There was something in the shop this time. Celine could feel it the second she stepped through the door, a sharp, piercing feeling in the air. The work area was still overheated from the oven, but there was a chill in the room that seemed to cut into her soul.
This wasn’t Roman copping an attitude or a passing specter on the wind. This was something very real and potentially dangerous.
“Charlie, hurry up, this order’s been waiting.”
Roman’s voice was frayed and angry. Not that that was anything she wasn’t used to.
“Christ, give me a minute. I’ve got two others over here.”
Charlie’s retort, however, was very startling. Even at his most sleep-deprived new father state, he had never been anything but cheerful.
She rounded the corner in time to see Roman spin around and glare at Charlie. “Excuse me?” he snapped.
“I said let me finish this without you fucking hounding me.”
Roman’s eyes flashed, and Celine could see where this was going. “Hey,” she said firmly, stepping in between the two men. “Stop it, both of you.”
“Celine, it’s fine,” Roman snapped, trying to step around her. “I’ll take care of this.”
“Oh, will you?” Charlie asked, standing up to his full height.
“Both of you,” Celine demanded, trying to keep her voice calm while also building up her own mental blocks. “Stop. Charlie, go sit in the dining room for a moment. Sit in a booth and count to a hundred.”
They both started talking at the same time.
“He’s got orders to-”
“Why do you want-”
She held up a hand and they both went silent. She turned to Charlie. “Just do it,” she said, looking him directly in the eye. “And while you’re doing it, close your eyes and visualize a wall blocking out outside influences. Picture it as clearly as you can. Focus on your breathing and with each breath, add another brick to the wall.”
Charlie looked lost for a second, but then understanding dawned in his eyes. “Fuck,” he muttered.
“It’s okay,” Celine said softly. “I noticed as soon as I came in. Visualizing exercises will be fine for now, but maybe ask your grandmother if she has anything you can keep in your car for the future.”
Charlie’s shoulders fell and he nodded. Then, with one last glare at Roman, he walked away.
“Celine, it’s the middle of the day!” Roman argued. “We can’t just have our only delivery driver go take his ten while there’s orders sitting here.”
“Yes, we can,” Celine said, keeping her voice firm but calm. “And you and I are going out back for a moment.”
Before he could protest any further, she put out the bell and a small sign reading Ring for Service. Then she steered Roman out back, ignoring his protests as she kept a constant eye out for any other signs of the presence.
“Where the fuck is Charlie?” Roman demanded as she steered him into the office chair. “I’m going to fucking kill him, I swear to G-”
“Roman,” Celine said, gripping his hands and looking directly into his eyes. “This isn’t you. Or at least it isn’t all you. There’s something in the building and it’s influencing your emotions.”
“That’s ridiculous, we’ve never had problems like that here. Did you finally lose your goddamn mind? Sometimes I think-”
“Would you ever normally talk to me like that?”
Roman stopped short as the color drained from his face. “Celine, I’m so sorry.”
She squeezed his hands. “It’s okay, I swear. But you need to get a grip on yourself so you can get it off you.”
He nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and then let it out.”
He followed her instructions, his body relaxing just a little as he did so. “You have to get some barriers up, Rome. I need you to visualize a wall. Something solid, something that can protect you.”
He nodded a little frantically, eyes still closed. “Relax,” she said, trying to keep her own voice calm. “It’s okay. You aren’t possessed, just a little…influenced. Charlie too. Keep breathing and keep picturing that wall, alright? Picture as many little details as you can.”
He kept taking deep breaths, letting them out in shaky exhales. “Okay, once you have it, imagine adding to it. Is it brick?”
“Perfect. Add bricks to the wall. See it getting stronger. Know that it’ll keep out spirits and other forces.”
There was a ring from the bell. Roman opened his eyes. “Keep them closed,” she said, standing up. “I’ll go take care of it and check in on Charlie. You stay there. Keep building that wall. The realer it is to you the realer it’ll be to anything trying to get in.”
He nodded and she walked up front, where a woman was waiting to pick up her lunch salad. This transaction was done in all of thirty seconds, then she went out to the dining room where Charlie was sitting in the first booth. His eyes were closed and his expression focused.
“How are you doing, Charlie?”
He opened his eyes. “Good,” he said. “Good. It feels like something…loosened up if that makes sense.”
He laughed a little bitterly. “My Nene is going to kill me when she finds out. If she doesn’t know already.”
“We’ve been lucky here so far,” Celine said. “I’ve kept up kind of basic wards and charms. But something’s getting in, so we’ll need to be more careful. Are you feeling okay?”
He nodded. “I am,” he said. “I haven’t done those kinds of exercises since I was a kid, but I think it worked.”
“Good. You want to get back to work? Or do you need a little more time?”
“I’ll go,” he said, standing up. “I’m going to take all three of those deliveries if you’re good here.”
“We’re fine,” Celine said. “Roman’s doing the same thing you were doing, you two can kiss and make up when you get back.”
He laughed as he followed her back behind the counter. “And we’ll figure out some kind of protection for your car as well.”
“And my house,” Charlie said, grimacing. “God, that could have followed me home…”
She turned and took his hand. “Don’t dwell,” she said. “Just keep your wall up, try and stay calm, and we’ll get it sorted out.”
“Do you know what it was?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I just walked in when I saw you and Roman about to come to blows.”
Charlie let go of her hand and turned toward the delivery shelves. “Thanks for stepping in, boss,” he said, pulling the heating bags off the shelf. “I’d hate to have killed your husband.”
For a second, Celine felt like she should defend Roman. But there was no question Charlie could have annihilated him, so instead she kept her mouth shut.
As Charlie was walking out, she returned to the back room. Roman was right where she’d left him.
“How are you?” Celine asked.
“Um, good. Calmer.”
He opened his eyes. “Celine, I’m sorry.”
She nodded. “It’s okay,” she said. “There’s something going on.”
Roman shook his head and let out a long breath. “What happened?” he asked.
“Something’s in the building,” she replied. “Or at least it was. I could feel it when I walked in, some kind of new presence that was angry. Like it was made entirely of anger.”
“That makes sense,” he said. “I was angry. Even more than usual. Like, I’m tired and annoyed. But I was so mad at Charlie and the more I realized it, the madder I got. Like it was just feeding off my anger.”
Celine grimaced. “Yeah, that’s my thought too.”
Roman opened his mouth to say something, then stopped.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t want to make accusations,” he said slowly. “Especially in something like this where I will willingly admit I know nothing. But Iris has been having issues with an angry spirit that’s trying to get back in her shop. Do you think maybe…”
“Maybe it decided to make a pit stop here?” Celine finished.
He nodded. “Maybe,” she said. “We’re close by, it could have needed an energy source. Or maybe it’s just lashing out. Either way, that does make sense.”
Her mind had been filled with tasks for the day when she walked in, mundane business tasks like ordering more inventory or phone calls with potential vendors. Now these chores were joined by binding rituals, psychic attacks, and how to handle it while still running a business.
And yet, that still felt normal to her. She’d lived in New Winslow for too long.