“Are you sure you’re all right with me showing the letters and pendant to Carol?”
“It seems the best way to bring up your specific interest in me and my death,” Silas answered. “I am not ashamed of what we had, and Emmaline has been gone just as long as I. There is no risk of harm to her reputation. I believe she would agree.”
“I feel like the local history buffs will have a field day with this,” Winnie couldn’t help but argue. “I don’t know that I’d want that much attention on me, even after I died.” She shivered at the thought.
Silas gave her a thoughtful look, wondering if there was more to that statement. When she volunteered nothing else, he reminded her, “You said that this would get your foot in the door with the town historian and help get you access to all of the town records on the fire.”
“I said it might,” Winnie countered. “But, yes. That’s my hope. I just want to make sure you’re really on board. I’m speaking for you here. And Emmaline. I don’t want to mess it up.” Doing research where the subject was visible and audible only to you was, Winnie had come to realize after a night’s sleep, a wholly strange and daunting new kind of project.
“Well, I am amenable to it, especially if it gives us any chance of finding answers.”
“Right. Well. I’ll run by the library after my shift, then. I’m not sure when I’ll be home. Have a nice day.” She tucked the tin box, cleaned of dust and carefully wrapped in a tea towel, into the bottom of her backpack.
“Thank you, Winnie. I will see you this evening. I hope your day is nice as well.”
She waved and stepped outside, locking the cottage door. She’d made it only about twenty feet down the path to the park before she felt a strange pulling sensation at her back. There was a sudden rush of intensely cold air, and she heard Silas exclaim, “What the dickens?!”
Winnie whirled around and found him standing behind her on the path, staring around at the trees in utter amazement. “Silas? I thought you couldn’t leave the cottage?”
“So did I,” he said, turning his gaze to her. “How is this happening?” Recalling the pulling at her back, an idea occurred to Winnie and she shrugged off her backpack. “What are you doing?” Silas asked, moving closer.
“I think,” Winnie said, digging out the tin and unwrapping it, “that maybe it’s not the cottage you’re bound to.” She lifted the pendant out of the box, the silver glittering in the light streaming through the trees.
“It would explain why getting blood on it let me see you. Want to test the theory?”
From somewhere behind Winnie, a bell began to ring the hour.
“You’ll be late for your shift,” Silas said, shaking his head.
“Well,” Winnie bit her lip, thinking it over. “I guess we can test on the way.” She slipped the pendant into her pocket and closed the tin, wrapping it back up and slipping it inside her bag again. “You stay right there, and I’ll head toward the cafe. If you suddenly pop in again, we’ll know we’re right, yeah?”
Silas shrugged and nodded in agreement, watching as Winnie stood and turned to head down the path once more. After a few moments, he felt the same strange tug that he had felt before being whisked through the cottage door. Once again, he found himself yanked toward Winnie. “Well,” he said, coming to stop at her side. “I guess that’s that.”
“I guess so,” Winnie agreed, smiling. Her smile faltered. “We can’t give the pendant to Carol, then. You’ll just get stuck with whoever she turns it over to.”
“Ah. Will the letters be enough?”
“They’ll have to be. Do you want me to run you back home?”
“Would it be all right if I accompanied you, instead? I haven’t been out of the cottage in—”
“In about a hundred years, right.” Winnie laughed. “Okay. I guess that’s fair. But I won’t be able to talk to you if anyone else is around.”
“Of course. I will try to be mindful of that.” He grinned at her.
Winnie couldn’t help but grin back. “Come on, then,” she said. “I really do need to get to work.”
They continued down the path, side by side, and emerged from the wood into the park. “Oh, my,” Silas breathed, taking in the sprawling gardens and recreation area. “I knew the estate had been turned into a park, but I never imagined anything so lovely.”
“After the library this afternoon, we can walk through the whole thing if you want,” Winnie offered.
“I would be much obliged.”
Work was more or less uneventful, despite the presence of Silas in the cafe. He found a stool at the end of the counter and set up camp, taking in all of the scents and sounds and making a game of trying to figure out what all of the various machines and devices did. He’d been able to cobble together a picture of the modern world in his mind from the visitors to the cottage over the years. Their vehicles and clothes and manners were very informative, as were their devices and the things they watched or listened to on said devices. The advent of the internet had been something of a revelation for Silas, as the cottage had never been equipped with a television, though he’d heard much of the contraptions from the radio and vacationers.
Winnie’s only coworker for the day was an older woman she called Ronnie, who seemed to be the establishment’s owner. Silas liked her from the start, approving the motherly attitude she took with Winnie, without crossing too far over the borders of their professional relationship. He felt Winnie, while clearly a capable adult, could use someone watching out for her. He’d always had the impression she felt a little lost when she arrived in Birchland Bluffs. The way she seemed so ready to accept his presence in her life only further convinced him that she was in need of friends.
He enjoyed watching the customers come in and chat as they waited for their drinks and sometimes stayed to drink them. A few people even set up at the cafe’s small collection of tables with their personal computers and seemed to be doing their work from there. Winnie drifted over to him after one of these patrons had gone, leaving the front of the cafe empty, as Ronnie was in the back making a batch of cookies. “You doing okay?”
