With mortar and pestle, grind together two parts rosemary and one part patchouli while focusing on a journey free of obstacles. Form the herbs into clay and flatten into an amulet. Holding jade in your dominant hand, infuse the stone with your will and intent for safe and successful travels. Press the charged stone into your amulet and place it between two purple candles. While lighting the candles, repeat:
Bless’d by the light of Lady Moon,
I’ll reach my destination soon.
This trip shall safe and happy be
for all concerned, including me.
Becket wiped weariness from his eyes, smearing God only knew how much dust and cobwebs over his sweaty face before he reached for the packing tape to assemble another box. An army of sturdy wooden crates waited downstairs. He’d filled huge ones with Theo’s collection of amber bottles containing tinctures with labels in his uncle’s neat flowing script and dated the summer before he disappeared. Another crate held Granny Douglas’s china. Still more protected pictures and paintings that had hung on the walls on the first floor. Becket had discovered the packing crates in the barn behind the house, dozens of them. Who knew where Theo had found them or why he’d dragged them to the house in Lancaster. Becket had used them for the items he’d haul to a storage locker. Cardboard, he’d saved for stuff in Theo’s cramped and cluttered workroom.
The crap he never wanted to see again.
Candles. Stones. Amulets. Bunches of crumbling sage, dill, and angelica. Dried herbs and trinkets spilled from every corner and nook, piled atop stacks of worn leather books. Hung from both windows and the door’s lintel.
Where did you go this time, Theo? What ugly mess did you land in?
Familiar tension bunched Becket’s shoulders.
What the fuck happened?
Blowing out a long breath, Becket let it go. Again. Instead of giving in to grief and maddening unanswered questions, he set the box he’d taped together on a clear spot on Theo’s worktable. Because Theo was dead. Didn’t matter where his body had been buried or what might have brought his uncle to that unhappy end. Becket was still alone. He grabbed files, books, and the scattered detritus of Theo’s life and stuffed them into the box, already anticipating what dragging this shit to the burn barrel would do to his back. Theo would’ve been pissed, but at least the bonfire would be personally satisfying to Becket. If the son of a bitch hadn’t wanted Becket burning his magic crap, he should’ve stuck around. Instead, the flake had died on him.
Maybe he hadn’t worked through his anger yet, but the fire was still a good idea. Cathartic. Becket frowned at the mountains of stuff still to go through in Theo’s inner sanctum, where he felt the presence of his uncle most, even not quite a year after the man had vanished.
He’d hoped his uncle would turn up for months. Of course, he had. Theo was…Well, Theo was Theo and his uncle had been so obnoxious the last couple of years, Becket had made the drive from Maryland to the boxy little house in Pennsylvania less and less frequently. He regretted that now. If he’d been around more…Becket frowned and stuffed a stack of loose papers into the box. No, what-ifs had made him crazy enough. He was done with that. The harsh truth was nothing he could have done would’ve mattered. If Becket had still slept in the bedroom down the hall, preserved since he’d turned eighteen and gotten the hell out, Theo would be just as gone. If anything, moving out had helped. Instead of shouting, he and Theo had learned to talk to each other. Sort of.
Still, he’d hoped. Theo had disappeared before. In high school, Becket had grown accustomed to envelopes with a crisp twenty or two inside, taped to the milk in the fridge.
On the envelope, he’d invariably find:
B ~ Following a lead on a frequency stone. Back in a few days.
B—Invited to Elsie’s for Beltane. See ya next week, kiddo!
Taped. To. The milk.
He’d asked Theo once, why duct-tape notes to dairy products?
Theo had grinned his most infuriating smile and saluted Becket’s habitual glass of milk with a bottle of Coke. “Because you are far too responsible to neglect your bones.”
So when Theo had vanished last fall, Becket hadn’t been unduly alarmed at first. Theo took off sometimes and once Becket moved out, there was no milk to which to affix explanatory notes. Except Theo hadn’t returned. Not this time. With Theo’s history of wandering, the cops hadn’t been willing to take a missing person report until Becket drove to Lancaster and found Theo’s wallet and cell phone on Theo’s worktable. Not that the police could do anything. What leads were there to follow? Theo’s jeep was parked in the garage. Barring the automated bill payments Becket had set up years ago and regular royalty deposits from the occult books his uncle had authored, there’d been no movement in Theo’s bank accounts, nor credit card charges. Nothing was missing in the house, no signs of forced entry. No threatening emails or mysterious texts, either.
