Mudflat Magic Book 7
Chapter 1 and 2
Mudflat Magic Book 7
Chapter 1 and 2
August morning, bright sun, you got it, my boyfriend Tarvik and his teenage cousin Nance were up at dawn and off jogging. Cousin Alakar, who is about the same age as Tarvik, was still in bed in the room she shares with Nance. As that gave me a chance to get into the shower before she took it over, I stumbled into the bathroom, showered, and stumbled back out to my bedroom wrapped in a towel, pulled on shorts and tee shirt and went outside to sit on the back steps in the sun.
By the time Tarvik and Nance returned, my hair would be dry and I could dress for work while they fixed breakfast. I would still have an hour before it was time to catch the bus to my morning job downtown where I temp at a bank.
The back garden was recently upgraded from an uncared for patch of grass to a circle of colorful flower and veggie beds with a small yellow brick patio at the center. Tarvik and Roger, our downstairs tenant, had designed it and done all the work. Tarvik refused to tell me why he had chosen such an unusual arrangement. It was a surprise, he said, but why and for what he would not say.
However, whatever the reason for the layout, it was pretty. I did my version of morning exercise by taking a slow walk around the circle and picked a cherry tomato. Delicious. I continued my stroll, admired the marigolds and chrysanthemums, and reached a point by the fence where I stood facing back toward the house.
That was when I noticed the open door to the basement apartment.
The back deck is about a half flight of stairs above the yard and is the width of the kitchen and living room. There is no deck below our bedroom and bathroom windows. Instead, there is a cement staircase in a stairwell, starting at the far corner of the house and leading down a half flight to the basement apartment.
A basement apartment with narrow windows at ceiling height might not be popular with some renters, but our tenant is half troll and he has lived in that apartment for as long as I can remember. Three months ago he went on a trip to the Olympic Peninsula to search for his troll relatives. We had not heard a word from him since. I had tried not to worry and failed.
Was he finally home? I shouted, “Roger!” and ran across the yard and down the stairs. I was barefoot and the stairs were gritty and I didn't care, I was so delighted. Like it or not, he was going to get a big hug.
Roger is huge, seven feet tall at least and a lot bigger around than I can reach, but I would hug as much as I could. I stubbed a toe, didn't stop, kept right on until I reached the bottom of the stairwell.
I stood outside the open door and called. Roger is very shy. I have known him all my life and it took him years to say more than a few words to me. I didn't want to embarrass him by walking in uninvited.
It never crossed my mind that anyone other than Roger might be in the apartment. I mean, the whole neighborhood knows a troll has lived in my basement forever, having rented the apartment from my late grandmother when she was young. They know because they have seen him. As he is huge, no one bothers him, and even the dumbest kid in the area would never be dumb enough to trespass.
I pushed the door further open. Looked in. Called again. His door opens into his kitchen, which is also his sitting room. The only other door is at the far end of the kitchen and leads to his bedroom and bath. There wasn't any sound of running water. I did hear a footstep, or something very like, but I was barefoot and had wet hair dripping in my eyes and I had not had coffee so my thinking was slow.
I kept calling his name, sure he would come out of the bedroom in a minute, and I wondered if he had arrived last night or this morning and did he have any food or should I tell him to come on upstairs for breakfast?
Okay, my brain was damp. I wandered across the kitchen to the refrigerator, opened it, stood staring into its white interior, saw that it was totally empty and the same temperature as the room. I knew he had cleaned it out and turned it off before going on his trip, and as it was still off that meant he either just got home or he came home late last night, too late to bother starting the refrigerator. Was he sleeping in? I wouldn't shock him by going into his bedroom, but I could knock on the bedroom door and tell him Tarvik would be home in a few minutes.
Tarvik and Roger are good friends and he could go in and find out if Roger needed anything.
With all this heavy thinking swirling through my nonfunctioning mind, I closed the refrigerator and started to turn around.
Something slammed into me, hit me hard between the shoulder blades. I lurched forward, hands out to catch myself. And then it hit again, whatever it was, and something hard crashed into the front of my ankle, lifting my foot.
