Black-robed figures circled the bonfire. Their chanting sent a shiver down my spine that had nothing to do with the cold. Hooded and lit only by the flickering flames and silver moonlight filtering through the naked branches overhead, they were nameless except for their leader, my best friend Diana.
I felt a sharp jab in my ribs.
“When’s the good stuff start?” Aunt Vi said, too loudly. Though a skeptic about Wicca she’d insisted on coming to the ceremony when she heard there would be fire and a cauldron. Her silver braid peeked out from under her borrowed robes and she gawked around the circle.
“Shhh!” I hissed. I felt uneasy anyway, but now several of the hooded figures had turned in our direction.
Deep in Greer’s Woods on Halloween, we were a good fifteen-minute hike from the road. Diana had trekked her supplies to this spot during the afternoon. Wiccans called this day “Samhain” and she planned to summon the spirits of the dead and the Goddess of Shadows to join us for the Wiccan New Year celebration. Putting a Wiccan in charge of the Fall Fun Fest meant the usual lineup of kids’ costume parade and applesauce-eating contest was joined by a midnight ceremony in the woods.
Vi tugged on my robe.
“Clytemnestra, you said we were going to see our future in the fire. I don’t see anything.”
“She just started—give her a minute,” I said through clenched teeth. Vi was purposely using my full name to irk me.
Nearing seventy, Vi had retained what might be politely called a “childlike enthusiasm” for all things paranormal.
Diana lit the black candles on the makeshift altar and called on the four elements to join the circle. I felt the heavy brown bread we’d shared earlier settle uncomfortably in my stomach. When she reached the part about the God of Darkness and Goddess of Shadows, I moved a little closer to Aunt Vi. Diana doesn’t scare me, but sometimes her ceremonies and spells do.
Until six months ago, I had been a police officer. I felt guns, criminals, and drunken idiots were business as usual. Magick, ghosts, and séances were another matter. We lived in Crystal Haven, a town known for its psychics and fortune-tellers, so I should have been used to it. But, hosting the Fall Fun Fest that included a Wiccan ceremony was new. In the midst of this spooky group with only a crescent moon and a bonfire for illumination, standing closer to Vi was only slightly reassuring. The flames cast dancing shadows on the trees, accentuating their gnarled branches. Sparks lifted up and disappeared in the darkness.
Another jab to the ribs. “Nothing’s happening. What about the cauldron?” Vi said, more quietly.
Just then Diana dropped a match into her cauldron and blue flames leaped out and glowed in the center of the circle.
“Oooh,” Vi breathed.
A burning stick of sage was passed around the circle. “Burn and blaze! Into the future we now gaze!” The group chanted, asking to see their future in the fire. Vi joined in with gusto. I thought longingly about séances and tarot cards. Those seemed tame and soothing compared to this.
Mesmerized by the flames, my mind wandered. Without meaning to, I stared deeply into the fire. I saw a vision of a house. The cottage was covered in vines and set back in a dense forest. I felt myself drawn to it, as if I’d been there before. The atmosphere of the ceremony and the chanting of the circle had breached my wall of protection. I habitually guarded against any messages from other realms. I shook my head to clear it of the smoky fog that had settled over me.
Vi squeezed my arm through my robe. “You saw something, didn’t you? What was it?” Vi was always on the lookout for any sign that my “gift” was active.
I shook my head again, although she wasn’t likely to get the signal in the dark, while I wore a hood. “Nothing, I—”
A scream cut through the chanting. One of the robed figures had fallen into the center of the circle, the face covered by the hood. The voices stopped and the inky figures blended together as they rushed to the crumpled form. Diana arrived first and pulled the hood back. It was Rafe Godwin. He clutched his throat, his face dark in the dim light of the clearing. His huge, terrified eyes made it look as if he were choking himself. Then, grabbing Diana’s wrist, he pointed to his throat with his other hand.
“Is he having a heart attack?” a hooded figure asked.
“His lips are swelling, it looks like an allergic reaction,” another voice volunteered.
“Call 911!” Diana said.
Gasps and concerned tskings made their way through the circle.
“Oh my,” said Vi, at my side again.
“Rafe, where is it?” Diana asked.
He wrestled with his robe and Diana began pawing through the folds.
“Diana, what are you doing?” I said. I knelt down to help her.
