Hoodoo & Hair Loss by Lisa Manifold

Chapter One

Ihadn’t been able to get much out of the woman who had collapsed in my arms on my doorstep. I’d brought her inside, and Caro, obviously used to seeing consultants in distress, started a pot of coffee, as well as topping off the kettle.

The woman looked as though she’d been tossed overboard, rescued, dragged through a knothole, and then left on the street. She hadn’t stopped shaking since I’d brought her inside. She looked to be late twenties, maybe early thirties at the most.

She also brought in what I thought of as the whiff of doom. You know like when you watch a movie, or read a book, and you just know, either by the way the music is going, or the hints the author is throwing out, that something Very Bad is about to go down?

That’s how I felt when I looked at the poor woman sitting on my couch. However, she was on my couch, and it was apparent this was where she was supposed to be. I took a deep, cleansing breath, seeking support from all the former Oracles and anyone else not a necromancer or mad at me. Then I faced to the woman with a smile. “I’m Wynter. Can you tell me what brings you here?”

Caro brought over a tray—where in the name of hostesses past had she found it? She’d put coffee, tea, and all the fixings together.

I smiled gratefully at Florry’s friend.

“She’s a caretaker. From the word go. She’s always up helping and taking care of others. If she stays here with you, it’s your job to make sure she takes care of herself, too. She’s no spring chicken.” Florry was hovering around the edges of the room.

Caro?I thought.

“Who else? Not your shivering mess, there. Poor thing. I shouldn’t call her that. She looks done in.”

Okay. Got it. Let me focus here.

“Sure, sure. I’ll be hanging around like a well-dressed bat in the belfry.”

You can’t do this to me. I keep wanting to laugh, and this isn’t the time.

Florry moved out into the front room, muttering under her breath.

“Why are you looking for me?” I tried again, watching the woman as she made herself a cup of coffee, her hands shaking.

“My name is Nina Davenport. I recently got divorced from my husband, Rockledge.”

“His name is Rockledge?” I had to ask.

“He’s probably a grade A jerk.” Florry zoomed back in. “With that name? That’s jackass territory.”

I ignored my ghost.

Not that I’d be able to ignore her words, however. Rockledge? Good night, Maggie.

Nina nodded, wrapping her hands around the cup and leaning back into the couch. “We have a daughter. Kira. She’s six, and she’s the best thing in my life.” The coffee cup lowered as Nina’s focus zoomed out. It was clear she was somewhere else at the moment. Then she shook her head and took a sip of coffee as her eyes met mine. “I just left her. I’ve never been away from her and… and it’s hard.”

“So she’s visiting with her dad?”

“No. I had to hide her from her dad.” Nina spoke in a flat tone that hid tears and grief.

I felt a chill move through me. This was layers of complexity and she’d only been here five minutes. If that. “Nina, I’m not really the person to help with custody battles. Although I do have a good attorney, if you need one.” I thought about Hubie Liegal, who while not defending me for murder, would be presenting my case against the district attorney, the police department, Scott damn-his-eyes Trenton, and Hazel Babbington around their behavior toward me.

“It’s not that.” Nina’s eyes filled with tears that spilled down her face. She dashed at them, almost angrily.

I didn’t say anything. It was apparent she needed to tell a whole story to get out what it was she needed.

“He’s a warlock.”

“At least it’s not a necromancer this time.” Florry said what I was thinking. “But a warlock isn’t much better.”

I’d need to ask what the difference was between a witch, a warlock, and a necromancer. Well, I knew what the difference was between witches and necromancers, but where did a warlock fall on the magical scale? You’ll need to explain this to me, I thought in Florry’s direction.

Warlocks are oath breakers. They are betrayers. Possibly traitors.Goldie chose this moment to chime in.

I wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad thing that I could keep this many conversational balls in the air.

“Why are you hiding Kira from him?” I decided to focus on the matter at hand.

Don’t promise anything until you’ve heard everything. Goldie sounded more dire and full of warning than normal. Dealing with warlocks is challenging. They don’t keep their word.

And the necromancers we’ve had to deal with were a piece of cake? Warning noted. Let me focus, please.

“He hexed me because I wouldn’t help him with a really difficult spell. Well,” she amended whatever she was about to say. “It wasn’t just that. It was… it was the last straw between us.”

“Are you a witch?”

She shook her head. “I’m an augment.”

I wasn’t familiar with the term. “Which means what? Forgive me, I’m still new.”

Nina frowned. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”

“If you found me, your quest has been judged as worthy of my help.” My body stiffened. I wasn’t going to take challenges from consultants. No, thank you. I had enough to worry about with my own thoughts. “What do you augment?”