“I’m wonderful,” he replied, beaming at her. “This is a marvelous little shop. Also, I’ve been enjoying watching all of the people come and go. It’s nice to see that the Bluffs remains a friendly town.”
“It really is,” Winnie couldn’t help but laugh. “It’s weird. But I like it.”
“I think the people here like you.”
“I really do.”
She seemed warmed by the comment. “I like it here,” she said in a soft voice.
“Can you get the door, hon?” Ronnie called out from the back. “Full hands!”
“On it, Ronnie!” Winnie called back. She smiled at Silas and returned to work.
An hour before her shift ended, Ginger strolled through the door, looked around, located Silas, and hopped up onto the counter in front of him. She meowed a loud complaint and butted her head into his shoulder until he reached up to pet her. Winnie, who was in the middle of filling a large to go order, almost dropped the pot of coffee she held.
“You all right there, Win?” Deputy Kinson asked, reaching out a hand to steady her. “You look like a goose just walked over your grave.”
“Maybe a cat,” Winnie managed with a small laugh, trying not to stare at the ghostly feline as she curled up on the counter in front of Silas and appeared to go to sleep. Winnie gave herself a little shake and turned back to the deputy. “Sorry about that.”
“No harm done,” he said with a smile. “Didn’t even spill any coffee.”
“Here,” she said, filling up the last cup and setting down the pot. “I just need to get lids on these and you’re good to go.”
“Mighty appreciated,” Kinson replied. “Sherriff’s doing performance reviews tonight. It’s going to be a long one.”
“I thought there were only four of you,” Winnie asked. “Do the reviews really take that long?”
“They do when the council has a representative sitting in and interrupting with questions every five minutes,” he sighed. “She doesn’t particularly care to do the reviews in the first place, but the interruptions just make it worse. I get that the council needs to have oversight of our office, I just wish they’d read the info we send them ahead of the reviews.”
“I get that,” she commiserated, remembering how often school board members seemed not to have any idea of what actually went on in the schools—or how little they bothered to try to learn before meeting with the principal about anything. “Well, good luck. I haven’t heard any complaints about your office. I’m sure y’all will get good reviews.”
“Heh. Thanks.” He hefted the cardboard tray, taking care to keep it even. “The coffee helps. Keeps tempers even—hard to get too cranky when you’ve got a warm cuppa in hand.”
“Glad we can make it easier for you,” Winnie laughed. “Here,” she came around the counter, “I’ll get the door for you.”
“Thanks. Have a good one.”
After Kinson fell out of view, Winnie whirled toward Silas. Peering at the back to make sure Ronnie wasn’t about to walk in, she hissed, “How is she here? I thought she was stuck in the cottage?”
“I’m not sure,” Silas replied, reaching up to stroke her ethereal fur. “I thought I was stuck in the cottage. I was obviously wrong about that.”
“But if she was bound to the pendant, too, wouldn’t she have turned up this morning?”
“You make a good point. Also, while she liked Emmaline, I can’t see her having a strong enough emotional tie to her for the pendant to be her grounding point.” He frowned, mulling it over.
“Silas…” Winnie bit her lip, hating to ask the question. “When did Ginger die?”
He blinked and looked up at her. “I’m not sure. She was there, like this, when I was. I suppose she must have died the same night as I did.”
“In the fire? Or maybe…”
“Maybe whatever, or whoever, killed me also killed her?”
Winnie shuddered. Somehow that just made it worse. “Maybe.” She agreed. She tilted her head. “Do you think her spirit is bound to yours?”
“It’s as logical a conclusion as any, based on what little we know,” Silas shrugged. “But that still doesn’t explain where she’s been all morning. I wonder…” He stood, looking around. “Perhaps she found herself out of the cottage and was just playing outside until she decided to come find me?”
“Could be. We don’t really know the range you can go from the pendant, although given that you couldn’t leave the cottage…”
“I’m going to test it out,” he said. He gave Ginger another stroke. “Keep an eye on her, will you?”
Winnie went behind the counter, trying not to move around too much as she neatened up the work station, keeping an eye on the sleeping cat all the while. After a few moments, she felt that strange tugging sensation again and Silas reappeared in the cafe. “Right. That’s north.” Then he was off again, moving in a different direction. A few more minutes passed, another tug, and Silas was back. He nodded to her and left again. Winnie took the pendant out of her pocket and set it on the shelf below the cash register, grabbing a washcloth and going to wipe down the tables. That tug was a little unnerving. She waved at Silas when he returned and set out once more, getting on with her work, one eye on the cat.
Silas was gone a little longer this time, and returned of his own volition, walking through the front door. “What’s the verdict?” Winnie asked, retrieving the pendant and sliding it back into her pocket.
“I can go about thirty feet in any direction,” he mused, settling back at the counter. This last time, I stopped when I felt the tug begin, and I walked in a large circle right at the edge of it. The distance is consistent.”