I flew forward and stopped my fall by banging my forehead on the edge of the kitchen counter. I even saw stars. For a few seconds everything went hazy. It would have been more comfortable to pass out. Instead, I slid slowly down, my face pressed against the cabinet doors, my head exploding with pain. My knees smashed into the concrete floor. I doubled over, legs bent under me, forehead on my knees, head shrieking, and I stayed that way, waiting for the pain level to drop.
Someone ran up the cellar stairs, hard shoes running fast, nothing like Roger's slow, heavy tread.
Hoping to dash to the door in time to get a glimpse of my attacker, I tried to stand. Grabbed the edge of the counter and tried to pull myself up. Flunked that. All I accomplished was to rise a few inches and then crash down again on my already bruised knees.
When the pain went from screaming level down to whimpering, I did manage to stand. And almost fell again. Hanging on to the counter and then to a kitchen chair and finally to the doorknob, I made my way out to the stairs and did something halfway between a limp and a crawl until I reached the top stair and that was that. I could not move another inch. I felt warm sticky wetness sliding down my face, touched it, squinted at my fingertips and figured out I was bleeding.
Because I had heard those footsteps running up the stairs, I knew two things. I had been knocked over by a large fist slammed into my back. My left ankle had been kicked out from under me by a shoe. Oh right. I knew a third thing. I knew from the sound of the running that my attacker was a man wearing hard soled shoes.
When I heard Tarvik and Nance come jogging through the back gate, talking to each other, I shouted, “Help!”
Ack. My voice went ricocheting through me and I grabbed at the top of my head to keep it from blowing off. I have to admit that the old 'No pain, no gain' saying is true. The pain of shouting gained me Tarvik who reached me in a nanosecond.
He knelt beside me and made a lot of sympathetic noises between questions I couldn't answer. His voice was a soft murmur in my ear. “My Claire, what happened? Did you fall? You have a cut on your forehead. No, don't try to stand.”
He may be no taller than me, but unlike skinny weakling me, the guy is solid muscle. With no effort at all, he picked me up and went on murmuring reassurances.
All the reassurance I needed was him there. I felt like a battered wreck but I knew nothing else could harm me, not now, not with his arms around me. He carried me into the house.
After that he and Nance wrapped my aching head in cold cloths and cleaned my wounds while I whimpered the word, “Coffee,” and then added, “Aspirin.”
For an answer I got his cocky grin. It lit his face. Under his mop of blond hair he has a strong face, sky blue eyes, elegant nose made boyish by summer freckles, a square jaw line and a laughing mouth.
“Ah, good, you will survive.”
If you are ever in an emergency, send for Tarvik and Nance. They settled me on the couch. While Nance phoned the bank to explain why I would not be at my morning job, Tarvik brought me a glass of iced coffee with a straw and pressed it between my hands.
He wiped my forehead with a cold, damp cloth and then he knelt in front of me and held the cloth against the bruises on my knees. And then, carefully and slowly, he washed my bare legs and feet. I hadn't realized how badly I had scraped my legs, crawling up the stairs.
“Tell me what happened, my Claire.”
I did, as best I could remember. “It all happened so quickly. One minute I was calling Roger's name and the next minute someone pushed me so hard I fell and bumped my head.”
“Did you see him? Hear him? Smell anything?”
Oh, Tarvik. He is such a country boy. He can sniff the wind and know when the weather is changing. “No. Nothing. I can't remember anything at all. Except that whoever it was, he was strong and he kicked me with a hard soled shoe. Not a sports shoe. I did hear him running up the stairs. I think it must have been a man. The footsteps sounded like a man. Otherwise it was an Amazon.”
Tarvik looked up at me from where he was sitting on the floor washing my feet. “An Amazon? Like the book company?”
That made me smile in spite of how much my head hurt. “The company is named after a river where giant women lived in the jungle, or something like that.”
“This is a story?”
Tarvik loves stories and any other time I would have gone on line to get the information right and then told him the story. The idea of looking into a computer screen to search the internet made my head ache even more.