“He’s got an EpiPen in here somewhere. I think he’s going into shock.” She continued wrestling with his clothing and a few others knelt to do the same.
The group began muttering about bees and wasps. But at midnight in October the likelihood that an insect sting was involved seemed remote.
“Here it is!” Diana held a short tube the length of a pen over her head. She popped the injector out of its plastic holder and jabbed it into his thigh right through the robe.
Now that I stood closer, I saw the mottled dark color of his face, the swollen lips and eyelids. He fought to take weak raspy breaths.
The crowd got very quiet. I expected Rafe to take a deep breath, and for his eyes to return to normal size. Nothing happened. He stopped struggling, but otherwise I saw no change. Certainly not the miraculous recovery I had come to expect from watching television.
Diana shook his shoulders but he didn’t respond.
One of the people who had pushed through to the front of the crowd began CPR. Someone else announced that an ambulance had been dispatched. As we stood helplessly watching, I realized Rafe Godwin would not be seeing the future.
Muffled sniffles and sobs punctuated the otherwise quiet clearing. We’d known he was dead a few minutes after CPR had started. Fortunately, one of the group members, a nurse, took over the evaluation and finally made the decision to stop CPR. Visibly shaken, he sat with his back against a nearby tree, head in hands, while the rest of us held vigil and waited for the paramedics to arrive.
Diana sat next to Rafe on the ground and seemed to be in a trance. Her hood lay flat on her back, her orange curls reflecting the glow of the bonfire. I knelt next to her, murmuring reassuring platitudes and feeling helpless. I knew how close Rafe and Diana had been.
Vi stood nearby. Her eyes glittered in the flickering light and the shadows accentuated the furrows and creases on her face.
The wail of a siren intruded on our stunned group and then we heard the EMTs crashing through the trees.
Two men burst into the clearing. One looked about fifty, red faced and breathing heavily from the sprint through the woods. The other could have kept running all the way into Crystal Haven. Surely just out of his teens, he’d need to show ID every time he bought a beer. They quickly assessed the mood of the crowd and let their equipment slump to the ground. After verifying that Rafe was dead they moved the stretcher toward Rafe’s body to carry him out of the woods. Diana looked confused at their approach and leaned over as if to protect him from attack.
“Diana, he’s gone,” I said. I touched her shoulder.
She looked at me with wet eyes.
“But I gave him the epinephrine. Why didn’t it work?”
I shook my head and helped her stand so the EMTs could do their work.
“Let them get him to the hospital,” I said.
“Is there any next of kin?” the older man asked as he scanned the crowd. I saw his eyes grow wide as he took in the cloaks and hoods, the cauldron and altar.
Several people shook their heads, and turned to Diana.
“No, I’m the closest thing he’s got to family.” Her voice broke, and she rubbed her eyes with her sleeve. Rafe Godwin was Diana’s father’s oldest friend. He’d been like an uncle to her and her brother growing up, and a source of support after their parents died.
The younger EMT had shuffled closer to his partner and scanned the crowd as if he were a rabbit who had stumbled into a fox den.
“What’s going on here?” the older one asked.
“It’s part of the Fall Fun Fest,” I said. I stuck out my hand. “I’m Clyde Fortune, and this is one of the scheduled activities.”
He took my hand in a warm grip. They both relaxed at this—festivalgoers were apparently less threatening than free-range witches.
After they lifted Rafe onto the stretcher, a couple of the men in the group stepped forward to help carry it. We filed out of the clearing after them, making a procession of dark-robed figures through the woods.
The next day, the crisp, clear November air held just a threat of the winter to come. It brought back my best memories of growing up in Western Michigan, spending time in the woods, and it was a welcomed feeling after experiencing last night’s tragedy there. I closed my eyes to let the sweet, sharp smell of the fallen leaves block out all other sensations. The midnight ceremony was meant to kick off the weekend Fall Fun Fest. So far, the great weather and promise of good food had overshadowed the pall of a death in the woods. I was helping Diana at her vendor’s stall, which was doing a brisk business selling everything from herbs to jewelry. When I’d driven her home the night before, I’d offered to cover for her that morning, but she’d insisted she would feel better if she stayed busy. As the organizer of the Fall Fun Fest, she said she would go crazy sitting at home wondering if there was anything she should be doing. I’d learned over the years that arguing with Diana when her mind was set led nowhere.
