One Impossible Thing Before Breakfast
A woman stood atop of a coffee table.
Her tattered robes flowed in grimy strips around her gaunt body, moving in a breeze generated by her presence. She raised an arm; a skeletal finger pointed out in accusation. When she spoke her voice was the sound of dust carried on the wind.
“Return what is mine,” the woman said.
Eve Baird looked up in annoyance from her seat on the couch. She swatted a trailing ribbon of dirty fabric out of her face. Her expression, she knew, was that of a woman who couldn’t believe that something this weird could happen before she’d had her first cup of coffee. It was an expression that was starting to feel familiar.
“Yeah, I got that,” she said to the (obviously) supernatural being standing on her coffee table. “Pretty sure I got that after the first six times you said it.”
Eve stood up and put her untouched coffee cup on the coffee table, right beside the woman’s bare feet. She gave the woman one last look and went back into her bedroom. The woman instantly followed where Eve went. Eve didn’t see her move: one minute she disappeared and in the next minute she stood on Eve’s bedside table, once again glaring down on Eve in accusation.
“Return what is mine,” the woman said again.
“Still got it,” Eve said. She went to pull her cellphone out of a drawer in the bedside table, and got a handful of spectral rags instead. She tossed those aside, snatched up her cell phone, tapped it awake, and hit the first button on her speed dial.
Jenkins answered on the first ring.“Good morning, Colonel.” From what she heard in his voice, the “good” part of the “good morning” was up for debate. “You’re up early.”
“So are you,” she pointed out. She didn’t give him the chance to reply. “I’ve got a little problem. I think I might need your help to figure out how to solve it.”
A moment of silence. “I’ll expect you shortly,” said Jenkins. He ended the conversation without saying goodbye.
Eve pocketed her cellphone. “Come on Casper,” she said to the woman still standing on her bedside table. “We’re going on a road trip.”
By the time Eve arrived at the Annex, the woman had repeated her demand seven more times. She’d scared one small child, a pair of tourists, and an entire outing of senior citizens. Surprisingly, the barista at Eve’s regular coffee shop didn’t as much as blink at Eve’s strange companion.
The only place the woman hesitated to go was across the threshold of the Annex.
Eve looked back at the woman. “You could follow me anywhere in my apartment - and I do mean anywhere - but you’re having trouble following me into the Annex?”
The woman stared silently back at Eve.
”I can’t believe I’m about to do this,” Eve said beneath her breath. She made a gesture indicating that the woman should follow her inside. The unspoken invitation worked and the woman followed Eve into the Annex without further hesitation.
Jenkins stood at his usual place behind the reference desk. Eve briefly wondered if he’d stayed there all night, sleeping standing upright. He looked up from the book in front of him and saw the woman standing next to Eve.
“You’re bringing a ghost into the Annex?” he asked her in disbelief. “Do you have any idea what one ghost alone can do to a card catalog? Did you miss that movie as a child?”
If Eve didn’t know better, she’d swear that the reclusive curator of the Annex had just made an obscure cultural reference. She filed that thought away under “unlikely”.
“I couldn’t just leave her at home,” Eve said. “Literally.”
“Fine,” he said. He turned his attention to the woman. “You,” he said to her. “You stay over there.” He pointed to a far corner of the room. “Should you feel the need to touch anything, please be aware that I know several excellent exorcists.”
The woman listened to Jenkins' words. She popped out of existence, then popped back into it in a far corner of the Annex. When she noticed Eve looking at her in disbelief, the woman pointed her finger and repeated her demand, but due to the new distance between them Eve couldn’t hear the words.
“Thank you,” she said to Jenkins in gratitude. “You have no idea how annoying that is at three in the morning.” She handed him the coffee she’d brought for him.
He accepted the offering, sniffing at the coffee within and shaking the cup around before taking a sip. “Thank you,” he said. “Three a.m.,” he repeated her words, the concern obvious in his voice. “Is that when she appeared to you?”
Eve shook her head. “She was more of a stroke of midnight type of girl,” she said.
“Better midnight than three in the morning,” he said. “Three a.m. would have meant something else altogether and I am completely out of toadstools.”
Eve mouthed the word “toadstools” and then shrugged. She knew that she really didn’t want to ask. She chose another question instead. A practical question.
“So what do we do now?”
