I whacked it again like a big monster piñata.
“Stop hitting me!” it yelled. “That hurts!”
Wait, I knew that smooth, honeyed-whiskey voice. “Jed?” I cried.
The creature struggled to its knees, glaring at me with glassy black eyes. I raised the shovel again. It held up its paws. “Truce! Truce!” it yelled.
With the doorknob smashed, the Jed monster simply nudged the back door open and limped into the kitchen. Mouth hanging open, I choked up on the shovel handle and followed. The moment the creature lumbered across the threshold, out of the moonlight, the shape morphed back into human Jed. His face bore a purpling bruise where I’d whacked him, along with a sheepish expression.
It took several moments of shocked silence for me to process what had just happened before my very eyes. And I once saw my Aunt Lizzie set fire to her own eyebrows with a curling iron. After the sheer spectacle of Jed’s shape-shifting passed, I found my voice. And my voice was pissed off.
“You arsehole!” I shouted.
“Drop the shovel!” he yelped as I advanced.
“You stupid, no-good arsehole!” I yelled, smacking him repeatedly with my shovel-free hand. “What is wrong with you? You lie to me. You lead me on. You trick me into giving you information. And now you’re an armadillo monster?”
“Stop!” Jed grunted as I struck out at him. He smacked the shovel out of my hand, knocking it to the floor with a clatter. He caught one wrist, but I managed to poke him in the eye with the other hand. He cornered me against the counter, pressing his hips against mine and catching both of my wrists. I wriggled an arm loose and popped him on the chin.
“Ow!” He hissed, cradling his injured face. “What is wrong with you? Were you raised by freaking ninjas?”
“I have protective uncles,” I growled. “Lots of them. But I’m sure you knew that already, didn’t you? Didn’t you get that information in your Kerrigan spy orientation packet?”
“I’m sorry about that.” He groaned as I dug a knuckle into the sensitive hollow between his armpit and his ribs.
“What the hell are you?” I demanded as he finally released my arms.
“I’m cursed,” he said, and when I didn’t respond, he added, “I’ll make some coffee.”
Jed stepped away from me, and his eyes widened at the sight of blood on my shirt. Apparently, he hadn’t been able to see it in the dark. He pulled my arms away from my sides, looking for damage. “What happened?”
Oh, right. I suspected him of assaulting Zeb.
“Let me see your hands,” I demanded. Frowning, Jed showed me his unmarked palms. “Over.”
His knuckles were unmarred. There were no gouge marks or defensive wounds on his arms, although it was clear that Zeb had done damage to somebody. And Jed’s ability to change form didn’t seem to promote speedy healing, because the hand-shaped burn I’d left on his arm was still there, and that shovel smack to the side of his face was bruising nicely. So Jed wasn’t the one who beat Zeb.
That was something, at least.
“Someone came into Jane Jameson’s shop earlier tonight and hurt Zeb Lavelle. I found him on the floor, all bloody and battered. They had to take him to the hospital. This is probably a rude way to approach this, but it’s been a long night, and I’m all out of patience. I was pretty sure you did it. And I was trying to figure out a way to report it to the police without them hauling me away to the loony bin. I couldn’t.”
He rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. “Well, that was mighty decent of you.”
“I didn’t do it for you. You have some explaining to do.” I pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and sat watching while he made coffee.
“I told you before. My family is Cajun, really, really Cajun. At least, we were before the move to Tennessee. Stilt shacks, deep-fried alligator, zydeco music . . .”
“I get it,” I snapped.
“There was a local voodoo woman. And my great-great-great-grandfather pissed her off somethin’ awful, left her at the altar and ran off with some other woman. She declared that he’d been a two-faced cheater the whole time they’d been together. And that if he wanted to have two faces, she’d give him a thousand. He wrote it off as the ravings of a crazy woman, until the full moon a month later. Family legend is that he turned into some sort of two-legged gator creature. Scared the hell out of his wife. And from that moment on, every time he stepped out into the light of the full moon, he turned into something. Nearly every adult in the bloodline has been cursed, too.”
“What, like a werewolf?”
“I wish.” He sighed, putting a coffee cup in front of me and sliding into the opposite chair. “That would mean just one form. We can become anything. Scales, fins, fur, gills, bat wings. Every time it happens, it’s something different. We can’t control it. It just happens.
“For my family, this curse controls everything we do. It controls where we go, how we work, who we get close to. My dad had a big family, but I have relatives who refuse to get married because they don’t want to pass this along to their children. Do you know what that’s like, to see people you love choose to live alone for their whole lives?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” I told him.
“Well, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand having my father apologize to my brothers and sisters every time the moon rose because he was so wrapped up in guilt. I couldn’t stand the look on my mother’s face every time I changed into some new monster. So I started doin’ some research. I joined some Internet forums where people discussed myths and legends as if they were real. And I learned a lot about the different were-creature mythologies and curses. But no one could explain how it happened or what could be done to stop it. Until I stumbled into this chat room for witches, that is. I started askin’ some questions, makin’ contacts, and then next I know, some guy named Kerrigan is private-messagin’ me, tellin’ me he can solve my problem for me, lift the curse from my whole family. All I had to do was find some stuff for him, track down some valuables.”