Diana owned Moonward Magick, the busiest Wiccan supply store in the area. She had also worked from mid-August to set up the Fall Fun Fest. In past years it had been held in Grand Rapids but the organizer was getting older and had health issues. Diana had been talked into running it this year and decided to move it to Greer’s Woods outside of Crystal Haven. I wondered if this would be her first and last time organizing it. Based on the muttering and swearing that had occurred since early September, I was glad she didn’t believe in curses.
Everyone was talking about the sudden death at the ceremony. The stories I overheard in the crowd varied widely, from seizure, to heart attack, to spirit possession. The one thing they all agreed on was that Rafe and Diana had always been close, and that she had tried to save him. I saw that she was wearing her mother’s rose quartz pendant. She only wore it when she was stressed or upset, but her warm and caring manner with her customers gave no indication of her feelings.
She refused all questions about the death, and would not engage in any conversation that wasn’t directly related to her business or the festival. She was a master at putting off an emotional outburst until the appropriate time, unlike me. I was a master at putting off emotional outbursts forever. I could tell it was depleting her energy.
“What’s good around this place?” I stiffened as a familiar voice floated through the crowd.
Before I could duck behind the display board, Aunt Vi and my mom approached the table.
“Clyde, there you are!” my mom said in a tone that suggested she’d trekked the Himalayas for a week to find me.
The sisters were almost the same height, both with silver hair. Vi had hers in its familiar braid, and she wore a multicolored skirt with two cardigans and a shawl. Mom had her hair in a bun, as usual, and wore a light blue tracksuit and sneakers. This was her venturing-into-the-woods outfit.
“I knew it! I knew all that Halloween chanting and fire gazing would lead to trouble.” Vi fixed me with her fierce black eyes. I refrained from reminding her that she’d insisted on being there.
Vi, a pet psychic, and Mom, a tarot reader, had been unpleasantly surprised to learn a Wiccan ceremony would be part of this year’s Fall Fun Fest offerings. Mom held a long-standing wariness of spells and potions. Vi approached the Wiccans as an entertaining subculture, but one not to be entirely trusted.
I sliced across my neck with my hand and jerked my head in Diana’s direction.
Violet had taken a breath to begin her inquisition when she noticed my not-so-subtle maneuvers. The sisters glanced in Diana’s direction and fell silent. Violet did something gymnastic with her eyebrows but I gave up trying to figure it out. My aunt and mother truly did communicate with glances and nods, a skill I had not developed, at least not with them.
I walked away from the booth and they followed. Once out of earshot, we began rapid-fire whispering, sounding like angry geese.
“What are you two doing here?”
“We came to support Diana in her . . . endeavors.” My mother clutched her amethyst amulet for protection. “Vi told me about what happened last night.”
“It’s all anyone in town will talk about,” Vi said. “Witches in the woods, rituals, death. Hey, I heard there was good food here. Where’s the giant turkey legs?” Vi stood on her tiptoes.
“I think you have this confused with a Renaissance fair. There aren’t any turkey legs here.”
“Oh. No swords or jousting?”
I shook my head.
Violet dropped her heels and the corners of her mouth at the same time.
“Do you know any more about what happened?” Mom glanced in Diana’s direction and lowered her voice. “To Rafe?”
I assured them I had no information. My status as a former police officer led them to believe I had an inside track on such things. Last spring, after shooting a suspect while working as a police officer in Ann Arbor, I had come home to recoup and think about what to do next. I had had very little time for either when Crystal Haven had its first homicide in decades. One murder led to another and by the time the crime was solved, I found myself with a small inherited house and a large inherited bullmastiff. Now that I had my own place, the ladies in the family had taken to semi-stalking me, a side effect I hadn’t considered when I decided to stay in Crystal Haven and leave police work behind.
I described the death of Rafe Godwin to Mom with minimal detail. She walked back to the booth and embraced Diana, both of them welling up and sniffling. In spite of her feelings toward Wiccans in general, mom loved Diana.
Violet and I stood with our arms crossed, shaking our heads.
“Diana, I’m so sorry. That must have been so horrible for you after losing your parents. Now you’ve lost Rafe as well,” Mom said.
