SECOND

The group disbanded. Each took a different set of streets. They all lived on the west end, not far from the school, but they didn’t like to attract needless attention by promenading in a clump like some gang of juvies looking for trouble. They preferred to stay mostly invisible. It was protocol to resist walking anywhere more than two at a time. This reduced their chances of collective vulnerability. And since Ashland was voted by some newspaper as the most walkable town in rural New England—whatever that meant—they took it as a calling to prove it.

Maeve’s destination was not her home this time. She had sundry texts and materials for usual consumption there, but she found her stash increasingly pedestrian. There was a better place to go for what she wanted. She made her way several blocks toward mid-town, using alleys and obscure esplanades along the way. The west end of town was part residential, part lazy business district. The blocks were short and the town showed its age with claustrophobic roads the width of two horse rears, tight turns, and inadequate parking.

Maeve rounded a corner and stopped in front of Greybeard’s Antiques, a small shop nestled between two vacant commercial leaseholds. Candles were always burning in the shop, and there were no regular lights to speak of. That made the place inimitable, at least to her. The medieval look of the candlelight in the rumpled old shop made for a lovely ambiance, but it was not terrific for actually inspecting the wares before laying down cash for something.

It was impossible to see into the store from the street. The owner installed heavy lengths of dark vintage drapes, none of them matching, from the ceiling to the bottom of the window display case. Save for the cost-cutting efforts of the candles and heavy drapes for passive heating and cooling, the store was quaint enough. Almost like an Army-Navy surplus without the menacing display rack of fantasy collector knives in the front window.

This is definitely a time for something different–something more serious than we’ve tried before, Maeve thought. She pressed into the door, swinging it slowly. A tiny bell overhead jingled as the door creaked open. A gust of wind swept past her as the door opened. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Candles flickered as a second breeze moved through the shop. There was a smell hanging in the air of old things. Musty, but sweet.

“Been a while,” came a graveled voice from nowhere in particular.

Maeve’s hand glided over some tattered books on one of the shelves, hoping something would catch her eye. “I’m looking for something with some bite tonight. I need something that takes me to a new level.” Before an answer could come, Maeve continued, “And no more trying to push kiddie stuff on me to keep me safe. I’m not interested in those mindless games where people think they’re doing magick with cat piss, bonemeal, and cow’s blood. I'm sure it makes great fertilizer, but it's not for me. People want to believe they can do stuff so badly, they try anything. Something good and legit. Okay?”

An old man, probably in his seventies, slid out from behind a tall bookcase. He went about adding a few titles to the collection of books on the shelves from a small pile he held under his left arm. He worked as if Maeve weren’t there. His hair was mussed and he looked entirely professorial. In Maeve’s opinion, he was taller than average, but that could have been helped by his penchant for heeled boots. He was everything she would have expected an old place like this to harbor in its shadows. He didn’t look up to find his potential customer.

“Something stronger, eh? Making your History teacher’s cat lose all its hair and teeth overnight wasn’t strong enough punishment for that ‘unwarranted’ C you complained about?” asked the man.

“That was last week. It’s in the past.”

“Any idea what the vet bills were after your prof saw the cat the next morning and thought it was some fatal disease?” asked the man, still not pausing his shelf re-stocking efforts to look at her.

“Nope. That’s his deal. I believe in equality, evenness. Seeing the cat in that shape and having a titanic vet bill adds up to what an unexpected C feels like when you spent the whole night before the exam studying your eyes out.” Maeve fingered through some silk strands on a table near the front of the store. “He just didn’t like my exposition on the psychology of malignant fear among town leaders in Salem in the 1600s and their unforgivable use of the church and judicial offices to crush individuality.”

“Was that what he asked you to write about?” the man asked, brow rumpled.

“He asked us to write about religious persecution and how it shaped the lives of early colonists coming to the New World–he didn’t specify which side of the pond the persecution came from.”

“I guess the dog was fair, then.” The man puckered his lips under his thick salt-and-pepper beard, his hairline raising a little as his forehead corrugated.

“Something with more bite,” he repeated. He turned from Maeve and hitched away from the door, deeper into the shop. Maeve followed and felt a jump of adrenaline at the thought of landing something truly special for casting.

“How’s business lately, Peter?” Maeve broke the brief lull in conversation as he made his way through stacks of books, magazines, and an assortment of trinkets and bric-a-brac, all of which Maeve found uninteresting.

“Slow...just the way I like.”

Maeve never really questioned Peter when he said strange things. He was odd. She knew that. But she also knew that he was as close to an adult friend as she had. It wasn’t that Maeve didn’t like people. She just liked some and found the others either disappointing or infuriating. She had her reasons.