“Why would he ask you in particular?”
He shrugged. “My user name is redneckcreature95. He said he needed some things from a Southern town, and after talking to me on the phone a few times, he guessed I could fit into the area better than he could. All he gave me was an address for this house. It seemed too good to be true when I showed up and it was for rent. And then, a few weeks later, he sent me a description of the objects and those pictures of you. He told me to keep an eye out for you.”
“So you moved here with nothing but a couple of clues and pictures?”
“I was desperate for help,” he said. “After a few weeks, I started thinkin’ I’d been bunked. I wasn’t makin’ any headway with Jane, who doesn’t seem to like me much. I couldn’t break into the shop to look around. Have you seen the security system on that place? What kind of bookstore has laser sensors on the doors, windows, and ceilin’? And then there you were, running out of the house in nothing but a towel.”
He smiled at me, and it seemed so sincere it made my chest ache. I had to bite back the urge to smack him. I would not be manipulated by pearly whites and puppy eyes.
“I tried telling myself that spending time with you, distracting you, was only helping myself, giving myself time to beat you to the Elements. And then you were just so damn sweet. Well, not sweet, exactly, but funny as hell, with generally good intentions. I wasn’t lyin’, that night at the motel, when I said I liked you more than I expected to and that it made things difficult for me. I sent Kerrigan a bunch of e-mails, callin’ him an asshole and tellin’ him to get some other monkey to dance for him. That didn’t go over well, let me tell you.”
Suddenly, Zeb’s attack at the store made more sense. The Kerrigans had received Jed’s kiss-off e-mails, if he indeed sent them, and they had come looking for the Elements at the shop. Zeb had the bad fortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“But how could you just keep lying to me?” I asked. “You knew me. I thought you were—well, I don’t know what I thought you were, but at least a friend. And you just kept lying. Our whole friendship is a palace of lies! And keeping the plaque? How am I supposed to trust you?”
“That mornin’ in Helton, I sat on the bed, and you were lyin’ there all sleepy and beautiful. And I just panicked. I wanted to be the kind of man who could go out with a girl like you any night he wanted, with no strings, no concerns. And I was willin’ to do anything to make that happen. I’m not proud of myself.”
“Did they tell you what would happen when you gave them the Elements?” I asked.
“Kerrigan told me that they were just a collection of old magical artifacts, that the value was sentimental, but that your family was looking for them, too, because you have a shared ancestor. He promised me that he could remove the curse if I helped him find the items before your family did.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” I demanded.
“How? How could I possibly bring this up in conversation? ‘Hello, darlin’, how was your day? By the way, every once in a while, I turn into some monster from Scooby-Doo. Oh, and that mission that your family sent you on? I am doin’ everything I can to undermine it and find the Elements first.’ ”
I conceded, “That would be a date ender.”
“And don’t forget that you didn’t exactly give me the whole story. You didn’t tell me you were Wainwright’s granddaughter, or a witch, or anythin’. You gave me that bullshit story about coming from Boston.”
“Technically, that’s true. And really, you’re going to criticize the white lies I told to protect me from you?”
“Not when you put it that way,” he said. “After I took it from you, I wanted to give that stupid plaque back to you so badly, but then I would think of my parents and all of my younger cousins who are just now going through the changes. I’m sorry, I had to put them first. What would you do, to help your family?”
“Damn it,” I groused. “If you hadn’t said that, I probably would have been able to stay pissed at you—which I still am, by the way, and will be for a while yet.”
I lifted his wrist, inspecting the burn mark on his forearm.
“It still hurts as bad as it did the day you gave it to me,” he said, wincing. “Not that I didn’t deserve it.”
“You really did,” I told him.
I was tempted to leave his arm in that state. I hadn’t been able to heal Zeb earlier in the evening, after all, and it felt as if Zeb deserved my help more than Jed did. But hearing Jed’s explanation seemed to shift the energy within me. I felt I was back in balance and might be able to make my energy follow my intentions in ways that would help him.
I curved my hand around the burn mark and closed my eyes. However irritated I might be with Jed, that mark was my fault. I needed to fix it. Nana had told me to think of the healing magic as if my cells were reaching out to the other person’s and fixing all imperfections. I put my hand over the burned skin and pictured it bright and pink and new as a baby’s. I saw cool, soothing waves of energy flowing over the burned tissue and taking away the sting. And when I opened my eyes, I was relieved and grateful to see that his skin indeed was pink and healthy.
I would visit Zeb’s hospital room as soon as I could.
“Thanks,” he said, twisting his hands and admiring his newly repaired flesh.
“That thing I can do, healing you with my hands? If the Kerrigans get the Elements, that goes away. My whole family’s magic goes away.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”