I’d hoped to spend at least one night in my apartment before I had to move back to Proctor House. Funny how life doesn’t work out the way you expected it to.
Thea, Delia, and I stood outside my apartment building, looking up at the windows to my apartment. My landlord, Mr. Subramanian, had new siding put up—this time in white. He told me the cement composite siding would not burn, which gave Mrs. Subramanian peace of mind.
I readjusted my grip on the IKEA box that contained my new queen-size bed frame. If Delia and I could just get this box up the stairs and into my apartment, we’d be done with all but the lightest boxes. I’d spent every penny of my renters’ insurance payout on new furniture and was looking forward to an apartment with a style that was nicer than “found on the side of the road.” My new furniture was all white and would give a nice look of continuity to the place.
Two months ago, one of the Fraternity of Free Witches tried to burn my apartment building down. Luckily, no one was hurt, and the building sustained far more smoke and water damage than anything else. I wasn’t home at the time, and I’d have thought they’d take a moment to figure that out before going through all that trouble.
I’d stopped by to talk to Mr. Subramanian once a week or so to see how the renovations were coming along. I was curious, but mostly I visited to assuage my guilt. The fire was my fault, sort of, and I thought being there would make it easier on Mr. S.
The carpenters Mr. S. hired had said it would take three months to make the building habitable again, but they had it done in nine weeks. I was grateful for their fast work.
It was finally time to move back into my apartment and, though I tried to hide it, there may have been more spring to my step when I walked into the kitchen at Proctor House on what I thought was my last morning there. Movie night with your boyfriend was tough when six of your relatives all wanted to watch with you.
“You look chipper,” Aunt Nadia said that morning as she handed me a mug of tea and an orange-ginger scone.
I sat at the table next to my mother. “I am. I’m excited to get my apartment set up just the way I want it.”
Jameson jumped into his chair and Aunt Nadia placed his cat-sized cheese omelet in front of him. “I’ll stay here until everything is completed,” he said.
Of course he would. Even though he was my familiar and so much more than a normal black cat, he felt entitled to be spoiled by my family.
My mother scratched between his ears. “We’re going to miss you both.”
I’d miss my family, too. The aunts and Grandma had made big improvements in treating Thea, Delia, and me like adults, but I was afraid if I stayed at Proctor House, they’d go back to treating us like we were still in high school after a while.
“I’m sure Jameson will be back regularly for anything Aunt Nadia will cook for him.” I looked at him for a moment. “Although, I think he could stand to miss a few meals.”
“Not true, I’m just putting on my winter weight,” he said.
I grinned at him. “Winter weight is for animals that hibernate. Nice try.”
“Are you ready to go?” Delia asked, breaking me out of my thoughts.
“Oh, right. Yeah.” I started walking backward to my apartment, holding my end of the heaviest box. I was beginning to regret not ordering a smaller bed.
Behind us, Thea was sliding the box with my nightstand up the stairs. “Don’t you have a boyfriend who could help with all this heavy lifting?”
I flashed her a big goofy grin. “Yes, I do. I have a big, strong, tall boyfriend, but he’s out catching the bad guys today, so we’re on our own.”
Thea rolled her eyes. “You could be a bit less smug, you know.”
I laughed. “Not sure I can, at least not yet. He’ll be here after six with takeout, and he’ll help assemble the furniture.”
After three more trips, we finally got all the boxes into my newly refurbished apartment. Mr. Subramanian did a great job choosing the colors. The ice blue of the walls looked great against the slate blue of the carpeting. The carpet felt like it had extra padding underneath it, because it squished with every step. Once I got rid of the paint and new carpet smells, the apartment would be perfect for me and Jameson.
Well, almost perfect. I didn’t like the wrought iron across the windows. I understood why Mr. S. felt it was necessary—and objectively, it was quite pretty—but to me, it felt like I could be trapped in my own apartment with no way to escape.
Delia and I put our last boxes in the bedroom. She stretched her back. “What do you want to unpack first?”
“Kitchen first. It shouldn’t take much time.”
I followed her into the kitchen, where we started unpacking my new set of pastel dishes. I’d bought one set of pink, lilac, sky blue, and light yellow.
Thea picked up a box in the living room. “I’ll start in here. Where does this go?”
