When Caitlin Ross books her band at the new pub in town, the rest of the group is thrilled. She regrets it the second she sets foot inside. An expensive remodel can’t hide the owner’s rudeness or the vile atmosphere. When no one else notices, she wonders if she’s crazy—until a ghost’s appearance at the end of the second set forces her to confront a secret she’s been keeping for years. Caitlin’s a Witch, with the power to perceive things others can’t. An unbearable choice drove her to trade magic for a mundane life, and she wants nothing to do with the unseen world.
As she struggles to maintain a normal life, Caitlin discovers the ghost isn’t the only problem at the pub. The site is the center of local legends and mysterious disappearances. Investigating further, Caitlin uncovers secrets, lies, and a web of dark magic set to strangle the town she’s learned to call home. She can prevent chaos from ripping friends and families apart only if she chooses magic over her own safety and makes a bargain she’s been running from for years. The power is hers to claim. The price: an unthinkable sacrifice.
“Finally! An Urban Fantasy that gets magic right!”
Stepping through the pub’s shiny new oak and etched glass doors sent a jolt down my spine exactly like running headlong into a brick wall. Then my brain kicked in and began listing all the ways the barrier I had encountered did not resemble a wall at all. I could see right through it, past the scattering of tables and booths to the antique mahogany bar at the other end of the room. I checked my head and face. No blood, no lumps. I hadn’t been knocked unconscious, as far as I could tell. And a wall would have prevented the rest of my band, Red Branch, from entering as well as me. But when I looked up I could see them making their way to the stage in the back room behind the bar. Their voices, raised in eager discussion of our upcoming gig, wafted back to me like a tune played slightly off-tempo.
Then one of them paused and looked over his shoulder. I saw his face move from puzzlement, as he realized I no longer followed, to concern, as he saw me leaning against the front doors in a daze.
“Caitlin!” He dropped his gig bag and the case holding his bodhrán, the Irish frame drum, and hurried to my side. “Are you all right?”
Not a wall, then. I straightened and shook off the shock of impact, marshaling my senses in my best attempt to determine what had happened. My mind quested towards the point of impact with the caution of a bomb squad approaching a suspicious package. Almost at once I felt it again. Violent nausea leapt from the pit of my stomach all the way up my throat; I gagged and swallowed it back. My nostrils twitched. I couldn’t smell anything. All the same, I received the distinct impression of the sick-sweet stink of something old and rotten. The kind of smell that gets right under your clothes and into your skin, a clinging stench no amount of bathing will eliminate. It had no touch, and yet my skin crawled. I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to flinch away, or to curl up into a ball so as to present as little surface area as possible.
At the touch on my elbow I did flinch, jerking my flute case up in self-defense. I started to cry out, but in the next moment my vision cleared and I found myself looking into the twilight blue eyes of my husband and bandmate, Timber MacDuff.
“Watch it, aye?” He grabbed my wrist before the flute case could smash into his nose. His mouth opened, whether to deliver a rebuke or caution I’ll never know because just then he got a good look at my face and I saw the words drain right out of him.
“Caitlin, love! What is it?”
Timber gathered me into his arms and for a minute I rested against his chest, smelling the comforting smell of him: sawdust, woodsmoke, sage and sweetgrass, with the faintest hint of the fine whisky we all drank—in moderation, of course—before a gig. It blanketed the thick un-smell and his arms held at bay the horrible un-touch, giving me a much-needed space to pull myself together.
I took one deep breath and another. My stomach still heaved, but I felt stronger. With an effort, I detached myself from my husband’s torso and stood on my own two feet.
“Tim….” My voice came out in a squeak. I grimaced and tried again. “Timber, there’s something there.” I cocked my head towards the interior of the pub.
He regarded me for a long moment, irritation warring with resignation on his face. At last, resignation won and he shrugged, running a callused hand through his unruly, dark curls.
“Aye. Well, we knew that, didn’t we.”
I sighed and nodded.
With a shake of his head that said more than words, Timber reached for my gig bag. I relinquished it without comment. It helped, a little, to pass the black Gatemouth with its weight of whistles, microphones and various other musicians’ paraphernalia to someone bigger and stronger than I.
