Thea walked through the peach orchard on the west side of her Aunt Bridget’s farm, cursing the rain and looking for a dragon.
A purple dragon.
Specifically, the purple dragon that had carried off her cousin Flannery.
How did I get this crazy?
A rhetorical question she already knew the answer to. The bigger mystery was how Aunt Bridget had gotten this crazy. It had been thirty-six hours since Bridget’s frantic call. Thea had heard her aunt talk about witchcraft before, and ghosts, and spirits both good and evil. Maybe even fairies, once or twice. But dragons were new.
Thea had spent all of those thirty-six hours awake and most of them driving, so maybe it was exhaustion, combined with the power of suggestion, that explained what she’d seen on the roof as she approached the faded yellow house: a winged creature crouched beside the weather vane. Man-shaped rather than dragon-shaped, but in the failing light it definitely had a purplish tinge. When it caught sight of her headlights it spread its wings—like a bat’s, not a bird’s—and flew off toward the orchard.
And so here she was, waving Bridget’s flashlight around like an idiot, searching for it. She had no idea what she’d do if she found it. The wet night meant her leg hurt like hell, and she wouldn’t be much good in a chase. Not that it mattered, because of course she wasn’t going to find an imaginary dragon. She was wasting time, valuable time that could be spent finding out what was really going on with Flannery.
And yet, mixed with the scents of sweet peaches and damp earth was something sharp and spicy, like cloves. A discordant, intruding smell. Did madwomen hallucinate smells, too?
Or was this what dragons smelled like?
Something rustled through the trees ahead, wind, or maybe a wing. Thea raised the flashlight, too slowly. She might have caught some movement at the edge of the beam; she might have imagined it.
“I know you’re here,” she said, although of course she knew nothing at all. “I can smell you.”
Another breeze. There might or might not have been a chuckle beneath it.
“Did you really take my cousin?” As she spoke, she backed up against a tree, pointing the light over her head and half crouching.
Thea felt something settle over her, not a physical thing, but smothering nonetheless. Breathing got harder. Her legs and hands felt heavy, and suddenly she was bone tired. She very nearly lay down, right there in the mud.
Without thinking, she pushed the thing out of—off—her mind. She felt it dissipate into the night.
This time, there was no question of what she heard: a low whistle, like whatever was out here was surprised, or maybe even impressed. It came from behind her. She turned with the light, but saw only branches.
Then the thing was above her, beating its wings, a dark shape the flashlight couldn’t penetrate. It sent another—spell? curse?—heavier, more oppressive than the first. For an instant Thea felt it covering her, extinguishing confidence and hope, two things she didn’t have a healthy supply of under the best of circumstances. And suddenly she completely and without question believed in the dragon.
Believed she was out here in the orchard, in the dark, alone with it.
Just that one second, before she shook it off. But it was enough for her to understand she was way out of her depth. Thea limped and scrambled back to the house, not thinking of Bridget or Flannery, thinking only that she wished she could run.
Aunt Bridget was in the kitchen, fussing with tea and muffins, as she always did in times of stress. “Thank God you’re back, were you hurt? Sit down. We have to do something. You won’t believe what happened.”
Thea sat at the kitchen table and stretched her bad leg out beneath it. “I wasn’t hurt, and at this point I’d believe just about anything.”
“Pete called me. From the police station. They’ve arrested him.”
“Except that. Why would they arrest Pete? Isn’t he the one who reported her missing? And Pete would never—”
“Of course Pete would never, I told them that when they interviewed me yesterday. But why take me seriously, I’m just her mother.”
“Maybe they didn’t take you seriously because you told them a purple dragon abducted your daughter.”
“I didn’t tell the police that.” Bridget put a mug of tea in front of Thea, then sat down with her own. “I wouldn’t even have called them, myself. What good could they be?”
“What good could I be?”
Bridget gave her an aggrieved look that brought a surge of acid up into Thea’s throat.
“If you mean—”
“The book is still up in your room.”
