Author's Note: Set after Gingerbread but before Graduation 1.
Dedication: As always, the Watcher's Council. Also, thanks to everyone who helped me with part 2. Gaius Petronius, Jai, Andra, and MMT.
The phone rang just as I was balancing on a chair to get a box of popcorn down from the top of my cupboard. Jess once asked me why I keep the popcorn all the way up there, and I answered that it was the only way to keep from snacking on popcorn twice a day. By the time I drag a chair over and start my little trapize game, my mind has usually managed to overcome my stomach. At this explanation, Jess gave me a look that is usually reserved for the very insane, but I take comfort in the fact that when she is thirty-five and her metabolism isn't quite doing its fine old job, she'll understand perfectly. Heck, she'll probably use the popcorn method.
The only problem with the method is that if anything distracts me at that crucial moment, like a phone ringing, for instance, I go down like a crippled duck. Only the duck is more graceful about it.
From my new position on the tiled floor, I dragged myself over to the phone, which continued to ring cheerfully from its hand-painted cradle, which my youngest niece had proudly informed me was a moose. I had to take her word on the subject, because to me it looked like some kind of brown frog with a nose like George Bush. A plumber had once told me with absolute certainty that it was a deformed dog turd on steroids. A once-boyfriend had asked if I had suddenly decided to start collecting garden slugs.
Retrieving the phone, which finally silenced its incessant ringing, I snapped, "What?"
I've never been very good at the phone-hello. Most people answer the phone easily, with a slightly-friendly-slightly-guarded 'hello'. My college roommate used to start ordering a pizza whenever she picked up. My phone answering skills are about as welcoming as a Russian winter.
A vaguely familiar male voice answered, and from the way he completely ignored the rudeness of my greeting, I could tell that this was someone I probably knew well at some point in time.
"Hi, Valeriana? This is Ben Madison. I don't know if you remember me-"
The moment he said his name, the voice immediately clicked with the memory of a tall and cheery blond man who had had the misfortune to fall in love with my cousin. Since he was family, or close to it, I decided to put off telling him not to call me Valeriana for at least five minutes. My mother read far too many romance novels, and always said she wanted to give her children rich, gothic names. What she really gave us was twelve years of schoolyard fights. My brother Reginold had black eyes so often that there isn't a family picture to be found before his junior year of high school that doesn't show him sporting some proud bruise.
"Catherine's husband? Of course I remember you! I was a bridesmaid at your wedding." And what a wedding *that* had been. I've been a bridesmaid a total of five times, and the gowns that Catherine conned six of us into wearing were by far the most horrendous I've ever worn or even heard about. But since the real purpose of the bridesmaids is to look hideous so as to make the bride glow in comparison, they were a hit. "How is everything? How is your daughter?" It was a rote question, but I was really interested. The last time I had seen little Amy was when she was twelve, right after Ben finally threw in the towel after thirteen years. Not that I blamed him. Hell, personally I would've given the man a medal for lasting half that long.
"Actually, that's why I'm calling." Even though I hadn't talked to him in years, even I could tell that Ben was definitely upset. "Amy has disappeared. I've talked to everyone I can think of, but her friends don't know anything and the police are incompetent in this town. They say she must've run away, but there was no money missing and all of her clothes and personal items were untouched."
Ouch, that was rough. Ben was keeping his voice pretty calm, but I had the definite feeling that it wouldn't take too much to send him completely off the rocker.
"Geez, Ben, that's awful. Listen, I know a guy who works as a private investigator-" As I spoke, I started hunting through drawers for Richie's number. I had seen it just the other day when I was looking for my car keys...
"I already hired one," Ben interrupted, "but that's not the reason I called."
I paused in my hunt, and so, of course, I finally managed to pull out Richie's card. I threw it back in the drawer while I tried to think about why Ben would call me. Amy didn't know any of our family very well, so there was very little chance that she would come to any of us.
"Why, then?" I asked.
"Because....I think that Amy was getting into magic."
