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Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective

by: Christine Amsden

1

My parents think the longer the name, the more powerful the sorcerer, so they named me Cassandra Morgan Ursula Margaret Scot. You can call me Cassie.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life: normal, ordinary, and even a disappointment. After the Harry Potter books came out, a couple of people called me a squib. Since I haven’t read them, I have to assume it’s a compliment.

Personally, I prefer normal, which is why the sign on my office door reads: Cassie Scot, Normal Detective.

You have to understand that around here, when your last name is Scot, people are easily confused. Not only are my parents powerful practitioners, but I have six talented brothers and sisters. Plus, my family hasn’t always been known for its subtlety. When weird stuff happens around here, the people who are willing to believe in magic are prone to suspect the Scots.

The day I opened for business I got a call from an old woman who swore her cat was possessed by the devil. She also swore she’d read my web site, which clearly stated the types of work I did and did not do. Exorcisms were on the No list, and while I hadn’t specified pet exorcisms, I would have thought it was implicit.

After that auspicious beginning, things went downhill. It seemed people weren’t entirely convinced an associates’ degree and six months as a deputy with the local sheriff’s department was quite enough to fly solo. I did receive three calls from people asking me to cast spells to look for lost items, two from people in search of love potions, and two from a pair of neighbors who each wanted me to curse the other. I thought I’d hit bottom, when a ten-year-old boy wandered into my office one afternoon and asked me to help him summon Cthulhu.

It was a near thing, but I managed to rein in my sarcasm long enough to explain the difference between the real world and horror worlds created by early 20th century authors. He seemed more or less convinced until my brother, Nicolas, came in and started juggling fireballs. Kind of walked all over my point there. He’s a terrible showoff; thinks it helps him with women. For some reason, it does.

Sheriff David Adams, my old boss, stopped by once every couple of weeks to “check in on me” and offer me my old job back, but I always turned him down. It’s not that I disliked working for him. In fact, he was a great boss and a good person, albeit in a little over his head. Eagle Rock, Missouri and the surrounding areas have more than their fair share of strange and unexplained cases. I would even say that I took the job hoping to use my better-than-average knowledge of the paranormal to help protect the innocent, but in the end, those cases only served to remind me that despite my magical connections, I, too, was in over my head.

So I quit. I got my private license, rented an office, and installed a frosted-glass door like in the old movies, then I furnished it with the sort of busted up furniture that costs an arm and a leg to make look just right. The old wooden filing cabinets behind the desk and the office chairs in front came from estate sales, but I finished the desk myself. It was a beautiful piece of lacquered mahogany before my hammer and screwdriver got through with it. I did that just after the cat exorcism call. It was rather therapeutic.

By the door stood an old wooden hat and coat rack, while a nearby table held a coffee maker, compliments of my father. I don’t actually drink coffee, but Dad told me to have some for my customers, so I brewed a pot every morning while I waited for my tea to steep.

It was June seventh, a Monday. I’d spent six months in that office, going in to work at eight o’clock, breaking for lunch at noon, then going home at five. That day started like all the others. I updated my Facebook page to say that I was at work and feeling happy, though that last was a lie. I checked a few of my favorite blogs, posted a couple of comments that I’m sure were witty and insightful (though I suspect no one read them), and twittered that I’d just posted the comments to the blogs. After that, I picked up my kindle and buried myself in some mystery novel I’d already solved by page thirty seven.

When the door opened, I was sure it would be Sheriff Adams, in for his bi-weekly chat. As the months wore on with no sign of a client, it was becoming harder to politely turn him away. In recent weeks, my replies had become more blunt, bordering on rude. I’d really hoped he wouldn’t come around that day, on my half year anniversary, but just in case he did, I had come up with a story about a statewide convention I was sure would help me find work. The convention part was true–the certainty less so.

All I can say is, it was a good thing my parents were rich.

I lowered my kindle and raised my eyes to the door. The words, “Hi, Sheriff,” started to spill from my mouth when I realized it wasn’t the sheriff at all. It was Frank Lloyd, from Lloyd and Lyons, a man I knew more by name and reputation than anything else. My boyfriend had a summer internship with his firm, and a good friend of mine worked there as a receptionist. Lloyd and Lyons specialized in family law, especially divorces, and the gist of the reputation was that if your marriage was over, you’d better get to Frank Lloyd before your soon-to-be-ex did.

He looked impressive. His head nearly touched the top of the door frame, while his broad shoulders aimed for the sides. He wore an expensive dark gray suit that had been tailored to fit his athletic frame. His face was long and handsome, featuring deep, dark eyes and a wide, curving mouth that formed into a friendly smile. It was the sort of face that commanded trust.

Lightning flashed outside, brightening the room for the space of a few seconds, and I couldn’t help but smile. All the best stories started in a thunderstorm, didn’t they? I had no idea what the day would bring, but one thing was for certain–Frank Lloyd was not there to ask me to exorcise his cat.

He laid a long, black umbrella carefully against the wall near my coat rack, and strode confidently inside. “Hello, Ms. Scot.”

“Cassie, please.” I wound my way out from behind my desk and offered him my hand. He took it, his grip firm and self-assured.

“Cassie, I’m Frank Lloyd.” He released my hand but held my gaze as if he could take the measure of me by looking through them to my soul. Some practitioners can do that, actually, but I’ve never met one.

“Yes, I know.” I did not lower my eyes. Something told me that would be a sign of weakness. “What can I do for you?”

“I’ve got a small job for you, if you have the time.” It was very diplomatic of him to say it like that, since I’m sure he knew I had plenty of time.

“What’s the job?”

“Serving a subpoena,”

Ok, so it wasn’t sexy, but it was a job, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with magic–or so I thought. In any case, at that precise moment, I couldn’t have been more excited if he’d dropped some line out of a movie about someone trying to kill him.

“I can do that,” I said in a calm, measured tone. “Who am I serving?”

Frank broke eye contact and stepped around me to the desk, where he laid his black briefcase down and opened it. On top of a large sheaf of papers lay a plain white envelope with the name, “Belinda Hewitt” written on it in a long, slanted handwriting.

Hewitt was another name that many people in town associated with magic, though few were diplomatic where the Hewitts were concerned. Even my mom called them witches, and she normally wouldn’t call a woman a sorceress. (She thinks it’s sexist.)

Belinda was a gifted herbalist and an expert potion maker. A gift is, well, it’s a special power tied to the soul in such a way that it can be performed almost without thought, and it has a strong influence over the bearer’s personality. Most sorcerers possess a gift, as well some seemingly ordinary people, though in the latter case you can usually find magic in their family tree. Belinda’s gift was growing things, but to say she had a green thumb would be like saying a diva could sing. Belinda could grow things, anything, anywhere, and under conditions that would starve farmers out of business.

She sold a lot of her plants and herbs to local practitioners, though my parents refused to buy from her because of the other thing she liked to do–brew potions, especially love potions. At any given time, she would have two or three men under the influence of powerful love potions that made them hopelessly devoted to her. She would play with them for a few months or a few years, depending upon how interesting they were, and then cast them aside. She’d torn families apart.

It was mind magic. My dad liked to say that magic itself is never black; only the uses to which it is put, but mind magic is already tinted a deep, dark gray.

As far as I knew, though, Belinda had never been married, so I wasn’t sure what Frank Lloyd would want with her.

“Belinda Hewitt?” I raised an eyebrow at Frank in question.

“My firm is filing a class action lawsuit against her on behalf of a number of men who feel her love potions have caused them irreparable harm.”

“Gutsy move.” I approved. I whole-heartedly approved, but going head to head against a practitioner could be dangerous, to say the least. For the most part, they did what they wanted to do and suffered no interference, not from other practitioners and certainly not from the law.

I wasn’t entirely sure what Belinda would do to me if I showed up on her doorstep with a subpoena. Probably, nothing, since she’d have to answer to my parents for anything she did to me. That may even have been why Frank chose me, but I wasn’t too proud to take advantage of my connections when it suited me, as long as the job itself was normal.

“Belinda is going to curse you for this,” I said as I took the envelope from Frank.

He just smiled. “I appreciate your concern, but it’s about time the sorcerers living in our community learn they are not above the law.”

What a beautiful sentiment. I used to think that way, back when I’d first dreamed of becoming a cop. Fat chance, though. The sorcerers in our community owned this town, whatever most of the regular folks thought. Everyone else was tolerated, and that included me.

For a minute, I wondered if I should try to talk him out of it. As much as I loved the idea of putting an evil witch in her place, Belinda wasn’t someone to mess with. That either meant he didn’t believe in magic, didn’t understand it, or he had an ace up his sleeve.

