“Our take-a-penny dish?” Jane asked, peering around the maple and glass counter, as if she were looking for it.
“Take a penny?”
“You know, when you get pennies back as change, you leave them in the take-a-penny dish, so when other customers are trying to give exact change, they don’t have to dig around for them,” Andrea said. “Pennies are basically the redheaded stepchildren of the currency world.”
“You were using my family’s centuries-old altar plate as a change dish?”
“Have you noticed the Irish accent gets a lot stronger when she’s angry?” Jane asked her husband.
“We didn’t know that’s what it was. I found it lying loose in Mr. Wainwright’s storage room!” Andrea exclaimed. “It looked a lot more acorn-like in your sketch, by the way. In reality, it’s just blobby with a stem hanging off of it.” I glowered at her. She threw up her hands. “OK, you’re right. Not the appropriate time to criticize your family’s prowess at arts and crafts.”
I looked toward the register, but the spot to the left of it was being used to display copies of a book called The Guide for the Newly Undead. “Where is the dish now?”
“It was right here,” Jane said, looking under the counter and behind the promotional supplies, just in case the plaque had fallen.
Andrea’s expression was a mix of confusion and guilt. “Jane, when I think about it, I don’t think I’ve seen that thing for months. I thought you’d moved it.”
“When was the last time you remember seeing it?”
Andrea chewed her lip. “A month or two ago. The day Mama Ginger came in.”
“Mama Ginger?” I said. “Another mother? Starting with a G?”
“Mama Ginger is Zeb’s mother. She and Jane have a checkered history,” Gabriel told me quietly.
“Don’t you remember, Jane?” Andrea asked. “She ‘dropped by’ before opening hours to give you your extremely late wedding present . . . and you kicked her out of the store . . . and banned her for life?”
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Well, kicking her out was part of my New Year’s resolutions,” Jane said. “The lifetime ban was because I caught her swiping some of our fairy figurines and shoving them into her purse. She was standing right by the register, like I was too dumb to see . . . oh, hell. The plaque was right here next to the register. She must have taken it.”
“We can’t prove that.”
“It’s Mama Ginger,” Jane said with some emphasis, as if Andrea was missing some important and obvious point.
“OK, but we can’t just go into someone’s house accusing them of theft.”
“It’s Mama Ginger,” Jane said again. “That happens to her at least once a week.”
Vampires are expert travelers. Because of the many perils that traveling poses for the undead, they prepare for all contingencies.
—A Guide to Traversing the Supernatural Realm
Mama Ginger was a bizarre, bulbous woman with bright bottled-red hair and an unfiltered cigarette permanently attached to her bottom lip. She did not welcome us into her house, and not just because it was after midnight and we’d awoken her from her “beauty rest.” There was apparently some ugly history between Jane and Mama Ginger, something about Mama Ginger’s attempts to sabotage Zeb’s wedding to Jolene and subsequent attempts to make Jane’s life more difficult after she realized that Jane (a) would never be her daughter-in-law and (b) was a vampire. It took Jane using something she called the persuasion voice for her even to let us through the entryway.
“Jesus, Mary, and Jerome!” I cried, backing away from a side parlor entirely populated by Precious Moments figurines. No matter where I went, their sinister oversized eyes followed me. I desperately wanted to turn my back, but I knew the moment I did, one of them would attack me from behind with a tiny porcelain machete.
Mama Ginger had a multitude of health problems that set off my alarm bells. Her heart was under stress, and her lungs were damaged from what I imagined was years of steady smoking. The conditions combined were enough to make me lean against the wall, Precious Moments be damned, so I could construct a shield between Mama Ginger’s energy and mine.
By the time I was able to focus on the conversation around me, Jane was questioning Mama Ginger in earnest.
“How could you just walk into my shop and take something from me?”
Mama Ginger sniffed. “Well, if you hadn’t been so rude, I might not have taken it.”
“So your criminal behavior is my fault?” Jane asked frostily.
“Don’t you take on airs with me, Jane Jameson. I knew you when you were still in pigtails.”
“I’ve known you for a while, too, Mama Ginger. You need to remember that.”
“This is getting nowhere,” I shouted over their shouts of “Don’t you threaten me, missy!” and “Calm down, you thieving whackaloon!” “Look, I don’t care that you took it, Mrs. Lavelle. I just want it back. Could you please tell me what you did with it after you took it from the shop? If your information leads to my finding the plaque, I am willing to make it worth your while.”
Jane protested rewarding Mama Ginger’s larceny—loudly—but I shushed her. Suddenly, Mama Ginger’s wounded dove persona melted away. Her eyes narrowed, her expression calculating. “How much?”
“I won’t discuss specifics until you either produce the plaque or share your info.”
“Why would I show my hand early? How do I know you’ll pay up?”
“I’m a woman of my word, Mrs. Lavelle. I’ll give you what you’re owed.”
“Not much of an enticement.” Jane snorted. “She knows what she’s owed.”
“Jane!” I hissed, shaking my head vehemently. I turned pleading puppy-dog eyes on Mama Ginger. “Please, Mrs. Lavelle.”