I must have looked cross-eyed by then because both Nance and Tarvik increased their fussing, wondering if they should take me to the doctor and asking each other if I might have a concussion.
Alakar, a small, glamorous blonde who shares a room with Nance, wandered out of their bedroom and into the living room and saw me getting all that attention. She walked around the couch, leaned over, looked me in the face and said, “You look awful. What happened?”
“Somebody attacked Claire! Right here in her own house,” Nance said.
Like Alakar, Nance is a small blonde. Unlike Alakar, Nance is a round-faced, freckled teenager and as loving and helpful as they come. Both of them are Tarvik's cousins but not sisters. They are from opposite sides of his family and not related to each other.
“An attacker came in our house?”
“Into Roger's apartment,” I said.
“Poor you,” Alakar said. “If everyone is through in the bathroom, I will take my shower now.”
As you can imagine, I love having cheerful little Nance as a housemate. Alakar not so much. The two of them work with a tutor at the Neighborhood Center mornings and then do manicures at the local nail shop in the afternoons. After they finished dressing, Nance offered to stay home with me. I told her I was feeling much better, really, and she followed Alakar out the door. There was nothing more she could do for me. What I needed was time for the aspirin to kick in.
Tarvik continued to fuss around me, brought me more iced coffee, filled a wash cloth with the rest of the ice, handed it to me and told me to hold it against the bump on my head.
“Is it a big bump?”
“No, but it will be if you don't keep ice on it.”
He fussed for the next half hour, which was fine because when Tarvik fusses, he also massages me, my shoulders and arms, my hands, and ends up at my feet. He has the most amazing touch.
Later, when I assured him I would survive, he said, “I should check the basement apartment, if you promise to remain here on the couch, my Claire.”
For once I didn't argue.
“Whoever hit me did it to keep me from getting a look at him. But why? Roger wouldn't have anything in his apartment worth stealing, would he?”
Tarvik arranged pillows around me and helped me stretch out on the couch and if I sound like a baby, that is exactly how weak I felt.
It took Tarvik less than five minutes to go through the apartment and come back to report.
“Roger's bedroom is overturned, dresser drawers pulled out, closet searched, even the medicine cabinet in his bathroom was emptied. The clothes are on the floor and the medicine cabinet items are in the sink.”
“The kitchen was neat when I went in.”
“You must have interrupted a searcher.”
A corner of the washcloth hung down in front of one of my eyes. I lifted the cloth, with its fistful of ice cubes, and peered at him. Ice is good for bumps, I guess, but it also made my forehead ache.
“Aargh. This is too cold. Now what?”
My blond hunk took the ice pack from me and grinned at me. “Now you eat breakfast.”
I started to shake my head. Bad idea. “I don't think I can keep anything down.”
“Plain toast. It settles the stomach. I am going to stay home with you.”
So I nibbled dry toast and sipped iced coffee through a straw and watched dull television while Tarvik went back to the basement apartment to clean it. He came back to check me every few minutes, like he thought I was no better than the ice cubes and would melt away.
“How is it going?”
“Fine. As long as I am in Roger's apartment, I am going ahead and mopping the floors and making up his bed with clean sheets and do we have extra towels? His are worn thin. Claire, should I start his refrigerator? What if he comes home at night and is hungry? There should be food in his freezer.”
That was too much to think about with a cranky head. I said I would think about it tomorrow.
By midmorning I felt well enough to be bored with lying on the couch. I even almost felt like a person. What was more important, it was time for Tarvik to start preparing lunch for the noon crowd at the Neighborhood Center where he works full time and I work afternoons.
“I am not leaving you here alone, my Claire. Shall I take you to a neighbor's house? Or, if you feel up to it, you can go to the Center with me.”
As both options sounded deadly dull, sitting around doing nothing like some child needing a babysitter, I protested. He argued, afraid the attacker might return. I caved. Another bump on my head would be more than I could handle in one morning.
“Tell you what, boyfriend, I do have an errand I need to take care of soon. Might as well get it over with today.”
While I changed into fresh jeans and shirt, Tarvik fastened the basement door with a chain and padlock.