I lifted my eyes to his and saw the confident, calculating expression there. He was still sizing me up, and in that moment I took the measure of him as well. He wasn’t insanely successful because he walked into anything blindly.

“You have an ace,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

Frank just smiled.

“I’ll run this over to Belinda’s this morning,” I said. “I’ll give you a call when it’s done.”

Frank reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “If this works out, we may have some more work for you.”

I took the card from him, letting a genuine smile touch my lips. Lightning struck again and thunder rumbled. “Thank you.”

He packed up his briefcase and left without another word.

 

2

Most of the magical practitioners in the area preferred to live outside of town, and Belinda was no exception. Her two-story home was within easy walking distance of Table Rock Lake. Since my parents hated her, I had never been to her home, but I knew the house doubled as a shop, and many of her potions were for sale, including some weaker love potions.

It should have been an easy job, since Belinda’s shop was open for business Sunday through Thursday from nine to one. As I headed to her place, the rain even eased to a drizzle, and a hopeful ray of sunshine peered out between a couple of dark clouds.

For someone who liked to use rich men, the house itself was relatively modest. It had a red brick facade in front and white vinyl siding along the sides and back. There wasn’t much noteworthy about it, but perhaps that was because the eyes immediately moved to the surrounding grounds.

The front yard didn’t seem to have a single blade of regular grass, or any weeds for that matter. Instead, marbled walkways wound around beds of flowers, bushes, trees, and other plant life. The house stood on a full acre and from what I could see, she could have charged admission. Whatever else she was, Belinda possessed a true gift.

I parked my powder blue Jaguar in the long, circular drive behind a red pickup truck that earned only a passing glance. I grabbed the leather folder I had used to keep the subpoena flat and dry, and made my way to the front door, which was also the entrance to her shop. A black and orange sign hung from the door, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that the store was CLOSED. Beneath the sign, her clearly posted hours indicated she should have been open for business at nine o’clock. I glanced at my watch, which read nine thirty.

Frowning, I rang the doorbell. I heard it chiming through the house, but there were no echoing footsteps or movement of any kind. I rang it again several times before backing away from the porch.

Something felt wrong. Sure, she could have just gone off to the grocery store, and gotten hung up on the way back, but that didn’t explain why several hanging vines on her porch were starting to wilt.

I took another look behind me at the red pickup, really seeing it for the first time. It couldn’t have been Belinda’s. Granted, I didn’t know for sure what she drove, and she might need a truck for hauling landscaping materials, but given her tendency to lure wealthy or powerful men into her web, I suspected she would only drive new vehicles. This one was at least five years old and had a dent in the fender, as if it had once been in an accident. That dent, more than anything else, told me the truck wouldn’t fit with her neatly ordered existence. It might have belonged to a customer, of course, but if the shop was closed, then where had the customer gone?

There was an unattached two-car garage a little further down the driveway, so I took a quick walk that way to see whether Belinda had a car parked inside. It didn’t tell me as much as I’d hoped. There was a car parked inside–a fairly new red Jeep Cherokee with a personalized license plate reading “LUV U,” but beside it was a spot for another vehicle. She could be out, or she could just have one car, but it didn’t shed any light on who owned the pickup truck.

My natural curiosity tempted me to explore the grounds and the back of the house, but good sense told me the place would be warded. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I would have to wait. I reasoned that if Belinda had gone out during business hours, she would have to come back soon.

But as I walked back to my car, I couldn’t help noticing the hanging plants again. I shivered, dug the cell phone out of my purse, and dialed the sheriff’s number. I ignored the tiny twinge of guilt telling me I was taking advantage of our friendship, reasoning that I had a hunch, and my hunches were usually good.

“Sheriff here,” said the deep male voice on the other end of the line.

“Hi, it’s Cassie.”

“Cassie, I was just thinking of stopping by. When are you coming back to work?”

“Not today.” I allowed myself a moment of pride. “I have a job.”

“Really?” He didn’t sound enthusiastic. “What do you need?”

“I found an abandoned car out by the lake,” I said. “I’ve got a weird feeling about it, and wondered if you’d run the plates.”

“All right. I’m in the middle of a dozen things, but give me the number and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” It was a mark of his esteem for me that he didn’t even question the request. I only prayed he didn’t have his hopes up about my returning to work for him.

After rattling off the number and disconnecting the call, I moved my car to the other side of the circle drive so I wouldn’t impede anyone trying to get in. Then I put it in park and cast about for something to do. I hadn’t brought my Kindle because I had expected this to be a twenty minute job, so I pulled out my cell phone and sent random text messages to my friends. Every so often, I would get one back, but most of the others had things to do.

My mind began to wander, and I found the wilted plants became the central focus of my daydreams. Somewhere out there, I imagined Belinda hurt or dead. Something wasn’t right, and while I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, conclusions were busily jumping at me.

I checked my watch so often it didn’t seem to move, but at some point it must have, because an hour came and went. No one came by her store, and no one returned to the truck, but I had no idea how much business Belinda usually got. Maybe she had so little business that she didn’t bother opening the shop some days. I had an idea how that felt, and I had only been at it for six months.

I had nearly decided to give up when a car pulled into Belinda’s driveway, but it wasn’t hers. The metallic blue Prius looked familiar, but I didn’t place it until Evan Blackwood stepped out, raked his fingers through thick, nearly black hair that touched his shoulders in waves, and started up the front path. He had spent a moment looking at the pickup truck parked right in front, but he hadn’t seemed to notice me on the far side of the drive.

I hadn’t seen Evan more than a handful of times since high school, which was something of a relief to my father, who has hated Evan’s father for longer than I’ve been alive. We weren’t exactly what you would call friends, at least not since junior high. I’m not quite sure what we were, actually, though we were best friends in grade school. After that, things got complicated. From a shy, uncertain boy, Evan became an outwardly confident teen with a bit of a dark side. More than a bit, depending upon who you asked.

He looked like a man on a mission as he strode up the porch steps and took a long look at the CLOSED sign. I opened my mouth, ready to shout out to him what little I knew for sure–that Belinda wasn’t home–but something held me back. What was Evan doing there? The obvious answer, that he needed some plants or herbs, didn’t fit because I knew for a fact that Henry Wolf, the man to whom Evan was apprenticed, refused to buy from Belinda for the same reasons my parents did. I even thought Evan’s father had issues with the woman, though that might have simply been a rumor I picked up somewhere.

A sick possibility twisted my stomach–perhaps Belinda had him under one of her spells. True, he was about half her age, but it wouldn’t be the first time she had gone after a much younger man, especially one as dangerously attractive as Evan. Plus, he was among the most powerful sorcerers in town, one of those who could get away with anything and knew it, and Belinda would find that compelling.

When Evan rang the bell, I decided to announce my presence. I stuck my head out the car window and called, “She’s not home.”

I must have caught him by surprise, because as he jumped, so did two rocking chairs, a swing, and the wilting plants. With a startled gasp, I drew my head back inside the car. It’s not a good idea to sneak up on a sorcerer, especially one with a strong gift like telekinesis. I didn’t think he would consciously hurt me, but accidents happened. With six powerful brothers and sisters, I knew that better than anyone.

“Hi, Cassie. It’s been a long time.” Evan tucked his hands into his jeans pockets and strode down the driveway to my car. He had given up wearing all black, choosing instead blue jeans and a dark green t-shirt that suited his complexion far better than the black ever had. Not that I had ever told him, but I thought black made him look more washed out than dangerous.

He looked good. And tall. He’d grown in the last three years, so that by the time he reached my car, he practically towered over me, giving him, impossibly, an air of even greater strength than before.

“Hi, Evan,” I said with forced casualness. “You locked yourself away with Mr. Wolf and haven’t come down to see the rest of us mere mortals.”

“He’s a slave driver, but he’s brilliant.” He leaned against the side of my car, the image of practiced nonchalance.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. I wished he would look at me. You can tell if someone is the victim of a love potion if you can get a good look at the whites of their eyes–they’ll look a little pink. He wasn’t avoiding my gaze, precisely, but he did seem preoccupied with the red pickup truck.

“I’m just here for some herbs.” It was such an obvious lie, I couldn’t believe he bothered to tell it.

“Come on, Evan. Mr. Wolf doesn’t buy from Belinda.”

He glared at me, and it occurred to me that not too many people would have called him on the lie. “She’s the only herbalist within three hundred miles to get mandrakes this year.”

Another lie, but this time, I let it go. I didn’t fear him, the way many others did, but if he didn’t want to talk, I couldn’t force an answer from him.

“So, how long have you been waiting here?” Evan asked.

“About an hour. I was just about to give up, actually. This was supposed to be a quick job.”

“Yes.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I didn’t think you’d still be here.”

