Andrew shifted the stack of books in his arms as he tried the doorknob of Iris’s shop again. And again, it stayed locked.
Did he have the wrong night? No, he’d written it down in his planner. Iris, six pm. They were supposed to try yet another energy directing technique that he was pretty sure was complete rubbish. But he’d meditated this afternoon and eaten only plants and water for the past few days. He’d skipped coffee and multiple meals Liv offered him because he was that devoted to what they were doing here.
And now here he was, standing outside of the dark shop where Iris had apparently forgotten they were meeting.
Andrew set down the books on the step and pulled out his mobile phone. Service was better downtown, so he was able to easily call Iris. He heard her phone ring once…twice…three times. Then her voicemail picked up.
“Iris, it’s Andrew,” he said. “Er, is everything alright? It’s six and I’m standing outside the shop. And I see Roman coming up the street. Are you here? Please call me back. Cheers.”
He hung up just as Roman reached him. “Door’s locked,” Andrew said.
“Iris isn’t here?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t seem to be. I rang the bell, knocked. Still nothing. And it’s bloody cold.”
“Typical,” Roman said, rolling his eyes. “We’ll give her a few more minutes. Dr. Degas is meeting us today too. Apparently Baxter’s been asking a few questions that are starting to make her a little uneasy.”
“Like, leading questions. Asking about Iris. If she’s acting weird. Those kinds of things.”
“Which she is,” Andrew said.
Roman raised an eyebrow, and Andrew gestured to the locked door. “She’s never done this before. At least not in the months we’ve worked together. If anything, she’s more on the ball than I am.”
“Maybe she’s distracted by something,” Roman said.
“I wish she’d at least call then.”
Dr. Degas walked over, pulling her coat tighter around herself as she stepped out of her car. “Why are we waiting outside?” she asked as she reached them.
“Iris isn’t here,” Andrew replied.
Dr. Degas frowned. “Did she say why not?”
“I just left her a voicemail,” Andrew said. “But she didn’t say anything about not meeting today.”
Dr. Degas grimaced. “What is it?” he asked.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, but Charles Baxter has been sniffing around. I’m wondering if something happened.”
“What, like something happened?” Roman asked.
“Oh, not like something dangerous,” Dr. Degas said quickly. “But I don’t know what the two of them might have discussed recently, you know?”
They were all quiet for a moment. Then a sharp wind blew through. “Tell you what,” Roman said. “Let’s move this over to my house for now. I’m like ten minutes down the road. We’ll get started without her if you’re comfortable with that.”
“Considering I’ve been living on lettuce and water for three days? Yes, I’d say I’m comfortable with that.”
Roman laughed. “Same,” he said. “Pizza lost its excitement years ago, but I plan on downing an entire one after we attempt this tonight.”
“Do you think it’ll work?” Andrew asked as they started walking back toward their cars.
“Not a chance in hell,” Roman replied quickly. “But if there’s even the slightest chance, it seems stupid not to take it.”
The other man looked tired despite his cheerful enough face. Andrew knew he’d lost someone recently, that sweet old woman he’d been close to. The one who’d been here eighty years. His stomach turned just thinking about that amount of time. But he wasn’t about to say a word about it to Roman. He wasn’t stupid, he knew they were both thinking the same thing.
It could so easily be them.
Andrew liked Roman’s house immediately. It was loud, chaotic, and apparently stuffed to the brim with children. As they walked in, a naked toddler was running gleefully down the hallway toward the open bathroom as Celine chased after her. She gave the new arrivals a cheerful hello as she passed. Behind her came another naked baby, who stopped and grabbed Roman’s legs as he passed by. Roman reached down and scooped him up.
“Bath time for both?” he called down the hall to where Celine was putting the little girl in the tub.
“Please!” she called back.
Roman turned to the others. “Right back,” he said, then turned and left with the squirming baby in his arms.
Andrew stole a look at his mobile. No messages from Iris yet. Where was she? He was moving out of annoyance and into concern. Was she back at the Countess? Doing that mysterious work that apparently concerned him, yet she couldn’t tell him about?
“Help yourselves to some pizza,” Celine called over to them from the tub.
Andrew could smell the pizza and his stomach growled. Roman must have said something to Celine because she immediately added, “Not you, Andrew. You have some of that bread on the counter.”
He started toward the counter, feeling self-conscious. This feeling only grew as a teenage boy poked his head over the top of the sofa in the connected living room. “Hey,” he called.
Andrew gave a short, awkward wave. “Hey.”
“Bread’s good. Mom made it.”
Andrew wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but the kid didn’t seem too interested anyway. Instead, he laid back down and picked his book back up.
He picked up a piece of the bread. It was warm and fragrant, loaded with herbs. Not as good as pizza, but he’d take it.
Roman was back a couple minutes later. “Celine said she can help us with the ritual if we don’t mind waiting until the kids are in bed,” he said.
The teenager’s head popped back up over the top of the couch. “Ritual?” he asked.
“Hey bud,” Roman said.
“Hey, Dad,” the kid replied. “What’s the ritual?”
“Oh, a full moon cursebreaker spell,” Roman replied.
“Do you think it’ll work?”
“Can I watch?”
Roman looked at the book in the kid’s hand. “How many chapters of that do you have to read tonight?”
“Two, but I’m almost done.”
Roman nodded. “Yeah, you can watch. It’s gonna be boring though.”
“Can I help?”
The kid didn’t seem surprised at that answer. He just shrugged and went back to his book. Roman turned back to the others. “Hey, come sit down. Want anything to drink?”
A little while later, they were out in Celine and Roman’s backyard. Celine was carefully measuring out distances and placing candles when Andrew’s phone rang.
“Andrew, I’m so sorry!”
Iris sounded a little breathless as she spoke, and he could hear her moving quickly. “It’s okay,” he said. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, I just lost track of time. I had a situation over here and-”
Now that the concern was gone, the irritation was back. “You lost track of time?” he repeated. “Iris, I’ve been living off leaves and water for three days for this and you lost track of time?”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” she said.
He heard her getting into a car and the sound of the engine starting up. “I’m heading back to New Winslow now. We can still do it.”
“We are still doing it,” he said. “We’re at Roman’s. Celine knows the ritual well enough, so she’s helping us out.”
Iris was silent for a second on the other end. “Oh,” she said finally. “Good.”
“We’re at Roman’s now. Celine’s almost got it set up. Er, come over if you want.”
“Andrew, I’m sorry.”
Roman met his eye as he hung up. “She lost track of time,” Andrew said.
Dr. Degas looked over too. Roman shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know what she’s working on over there, but she’s falling right back into old habits.”
Before Andrew could ask any questions, Celine called over to them. “Rome, Andrew, you two get your candles. Dr. Degas, can you give me a hand with the salt?”
“Be right there,” Dr. Degas said.
She hurried over, leaving Andrew and Roman walking behind her. “I don’t know if she’s coming or not,” Andrew said. “She didn’t seem thrilled that Celine knew the ritual.”
“It’s not like it’s particularly unique,” Roman said. “As soon as I mentioned the diet the other day, Celine recognized it.”
“Does she think it’ll work?”
“So why are we doing this?”
In the floodlights of the backyard, he could see the sadness settle into Roman’s face. “We have to try everything,” he said. “Even the stupidest ones. What if we skip the only thing that will get us out of here?”
Andrew wasn’t sure what to say, but Roman handed him a candle. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get this over with and go eat some pizza.”