“I never liked that Rafe Godwin,” Vi mumbled out of the side of her mouth.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Everyone liked him. He led a very popular coven in Grand Rapids, did charity work, and was a huge support to Diana and Dylan.”
“No, not everyone.” She shook her head. “The cats don’t trust him. They say he’s not as nice as he seems and they would know. They’re very good judges of character.” Vi nodded once to punctuate.
Slow deep breath. It was my own fault for thinking Vi would have real information about anyone. Her pet psychic abilities were highly exaggerated in my opinion, but she and my mother took it very seriously.
“Okay, well, he’s dead now so the cats don’t have to worry,” I said and turned back to the booth.
“What’s he doing here?” Vi said. I turned to follow her gaze.
Tom Andrews made his way through the crowd. He’d worked at his mother’s booth over the weekend helping to sell her healing herbs and potions. Tom was wearing his police uniform so I assumed he must be working at his day job.
He spotted Diana and Mom and turned in the direction of the booth. At the same time, he tripped over someone’s dragging robe, grabbed a passing woman for support who shrieked and stepped away, which caused the group to scatter around him like an exploding firework. He righted himself and took the last two stumbling steps to Diana’s table and clutched it to keep from falling down. Diana had already rushed to help if he fell and I could still hear the crashes and grunts of the masses as the waves of Tom’s klutziness spread.
As usual, Tom was unaware of the chaos in his wake and struck a pose of calm authority.
“Diana Moonward?” he said.
She cocked her head at him as if maybe he’d sustained a brain injury on his way through the fair.
“You know I am. What’s up, Tom?”
He dropped his officer stance and lowered his voice. “I have to take you in to the station for questioning—I’m really sorry.”
“What! I knew it!” Vi rushed to his side. “I knew Rafe Godwin was murdered!”
Tom turned to Aunt Vi. “How did you . . .”
Diana gasped and the blood drained from her face. Mom squeezed her amulet in her fist and stepped closer to Diana.
“So Vi’s right? He was murdered?” Mom asked.
Tom looked from my aunt to my mother and then shot a pleading glance in my direction.
“I can’t say anything. I just need to ask Diana some questions.”
“Well, we’re going with her!” Vi crossed her arms and stepped between Tom and Diana’s table.
“No, I’ll go with her,” I said. “Diana, text Bethany to come early for her shift and Vi and my mom can cover your table until she gets here.”
Diana fumbled in her pocket for her phone and handed it to me with a shaky hand.
“We can’t do that, Clyde. We don’t know anything about this . . . merchandise.” Mom swept her arm over the table, and shook her head.
“We can do it, Rose. Selling is selling, right? We can always tell the customers to come back in an hour if we can’t answer their questions.” Vi was already rolling up her sleeves and rearranging the table.
“Well, okay. Thanks.” Diana stepped from behind the table and grabbed my hand.
“I’ll drive her and we’ll meet you there, Tom,” I said. “You aren’t arresting her are you?” Diana squeezed my hand, hard.
“No. I’ll explain when we get there.” He glanced at the small gang that had gathered at Diana’s table. “Nothing to see here, folks. Go about your business.” He pushed his way through the throng, which gave him a wide berth, and we followed.
We walked to my car, an ancient Jeep Wrangler that had been brought back to life after I rolled it into a ditch last summer. We climbed in, buckled up, and bounced our way down the dirt path out of the woods.
The vehicle was eerily silent. Diana tended to shut down when she was nervous, a trait I appreciated at this moment. There was no need for speculation without substance. I’d had enough of that growing up to last the rest of my life. But I knew she had to be wondering whether Vi was right, crazy as it sounded. Once we hit pavement, I broke the silence.
“Diana, this is probably routine. They just need some more information about Rafe,” I said.
She nodded and stared at the passing wooded terrain.
“Just answer the questions as honestly as you can,” I said. “I’ll stay with you.” I reached over and squeezed her hand.
“What if your mom and Vi are right?” Diana blurted as she turned in her seat to look at me. “Who would kill Rafe? And why do the police think I would know anything about that?”
I was wondering the same thing.
“Let’s just wait and see what’s going on,” I said. “You know Tom loves the dramatic moment. He’s probably just trying to make it look like a bigger deal than it is.”
Diana gave me a small smile. I knew she didn’t believe the reassurances, but she appreciated the attempt.