Aha. Did I mention that I'm a witch? And that it doesn't just run in my family, but practically gallops? I received a fair dose of it, but compared to Catherine I'm in the shallow end of the gene pool. Another reason I had been so interested in Amy was curiosity. Couldn't help but wonder if the Stevens genes were doing their usual bang-up job. Nice to see that they were.
Of course, the downside was that Amy might decide to emulate Mommy Dearest. Catherine had always been talented in the Craft, but a few years after she and Ben were married she started dabbling into some of the darker areas of witchcraft. The last time I'd seen her, she was downright scary. It had worried me to the degree where I had almost mentioned it to the matriarch of our little clan, Nanny Stevens. It never came to that, though, because she disappeared three months later, and no one has seen or heard from her since. I was starting to get a feeling of deja vu.
"Do you think that what happened to Catherine might've happened to Amy?" I have no tact. So sue me.
Ben sounded a little flustered when he answered, but that'll happen when you essentially ask a man if his teenage daughter has become a completely nuts bitch with some pretty scary mojo to back up her delusions. Call it a downside to brutal honesty, which alas I have in spades.
"I never really asked Amy what happened to her mother, but I did know that it was because of some spell. And I suspected that Amy might be getting interested in that....but after what happened to her mother I didn't think she would ever do anything..."
Which proved that for once I should've opened my big mouth for once. After Catherine dissapered, I had considered paying a visit to my little cousin to give her the rundown on the do's and don'ts of witchcraft, but like Ben I assumed that Catherine had served as an excellent visual example. Stupid me. Thinking back to my own teen years, when my own power had begun manifesting itself in small ways, I realized that it would've taken far more self-control to step back than to go forward. But I had been lucky, I had had quite a few female relatives who were witches, and who were more than willing to teach me. Amy, though, would've had to teach herself. Thus the beginning of the problem.
Well, there was certainly time to kick myself in the head and do the self-blame game later. Right now there remained the necessity of taking some action.
"Ben, do you want me to come down and have a look around? I can't promise anything, but I should be able to find out if there was any magic involved." That is, if I could get some of the others from my group to come along. I could probably pick up the particular scent that magic leaves, but I wouldn't be able to pin it down with any particular acuracy if I didn't have other witches with me. I didn't mention that part to Ben, though.
"That would be wonderful." Poor old Ben was practically sobbing with relief. Yeah, he must've been frantic when Amy vanished. "Thank you, Valeriana."
Family ties only go so far. Better nip this one in the bud.
"Please, Ben, my friends call me Val." Who says I can't be subtle? Telling him that my friends call me Val was more tactful than saying that everyone who didn't feel like having a stapler thrown at their head called me Val.
"Thank you, Val." Smart man, he caught on quickly.
"I'll see you in a few days." Now came the fun part of planning this thing. I started rooting around in my purse for my little day calendar. Why is it that I can never find anything in my purse? One would think that considering the small size, it would be easy, but I really think that a black hole is in there somewhere, sucking my stuff down into oblivian. Yeah, probably to the same place where all those socks that I keep losing in the dryer are. Though the wardrobe, take a left at the lampost, straight on past Mr. Tumnis, can't miss it.
I need a vacation. And it looked like I was going to be using my upcoming vacation days from work tracking down a cousin with the help of friends who would also not be thrilled at using their own hard-earned vacation time going on a trip to....
What was this place's name again?
"Listen, Ben, could you give me directions?"
He rattled off a few key suggestions, and then said good-bye.
I thought about who to invite, but finally narrowed the list down to my oldest friend, Connie Rizzo, and also the newest member of the group, Jess St. Ambrose.
They were just going to love me for dragging them down to some sleepy little town called Sunnydale to chase after shadows. Guilt is a beautiful thing, though. Because I was guilty about not warning Amy about potencial dangers, or even just phoning her for a quick chat, I was willing to piss two of buddies off and burn half of our paid vacation days.
And to top it all off, I had to go to the dentist in a few hours. Beautiful. Just beautiful.
Screw my diet. I got out the popcorn.