Celine could sense something in the shop as she got to work. It was four-thirty, the dinner rush was starting, and there was definitely a strange tension in the air.
She pulled her hair back, then walked behind the counter and began making her way to the back office. Their assistant manager, Tatiana, and the newest cashier, Timothy, were both at the front. Timothy was taking a phone order while Tatiana pounded out a couple of pizza shells.
She noticed a grill ticket sitting on the printer, but no one behind the grill station.
That mystery was solved a few seconds later as she stepped into the office. Roman was there. And he was mad.
Her heart sank a little. She’d been hoping the tension she felt was a grumpy spirit passing through the shop. But no, it was her husband.
“Hi, Rome,” she said cheerfully, pretending she didn’t notice the anger radiating off him.
Well, no avoiding it now. “What’s wrong?” Celine asked tentatively as she pulled her apron off its hook.
She restrained herself from rolling her eyes, but it was close. Whatever, it wasn’t like this attitude was anything new.
“Okay then,” she said tightly. “I’m going to go do that grill order then. The one that’s apparently been sitting there.”
She went to the sink and started washing her hands, aware of his eyes on her as she scrubbed. It had seemed like things were improving in the few days since Christmas, but apparently not if this was how he was greeting her.
Roman didn’t say anything else and Celine wasn’t about to give him the opportunity to snap at her again. So instead, she dried her hands and walked away.
Roman knew he’d fucked up as soon as the curt “nothing” had left his mouth. But he’d been too angry and embarrassed to say anything else. And honestly, more than a little bewildered and hurt.
There’d been another prank call. Same kids as last month, same stupid joke. But this time, there had been noise in the background. The familiar sounds of a hockey rink.
Unless there was one hell of a coincidence at play here, the callers were high school hockey players. And his son’s teammates.
Did Jamie know about this? He couldn’t picture his compassionate, thoughtful son doing something like this, but high schoolers didn’t always make the best choices.
He really should talk to Celine. But it was just too embarrassing. A bunch of kids were making him this upset?
He’d talk to her tonight. And then they’d both talk to Jamie and solve it as a team.
It’d be fine.
It was so cold outside this morning that Noah’s bones ached. But he’d promised the general store he’d stop in and pick up their trash for the dump today. Normally they had someone to do it, but Oscar was on vacation for the week. Noah was always up for side jobs and temporary gigs to supplement his full-time job at the bar, so he’d agreed to fill in weeks ago. But now, at six in the morning with the sharp wind cutting straight through his scarf, he was deeply regretting that decision.
He really didn’t want to go for other reasons as well. He knew that there would be snide comments and – maybe worse – genuine concern for him after the stunt he’d pulled on Christmas Eve. And he knew that getting hammered on the town common, at a town event no less, deserved that treatment. But it didn’t mean he wanted to walk in on it first thing in the morning.
He got lucky. The general store was still closed when he got there, the trash neatly piled in the tiny alley beside it. He pulled his truck up to the entrance of the alley and got out.
The wind seemed to be even worse than it had been at home fifteen minutes earlier. And the trash was piled to alarming heights. There was easily enough there to fill the truck bed. Maybe Oscar had been gone longer than he thought?
Or it had already been nearly a week since Christmas.
As he looked at the mountain of trash, Noah was suddenly grateful for the cold. He didn’t need to smell that all the way to the regional dump. He got enough summer loads that he’d take the blessing in disguise here.
In the end, it only took ten minutes for him to load the truck up. By that point, his cheap gloves were filthy and an unidentifiable juice had leaked out of one of the bags near the bottom of the pile and frozen into the fabric. He peeled the gloves off and tossed them in the truck bed. Then, shoving his hands in his pockets, he walked back around and got back in the truck. He’d left it running so now, thankfully, the cabin was warm.
Unfortunately, this meant the trash smell he’d hoped to avoid began to permeate the car. By the time the twenty-minute drive was over and he was pulling up to the entrance of the dump, Noah was sure the smell had seeped into the seats and was going to stay there.
The thought made him want to crawl back into bed. Would anybody really be upset if he just skipped work today and stayed home?
Noah sincerely doubted it.
Iris braced herself as she stood outside the New Winslow Historical Society. The ruined Harbinger town history sat in her bag and she was sorely tempted to just set it down on the steps and run.
