A/N: Thanks to Caranath, Barb, BMSH, DuffyBarkley, & FanHB08 for the reviews!
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Feigning exhaustion, Joe collapsed against a nearby wall. "I have to sit," he said, for the benefit of passersby. "All the walking's doing a number on my legs."
"Here." Frank helped him to a nearby bench outside a druggist's store, within view of the house the person had entered. There they both settled to keep watch.
"If that's not Chet, it's someone who's just as awful at being sneaky," Joe murmured, as he played up massaging his calves. "Follow him in?"
Frank shook his head. "Put up a mouse-trick. We'll follow him when he comes out. If it is Chet, I don't want to embarrass him."
"No such thing as coincidence."
"And be aware of your choice," Frank sighed. "Sometimes I wish that wasn't so right."
A moment of concentration and a push of energy set up the small magic that encouraged people to ignore them. It wasn't invisibility. If Frank or Joe did anything to draw attention, the magic would break, usually getting everyone's attention over-focused on them as a result.
For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. Joe sighed. Magic followed the rules, just like everything else, even when it was really inconvenient. Especially when it was really inconvenient. Kris called it the Law of Perversity, though Frank claimed it was just Murphy's Law with nothing spooky-stuff about it.
No matter what it called itself, Joe believed it.
He waited as long as he could bear it in the snow and wind, but the person didn't re-appear. "Frank, c'mon," Joe said finally. "We're not prepared for a stakeout. If it is Chet, we'll catch him again. It's a small village. And I'm freezing my butt off."
"God forbid," Frank said. "This place has too many random asses already."
They backtracked towards the gunsmith's shop. Inside, two men were deep in conversation at a workbench towards the back. Both looked up when the door chimes jingled.
"Can I help 'ee, lads?" one man said, lean and grizzled, with thick muscled arms, a rough beard, and thick sweater that made him look like an old salt on any of Bayport's tourist piers.
The second man wasn't familiar, to Joe's relief: a nerdy pipsqueak wearing thick glasses. Joe hadn't wanted to deal with the blacksmith guy again. The shop was small, lined with wooden workbenches and a variety of specialized tools, rifle-stocks, and assorted pieces. Behind the counter, the wall was filled with rifles and muskets, while another workbench held scattered metal parts.
"We don't know," Frank said. "We've got a friend who collects guns, and we're Christmas-shopping. The girl at the wood-carver's shop told us about this place."
"Yanks, ayes?" the first man said. "I don't sell live guns here. Not unless 'ee have very specific licenses from Her Majesty's government."
"Nothing like that. He collects older stuff, from about the Civil War and older."
"Cowboys and Indians," Joe added.
"Civil War?" the man said.
"Our Civil War," Frank said. "US, I mean. Mid-1800s, at most."
"Talk to you later, Jake," the nerdy guy said, as he got up and headed for the door. "I'll pick it up next week."
"I don't want to drive 'ee away, mind," Jake said to Frank and Joe. "But the collector's pieces might be more than you're prepared to spend. If you'm's not collectors yourselves, 'ee won't know if something's worth the price I'm asking. I mostly sell to museums and collectors. Parts for them as can do the work. Some custom work for re-enactors."
"Definitely not collector's pieces," Frank said. "But…maybe something for display? Copies to hang on the wall or something like that."
"The guy's our boss," Joe added. "We're trying to get on his good side, if you know what I mean."
Jake grinned. "Some things never change. And ayes, I've got display pieces, sure. Replicas. I specialize in European military history, though, not the States. However, this little beauty —" He turned to nod at the wall behind him. "Right there. That's the Brown Bess. Both sides used it during that rebellion of yours. One right below it's an Enfield —"
That was enough to distract Frank. As Frank chatted with Jake over the guns, Joe eased away to look around the rest of the shop. Replica of antique pistols mounted on fancy placards lined the walls. Too many metal and wooden bits and pieces that he had no clue what they were for were organized in various bins and labeled drawers. Worktables were strewn with wooden stocks, hammers, metal barrels, and lumps of lead, and pegboards were hung with tools and other pieces. Joe wandered through the worktables and along the opposite wall, stopping to peer through an open doorway where the thick stink of charcoal and burning metal wafted through, stinging his eyes and throat.
