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Reda Weston stalled on the sidewalk outside the Cat Black Curiosity Shop with her hand on the latch and her stomach in knots.
The wide-eyed reflection that stared back from the tinted window wasn't anyone she recognized. Yes, the stranger had a wavy red-shot ponytail the same as hers, and she was wearing the ratty jeans and beat-up leather jacket Reda had pulled out of her closet that morning because there was no reason for her to dress like a cop these days. And yeah, those were her deep blue eyes at the back of the dark hollows that had taken up permanent residence. But if that was her, what the hell was she doing?
Normally, she wouldn't go anywhere near the kitschy magic, witchcraft and whatnot shops that lined the Salem waterfront unless someone called 9-1-1 but then again, normal circumstances had hit the bricks six weeks earlier. And she had asked MacEvoy, the owner of Cat Black, to find the book for her.
"It's here," his phone message had said. "And if you liked the picture you bought, you're going to love the rest of it."
Like it? Heck, she'd spent the past four days staring at the framed woodcutting of a dark, eerie forest of gnarled and twisted trees, with just a hint of eyes in the shadows. More, she had dreamed about the image and others like it.
A clatter startled her and she flinched for the weapon she wasn't carrying, then winced when she saw that the noise had come from the shaking of her hand on the door latch. Worse, she didn't know how long she had been standing there.
"Don't be surprised if you have sleep disturbances, panic attacks, behavioral changes, even compulsions," the department shrink had told her. And yeah, she'd had all of the above except for the last one. This was her first full-blown compulsion. Or rather, the strange urge that practically dragged her into the creepy-ass store earlier in the week had been the first. This was her second. And it was much stronger.
It's not the same book, she told herself. It's just another copy. Except that her maman had said it was one of a kind. You're just transferring, trying to solve something that's solvable because you know the real stuff isn't. That was the practical part of her talking, her father's daughter. And suddenly she saw the major in the shape of the blue eyes that stared back at her, and in the ramrod posture that made her look taller than her true five-six. Inwardly, though, her mother's voice whispered, At least take a look. What have you got to lose?
"My sanity," she muttered under her breath, ignoring the ache that fisted beneath her heart. She hesitated another moment, then shook her head and pushed through the door, causing a distant bell to ring in the back of the cluttered shop.
As before, the place smelled disconcertingly like foot powdergritty talc with a cloying perfumed undertone that made her think of funerals. Display racks near the door held the usual suspects: artsy postcards, books on the witch trials, copies of The House of the Seven Gables and such. But the racks themselves were made of wood rather than the usual cheesy wire, and the sides were carved with strange, sinuous curves and the hint of scales and teeth. The walls were painted black, with greenish white accents she bet glowed in the dark when MacEvoy turned off the lights. It would make the perfect backdrop for him to pull out the three-foot-high grim reaper statue that was locked in a glass case behind the register at the back of the store, and which she'd bet a hundred bucks converted, Transformer-like, into a giant bong.
Yeah. This was so not her scene. She should just leave.
"Miss Weston!" MacEvoy came through an employees-only door with his hands outstretched and his red-rimmed eyes holding an expression of pleasure that might or might not be faked.
A middle-size, middle-age grasshopper of a man, he was all arms and angles inside a faded black suit that made him look like a Victorian mortician and, she suspected, had come from the clearance rack at Cosby's Costumes a few doors down.
Don't be bitchy, she told herself as she shook his hand and returned his greeting. It's not like he came looking for you. And it wasn't his fault she felt totally out of place. The problem wasn't with the location, or with him.
"Right this way." He headed to the register area, where a wood-and-glass case held a collection of impressively ugly silver-and-moonstone jewelry, along with a sterling frog whose garnet eyes seemed to follow Reda when she moved. But that was just her imagination.
Holding back a shiver, she reminded herself that she didn't believe in magic, that this was all just a put-on for the tourists. If the atmosphere was working on her, it meant that MacEvoy was better at his shtick than she would've thought.
Disappearing behind the case, he rummaged around for a moment, then made a satisfied noise. When he straightened, he was holding a black, metal-edged cardboard clamshell box that was marked Acid-Free Archival Storage on the spine.
Reda's mental cash register went cha-ching and she wondered whether she should do a "thanks but I've changed my mind," and have another session with the shrink instead. Certainly be cheaper. Or she could go home and fill out the paperwork on her deskapplications to the forensic-science programs at Colby and New Haven. That wasn't the same as saying she was wimping out. It was just exploring options.
But those practical thoughts exited stage left the second MacEvoy set the box on the counter and flipped it open and a skim of heat washed through her, followed by a prickle of gooseflesh that made her feel suddenly awake, though she hadn't been aware of being sleepy.
The shopkeeper grinned. "You like it?"
"Oh, yes," she breathed. "Yes, I do." Because it wasn't just any book. It was the book. It had to be.