“You knew I’d be here?”

“I told Frank to hire you.”

“You did?” I had no idea whether to feel flattered or embarrassed. On the one hand, I didn’t want to feel like some kind of charity case, but on the other hand, I needed the business, and it was nice of Evan to think of me. I hadn’t even known he knew about my business.

“Of course I did,” Evan said, as if it were obvious. He shifted slightly, and looked down at me, finally holding my gaze long enough for me to see that the whites of his eyes didn’t contain a hint of pink, although by then I had pretty much dismissed the love potion theory.

“I admit,” Evan continued, studying my face, “I was surprised to find out you’d quit the sheriff’s department, but I always knew you’d do well at whatever you tried.”

I turned my face away, so he wouldn’t see the slight flush creep across my cheeks. I wouldn’t admit it to him, but it had been a long time since anyone had paid me a real compliment, and there was something about his matter-of-fact tone that told me he meant it.

“How do you know Frank?” I asked.

“I’m helping him with his lawsuit.”

“Really?” I didn’t know which surprised me more: that he was helping with a lawsuit at all, when doing so might require him to share knowledge, something sorcerers avoided at all costs. Or that he was helping with this lawsuit, involving love potions. Rumor had it, he had cast a few himself once upon a time, and surely this would revive those rumors.

“Master Wolf told me to do some community service as a senior project, so I volunteered as an expert witness.”

“You’re an expert on love potions?” I meant to tease him, but somehow the words sounded all wrong as soon as I said them. My mind flashed back to a day when we were fourteen, and I asked him if the rumors were true. Afterward, he didn’t speak to me for six months.

“I don’t brew them, if that’s what you mean.”

“Of course not. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it.”

For a minute, he didn’t say anything, then he took a deep breath and reached through the driver’s side window to take my hand in his. Though casual and almost unconscious, the touch sparked something in me that reminded me of the silly crush I’d had on him in high school. It had been entirely one-sided, since he had never noticed me as a woman, and ill-advised for even more reasons than that, not the least of which was our families’ mutual enmity. Still, like dozens of other silly girls, I felt the attraction. To the danger? To his looks? To the power? I don’t know. I’d like to think, in my case, it was to the boy he had been before all that, and who, deep down, I thought was still the real him.

“I’m not an oversensitive fourteen-year-old anymore,” Evan said. “It’s okay.”

“Good.” I pulled my hand away from his, and reminded myself that I didn’t have silly crushes any longer. I had a boyfriend, after all.

Evan tucked his hands back into his pockets, and looked at the red pickup one more time. “You know, if Belinda hasn’t shown up all morning, there’s probably no point waiting around for her. You should go home.”

It wasn’t quite a command, but it came close. He knew who owned the red truck, I decided, and he had business here he didn’t want me to see. Since I didn’t see any hope of carrying out my business in the near future, I agreed to leave without much fuss, even if my curiosity gnawed at me.

“I’ll stop by to see you sometime soon,” Evan said. “We should catch up.”

“Yeah,” I said, barely aware of my rote response. “That would be great.”

As I pulled the car out of the driveway, my cell phone rang. I answered it before turning onto Lakeshore Drive.

“Hi Cassie,” Sheriff Adams said from the other end of the line. “I ran that check you asked for. Car belongs to Nancy Hastings.”

“Really?” Nancy Hastings was Evan’s cousin, and only sixteen or seventeen.

“She’s a minor,” Sheriff Adams said, “but we don’t have any reports about her. Do you think there’s a problem?”

“Maybe, but her car probably just broke down.” I didn’t believe it, not with Evan there, and acting so strangely, but if his family didn’t want the sheriff’s help, I wasn’t going to involve him.

But my own personal curiosity refused to be assuaged, so as soon as I got off the phone, I found a place to turn around and headed back to Belinda’s house. If Evan had been any other sorcerer, I might not have dared, but I thought I could handle him. He wasn’t safe, as my father used to constantly remind me, but I understood him, to a point. He wouldn’t hurt me.

He didn’t hear me approach, which made sense when I saw him sitting on Belinda’s front porch, surrounded by black candles, and lost in some kind of spell. Judging by the wicks, the candles had not been burning for long, but how long he might be there was anybody’s guess. Spells could take anywhere from a few seconds to a few days to cast. Evan’s position, his posture, and the black candles made it look to me as though he was attempting to break through whatever magical protections Belinda had on her house.

A gentle breeze began playing with my hair, tying it into tiny knots. The same breeze blew out the candles surrounding Evan, and very slowly, his posture shifted.

“How long have you been standing there?” he asked, and I couldn’t tell, from his tone, whether or not he was upset.

“A few minutes.”

“I should have known you wouldn’t leave. You’re too curious for your own good, you know that?”

“So my parents keep telling me. Evan, why are you trying to break into Belinda’s house?”

“I don’t want you involved with this,” he said.

“I am involved. I used to work for the sheriff and even if I don’t anymore, there are some things I can’t ignore.” I paused before adding. “Like breaking and entering.”

“Are you threatening to call the sheriff on me?” Evan arched his eyebrows in a manner I can only call arrogant. He had perfected the look years ago, and it reminded me that he, too, was part of the untouchable elite that had helped drive me out of law enforcement.

“Of course not,” I said, knowing I sounded petulant, but not caring. “It wouldn’t do any good. It never does.”

“Is that why you left the sheriff’s department?” He had always been too perceptive, especially where I was concerned.

“Just forget it.”

He narrowed his eyes, looking like he wanted to say something else, but I waved him off.

“I need to clean up here.” Evan gave me an inquisitive look, as if he thought he needed permission to use magic in front of me.

“It’s okay.” I was used to watching the people around me perform magic; that wasn’t the part that bothered me.

With an almost casual wave of his arm, all the candles flew into the air and threw themselves into the backseat of his car.

“I know that’s your cousin’s truck,” I said.

His eyes searched my face. “How do you know that?”

“Does it matter?”

“My aunt and uncle were hoping to handle this quietly, in case someone decided to take advantage of the situation. I don’t know what happened to her, but I don’t want the wrong person to find her before I do.”

“I had the sheriff run a license plate check,” I said. “I asked him when I first got here, because it didn’t look right, but when he told me who it was a few minutes ago, I did try to convince him to let it go.”

“Okay, nothing to be done about it now.” He ran his fingers through his hair again, and looked at the door.

“Can I help, since I’m here? You know I won’t say anything.”

“I trust you, but I don’t want you hurt. I don’t know what’s going on here, but Nancy never went home last night, and when I started looking for her this morning, I couldn’t even find her with a hair sample. Anything but blood can be fooled, but not without… skill.” I had the impression he meant to say something else, more along the lines of power, but I didn’t push.

“I can help,” I said. “If magic isn’t working, you need an investigator.”

“Cassie–”

“I’m going with you or I’m calling the sheriff. Which is it going to be?” I was mostly bluffing, but I also found myself curious to know what he would actually do if I did call in the mundane authorities, as some of the practitioners liked to call them.

Evan closed his eyes tightly, and when he opened them again, he fastened his crystal blue eyes on me in a manner I had seen him use countless times to intimidate, though never with me. “I could stun you and lock you in your car. Is that what you want?”

I knew he’d done something similar to Marshall Burks in the ninth grade, leaving the boy on the school bus all night. Most people agreed that he’d had it coming for stealing a smaller boy’s lunch money, but since Evan hadn’t been speaking to me at the time, I hadn’t felt like cutting him any slack. Besides, I thought the incident, along with many others, had more to do with him wanting to prove his own power. Well, he could pull that act on other people if he had to, but I refused to let him intimidate me.

“If you really think there’s danger here,” I said, “wouldn’t I be in worse shape locked in a car, completely helpless?”

His eyes darkened, but he nodded, stiffly. “Fine, but stay quiet for a while. I’m not quite done with the protections.”

I stepped onto the porch, but did not interrupt his spell casting. The magical world is full of all kinds of dangers. There are magical creatures, negative energies, unfriendly spells, and of course, other magic users. Sorcerers tend to be the worst. There is nothing so evil in the world as what humans can do to one another, or so Dad always said.

The point is, it’s unwise to simply burst into a magic user’s house. There would undoubtedly be wards, spells, traps, and protective plants. I had a feeling his earlier spell had disarmed most of the wards, but there were still the plants. Even wilted, the ivy wouldn’t take kindly to trespassers.

After a minute or so, I felt a spray of dust on my face. It coincided with a small, almost unremarkable popping noise.

“All clear,” Evan said.

I coughed and brushed the dust out of my hair.

He offered me his hand. “Just in case I missed something.”

He made it sound like a request, but it wasn’t. I took his hand, and with Evan slightly ahead, we stepped over the threshold.

