“There’s no way it’s this easy.” Lily’s 2002 Winnebago Adventurer rolled slowly down Iliff Avenue in Lakewood, Colorado.
Beside her in the passenger seat, Romeo chuckled. “You know, it’s totally okay to accept that something’s going your way. If it’s easy, let it be easy.”
Lily kept her focus on the addresses moving past them. They were so close. “Yeah, I basically did that since my mom got her big break. I let so many things be… easy. I don’t think that hunting down her clues and running from the witches who don’t want me to find them is supposed to be one of those things.”
“I don’t think there are any real rules in this scenario, Lil.”
She licked her lips. “Maybe not. The witch in the gray suit who tried to fry me extra-crispy said we. ‘We’re just cleaning up loose ends.’ He wasn’t alone. And I know what it feels like when something just isn’t right.” She glanced at the number 17284 on the mailbox as they passed it. She was looking for 17546.
“I’m guessing that was part of your training too, huh?”
Lily turned quickly to meet his gaze and blinked. “What? No. That’s… that’s just me. The other stuff, though. All the puzzles and coded messages. My mom’s magic lessons turned into games. They definitely help.”
“They got us into that speakeasy in Montreal, at the very least.” Romeo wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “Part of me wonders what the heck they were doing in there with all those rooms. The other part of me…”
“Yeah, I’m not so sure I even want to know. Just because an underground club has the Order of North’s sigil on the front door doesn’t mean it attracts the best of us. Safe for all magicals but only recommended if you’re just a little crazy.”
Romeo snorted. “You saw that one witch with the ferret, right?”
“Yes. I saw the ferret. Pretty sure it was staring at me.” Lily shook the image out of her head and eased her foot down on the gas just enough to keep them moving forward. “Hey, what’s that address on the corner?” Lily nodded toward Romeo’s passenger window, and he leaned forward to squint at the house at the end of the street.
“Okay. It should be up here on the left, then.” They crossed Dover Court, and Lily slowed down even more. “17542… 17544… what?”She pulled the Winnebago up to the curb on the right side of the street and stared across Iliff at the house they’d been told to find.
Romeo took a deep breath through his nose and ran a hand through his dark curls. “Well, you were right about that.”
“Definitely not easy. Why would Bentley send us here?”
“No clue.” Romeo’s hands thumped down onto the armrests. “Wanna go check it out?”
“Absolutely.” Lily turned off the engine, stuck the keys in her purse, and opened the driver-side door. When she slipped down over the huge step onto the street, she turned to close the door behind her and stopped.
Romeo was already halfway through the process of half jumping, half sliding over the top of the incredibly wide center console between the front seats. Then he landed on the driver’s seat and hopped out onto the asphalt. “You have no idea how bad I’ve been wanting to do that.” He grinned. “It’s as awesome as I thought it would be.”
Lily blinked at him. “Okay, Hardcore Parkour. Now it’s outta your system, so we can put that behind us, right?”
“Oh, come on. You were sliding all over the new hardwood with me.”
She put a hand on her hip, trying hard not to laugh. “Last time I checked, those bamboo floors we just put in are meant to be walked on. I’ve never seen a center console used as a jungle gym before.”
Romeo wiggled his eyebrows. “You have now.”
“Please don’t make me put that awful carpet back in the Winnie.”
His eyes widened over the ghost of a smile. “You wouldn’t.”
Lily just raised an eyebrow, then turned and headed across the street. He jogged a little to catch up with her, then they stepped up onto the sidewalk and stopped. In front of them rose a single-story home built just like all the others in this neighborhood. Except for the fact that it was black, charred, and nearly burnt to the ground.
The first clues Lily’s mom had left her before she disappeared—and the rest of the world thought her dead—were a business card and a broken piece of metal Lily found in the single box of personal mementos she’d been allowed to keep. The bank had taken absolutely everything else, and even though Lily felt it in her bones that Margaret Antony’s will was a total fake, she no longer had the money to prove it.
The business card had gotten her and Romeo to Le Chapeau Magique in Montreal. They’d only been able to identify the broken metal after Lily reunited it with the other half in the club owner’s office. She reached into her purse now and fingered the restored keyring charm in the shape of a maple leaf, which had once been attached to the club owner’s keys that unlocked an invisible cabin on a lake in Canada’s Mont Tremblant National Park. “So the note I found in that trunk said to ask Bentley about 452,” Lily muttered. “And he gave us an address. I’m pretty sure that address wasn’t supposed to be destroyed in a fire.”
“You think he knew about this when you called?” Romeo asked, squinting at the blackened husk in the half-acre lot.
