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Computers are the modern world's way of controlling witches.
No need for burning at the stake. No need for hanging. No need for crosses and prayers and good citizens of Salem driving elderly women from their midst because butter won't set. Just give a witch a computer, and watch her magical abilities come to naught.
I stared at the blue screen of death on my library computer and swore softly under my breath. This could not be happening to me. Not now. Not when I had spent the past six hours composing a brilliantif I do say so myself presentation about the James River plantations and their impact on the growth of colonial America. Without saving the file. Even once.
I should have known better.
After all, I'd been a reference librarian at the Peabridge Library for long enough that I knew my ancient computer couldn't be trusted. In the past year, we'd only had the budget to upgrade three of our machinesthe sleek new ones used by our patrons at the public access desk.
I knew better. I should have saved every single word. Only a fool would have gone on for more than a page without protecting herself. I had just gotten so wrapped up in my workfor the first time in weeksthat I'd forgotten. Now, the mouse was dead. The keyboard was dead. The entire computer was locked up.
And the worst part was, I knew what I had to do. I knew that I had to press the power button, turn off the damn machine and lose whatever brilliance lurked inside what passed for its silicon mind. I'd be lucky if it kept my title page:Jane Madison, Reference Librarian, Peabridge Library, Washington, D.C.
I felt as stupid and as frustrated as when my ancient laptop froze, six months before. At least the laptop was at home, in the cottage that I enjoyed as a rent-free perk from my underpaying library job. I could rant and rave there, threatening to throw the metal-and-silicon doorstop out the window, knowing that I had the privacy of colonial gardens to spare me from disapproving neighbors' delicate ears.
And to think, I'd hesitated to accept living in the cottage two years before. Of course, at the time, I hadn't known that there was a treasure trove of books on witchcraft lurking in the basement. And, of course, I'd had no idea that I was actually a witch, capable of using those books. I would certainly have embraced the idea of the cottage a lot sooner if I'd known those little details.
Even if I'd known the heartbreak my laptop would cause when my entire, carefully constructed catalog of witch's books disappeared into the electronic ether with one computer-based blue screen of death a few months ago.
Yeah, I should have learned to be wary of computers on that deceptively mild spring day. But I'd told myself that the catalog disaster had been inevitable. I'd created the listing on my ex-fiancé's computer, and the stupid machine was cluttered with bad memories and no-one-knew-how-many electronic viruses.
At least I'd found a silver lining in that catalog destruction. I'd needed a break from my witchcraft studies. After taking a year to figure out that I actually was a witch, and another year to discover that I never, ever wanted to be a member of the snooty local coven, I'd spent six months totally immersed in my esoteric supplies.
I had organized bags of runes. I had stacked boxes of crystals. I had refined my original book catalog, not once, not twice, but three times, creating a system that was so carefully cross-referenced, I could find any one of my possessions in a heartbeat.
Losing that catalog on the laptop, though, had brought me back to my senses. I mean, witchcraft didn't pay the bills. I needed to devote some energy to my day job, to the Pea-
bridge, if I ever wanted to get ahead in the fiscal world. Even if the library was less and less my dream job and more and more the place where I showed up to work, so that I got a paycheck every two weeks.
The weeks had slid together, clumped into months. How much time had gone by? Could it actually be six months since I'd worked a spell? Was it really already August? I shook my head and felt my mobcap shift on my humidity-challenged hair.
Yeah. A mobcap. You know, those muslin caps that milkmaids wore in the eighteenth century? Deporting me to the cottage had not been my boss's only cost-savings measure. All of us librarians wore colonial costume to help bring in patrons (and with patrons, hopefully, dollars). And I was lucky enough to serve as the library's barista as well, mixing overpriced coffee drinks for our eager researchers.
At least I'd managed to eliminate the frothy cappuccinos and time-consuming lattes from our caffeine repertoire. We'd reduced our offerings to hot tea, hot coffee, andfor a few select patronsa shot of chocolate syrup, to make a mocha. We compensated for the change in beverage service by offering up baked goodsdelicious cookies, brownies and cakes created by my best friend, Melissa White.
Melissa, in fact, was number one on my speed dial. She would understand my disappointment about my library presentation computer disaster. Still glaring at my peacock-blue monitor, I picked up my phone. One ring. Two. Three. She must be helping some customer in her increasingly
popular bakery. "Cake Walk," she finally answered, just as I was considering hanging up.
"Mojito therapy," I said.
"I am already there," she replied, and I remembered that the bakery had to be hotter than the library, even more uncomfortable in the middle of Washington's August humidity. I could picture her blowing her honey-colored bangs out of her eyes as she asked, "Your air conditioner or mine?"
I looked at my watch. It was already a quarter to five. Melissa's underpowered window unit would take hours to cool down her second-story apartment. "Mine. I'm off work in fifteen minutes."
"See you there."
We hung up our phones simultaneously. And then, there was nothing left for me to do but turn off the power. Lose the entire afternoon's work. I sighed. Monday would be another day, and I could write about the James River plantations then. Maybe even faster than I had today. With more brilliant observations. Or at least a better flow of thought.
I made short work of straightening my desk, then ran a clean rag over the coffee bar. The Peabridge had been quiet as a tomb all afternoonmost of Washington took vacation during the late summer. I waved at my boss but did not take time to poke my head into her office; Evelyn could snare me into chatting for hours.