Nothing happened.

“Hmm,” Evan said. “That’s not a good sign. Not even a tingle.”

I’d never experienced what he was referring to, but I understood that sorcerers are weaker when crossing a threshold uninvited. Some magical creatures, such as vampires, can’t cross a threshold at all.

Most of the first floor of Belinda’s house was given over to a shop with shelves, bottles of potions, magical herbs, and a few new-age trinkets, some of which work. We breezed through it on our way in, and made a careful search of the rest of the house.

I would describe Belinda’s decorating style as elegant. She chose rich colors and patterns that commanded attention and proclaimed wealth. She seemed to love knick-knacks. Her collection of crystal and porcelain flooded shelves, curios, and the tops of tables.

An efficient three-year-old could have destroyed the place in five minutes. Ten, with supervision. Belinda didn’t have so much as a niece or nephew to pay her a visit.

We didn’t speak as we looked through the formal living room, dining room, kitchen, and laundry room. There was no sign of Belinda. No sign of a struggle, either, but that didn’t put me at ease. I was still very aware of the fact that I was trespassing in a witch’s home.

Upstairs was more of the same. Belinda had three bedrooms: one for her, one for guests, and one that she had turned into an office. We looked in bathrooms and in closets, but nobody was home.

When we went back downstairs, I noticed a door leading to a screened-in back porch and started to turn the handle when my hand froze on the doorknob. My whole body stiffened, and my mouth went dry, so it took me several tries to alert Evan to what I’d seen.

“I found her,” I finally managed, in barely a whisper.

Nancy Hastings, Evan’s sixteen-year-old cousin, lay in a pool of her own blood, eyes vacant and staring. Her hair had been a rich, luminous brown but was now matted with blood. It looked as if her throat had been torn out.

“No!” The cry tore from his throat and before I had a chance to stop him, Evan was inside the room and leaning over the body, looking for any sign of life, and probably destroying any trace evidence the police might have collected. But I couldn’t blame him. I would have reacted precisely the same way, if it had been my family. As it was, I had to wipe away tears before I could get to my phone and call the sheriff. The need for secrecy had passed.

“Sheriff’s department, this is Jane Conway.”

“Jane, it’s Cassie. You need to get out to Belinda Hewitt’s house right away. There’s been a murder.” I hung up before she could ask for more details.

Slowly, Evan rose to his feet and made his way back into the house with me. He had smeared the blood and left footprints on the floor, but somehow none of it had ended up on him. Or if it had, then he had some way of removing it.

“The police are on their way,” I said, not sure if he would be upset with me for calling. Probably not. He looked too shocked to care.

“Yeah.” He leaned against a wall and closed his eyes.

“You should call your uncle.”

“Can I borrow your phone?” Evan asked. “Master Wolf doesn’t believe in phones.”

“Sure.” I handed him the phone without analyzing his reasons for needing it, then I went out the front door to give him some privacy and wait for the sheriff. Brushing the fine layer of dust from the front steps–all that remained of the wilting plants–I sat down with my head in my hands.

Evan joined me a few minutes later, sat beside me without bothering about the dust, and silently handed me back my phone.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

He didn’t say anything for a long time. Not that I expected him to. Really, what was there to say?

“I want to know what happened to her,” Evan said. “Do you need a job?”

The request caught me off guard, and even though I wanted to take the job, for Evan and for the girl, I hesitated. I had a feeling this would become the type of paranormal investigation that had caused me to leave the sheriff’s department. Also, the kind that had made me want to work there in the first place.

“It looked like a vampire attack to me,” I said.

“It did, but some friends of Nancy told me they last saw her around noon yesterday, and that she had left to get some herbs before Belinda’s store closed at one. I don’t know why she would have stayed all afternoon, let alone after dark.”

He took one of my hands in his, the way he had done earlier. He used to do those sorts of things in high school. Oh, never to me, but to other girls, the ones he ended up dating. Most of the rumors surrounding him suggested he wove his love spells with those casual touches. I didn’t believe it, but I did yank my hand away, feeling as if it had been burned.

“Now that you mention it,” I said, “there’s another problem with the vampire idea. The porch should be within the threshold. A werewolf might have done something like that, but it’s not the full moon, and again, it was daytime.”

Evan stiffened. “Scott would have known if any of his wolves were hunting humans, anyway.”

I had almost forgotten that one of Evan’s best friends was a werewolf, yet another rebellious move, and obviously, one he had not outgrown.

In the distance, I heard the scream of approaching sirens.

“The sheriff will do everything he can to try to figure this out,” I said, still uncomfortable at the idea of taking on a supernatural case. “Why do you think you need me?”

“Because there are things the sheriff doesn’t know, and I can’t tell him. For example, if it was a vampire attack, it will be tough to tell because she was protected. She won’t turn.”

Secrets and lies, I thought. But he had a point, and as much as I hated the idea of getting involved with anything supernatural, I knew I couldn’t let a friend down, not even one as uncertain as Evan. Besides, a young girl had been murdered, and I couldn’t let that go. When I closed my eyes, I could still see the blood and the silent scream on her young face.

“All right, I’ll do it.”

He offered me his hand and I shook it, somewhat tentatively, though he didn’t hesitate. When he released my hand, the first car had arrived on the scene.

* * *

“So you’re saying he broke into the house?” Sheriff Adams asked me an hour or so later, after I had already gone over the story with two of his deputies. It was noon, which meant I would miss my usual lunch date with my friends, but given what I had seen that morning, I didn’t think I wanted to talk to any of them anyway.

“So did I,” I said. “Are you going to charge us with breaking and entering?”

“Would it do any good?” he asked.

There wasn’t a prison in the world that could hold Evan, but I didn’t say so. I just gave the sheriff a blank look, and noticed that he had more hair than the last time I had seen him. Strange, since his hairline hadn’t moved in the ten years he had been in town.

“If the girl was missing,” Sheriff Adams continued, “you should have told me. And you say Belinda hasn’t been home all morning?”

“That’s right. I was supposed to serve her a subpoena.” It was still in my car, but at this point I had serious doubts about my ability to deliver it. I didn’t see how Belinda fit into any of this, but the fact that she was missing and I’d found a dead body on her back porch made finding her my top priority.

“And what time did Evan show up?”

“Ten thirty. Look, I’ve already been over this with Jeff and Ryan. I know the drill – that asking the same question in different ways might shake loose an important detail–but is there any way we can finish tomorrow?” I already felt worn out, though the day was barely half over, and somehow I would have to find a way to sleep with images of Nancy Hastings haunting me. I had never handled a murder before. Small towns like Eagle Rock don’t have the kinds of murder rates the larger cities do.

The Sheriff sighed, slapped his notebook shut, and nodded. His face looked drawn and weary, and there was something a little off in his tone. Something I couldn’t put my finger on. “I want you in my office bright and early tomorrow, though, all right?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Listen.” The sheriff lowered his voice. “Right now, I’m mostly worried about you. Do you trust him?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Evan, who maintained a mask of cool composure that I was sure hid a world of hurt and anger over his cousin’s fate. It reminded me of the day, in eighth grade, when he had explained his discovery that showing emotions was perceived as a weakness. I wanted to disagree with him, but I couldn’t argue with results. After that, he only opened up to me, and then, only sometimes.

“Trust Evan? I don’t know. I mean, it depends upon what you want to trust him with. He’ll do just about anything to protect his family.” We had that in common, as a matter of fact.

“There are rumors about him.”

“There are rumors about me, too.”

“Not the same kind.” Sheriff Adams studied my face. “I don’t pretend to understand the power game in this town, but by all accounts, he’s winning it. He acts like nothing can touch him. Practically dared me to try to lock him up, almost like he wanted to prove it wouldn’t work.”

That sounded like something Evan would do, and I suspected the sheriff had pegged his motives correctly. I didn’t say so, though. I just shrugged.

“He also said you’re going to look into this murder for him. Can I trust him with you?”

“Yes.” That much, I knew.

“All right. Listen, let me know what you find out and we’ll do the same. There’s no reason to duplicate one another’s efforts on this.”

“Okay.” We both knew I wasn’t being entirely truthful, but the sheriff had long-since accepted that I couldn’t tell him everything, and most of the time he allowed me to use my own discretion.

“What’s your dad going to think about you working for a Blackwood?” Sheriff Adams asked.

I didn’t have a good answer for him, but I thought about Evan as I drove back to town, not so much to work out my father’s feelings, which had more to do with Evan’s father, but to work out my own.

 

3

Evan and I became best friends in the first grade. In elementary school he was a shy, uncertain boy who needed a friend, and I found myself drawn to that, as well as to his willingness to listen to me. I could even talk to him about magic, and for a long time, he was the only person outside my family who knew about my deficiencies. I let the rest think what they would; there was a certain power in that.