A huge, deep brick fireplace dominated that room, a thin trail of smoke curling out from it. Odd metal implements hung on hooks to each side and were laid on the workbenches nearby, with a heavy anvil in front of it and chains dangling overhead. Another workbench held half-finished swords. Fascinated, Joe couldn't take his eyes from the fireplace. That had to be the forge. Two buckets sat in front of the fireplace, and at first his glance passed over them, but then they registered and sunk in.
The buckets were stained with reddish-brown streaks.
Joe glanced back. Frank and Jake were still deep in conversation. Quietly as he could, Joe slipped into the forge room and up to the buckets, levering himself down with his crutch. He rubbed his fingers along one of the bucket rims — sticky, not completely dry, and his fingers stung from the rough surface of the bucket — then raised his hand to his face and sniffed. Blood. No doubt of it. He knew that smell. He'd never forget it, not after New Orleans.
Then he realized: his fingers still stung, as if he'd touched barbed wire. He looked down at the buckets — no obvious sharp edges, but...
"'Ee see something interesting there, mate?" Jake stood in the doorway, Frank behind him.
Making a show of rubbing his head, Joe struggled back to his feet. "Lost my balance. Nearly hit my head on the anvil."
Jake's face was expressionless. "Did 'ee, now. An' you're back here why?"
"You have to forgive my idiot brother," Frank said. "He forgets his manners when he sees something interesting. Apologize to the man already, Joe."
Trying to look properly scolded, Joe ducked his head. "Sorry. I've just never seen a forge before. Not like this, I mean. The stuff on TV looks nothing like this."
"It never does," Jake said, his gaze not leaving Joe's face. "This is historical work, it is. Puts me in good stead with the history buffs. But customers are not allowed back here. Insurance rules, don'tcha know."
"I saw the swords. They're really cool. They look like they're right from the movies. Real swashbuckling stuff. Errol Flynn and all that." Babbling as if he didn't have a thought in his head, Joe nodded towards one of the workbenches. "But I thought you only did guns. You share this place with the other guy? The blacksmith?"
"Forges cost money," Jake said. "Good sense to share."
"Yeah, well, one of our friends is really into elves and all that. We saw those curved swords in the other shop and…like…I was just curious. They had that weird script Tolkien made up —"
"Stop bothering the man, Joe," Frank cut him off, "and come on. We promised the Professor we'd be back twenty minutes ago."
Jake stepped back just enough to let Joe get by, and followed the brothers to the door. Frank had a package bundled under his arm. No sooner had they made it out to the street than Jake firmly closed the door behind them and flipped the sign on the door to "Closed", drawing the window blinds down.
"At least he didn't notice you until after I bought this," Frank said, patting the package. "One of the display models of that Black Bess rifle, complete with wall mount, and I bargained him down by a good fifty bucks. What'd you find?"
"Nothing much. Just magic buckets of blood."
Joe grinned. "Something wrong?"
"Of all the brothers in the world, I had to get you," Frank muttered. "Okay, wise guy, are you going to elaborate, or do I have to resort to ice cubes at three A.M.?"
"Wow, you'd think we're related or something, with those threats," Joe said, then raised a hand in mock surrender. "All right, all right." He lowered his voice, keeping his face set in a pleasant expression. "Two buckets. Blood-stained. Definitely blood," he added, when Frank raised an eyebrow. "I know the smell. And no, I didn't get the chance to look for magic. But something stung my hand when I touched 'em."
Frank said nothing for a long moment. "So that's why you asked if he shared that forge. Sooo…was he angry because you snuck back there, or because you found the buckets?"
"Maybe I set off an alarm when I touched those buckets."
"That doesn't make sense. Why ward something like that?"
"Residue, then. Whatever they used when they took me down. And what's it have to do with the Professor's museum getting cleaned out?"
"If it has anything to do with it. From the way Sybil talked, it might just be a neighborhood feud. Officer Marrack hinted about that, remember."
Joe sighed. "I hate complications. Why don't we just hang a sign around our necks that says 'We're just here for the thieves and don't care about your witchy feuds'?"
"Because those witches might be the thieves," Frank said, giving Joe a you-know-better-so stop-griping glare. "If it's not connected with the other thefts, they might have wiped out the museum just to hurt the Professor."
Joe looked up at the sky, then checked his watch: it was only about two-thirty, yet the sun looked too low in the sky.