Jenkins ducked beneath the counter. He reemerged with an armload of what looked to be very large, very heavy and very old books. He placed the stack between Eve and himself. “We do what Librarians have done for millennia when confronted with a problem,” he said. “We hit the books.”
He set one book aside. “Not literally of course,” he added. “Some of them are a little…touchy…about human contact.”
“Seriously?!” Eve said.
Two hours and one pot of coffee later, Eve was no closer to discovering the reason behind the woman’s sudden appearance. She was closer to having her back turn into a mess of painful kinks. She raised her hands over her head, sighing in relief as the muscles in her lower back loosened, then reached for the next book on top of the pile at her elbow.
“What is that?” she heard Jenkins ask.
Eve paused, her hand frozen in mid-air. Her eyes followed his to the wide golden bracelet dangling around her wrist.
“It was a present from my goddaughter,” Eve said. She picked up the book she’d been reaching for before she was interrupted. “I usually don’t wear a lot of jewelry, but I thought I’d take a picture of the bracelet on my wrist and text it to her. She was so excited about giving this to me.”
“Hmmm,” Jenkins said, his tone non-committal. “May I see the bracelet please?”
Eve slid the bracelet off of her wrist and handed it across the table to Jenkins. He took it from her as carefully as if the bracelet was very fragile - or very explosive. He turned it over in his hands and then over again.
“Did your goddaughter…”
“Zoe,” Eve supplied the name.
“Did Zoe happen to mention why this particular piece of jewelry caught her attention?”
Eve nodded. “I described my job with the Library as working security for an antiques gallery,” she said. Jenkins made a noise that was somewhere between a snort and a huff. Eve ignored it. “She said that she chose the bracelet because it looked, and I quote, ‘really old’.”
Jenkins looked more closely at the bracelet. A frown of concentration creased his face. “Do you happen to know where she purchased the bracelet?”
“Actually yes,” Eve said. ”I called Zoe last night to thank her for my present. She told me that she got it off of the internet, from a woman who specializes in reproductions of antique jewelry.”
“Reproduction,” Jenkins huffed. “Hardly. This bracelet is, as your goddaughter put it, really really old.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Eve said.
“I’m afraid not,” Jenkins said. “Did Zoe tell you exactly where she bought the bracelet?”
“Some site on the internet that I’m too old to know about,” said Eve. “Einsey, incie…”
“Etsy?” Jenkins suggested.
“That’s the one,” Eve said. A thought occurred to her. “No offense, Jenkins, but if I’m too old to know about Etsy then how do you know about Etsy?”
Jenkins made a dismissive gesture that Eve took to mean no offense was taken. “Bitter experience,” he said. “Since magic came back into the world, certain websites have been overrun with black market magical items.”
“Including possibly magical bracelets,” Eve said in realization.
Jenkins nodded. He set the bracelet on the table between them. “Precisely,” he said.
Eve indicated the woman in the corner. In response the woman lifted her hand and pointed; not toward her, Eve noticed for the first time, but towards the bracelet laying on the table.
“So she came with the bracelet?” Eve asked Jenkins.
“It’s more like she is the bracelet,” Jenkins answered. “Our guest is not a ghost. My apologies,” he directed the words over his shoulder, toward the woman in the corner. The woman ignored him. He turned his attention back to Eve. “Not a ghost,” he said. “A genius loci.”
Eve didn’t bother to try and repeat the words. “A what?” she asked.
“A genius loci,” Jenkins repeated. “A spirit found in classical Roman religious practices, thought to be the protective spirit of a particular place.”
“Okay,” Eve said. “If she’s a protective spirit of a particular place, then how is she moving around? There’s a whole coffee shop of people who can tell you that she can go anywhere she wants to go.”
Jenkins picked the bracelet up. He turned it over in his fingers and held it out to Eve. Eve stretched across the table to look at the bracelet. Jenkins nodded his head to indicate where on the bracelet she should look. Eve leaned in closer and saw what he was looking at so intently. On the inside of the bracelet, the side that rested against the skin, a blocky script was burned into the metal.
“The bracelet itself appears to be of Celtic tribal design and materials,” Jenkins said. “The inscription, however, is Latin. My best guess is that the bracelet was commissioned for the wife of a high ranking officer stationed on the edges of the Roman Empire.”