We parked near the station and sat for a moment before getting out. Diana took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and nodded at me. I took my own calming breath and opened the door.
Tom met us in the lobby and walked us past Lisa Harkness. She was the receptionist and self-appointed news distributor. Her mouth hung open as she reached for her cell phone. Tom showed us to a small interview room and left. Diana and I exchanged glances. We didn’t wait long.
When the door opened again, Mac stood there. With his six feet and a couple of inches he filled the doorway. He kept his blond hair cropped short, and whether he was in his uniform or jeans, he radiated authority. His size and gruff manner fooled most people, but I knew the lines near his mouth were from an easy smile. And that the sparkle in his eyes was more often from laughter than anger.
I felt a warm flush at the sight of him. Last summer, we’d rekindled a relationship that had ended too soon, but we were keeping it to ourselves for now. In public we were all business. Especially since my family was not known for minding their own, and would likely begin planning the wedding if they knew we were back together. Mac was determined to give us every possible chance of doing things right this time. Between my family duties, his job, and Diana’s festival, we’d had a rocky start to our reignited romance. It seemed the Fates were conspiring against us. I’d been looking forward to an evening alone with him. The look on his face wiped away any thoughts of a romantic interlude in the near future.
After I gained control of my smile and donned a more suitable expression of outrage that Diana had been brought to the police station, my heart sank at the realization that Vi must be right. Rafe had been murdered.
Mac worked in the county sheriff’s office as a homicide detective. He wouldn’t be here in Crystal Haven unless there was suspicion of murder.
“Why am I not surprised?” Mac said. “Of course you two were there when Rafe Godwin died.” Mac dropped a file onto the table and crossed his arms. He had perfected the intimidation stance. And his blue eyes could become a steely gray when he was angry.
Intimidation didn’t work on me. But Diana squeezed my hand again.
“Mac, what’s this about?” I said. “Why did Tom drag Diana in here?”
He sat in one of the chairs and gestured that we should do the same. He dropped the tough-cop ploy and rested his elbows on the table.
“Diana, did you know that Rafe was allergic to peanuts?”
“Of course.” Diana nodded. “Lots of people knew that.”
“Someone has come forward claiming that they tasted peanuts in the”—Mac looked at the file in front of him—“‘bambrack’ bread.”
Diana and I looked at each other.
She shook her head. “No. I made it myself. I knew Rafe was allergic and the recipe doesn’t call for nuts, anyway.”
“What is bambrack bread?” Mac asked.
“It’s a traditional Celtic bread made with fruit soaked in tea,” Diana told him. “I thought it would be a fun thing to do this year for the ceremony. My mother used to make it every Halloween.”
“So, there weren’t any nuts in any of the food you served?” Mac said.
“That’s right. I made everything myself. I don’t know how he would have been exposed to peanuts. Plus, if it was an allergic reaction, the EpiPen should have bought us some time.”
“Yeah, we’re looking into that as well,” Mac said. He rubbed his forehead.
“Mac, it was an accident,” I said. “He must have eaten something elsewhere and then reacted to it. Unfortunately, we were so far out in the woods that we couldn’t get him to a hospital in time.”
“He was severely allergic,” Diana said. “He carried EpiPens everywhere he went, and stashed them all over the place. And he was really careful about what he ate. I don’t know how this could have happened.” She put her head down on her arms.
I put my hand on her back.
“Diana, you knew him pretty well, right?” Mac asked.
Diana sat up and nodded. “He was my father’s best friend. Dylan and I called him Uncle Rafe. After my parents died, he was the one who helped us put the pieces back together.” Her voice broke and she put her hand to her mouth.
Mac slid a box of tissues in her direction. “I’m sorry, Diana,” he said, and waited.
After a loud use of the tissues, she said, “Sorry, I’m just overwhelmed with the festival and I’ve been avoiding thinking about him being dead.”
“You’ve been working too hard.” I put a hand on her arm. “Let Bethany take over the booth today.”
She shook her head. “It’s better if I stay busy.” Diana looked at Mac. “Do you need anything else?”
“Whatever you can think of that would help us find out who might have wanted to hurt him.” Mac held his hands out. “It’s clear he ingested something in the hour or so before he died. Was he with you all that time?”
Diana sat back in her chair and took a deep breath. She nodded and looked at the ceiling, trying to recall the evening.