“Aunt Bridget, I haven’t seen anything since—”
“That doesn’t matter, you have to wake UP!” Bridget shouted. Her face softened when she saw her niece flinch, but only a little. She looked steadily at Thea as she sipped her tea, waiting.
Thea let the silence stretch between them as long as she could stand it. “What makes you think it was a dragon?” she asked finally.
“It was just the first thing I thought of, when I saw the wings, but it was probably silly. Now I’m wondering if it was a demon.”
“You’re right, that’s much more plausible.”
“Stop it. Flannery is missing. She didn’t just run to the store for a bag of flour, and if you’re waiting for a simple, rational explanation, there isn’t one. She’s missing.”
She was right. What had just happened in the orchard hadn’t sunk in yet, and neither had the fact that Flannery was gone. Thea got up for a muffin and brought it back to the table to pick apart. “Tell me what the note said again.” She wished she could see the note herself, but Aunt Bridget hadn’t thought to make a copy before the police took it.
“It made no sense. She was leaving, and she was sorry she had to hurt us, but she needed to give everything up. Because it was the only way to rebuild.”
“I have no idea. I wasn’t aware anything was broken.”
“What about Pete?” Thea asked. “They wouldn’t have arrested him if they didn’t have some sort of evidence.”
“Apparently they found her blood in his car, or at least they suspect it’s hers,” Bridget said. “But they only found it because he let them search the car, why doesn’t that count for anything? He didn’t have to do that.”
Thea pressed her torn up bits of muffin into a ball. “Okay. We’re going to bed, because we’re both exhausted and we need clear heads. First thing in the morning, I’m going to hire a lawyer for Pete. A good one, from Yale or something, the kind these yokels won’t be any match for.”
As much strain as she was under, Aunt Bridget still found the resources to pinch her lips and glare. “Good lawyers are expensive. Is it money from that boy you’ll be spending?”
“No.” Thea said the word decisively, with no scruples over the lie. “I did some modeling while I was out there with him, you know that.”
“Yes, I do know. I saw you on the entertainment channel parading around a stage in your underwear.”
“That was a fashion show. A prestigious one, I’ll have you know.” She tried to keep her tone light, to pretend this was just banter.
“Oh, well, I suppose that’s worth giving up your morals for.”
“I didn’t give up my morals. It’s not like I was whoring.” Two more lies.
“You’ll watch your language while you’re under my roof.”
Thea stood up too fast, sloshing tea over the table. “First thing in the morning, I’m going to hire a lawyer for Pete,” she said again, as if everything that had come between had never been said. “Then we’ll put our heads together, see if we can come up with any kind of coherent idea of what this thing is. And we’ll take it from there.”
“And you’ll try to see Flannery tonight.” It wasn’t a question.
Thea turned away to rinse her mug, so Aunt Bridget wouldn’t see her squeeze her eyes shut. “Just don’t get your hopes up.”
“Well, what a ridiculous thing to say. I saw some kind of monster carrying away my daughter in the dead of night. How could I survive such a thing, without my hopes up?”
The Book of Flower Friends was indeed in Thea’s old room, in the otherwise empty bottom drawer of her battered dresser. Made entirely of fabric, it had been Thea’s security blanket when she was small. It wasn’t until she was seven, an age at which she was embarrassed to still have it at all, that she discovered its usefulness for inducing visions. Her mother had slapped her hard across the face and Thea, crying, had retreated to her bedroom and cuddled her book.
Her blood seeped into the bright yellow face of Tatiana Tulip, and Thea saw Bobby Higgins’s dead body in a hole in the field behind Tracer’s supply store. Someone was covering both him and the bloody shovel beside him with dirt. Then, in a dizzying instant that came without warning, she was Bobby Higgins, and she was the one in the hole, being buried. The fit that followed was bad enough for her father to take her to the emergency room, thinking it might be some sort of seizure. (Her mother had other ideas, mainly involving Satan.)
Thea had always stumbled on visions unawares, but the flower friends seemed to help bring them to her. Aunt Bridget insisted on keeping the book, even though Thea had long since taught herself to close off that part of her mind, and hadn’t had an episode for fifteen years, at least. Far too long to just turn it back on again. But she was duty-bound to try. She found a pair of scissors in the bathroom, and cut her finger. Then she added a bloody fingerprint to the book, among several others that had come before.