She had given herself a few days to regroup, vaguely horrified that she’d reached the point of potentially summoning a monster to solve a mystery. While she still thought that maybe she could have handled it and gotten the answers she needed, the white-hot shame and rage of the past couple weeks had cooled in the face of the potential consequences. As much as she hated to admit it, Roman had been right. That was too much danger to put the town in. And not that she had to admit it to him, but she did have to admit to herself that maybe she wasn’t quite ready to manage that level of power. Not yet.
So she’d retreated back to her shop, where things were still in chaos. But it had felt quieter since that night. Roland was clearly still around – she could feel his presence buzzing in the air around her all the time – but he wasn’t causing as much physical damage over the past couple of days. She’d taken some time and kept the shop closed while she cleaned up the damage already done. Thankfully, once the broken items were swept up, Iris realized that none of the essentials had been damaged. She’d have to swallow the cost of the broken merchandise, but her shop itself was fine.
Now that she’d cleaned the shop up, it was time for the hard part. She didn’t know what kinds of consequences Judith might have faced for Iris’s theft of the little leather town history, but Judith and Alicia had been deadly serious when they confronted her on Christmas Eve. Iris had put off coming down, even considering mailing it anonymously. But no. She had fucked up and they knew it was her. And it was time to make amends.
She blew out a long breath, centering herself, then stepped into the building.
The New Winslow Historical Society was located in an old converted mansion. The front hall was warm and dark, with lush carpets and the front desk facing directly toward the door. A young woman Iris didn’t recognize sat behind it.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked.
“Hi,” Iris said. “Um, is Judith Perez here? I need to speak to her.”
“Yeah, hang on.”
The woman picked up her phone, dialed, and waited for a second. “Hi, Judith?” she said finally. “There’s someone here to see you?”
A pause. Then the woman cupped a hand over the receiver. “What’s your name?” she whispered.
“Iris Davies,” the woman repeated into the phone. “Okay. Right, thanks.”
She hung up. “Judith will be right down.”
Iris thanked her, then stepped away from the desk. While she waited, she glanced around at the paintings on the walls. There were several of them, all clearly done by the same artist. She recognized Main Street at some point in the early twentieth century.
Then there was a painting of a mansion she didn’t recognize.
It wasn’t a great painting, but Iris found herself drawn to it. Something buzzed just beyond her consciousness and she tried to grasp at it. But there was nothing there to grasp. The building was large and imposing, somewhat derelict but clearly inhabited. She leaned in close, trying to identify where in town it had been.
Iris gasped and jumped, then turned around. Judith was standing there. Her expression was wary as she looked at Iris.
“Come to my office,” Judith said, then turned and started walking away.
Judith’s heels clipped across the hardwood floor as Iris scrambled to keep up with her. They made their way to a cozy office a few halls over from the lobby.
“I assume you’re not here to schedule an appointment,” Judith said softly, closing her office door behind them.
Iris slumped. “No, I’m not.”
She pulled the history out of her bag. “I’m so sorry, Judith,” she said. “I just – I thought I was so close to solving something.”
“I almost got fired, Iris,” Judith said. “The town council called me in for allowing irreplaceable historical documents off the premises.”
Iris nodded, her cheeks burning. “The only reason they didn’t fire me is because I’m the only person in town capable of doing this job,” Judith continued. “I know this is important to you, but was it really worth throwing me under the bus?”
“No,” Iris choked out, staring at the floor.
Judith sighed and held out her hand. “Thank you for bringing it back at least.”
Iris forced herself to look up. “There’s more,” she said. “I don’t know how – there’s a poltergeist in my store and -”
She opened the book and Judith gasped. Iris’s gaze was back on the floor but she could perfectly picture what Judith saw. Dark scribbles all over the front page, blotting out the carefully printed title information.
Judith took the book and carefully flipped through it. “Iris, what the hell…”
“I know,” Iris said quickly. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s sharpie,” Judith said, running a finger over the marks. “Maybe I can talk to a book restorer or one of the universities…”
She was talking to herself now, mumbling as she flipped through the pages. Then she looked up at Iris, tears in her eyes.
“You can leave now,” Judith said firmly. “And please don’t ever call me again.”