“He helped me set up the food,” she said. “We had a small meal before the ceremony. That’s where he would have eaten the bambrack. Who said they tasted nuts?”
Mac looked at the table and then at Diana. “I can’t tell you.”
I felt my jaw clench. If we’d been alone, I would have called him on his top secret attitude. There was nothing to indicate foul play as far as I could tell, so unless he was keeping major information from us, he had nothing to go on.
“Mac, Diana is exhausted. I’m sure she’ll call you if she thinks of anything. Can we be done here?”
He nodded. “Before you leave, I’ll need a list of everyone who was in the woods that night, his closest contacts, and any family.”
Diana took the pad of paper he offered and began writing. Mac pulled me out in the hall while she worked.
“Did you see anything that might help?”
“Like, did I see someone hand him a jar of Planters?”
“This isn’t funny, Clyde. I have to investigate the claim that his food may have been contaminated. Knowing Diana made it without any nuts means someone must have doctored it later.”
“It’s all hearsay. Some random person claims they tasted nuts and now you’re launching an investigation?”
“We have samples of all the food from the ceremony. The nurse who helped out at the scene took it all to the hospital—he thought it was a food allergy reaction and figured it might be useful to the doctors. He watches too much TV, but in this case it was actually helpful to be able to send it all off to a lab.”
“You know that will never hold up in court. There’s no proof he got that food from the ceremony.”
“Who said anything about court?” Mac’s voice got a little higher and he held his hands up like I was mugging him. “I’m just trying to figure out if this guy died by accident or not.”
“Diana did everything she could to help him.” I crossed my arms and held his gaze.
“No one is accusing Diana of anything.” He put his hand on my arm and slipped it around my back to pull me into a hug then retracted it quickly when he remembered where we were.
I raised an eyebrow, then smiled at him. “Good.” I wasn’t sure why I was worrying. Mac was right, there was no reason to suspect she had anything to do with peanuts in the food, but I was getting a bad feeling anyway.
In general, bad feelings are the only kind I have. Or maybe they’re just the strongest ones. I’ve never quite figured it out, but I was excellent at predicting trouble and doom. It was my special talent. Vi talks to animals, Mom reads the tarot, and I have vague inklings of badness, punctuated by dreams predicting death and mayhem. I’d trade it in an instant for a talent like singing or painting.
Diana came out of the room and handed Mac her list.
“Thanks, Diana. I’ll look into this.”
He walked with us back toward the front of the building and said good-bye. Mac could get very wrapped up in a case. It was unlikely I’d see him anytime soon. But, I smiled and nodded—I don’t do clingy.
I insisted on taking Diana to lunch instead of returning right away to the festival. I felt we needed a dose of Alex, the third member of our little group and the designated cheerer-upper. I knew he could help me out in the support-a-friend department.
Everyday Grill felt more crowded than usual this time of year. The festival had definitely helped the tourist trade this fall. Shocked once again at the changes Alex had made to the interior of the restaurant, I surveyed the new atmosphere with appreciation. Last summer, he was just an employee and the décor ran toward 1970s dark steak house. After the events of the early summer had resolved, he’d purchased the restaurant at a bargain and was able to put some money into renovations. Now the whole place felt lighter, brighter, and more like Alex.
The menu had been fancied up as well but he left a few old standbys for the regulars.
Diana and I were well-known by the waitstaff so her iced tea and my diet soda arrived almost as soon as we sat down.
Diana sipped her tea and then pushed it away. “I’m not really that hungry.”
“You say that now.” I shoved a menu at her even though we both had it memorized.
I ordered the Cobb salad. Diana, who wasn’t hungry, got the bacon burger with fries. It’s always good to drown stress with grease and fat. I was distracting her with tales of Baxter, my bullmastiff, and his never-ending war with our neighborhood squirrels, when Alex came out of the kitchen. A few inches taller than me, he had the shoulders of a kayaker and the barely contained energy of a toddler. His dark hair was hidden under a white bandanna, but he’d removed his apron. He pulled up a chair and gave Diana a long hug.
“I heard about Rafe. I’m so sorry.”
Diana nodded and attempted a watery smile.
“What have you heard?” I asked, wondering if the whole peanut thing was common knowledge.