“Anything. If you do a spell with me, I will increase the range, or the power of the spell. I take whatever magic is being used and amplify it.”

“That’s a nice skill to have.”

Nina rolled her eyes. “Sure, if you want to be used by anyone who thinks they can hang onto you. It’s a constant struggle to keep the shitty people at bay.”

I smiled at her then, my previously raised hackles gone. “I understand that. Completely.”

“I thought Rockledge was a witch. I love working with witches. They do a lot to help others, to help nature. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to work with some really amazing covens. I met Rockledge through one of the covens. At first, he seemed like a good man.” She stopped.

“Don’t stop there!” Florry clapped her hands.

Thank the dear lord and all the saints that no one but me could hear her.

“But just before Kira was born, he left the coven he’d been with, and started working on his own. He was hiring himself out, which can get sort of sketchy, but he was good to me, and he is—was—a wonderful father to Kira. At least, he seemed to be.” Tears started to fall again.

Caro, who had gone back into the kitchen and stood behind the island, keeping herself out of the way, came back to where Nina and I sat across from one another on the sofas. She silently handed Nina a box of tissues.

Nina whispered, “Thank you.” She took out a couple of tissues and blotted at her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s so hard to get through this. I just can’t believe this is happening to me.”

“Take your time.” I tried to be soothing.

“Hurry up!” Florry shouted.

You really need to simmer down, I thought. She’s in distress.

“We all are, waiting for her to get to the point.” Florry was unapologetic.

I took a risk and shot a glare at where she hovered near the fireplace.

She glared back.

Nina patted her eyes once more and took a breath. Her shoulders squared. “I’m just going to tell you the entire thing. When I met Rockledge, he was one of the best potion makers in the coven. He did all the potion work, all the mixing. He was—is—brilliant.”

“Then what happened?”

Nina shook her head. “I don’t know. That’s when I met him, when the coven was doing some work with… “ she stopped. “Well, it doesn’t matter. I just can’t discuss the work I take on for clients.”

“I get it.” I waved a hand.

“Anyway, we met, and he’s handsome, and he’s funny, and I fell in love.”

“That’s not a bad thing.”

“No, it wasn’t. Like I said, when we found out about Kira, he left the coven. That’s a big deal, leaving your coven. I know witches who are with the same coven their entire lives. Most of them are, unless they move away, or something like that. It’s a big deal to be invited into a coven, so it’s a big deal if you choose to leave.” Her shoulders sagged.

“I should have guessed something was wrong, but I was so happy, and he seemed happy. He said he wanted to work alone. It’s not the usual thing, but I’m not a witch, so I wouldn’t really know, right?”

“That makes sense.”

“Dear lord above.” Florry groaned. “We’re gonna be here until tomorrow, maybe later.”

“After Kira was born, he got darker. More reclusive. He was always out in the herb shed, and he seemed angrier. Neither of us were sleeping. She had a hard time staying asleep.”

“I have children. I understand.”

Caro came and sat down beside me.

“I wasn’t working a lot, but I was helping Rockledge, offering him my skill without really getting into what he was doing specifically. It’s not because I don’t pay attention.” Nina seemed like she really felt the need to explain herself for every step of her life, offering some manner of justification.

Which told me a lot more about Rockedge than she was saying, or probably would ever say.

Unaware of my thoughts, Nina continued, “It’s that when you do what I do, you learn to ignore what your clients are doing. I can usually get a sense if the client is up to something negative, and I don’t work with them.”

“But you didn’t notice it with Rockledge?”

She shook her head. “No. I was busy with Kira, and still trying to do some work, and keep our home together.”

The emotional labor. I knew that role well.

“My clients were thinning out. I used to be so busy I had to turn people away, and after Kira was born, it got to the point where I’d go days without a call. I didn’t know why. That all changed last year.”

“What changed?” I leaned forward. I felt like maybe we were getting to the crux of it now.

“One of my old clients happened to run into me when I was out grocery shopping.”

I could understand. Some of my more disastrous encounters had taken place in the grocery store lately. No one ever told you that the produce section could become hazardous to your health.

“I asked how she was, if she needed any help, and she made a face at me. Like, her nose wrinkled as though she’d smelled something bad. I was shocked. I asked her what was going on. She stared at me for what felt like a long time, and Kira, who was with me, began to cry. My client picked up Kira out of the basket and told me to follow her.”

“She didn’t hurt your daughter?”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Nina shook her head. “She wanted to get us out of the store. We walked out to the parking lot together, and I could hear her talking to Kira, even though I couldn’t hear what she was saying, exactly. I remember Kira curling her head into Madel—my client’s shoulder.” She corrected herself.

