Excerpt from Deadly Curiosities 2 : Vendetta

By Gail Z Martin



“Watch out, Cassidy!” Teag’s warning was a heartbeat too late. The dark wraith screeched in fury and his clawed hand raked across my shoulder, opening four bloody cuts. I ducked out of reach and flung up my left hand with its protective bracelet. The ghostly figure of a large, angry dog appeared by my side, teeth bared, snarling at the wraith.

The ghost dog sprang at the wraith, striking it square on, driving it back so I could get out of the way. It wasn’t the first time a soul-sucking creature of death showed up in the break room of my store, but it also wasn’t something I had planned on when I opened the velvet jewelry box.

“Cover me!” I shouted to Teag, trying to figure out how fast I could get to a weapon that I could use against the billowing, monstrous shape.

“Go!” Teag said to me. He turned to the wraith with a wicked grin and snatched down a fishing net made of clothesline rope from a hook on the wall. “See how you like this!” he yelled, throwing the net over the wraith.

Normal rope would have gone right through the wraith’s dark form. Wraiths are like that – solid when they want to be, insubstantial when you want to hit them. But the magic woven into the net meant it stuck, catching the wraith in a web of power. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it could buy us precious seconds, and that delay might be the difference between life and death.

If I’d expected a fight to the death, I would have made sure my weapons were closer. I had to dive for the door to my office and grab my athame from atop my desk. The athame focused my magic, and I opened myself to the powerful memories and emotions that I connected with it, drawing strength. The wraith surged forward, straining at the energy of the rope net that glowed like silver. The ghost dog harried the wraith, snapping at its heels, keeping it occupied.

I swung back into the room and leveled the athame at the wraith, channeling my magic. A cone of blinding white light surged from the athame, and when the cold power struck the wraith, it shrieked and twisted, forced back toward the wall. It looked as if the white light was burning through the wraith, like fire on paper, and with one last ear-piercing scream, the deadly apparition vanished.

The ghost dog looked back at me, wagged its tail, and winked out. I slumped back against the wall, feeling suddenly drained. Magic takes energy, and I was still pretty new at learning to channel mine for big stuff, like fighting off monsters. Then again, with the amount of practice we’d been getting lately, I figured I’d be up to speed in no time.

“Nice net,” I said, managing a grin.

Teag returned a tired smile. “Good shooting.” His expression grew serious. “You’re bleeding.”

I sighed and sat down in one of the chairs at the small table, eying the overturned jewelry box mistrustfully. For now, at least, the box seemed harmless. “I didn’t move fast enough,” I said.

“You weren’t expecting an attack,” Teag replied.

“I’m beginning to think I should always expect an attack, and be pleasantly surprised when an antique is just an antique, instead of a demon portal to the realms of the dead.” The wraith’s claws must have taken a swipe at my energy as well as my shoulder, and I hoped that didn’t include shreds of my soul as well. Teag retrieved the souped-up first aid kit we keep in one of the cupboards. Unfortunately, we need it a lot. It’s not your average office supply store kit. It’s got surgical needles and sutures, sterile bandages, prescription painkillers and antibiotics, plus healing herbs and potions supplied by our friendly neighborhood Voodoo mambo and root workers.

Then again, Trifles and Folly wasn’t your average antique store, and Teag and I had a few extra abilities they don’t teach in business school.

I’m Cassidy Kincaide, the current owner of Trifles and Folly, an antique and curio store in beautiful, historic, haunted Charleston, South Carolina. The store has been in my family almost since Charleston was founded, close to three hundred and fifty years ago, and we have a big secret to go with that success. We do much more than sell interesting, expensive, old stuff. Our real job is getting dangerous magical items off the market and out of the wrong hands. When we succeed, nobody notices. When we fail, lots of people die.

I inherited Trifles and Folly from my Uncle Evan. Teag is my assistant store manager, best friend and occasional bodyguard, and Sorren is my silent partner – a nearly six-hundred-year-old vampire who is part of a secret collaboration of mortals and immortals called the Alliance, dedicated to getting rid of items with dark magic before they can hurt anyone. The antiques that don’t have any magical juice, Trifles and Folly resells. Those that are just unsettling but not dangerous, we neutralize so that they won’t cause a problem. Items that are magically malicious or so tainted with bad emotions that they will hurt people, we lock up or destroy.

