We crowded around my butcher block table and my mom said, “You need to know that we love you more than anything or anyone else in the world.”
And there went my appetite. I set my fork down. “This is going to be bad, isn’t it?”
“Not bad,” my mother said. “Just sad in places. I grew up in Mystic Hills. It’s a town situated above an intersection of ley lines, meaning it’s a nexus for magical energy. Most of the population has some sort of gift or magical power. I didn’t. Citizens without magic are encouraged to leave, so I went to college and met your father. When you were born, we knew there was a chance you’d inherited the Harbinger family gift. I took you home to be baptized as Belinda Harbinger. In the rest of the world, you’re Linda James. Every year, on your birthday we took you to visit my family.”
“No, we had birthday parties at home.” I’d been there, I should know.
“You have two birthdays. The date of your birth we celebrate here, and the date of your Christening in Mystic Hills which is the anniversary of when you turned six months old.”
“Like a half birthday?” That would fall in the summer. “You’re saying every June you took me to a town called Mystic Hills to stay with an Aunt I can’t remember, who you never told me about until after she died?”
“The bracelet contains your memories,” my mom said. “Teresa collected them at the end of each visit and stored them away in case you ever wanted them.”
“I need more wine.” I went to the fridge and filled my glass before offering it to my guests. “Anyone else?”
My mom smiled. “Yes, please.”
I poured a glass for my mom and grabbed a beer for my dad. “Victor? Cat? Any beverages?”
“I’ll take a beer,” Victor said.
“Do you have any flavored creamer?” the cat asked hopefully.
“You mean like French vanilla coffee creamer?”
“Yes. In a bowl if you don’t mind.”
“Wouldn’t you rather have milk?”
“I’m lactose intolerant,” the cat said.
“Creamer it is.” After passing out drinks in various forms, I said, “Okay, go.”
“First,” my mom said, “I need to know how Teresa died.”
Victor scowled. “It was labeled an accident. But Teresa did not fall and break her neck in her own house. Someone or something pushed her. No one will help us. They are all frightened. Afraid something might happen to them. We need Belinda to come home with us so she can speak to Teresa and find out what happened.”
Wait. What? “If Teresa is dead, how am I supposed to talk to her?”
“That’s your gift,” Victor said. “You see spirits and speak to the dead.”
“Nope.” I pushed my chair back from the table. “I’m a teacher. My gift is teaching preschoolers that they have to share and take turns. I do not talk to dead people.”
“It’s in our blood,” my mom said. “Believe me there are worse gifts.”
“Put on the bracelet,” Victor said. “You’ll understand your duty.”
I pulled the bracelet out of my pocket. “Mom?”
“It might help with the transition. Please remember, we did what we did out of love and concern for you. If we let you remember your time in Mystic Hills, your gift would have blossomed. If you weren’t prepared…well it’s hard to explain to a six-year-old why ghosts are talking to her.”
I’d been about to slide my hand through the bracelet but stopped. “Wait. Ghosts can just talk to me?” I thought I’d need to hold a seance or say a spell.
“Think of yourself as a ghost magnet,” the cat said.
“I’d rather not,” I shot back. “What do the ghosts want?”
“Some have unfinished business, problems they need to solve before they can move on,” Victor explained. “The recently dead don’t always realize what’s happened. It’s your job to help them accept their new reality.”
“If what Teresa told me is true, it can be overwhelming at first.” Mom touched my arm. “You can learn to control it, but you’ll have to do that in Mystic Hills.”
This house and business no longer seemed like such a good deal. Seeing dead people hoping to settle a score didn’t sound fun. “Can I just ignore all of this? Send Victor and the cat back to Mystic Hills with the bracelet?”
“You could,” my mom said.
“But you shouldn’t,” Victor said. “Teresa has been knocking paintings off the walls trying to get our attention. No one will help her. The longer she’s distressed the more vengeful and unstable she’ll become. She won’t be able to cross over if you don’t help. She’ll be stuck here, and all her humanity will drain away. She’ll become a leech.”