Getting up and dressed was a better idea than I had thought it would be. By the time Tarvik returned, I felt almost human. An aching human but one capable of walking by herself.
The errand I had been putting off was a visit to Sergei Brown. Tarvik walked with me to Sergei's house. We all live in walking distance from each other in Mudflat, maybe because most of us live in small homes on small lots. The sizes match our incomes. Not a lot of demand for McMansions here.
“You are not to go home alone, my Claire.”
“I won't. When I finish with Sergei, I will come straight to the Center.”
Tarvik kissed me goodbye and jogged off toward the Center and its big shiny kitchen. I walked slowly through the opening in Sergei Brown's hedge and up the curved walkway to his house and toward my less pleasant task.
If there was someone out there who wanted to break into my house and attack me again, he would have to wait his turn. Sergei Brown, resident mage, is always a problem, and getting mugged is a major problem, but I had a bigger problem to solve than either of them which made Sergei nothing more than an irritation.
Tarvik’s twenty-first birthday is almost here. If you know me at all, you know I promised him, absolutely, positively, we would be married on his birthday. Does that sound like I don’t want to marry him? Wrong! Of course I do and there are about a kajillion problems that need to be dealt with, as any bridal magazine can tell you, and if you add the problem of delaying a wedding by a few days on the day of the wedding, I have yet to see an article in one of those magazines that offers a solution.
The deal is this. Roger promised he would be back in time for our wedding, which is scheduled to take place on Tarvik's birthday, and Tarvik believes him. But what if Roger doesn't get here?
The only reason I mention the wedding is so you will understand why I had other things than Sergei Brown on my mind when I limped up the stairs to his front porch. However, I had promised Madeline I would call on him and that was that. If I didn’t, she would. Her arthritis has been acting up lately and I do what I can to lighten her work load.
Sergei's house is whatever he wants it to be on the outside. When he is in control of his illusion spells he makes the house appear to be one story tall with chipped gray paint and a sagging porch. Even the shrubbery looks exhausted, with drooping branches and faded leaves. Most of the time his spells hold. Inside the house the situation is harder to maintain. It has something to do with the generations of ghosts existing in the walls. They are seldom visible.
In their worst moments the ghosts whirl through the first floor resembling dust storms, with an occasional glimpse of an arm or leg or transparent face. Most of the time they cannot be seen. My cousin Jimmy, who is sensitive to ghosts, hears them and therefore never enters Sergei's house unless Sergei sends for him and Jimmy cannot think of an excuse to refuse. He cannot say a flat no, not to Sergei Brown, Mudflat's only living mage.
If you are new to Mudflat, by now you have probably guessed that Mudflat is a Seattle neighborhood where old magic lives, passed down through the generations on a hit or miss basis. The neighborhood cuts through other districts, and the names of the districts can be found on any Seattle map. But not the name Mudflat. It is known only to Mudflat families.
Sergei has middling strong magic. The other Mudflat residents have no magic at all or have weak magic, and weak magic can attract outsiders with stronger magic and yeah, we know better than to let that happen.
I stop by frequently to call on Sergei for a number of reasons. My most common reason is to get information from him that no one else can give me. I am one of Sergei's least favorite people, possibly because I ask too many questions and treat him like the sneaky little old man he is.
Today I wasn't looking for information. I was looking for an extra donation for the Neighborhood Center. I had promised Madeline, the Center's manager, I would try. She had already tried to phone him. After five days of unanswered calls, she hand wrote a request to Sergei. Usually she at least gets a “Maybe later” answer. This time she had not heard back from him at all.
I rapped on the door with my knuckles. No one answered. At any other house I would presume the tenant was out. Sergei is never out. He is as close to a hermit as is possible without moving to a mountain cave, which may be why he avoids answering the door.
Not much of a surprise, really. Sergei has been dragged into a bunch of problems that I gotta confess are partly my fault. Haul a hermit out of his comfort zone and there are bound to be stress issues. Every time I see him he seems to me to be regressing, you know, hiding away, avoiding everyone, that kind of stuff.