Peter was a lot like her, Maeve thought. He had a saucy temper that few seemed inclined to test. It wasn’t that she was afraid of Peter. She was confident enough in her own abilities to stand up for herself. She just saw Peter as more of an ally and she didn’t like to lose friends once she had them. Peter was well-known for shooing away customers without cause. He just had a sense about people. Maeve figured it was how they looked at him with pity for his unkempt ways, or how they asked for something that he felt was beneath him like a vintage mirror of a certain size, presumably for some narcissistic family to admire themselves. If a mirror couldn’t be easily modified for scrying, he wasn’t likely to carry it. Most of his wares had some secondary purpose for darksiders, which made his selection reasonably eclectic.

Maeve knew not to ask prying questions that might, even slightly, suggest that she was trying to analyze his clockwork. She found some comfort in that, perhaps because she secretly wished others would give her the same consideration.

“Got something.” Peter turned from hovering over a wooden chest in the corner of the shop behind a table of randomly placed used books.

“What is it?”

Peter’s face tightened and he turned back to the chest of books. “Nevermind. Obscure Jenische Traveller spellbook. Probably not what you’re looking for.”

“Nope.” Maeve spun around and playfully patted a shrunken head before scanning a bookcase filled with weird chotchkies that she couldn’t quite describe. Macabre, perhaps, but not that interesting. A stone with carvings eventually lured her attention. It looked as though the grooved lines in the stone were glimmering, like a carved pumpkin at Halloween, but so barely perceptible that she wasn’t sure she saw it.

After a moment of rummaging and re-stacking a panoply of books, Peter stood up again and turned to Maeve. He cleared his throat, breaking Maeve’s focus on the object.

“Best thing I’ve got for the practitioner.” He looked at something small in his hand, then at Maeve. He nodded his head once, forced a concentrated frown as if convincing himself that it was okay to let this item go, then shoved a tiny black ball in her direction. She crossed the room and snatched it, turning it around in her fingers at arm’s length. It was covered in leather, worn thin and blackened by time spent in untold generations of moist hands.

“What is it?” asked Maeve.

“A test,” answered Peter.

“For?”

“You.”

“What do I do with it?”

“Open the pouch.”

Maeve carefully peeled back the thin leather to reveal a dark mottled article. She relieved it of its comfortable resting place in the pouch and ran her fingers over the cold lumpy surface. As she moved her fingers, she noticed her latent fingerprints in a faint rouge color lingering on the surface of the piece for just a second. The effect reminded her of a novel mood ring.

“What do I do with it?” Meave repeated.

“Just pay attention to it tonight. Some say it works, others say it doesn’t.”

“I’ll take it,” said Maeve, clutching the golf ball-sized ‘test,’ her chest bouffant. She reached into the built-in sporran of the borrowed kilt and pulled out a wrinkled twenty still folded up, offering it to Peter.

”I can’t sell it. It’s not mine. Just take it and see if it works for you. If it does, let me know. If it doesn’t, I’ll take it back.” At that moment, Peter’s head snapped toward the ceiling. A strange thing for him to do, given his slightly hunched back and chronically stiff neck. He seemed uncomfortable looking upward, but that didn’t stop him from craning. Maeve watched him with interest.

“The balance isn’t right,” he muttered to himself.

“Balance? What do you mean?” Maeve asked.

Peter’s focus seemed to be distant. Maeve took more notice and squinted to look at him. Peter’s head jerked back to a mortal angle and he looked past her out the windows at the front of the shop.

"Did you feel a breeze when you came in here?" asked Peter.

"Yeah. So?"

"I thought so." Peter suddenly looked self-conscious. "They're following you."

"What are you talking about?"

Peter shook his head. “I’m sorry. My head is a little cloudy today. I must have stood up too quickly from that chest of wares. ”

“Are you sure you’re okay? Can I get you something?” Maeve’s attention was now fully on Peter. She didn’t want to look away for fear of missing something.

“No, I’m fine. Get going. You have some casting to do.” Peter sounded like himself again.

Maeve gave a doubtful smile. “I’ll check back soon. Hold the good stuff for me.” An unwelcome feeling of dread made its way to the back of her mind.

She moved to the door, opened it to the clang of the overhead bell, slipped outside and let the door bang behind her. She felt flustered, trying to grapple with Peter's odd behavor. As she mulled the exchange in her head, she headed toward the railway, which cut through the center of the town. It was easier to walk in this town than to drive, especially for people who preferred the shadows. Everything was within a reasonable distance and parking was lousy. The town planners had failed to anticipate the importance of the automobile when the buildings were constructed.