“She’ll become a blood sucking bug?” That didn’t make sense.
“No.” Mom wiped at tears sliding down her cheeks. “A leech sucks the life force from its victims trying to gain power. The stronger it becomes the more dangerous it is. The Mystic Hills elders would hunt her down and damn her to hell for eternity.”
I climbed out of the car into the early morning sunshine and had to dodge past several free-floating spirits before I entered the building. If no one else could see them I probably looked drunk. Didn’t matter. I did not want to walk through random ghosts. I opened the door of Tea & Spirits and gleaming hardwood floors greeted me. Round wooden tables were scattered about the room with mismatched chairs painted different colors of blue and green. There were a few gatherings of love seats and upholstered chairs in various shades of brown. The eclectic furniture gave the place a homy vibe. An oak bar ran the length of the back wall. It appeared to be stocked with tea and alcohol. Thank goodness.
A blond woman popped up from behind the bar. Wait…not popped…floated. “Hello, you must be Belinda.”
“Wings,” was the only thing that came out of my mouth. The woman had wings sprouting from her back like a life-sized tinker bell.
“My name is Jezelle, and I’m a fairy…or half fairy.”
My face heated as I crossed the room. “Nice to meet you. Sorry about the wings comment. This is new to me.”
“You should work on your poker face,” Jezelle said. “Because some people are offended when attention is drawn to their non-human traits.”
“I’ll do that.” Now what could I say? “Is it too early for a drink?”
She grinned. “It’s never too early for a drink, especially if you’re dealing with that one.” She nodded toward Reed who’d joined us at the bar while she poured two shots of whiskey.
Reed glared at both of us, which made me smile. “So his sunny disposition isn’t just for me?” I picked up my whiskey and took a sip.
“He’s grumpy on a good day.” Jezelle downed her shot. “But he’s dependable and he has a nice butt.”
I almost spewed my whiskey onto the bar.
Reed wandered toward a door in the back of the room, and I noticed she was not wrong.
“When you’re done bonding at my expense,” he called back over his shoulder, “maybe we can get to work.”
I sighed and downed the rest of my drink. I loved the way whiskey warmed you from the inside out. “Jezelle, it was nice to meet you.” A thought occurred to me. “How did you know what I wanted to drink?”
“It’s my gift.”
“No fair. Your gift is way better than mine.”
“You have the whole I see dead people thing going on?”
“There are worse gifts,” she said.
“So I’ve been told,” I should probably get back to Reed before he became even grumpier. “How much for the whiskey?”
“It’s on the house, but tips are always welcome.”
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a five-dollar bill, and added it to her tip jar.
“Your dress has pockets?”
“I love a dress with pockets.”
“Me too.” Total female bonding moment.
As I walked toward the door where Reed disappeared, I thought about what I’d learned. Reed might be annoyed at the world rather than me. I’d feel better if it wasn’t just me.
I found him seated behind an antique desk, flipping pages in a ledger.
I sat in the black leather chair facing him. “Was this Aunt Teresa’s office?”
“Do you work here?”
“I’ve managed Tea & Spirits for a while. Teresa didn’t want to be bothered with inventory and paying bills. She spent time with the customers. I guess that will be your job now.”
“What do you mean?”
“You inherited the house and the business.” Reed stated like I might have forgotten those facts.
“I’m aware, but I already have a job. I’m not sure I have time for another one.”
“While you’re here in Mystic Hills, you could fill in for her.”
True. “What did she do?”
“People come here to drink and socialize. While they’re here, they contact their relatives to ask questions.”
I did not like where this was going. “She held seances?”
He snorted. “No. She summoned spirits of the dead.”
“I thought she helped ghosts cross over.”
“Ghosts and spirits are two different things.”
“Yes. There’s a major difference.”
I put my head in my hands. “Keep talking. I’m going to have a minor existential crisis while you explain.”