I looked at the box she was holding. In order to entice Jameson back to the apartment, I’d had to give in to a few of his less expensive requests. The box held a tabletop-sized water fountain for his room. I drew the line at letting him have goldfish in the fountain, for their own good.
“That goes in Jameson’s bedroom, and fill it with water once you plug it in, please.”
“You spoil that cat something fierce,” Thea said.
“Me? Did you see how the aunts treat him? He’s going to be very unhappy here. I’m negligent in comparison.”
“He’ll adjust. But we know he’ll visit the house every day, because my mother will poach him all the fish he wants,” Delia said.
I’d also acquiesced to an automatic food dispenser and an actual human-sized bed. I wasn’t sure I needed to give in to any of these demands. Because I was the holder of the Bishop amulet, he was my familiar whether he wanted to be or not. Not that I’d push my luck by telling him he was stuck with me.
The kitchen was crowded with Delia and me trying to put things away. “I’ll hang up my clothes,” I said after getting in her way for the third time.
Not that I had many to hang. I was still working on replenishing my wardrobe. The outfits Delia had given me in Boston made up the backbone of what I wore every day, because they were magically fitted to me and had been enchanted to repel all dirt and stains. If she could find a way to mass-produce this spell, she could be a very rich woman. I took the three dresses and one pair of pants I owned from the living room and hung them in the bedroom closet.
“How about this?” Delia called from the living room.
I poked my head out of my room. She was holding up a navy floral throw rug. “I’m not sure. It’s either going in front of the couch or in my bedroom. What do you think?”
“I think we should wait until we get the furniture set up before we decide,” Delia said.
My phone rang and Palmer’s face flashed on my screen. I still thought of him as Palmer, even though we’d been dating for weeks now. I’d called him Steve once or twice, but it felt a little weird. Then again, only using his last name was also starting to feel a little strange.
“Hi, I was just going to call you,” I said when I answered.
“I hate to do this, but I can’t come tonight,” he said.
I supposed this was going to be my lot in life. His work was going to take priority over our plans sometimes. I was disappointed, but there was no way putting together my furniture and bringing me takeout for dinner was more important than chasing down dangerous criminals. I was sure I’d be able to put the furniture together myself if I needed to.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I can’t say yet, but keep your grandmother home.”
Grandma? She was the least likely of all of us to need extra protection. “I can do that. Is someone going after old ladies?”
“Like I said, I can’t say more than that.”
“Will you let me know when you catch this guy? It’s not going to be easy to keep her home and, if we tell her it’s for her own protection, you know she’ll run headlong into danger to protect us.”
“I know. I’ll let you know as soon as I can. Stay safe.”
I hung up and walked into the living room. “No dinner delivery tonight. We’re on our own.”
“Who is he after?” Delia asked.
I frowned. “Maybe we should go eat at the house. Palmer says we need to keep an eye on Grandma.”
Thea looked skeptical. “If she thinks we’re trying to protect her, she’ll be furious.”
“Dinner at home?” Delia asked. “We can say we won’t have your apartment finished tonight as your excuse to stay another night.”
“One of us should stay with her at all times.” I looked around my apartment, sad it would take another few days before I could come back.
Before we finished the boxes we were working on, Aunt Lily called. “We need you girls to come home right away.”
“Is there something wrong?” I asked, already worried that Grandma was in trouble.
“Nothing to worry about, but we need to have a family meeting. Right now,” she said.
“Right now” sounded urgent, even though she said there was nothing to worry about. “We’ll be out the door in two seconds,” I said.
Delia and Thea looked up from their boxes, worry on their faces. I hung up my phone. “Aunt Lily wants us home for a family meeting.”
“Did she sound worried?” Thea asked.
“Not exactly, but she sounded”—I thought for a moment—“insistent. We should leave now.”
Thea, Delia, and I rushed into the kitchen of Proctor House, prepared for almost anything. Almost. Turned out we weren’t prepared for Grandma and the aunts calmly sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea. Before we could say anything, Grandma put a finger to her lips. Okay, so she didn’t want us to say anything. What in the world was going on?
Had the house wards been broken somehow? Was someone listening in on us?