I never felt like I had to compete with him, and even though I knew he had magic of his own, I never saw it except in minor ways, silly tricks that even I could do.

He didn’t use magic at school. That sort of public display was typically frowned upon, even in the Eagle Rock schools, where most of the students and teachers were aware of the rumors, speculation, and evidence not easily explained away. That’s not to say they knew much of anything for certain. Heck, the most powerful families kept enough secrets from one another that even they could not come to a consensus on exactly how or why magic worked. Sometimes, I didn’t know if warning kids away from using magic at school had more to do with keeping the information from the regular townsfolk, or from one another.

Whatever the reason for it, Evan took the admonishment to heart. Whereas my brother, Nicolas, showed off in ways that intentionally made him seem more like a clown or stage magician than anything else, Evan kept that aspect of himself shut up inside. He let people push him around for years, never striking back. I suppose it couldn’t have lasted forever, especially when he found himself faced with the surge in magic that often comes with adolescence.

We were in seventh grade when Paul Ellerson, backed by two cronies, found him on the playground at recess one fall day. He and I had been talking, but we stopped when we saw the threesome approach, instantly wary. They didn’t usually mess with me, except to offer insults I could more or less brush off. I won’t go so far as to say they didn’t affect me, but I always had friends and family to back me.

Evan had it much worse, partly because he took the insults more to heart, and partly because the boys sometimes got physical with him. Somehow, the teachers never saw.

“Look,” Paul said, “it’s the freak and his girlfriend.”

I rolled my eyes and started to move away, taking Evan’s hand to guide him with me.

“Isn’t that sweet?” Paul said. “They’re holding hands.”

I dropped his hand, but kept walking away, trusting Evan to follow. This tactic often worked, but not on that fateful day. Paul’s cronies blocked my escape, and when I turned around, Paul grabbed me by the hair and twisted, hard. It was the first time they had ever gotten physical with me, and it had me pretty scared, but I didn’t have time to work myself into a real panic.

There was no warning. If there had been, I couldn’t have been certain the attack was an accident, unplanned and instinctive. One second, Paul had me by the hair, and the next he was gone. I never even saw Paul’s dramatic flight through the air, but I heard the ominous crack as he hit the tree, and when I did look, I saw him slumped against the trunk, eyes closed, red-gold leaves fluttering around his head where a trickle of blood ran down his cheek.

I had seen magical accidents before, but they had never involved Evan, who I had somehow come to think of as safe. He may have talked about magic, but I didn’t see it, which gave me the illusion that he was like me. But he wasn’t like me, and at that moment, the fact hit me as hard as Paul had hit the tree.

I tore my eyes away from Paul, directing them instead at Evan, who looked different. It might simply have been the product of my shattered illusions, but I never forgot the remorseless expression on his face.

His eyes, colder than an ice storm, took in Paul’s accomplices, who stood with their mouths hanging open. Beyond us, a girl screamed, but I barely registered her reaction or the rush of teachers to the scene.

“Don’t mess with my friends,” Evan said. Then, as if to emphasize the point, Evan waved his hand, almost casually, and the two cronies toppled backwards.

They weren’t really hurt, but then again, Evan had been in control when he knocked them over. Paul ended up in a coma for two months, and I’m not sure he was ever the same. I know Evan wasn’t.

* * *

Despite my earlier resolve that I didn’t want to talk to any of my friends, I found myself steering my car back into town, and toward Kaitlin’s Diner. Technically it was the Main Street Cafe, but my best friend, Kaitlin, had been working there since she was sixteen, and would probably inherit the place from her mom someday. I even thought Kaitlin’s Diner had a better ring to it, but nobody agreed, least of all Kaitlin, who desperately wanted to find a way out of waitressing. Trouble was, she kept waiting around for a fairy tale.

Kaitlin and I used to be on the cheerleading squad together in high school, back in the days when anything seemed possible in love and life. We spent glorious afternoons pretending to be something special as a way to cover our own inadequacies. At least, that’s what Kaitlin said once. I’m sure she wasn’t talking about me.

Since small town gossip travels faster than the speed of sound, Kaitlin already knew about the murder by the time I arrived. So, apparently, did the other dozen or so customers milling around on a Monday afternoon, because they didn’t even try to hide their attempts to overhear our conversation when Kaitlin sat down in a booth across from me and asked for details.

“Don’t you have to work?” I asked.

“I’m on break. Lunch rush is over.” She tucked a stray lock of red-gold hair behind her ear and leaned forward. “So come on, spill.”

“I can’t say much.”

“You never can.” Kaitlin was one of those in town who eagerly, almost desperately, believed in magic, but living on the outside, she didn’t know much about it. It wasn’t as if the fact of my family’s sorcery was a secret, the obscurity was all in the details. How powerful? What, exactly, could they do? And how does the magic work? Therein lay the secrets.

As someone who lived between the two worlds, it was always a bit odd to me to see the range of disbelief in a town where so many practitioners dwelt. Some refused to believe at all, using faith in God or science like a shield. Others, like Kaitlin, eagerly believed any rumor, true or not. Most, though, lived somewhere in the middle, acknowledging the strangeness, but from a distance, as if it couldn’t touch them if they didn’t try to meet it head on. For the most part, they were right.

“What are people saying?” I asked.

“That Belinda Hewitt killed Nancy Hastings.”

I cringed. “We don’t know who killed her.”

“But it was magic, wasn’t it? People are also saying Evan Blackwood was there, swearing vengeance.”

“She was his cousin.”

“And Belinda is missing?” Kaitlin tried to make this sound very significant. “I wonder if he’s torturing her.”

Before I had a chance to defend Evan, the diner bell jingled and the man himself strode inside, angling straight for me. Kaitlin, sitting with her back to the door, didn’t notice.

“Where do you think he’s been all these years, anyway?” Kaitlin rushed on. “People are saying he learned black magic, and now that he’s back, he’ll take over the town.”

Evan paused, no more than a couple feet from our booth, an odd expression that looked like a cross between a laugh and a grimace on his face. A few nearby customers hurriedly dropped money on the table and left the diner.

“I suppose I could,” Evan said, deliberately drawing out the words, “but what would I do with it?”

Kaitlin’s face went pale, but she did not turn to look.

“You shouldn’t listen to rumors so much,” I said. Not that she’d listen. I’d said so before.

“I’m sorry,” Kaitlin whispered.

“He’s not going to hurt you,” I said, motioning for Evan to sit beside me. “And he couldn’t take over the town if he wanted to. He was teasing.”

He arched an eyebrow and shrugged, but accepted the invitation to sit beside me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Looking for you.” He turned to Kaitlin, who was studiously avoiding his eyes. “Can I have a minute with Cassie?”

“Sure.” She scurried out of the booth and practically ran for the double doors leading into the kitchen.

“You could have been nicer,” I said, watching the doors swing shut.

“Me? I just walked in to discover my role in a dastardly plot to take over the town.”

Kaitlin’s face went pale, but she did not turn to look.

You shouldn’t listen to rumors so much,I said. Not that she’d listen. I’d said so before.

I’m sorry,Kaitlin whispered.

He’s not going to hurt you,I said, motioning for Evan to sit beside me.And he couldn’t take over the town if he wanted to. He was teasing.

He arched an eyebrow and shrugged, but accepted the invitation to sit beside me.

What are you doing here?I asked.

Looking for you.He turned to Kaitlin, who was studiously avoiding his eyes.Can I have a minute with Cassie?

Sure.She scurried out of the booth and practically ran for the double doors leading into the kitchen.

You could have been nicer,I said, watching the doors swing shut.

Me? I just walked in to discover my role in a dastardly plot to take over the town.

She’s just repeating what she’s heard, and besides, you’ve never exactly denied any of the rumors. What did you expect to happen?

I don’t know.He sighed.I’ll make things right with your friend.

Don’t do it for me.

I need to be with my family this afternoon,Evan said, in clear dismissal of the subject,but I wanted to talk to you first.

I nodded.We need to find Belinda.

That’s what I thought, too. Can you meet me at her place tonight after dinner, maybe around seven?

Yeah, I’ll be there.

Great.He gave my hand a little squeeze before sliding back out of the booth and leaving the diner. My hand tingled where he had touched it, and as I stared at the spot, I remembered the love spell rumors, despite my best efforts to avoid the irksome thoughts. Hadn’t I just told Kaitlin not to listen to rumors?

I glanced at my watch. It wasn’t particularly close to dinner time, but since I might be up late, I decided to head home anyway. After I talked to Kaitlin.