Theo had just…vanished.
Becket had been optimistically convinced Theo would show up one day, though. His uncle, who had been younger than Becket was now when Becket’s parents had died, would appear at Becket’s Maryland apartment and flash his incorrigible smile. He’d spin another tale about chasing stupid stones and…and…and…and Becket would brain him with a 2×4, probably. Theo would be as aggravating, as flaky, and as devoted in his weird way to Becket as ever. And he’d be alive.
He hadn’t given up that fantasy until the anniversary of the car wreck. Theo knew how hard that day was for Becket. Theo was a selfish asshole occasionally and a lousy guardian frequently, but he had never failed Becket when it counted, not on that day.
Until last week.
When Becket had finished grieving—as much for the uncle he now accepted must be dead as for his lost parents—he’d asked Sadie to shuffle his appointments to other massage therapists and made this final drive to Lancaster. Fortunately, Theo had put Becket’s name on the household accounts the first time he’d screwed up paying the electric bill while he was on one of his adventures; closing up the house wasn’t as difficult as it could’ve been. Theo had even added Becket’s name to the deed of the house two years ago. Never mentioned that to Becket and boy, hadn’t that caused a few interesting moments with the cops? They’d eventually stopped looking at Becket as a suspect, though, and Theo’s odd foresight had made settling his estate considerably more convenient.
All Becket had to do was pack up the house.
Too bad that had turned into an emotional minefield. Everything haunted Becket. Theo’s clothes, still smelling faintly of burnt sage and the horrible peppermint tea he drank. His uncle’s favorite mug, the one Becket had given him their first winter solstice together. The photos of a much younger Theo arm in arm and grinning with Becket’s dad…Had Becket ever thanked Theo for displaying those snapshots? For sharing stories of his parents that had kept those memories alive for Becket?
He closed his eyes while the hurt ebbed and flowed.
Theo had been a pain in the ass. They’d fought bitterly and Becket was man enough to admit part of that was his fault. He’d been twelve when the accident had orphaned him, but he’d known better. Had been raised better. He’d been an angry little shit to Theo, who at the age of twenty had never once shied from instant parenthood, though walking away would’ve been easier. Becket had rewarded that with six years of solid misery before heading to college. Theo might’ve been relieved if Becket had stayed out all night in his teens, partying or boosting cars. His uncle would’ve known how to deal with a punk, having been one himself in that not too distant past. Coping with a snotty tween who insisted on organic spinach, balanced checkbooks, and espoused a devout belief in absolutely no such thing as magic had been a shock to him.
Becket would give anything—everything—to argue with him one last time. Figuring out how to disagree had taken years, learning the hard way which swings were safe to take and which punches should be pulled, but once he and his uncle had hammered out their rules of engagement…
God, Becket missed him.
He hooked an old cane chair with his foot and sat at the worktable, leaning his forehead against the box. As an adult, Becket still didn’t believe in magic and, in fact, was sure Theo’s silly pursuit of stones had probably cost his uncle’s life. If Becket hadn’t been so mocking and cruel, his contempt fading to strained civility in only the past few years, would Theo have confided in him? If Becket had recognized the dangers into which his uncle had recklessly waded, might he have warned Theo in time? Why hadn’t Becket offered to accompany Theo on one of his trips? Expressed even casual interest instead of cool disdain?
He should’ve been there for Theo. Becket had failed him—the one person who had stuck by Becket, no matter how terrible Becket had been to him. Becket lifted a shaky hand and pushed his fingers through his hair, feeling that regret seep into his bones.
He’d loved Theo. Just not enough.
And now, he was gone.
Becket’s shoulders drooped.
He couldn’t burn Theo’s work. He wanted to. The needful fury to destroy it all jolted into him and zipped through his nerve endings. Magic, Theo’s cursed magic, had stolen his uncle from Becket. The contents of the box and everything else in this room had killed Theo. Becket might never know the details behind his uncle’s disappearance, but of that much, Becket was positive. Magic had happened to Theo, the dark underbelly of his uncle’s delusions.
Rather than packing up Theo’s occult debris and hauling it to the burn barrel on the other side of the barn, Becket grudgingly reached into the box for the first fat file. Saving Theo wasn’t possible. It was far too late for that. But, inside this box, he might find clues to what had taken Theo from him. If not the box, maybe the bookcase. If not there, perhaps the cupboards. Theo’s grimoire was here too, hidden away. The police had never located it.