The cover was intricately carved with another forest scene, this one with an achingly lovely girl front and center, running along a narrow path. She was wearing a long, flowing cloak over a peasant dress, and was looking back over her shoulder with an expression of mingled terror and excitement. There were no authors' names, just a title that stood up a little taller than the rest of the carving. Rutakoppchen.
"Red Riding Hood," she whispered, hearing the words in her mother's voice. Not just one of a kind, her maman had said on that long-ago birthday, but yours alone. It was sent to me, darling, to give to you when the time is right.
MacEvoy looked surprised. "You speak the language? The paperwork says it's some obscure Western European dialect, and doesn't make any promises on the translation."
"I don't need a translation." She already knew the story by heart. Pulse thrumming, she reached for the book.
The shopkeeper hooked the box with a spindly finger and tugged it back an inch. "You going to buy it?"
Her plastic was on the counter before she was even aware of having made the decision. More, she didn't yank it back when MacEvoy two-fingered it, even though her smarter self was inwardly screeching that they hadn't talked price.
She didn't care. She had to have it, regardless of whether it was really the same one or not, really one of a kind. Not because of the strange, fragmentary dreams she'd been having every night since she brought home the printa circle of stones like Stonehenge only not, a sense of pounding urgency, a flash of green eyes that brought heat and left her to wake up alone and achingbut because it was a missing part of her past. And if that was transference, she didn't give a crap right now.
As he swiped her card, she brushed her fingertips across the carved wood, and got a jolt of strange excitement. Nerves jangled and her smarter self asked what the hell was going on here, why was she acting like this?
"Is it true that the wolf doesn't just eat Red in this version?" MacEvoy asked as he waited for the slip to print. He glanced over at her, getting a gleam in his red-rimmed eyes. "The paperwork said that he seduces her first, enslaves her, plays with her until he gets bored and then he eats her."
"Something like that," she said. She was dying to page through, but didn't want to do it in front of him, though she didn't know why, just as she couldn't explain the sudden pounding of her heart and faint clamminess of her hands, or the liquid churn low in her belly. All she knew for sure was that her hands were shaking as she scrawled on the slip, and then flipped the clamshell shut and tucked it under her arm. "Thanks. See you around." Or not.
"Wait," he said as she headed for the exit. "I wanted to ask you Aren't you that cop? The one"
She put her head down, clutched the box and bee-lined it out of the shop.
The short walk to her apartment on the outskirts of the "cool" district where the old houses were still getting restored seemed to take forever, especially when two of her neighbors pretended they didn't see her. Guilt stung, but Reda told herselfas the shrink had told herthat they weren't acting that way because they thought she was to blame for her partner's death in a liquor-store robbery gone bad. Like most of her friends and family, they just didn't know what to say anymore given that Benz had been dead for months now, and she was still ghosting around looking as if her best friend had died.
Except that he had. And it was her fault. Not because she'd done anything wrong, but because she hadn't done anything. She had frozen. Just stood there while a strung-out meth head looking at his third strike opened fire.
The news reports had said she was lucky to get away. The other cops hadn't said anything, really. Just like her neighbors didn't now as she hurried past them. But for a change the uneven thudding of her heart didn't have anything to do with the sidelong looks and whispers, or the knowledge that her father and brothers had been right when they said she wasn't the save-the-world type. Instead, it was the heavy weight of the box she held clutched to her chest, gripping it so tightly her fingers had gone numb.
She was breathing so fast she was practically lightheaded by the time she let herself into her small, homey apartment. Not even pausing to shuck out of her leather jacket, she dumped her purse near the door and crossed to the narrow galley kitchen. The hollow sound the box made on the butcher-block counter reminded her that she hadn't looked at the credit-card slip, didn't know how much she had dropped on the thing. Didn't care.
"So open it," she told herself, the words sounding far too loud on air that had gone still around her, like the world was holding its breath. Or maybeprobablythat was just her. She was turning this into a way bigger deal than it needed to be.
Still, her fingers trembled as she flipped open the box, then reached in and touched the wooden cover. She told herself the faint tingle was her imagination, just as the hot dreams she'd been having the past few nights had been nothing more than memories of her girlish rescue fantasies with the temperature turned up by her adult experiences.
She traced the raised lettering. Rutakoppchen. A version of Red Riding Hood with the wolf as both sinner and seducer, the woodsman as the hero who saves the girl and takes her away from her old life to a new, better one. Seeing the book, touching it, made her mother feel closer than she had in years. Even if it turned out to be just a copy, it was worth whatever she had paid.
But she had to know, so she opened it. The cover creaked like an unoiled door, her throat became suddenly parched and tight and then her eyes filled at the sight of a blank page with two lines of elegant script right in the center, done in blue ink that had faded over the past two decades.
To my sweet Alfreda on her eighth birthday, with the rest of the story to come when you turn sixteen.
Reda's heart thudda-thudded in her chest as she brushed her fingers across the last word. Maman. Her older brothers had teased her about putting on airs, calling her "princess" and poking at her because there was nothing remotely royal about any of them. They were army brats and proud of it.