Lily shook her head. “No. I’ve known Bentley my whole life. He and my mom are still really close. He wouldn’t have left something like this out if he knew. Especially if whatever happened here keeps us from finding 452.”
“Whatever that is.” Romeo spread his legs and folded his arms. “So he thought we’d show up at this address and find a normal house in a normal neighborhood. That didn’t happen. There’s no way somebody still lives here.”
“Well, he didn’t give me a name. Just the address. Maybe it’s not about who lived here. Maybe it’s what’s inside the house that’s important.” She turned to look at him and raised her eyebrows. “What might still be there.”
“Sounds like we need to—”
“Go in and look around? Definitely.” Lily took off down the cement walkway running up the middle of the yard.
“Yep. Okay,” Romeo muttered behind her. “Still on the same page.”
The grass and a hefty forest of weeds almost covered the walkway completely. “The fire must’ve happened a while ago. I wonder why nobody came to clean the place up.” The front door hung off its hinges, splintered and fragile-looking, but most of the house’s support beams seemed fairly stable. Thankfully, the two steps onto the front porch were cement, and so was the porch. They wouldn’t have to worry about falling through burnt and crumbling timber until they were inside.
“I bet I could just take the whole door off,” Romeo offered, eyeing the black rectangle of wood hanging sideways by one hinge.
“Yeah. Werewolf strength definitely comes in handy.” She grinned at him. “Okay, before you unleash the beast, I need to do something first.”
Lily blinked, then gestured toward the empty street and the neighborhood around them. “It’s eleven in the morning on a Monday. If we’re not careful, the whole neighborhood’s gonna see you ripping doors off a burned house and both of us trespassing in broad daylight.”
Romeo cocked his head and studied her. “Wait. You’re not talking about… time travel. Are you?”
A surprised giggle escaped her. “What?”
“You know. Speeding things up so we get to nighttime faster than everyone else. ‘Cause if you can, my dad just lost a huge bet.”
“Romeo.” Grinning, Lily raised her eyebrows and waited for him to tell her he was joking. He didn’t. “You and your dad made bets about me?”
“No, not you specifically. Just witches in general. Julian Stephens doesn’t believe in any kind of connection between magic and time travel.”
She clapped her hands over her mouth to keep from shouting. Her fingers lifted from her mouth just long enough for her to whisper, “Time travel?” Romeo shrugged. “I wouldn’t settle your bet just yet.”
“But I’m right?”
Lily snorted and scrunched her eyes shut. Then she reached out to give Romeo’s arm a reassuring rub. “Just because I don’t know anything about time travel doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But that’s not remotely close to what I had in mind.”
He looked genuinely disappointed. “Bummer.”
“Sorry.” She stared up into his green eyes just a little longer, then patted his arm. “Just stay here, okay? This won’t take very long.” Lily turned and walked a little closer to the sidewalk. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and nodded. “Okay. Let’s try this again. No black cloud this time, huh?” She clapped her hands together, summoned the illusion, and drew her palms apart again in front of her chest. A thin, glistening purple film spread between them, like she stretched a roll of violet tulle between her hands. When she’d spread her arms fully, the spell rose above her head and arced over her and the house. The shimmering purple veil fell all the way down to the grass to encompass the entire property, forming a huge dome around all of it. The late-morning sun cast a light violet hue onto everything, but it wasn’t much darker on the inside than on the outside.
Lily turned around to face Romeo and dusted absolutely nothing off her hands as she headed back toward him and the cement porch. “That’s what I meant to do in Le Chapeau Magique.”
“Instead of that giant black-cloud thing?” He stared up at the purple dome with wide eyes.
“Yeah. I have no idea what that was. I’m good at illusion charms.”
“I mean, I did everything exactly the same, and instead of an illusion, I unleashed this crazy… violent cloud of—”
“Lily?” She looked up at his gentle smile. “I know.”
“Right. Sorry. I just really don’t like having a spell backfire on me. That’s only happened like two other times, but I what I’d done wrong the minute I cast them. That cloud, though—hmm?”
Romeo’s hand rested lightly on her lower back to get her attention, and he dipped his head toward her. “Can you guess I’m about to say?”
She sighed and laughed at herself simultaneously. “You know.” He nodded. “Okay. Point taken.”
“Good. So this spell of yours. It’s gonna keep people out, right?”
“Only if they don’t try to get in.”
He bit his lip. “That doesn’t really sound like keeping people out.”
“Well it’s not. Technically. But what everybody out on the street sees right now, if they’re even looking, is exactly what we saw when we pulled up. So you can pull the doors off their hinges all day long, and the nosey neighbors won’t feel like calling the cops.”