Becket opened the file, smothering a wince at the picture of a blood red stone resting on a bed of white silk. One of Theo’s damn stones…and to Becket’s shame, he wasn’t sure which rock this was. He turned the photo, relieved to see his uncle’s handwriting on a page photocopied from a book—red jasper. Theo had attached the info to the back of the photo.
Becket bent to his work.
He wouldn’t fail Theo again.
* * *
He didn’t notice the first hint unveiling the secrets of Theo’s disappearance immediately. Or the second clue. Or, for that matter, the third. Not consciously, anyway, but some instinct had compelled him to place the stones in a pile on the worktable. Not magic. Not power. Had Becket believed in such nonsense, which he didn’t, no one could have been more convinced that Becket possessed not a stingy sniff of magic than Theodore Douglas. His instincts were good, though. Even Theo had said so.
Becket had amassed a pile of five stones at the center of the worktable before the significance hit him.
These rocks weren’t Theo’s stones.
After contentious teen years with Theo, Becket knew what the stones his uncle had collected looked like, the color variations and shapes. In a fit of temper, he’d thrown the flourite chunk through the living room window once. Theo had been so proud at Becket’s loss of rigid self-control at the time that he hadn’t flinched at the expense of replacing the window glass. Becket hefted this green flourite, felt the hard edges pressing into his palm, gauged the weight—not the same stone. He studied another rock he identified as blue lace agate and looked closely at the pattern of striations. The bands of dark blue were wrong. The agate Theo had enjoyed fidgeting with had a wider base too. And the enormous yellow citrine. Theo hadn’t owned one that big while Becket had lived here. Becket would have remembered.
Granted, Becket had moved out five years ago. Theo undoubtedly had gathered many stones since and without the expense of raising a teenager, his uncle would’ve also had more money for those purchases. Becket had the sneaking suspicion the other green stone on the worktable was an emerald—a natural gemstone, since Theo would’ve eschewed lab-created stones as magically corrupt. That emerald would’ve cost a pretty penny.
Excitement zinged through Becket, anyway. Because these stones, strange and unfamiliar, were important. Theo had been picky about his rocks, often foregoing a purchase because the sample wasn’t perfect, and once a stone had met Theo’s exacting standards, he’d moved on to the next rock on his list. Once obtained, he never looked for that stone again. “Why start collecting a second set of rocks?” Becket glared at the stones, as if the gems and crystals on the table had set out to thwart him. “And what was he planning to do with them?”
The problem was, no matter the years Theo had invested in studying stones, the countless leads he’d traced, and his uncle’s program of careful acquisition throughout Becket’s youth, Becket had no idea of these stones’ ultimate purpose as a set. Becket vaguely remembered his uncle casting grids of rocks in precise patterns to achieve specific effects. He just didn’t know what goal Theo had believed this combination of rocks would fulfill. Health? Wealth? Wisdom and foresight? Depending on each stone’s position and how Theo charged the grid, there could be hundreds of possible hoped-for results, but Theo had never spoken of what he had believed this collection would accomplish. Becket’s sole hint was his uncle’s stubborn insistence this unique set of stones channeled powerful magic—cursed, exasperating, and irrational magic. A magic that had gotten Theo killed? Most likely.
Staring at the rocks, Becket wondered. And worried.
Had Theo finally completed his collection?
Becket couldn’t remember a time when Theo hadn’t toiled at completing this set of rocks. When the lives of Becket’s parents had snuffed out on a wet highway almost a dozen years ago, Theo had possessed four stones including the dark green fluorite a teenage Becket had later hurled through the window. While Becket had doggedly perfected schoolwork his guardian had never expressed the slightest interest in reviewing, Theo had studied ripped and dusty books with battered covers in search of the next stone. The first stones had been easy. Theo had told him that much before Becket’s grief-fueled contempt had squashed further overtures about Theo’s “obsession with fucking rocks.” Whatever Theo had intended for these stones, several were common and readily obtained. One or two others, like the emerald, would’ve been costly, but barring the price, Theo would’ve faced no obstacles acquiring them. Theo had worked tirelessly on the few not so easily located. The man had staked years of his life into finding those rare stones.