She cut her lip, and brought the fabric to her face.
For most of the night Thea lay in bed, sweaty in Aunt Bridget’s flannel sheets, clutching that stupid book. Her leg still hurt from sitting in a car too long, and her mind twisted together images of Flannery, Bridget, her mother. Pete and Baird. A horrified minister and an empty-headed actress. A winged creature. Not a dragon, she thought, but she didn’t know what else to call it.
“Flannery,” she whispered into the humid room. “Where are you?” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to visualize Flannery’s face as it was now, rather than the way she always saw her, with scabby legs and an old cap on, chewing bubble gum.
It was no use. Finally Thea heard an owl somewhere close by, and gave up. She got up and went to the door, checking it for the fourth time since she’d gone to bed. The packing tape she’d put across the crack was still intact; the little bell on a string still hung over the knob. She wished she could blame a purple dragon for these habitual precautions, but they were not so recently acquired.
Thea went to the window to check that too, then opened the curtains all the way to look out. She wasn’t used to being able to see the sky at night anymore, unobscured by artificial light and smog. But if she was hoping to see stars, she’d have to wait for another night. It was still rainy, and the almost-full moon was nothing but a vague blob behind the clouds.
Her bedroom overlooked the east side of the farm, where the big old clapboard barn presided over the fields. There was a flickering light in its single window. Thea gasped, her muscles seizing with panic, until she realized the light was small, and not growing. A fire, yes, but a contained one. One of the old kerosene lamps Aunt Bridget kept in there with all the other junk.
The knowledge that the barn wasn’t about to burn down didn’t lessen Thea’s panic, only shift it. Her hands shook as she pulled her raincoat on over her pajamas. She carefully removed the tape from the door, then closed a fist around the bell before pulling it off the knob and putting it in her pocket. The rest was easy enough; years spent here as a selfish and promiscuous teenager had taught her how to sneak out of the house.
Aunt Bridget hadn’t kept animals since Uncle Gary died, and the sheds where the equipment was stored were closer to the orchard and the fields. The barn was little more than a sagging, rotting junkyard. Thea picked her way through broken bits of furniture and warped cardboard boxes. A rat skittered past her foot, almost close enough to feel it, and she bit back a scream.
The light was flickering up in the loft. Thea reached the ladder and paused. There was no sound, but there was a smell, like cloves. She climbed.
It—or he, as it turned out—was sitting on the bench that stretched across the loft, the lamp beside him, waiting.
“Waiting for me?” she asked out loud. Her voice was high-pitched and tentative, like a little girl’s.
“I wanted to talk to you.” He looked like an old man, with the exception of the folded wings that rose above the sides of his head, tipped with talons. It was too dim to swear to it, but Thea thought he was indeed purple: his wings deeply so, his skin a ghastly lavender-gray she would have imagined for a zombie. His face was worn, his head completely bald.
“What are you?” she asked. “You don’t look like a dragon.”
“We go by fury in English, although of course that word has much older roots. Maybe you’re familiar with ancient mythology?”
Thea, who had voluntarily read maybe four books in her entire life, shook her head.
“Good,” he said. “Saves me the trouble of disabusing you of your preconceived notions. My name is Graves.”
She didn’t acknowledge the introduction. “What did you do with Flannery?”
“With her? Nothing. She left, just like her note said. Of her own free will.” The odd light distorted his face, making him look almost like a gargoyle. Or the demon Aunt Bridget half-suspected him to be. He certainly didn’t look like the kind of creature who went around innocently doing nothing.
A quick, sharp surge of anger made Thea more brave. “Bullshit.”
He smiled, but there was nothing reassuring in it. “Now if you want to ask what I did to her, that’s a different question.”
Thea crossed her arms, mainly to hide the fact that her hands were shaking. She badly wanted to sit down, but that seemed too informal, somehow. She waited.