“Huh.” Winnie eyed the street in front of the cafe. “If thirty feet is the limit, we should have been able to see Ginger all morning.” Granted, neither of them had been looking for her.
“Did she move, or seem disturbed before I reappeared at all?”
“That cat didn’t budge once,” Winnie said, unable to keep her amusement from her voice. Silas watched Ginger, scratching her behind the ears. Winnie could hear the purr from the other end of the counter. “Silas, I don’t think she’s bound at all. But if that’s true, then why has she stayed inside the cottage all this time?”
Silas stared down at her. “Someone tried to drown her, you know, when she was a wee kitten. Her and her whole litter. I found the sack washed up against some driftwood when I was walking along the beach one night. She was the only one who hadn’t died.”
Winnie covered her mouth. “That’s horrible!”
“Indeed. She was far too young to be away from her mother, but I managed to nurse her to health. She always stuck by me after that. Followed me everywhere.”
“Even after death, you think?” Winnie realized what he was getting at.
The door jingled as a customer came in, putting an end to their conversation. Ronnie emerged from the back, and the next half hour was a whirlwind of work. Winnie’s eyes kept drifting to the pair in the corner. Silas kept shooting Ginger a soft smile that almost melted Winnie’s heart. Was it possible the cat’s spirit had chosen to stay with Silas all these years? If Ginger was a dog, Winnie realized, she’d have had no reason whatsoever to doubt such a thing. She had no idea what the rules were, or even if there were any. Well, clearly there were—as Silas’ limited range of movement proved—but who was to say that a spirit remaining willingly would be bound by those rules? She shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around all of it.
Life made a lot more sense yesterday.
“Afternoon Ronnie, Winnie!”
Winnie blinked, setting aside her confusion of thoughts, and smiled at Jacob as he settled in behind the counter. “Afternoon,” she returned, moving to get his coffee ready as Ronnie rang him up. “How are the bookshelves coming?”
“Pretty well. I’ve got all of the wood ordered, and Mr. Kerns is deciding on a stain. I’ll be able to start constructing the pieces Monday morning, looks like.”
“Good. That means you get to have an actual weekend to yourself,” Ronnie said with approval. “Unless you’re going to tell me you’ve booked more projects to fill your time in the middle of this one.” Her tone suggested he’d better not say any such thing.
Jacob laughed and shook his head. “Don’t worry, Ronnie. I’ve just got my usual rounds of the town property tomorrow and then yes, barring any maintenance emergencies, I have the weekend off.”
“Glad to hear it. So, what are you going to do with yourself?”
“Might go hiking,” he mused. “Community theater’s showing My Cousin Vinny tomorrow night. I might go see that.”
“Oh, I love that movie!” Winnie said. “I haven’t seen it in ages. I thought the theater showed more recent stuff, though?”
“Once a month they do ‘Flashback Friday’ and pick something older for fun. There’s only so much newer stuff available on the theater’s screening license.” He smiled at her, adding, “We could go together, if you want.”
“Oh!” Winnie blinked rapidly. From his corner, Silas perked up, glancing between Jacob and Winnie with interest. Winnie floundered for an answer. “Um. That’s—”
“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” Jacob said, obviously catching her unease.
“It’s not that! It’s just…” I haven’t been on an actual date in something like five years. I don’t know that I’m anywhere near ready to start dating again. Maybe not ever. But, she did like Jacob. Maybe as something more than a friend? She didn’t want to put him off asking her again down the road. “Ronnie probably needs me to cover the closing shift tomorrow.” It was a plausible excuse. It was probably even true—Kenny and Sunny took most Friday nights off for their teenage pursuits.
“Nope!” Ronnie declared, an amused smile on her face. “This morning Kenny requested all of the Friday night shifts through Thanksgiving.”
“Wait, what? Really? Why?” Winnie turned to stare at Ronnie in bewilderment.
“Probably trying to avoid getting dragged to football games,” Jacob guessed.
Ronnie nodded in confirmation. “That’s all the kids seem to want to do during the season, and it’s really not his cup of tea. So,” she beamed at Winnie. “You’re absolutely free to go to a movie tomorrow night. If you want to.”
“He’s an upstanding gentleman, from what I know of him,” Silas chimed in, heard only by Winnie. “You learn a lot about people by what they do when they think they’re alone, and he’s visited the cottage often to do repairs.”
Winnie resisted the urge to glare at the ghost. She turned back to Jacob, who watched her with utter patience, his warm brown eyes softening when she met them. “A night out might be nice,” she admitted.
“How about this,” he suggested, tilting his head, “just friends. No pressure. We each pay our own way. See if we’ve got anything to talk about besides coffee?”
“What,” she couldn’t help but giggle, “like a pre-date date?”
“Oh lordy,” Ronnie muttered, rolling her eyes. But Winnie caught her smile as she went to wipe down the tables.
“Sure,” Jacob agreed. “What do you say?”
“All right,” Winnie agreed, making up her mind. “I’m in.”