“It’s nice to know some young people still have pretty manners.” She sniffed. “My Zeb should have married a nice girl like you. Not that redheaded hussy . . .”
Jane growled. “Watch it, Mama Ginger. You’re already on thin ice. Now, what happened to the blobby acorn thing?”
Mama Ginger made a study of her talon-like fire-engine-red nails. “I may have mailed it . . . to Georgia . . . as a wedding present to my cousin Hubert.”
“You used a shoplifted item as a wedding gift?” Jane exclaimed.
I didn’t think Jane had much room to judge, regifting-wise, but I also didn’t think this was the appropriate time to point that out. And suddenly, I realized. “Georgia,” I said. “As in the abbreviation GA? Georgia.” But Jane was too busy staring holes in Mama Ginger’s head to note my amusement. “Well, I’m happy to know my nana wasn’t a Gaga fan. Life makes sense again. Sort of.”
“Hubert loves squirrels!” Mama Ginger exclaimed. “His wife, Mindy, wrote the sweetest thank-you note. Well, it was e-mailed. But they loved it, you could tell!”
“You are double-banned!” Jane exclaimed.
I persuaded Mama Ginger to give me Cousin Hubert’s phone number for a small fee and on the condition that Jane had to leave her house while I conducted my business with Hubert’s wife. Mindy was sweet as peaches and clotted cream about the “misunderstanding” with her wedding gift, until we started discussing a price for its safe return. Let’s just say that any buy money I saved locating the candle for free had been spent. But I was grateful that Mindy had simply chucked the gift box containing the plaque into a closet and forgotten about it, instead of disposing of it or regifting it, as seemed to be the secret custom around here. Jane, by the way, called through the window that I should demand that Mindy text-message a digital picture of the plaque and a dated newspaper to my phone, to prove that she still had it, before I promised any money. Mindy huffily complied and then informed me that I had until five P.M. the next day to come pick it up before the price doubled.
Before Jane could object, I handed Mama Ginger the cash I’d promised her and lit out for Jane’s car. “I can’t say I’m pleased that you gave the thieving she-troll money, but at least you’ll have another Element in your hands by tomorrow,” Jane said as I buckled my seatbelt.
“The only problem is that my car is held together with duct tape and prayer,” I told her. “It would never make the drive to Georgia and back. Do you think Miranda would be willing to take me? I could pay her.”
“Miranda is out of town on an assignment,” Jane said. “She’s driving some Council member to California. I would loan you my car, but it’s with one of Dick’s people, getting fitted with fireproof seats. I’m relying on Gabriel’s car for transportation.”
“So this is what shit creek feels like, and me without my paddle.”
“It’s not that bad.”
I scoffed. “It’s, what, one A.M., now? I’m completely knackered. The drive to Georgia will take at least seven hours, so if I want to make Mindy’s deadline, I’m going to have to find a car within the next nine hours and make the drive. The only good thing I can say about this situation is that at least it’s Saturday and the clinic is closed, so I won’t have to call in ‘flaky and unavailable.’ ”
Jane patted my hair, but I believe it was to keep me from whacking my head against the seat. “Look, this isn’t a big deal. Dick and I will find a solution. You need some rest before you leave tomorrow. I’ll drop you at home, and by the time you wake up, we’ll have worked something out for you.”
“By the way, are you ever going to tell me what the hell is going on with Dick?” I asked.
Jane shook her head. “It’s not my place. All I can tell you is that Dick is absolutely mortified that you think he’s an obsessive pervert, which is why he is trying to ‘give you space’ right now. Well, to be fair, he is a bit of an obsessive pervert, but not when it comes to you.”
“I’m not sure this is making me feel better.”
“I will say that when he tells you, you’re going to laugh,” she said. I snorted derisively, closed my eyes, and tilted my head against the seat. Jane reached across and clicked my seatbelt into place. “Come on, let’s get you home and tucked into bed.”
“I would protest that I am an adult and capable of doing this myself, but as I mentioned, I am exhausted,” I muttered. “And I just don’t have the energy for false displays of independence.”
“If anyone asks, I’ll swear you put up a mighty protest,” Jane promised.
I opened one eye, giving her a sideways glance. “By the way, fireproof seats?”
Jane rolled her eyes. “I have a teenage vampire living in my house. It’s best not to ask questions.”
An hour later, I had showered and felt vaguely human as I scrambled to pack a bag for the mini-break to Georgia. It was late, and I was desperate to get enough sleep that I wasn’t entirely addled for the drive. But then I looked at my mobile and saw that Stephen had called twice while I was at Mama Ginger’s. I dialed his number, hoping I could keep the conversation quick and get to bed. That was the appropriate attitude when calling one’s lover from a long distance, right?
Stephen’s tone when he picked up did not bode well for the quick, light interchange I’d hoped for. “Oh, so you finally decided to call me, eh?”
“I’m so sorry, Stephen, I’ve just been so busy. I was really thrown into the trenches on my own today, and I’m exhausted. I wish I could tell you all about it, but I’m on my way out of town. I have to leave first thing in the morning.”