“I hexed your cousin,” Graves said. “A hex of sacrifice, to be exact, as punishment for the sin of covetousness.” Apparently assuming that her lack of mythological education meant she didn’t know her Bible either, he added, “That means envy, basically.”
“I know what covetousness is. Who gave you the right to punish her?”
“I’m afraid that’s confidential.”
“Our client information is strictly confidential.”
“Your client? Someone hired you to hex my cousin?”
“Exactly.” Graves stood, and Thea noticed for the first time that he was wearing a bespoke suit that would have cost thousands. He pulled a card from the inside pocket of his jacket and held it out to her. She hesitated before stepping forward, first to take it, then to read it in the lamplight.
Hexing House, it read. Purveyors of Justice and Righteous Vengeance since Ancient Times. Below that was a toll free phone number and an email address, email@example.com.
The past year had been stressful, the past couple of days even more so. Thea was exhausted, underweight, crippled by unrelenting anxiety. She wasn’t really surprised that her mind had snapped. She could only assume that was what was going on here.
Now that Graves was standing, she sat down on the bench and kept staring at the card. “So,” she said after a minute. “You’re a mythological creature, but a corporate one. With email.”
“Who could do business these days without email?”
“And your business is cursing people, and you’re claiming that somebody hired you to curse Flannery. For covetousness.”
“Is her being envious to the point of hurting someone, enough for them to want revenge, impossible for you to believe of her?”
No. That part is easy to believe. Thea felt a stab of disloyalty and said nothing, not trusting her voice with a lie.
“The hex of sacrifice normally causes this kind of extreme reaction,” Graves said. “The target, seeing the error of looking outward instead of appreciating the things they should have been holding dear, gives up those things as penance.”
He waved a hand, and Thea noticed he had no fingernails. “No, no, she’ll be back. The hex will wear off.”
“When she learns her lesson. It varies from target to target. This will be an ordeal for her, but that’s not always a bad thing, you know. Oftentimes the target will go on to live a better life afterward.”
Thea shook her head. She wasn’t really having this conversation. Surely she was actually in a nice cozy room at some posh mental hospital, the kind she could afford now, drugged up on something expensive and potent. “For the sake of argument, let’s say I believed any of this. You could remove this hex? If you made a mistake.”
“You must have. She doesn’t deserve this. And neither does her family. Her fiance was arrested, did you know that?”
“Our investigative team thoroughly examines the merits of every case before we take it on.”
“Well, they got this one wrong. You need to get her back here.”
“That would be a violation of company policy. What she does now is up to her. Just as what you do now is up to you.”
“You’re a very powerful person. I can feel it radiating from you.”
Thea laughed, a not-quite-sane sound rising up in the darkness. She was the least powerful person she knew.
“You see things, don’t you?” Graves asked.
She gave no answer, but he didn’t seem to require one.
“You even resisted my magic.”
“You tried one of these hexes on me? That’s what that was?”
He sat down beside her, but not so close as to be alarming. The smell of cloves hit her again. “No, not really. Hexing a non-target would also be against policy. What I was casting at you was diluted. Think of it as a junior version of a hex.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“You resisted it. And with no training whatsoever. Hex resistance is very rare, even among furies, let alone among humans. I don’t know that we’ve got a single member of the colony right now who’s capable of it.”
“So, what, you want me to tell you how I did it? Because I don’t know.”
“I want to offer you a job.”
This time, when Thea started laughing, she couldn’t stop. She laughed until she couldn’t breathe, until her shallow gasps brought black dots swarming over her eyes, and she fainted dead away.
She woke up in her old bedroom in the farmhouse, in the same pajamas she’d left it in. She would have dismissed the whole thing as a nightmare, if not for two things: first, the tape and the bell were not on her door. She never would have gone to sleep without both of them intact. She simply couldn’t.
Second, the bell was still in her coat pocket, tangled up with a business card.
Purveyors of Justice and Righteous Vengeance.
On the back was a hand-written note in tiny, neat letters:
You weren’t able to continue our meeting. Have rescheduled for 4PM today. See you then—G.