“Was it magic?”

Nina shrugged. “I don’t know. I was so upset, by her reaction to me, and the way I felt, and Kira crying. Anyway, we got out to her car, and she whirled around and asked me how I could debase myself like I was doing. To say that I was flabbergasted was an understatement.”

“What did she think you were doing?” There had to be a point to this. I’d learned that I couldn’t rush the consultants. Even if I wanted to.

“Rockledge wasn’t taking on work as a witch. He didn’t leave the coven by choice. They asked, or rather, they insisted he leave.”

“Why?”

“The old version of the word warlock means betrayer, someone who has broken their oath. I don’t know what he did, but the coven felt that he broke the oaths of their coven, of their promises. And they asked him to leave. He’d been doing work for various people, but it wasn’t good people, or people who were doing good things. The people he worked for were dark magic users. That’s not the worst thing, however,”

“What is?”

“He told people that he was good at what he did not only because of his skill. He said his work was the best because he had an augment that worked with him exclusively, one that was skilled and sought after and who would enhance the spells they needed. He told everyone that I was with him, working with him. Aligned with his goals.” Her voice broke at the last word, and she stopped.

Nina looked down at her hands, shredding the tissue she held.

I didn’t think she was sad.

More that she was furious and didn’t know what to do with her anger.

When Nina looked up again, her eyes were blazing. “He ruined my career! It takes time to build up trust, for people to be willing to allow you near their magic. And in just a couple of years, he ruined it. Everyone thinks I work with a warlock, an oath breaker, someone who chose to break his word, by choice. Rockledge made sure that it would be difficult for me to survive without him.” Her face hardened, and her eyes turned bitter. “He wanted to be sure that I’d never leave. Not because he loved me, or Kira, but because I was good for business.”

“I’m sorry. What is it that brings you here to me?” I was angry for her, and if she told me more, I would probably also be heartbroken, but I still didn’t see how I was supposed to help her. How I could even be of help.

She heaved a big sigh. “I ran into that client last year. I went home and confronted Rockledge, and not only did he admit it, he laughed about it. He told me that the only person who would ever trust me was him, and that even the people he worked for needed to know that he had me under control.” Nina scoffed. “As though I was nothing without him. Like I didn’t support myself with my talent and skill before him. No, he had to not only take it for himself, but ruin it for me. And what about Kira? Growing up with us as parents! He ruined her, too!” She shook her head. “I told him I was done. I walked away, and he laughed at me again, telling me that he’d see me in the morning because we had work to do.”

“It’s hard to believe there are men like that still.”

Nina continued as though I hadn’t spoken, her anger carrying the story onward. “The next morning, I left. My parents are gone, and I don’t have family. But I’ve picked up the ability to do some spell work. I did a concealment spell, and I used every bit of power I had. It worked, too.” She smiled, and the pride in her ability showed through, even though she was mired in stress.

“What happened when it stopped working?”

“He found us. He tried to take Kira from me. But I’d gone to another coven, one that gave me a chance even with all they knew about Rockledge, and I bought protection spells to use if he found us. I got away, but it wasn’t easy. I knew that I had to change. I hid Kira.”

“Where did you hide her?”

Nina shook her head. “I can’t say. I won’t say. She’s safe, and she’s away from her father. He doesn’t love her. He wants to use her to get me to do what he wants. If I don’t come back, they’ll take care of her.” A sob came out of her, harsh and sharp. “I don’t like to think about it, but I think he wants to see what her talents are. Whatever else he is, he’s a skilled practitioner. I’m good at what I do. Kira has two strong parents. It stands to reason she’ll have strong skills herself.” She dabbed at her eyes again, overcome. “What have I done to her?”

“You haven’t done anything. You’re not responsible for what her father does.”

At that point, Nina finally put her head down and cried.

I waited.

When she was able to look up again, and her tears had eased, she spoke. “Rockledge figured out, I don’t know how, that I’m not with Kira. He’s hexed me.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me that until I worked with him, and helped him complete his commissions, I would never be free. He’s lying, of course. He’ll never let me go. Now that I know how he’s been getting business. Now that I know how he’s been using me, and my reputation—” She shook her head again. “He’ll never let me go.”

“That all makes sense, but how to do you know that he hexed you?”

“Because he keeps showing up everywhere I go. One of Rockledge’s favorite spells the last couple of years is tracking spells.”

I didn’t know what to say. Her ex-husband sounded like a creep, a stalker, an abuser—all the things. She was divorced, but did she really want to hear this from me? “So you’re sure he put one on you?”

“I can’t augment.”

“What?”