“He wouldn’t have squandered time and money on extra stones until he’d finished his collection.” Becket traced the edge of the yellow citrine, the cold surface smooth under his finger. “And he wouldn’t have bothered acquiring additional stones for a second set unless he was sure these stones were effective.”
Logic told him his uncle had completed his collection…and used them. Since Theo had bought these additional stones, the first set must have worked. Fantastically.
Had Becket been so closed off to Theo’s fascination with the occult that Theo hadn’t been willing to celebrate the achievement of his dream with Becket? Or at least mention his goal’s fulfillment?
Becket grimaced, but then walked back his self-recriminations because Becket had never been able to shut Theo up, not really. He’d been more discreet—secretive?—the past couple of years about his adventures in magic, but the man couldn’t help himself. Theo didn’t believe in subtlety. Or tact. When Theo brought home a new stone, he couldn’t resist showing it off and rhapsodizing over it as though the chunk of rock was a lover. He’d tediously regaled an unwilling and increasingly hostile Becket about the properties of new acquisitions since forever. Even before his parents had died, Becket had been capable of reciting the metaphysical properties of the green fluorite he’d tossed through the window in subsequent years, ironic considering the stone was reputedly protective of its bearers not only in the spiritual realm but in physical space too.
It definitely hadn’t protected the window.
Theo had just laughed. And showed off his next new stone. And the next.
Becket was grateful for the meticulous notes and resources in Theo’s office. They revived his memories on which stone was which and what each was used for, but this was only a refresher, not a crash course. Becket knew. He just needed a prompt or two to recall Theo’s excited rumble extoling the virtues of blue lace agate, which relieved tension and stress, or sodalite, which intensified creativity and vision. After living with his uncle for six years and delighted rhapsodies from Theo in the years since, Becket was a grudging expert on the woo woo properties of probably every rock, crystal, and mineral on the planet.
Yes, Theo would have told Becket he’d completed his collection.
That he hadn’t indicated, strongly, that Theo had believed he had sound reasons to keep that information from Becket, reasons that had little to do with Becket’s reluctance about the subject. That had never stopped Theo before. Yet, his uncle had suddenly stopped sharing. Why?
What had he needed this particular combination of rocks for?
Frustrated, Becket shoved away the reference book he’d been reading…or rather skimming for Theo’s margin notes. Who cared about Theo’s alteration of the book’s directions to create fluorite elixir? Not Becket. It was water, for chrissakes. Water a rock had soaked in. Adding sodalite at the last to amplify flourite’s boost to spiritual journeys was probably very interesting to nuts like Theo, but what did that have to do with his uncle’s disappearance? Not one whit.
The answers weren’t in the stacks of papers, books, pictures, maps, and files. What happened wasn’t in the loose pile of stones Becket had accumulated while picking through Theo’s workroom the past two days, either. Curious that Theo had dispersed his precious rocks rather than grouping them in one spot, though. The floor safe Becket had experienced no little challenge opening, for instance, would’ve been a sensible hiding place for all the stones, especially considering the monetary value of some of the rocks, but when had Theo ever behaved rationally?
Searching Theo’s house hadn’t resolved any of his questions. If anything, those questions had multiplied. The stones were silent, though. Just lumps of minerals and crystals, of gems. Theo’s wealth of references, maps, and pictures didn’t tell the story of what Theo had hoped to achieve with this stone set, either. Not that Becket could discern.
Becket had to find it. His uncle’s diary of spells, rituals, and reports of his activities in the occult would tell Becket everything—probably more than he wanted to know. Where was it?
Not in Theo’s workroom. Becket had invested two sleepless days and nights going over this space. Somewhere else then. In the house—Theo would’ve kept his grimoire close.
Becket pushed back from the worktable, mounded high with books yanked from Theo’s shelves, none of which had told him a blasted thing. He stretched to relieve the kinks in his back, which throbbed dully, and entertained the idea of a Percocet or three. But after surgeries and physical therapy resulting from the accident that had killed his parents, Becket had long ago sworn a solemn vow against pharmaceuticals that muddied his thinking and dulled his senses. Never again. Wintergreen would do the trick. He vaguely recalled emptying his bottle of salve last night, but he never traveled without his massage table and his case of essential oils. Wintergreen, cypress, and marjoram. He’d make more salve. He’d be all right.
