a joyful gesture. He flapped wildly in the air and returned to the house.
I felt myself relax and I pulled open the kitchen door and peered out as the car eased to a stop. Basir’s reaction meant I’d be pleased with the visitor, but I still didn’t know who it was. The person inside the car took forever to shut the engine off and open the door, but when the old man swung his feet to the ground and stood leaning against the driver’s side door I gave a shout of delighted surprise and ran out to greet him.
“Pops! What are you doing here?” I laughed, hurrying toward the car with my black flip-flops slapping a quick rhythm against my heels.
“Chicken!” He called, fumbling with the key fob to pop open the trunk. “Can’t a man visit his favorite grandchild without a reason?” He asked, smiling brightly.
“I’m your only grandchild and you don’t need a reason to visit. I’m so happy you’re here!” I said, meaning it with every fiber of my being.
I helped him pull his small suitcase out of the trunk and watched while Basir landed on the porch railing, waiting for his turn to greet my grandfather. After much excited hooting and affectionate beak snaps, the three of us chattered happily and walked into the house.
“I see you’ve done a few more things since I was here last time.” My grandfather said, looking around at the kitchen cabinets that were hung, the hardwood floors that had been stained and varnished, and the solid surface counter that I had considered a necessary extravagance when I’d bought it – even though it completely shredded my budget.
“It’s coming along.” I agreed, having long since come to the conclusion that refinishing that old barn was going to be my life’s work. “Where’s Nan?” I asked, thinking it odd that my grandmother didn’t come along.
“Oh, she’s out visiting that worm of a brother she has in New Mexico. I never cared much for him.” My grandfather announced.
“And she let you jet off without her?” I said, suspiciously.
“It’s not like I’m sneaking off with some tart, Arienne. She’s visiting her brother and I’m visiting our granddaughter. After sixty years of marriage, we don’t need to be joined at the hip and I don’t need to see that worm she’s related to.”
Pops had a point. Uncle Bert was a worm, and I wouldn’t drive across the street to see him, never mind fly halfway across the country if I had a choice. Nan had never given me that choice, though. I’d spent more than a few vacations in the burning sun of New Mexico. When I wasn’t dodging scorpions and Uncle Bert’s mean old cat, Pops and I had trudged through the desert looking for Native American sites and traces of old magic.
Pops looked around the house while he continued his story.
“Seems as if the worm is having a hard time with his son…your Nan went to give him some advice.” Pops waved a dismissive hand in the air and grinned at me with sparkling blue eyes. “I don’t suppose you have a cold beer in that fancy refrigerator?”
“What sort of girl do you think my mother raised? Do you want imported or domestic?” I headed to the fridge and pulled out two bottles before grabbing two glasses and an opener. “Have a seat in the new and improved living room.” I said, gesturing past the kitchen.
The house had improved in comfort and completeness since his last visit. I’d managed to replace my thrift store couch with a comfy sectional in a rich chocolate micro-suede. One wall was painted a pumpkin color and the threadbare rug had been upgraded to a modern shag in shades of cream and copper. The small television I’d rescued from the dump still stood in the corner; it was next on the list of things to be replaced when I had enough money to justify the expense.
Pops sat on the sofa and eyed the twig patterned throw pillows. “Pretty plush, isn’t it?” He asked, eyeing the faux leopard fur throw on the back of the couch where Basir perched. He stroked a large hand across the seat of the couch and winked at Basir.
“Whooo.” Basir agreed, shaking his wings and strutting around like he was royalty.
“I was going for cozy.” I said, sitting next to him and placing the two glasses upon the coffee table.
“It’s nice. You have good taste.” Pops leaned toward Basir. “She gets that from me, you know.” He swiped a bit of silver hair out of his eyes and grinned at me.
“Whoo!” Basir blinked once and pointed to himself with a white wing tip.
“You did not pick it out.” I disagreed. “You picked out that…” I said, pointing at the large oil painting of autumn trees, “…and that…” I said, gesturing toward the rug, “…but the rest of it was mine.”