"Northern latitudes," Frank said, yawning, his voice louder without being obvious that he wanted to be heard. "It gets dark early up here. We've still got a couple hours of daylight. I don't know about you, but I'm still jet-lagging. Let's head back."
Last night had been a busy night, and Joe was feeling it in his legs and back. With a yawn of his own, he stretched, glancing around the street.
The guy in the green coat was behind them. Joe made a show of stretching again. "Green Coat's back there," he muttered to Frank.
They walked in silence for a bit, stopping at shop windows so they could watch their follower through the reflections. After several such window-shopping acts — including stops to buy a ceramic tea-kettle painted with ivy for Mar and a heavy woolen bathrobe for Aunt Gertrude — Joe still couldn't tell who their tail was. By that point, the snow was falling heavily enough to obscure all reflections, and whoever it was stayed two or three shops behind them.
"I'm torn," Frank said finally, in an undertone. "I want to confront him, but —"
"— it might not be Chet," Joe finished for him.
Frank nodded. "And if it is, why hasn't he said 'hey'? That's not like him."
"That's what scares me. Because the only reason I can think of is the Pickenbaugh thing."
"Exactly," Frank said, then fell silent again.
"Let's just keep going and lead him back to the Rowbotham's," Joe said. "That way he knows where we are. Those lunatics know we're there already, so it's not like we're can hide."
Frank didn't respond. The silence held all the way back to the Rowbothams', as did their tail. When they reached the house, Joe turned just enough to directly look behind him. Green Coat lagged a ways back down the road before the person dodged around a corner.
"Still can't tell," Joe said, as he and Frank stomped the snow off their shoes and went into the house. "Whoever it is was bundled up so it hid their face."
Frank nodded. "Sybil?" he called out. Noise thumped upstairs for a few seconds until Sybil poked her head down the stairwell; she had a kerchief around her hair and wore thick work gloves. "Joe and I need to do a bit of magic-work. Will that interfere with anything here?"
"No, but best keep it in your room," Sybil said. "Take what you'm's need from the kitchen. I'm getting the Yule decorations from the attic, so yell if 'ee need me."
Up in their room, Frank pulled the handkerchief-wrapped knife out and laid it on the nightstand. "Need the fire going?"
Joe shook his head. "It'll just get too hot in here. Make yourself useful and go get some salt and water."
"Getting bossy in your old age," Frank said, grinning, and headed back downstairs.
Joe pulled the locked duffel bag out from under the bed and rummaged through it for the candles, braided silk, and compass. After laying out a circle with the braided silk, he placed the candles on the directional quarter points. Best to use full ritual protections; he didn't want to accidentally contaminate the Rowbothams' house or let that knife cause havoc.
He picked up the still-bundled knife and set it in the center of the circle. He had to wait for Frank. The water and salt would be used to draw the protection runes, rather than mark up the Rowbothams' floor with chalk. Sooner or later, Joe had to figure out a way to make a portable circle with those symbols.
While he waited, Joe looked over the knife with mage-Sight. It glowed an ugly puke-green, but so dim that he could've mistaken it for a trick of the light. Joe scowled: what had the thrower hoped to do? If the knife had hit them, the blade would've done more damage than any spell. So either the person behind it liked over-doing things — which meant a flashy, egotistical show-off — or they wanted to intimidate the Hardys with both a physical and magical threat.
Joe's scowl deepened. Considering Frank wasn't Gifted, the knife would've gotten the mundane message across, with the magic adding an extra edge for Joe. Definitely a bad sign.
Still, the energy was weak: not much of a threat. What was the point?
Frank came back in, balancing ceramic bowls of salt and water. "They have a well and a pump out back. Sybil says she uses that for her own 'workings', as she calls it. And the salt's sea salt. There's folks down the coast who reclaim it from the ocean." Frank smiled. "She also said 'don't worry about the floor, it survived the Blitz.' I guess that means it'll survive you, too."
"You're really hysterical," Joe said.
Still, local materials, especially hand-made ones, gave more life and energy to any magic. In short order, Joe and Frank were seated inside a glowing circle of candles, the knife between them. It didn't take long — Joe saw a thin line of the same puke-green leading off from the knife, but it broke up a little ways out. A cautious touch of his index finger to the blade earned him a flash of image: a circle of hooded and masked people. But the energy didn't have a structured feel; it was amorphous and vague. It felt off, but in the way that someone yelling incoherently on a street corner did, not like a killer aiming with a gun.