I shrugged out of the shoulder of my shirt and winced as Teag cleaned the deep scratches. “Do you think it’ll come back?” Teag asked as he daubed carefully at the damage the wraith had done.

I sighed. “No way to tell until we know more about what it was and why it came in the first place. And that means taking a look at what’s in that jewelry box.”

Magic runs in my family, and the person chosen to run Trifles and Folly needs all the magic he or she can summon, because we keep Charleston – and the world – safe from things that go bump in the night. My magic is psychometry, the ability to read the history of an object by touching it. Not every object, thank goodness, just those that have been touched by strong emotion or powerful energy. Heartfelt emotion is one of the strongest sources of power. That’s why a tattered old dog collar is my protective bracelet – summoning the ghost of my golden retriever, Bo – and my grandmother’s mixing spoon is my athame, used handle-side out. Both items have a strong emotional connection for me, and in both cases, the protection of the beings associated with the items resonates enough to fend off some seriously nasty creatures.

The salve Teag smoothed on my cuts included plantain, comfrey, and rose to prevent infection and slow the bleeding. The herbs had been mixed by Mrs. Teller, a powerful root worker, so they carried a supernatural level of healing and protection. Teag covered the scratches with gauze and then pulled out a small woven patch of cloth imbued with his magic, which he taped down over the gauze to keep it in place. Teag is a Weaver, someone who can send energy and intent into woven and knotted fabric. He’s also able to weave together strands of information that would elude a regular person, making him an awesome researcher and an amazing hacker.

“Is that one of the patches you made?” I asked, slipping my shoulder back into my shirt.

Teag grinned. “Yeah, you’ll have to let me know how that works. The patches are a bit of an experiment right now.”

I paused for a moment, focusing on my wounded shoulder. “There’s a tingle of magic from the salve and from the patch,” I said, paying close attention to what I was feeling. “The cuts don’t hurt as much as they did before, and where you bandaged it feels warm… like sunlight on a summer day.”

Teag nodded. “That means that the poultice and the patch I wove are speeding the healing and driving out infection.” Supernatural predators often had bad stuff on their claws, either poison or a taint that could be as deadly as the cuts themselves.

I went over to the fridge and poured us both glasses of iced tea, made the Charleston way, so sweet the fillings in your teeth stand up and wave. I needed a moment before I took on handling that antique jewelry box, and I figured that Teag wouldn’t mind a break either in case something else tried to kill us. Fortunately, the shop was closed, so we didn’t have to worry about the safety of customers or our part-time assistant, Maggie.

We drank the iced tea in silence, stealing glances toward the little velvet box on the table. Both of us knew we had to deal with it, and given what we had just survived, neither of us were looking forward to the prospect.

I finished my sweet tea, and couldn’t postpone the inevitable. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see what was so special about this little jewelry box.”

“You feel up to it?” Teag asked.

I gave him a look that didn’t need words. “As ready as I’m going to be. And you’re supposed to be having dinner with Anthony tonight. That gives us about an hour and a half for me to read the mojo on the jewelry box, get knocked flat on my ass, and come back to my senses without making you late for your date.” I was being intentionally flippant, but the reality was much more dangerous, and we both knew it.

“Do you think we should wait for Sorren?” Teag asked.

I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head. “Kinda late now, don’t ya think?” I asked with a wry half-smile. “Besides, he’s in Boston, taking care of whatever-it-was that made him up and leave on a moment’s notice. I think I’ll be okay. Let’s get it over with.” I moved my chair closer to the box on the table.

The velvet was worn and faded. It was too big for a ring box, and I wondered if it had originally held a pair of earrings, or maybe a dainty bracelet. The wraith had shown up a few seconds after I opened the box, but as I thought back over what had happened, I realized that the wraith hadn’t come from the box. That was important, because it meant the wraith hadn’t been trapped inside. But why had it shown up at all?

Hard experience taught me to look before I touched. I was also learning to see what I could learn without making contact with an item. Practice was sharpening my ability to use the magic I was born with but had only recently begun trying to control. I held out my hand, palm down, over the faded blue velvet and closed my eyes, concentrating.

The sense of overwhelming loss made me sway in my chair. Second-hand grief welled up in my throat, as tears stung my eyes. Beneath those darker emotions, I felt the remnants of something joyful, sullied now by whatever had been taken away. Dimly, as if in a faded photograph, I saw an image of a couple in their twenties, hand in hand. Then, as I watched, the young man’s image faded away to nothing, leaving the woman all alone.