Basir swiveled his head around and raised an ear tuft, looking pointedly at the large carved wood branch sculpture next to the windows.
“Oh yeah, you picked that out. Not like you had an ulterior motive or anything.” I said.
Basir swooped to the sculpture and landed on it gracefully, folding his wings and looking regal on his perch. The wood was carved walnut, lovingly shaped into a gnarly form and polished with beeswax by a local artist. Tiny little lights were strung beneath the branches and at night, it cast sparkly light all around the room when we lit it up. It was a beautiful sculpture, and I wondered what its creator would think to see a real owl perched on his art. I had to admit, as stunning as the piece was it looked even better adorned with rich sable and white feathers fluffed out with attitude and sass.
“So tell me about your business, Arienne. How do you like gardening?”
I shrugged. “It’s not archaeology, but it’s kind of fun.” I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks and I sipped my beer to hide my discomfort. Why did I choose those words?
“Oh, chicken.” Pops said with a note of sympathy. “I’m just as proud of you if you’re a gardener as I would be if you were winning some fancy award in archaeology.” He shook my knee with his gnarled old hand and smiled warmly at me.
“An award isn’t very likely, is it?” I snorted. Without warning, I felt hot tears sting my eyes and I blinked them away, a flutter of panic in my gut. “Be right back.” I said in a shaky voice as I escaped into the bathroom and shut the door behind me.
Where did that come from? I thought frantically. For heaven’s sake, Arienne – GET A GRIP! I stared in the mirror at my sage green eyes and gave myself a stern but silent talkin’ to. You’re fine. You’re doing well. You’re not homeless. You have a nice barn, a good business, Basir and Ka’Tehm. You’re doing fine! What in heaven’s name is WRONG with you?
I felt a spattering of cool water on my lower legs and I looked down to see luminous silver eyes staring up at me with concern.
“Oh, Ka’Tehm. Everytime I think I’m over it…” I whispered, sitting down on the thick bath mat and looking at the spectral blue beaver. He had waddled out of the kiddie pool to check on me. “I don’t know why that happens out of the blue. I’m happy most of the time!” He looked at me and rolled over on the mat to dry his fur. I pulled the thick towel I kept draped over a stool for his use into my lap and closed my eyes, thunking my head back against the vanity in frustration. “He didn’t even say anything and there I go acting like a fool and getting all emotional for no reason. Jeez! It’s ancient history. No pun intended.”
Ka’Tehm looked at me and blinked once; at least he agreed with me. He nudged my hand with his cool nose and I passed the towel over his fur lightly. Since Ka’Tehm consisted mainly of water, I didn’t want to dry him off too much for fear that he’d just disappear. I don’t know what magic enabled him to stay on the same astral plane as me, but I was glad for his sympathetic ear.
“I need to get a grip.” I said, stroking my hand over his shimmering fur. “I’m not an archaeologist anymore. End of story. I’m a landscaper, and I’m pretty good at it. Sure I use magic to make the plants grow, but that’s my little secret. I’m supposed to use magic – I’m a witch. The only profession where magic got me in trouble was archaeology. I mean seriously, if those monks meant for that demon to stay banished, they shouldn’t have carved those words on the stone, right?”
Ka’Tehm blinked again and I squared my shoulder. “Pops is here, so you should go out and say hello. I’ll come out in a minute.” I said, bending down and kissing his water vapor head. I stood and opened the door, watching the blue furred critter saunter toward the living room. I turned and faced my reflection in the mirror. I squared my shoulders and looked straight into my own eyes.
“Now, Arienne Cerasola. You get a grip on your sorry self. You can’t change it and it wasn’t fatal. You were fired. It happens. Big freakin’ deal. Move on!” I looked back at myself and nodded as if to emphasize my point.
