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A sample from MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL!
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 brilliant – if 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 their ancient computers couldn't be trusted. I knew that I should save after every single word, given the flimsiness of the system. Only a fool would have gone on for more than a page without protecting herself. I had just gotten so wrapped up in my work – for the first time in weeks – that 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 I'd been 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 under-paying 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 those books would cause when my entire, carefully constructed catalog disappeared into the electronic ether with one laptop-based blue screen of death.
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-fiance'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 local snooty 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 Peabridge Library, if I ever wanted to get ahead in the fiscal world. Even if the Peabridge was less and less my dream job and more and more the place where I showed up to work in the mornings, 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 really 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 milk-maids 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, and – for a few select patrons – a shot of chocolate syrup, to make a mocha. We compensated for the change in beverage service by offering up baked goods, delicious 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 afternoon – most of Washington took vacation during the late summer. I waved at my boss but did not take time to poke my head in 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 cottage – nothing 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."
"N - Don't touch the leftover chicken; it's my lunch for tomorrow. J.
"J - So 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 world – at least while we weren't working magic together. He could find his own milk and chicken and – God 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 ragged sweatpants 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 of 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.
"Melissa...." I sighed. My best friend, in addition to being a stellar baker and a shrewd businesswoman, was more flexible than any other woman I had 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 soon-to-be-former lair. "I won't be living with anyone. In harmony or otherwise."
"Rock, paper, scissors," Melissa said.
Melissa and I had cast rock, paper, scissors over disputed matters for years, ever since we were little girls. I'm pretty sure that I won half the time, but it seemed like she always got the upper hand when it mattered. Not that there was any way to cheat. Unless.... No, if there'd been a way to harness my witchy powers to win at the childish game, I would have figured that out long ago.
"Am I going to have to Friendship Test this?"
Wow. She was really serious. A Friendship Test was the ultimate power play in our relationship. We could Friendship Test the last bite of chocolate cheesecake – the person who called the test got to spear the final perfect morsel (although even then, we usually ended up splitting dessert.) We could Friendship Test an evening, dragging each other out in a rainstorm or on a slippery winter night. The previous year, Melissa had Friendship Tested my silence regarding a despicable boyfriend I now called the Coven Eunuch – with nearly disastrous results (but that wasn't the Friendship Test's fault, that was caused by a conniving, manipulative bitch of a witch in the Washington Coven.)
But we didn't call Friendship Test lightly, Melissa and I. She really wanted me to go to yoga class. She must be certain that it would be good for me. Or good for her. Or good for both of us together.
No reason to make her waste a Friendship Test. I sighed and held out my palms, curling my right fingers into a fist. "One," we said together, and I couldn't help but let a smile twist my lips. "Two. Three."
I cast paper.
At the precise same instant, Melissa cast scissors.
I shrugged in resignation. At least I owned a heating pad. I'd certainly need it after the class. "When's the torture?"
Melissa beamed. "A week from Sunday."
"Great," I said, without the slightest hint of enthusiasm.
Melissa filled two glasses, taking the time to set a whole-leaf mint garnish on the edge of mine. "To animal yoga!" She exclaimed, raising her glass high.
"To animal yoga," I echoed. At least the mojitos were perfect – icy and crisp, the lime balancing the sweetness of the rum. I swallowed again and felt a little of the tension ease from my shoulders. I complimented the Mojito Therapy with another Lemon Pillow. Then, I glanced at the calendar on my wall. "Wait! I can't make it! I have Mother-Daughter brunch!"
"That's this Sunday, isn't it?"
Why did I share so much of my life with my best friend? It was ridiculous that she should know my schedule better than I did. But she was right. I had brunch with my mother and grandmother the first Sunday of every month – we'd started the get-togethers almost two years before, as my grandmother attempted to build ties between her "two favorite girls," as she described Clara and me. I loved my grandmother without question – she had raised me, after all, taking in a scared and lonely four-year-old whose parents had died in a tragic car crash.
Except that my parents hadn't died. They'd just split up. And neither of them wanted the responsibility of caring for the daughter they'd brought into the world. My mother had scampered off to a series of New Age havens, seeking spiritual purity without looking back at me.