“Only that he collapsed and by the time the ambulance guys had hiked through the woods, he was . . .” Alex glanced at Diana and stopped.
She stared at her drink as if she didn’t know what it was. I put my hand over hers, and thought quickly of a way to shift the subject.
“How’s Dylan doing?” I asked her. Dylan Ward was Diana’s brother—Diana had changed her name to Moonward after she opened her store—and until that week, I’d only seen him once in the five years since their parents had died. He’d arrived just in time for the festival and I’d seen him briefly at a couple of the events.
“He seems fine. He and Rafe never got along very well, and he hadn’t seen him in years.” Diana shrugged.
I nodded, but wondered just how well Dylan was doing in other ways. From what Diana had told me over the years, he’d been drifting from place to place, picking up odd jobs along the way. He was an artist and followed the art shows around the country, trekking his wares in a beat-up old Suburban that had been his dad’s. He made leather boxes, clocks, and switch plates. Diana said he did a lot of couch surfing, but it often sounded as though it was more likely he did a lot of squatting in abandoned houses until the neighbors complained. Dylan was seven years younger than Diana and was only eighteen when Elliot and Fiona had died. He had taken it hard and left Crystal Haven the day after the funeral. I’d never fully understood the relationship between Diana and her brother. She was very protective of him. She sent him money whenever he had an address and always had a ready excuse for him when he disappeared for months at a time. I would have thought they’d stick together after the death of their parents, but Diana didn’t seem to mind that he went his own way.
“Dylan was in here earlier talking to Lucan Reed,” Alex said. “It didn’t seem friendly.”
“Lucan? I didn’t know they knew each other,” Diana said. “He’s only been in Rafe’s coven for the past year or so.”
“It didn’t look like a happy reunion. More like a Mexican standoff.”
Diana’s brows drew together. “I wonder what that was about.”
Just as Alex shrugged, the food arrived and he was called back into the kitchen. He headed back to work after promising to stop by the festival for its last day.
That night, after a trip to the park with Baxter and a reheated casserole from the last time I was at my mom’s, I checked my phone for messages from Mac. He’d texted to say he’d stop by later. I sat on the four inches of couch that Baxter allowed me and picked up the remote. He groaned and fixed me with his droopy stare. After almost losing him over the summer following his superdog heroics, I had spoiled him. Now he demanded the prime space on the couch and persistently tried to take over the bed.
I’d just clicked onto an FBI missing persons show when I heard a knock on the door. It wasn’t Mac’s usual four-beat rhythm, but I hopped up and swung open the door.
“Finally, you escaped!” I said before I saw who was on my porch.
“I guess you could say that.” My nephew, Seth, slouched in my doorway. Tall and gangly, with blond bangs hanging in his eyes, it was clear he was Grace’s son. He’d always had her coloring, and now his cute-kid looks were morphing into handsome charm. Tuffy, his ill-tempered shih tzu, glowered from where he was tucked under Seth’s arm. Baxter became aware of his buddy and leaped off the couch. He almost knocked Seth over in his enthusiastic greeting. After coating as much of the teen as he could in dog slime, he turned his attention to the dog. Tuffy was wagging his tail so hard that Seth had to put him down. Both dogs bounded into the living room to complete their greeting ritual.
“What are you—how did you—”
Seth cocked his eyebrow and gestured toward the living room.
“Come in.” I swung my arm wide and watched him push past the dogs and drop his backpack and duffel bag on the floor.
“What are you doing here?”
My older sister and I didn’t communicate often, but whenever she sent her fourteen-year-old son to visit Michigan, she definitely called to make arrangements.
“It’s nice to see you, too.”
“Don’t get snippy with me. Does your mother know you’re here?” Grace was going to freak when she found out he’d traveled half the country.
He dropped his eyes.
“She thinks I’m at a friend’s cottage for the weekend.”
“Where does she think this cottage is?”
“Upstate New York.”
I crossed my arms and took a few deep breaths. I felt a twitch begin in my right eyelid.
“Since you’re now in Western Michigan, I can only assume you took a wrong turn.”
“Actually, I took a car to Ann Arbor, then a bus to Kalamazoo until they found Tuffy in my duffel bag, then I caught a ride here.”
“You took a car? You can’t even drive yet.”