4

My parents live in a modern-day castle. It looks like a cliché, complete with four towers and a drawbridge that swings out like a door. My dad often jokes about putting in a moat and getting a moat monster, but all that is just his personal flair. I assure you that the castle-home gets hot and cold running water, telephone, and electricity. No cable, but only because the phone company offered them a better deal on DSL and a satellite dish.

Inside, my mom’s sense of style takes over, at least on the ground floor. She likes a more modern feel. The living room is furnished in black leather, the walls painted some shade of morning sunshine. She went with black and white for the kitchen, a sort of checkered pattern with occasional splashes of bright red.

My father got to do the second-floor library. It’s got shelves stretching so high that he had to install one of those wheeled ladders to reach the topmost levels. A fireplace, nearly big enough to stand in, interrupts the shelves’ progress along one of the walls. Nine high-backed armchairs, one for every member of the family, make a cozy formation in the center.

All in all, the styles clashed badly, but it was home.

When I arrived, drained and still a little shell shocked from the day’s horrors, the entire family was gathered in the kitchen, where Mom was brewing some kind of potion in a cauldron on the stove. It seemed a little odd that everyone was gathered in one room before dinnertime, but I knew if I stopped to investigate, I would never get to my room and the solitude I craved.

I tried to sneak past the kitchen unseen, but six-year-old Adam spotted me and practically screamed my name. He dropped whatever snack he’d been munching on, and ran to wrap bony arms and legs around my waist.

I ruffled his light brown hair affectionately.It’s nice to see you too. Can’t I just slip off to my room to get out of these shoes?

No!Adam said. He smiled at me, which isn’t fair, since his gift is charisma. It’s not like mind control. You can say no to him, but it makes you feel very, very bad inside, like you just kicked a puppy. I don’t envy my parents having to raise him.Aunt Sherry’s here!

My mom had mentioned something about her sister coming to visit this week, but I had forgotten. Realizing my defeat, I let Adam take my hand and usher me into the kitchen, where I had missed the extra face in the crowd. Aunt Sherry was mom’s identical twin sister, although they looked more like mother and daughter. My mom took daily potions that gave her the appearance of a twenty-something, and the older I got, the more she and I looked like twins. We had the same auburn hair, blue eyes, delicate facial features, and gently rounded curves.

Nice to see you again, Cassandra,Aunt Sherry said.

Cassie,I corrected, automatically.How are you? How’s Jason?

It wasn’t an entirely idle question. My cousin, Jason, was a vampire hunter, and while I hadn’t seen him in years, I had been thinking about him earlier that day. If I learned for sure that we had a vampire in town, I would need to call a hunter.

I worry about him,Aunt Sherry said.He’s all I have and he hasn’t exactly chosen a safe calling. I don’t even know where he is most of the time.

Mom turned away from the stove and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. She gave me a strained sort of smile, like she was juggling too many things and couldn’t handle it all.Sherry reminded me that Christina needs her vampire vaccine, and Adam needs a booster.

I’m not drinking that!Adam made a sick face that made Christina giggle. She made her own face and shook her head back and forth.

You will drink it,Dad said, firmly. Adam smiled sweetly at him, and Dad looked away.That’s not going to work. It’s for your own good.

What’s it for?Elena, the nine-year-old, asked in her usual ethereal whisper. She doesn’t speak much, and when she does it’s hard to hear. I think I was the only one who heard her, because Dad and Nicolas started in on a discussion about baseball, and Mom opened the oven door to pull out some rolls.

Elena deflated, and started to go back into her usual far-off place where, I assume, dead people dwell. Her gift is to talk to them, but some days I’m not sure gift is the right word for it. She seems to spend more time talking to the dead than the living.

It’s to stop the venom,I said to Elena, taking her hand and drawing her back into the world.The venom is what turns a person into a vampire.

Elena nodded.Yes, that’s what grandpa said, too.

He was a smart man.I worry about Elena. She’s more stuck in the middle than any of the others, and no one seems to have the time and patience to draw her out.

Dinner in thirty minutes,Mom said.Elena, Juliana, set the table. Isaac, take the trash out. Adam, go wash your hands. Nicolas, you’re on dish duty tonight. Isaacno! Just pick the trash bag up with your hands and walk it to the trash bin.

Isaac had his eyes closed and, I assume, was working a spell to try to levitate the trash. He opened his eyes and scowled.I was just practicing. Besides, it’s not fair. Cassie doesn’t have a job.

Cassandra just got home from work and hasn’t even had the chance to set her purse down,Mom said. I let her call me Cassandra. I lost that fight a long time ago.

Pfft,Isaac said.What work? She just surfs the net and reads trashy romance novels all day.

I froze, my mind flashing back to the young girl and the pool of blood. Isaac teased me all the time, more so than any of the others, and most of the time I took it in stride, but when I closed my eyes and still couldn’t shut out the vision of death, I lashed out almost at random, swinging my purse and catching him in the back of his head.

Ouch!

Cassandra!Mom scolded in a tone she hadn’t used with me in years.

I’m sorry, I justI had a bad day. I’d better go.

As I walked away, I heard Isaac muttering the words to a curse, so I stopped by the dining room table to remove a fresh snapdragon, a protection from most curses, from the vase in the center. I made sure Isaac saw it before I headed upstairs to my bedroom.

I suppose I should have been nicer to Isaac. He’s the only one of my siblings, aside from me, who was born without a gift. Oh, he’s got plenty of magic, but his lack of a special gift left him with a serious inferiority complex. He liked to take it out on me, because he thought he could, but there really wasn’t anything he knew how to do to me that I didn’t know how to block. At least, not yet. In a few years, if we didn’t work out our issues, I could have some serious problems.

My bedroom was the entirety of the north tower, a place I liked to call my fortress of solitude. It was a circular room with a single window that looked out over the lake, providing a breathtaking view. From that height, I could imagine I existed above the world, rather than in it.

I hadn’t decided if I preferred Mom’s modern style or Dad’s extreme retro, so I chose black. Everything from the walls to the bedding was a dark monochrome. I thought of it as my blank slate. The only color in the room was in my drawers and closet. I’m sure there’s some deep, psychological reason that I did thatpaint the walls black and myself in living colorbut I’m not sure what it is.

I took a full thirty minutes to compose myself before going back downstairs to the noise and the chaos. You would think that, as the oldest of seven, I would thrive on it, but the best I can say is that I’m used to it. I always retreated to my fortress when I needed to.

Back in school, I used to retreat to my fortress when the others were taking their after school magic lessons. I sat through them for a few years, especially when Nicolas started learning, always desperately hoping to find an ounce of repressed talent, or maybe uncover a gift, but nothing manifested.

My parents’ bedroom lay directly beneath mine, which was significant only because I could sometimes hear them talking through the vents. They had said some interesting things, unaware that I was listening. The entire family knew they’d had seven children, each of us spaced three years apart, because seven and three are powerful magical numbers that protected the family from evil magic.

What they didn’t know was that Mom, and to a lesser extent Dad, weren’t sure if I counted as one of the seven. I had heard them discussing it shortly after Christina’s birth, when I was eighteen.

That summer, I had sat in on magic lessons again. I told my parents I just wanted to know what was out there, and how to protect myself from it, especially using herbs and potions that require knowledge more so than power, but in the dark of the night, in my fortress of solitude, I tried once more to call forth repressed magic. I no longer tried nightly, but every once in a while, when I got in a mood, I still made my futile attempts.

* * *

Dinner at the Scot house was mandatory family time. We ate in the dining room around a modern, straight-legged rectangular table with an espresso finish. The two leaves were not optional features for a family of nine, but even with both leaves in place, the large dining room did not feel at all cramped. Nine upholstered chairs in white (I’m sure magic was involved in keeping them that color) normally surrounded the table, but that night, they’d brought in the spare for Aunt Sherry.

There were always fresh flowers on the center of the table, such as the snapdragons, and they usually became the focus of a dinnertime lesson. That night was no exception.

Elena, Adam, what are these called?Dad asked, pointing to the flowers.

Snapdragons,Adam said, without hesitation. Elena echoed him a second later, and in a much softer voice.

Sap-gons,Christina ventured.

That’s right,Dad said.Now, why does Cassandra have one tucked behind her ear?

Cause Isaac tried to curse her,Adam said.

Dad shot Issac an evil look, but did not publicly reprimand him. A few years ago, he probably would have, but I had convinced him that I needed to be able to stand up for myself, or no one would ever respect me.

Aunt Sherry leaned over and whispered,Have you tried nettle? It sends the curse right back.

Yeah,I said.Too bad we don’t have any right now. I may have to pick some up in town tomorrow.