He’d resume his search for Theo’s grimoire in the morning. The sooner he found it, the better, but he’d be more effective fresh. He hadn’t slept in days unless dozing over an encyclopedia of herbal tinctures counted, which Becket’s spine informed him didn’t count at all.
If he guaranteed his rest with the help of lavender swiped from Theo’s stash, there was no one but Becket to know. Or care. Depressing thought, but that didn’t stop Becket from shuffling to the kitchen, where he brewed a lavender tea strong enough to knock him on his ass. No more dreams. He couldn’t take the nightmares, not tonight. “Salute,” he whispered to the midnight black of the back yard through Theo’s kitchen window before downing the steaming mug.
The lavender had begun working on him by the time he’d blended more deep pain relief salve and applied it to his stiff back in practiced clockwise strokes. “Better than Percocet,” he said, lips curving as he screwed the lid on his pot of salve and then chuckled at the zen-like drag of lavender on his frayed nerves. “Better than Xanax too.”
Why had his uncle concentrated on rocks instead of the herbs and essential oils a thousand years of alternative medicine had confirmed were effective? Mixing a salve didn’t require make-believe magic powers, just knowledge and skill. “Not that the cops don’t think I’m a kook too,” he said and laughed. “Princes of woo woo, the both of us,” he told a picture of a beaming Theo that he hadn’t yet removed from the upstairs hallway as he made his slow way to his bedroom. “For all my loud protests, this apple didn’t fall far from the crazy tree.” Becket paused at his bedroom door, grateful Theo had never rubbed it in when Becket had chosen to go into massage and aromatherapy. While his chosen field had risen in respect as science had begun supporting the credibility of massage and aromatherapy techniques, Becket was painfully aware most still believed he was as much a fruit loop as his uncle.
“No healing grids, though, or stone sets. No elixirs,” he mumbled, stripping off his sweatshirt. He unbuttoned his jeans. Shoved them down his legs. He needed a shower, but couldn’t muster the energy. “Stupid lavender.” He yanked the comforter back from his bed. “Talking to myself too. Thanks for turning me into a nutter, Theo. Thanks a lot.”
Exhausted, he barely managed to douse the lamp before his head hit the pillow. Lavender didn’t usually affect him so intensely. As he flopped on the mattress and squirmed for a comfortable position, he was forced to admit the past few days of sorting out Theo’s disrupted life had been harder on him than he’d anticipated. Stress and anguish had eroded him away. “Where are you, Theo?” He sighed, wriggling around a lump in his mattress. “You believed in magic. The house must be saturated with your powers by now, even after a year of your absence. I’m finally willing to listen. Prove that your magic exists.” Frowning, Becket shifted on the bed again. “Help me.”
Naturally, no aid came.
Because there was no magic in the world, this house, or his room. Never had been. The only change here was his old lumpy mattress, which had finally thrown too many springs for comfort since his last overnight visit to Pennsylvania. Blowing out a dispirited breath, Becket heaved himself from the bed. He’d just have to flip the damn mattress. Or else wake tomorrow with the muscles of his back singing a chorus of misery.
On went the bedside lamp.
Off went the comforter, pillows, and sheets.
Becket glared at the bed and more specifically, the uncooperative mattress. Moving it when his back was already sore? “This is going to hurt.” He’d never backed down from a fight in his life, though, so he leaned down to grasp one edge. Grunting, he slid the mattress off the box springs and onto the floor—
Revealing a thick black leather volume.
Foreboding skittered up Becket’s achy spine. Bone-weary and dopey from the lavender, he gazed around the room as though the magic he’d called forth might miraculously produce Theo as well as the book, but alas, no. With numb fingers, he wedged the mattress between his nightstand and his old dresser. He eyed the white envelope duct taped to the cover of Theo’s grimoire warily, his stomach roiling.
Wasn’t magic. There was no such thing as magic.
Just Theo being Theo again.
Like knows like, didn’t it?
When he reached for the envelope, Becket’s hand still shook.
If I haven’t made it back…I’m sorry. But you know I had to try.
I trust you to finish what I can’t. Scatter the second set of stones, and then bury them. Burn everything else.
I love you, kiddo.
Instead of the usual twenty, Theo had tucked a thin shard of a milky rose-colored stone inside the envelope with a scrap of paper. Heart thudding as he read his uncle’s last words to him, Becket knew he would not honor them.
Don’t follow me.
# # #