“Come on, then. We’d best be seeing about the set up before those dafties bollux it up.” He started back towards the stage, paused, and glanced back at me. “You’ll be all right?”
I nodded again. I wouldn’t like it, forcing myself through the wall of sensation that stood between me and my work, but it wouldn’t take me by surprise again.
I took a step and felt the strangeness close around me. I could almost hear its voice—or did I hear more than one? It tickled my inner ear like a putrid feather from something the cat left under the bed and then forgot,
I closed my eyes and kept going. I knew I should never have taken this gig.
Timber and I located Frank Delacourt and Lisa Bristol, Red Branch’s other two members, drinking beer in a booth at the pub’s rear, to one side of the stage where we would soon be playing. I endured a few minutes of the guitarist and fiddler’s raptures over the recently remodeled Emerald Isle’s facelift, and their grandiose schemes for using our gig as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Then I lost patience with the whole business and went in search of the pub’s new owner, leaving Timber to make sure all the instruments got tuned and the stage got set up.
I found Mr. Casey behind the curved bar, serving bottled Killian’s to a couple of early arrivals while a rugby match played without sound on the television screen over his head. We hadn’t met in person before; he’d left the remodel to his contractor while he finished up odds and ends of business in New York. We’d dealt with all the contractual details over the phone and by fax.
I knew from our conversations that he had been a banker before taking early retirement, but he looked less like a banker than a football player: big and wide, especially through the torso. The white button-down shirt he wore strained over muscles better developed than I would have expected for a man of his former station and age, which I took to be about fifty-five. His legs, or what I could see of them behind the bar, were somewhat slimmer but just as muscular, encased in brand new Wranglers. Altogether, he posed a somewhat threatening figure and I would have felt ill at ease if not for his pleasant, round face, now sporting a welcoming smile under wide blue eyes and a shock of black hair in the late stages of going grey.
“Mr. Casey?” I stretched out my hand. “I’m Caitlin Ross. Of Red Branch.”
The small, neatly manicured hand he extended over the bar seemed out of place on his beefy arm, but it latched onto mine with a knuckle-popping grip. “Call me Casey. Everyone does.” The accents of Midtown and the Bronx warred in his voice. “Do you have everything you need?”
I nodded. “We’ll be starting in about twenty minutes, just as soon as we get everything set up.”
A sudden burst of over-amplified acoustic guitar from the back room made both of us flinch, the more so when a discordant squeal of out-of-tune fiddle joined in. I made out the first few bars of our opening number before Timber bellowed at Frank to turn it down and the sound abruptly cut to a less deafening level.
“You’ve done wonders with this place.” I ran my hand across the smooth mahogany surface of the bar. Late evening sunlight streamed through the front windows and danced across the array of glasses and bottles behind Casey’s back, and I remembered how dismal and shabby the interior had been when Timber and I had visited the place in one of its previous incarnations. I wished the care put into the setting would soften the odd, dark atmosphere, which I could still feel swirling around me. Perhaps given time it would.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to have a place like this. My grandfather used to take me to his favorite New York haunts when I was small. The strength of the Irish community, refusing to be swallowed by the big city, affected me more than anything has, before or since.” He wiped an invisible speck from the bar, his eyes misting over. “After school, I spent every vacation in Ireland, looking for the best aspects of all the best pubs. I think I’ve managed to incorporate many of them here.”
He looked up, his eyes narrow and serious, all traces of mist gone. I thought I would not like to see such an expression on a person with the power to grant or deny me a loan.
“But I must be frank with you, Ms. Ross. I’ve heard quite a bit of music in pubs, and Red Branch isn’t up to the standard I’m used to. The CD you sent me has a certain spark, but overall it lacked cohesion. I only hired your group because I’m trying to fit in here and that means hiring local people whenever possible.”
I had wondered. Casey struck me as wealthy enough to bring in the Chieftains if he wanted, and he hadn’t needed to tell me he desired only the best for his bar. Still, his words hit me like a slap in the face. I might question the quality of my band every day; I still didn’t like hearing a complete stranger criticize it.