He phones when he believes he is in dire need of my help, which usually means he needs me to look up information on a computer. He never phones any other time and I don't expect him to. Thing is this, he used to talk in a normal tone. Now when he phones, he whispers, like he thinks Homeland Security has his phone bugged. Even asks if I am answering on a 'safe' phone and what the heck is that? Who would be bored enough to bug my phone? My calls are from my housemates to let me know they will be home late, or from a friend who wants horoscope advice about her lovelife. Anyone is welcome to listen in.
I grabbed the metal knocker on Sergei's front door and banged loudly. Still no reply. Then I rang the bell repeatedly.
Caught between Sergei and Madeline, who is a closet witch, I do not ask for explanations. They have their own mysterious ways of dealing with each other. I respect Madeline but never waste the effort on the mage.
My next act was the one that usually gives me more answers than Sergei. I leaned against the porch railing. It shivered under my hands.
“He is home but not responding to anyone. Gotcha,” I said.
Sergei's house did another shiver. If it is angry with me, it tries to toss me off the porch. And why has a house decided to communicate with me? I have no idea. Nobody else's house gives me this reaction, not even my own house. On the other hand, Sergei is Mudflat's last mage, the other two having died recently, and he has wound so much magic into his walls hoping to make them impenetrable, he has apparently given them a life of their own.
He denies this. Of course he does. In the almost twenty-four years he has known me, which is my entire life to date, he has called me Miss Carmody, never Claire. The fact that his house makes nice with me does not please him. Truth is, he can cast all the spells he wants, toss them around at his house and ghosts, and both house and ghosts are capable of ignoring him.
“Okay,” I told the porch and gave its railing a friendly pat, “I won't waste any more courtesy.” Marching to the door, I kicked it.
At the same moment, Sergei turned the knob.
The door flew open so fast I had only one foot under me, the foot with the bruised ankle. The other was still raised to kick the door again.
I dove through the doorway, came down hard on the foot that had been raised to kick, and sprawled on the floor. Never one to worry about dignity, I sat there and brushed dust from the front of my jeans and rubbed at both ankles because now both of them ached.
“Nice to see you, too,” I growled.
Sergei is small and gray, always wearing the same baggy cardigan. As I had slid into the center of the entry when I fell, he had to shuffle around me in his carpet slippers to plant himself between me and the rest of the house. And what was that about?
The entry hall is two stories high. Stairs to a second floor are right there, solid hardwood stairs in a circular staircase curving up one side of the entry, easy to see and giving the lie to the one story exterior illusion.
“Miss Carmody,” he squeaked. “I am extremely busy.”
And extremely anxious to keep me out. Yeah, I got that message.
But why? Had to be something he did not want me to know about. I looked around. The place looked its usual mess, toppled stacks of books in every empty space, dust everywhere. In the best of times the ghosts in his house remain silent and out of sight. When they are feeling negative, they can override some of his spells and remove the dust illusions. This appeared to be one of their quiet days.
Looking up at him from where I sat on the floor, I said, “Fine. This won't take more than three minutes. A couple of water pipes are leaking upstairs at the Center and a bunch of building inspectors tromped around poking holes in the walls and this is the conclusion. Some of the plumbing can be repaired and some needs to be replaced. Estimated cost is forty thousand.”
The Neighborhood Center is housed in an old three story deserted school building that the Mudflat council was able to buy years ago for next to nothing because the building was in such poor shape. Since then it has been patch, patch, patch to keep it up to code for public use.
Of course Sergei knew where this conversation was going. To stall, he bent down and peered at me over the rims of his reading glasses. “You have a lump on your forehead, Miss Carmody. Do you know that?”
“If you want more, I can show you my bruised knees and bandaged ankle. The other ankle hasn't yet started to turn purple, but give it a while.”
“No, no! I believe you. Is that why you are here? I know almost nothing about healing.”
“You know why I am here, Sergei. Madeline wrote you a letter and you never answered her.”
“Did she? What did she say?”
“Exactly what I just told you and I gave you that information in less than a minute, so if you can write a check for forty thousand dollars in two minutes, I will be within my promised time limit.”