Then he frowned. Something else…underneath…
"Bad?" Frank said.
Whatever it was vanished, leaving only the knife and its puke-energy. Maybe he'd only imagined it; last night had been enough to make anyone paranoid. "Not at all. We'll win the next lottery and have swimsuit babes all over us and the cover of Time —" Joe managed a grin at Frank's eye-roll. "All right, all right. About what you'd think. Just your general run-of-the-mill badness."
"Now you sound like Joshua."
"Well, it feels like what Tag calls 'whoopie witch stuff'. Amateurish. Like they don't really know what they're doing." Joe frowned, trying to put what he'd felt into words. "Like that doll we found with the arsons. Not even magic, really, just general bad feeling."
Frank was silent for a long moment. "They're going for intimidation, you mean."
"Well, there's enough power there that I saw something. And I'm not a touch-reader. A group of people in stupid masks and black robes."
"When you say stupid masks…?"
"I mean stupid masks. Like what kindergarten kids do with papier-mâché."
"Great." Frank stared down at the knife for a long moment. "A run-of-the-mill, mass-produced knife, with a pentagram that looks like it was scratched on with a rusty nail. I hate it when the bad guys don't take us seriously."
Joe looked up — how much more serious did his brother want? — but Frank's mouth was quirked, and Joe relaxed.
"We might as well face it. These guys are doing everything they can to make sure we know they're watching us and that they're soooo eeeeeeevil." Frank drawled those two words out in the most bored-sounding voice ever. "Let's go ahead and give them what they don't want."
"Move 'em to the top of the suspect list, you mean?"
"That, too," Frank said. "They're so determined to paint a target on their own backs, I'd hate to disappoint them. Especially since they sent us such a wonderful invitation there. But what I really mean is — let's ignore them."
Frank was grinning. "Put yourself in their shoes. Here they are, so determined to make sure we know they're big-bad evil —"
Joe groaned. He'd run into that in San Francisco enough, after all. "God save us from power-trippers, please."
"— so we ignore them, and they'll either think we're too dense to bother with, or that we've gotten their tiny little point and we're cowering in fear of their Mighty Evilness."
"A win-win situation, you mean," Joe said, starting to grin himself.
"You got it. We keep the investigating on the down-low and play up being dumb American tourists. We've just flashed a lot of money around, after all."
"Might be hard to play stupid with that blacksmith."
Frank shrugged. "We'll see. And once everyone's all relaxed and certain we're nothing but harmless idiot tourists…" His voice trailed off.
"Yeah, well, we've still got the report at the cops to look over. I don't want Marrak thinking we're idiots."
"Can you rule the nutcases out, at least?" Frank said. "You got a really good feel of the Grail at the museum — can you track it at all?"
Joe rubbed at his temples. He'd been so rattled by the attack and their determined follower that he'd overlooked the obvious. First imagining things, now this. "I can try." With the silk wrapped around his hand, Joe picked the knife up and placed it in the bowl of water, then mixed in the sea salt. That done, he reached over and snuffed out the nearest candle, bringing the protections down. "Put that on the hearth for tonight. I'll do the running water thing over it in the morning. I don't want it interfering in the tracking."
His legs had fallen asleep from the hard floor. He waited until the numbness and pain faded, then carefully ran through a couple warm-up stretches as Frank pulled the curtains back to let in what remained of the fading daylight. Then, taking even more care, Joe recast the protection circle, then eased to sit back-to-back with Frank, before carefully reaching out and down to the land.
There, the thick glowing ley-line, and to Joe's dismay, it disturbed the energy for a long ways around, breaking it up with ripples and waves like a constant boat speeding over a lake. Gritting his teeth, Joe tried to listen and reach past that. It wasn't just the ley-line. The land itself was disturbed, and somewhere, something sang, a distant metallic keen…somewhere…something…there…
Suddenly darkness loomed in front of him, a shadow with horns and a misshapen goat's face, and behind it, a tall, faint figure of light.
The light smiled.
You've come back.
Just as that registered, fire and light slammed into Joe's face.
With a gasp, Joe jolted, then collapsed over his knees, catching himself on his hands before he hit the floor. He stayed that way, breathing hard, until a faint whimper caught his attention, and Joe twisted around…
…in time to see Frank collapse.