“The music industry has changed, Mr. Casey. Once upon a time, a band played out a great deal, hoping to land a recording contract. Now you have to have a recording almost before you can get a gig, so you make one as soon as possible and hope the venue can see the potential behind the flaws.” I shrugged. “Besides, it’s an old CD. I’m afraid it doesn’t quite reflect our current abilities.” True enough. We played better live than our CD suggested. I hoped it would be enough to satisfy Casey. He’d paid in advance for the gig, though, so it wouldn’t much matter if he threw us out in disgust halfway through the first set.
“I’m surprised you haven’t made a new one, then.”
“Money is always an issue for independent musicians. Studio time doesn’t come cheap, even here. Couple it with reproduction, artwork and all the rest of it…. That adds up to a lot of gigs.”
He gave me a calculating look, the blue eyes I had thought so merry flat and cold. I saw it for the merest instant, then it vanished and he smiled again. “Well, if you do well here tonight, perhaps we could come to some kind of agreement.”
“Perhaps.” Maybe I should have been pleased, but the vagaries of his mood put me off and I found I didn’t like him very much. How could you like someone who first insulted you and then offered you money? “Listen, I’d better get back to the rest of the group. I’m pleased to have met you,” I lied.
“Think about what I said,” he called after me.
Think about it? I couldn’t help thinking about it. I only hoped the whole conversation wouldn’t ruin my ability to perform.
“Jerk,” I muttered under my breath as I grabbed my flute and climbed onto the stage for the minimal sound check the circumstances demanded.
I’d never played to such a crowd as packed the Emerald Isle by the time we started. Hordes of red-faced merrymakers called greetings from table to overflowing table; more milled around the bar or lined the walls. Children from toddlers to teenagers ran about underfoot, tripping up the waitresses and making general nuisances of themselves. The din about deafened me.
Behind the bar, Casey dispensed pint after pint, his face wreathed in a jovial landlord’s smile. I wondered if he’d be so pleased if he knew how little the success of his opening night meant in the long run. Lots of local families held reunions around the Fourth of July, which had just passed, and anyplace serving food and drink benefited from the influx of out-of-towners. Five years in Gordarosa had also taught me that any business could expect record crowds for the first month or two, until the new wore off. Then people decided they couldn’t afford the high prices, or they didn’t like the food, or the entertainment didn’t appeal to them and they began to drift away. If luck held, a core crowd kept coming back. Usually those people had been going to the same restaurant or bar in the same location for years and didn’t care what name hung over the door or who owned the premises. This particular location had a reputation for attracting hard-drinking, violent types. That didn’t say much for Casey’s continuing in the light-hearted, family pub vein in which he had started.
The gig went about as well as I had expected it would, which meant Lisa’s fiddle line faded in and out, Frank from time to from to time changed his guitar rhythm to something completely different from the way we had rehearsed it, and for long stretches I felt as if I were keeping the whole thing going through the force of my flute and my will. At least Timber’s bodhrán gave us a solid backbeat, and when he sang, the house stilled, spellbound. Lisa’s songs also went over pretty well—better than mine, as usual. I had a fondness for the kind of long, sentimental ballads that sent everyone in the house to the bar for another round. I could never tell whether my delivery brought up such intense emotions that the audience needed to drown their sorrows, or whether my musical choices simply bored them to tears. I suspected the latter.
To my surprise, Casey seemed pleased with us. During our first break he came around to the band table with a pitcher of draught Guinness. I made a big show of sorting through my whistles while he chatted up the others. He mentioned the possibility of steady work, maybe as a session band, maybe as something more. I watched carefully for the hardness I had glimpsed in him before, but didn’t see it. The rest of the band loved him. I thought I was losing my mind.
Inspired by our patron’s attention, or by the Guinness, or by both, Red Branch charged into our second set with unusual energy. The audience responded by clapping, stamping their feet, and swilling beer at an alarming rate. I thrilled to the rare experience of Red Branch functioning as single unit, sheer joy in the music washing away all my worries about the band’s quality and our future together. However, I became alarmed when one pickled customer, who had been doing a Riverdance imitation in the aisle, tripped and ended up under a table. Taking this as a sign that we needed to back off and give our fans time to recover, I decided to skip ahead in the playlist and caught the rest of the band’s attention with a wave of my flute.