“Forty thousand? You want it all from me?”
“Unless you want to phone someone else to share the cost.”
Sergei never phones anyone if he can avoid it. And we both know he is one of the few people in the neighborhood who has more than fifty cents to spare, although neither of us said so. Mages are always rich, I don't know why.
Lots of people in Mudflat have magic, not as much as Sergei, but still. For reasons I have never understood, none of them profit from it. The witches all work other jobs, one at the mortuary, a couple at a nearby hospital, and the older ones live on their Social Security.
The other money belongs to neighbors who got passed by when the magic was added to the family genes. There is a creep named Avery Calus who stays rich from owning apartment buildings that would shame a tenement landlord. He keeps his wealth well hidden. Only a death threat gets any contributions from him. As I am a skinny, five and a half foot tall woman, if I made a death threat I would get laughed at. Also, I am a pacifist so there goes that method.
Another rich creep is Darryl Decko who is a total con man and at the moment, not in town. Neither Avery nor Darryl are worth the effort of asking for donations, though heaven knows I have been idiot enough to try in the past.
My own inherited pinch of magic has never earned me enough to quit my office jobs. A few people buy me lunch to pay for a horoscope reading because my inherited magic increases the accuracy of my predictions. As for my ability to bond with a house, I can't think of any way to make money out of having a mage's house have a crush on me.
While Sergei's eyes skidded back and forth and his brain whirled, I continued to enlighten him. “If we do not get the plumbing fixed, the health department will shut us down and we will need a large residence to replace the Center. We could turn your front room into a cafeteria, I suppose, and put the day nursery in your bedroom. You could move upstairs and have that space to yourself. Except in the winter when we try to bring homeless people inside. Your office would work as is for the Center, although we would have to box your books and store them somewhere, and ...”
Sergei Brown works hard to imitate invisibility. He surrounds his yard with a laurel hedge, which is real, sort of, and the house itself with shaggy, dusty shrubs. They and the cobwebs over the windows are mostly illusion. At one time he lost his magic and that's when we all got a glimpse of what was which. That tragedy didn't last long and now the place is back to its usual exterior illusion of a small house.
He shuffled past me, his carpet slippers slapping noisily on the wood floor, and pushed open the door to his office.
“Miss Carmody, I am very busy. What is this thing you do at the bank that moves money through the electric wires?”
I stood up and followed him across the high entry with its large chandelier and its staircase circling up to that second story that cannot be seen from the outside. He led the way into his sanctuary. The office is lined with bookcases full of leather bound books from the dark ages, or maybe older than that.
“Electronic transfer, Sergei? Is that what you mean?”
He settled behind his desk and peered into the top drawer. “What information do you need to do that?”
“We can keep this simple. Sign a check and I can deposit it. Are you good for forty thou?” Of course he was, but it seemed courteous to ask.
Most the help at the Neighborhood Center is volunteer. The paid employees are often folks the Center is trying to rehab. When that is successful, they go off to better jobs. If they backslide, well, once again they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The Center has a day nursery and a senior center. There are volunteer counselors who help with everything from finding low-cost housing to refereeing marital disputes. There are activity rooms for the unemployable and a cafeteria for anyone who needs it.
Sergei peered at me over his reading glasses. I knew what he was thinking. If he failed to ante up the money I might make good my threat and be lining up all the people who use the Center daily, including the kiddies in the day nursery, and marching them to his house.
It is so nice to have someone so terrified of you, he actually believes you will do the impossible. There is no way the health department would approve his house for either day care or for a cafeteria.
He held out the check. I leaned across the desk to take it from him and got a glimpse into the desk’s open drawer. It was full to the top with what looked like sealed, stamped, and unopened envelopes, but not the long business size envelopes that bills come in. These envelopes were mostly square and in a variety of colors. The addresses were hand written.
“Are you having a birthday?” I asked.
“A birthday? Why would you think that?” He pushed the drawer closed.
“Yeah, well, none of my business but it looks like you have a drawer filled with birthday cards.”