Magical seeing – things like psychometry, clairvoyance, and being a psychic – requires a lot of reading between the lines. I wish it were as clear-cut as it seems on television, where ghosts speak in complete sentences and visions are in high-definition with the volume turned up. In real life, images are distorted, murky, and incomplete. Spirits move their mouths, but often no sound emerges. The little snip of stone tape memory we see leaves a lot of room for interpretation. And that’s the problem. When we don’t have full information, we have to guess. Sometimes, we’re right and the problem gets solved. Other times, we guess wrong, and someone gets dead.

Then I realized what was causing the extra buzz that my magic had picked up from the velvet-flocked box; this item came with its very own ghost.

In general, my psychic gift of reading the history of objects doesn’t give me any special power to see ghosts. Oh, I’ve seen more than a few ghosts – then again, I live in Charleston, which is one of the most haunted cities in North America. I think it’s written somewhere that every house built before 1950 has to be haunted, and every native-born Charlestonian has a yearly quota of ghostly sightings. Given the nature of what we do at Trifles and Folly, seeing ghosts comes with the territory. Some of the spirits have been helpful. Others have been lost, not even sure that they are really dead. And some of those ghosts have been downright pissed off and dangerous.

In this case, the ghost was terrified out of its everlovin’ mind.

As I reached toward the box again, my fingers hovering over the velvet, the ghost welled up at me in a rush, so fast that I rocked onto the back legs of the chair, and might have gone over backward if Teag hadn’t been standing behind me. Most of the time, ghosts hang back, but this one got right in my face, so to speak, screaming soundlessly, eyes wide with fear.

“Are you okay?” Teag was worried. I gestured to him that I was fine. So far, this ghost wasn’t trying to hurt me. It just really wanted to get my attention. Maybe I had been the first living person it had ever had a chance to contact. Or maybe the wraith that had come after Teag and me wasn’t really looking for us at all. Perhaps it had a different kind of prey in mind.

That left me stuck between two bad options. I really didn’t want to make the level of connection that would happen if I touched or held the jewelry box. It was already clear that the box had a history of tragedy, and if I made contact, I would feel that sad background as forcefully as if I had lived it myself. On the other hand, whoever’s spirit was still connected to the jewelry box was in torment, and might suffer forever if I didn’t do something about it.

I reached out and picked up the box.

The first image I saw was of pearl earrings; dainty round balls with a lustrous glow, classy and always in style. Judging from the box, and the name of a local jewelry store I knew had gone out of business before 1900, I figured that the gift had been given back in the Victorian period. Then I looked into the box, and I knew for certain. Inside was a dark round circle, braided from brown, human hair.

Gotta love the Victorians; they knew how to make mourning a life-long, high-art spectacle. By modern standards, the old customs seem mawkish, even macabre. But in a time when most families buried as many of their children as they saw live to adulthood, when few people lived past their forties and a lot of folks died young from cholera, smallpox, and other terrors we’ve since vanquished, and when the Civil War killed half a million young husbands, lovers, fathers, sons, and brothers, our great-great grandparents had a lot to mourn.

They mourned in style, with whole wardrobes of black crepe clothing, elaborate social rituals and an entire etiquette for grief. On the other hand, these were real people and their loss was just as real as it is for modern folks. They tried to hang on to the memory of their departed beloveds. Sometimes, they took pictures of the corpse, dressed up in its Sunday best, perhaps the only picture of the person they would ever have. And other times, they clipped a lock or two of hair and plaited it into jewelry, something to remember the person by, or something they could keep with them all the time. These were memento mori in the full, original meaning of the word, ‘to remember death’.

The beautiful, ghastly wreath of hair was a piece of Victorian death jewelry.

The vision was sudden and overwhelming.

I was cold, so cold. One moment I had been sweating on a battlefield in Virginia, and the next… the next there was nothing. They say you never hear the bullet that gets you. How could you, when all around you the sound of hundreds of rifles crashes like thunder? I remembered a loud noise, a sharp, sudden pain and then falling into darkness.

And waking up. Only, not really. When I emerged from the darkness, my body didn’t come with me. Women sobbed. Men pretended that they weren’t crying. My little sister fainted and had to be carried from the room. I wanted to tell them I was still there, wanted to tell them how much I loved them, but ‘I’ wasn’t ‘me’ anymore. I was up here, and the rest of me was down there, not moving, gray with death.