“’Kilnamartyra Exile,’” I mouthed.
Timber set down his bodhrán at once and left the stage looking relieved; sweat poured down his ruddy face as he staggered toward the bar. Lisa started to protest my choice, then shrugged and followed him. Behind me, Frank struck up the opening of the old emigration ballad I had named. I stepped up to my mic and began to sing,
“I am a lonely exile, who left my own dear nation
To seek a situation in the land beyond the foam,
I have traveled cross the ocean,
Midst hardship and through danger,
And for years I’ve been a stranger
To my own dear native home….”
As always when I sang, my eyes roved out over the audience, seeking a particular individual to whom to direct my words. That’s when I noticed the old man.
He might have been the exile of my song, so lost and alone he seemed. Hovering between the two tables directly in front of the stage, he stared up at me with such an expression of sad longing on his face that I faltered going into the second verse. Lisa, who had taken a seat with a co-worker from the middle school, broke off her conversation long enough to glare at me. Frank, bless him, vamped an extra measure while I found the words; sometimes he really did come through.
I had never seen the old man before. This struck me as unusual; after five years in Gordarosa I knew pretty much everybody in town, at least by sight. I wondered if he might be someone’s father or grandfather up for the Fourth, maybe out of the nursing home for a weekend; he had that unkempt look about him. He wore a battered derby over grey hair that stuck up in two tufts over his ears. Aside from its expression his face held little of interest. Bushy white eyebrows sprouted in profusion over eyes that might have been blue, and a bulbous nose sat slightly off-center between jowls covered with wiry sideburns. His mouth gaped open a little as if in astonishment at the sounds coming in at his protruding ears.
“I’ve hunted for prosperity, and still it has eluded me,
And bleak misfortune followed me wherever I did roam…”
Prosperity certainly did seem to have eluded the poor fellow. His clothes sat ill on him, rumpled and dusty as if he’d pulled them out of a dumpster. Something else bothered me about them as well. I frowned down from the stage, trying to pinpoint the trouble without losing the thread of the song.
Suit coat with sleeves frayed at the cuffs. Trousers trying hard to keep a crease and failing. Suspenders, some kind of white shirt, scuffed boots. You could have seen any of it on a workingman in a bar for the past hundred years. Then it hit me. His clothes were so ordinary I hadn’t seen it at first. I hadn’t realized the cut of his suit was a hundred years old.
Then he took off his hat, and I saw something else I hadn’t seen before. Some blunt object had bashed in the left side of his head and I could see bits of brain and gore spattered in the wiry grey hair. I closed my eyes and told myself to keep singing; I had reached the middle of the third verse and would be finished soon. I looked again; the old man still stood there. He reached into his shirt pocket for a handkerchief to blot the blood streaming over his ear. The left side of his mouth sagged alarmingly as he flashed what I took to be a smile of apology for his mangled appearance. A piece of skull dropped from his head onto his shoulder.
Into the fourth verse now and can I please just get through this song so I can run to the ladies’ and sick up? I barely noticed that the house had grown still as a church. No customer coughed; no child cried. Not even Timber had ever held an audience’s attention as I held this one’s. Every eye was glued to me and every one held same rapt expression that had called the old man to my notice. The attention would have pleased me, once. Now I cared for nothing but the song, because only my intense need to finish the song kept me from passing out.
Finally I came to the end:
“And when my days are over and Death has come and taken me…”
I choked on the mention of death, but kept going.
“It’s fondly I’ll remember thee, Dear Land that I adore.”
I tagged the song with the requisite “that’s it,” and the house erupted into more applause than any song of mine had ever earned. The old man put his hat back on and gave three slow, soundless claps. His eyes met mine and his mouth moved. I could just make out the word it formed:
He stared at me a long minute. Then he turned and walked, through the tables, through the applauding people sitting at the tables and straight through what I knew to be a blank wall.