“The cards. Oh. No, Miss Carmody, they are Christmas and New Year's cards.”
In August? Unopened? “Um, do you mind if I ask why?”
“Why what? Miss Carmody, you said that if I gave you the check, you would leave.”
“Right. I am on my way.” I tucked the check in my pocket and headed across the entryway. Being slightly weak willed and extremely snoopy, I didn't get far before curiosity slowed me. “If those cards are from last year, why are they still unopened?”
How many people send greeting cards to a hermit? Is there a polite way to ask?
“They are not from last year.” He hurried past me and opened the front door to encourage me to leave. “They are from several years past. I thought about burning them. However, one or two may include messages I should read.”
There was no way I could leave with that little mystery hanging in the air. I stopped in the doorway. Was it some sort of religious hang-up? I know Sergei dabbles in black magic, not because he wants to harm anyone. His deal is accomplishment. He wants to raise his magic to its most powerful level for the satisfaction of doing so. It's a mage thing.
Because of that black magic obsession, which he would deny if asked so why ask, he maybe has a fear of angels and brotherly love and all those other things mentioned in Christmas cards.
“You don't like Christmas, huh?”
“I have nothing against Christmas.”
Last year I had trooped around with some of the neighbors knocking on doors and singing carols, as usual to raise money for the Center. Everyone gave a few dollars to help pay for the holiday dinners for the needy. Sergei had opened his door to hand us a fairly generous envelope of cash, then closed the door quickly to shut out the cold. When I remembered that, I could see in my mind the wreath on his front door. It had definitely had a big red bow. Would he put up decorations if he disliked Christmas?
“Then why don't you open the cards?”
“Because Nicotiana has not yet perfected a spell. There is nothing I can do. It requires a witch skill.”
As the door moved toward me, with Sergei behind it and pushing, I backed onto the porch. The door slammed in my face.
The porch floor shivered beneath my feet.
“You know him better than I do. Has he always been like that?”
This time the porch refused to communicate with me. Sergei would have been proud of its silence, not that he ever admits his porch is capable of bonding, and is that a jealousy thing? Does he suspect his house likes me more than it likes him? Is that why he never calls me by my first name?
Huh. Lots of dumb stuff to think about. The check was more important. I walked to the Center to tell Madeline that we now had money for the plumbing repairs.
As I turned a corner I was surprised to see one of those humongous moving vans blocking the street. Well, the van was no surprise. I see those things everywhere. The surprise was the moving men carrying a long table between them as they entered the Zerkle house.
Julian Zerkle. Late mage. He died last April and left the house to a great nephew who lives in another state. The nephew flew into Seattle, spent a day talking to the lawyer and then headed back to the airport. Soon after, the place was listed by a realtor and has stood empty since.
The economy might be half the reason. The other half is the house itself. It is a big old gray stucco set back on the lot and hidden behind a tall hedge.
I was in it once, the night the mage died. The place had smelled of a combination of dust and mold. The furniture dated back to medieval times, oh, okay, maybe only to the late 1800s, but anyway, everything needed regluing, refinishing, reupholstering. A junk dealer bought most of it. Zack Zacklin, who grew up in Mudflat, bought the books for his downtown bookstore.
And then the realty office took over. They sent in cleaners, trimmed the bushes, and arranged the few sturdy pieces of furniture the junk dealer had not wanted to pay for. I know that because Madeline went to one of the realtors' open houses and told me about it. After a couple open houses, they gave up. No amount of cleaning could hide the obvious age of plumbing and electric wiring and roof, stuff that might pass inspection and then break down and need expensive repairs in the next couple years.
When I reached the Center I did as I had promised, swung through the kitchen to say hello to Tarvik so he would know I had arrived safely. Of course I had. Not for a second did I think my attacker would try again, jumping out from behind a tree and grabbing me in broad daylight. I did not think I was ever the target. I was an obstacle between a house breaker and the door and he had not wanted me to see him and be able to identify him.
Jimmyed Coffin, Mudflat Magic Book 7
Jimmyed Coffin, Mudflat Magic Book 7
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