Aunt Nadia stood up and pulled three mugs out of the kitchen cabinet. “Would you girls like some tea?”
“Sure,” I said, playing along with whatever she wanted us to do.
We sat at the table, and no one said anything for eight very long minutes as we sipped at our tea. Grandma and the aunts took turns casually walking past the windows, looking outside, checking to see if we’d been followed. When we finished our tea, my mother, the last one to look out the windows, nodded to Aunt Lily.
Aunt Lily cleared her throat. “It’s lovely to see you girls today. I’m glad you stopped by, because I wanted to show you a new painting I just bought.”
“A new painting? I don’t remember you talking about buying more art,” Thea said.
Grandma casually walked to each window, adjusting the curtains to block any view into the house. She was also refreshing the wards, which seemed strong enough to me already. Aunt Nadia placed her hand on the door and did the same. When she was done, she nodded to us.
Aunt Lily laughed. “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. But I’d really like your help figuring out where to put it. Why don’t you girls come with me?”
This was getting weirder by the minute, but we all followed Aunt Lily out of the kitchen. She led us through the living room and up the stairs. We didn’t stop at the second floor though; she brought us all the way to the attic. She pulled the ladder door down, and one by one we climbed up. Once all seven of us were in the attic and the door was closed, Aunt Lily cast a silencing spell over the building. This seemed like overkill, since Grandma and Aunt Nadia just refreshed the protective wards around the house. What in the goddess’s name was going on here?
The attic looked the same as it did the last time I was up here. Old sheets covered furniture we weren’t using, and steamer trunks lined one wall. We each had our own trunk to store things in. Mine was empty, because I wanted to keep all my possessions at my apartment. I wished I’d have left some things here, because everything had been ruined in the fire.
“Okay, Hester. It’s safe to come out now,” Grandma said.
I knew only one woman named Hester, and I knew I didn’t want her anywhere near my family. I quickly raised a shield spell to protect us from any evil magic she might throw our way. Thea stepped in front of Grandma and, as Hester became visible in the corner, Delia cast a spell that held her in place.
“There’s no need for that right now, girls,” Grandma said.
I didn’t believe Grandma and had no intention of lowering my shield.
Hester laughed from her seat in the corner of the attic. “Your kittens are growing claws.”
“What is she doing here?” Thea asked.
Grandma swatted Thea’s shoulder. “There’s no need to protect me, I can handle anything she could dish out.”
Thea stepped aside but kept her eyes on Hester.
“Hester has come looking for sanctuary. She wouldn’t dare hurt any of us while she’s here,” Aunt Nadia said.
Sanctuary was an important part of our tradition. When one witch claimed sanctuary in the home of another, it included calling a truce to any disputes between the two families. Neither party would harm the other. Reluctantly, I dropped my shield and Delia released her spell. “Why here? Don’t you have any friends?” I asked Hester.
“Because no one in their right mind would think I’d come to a Proctor for anything. This is the last place anyone would look for me. In fact, it turns my stomach to have had to ask you for help. But three women from Sewall have been killed over the last three nights, and another is missing. I don’t want to be the next victim.”
Sewall was a magical enclave that was inaccessible to anyone without witch DNA. This meant a witch was on a killing spree. “What makes you think you’ll be next?” I asked.
Hester laughed again, but this time she was laughing in the face of fear. “I haven’t lived this long by ignoring my instincts. I need a couple days to pull off some very complex magic in peace, and then I’ll be gone.”
I looked to Grandma, who couldn’t have been happy that Hester was here. “And this is okay with you?”
“The Proctors have never turned away anyone looking for sanctuary, and we’re not about to start now,” Grandma said.
“I’ll need an amulet holder to ensure my safety, and Portsmouth has two. I had to decide whether to stay with Eunice or to stay here. At least here Nadia can cook for me.”
There was no way I could spend all my time guarding Hester. Eunice wouldn’t want to guard an evil witch, either, and she wasn’t bound by the sanctuary agreement. I turned to Grandma. “Am I obligated to do this? I don’t live here. Technically, she didn’t ask me for sanctuary.”
“No. And Eunice isn’t obligated either. But there’s precedent to consider.”