Isaac, stop!Mom shouted. I wasn’t sure what Isaac had been doing to earn a reprimand, though I could take a guess, but at that moment, no one was looking at Isaac. We were too busy gaping at Mom’s deeply flushed cheeks. Suddenly, the snapdragons in the middle of the table burst into flames.

Uh oh,Christina said.

Now, small accidental fires in the Scot household weren’t all that unusual. Both my father and brother, Nicolas, were gifted fire starters, but Nicolas hadn’t lost control in years, and Mom hadn’t set a fire like that since she had been pregnant with him.

My fork clattered to my plate as I realized the truth. Mom wasn’t a fire starter. Her gift was an eidetic memory, but she has been known to channel the gifts of her children during pregnancy.

Apparently, she had decided that I did not count.

Nicolas and Dad both rushed to put out the fire, but Dad got there first. With a quick wave of his hand, the flames were gone, but the room still felt hot to me.

Smoke curled around Mom’s ears.I, um, was going to say something tonight about-She stopped and looked at us each in turn, though I think only Nicolas and I understood what was going on. Her gaze lingered on me, but I had no idea what she was trying to tell me with her eyes.

Mommy had accident,Christina said, clearly oblivious.

What’s going on?Juliana, my fifteen-year-old sister, asked.

I’m pregnant,Mom said.Due in December. I was just looking for the right time to tell everyone.

My mouth felt dry, and I wasn’t hungry anymore. Congratulations were the furthest thing from my mind.

You’re going to have another baby?Isaac said.But didn’t you say we were protected because there’s seven of us?

The weight and import of an overheard three-year-old conversation thudded into my head, and I couldn’t be in that room anymore.

I need to go,I said, standing.I’ve got to finish a job.

What job?Mom asked.Cassandra, come back.

Damn. I hadn’t wanted to mention the job in front of my parents, not with a Blackwood involved.It’s not importantjust delivering a subpoena but it’s not done.

It is important,Mom said.It’s your first customer. Why didn’t you say something?

I don’t get it. What’s wrong with Mom?Adam asked.Cassie, sit down, please. We’re eating dinner.

No, Adam.In my mind, a puppy whimpered, but I ignored it.

Cassandra,Dad said,it doesn’t have to be now, does it?

It was nice to see you again, Aunt Sherry,I managed to say as I fled from the room.

5

As I made my way back to Belinda’s house, I tried to calm down and gain some perspective. A new baby wasn’t the end of the world. There were a hundred reasons they could have decided to have another baby that had nothing to do with me. Maybe Mom just wanted another one. Maybe they had decided that three by three would be a more powerful protection for the family. It could even have been an accident, since neither scientific nor magical protections were one hundred percent effective.

Even if, worst case, she had decided I did not count as part of the protective seven, it wouldn’t change much. I would still be a part of the family in all the ways I normally was. Magically speaking, I had always been an outsider.

I also realized I’d been rude, so I called the house to apologize. Dad answered the phone with his usual formal greeting.Scot residence.

Dad, it’s me. I need to talk to Mom.

Good girl,Dad said in a hushed voice. Then, more loudly,Sheila, Cassandra is on the phone.

After a brief shuffle, Mom took the phone from him.Is everything all right?

It’s great, but I just realized I’d forgotten to say congratulations before I left. So, um, that’s why I called. Congratulations.

Thanks,Mom said, though her voice still sounded tense.Did you finish your job?

Not yet. I may be out late.

Well, take your time, but we need to talk when you get home.

That didn’t sound good.What about?I asked.

Not over the phone,Mom said.Just find me when you get in tonight, all right?

Okay.

Bye.Mom disconnected before I had a chance to question her further. I stared at the phone for a moment before shoving it back into my purse.

A minute or two later, Belinda’s house came into view, looking still and empty in the darkening twilight. The police had gone, leaving behind yellow tape as the only evidence of their presence, and of the gruesome scene I had stumbled upon earlier that day.

Evan was already there, or at least his car was, so I parked my car behind his, and headed for the house. Getting inside took no time at all the second time around, despite the more obvious barricade of the police line, but I paused inside her shop, listening carefully for movement, and wondering if I knew what I was doing. I did need to find Belinda, and searching her house seemed like the most logical place to begin, but it worried me that I no longer had the same qualms about breaking into her house that had plagued me earlier in the day.

I heard someone upstairs, either in the guest bedroom or Belinda’s study, so I carefully moved through the house, feeling my way in the dim illumination until I found the staircase and made my way up. I found Evan in the study, leafing through a thick scrapbook.

Hi, Cassie,Evan said.I heard you pull into the driveway.

Have you found anything?I asked.

She’s very clean. No blood, no nails, and no hair. I didn’t even find a hairbrush.

You didn’t?That struck me as odd.What about a toothbrush?

No.

I wonder if she packed up and left.

Evan shrugged.It’s possible, but I’m short on magical ideas to figure it out.

Then let’s try some non-magical ones. What’s in the scrapbook?

Evan glanced at me, uncertainty evident in his eyes. It was an expression I hadn’t seen on him in years.She seems to have kept careful records of her conquests over the years.

Really?I admit it, that piqued my interest, and not just in a professional way.Can I see?

You won’t like it.

Why?I entered the room fully and walked the short distance to the oversized desk, leaning over Evan to get a look at what had him rattled. He could have kept me from seeing, but he didn’t.

He didn’t move, either. To see the book, I had to lean over him, close enough to feel the heat of his body against mine. For an instant, I wondered if that had been such a good idea, but then the picture staring up at me from the scrapbook shoved away all other concerns.

Isn’t that your dad?I asked.

Evan nodded. Then he turned the page, and I gasped, taking a step back, because the picture staring up at me from the next page was my dad.

Looks like she was playing with both of them about twenty-four years ago,Evan said.

Think that’s why they hate each other? I never actually asked.I had been curious, but mentioning a Blackwood to my father was never a good idea.

I did,Evan said,but I didn’t get much of an answer.

There was an awkward silence for a minute or two, but then I shook it off. What did it matter, really, if our fathers had both run afoul of the same witch a quarter century ago, even if they hadn’t mentioned it? Knowing my father, he was probably too embarrassed to admit to such a thing. In the meantime, we had far more important things to worry about.

Who else is in there? Is it recent?

Pretty recent,Evan said.

Do you mind if I take a look?

Evan stood and offered me the chair, but he didn’t leave the room while I scanned the records of over two decades worth of conquests. It made me feel as if I were under a magnifying glass, but I didn’t ask him to leave.

Belinda had gotten around, no question about that. She had records of at least a hundred men, some local, some out of town. She tended to have two to three men at any given time, and her tastes varied widely. She would see older men, younger men, tall or short, small or large. They tended to be rich or powerful, but that wasn’t always true, either. She would make notations, sometimes indicating that a man made her laugh or was good in bedwith details that made my face burn. At least Evan couldn’t see my reaction, and I didn’t turn to see his.

When I finally reached the end of the book, I knew at once that something was wrong.This ended six months ago.

Maybe she updates it yearly,Evan suggested.

Maybe, but I don’t think so. She’s too meticulous.I tapped the last page of the book, a profile of a wealthy man from Springfield.I’ve heard tumors that she’s dating at least two people in Eagle Rock, but neither of them are mentioned here. I suppose she might also update the scrapbook after she breaks things off, but it doesn’t feel right. Where did you find this book, anyway?

It was sitting out.

That doesn’t seem likely, either,I said.She’s spent her life playing dangerous games with powerful people. Do you think she’d leave the evidence sitting right out here on her desk?

Everyone knew,Evan said.

I flipped back to the beginning of the scrapbook, and pointed to the picture of Evan’s father.Does everyone know this?To emphasize the point, I flipped to the next page and pointed to the picture of my own father.Or this?

Good point.

Did you search the rest of the study?I asked, looking at the perfectly organized workspace.

Not yet.

I did the job, meticulously opening every drawer, looking through every notebook, and glancing at the titles of the books on her shelf, most of which contained potion recipes. My parents had similar books at home.

Finally, I shook my head. The motion caused the snapdragon behind my ear, which I’d nearly forgotten, to fall to the ground. Evan picked it up before I had a chance, whisking it into his hand with a tendril of magic.

Expecting trouble?he asked, a teasing note in his voice.

I appreciated his attempt to lighten the mood, but somehow a witty and lighthearted reply got stuck in my throat. All I could see was that snapdragon, pitiful protection though it was against anyone older than about twelve, and wonder if it would soon be all that stood between me and the world.

Now what had brought that on? Yes, my parents were having another baby, but that didn’t make me any less a part of the family. They would always stand between me and any real magical threats.

Yet my brain had real trouble convincing my heart of that fact. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was about to happen, something big.