Until two years ago, when she had finally decided that she was ready to come back into my life. Our relationship was rocky at best – even if she carried the same witchy blood that pumped in my veins. She and my grandmother both.
In fact, Clara – I still wasn't used to calling her Mother – had always had an affinity for crystals and stones – that's probably what had drawn her to her previous home in Sedona. And she loved the coded magic of runes, the secret messages that were revealed when the symbols were cast.
"Oh," I said to Melissa, and there was a tangled skein of recognition in the single word. "You're right."
Melissa laughed at my depressed tone. "Come on," she said. "You'll have a great time with them. Wasn't Clara going to cast your star chart?"
I grimaced. Both my mother and grandmother possessed limited witchcraft skills; their powers had been substantially magnified in me, for reasons that weren't at all clear to any of us. Clara, though, had an annoying tendency to embrace anything that sparkled with New Age hocus-pocus and she had taken to star charts with an astonishing vehemence. "That reminds me," I said. "I told her I would give her my set of jade runes. She managed to mislay her Tyr and Nyd."
Melissa eyed me over the edge of her own glass. "Tyr and Nyd?"
"The runes that stand for war and loss. I almost accused her of throwing them out on purpose. You know how she is about accepting grim reality." Conforming to the expectations of the real world was not my mother's strongest suit. "Anyway, I told her I'd give her my set, so that she can do complete castings. It's not like I use them much, anyway."
"When was the last time you used them at all?"
Melissa just sounded curious, but I felt a flash of guilt. My answer was defensive. "They're just some stupid jade runes."
"Hey, don't get upset." She sipped from her mojito, reminding me to take a therapeutic swallow of my own. "I know that you've been busy. It's just that I don't even remember the last time I saw David around here."
David. David Montrose. My warder. He was my astral bodyguard, the man appointed to protect me in my witchy workings. Over the past two years, we'd had our ups (a couple of shared kisses) and our downs (his hidden past with a witch who had challenged me before the Coven).
"Did you guys have another fight or something?" Melissa asked, widening her eyes with mock innocence. She'd always liked David, and she thought that I should appreciate his guidance more than I did.
"No." Blessed mojito lubricated my thoughts. "Not a fight. Just a sort of ... drifting. I haven't found time for witchcraft stuff for a while, with Evelyn on the warpath about the James River presentation, and mentoring the reference intern, and –"
"And a hundred and one other excuses." Melissa's tone brooked no protest. "You shouldn't cut him out of your life like that."
"I'm not cutting him out!" I heard the shrill note behind my words and eyed a third Lemon Pillow as a way to sweeten my tone. "Well, not exactly."
I could still remember the compassion in his eyes, when he'd seen what a wreck I'd made of my dating life the year before. David's sympathy unnerved me. Not that I liked his supercilious instruction any better.
I washed away my discomfort with yet another swallow of mojito. "I better run downstairs to get the runes now. If I wait till Sunday morning, I know that I'll forget them."
Melissa held out her hand for my glass, silently offering a refill. I thought about taking the freshened glass down to the basement, but then I pictured sweet, sticky cocktail spilling over my witchcraft treasures. Better to brave the secret stash alone. Grinning, I handed over my glass and said, "I drink the air before me, and return, or ere your pulse twice beat."
She faked a yawn. "Tempest," she said, continuing our long-standing game of trading Shakespeare quotations. "Ariel. Hey! Have you seen the posters around town for that production?"
"Of The Tempest?"
"Yeah. They're putting it on at Duke Ellington."
"The high school?"
"It's part of some outreach program. They're updating the language and performing it in street clothes, making it 'accessible.'" She made quotation marks in the air with her fingers.
"But they've got a picture of the guy playing Prospero on the poster. He's really cute. Looks a lot like David."
She nodded. "I let them put one up at the bakery. Anything I can do to help preserve the arts," she added piously.
"Even if preserving them destroys them? I hate that modern update stuff."
"You're just feeling superior because you've got the entire play memorized."
I stuck my tongue out and quoted Prospero, "'Now does my project gather to a head.' Maybe I'm just feeling superior because I'm right."
"Or because you're stubborn!" Melissa toasted me with her full glass and recited part of a line from later in the play. "If all the wine in my bottle will recover him...." She laughed.