It had been more than two years since I collapsed that cathedral in Ireland. Since then, I’d located a magical healing tree and saved the magical community from a variety of ailments. I’d rescued Boston from a loose Cemi that left chaos and destruction in its wake. I’d done real magic; I’d improved my ability to control it, and I’d managed to gain a few grains of respect by saving one of the top members of the United Coven and Alliance…and the fact that he was really more loyal to the opposition than the Alliance made me feel even better about it.
I was a witch, damn it, and I needed to stop beating myself up over my past mishap. Just because Pops was the legendary archaeologist, Dr. Christy O’Flynn, didn’t mean that I had shamed him because of my antics. Just because no academic institution would hire me didn’t mean I wasn’t a good archaeologist. I was. I had made money finding magical artifacts that nobody else could have found. I just wasn’t your typical archaeologist and that was my new reality. Being ordinary was way over-rated, anyway.
Feeling better, if a bit ashamed of my overly emotional reaction – I squared my shoulders again and headed back to the couch. Pops was talking to Basir and Ka’Tehm in a hushed voice and I felt a prickle of unease.
“I guess I’m tired, Pops. You know how I get when I don’t have enough sleep and I was up almost all of last night.” I grinned and sat back down, sipping my beer and trying to remember my optimism. I decided not to mention why I didn’t get enough sleep. That was my little obsession and I didn’t want to rile Pops up over my suspicions.
“Sure, Chicken. I understand. If you think about it we’re sort of in the same boat. Neither one of us is using our fancy degrees these days.” Pops sipped his beer and his blue eyes drifted out over the driveway. I watched him for a second, thinking that he looked as if he were waiting for someone, but that didn’t make any sense. I relaxed when he spoke again.
“So tell me about your business.” He prompted, facing me and putting his elbows on his knees.
“Well….” I began, looking for something to say. “I did a pretty cool pest repelling charm for rose bushes.” I explained the charm’s origin and how it evolved from super electric bug zapper to the present perfect form.
Pops stared at me with his blue eyes wide with what looked like astonishment as I finished my description.
“What?” I asked, narrowing my eyes as he leaned toward me with his brows knitted in disbelief.
“You tweaked the charm to only work on bugs of a certain weight?”
“Yeeess….” I drew the word out because it seemed like the obvious choice. “I didn’t want a pile of dead birds and squirrels around my gardens. That would be bad advertising.”
“Your charm works?”
“Yup. There’s probably a lady bug crawling over the plant right now and she doesn’t feel a thing.” I nodded, proud of that little victory.
“That’s quite an accomplishment.” Pops said, raising his glass in a salute to me.
“And I’m working on some new landscaping plans that I’m going to put in one of the local nurseries. It should be good advertising for those people who don’t know what plants they should put together.”
The gong sounded again and Pops looked sheepish when I peered out the window to see another unfamiliar car coming down the driveway.
“That’s odd. I wasn’t expecting anybody…” I said, watching Basir fly out though the owl door to scope out the new visitor.
“Um…I think I might know who that is…” Pops’ voice trailed off as I turned and gave him a questioning look. He stood and walked quickly past me, avoiding my gaze. I watched him go and had a fleeting thought that perhaps Pops wasn’t just visiting because Nan was in New Mexico with Uncle Bert.
Basir hooted from outside and I turned my attention back to the small black vehicle. I suppressed a groan when bright orange sneakers appeared below the open car door. One end of the white shoestring was frayed into a large fuzzy ball that was apparent even from the house.
“Dr. Froehlich?” I asked, hurrying toward my grandfather with a confused look pasted on my face.
“Ezra and I go way back, Arienne. Surely you know that…” Pops gave another vague wave of his hand before hurrying by me and down the steps to greet the half-mad archaeologist from my last magical adventure. I hadn’t seen my nearly eighty year old grandfather move that fast in years, and I suspected it was more to avoid my growing realization that I had been set up, than to help Ezra out of the car.
I didn’t exactly like the way the little surprise visit was going, but I had a nagging feeling that the two old men were up to something that I’d be neck deep in before sundown.