Evan brushed my hair back so he could replace the flower behind my ear.It’s a good idea. You can never be too careful.

Oh yeah, because this is going to help if I get into any real trouble. Tell me the truth, does it do anything for you?

He smiled, playfully.It brings out the blue of your eyes.

Ha!

Hey, what’s wrong? Last I checked, you weren’t exactly short on protection.
I
didn’t know how to explain my fears, so I shrugged them off.Maybe I don’t want to have to be protected anymore.

I see.But I could tell he knew that wasn’t it.

Let’s go check the store,I said.

* * *

Belinda’s collection of potions was extensive and many of her customers believed in the power of her brews. They were probably crap, especially those offering up money and wishes, because if she really could brew them, why would she need to sell them? Others, such as those offering weight loss or hair regrowth, might have been legitimateI had no real way of knowing.

Then my eyes fell on a tiny vial with the wordMAGICon the label. I picked it up and turned it over to read the details:Tap into magical energies you never knew were there. You’ll be able to cast spells and brew potions. Curse your neighbors and find true love. $15.95

Impossible,I muttered. Surely, if such a thing could be, my parents would have fed it to me years ago.

That stuff is crap,Evan said.

I jumped. I had almost forgotten he was there. He stood by a bulletin board, where he had been staring at pictures of Belinda, her friends, and her family.Belinda mostly knows how to brew love potions, and even then she keeps the strongest ones to herself…the ones that truly ensnare the mind and heart.

I replaced the vial of MAGIC, with just a tiny twinge of regret, and moved on to Belinda’s love potions. She had one full shelf dedicated to love, decorated with pink hearts and red roses. A lot of these potions were in the form of perfumes, creams, shampoos, and most especiallychocolates. The bottom third of the shelf was dedicated to boxes of chocolate candy in different flavors and potencies.

While a strong love potion will ensnare the mind and the heart, most of the weaker love potions are what you might call suggestive magic. They could cause you to feel affection, adoration, or arousal, but they typically left the higher brain functions intact.

At random, I picked up a bottle of perfume from the top shelf and read:Induces powerful lust. Spray on your intended and make sure you are the first person they see. Lasts about an hour.

The thing you have to understand about any magic is that there are good ways to use it, and bad ways to use it. The concept of black magic is a hotly debated topic among sorcerers. Even death, in self defense, is a shade of gray. As I stood there, reading the functions of the various love potions, I thought of all the innocent and harmful ways they could be used. A couple in a committed relationship might have a lot of fun with a spray of lust. On the other hand, using it on an unwilling victim

I shuddered as I replaced the bottle and accidentally knocked one of the neighboring bottles of perfume to the ground. It shattered, splashing perfume all over my open-toed sandals.

Crap.

What happened?Evan asked, his voice hard and alert. I could hear him moving closer.

Stop! I don’t want to see you right now.

Which potion was that?Evan asked, still in that hard-edged voice of command.

I pointed to the row of similar bottles on the top shelf.Lust.

One of the little bottles floated away from the shelf, but I did not turn around to see what Evan was doing with it. Instead, I started looking through my purse for a pack of tissues to clean the mess off my feet.

Cassie, I have some bad news for you.

Worse, you mean?

This potion doesn’t take affect until you actually look at someone. Your hour starts then.

Crap. I don’t suppose there’s an antidote?

Sure,, but it will take me about three days to brew, once the moon is full.

Okay.I considered my options as I wiped the mess off my foot and started gathering the tiny shards of glass.Well, I guess I could-I stopped, I had nothing to put at the end of that sentence. I kind of hoped Evan would have a suggestion, but to my surprise, he started laughing at me.This isn’t funny.

Come on, it is a little funny.

Maybe it would be funny in a few days, if I didn’t die of embarrassment first.I suppose I could call my boyfriend.I didn’t want to explain any of this to him, and though I trusted him, I didn’t really want him to become the object of my uncontrolled lust for an hour. I just didn’t know what else to do.

Who are you seeing?Evan asked, all traces of amusement gone.

Braden,I said.

Who?

Braden Walker. He was a year ahead of us in school. He was on the football team.

Oh. I think I remember him.Evan paused for a long moment.You know you could do better, right?

It’s none of your business.I had to fight the urge to glare at him when I said that. He barely knew Braden, so what made him think he could make any judgments? Besides, I didn’t know why he thought I could do better, when I had done very little dating in high school. I hadn’t known if my family name scared people off, or if there was something fundamentally wrong with me, but Braden had at least restored my confidence that the latter was not true.

Listen,Evan said.I need to do another spell. It’ll just be a few minutes. We’ll figure something out after, just don’t look at me until I’m done.

I get that.I sounded more annoyed at the admonition than I should have, because his quip about Braden still stung.

Within seconds, I smelled candles and incense, and heard Evan muttering under his breath. I found a trash can by a nearby desk, and tossed the damp tissues inside. Then I spotted a black day planner on top of the desk. It was the sort of thing that ancient relatives used to buy me for school, but I never used. Belinda seemed to have liked it, though. Nearly every page through the end of July was covered in notes and reminders.

Over the weekend, she wrote, she had rented a cabin in the woods by the lake. She should have been back, though, because in about half an hour, she had a dinner date at Hodge Mill with Sheriff Adams. I blinked and re-read the name several times to be sure I had seen it correctly, but unfortunately, I had. My old boss and friend had been acting a little strangely that afternoon, but I hadn’t guessed he might be under the influence of a love spell.

Finished,Evan said. I heard him gathering up his supplies.This isn’t good. I suspected it this afternoon, but now I’m surethere’s no threshold on this home. Which either means Belinda has permanently moved, or else she’s dead.

Do you think she had something to do with your cousin’s murder?I asked.

I don’t know what to think. I can’t come up with a reason she’d do it, but then again, where is she?

I found her day planner,I said, holding it up over my shoulder so Evan could see.She was supposed to go to the lake this weekend, and she’s got a date tonight at Hodge Mill. You’ll never guess who it’s with.

Who?

The sheriff.

Huh.

I know it’s a long shot, but I figure we should go to Hodge Mill and see if she shows upor if the sheriff does. After that–

Cassie,Evan interrupted.

Yeah?

How much do you trust me?

Er-Why?

Turn around,he said.

Did you figure something out?I said, my heart beating a little faster.Some way to stop the potion?

Yes.

But you said-I never got a chance to finish, because just then, Evan moved into my field of vision and I turned to stare at him properly.

In all the years I had known him, I had somehow missed the fact that Evan has the most incredible blue eyes. They sparkle like diamonds when he laughs, and darken like the sea when he’s angry. At that moment, I thought I could swim in those eyes. I had never spent much time looking at his lips before, but I suddenly became aware of just how kissable they were. I started towards him, my focus set on those beautiful, kissable lips.

I couldn’t move. Something was forcing my body absolutely still.

Sorry about that,Evan said, not sounding sorry at all. He swung a satchel over his shoulder and started out the door. I found myself following behind him, but I wasn’t the one moving my legs.Nothing to do but let it run its course. If you want to hate me in an hour, I’ll understand.

Part of my brain worked out what was happening to me. That part was either shocked or angry or afraid, possibly all three at once. It pushed at the rest of my brain, the part that wanted Evan Blackwood in an entirely inappropriate way.

Let me go,I said.I can handle it.

I felt my legs loosen and I thought I had control of them again, but they didn’t take me to my own car. Instead, they followed Evan to his.

I didn’t get all the way there before my body froze again. Frustration warred with sense as I tried to free myself from both the full body lock and the mind-altering affects of the potion.Oh, come on, would one kiss hurt?

Evan laughed. I didn’t get what was so funny.

Cassie, I can’t leave you here like this, not when there’s a killer out there somewhere. Going to Hodge Mill is a good idea, and the worst of the potion’s effects should wear off by the time we get there. Do you think you can follow me in your car?

Since the alternative apparently involved immobility, I planned to try.I can do it.

All right.But he didn’t exactly release me. Instead, I felt a force at my back, urging me toward my car until I opened the door and slid behind the wheel. At about the same time, I heard his car door slam shut and the engine roar to life.

I still itched to go to him, to kiss him, and to touch him, but futility weighed heavily on my heart. He didn’t want me. Not that it came as much of a surprise when he had dated nearly every girl in high school except me. We hadn’t even managed to remain close friends past the ninth grade. I wished now that I had gone to more effort, even if he had been the one to put a lot of that distance between us. What had he said when I asked him about the love spells? You’re just like everyone else, accusing me of stuff because of my name. I thought you knew me.

Did I know him? After that day, I was never sure again.

With regret weighing heavily on my heart, dampening my need, I put my car into gear and followed Evan into town.

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