It was wonderful to have a friend who didn't mind that I was a total, utter geek. I hurried down the stairs.
If I'd expected the basement to look different now that Neko was gone, I was sorely disappointed. I'd been consistently shocked that a man as fashion-conscious as my familiar had so few personal possessions. Of course, he did have a seemingly limitless supply of black t-shirts. And black trousers made out of leather, denim, linen, and a couple of other fabrics that I couldn't name. And an omnipresent pair of sleek shoes, vaguely European in their leather perfection.
But that was it. And now, even those meager possessions were gone.
I sighed and shook my head. Melissa was wrong. I wasn't going to miss my housemate at all. I was going to revel in his absence.
I turned to the mahogany bookshelves that lined the walls. Clearly visible dust had settled over the nearest books. So, I wasn't going to win any Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval for my housework. Who really cared?
When I had first classified my newfound books, I had sequestered all of the other witchy paraphernalia to one set of shelves. I had collected all of my crystals there, and delicate glass jars containing ingredients for potions. I had carefully laid out the wand that David made me use when I read from some of the oldest texts, the rowan pointer that made the words come into focus in a way that had more to do with magic and less to do with my itchy contact lenses or my often-smudged eyeglasses.
And there, on the bottom shelf, were the bags of runes. The jade ones that I had promised Clara, but other sets as well – one carved out of wood, another cast in sturdy clay. The jade runes were held in a silk bag, its delicate embroidery hinting of some Chinese ancestry.
I found the bag exactly where I'd left it months before. The brilliant red stitches were a bit dulled with dust but that would be easy enough to brush away. Clara would never know the difference.
I clutched the sack. I expected to feel the runes shift inside. I expected to hear the jade squares click against each other, a familiar clacking sound like oversized mahjong tiles. I expected to see the faintest hard-lined bulges against the delicate silk fabric.
But something was wrong.
The bag was heavy in my hand, shapeless and sodden, like a sack of flour on the bottom shelf in the supermarket. Catching my lower lip between my teeth, I pulled open the laces that cinched the bag shut.
Inside, where I should have seen bright, green, squares, I found nothing but dust. A sickly dust, like heavy, dried moss. I shifted the bag in my hands, wondering if my lousy housekeeping had somehow buried the runes in dirt. But there were no runes inside the bag.
My heart started pounding, and I reached for the next item on the shelf, the leather bag that held my wooden runes. I knew that there was something wrong before I opened the sack, before I found the sawdust that clumped in the bottom of the container. My clay runes were in a burlap sack. When I tugged it open, though, I found nothing but grit.
My runes, all of them. Destroyed.
I glanced toward the stairs, fighting the impulse to call for Melissa's help. After all, what could she do? She'd never worked a lick of magic in her life.
Struggling against a rising snake of panic in my gut, I wrestled my box of crystals off another shelf. The wooden container was familiar to my fingertips; I had handled it every single day for months, when I'd worked regularly with David and Neko to hone my powers. I slid the hasp from its lock, threw back its lid to reveal the treasured crystals inside.
Amethyst. Spiritual uplifting.
Kunzite. Emotional balance.
Onyx. Changing bad habits.
All ruined. All faded, shrouded in grey webs, in dull destruction that seemed to have eaten the stones from within.
I bit back a cry and reached for the nearest book. On the Healing of the Sick. I tore open its cover, only to find my hand covered with red-brown dust, the detritus of dry, cracked leather. The parchment pages themselves remained unharmed, but the words danced and wavered as I flipped through the volume. As soon as I flipped the pages, the ink faded away, drifting to nothingness in the time it took for me to catch my breath.
I stormed across the room, reaching for a volume at random on another shelf. The Role of Familiars in American Witchcraft. Cloth binding. Faded as if it had been left for weeks in the heat of summer sun. And when I opened the covers, the rag-cotton pages blurred, then were bare.
I started to reach for another volume, and then a chilly finger stroked the nape of my neck. If I opened another book, I would destroy it as well. If I so much as touched a cover, I might wipe away forever the words of wisdom contained inside.
My witchcraft resources were crumbling around me, and I didn't have the first idea of what I could do to stop the destruction.
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