At least my commute was short. One brick path through the colonial garden, and I was slipping my key into the lock, opening the cottage's door onto my living room of hunter-green sofas and a braided rug. I kicked off my shoes and loosened the ties on my dress, easing my whalebone stays as I made a beeline for the freezer.
A pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk waited for me. Ben and Jerry were calling my name, promising to ease my frustration, to soothe my savage brow. They were whispering sweet comforts about my computer woes, offering up smooth, creamy sympathy.
Except the freezer was empty.
Oh, a few partly evaporated ice cubes sat forlorn in their trays. And a couple of chicken breasts were camouflaged beneath coats of ice crystals. But Ben and Jerry were nowhere to be found.
Until I checked the trash can.
The pint container was licked clean.
I don't know why I even bothered to say my familiar's name. Ever since I had awakened him, releasing him from his magical form as a huge statue of a black cat, he had plagued me with his saucy attitude. Nothing was private in my cottagenothing was secret in my life. And my kitchen was most violated of all.
It was a wonder I still spoke to the guy. Actually, truth be told, we'd spent a good part of the past two months not speaking to each other. Even our Post-it notes had gotten shorter, more terse:
Neko, if you're going to drink the last of the milk, please leave a note on the fridge so that I can buy more. Love, Jane.
Jane, I wouldn't drink that blue water if it was the last dairy item on earth. I poured it down the drain to spare you the horror. Buy a gallon of whole milk. Love, Neko.
NDon't touch the leftover chicken; it's my lunch for tomorrow. J.
JSo sorry. Only saw the "don't" after Jacques and I had a little post-romp sustenance. Kisses. N.
Do NOT eat the caramel ice cream. Jacques ate it, not me.
It was that whoops
that got me. I mean, anyone could have seen the NO
note I'd attached to the plate of Melissa's cream puffs. She'd brought them as a special treat one morning, when she'd carried in the library's standing order of sweets. I'd written my warning with letters three inches high, underlined them three times, and added five exclamation marks for entirely unnecessary emphasis. But obviously, I should have added a French translation,just for security. Just so that my nervy familiar could not (again) place the blame on his French lover, on poor, besotted Jacques.
Those cream puffs had been the last straw. I couldn't share my little cottage with Neko and Jacques any longer. It was time that I sent my familiar out into the worldat least while we weren't working magic together. He could find his own milk and chicken andGod save the fish market tuna.
He would still be bound to me magically. He'd still come when I summoned him to work a spell. He'd just be free to pursue his own entertainment the rest of the time. Win-win, right? Especially since I hadn't found the time to cast a spell in ages.
So, rather than mourn my missing New York Super Fudge Chunk, I told myself to celebrate. After all, that was the last time Neko would raid my freezer. Ever. I'd almost convinced myself of that rationale when Melissa sailed through my front door, swinging a net bag of limes and a carefully wrapped forest of mint, freshly cut from her extensive herb garden. She balanced a plate in her other hand, carefully covered with tin foil.
"What's this?" I asked, relieving her of the burden.
"Lemon Pillows." Citrus-flavored whipped cream cheese, cradled in crunchy meringue. Perfect for the beastly hot weather.
"Thank God you're here," I said.
"Go change out of those clothes, and then we can talk."
I took her up on the offer, stripping off my colonial attire in short order. One black T-shirt and a pair of well-worn shorts later, I was almost feeling human again. Almost.
"You are a goddess," I said, returning to the kitchen, where cocktail construction was already well under way. I wolfed down a Pillow, moaning a little as the sweet-tart lemon flavor melted across my tongue.
Melissa shrugged. "I couldn't find our usual pitcher, but I figured this would work." She held up a glass bottle that had formerly held orange juice. She'd already managed to pour fresh-squeezed lime juice from a measuring cup into the narrow neck, and she was coaxing cut mint leaves in, as well.
"Oh, the pitcher should be right" I cut myself off as I opened up the cupboard to the right of the sink. No pitcher. No clear glass with brightly colored fish on the side. "Neko," I said.
"Today's the day?" Melissa asked.
"And not a moment too soon. He was supposed to get all his stuff out of the basement this morning. Jacques helped him while I was at work."
"It'll be strange around here for a while. No roommate, after two straight years?"
"I welcome the strangeness," I said. I squatted in front of the sink, reaching to the very back of the storage space for my bottle of rum. After a certain episode of The Not-So-Mystery of the Disappearing Vodka
around Independence Day, I'd taken to hiding all of my alcohol behind my cleaning supplies. I flattered myself that my strategy had worked. In
reality, I think that Neko and Jacques just hadn't had a taste for hard liquor in the past month.
"You're going to be lonely. You should plan on getting out. Doing stuff."
I recognized that note in my best friend's voice. I watched as she glugged rum into the glass bottle. "What did you have in mind?" I asked dryly.
"Nothing much." I'd recognize that air of breezy manipulation anywhere.
"Just" I prompted, before turning to the fridge for soda water. Fortunately, my stock had not been touched. Jacques would not let anything as common as generic soda water touch his Gallic lips. He required Perrier at the very least.
" I sighed. My best friend, in addition to being a stellar baker and a shrewd businesswoman, was more flexible than anyone I'd ever met, and she had the best sense of balance this side of an Olympic gymnastics team.
"It'll be fun!"
"For you, maybe." I pouted and took down two glasses.
"Come on, Jane. The class will focus on inner balance. Peace. All the tools you need to live in harmony with your fellow man."
"My fellow man is moving out." I gestured toward the basement and Neko's now former lair. "I'm not living with anyone. In harmony or otherwise."