A few blocks past Greybeard’s Antiques, Maeve noticed a group of rough-looking skeevies smoking and loitering in an alley. She knew them. Not personally, but she heard others talking about them and about how they gave people a creepy feeling. She never saw them at school. She didn’t bother to find out who they were. Not her type. She caught the gaze of one of them as she walked past. He didn’t look well. Ashen face. Drugs, she thought. Or maybe it’s this heat wave bringing the bugs out of their holes. She canceled her attention on them and tried to stay camo.

A block later, another oddity. A young girl, probably no more than eight, leaned against a brick wall in the small space between the row houses. The girl was breathing heavily. Maybe she was playing with someone out of sight. The girl’s face seemed to suggest something else, though. Something desperate and pleading. Maeve put it out of her mind. She made a point not to spend time working out the miseries, conundrums, and vexations of people she didn’t know. Better to just ignore and move on, she told herself. Maeve kept moving, her mind returning quickly to the plans ahead of her. She couldn’t wait to get to the quarry.

The quarry, as they referred to it, was actually not a quarry in the traditional sense, but a small and very old cemetery on the outskirts of town. There was a real quarry to the north but was inactive and far less interesting to her. The cemetery had plenty of stones and was surrounded by a knee-high wall of piled river rock. For all the stones there, they felt justified in calling it a quarry. This is where she used to like to go as a kid when she could. Something about the old cemetery delighted her. It called to her. Her friends felt that same draw.

“Got everything?” a voice cut the sticky hot air from behind.

Maeve reacted instinctively, clenching a fist until she registered the familiar voice. “A gentle tap on the shoulder would suffice,” she said.

“That wouldn’t be as entertaining,” said Patrick, a hint of satisfaction dancing in his one green eye. She could always tell his mood by the hue of that green eye. When he was feeling normal, it was a nice emerald green. When he was sick or stressed, it was the pallid color of the canned yellow wax beans she remembered from her elementary school cafeteria. She liked being able to read his eye.

“What’d you get?” Patrick pointed to the small black ball cradled in Maeve’s right hand.

“Something Peter said should be interesting. I don’t know what it can do yet, but I trust his judgment.”

“Good," said Patrick.

"Peter was a little weird today. Not sure what's up."

"Probably inhaled some new mixture he's been working on."

"Maybe."

"Seen the others?” Patrick queued a grunge track that sounded sputtery and tinny to Maeve, then he downed the volume.

“Not yet. Streets are pretty dead.”

“Some homeless guy a few blocks back,” said Patrick, tapping his player. The audio kept cutting out.

“So, that’s one person.”

“One,” Patrick repeated. “He was puking all over the place. Nasty.” Patrick gave up on the music. Must be the batteries, he thought.

“Thanks for the visual.” Maeve gestured toward Patrick’s right arm. “Got everything?”

Patrick raised a dust-crusted green canvas satchel. One of the many happy finds from a previous visit to Greybeard’s Antiques.

“Let’s go.” Maeve rolled the black ball in the palm of her hand and massaged the old leather wrap as they walked.

“Watch it!” Patrick threw his hand on Maeve’s shoulder and tugged her toward him. She looked up to see a tall man walking quickly past them. If Patrick hadn’t moved her to the left, the guy would have smacked into her. The stranger didn’t seem to acknowledge either of them as being physically there, although his gaze was stuck on Maeve as he whipped past. It was as if his eyes were independent of his body, pleading to be set free from the torture within. His face was gaunt and his expression pained.

“Stick to your side of the walk!” said Patrick. He didn’t take kindly to anyone encroaching on Maeve’s personal space.

“What’s his problem?” It suddenly occurred to Maeve that she was the target of the creeper’s line of sight. Something unsettled her anew. She could usually sense when someone was under attack. The feeling she had was like that, but somehow different. Darker.

“I dunno.” Patrick lowered his voice for the two of them. "Idiot."

“He didn’t look right. Did you see how washed out he was? He looked sick. Virus or something.” Maeve tried not to seem concerned.

“Just like the homeless guy earlier. I hope we don’t catch whatever it is.”

“All the more reason to avoid people today. Let’s get to the quarry and land some reprieve. You need to clear your head for what’s coming.” Patrick picked up his pace, leading the way, cutting across roads whenever possible to hasten the walk to the cemetery. They were making decent time with the streets empty. A sleepy growl of far-off thunder rolled through the streets just as the edge of town came into view.

 

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The End

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