“Huh. That’s actually pretty good.”
“Thank you.” Lily gestured toward the lopsided front door. “Your turn.”
With one more awed glance at Lily’s purple illusion, Romeo scratched the back of his head and headed for the doorway. Warped wood and rusty metal squealed for a few brief seconds, but the entire door came off in one pull. It also split in half down the middle and toppled out of his hands onto the cement porch in a spray of soot. With his arms still suspended in surprise, he glanced back at her. “Okay, that was bound to happen anyway.”
Lily stepped toward him, grabbed his forearm with both hands, and stood on her tiptoes to lean toward him. “Or maybe you’re just really strong.” She left a quick peck on his cheek, then dropped back down to her heels and stepped through the doorway.
“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”
She shrugged and fought back a laugh. “I think it’s a little bit of both.” Romeo snorted and followed her inside. They moved slowly, testing out the charred floorboards beneath their weight.
“Hey, most houses in Colorado have basements, don’t they?”
“No clue.” The floor right beneath Lily’s next step looked like it was sinking under just a little weight, so she moved her foot to the right. That felt a lot sturdier. “But it would make falling through the floor a much bigger problem.”
“Yep.” Romeo moved through what had been the entryway with her, his arms only half lifted, as if he just didn’t want to look stupid holding his arms straight out for balance. “So just don’t fall through.”
“Right back atcha.” Lily looked up at the burned ceiling, most of the plaster fallen away but some of it still stained with flickering brown streaks fading into black. The living room was surprisingly empty, probably because whatever furniture had filled it now existed as twisted heaps of ruin. They passed the kitchen, where both the blackened fridge and the soot-covered stove looked like they’d been smashed repeatedly with a sledgehammer. “Can a fire bash in appliances?” she asked.
Romeo looked up at her, and Lily nodded toward the kitchen. Squinting, he studied the damage. “Maybe if there was an explosion. Then again, I haven’t really spent a lotta time in barbequed buildings.”
“Right. You know, it looks like the fire could’ve been an accident. Except for the kitchen. I mean,those dents in the fridge look more like they came from a giant fist.”
“Well, we tabled time travel. But do giants exist?”
Lily shrugged. “They used to.”
“Yeah. If there are any left, they’re definitely not in the US.”
“Huh.” Romeo took a deep breath and raised his eyebrows. “Hey, you know what the smell of charred house almost covers up?”
“You smell magic in here?”
“Yep.” He sniffed again and nodded toward the small dining room on the other side of the kitchen. “That way.”
“It’s still so cool that you can do that. I have to use magic to find magic. All you have to do is be a werewolf.”
He snorted. “Oh, yeah. That’s all. It’s super easy, by the way.”
Lily gingerly stepped toward the dining room after him. “No, I didn’t mean it as a bad thing. I watched you get sliced with a nasty attack spell. Then you got shot. With a real bullet.” She paused. “It was terrifying both times, but you just popped right back up like nothing happened.”
His eyes closed slowly over a smile. “I wasn’t trying to scare you.”
“Oh, I know. I’m really glad werewolves have that fast track to healing.”
“You and me both, Lil.” He winked. They kept moving.
Two rectangular patches on the dining room’s back wall were almost white against the peeling black of everything else. “Looks like someone took down a few pictures,” Lily said.
“What?” Romeo turned to see for himself. “Maybe we’re not the first people to come loot the place.”
“We’re not looting.”
“We’re stepping onto someone else’s burned-down property, without permission, to look through the wreckage for a clue and maybe even more money that your mom left in here, which is totally still possible. And we found the place by reading a hidden message in a treasure chest by a lake. All we need now is a ship, and we’re basically pirates.”
Lily’s mouth popped open. “Wow. That’s a completely different take on things.”
Staring at the floor, Romeo skirted around what had to have been the dining room table. “I think it’s awesome.”
Lily laughed. “I mean, Pirate Witch does have a certain ring to it.”
“Yeah, you should get some of those boots that come all the way up to your—oh, hey. Look at that.” He pointed briefly at the corner of the dining room, and Lily had to stand beside him in order to see it.
“So there’s a basement after all.”
“Yep. Smells like the magic’s coming from down there too.”
“Then that’s where we’re going. First, though, finish what you were saying about the boots.”
Romeo blinked at her, then cleared his throat and grinned. “All the way up past your knees.”
“The Pirate Witch could totally pull it off.”
“You know, it’s an interesting thought. I’ll keep it in mind.” Lily stepped toward the open doorway of the staircase out of the dining room and looked down into complete darkness. “Here’s to hoping for no surprises.”