“I got a ride with a friend’s older brother who goes to U of M, and then I took the bus with one of his friends. That guy had a girlfriend who was picking him up at the bus station and they drove me here.”
“We have to call your mother.”
Seth held his hand up. “I just texted her to tell her I’m having a great time—can’t we wait until tomorrow?”
“I can’t go back there, Clyde.” He pulled his mouth into a sad expression that he probably practiced in the mirror. “I want to stay here with you.”
More deep breaths. Some counting. It was late, and I knew Grace worked long hours. She didn’t need to know tonight that Seth was halfway across the country and not simply a few hours away. Plus, now that he was in my house, he was safe.
“You can stay tonight. I’ll wait to call your mom in the morning and then we have to figure out what to do with you.”
“Great!” Seth flashed his grin. “Do you have any food around here?”
He walked toward the kitchen with both dogs trailing behind.
I spent a few moments alone in my living room pacing and trying to calm down.
By the time I joined them, Seth had emptied almost the entire contents of the refrigerator onto the counter.
“Don’t you have any pickles? How about soda?”
“No pickles. I threw them away after you left. You know—to go home and go back to school?”
“Pickles last a long time; you didn’t have to dump them.” He chose to focus on the food, not the lecture.
I snagged a bag of chips out of the pantry and tossed them at Seth. He and the dogs had settled into their usual places at the kitchen table: Tuffy jumped onto the seat to Seth’s right, Baxter rested his head on the table to his left. The dogs patiently waited for Seth to share.
I sat down in my usual spot—as far across the table as I could get.
We had fallen into this pattern over the summer. After I’d inherited the house, Seth and I moved our few belongings from the ancient Victorian shared by my aunt and parents to this much smaller home. It worked out in everyone’s best interests. I needed my own place and the dogs were only welcome by my mom as temporary visitors, not permanent residents. Seth came with the deal—the dogs insisted. Early August had been filled with relaxation and recovery from the events of July and by the time we were all back on our feet, Diana had recruited us to help with the festival. I suppose it wasn’t that surprising that Seth had shown up just in time to attend the last day of the festival—he’d been part of the planning from the beginning. I latched on to that thought as the reason for his sudden arrival. The other possibilities were less pleasant.
I worried about Seth ever since he admitted to having some sort of burgeoning pet psychic talent earlier in the summer. I never managed to get him to talk about it after he confided in me, and that concerned me. Having that sort of a secret could wear on a kid. I knew, having been that kid myself. He was a gentle person who seemed more interested in time alone with animals than with teens his own age. I wondered how much he had shared with his parents. My sister, incapable of seeing anything awry in her life, clung to the fantasy that leaving Crystal Haven would solve all of her problems and she had never backed away from that stance.
I sighed without realizing it and three sets of eyes turned to me.
“Want some?” Seth pushed the bag of chips in my direction, and continued to devour his triple-decker sandwich. I would have thought that he had been starved on his cross-country trip but he ate like that all the time. By the time he left at the end of August he had reached his life goal of surpassing me in height. I was sure I’d be craning my neck soon to look him in the eye.
After everyone was done with his snack, I told Seth to dump his things in his old room. He and the dogs padded up the stairs and returned a few minutes later, wanting to go for a walk. We clipped their leashes on and headed out the front door.
Tuffy and Baxter were delighted to be back together again. Tuffy ran next to Baxter to match his gait, his short legs blurring with the speed. Baxter slowed his pace for Tuffy, something he never did for me.
“The last day of the festival is tomorrow, so you didn’t miss it all.”
Seth looked surprised and said, “Right, the festival. Cool.” My shoulders slumped. He hadn’t come for the festival.
“You can go with me to Diana’s booth after you check in with your mom tomorrow.”
Seth kept up a running monologue about a new electropop fusion band inspired by video game theme songs. Ever since he had discovered my stash of boy band CDs in a box during the move, he had been on a mission to improve my taste in music. I had no idea what he was talking about and suspected this was his attempt to control the conversation.
When we returned to the house, Seth’s heavy tread on the front steps conveyed his fatigue from the day of travel. We unlocked the door and released the dogs from their leashes.
“I think I better go to bed,” he said.
Tuffy was at his side in an instant. Baxter threw an apologetic glance in my direction and slumped off after his friends.
I sat on the couch alone, wondering what to do with a runaway nephew.