I thought I had been frightened on the battlefield. That fear paled in comparison to how terrified I was now. I thought that the Almighty would have gathered me to his bosom by now, if I were worthy. I’d heard tell all my life about bright lights and a land of milk and honey. Since I was still here, maybe that bright light wasn’t going to come for me. I didn’t have words for how afraid I was of what that meant for my immortal soul, so I just stayed where I was, looking for Amelia, my beloved. She always knew how to make sense of things.

Then I saw her. Oh dear Lord, had grief for me done that to her? My pretty Amelia, so young and happy, looked gaunt and frail, hollow-eyed. Her father walked her to the casket, as if she could barely stand. She nearly collapsed, sagging almost to her knees, before he collected her and helped her stand next to me to say good-bye.

I wanted to touch her, to tell her I was near, but I couldn’t. And then she leaned over and kissed my forehead, and carefully snipped some of my hair where it was the longest. Hot tears fell on my cold skin, but somehow, I felt them. No one faulted her for weeping. We were going to marry in the spring.

I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go on, so I followed my Amelia home. And since the Almighty didn’t seem to want me, I did the best I could, watching over my girl. I had nowhere else to be. She plaited my hair into a memorial wreath, and she wore it on a chain around her neck. And if, when she touched it, she thought she imagined my presence, I was closer than she knew.

Abruptly, I was Cassidy again. I saw time flow by like an old movie. The scene changed, years passed. Amelia died, still grieving her lost love. The hair wreath went into the velvet box that had once held a gift that gave great joy. The young man’s ghost remained, too afraid to move on. And then, the shadows came.

This time, I didn’t enter the ghost’s thoughts as fully as before, except to feel terror in every cell and sinew of my body. After a hundred years of quiet darkness, not exactly heaven but far removed from hell, something appeared in the everlasting night. It was not the Father Almighty.

Like watching a movie with the sound turned off, something I could see but not influence, I saw the wraith stalk the young man’s ghost. Tad. His name had been Tad. Thaddeus, maybe, but no one called him that. Just Tad. Lonely, afraid, desperate for company, he had gotten too close the first time, only to lose part of what little he had left to the wraith’s hunger. After that, there was terror. Hiding. Fear of being found, of having the last little bit of self destroyed after all these long years. The darkness was so vast. Suddenly, the everlasting night that had seemed to be the enemy became an ally, a place to play a deadly game of hide-and-seek. And finally, the young man’s spirit got the answer it had been seeking. There are some things worse than death. Being consumed is one of them.

When I came back to myself, I was screaming. Teag held me by the shoulders, shaking me gently, calling my name. We’ve done this a lot, unfortunately.

“Come back, Cassidy!” His eyes were worried. I guessed that I’d been pretty far gone. I’ve never gone so deep into a vision that I haven’t been able to find my way back, but there’s always a first time. And if there was a first time, it was likely to be the last time.

I nodded groggily, like a drunk sobering up on coffee. The terror and loss of the young man from the vision stayed with me, frightening and sad. “I’m okay,” I managed. Teag’s look told me that he sincerely doubted that.

Instead of arguing, he pushed another glass of sweet tea into my hand, and waited while I gulped it down. The icy cold liquid shocked me back to myself, and the sugar rushed through my veins like elixir. Only then did I realize I was shaking and sobbing, grieving for two lovers who had been dead for more than a hundred and fifty years.

I dragged the back of my hand over my eyes and took a deep breath to steady myself. Teag waited patiently. “I saw the story behind the memorial jewelry,” I said, carefully laying the velvet box aside. “Young lovers. Civil War.” Unfortunately, that story was a common refrain with the pieces we often saw at Trifles and Folly, although rarely had the past made such an impact. “I’d expect a piece like that to have a lot of mojo,” I added, trying to get my voice to stop quailing. “But there’s a ghost attached to it, and the thing we fought off tried to destroy him.”

Teag frowned, alarmed. “That monster attacks ghosts?”

I nodded. “Yeah. It took a bite out of him. And I have the feeling that whatever that thing was, it went away, but it’s not really gone.”

“Then we’ve got a big problem,” Teag said. “Because Charleston is a spookfest, and that monster is going to have an all-you-can-eat buffet if we don’t do something about it.”