The history lesson was interesting, but he still hadn’t answered her question. “If she’s the guardian spirit of a particular place, the how was she able to follow me into the shower this morning?” Eve asked.
Jenkins raised an eyebrow at that but chose not to comment on that. “If this is a genius loci from Roman times, then in all likelihood the town she’s meant to protect no longer exists.”
“But the bracelet still exists,” Eve said in sudden realization. ”That’s how she’s moving around. She’s following the bracelet. It’s the only thing she has left to protect.”
Eve rose from her chair.
“What are you doing?” Jenkins asked.
Eve leaned over and picked up the bracelet. “Returning what’s hers,” she said.
Eve approached the woman slowly, with her hand extended and the bracelet laying in the palm of her hand. The woman watched Eve come; when Eve came within hearing distance, the woman raised her am and pointed her finger.
“Return what is mine,” the woman said.
Eve stopped in front of the woman. “Working on that,” she said. “Here goes nothing.”
She slipped the bracelet onto the woman’s bony wrist. A low hum filled the air. A fission of energy crackled in the air between the woman and Eve. The wrinkles in the woman’s hand filled out, becoming the smooth skin of a young woman. Eve looked up in amazement. The woman looked back at her with clear grey eyes.
“Thank you, Eve Baird,” the woman said. Her voice was low and sweet, reminding Eve of the sound of a mother singing to her child. “From one guardian to another.”
The woman’s body dissolved in Eve’s hand. The mist she became wrapped itself around the bracelet and sank into the metal. The bracelet clattered on the ground. Eve picked it up; the metal was warm to the touch. Eve waited for the woman to reappear. When nothing happened, she let out the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
“What do we do now?” Eve asked. “I don’t feel comfortable keeping the bracelet. I can’t sell it, or the woman will probably pop right out of it again.”
“If you’ll give me the bracelet,” Jenkins held out his hand,” freely given please, I will find a safe place for it.” He wiggled his fingers, motioning for her to give him the bracelet. Eve placed the bracelet in his open hand. He gave her a look. “Freely given,” he repeated. “It needs to be said, Colonel. Aloud, please.”
Eve took the bracelet back. “This bracelet is freely given to…” her words trailed off. “I have no idea what your first name is,” she said to Jenkins.
“Jenkins will suffice,” he said, neatly dodging her unspoken curiosity.
“Freely given to Jenkins,” Eve said. She handed the bracelet back to Jenkins. “Thank you,” she added.
He nodded acknowledgement of her thanks, then went to find the promised safe place to store the bracelet. Eve went over to the desk she (apparently) shared with Flynn Carsen. She was thankful that the paperwork she’d left on her desk yesterday was still in the same place she’d left it. Although how a place like the Library could generate paperwork was a mystery to Eve. Maybe bureaucracy was magic too - dark magic. Eve sighed. Even possibly magical paperwork would not do itself. She pulled a chair up to her desk, ready to get to work.
“Colonel?” called Jenkins
“Yes?” Eve called back.
“Would you please come here for a moment?”
Eve rose from her seat. She followed Jenkins’ voice to the alcove that held the card catalog. She stopped abruptly and stared at the sight before her. Each drawer was open and empty. A few of the cards littered the floor in front of the cabinets. The majority of the card catalog cards had been built into intricate Roman city in miniature. Houses, bridges and even trees, all made from card catalog cards.
“It seems your genius loci has a very childish sense of humor,” Jenkins said drily.
“You have to admit, it is pretty,” Eve said. “And you did threaten her with exorcism.”
Jenkins took another look at the miniature city. It was apparent that he did not share Eve’s opinion. “Be sure to put the cards back in the proper order,” he said. He turned to go.
“Wait,” Eve said. “You want me to pick all this up?”
Jenkins nodded. “What are you always telling Mr. Jones? Oh yes,” he answered his own question. “Clean up your own mess. You brought the genius loci into the Annex, you get to clean up after her. Now if you’ll excuse me I still have to find a safe place for the bracelet.”
He walked away. Eve sighed in disbelief, then went to work dismantling the card catalog city. After a few cards were put away, a pattern became obvious to Eve. The genius loci was considerate enough to build her creation using cards in the proper alphabetical order.
“Thank you,” Eve said aloud. She made a face. “And now I’m talking to a bracelet. This job is breaking me.”
Eve went back to picking up cards. She was still at it when the others arrived for the day.