I knew there was precedent involved, but I was hoping Grandma might not mention it. I gently removed a sheet from a blue armchair so I didn’t send dust into the air and then sat. “If I have to protect you, I need to know who you think I’m protecting you from.”
Hester frowned. “That’s the thing, I don’t know who might be coming for me.”
“What do your instincts tell you?” I asked.
Hester looked at the rest of my family. “You all might as well get comfortable; this could take a bit. I’ve done a few things I’m not proud of.”
Grandma scoffed. “A few?”
“I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of too, Esther. And I like to think they make up for the others. In the end, there are four witches that I’ve crossed who I think are mean enough and strong enough to come after me.”
“You have four people who want to kill you?” Delia asked.
Hester ignored the question. “The first is a young witch named Elsbeth. She’s about your age and is the best potion maker I’ve ever seen. People have stopped coming to my shop and started to see her instead. I’ll admit, I was jealous. So I poisoned her and took her grimoire.”
“If you poisoned her, is it her ghost that’s coming after you?” I asked.
“No. She was able to make an antidote before the poison took full effect,” Hester said.
Making an antidote when you were poisoned was no easy feat. “So how do you still have her grimoire?” I asked.
“I don’t. She stole it back, but not before I made copies. I didn’t actually want to kill her, I just needed to level the playing field and show the town which one of us was best.”
“Did you poison the other three as well?” I asked.
Hester fidgeted in her chair. “Not really. I did use a witch named Lazar for a test. He was kind of a dolt, and I stole his magic for myself with a potion. It was his own fault for trusting me.”
I was dumbfounded. I had no idea you could take someone else’s power for yourself.
“So where is Lazar now?” Thea asked.
“I have no idea. He has no magic, and I hexed him so he could never return to Sewall. But I don’t know for sure, so he’s on the list.”
“And the third?” Aunt Nadia asked.
Hester rolled her eyes. “Glinda,” she said with disdain.
I looked to my mother. “Like in The Wizard of Oz?”
“Exactly,” Hester said. “That’s what her parents named her. And she was so incredibly smug about being named for a good witch, I couldn’t help myself. I hexed her, and now she attracts monkeys.”
“I’m not sure that’s worth killing for, is it?” I asked.
“It all depends on where you live. I believe she’s moved to an island fifty miles offshore. She’s probably safe there.”
“You’re a horrible woman, and I can’t believe I’m obligated to protect you,” I said.
Hester grinned. “That’s the joy of sanctuary.”
“And the fourth person?” Delia asked.
“He’s probably the real one, the one who is after me. His name is Forster, and I may have used substandard ingredients in a potion he asked for. Rumor has it he lost a hand and had to grow it back.”
I stared at her, astonished. No matter what magic he used to grow his hand back, the process would have been incredibly painful.
Hester shifted in her seat. “He’s not someone to forgive and forget. Even though his hand works perfectly now, I could see where he might hold a grudge.”
I put my head in my hands. “So we need to look out for these four people, and possibly countless others who might want to kill you, so that you can stay safe and perform some other spell, that may or may not hurt more people. Am I right?”
“I’ve already promised your grandmother that I am only working on a disappearing spell.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t actually trust you,” I said.
Hester grinned. “Not as stupid as you look, are you?”
I frowned. Was this her way of telling me she was lying? Would she bother to lie? She had no shame about her actions, so I didn’t think she would waste the effort to lie.
“What I don’t understand is how you made it from Sewall to Portsmouth without getting hurt. If you’re in so much danger, why didn’t someone attack you on the trip?” Thea asked.
Hester shuddered. “I hate heights, but I took the form of a pigeon and I flew here. Apparently, I was a delicious-looking pigeon, because I spent the entire trip avoiding hawks and owls. They were so relentless that they made me almost want to take my chances with humans instead. But, lucky for me, I made it here in one piece. And as a reward, if I can get my work done, I’m willing to give you two hours with Elsbeth’s grimoire. There’s a lot in there I’m sure you don’t know.”
Offering a witch new spells or potions is the most tempting thing you can do. It didn’t matter, though, because I felt obligated by Hester’s claim of sanctuary.
“Fine. I’ll protect you for three days, and I’ll expect eight hours with the book,” I said.
Hester grinned. “It’s a deal. Now get out of here so I can get to work.”