“I’m not able to augment. Not since the first time he found me and demanded to know where Kira was. After that, he’s come everywhere I’ve moved to, and I haven’t been able to use my augmentation. I think not only is he tracking me, but he’s blocked my magic somehow.”

“This doesn’t sound like something that you’re sure about.”

“Magic is weird. What you think is best, or works best for you, might not work for someone else.” Florry had moved closer. She was less belligerent than she’d been. Her words were almost thoughtful.

“Does your ex-husband know where your daughter is?” Caro spoke for the first time since Nina fell into my front door and into my life.

“I don’t think so. Goddess, I hope not.” Nina shook her head vigorously. “I don’t think he would have been able to keep that to himself. He’d have to brag to me. Right now, he’s only threatening.”

“Okay, so what is it you want me to do?” I asked. I thought I understood how she’d gotten to this point, but I wanted to be clear.

“I want you to help me get rid of this hex and cast a spell on me or for me, for me and my daughter, so that Rockledge Davenport can never find us again.”

“Not much at all.” Florry scoffed.

It’s going to be dangerous to go up against a warlock.Goldie didn’t beat around the bush.

Like the necromancers I’ve been dealing with lately have been a picnic. I sent my thought out to both Florry and Goldie. None of the things the consultants deal with is a cake walk.

I feel I must warn you. If Goldie were a person, he’d be shaking his head.

Consider me warned.I couldn’t turn my back on Nina. Not with her daughter at stake. Not with everything she’d shared.

“Do you know what sort of hex he might use? Like, does he have a favorite?”

“No, and I wish I did. I might have known, four or five years ago, but not now. You know, people have…” Nina hesitated, obviously considering her words. “People who practice magic have a feel to their spells. It’s like anything else. People get comfortable in the way they work. I’ve worked with Rock enough to know what his spells feel like. It’s part of the reason I just know that he’s done something. Even if I could still augment, I’d think he cast a spell.” She looked at me. “If I’m wrong, then all I need is for you to help me cast a concealment spell.”

“You know a lot more witches than I do.”

Nina was already shaking her head. “Yes, and they all think I’m working with Rock, or that I was working with Rock, or I’m just pretending to take a break from working with him, and I’ve gone all shady. He knows all those witches, too. I can’t take the chance that someone might talk. Or be forced to talk. He knows too much about me and what I’ve been doing to stay away from him already.”

“Well, I’m not sure I can be more help than your contacts, but if this is what you were thinking about when you cast the fire ceremony, and you asked for the help of the Oracle, then your quest has been judged worthy.” I wasn’t sure, Oracle or no Oracle. This sounded like one of those consultants who would be a challenge.

“I’m so grateful it worked. I had to do the ceremony four times. The first three didn’t work, and I nearly gave up.” Nina’s face looked haunted suddenly, all sharp angles and hollows, as though she’d aged years in a moment.

“She’s not making it easy.” It was as though Florry was reading my mind.

No, she’s not. This is like looking for a needle in fifty different haystacks. Or at least, it feels that way.

Why had Nina been sent to me?

The Oracle doesn’t make mistakes.

You sure about that? I directed my thought at Goldie. Nice of you to join in, by the way.

I am. Even when it seems like something has gone awry, there is a reason.

Even when it goes all wrong? Florry told me she has failed a few times.

“We all do.” Florry must have heard me. “It sucks. Totally sucks. But it happens.”

This feels… not so great.I sent the thought toward both Goldie and Florry. I couldn’t tell why, but I was getting a bad feeling about all of this.

Looking at Nina, I spoke carefully. “I am going to do whatever I can to help you. I want you to be able to get your daughter and go live your life. But I’m concerned, because this feels like it’s hard to get a handle on. As though there are a lot of moving parts.” I felt strongly about helping Kira’s mother as well as helping Nina kick her sorry assed ex to the curb. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to.

“I’m sorry. Join the club. Rock’s hard to pin down. And apparently he’s even better than I thought at hiding shit.” Nina’s tears were dry now, and she seemed angry.

While I preferred trying to keep calm, I thought a small amount of anger might be good for her. You know, keep the fire going.

Another thought hit me and I sent it out to both Florry and Goldie. You think she’s telling the truth? That’s she’s on the up and up?

“She wouldn’t have gotten near you if she was in cahoots with Rock-I’m-an-ass-ledge.” Florry didn’t hesitate.

Agreed.

“Are you second guessing the Oracle?”

Maybe. This feels… weird. Like I can’t get a good grasp of what I need to do. Like it’s a slippery fish in my hand and I don’t have a net.

“Welcome to being the Oracle, sister. You’re just getting the sense that your life is going to live in the weird zone? Where have you been for the past three months or so?” Florry started to laugh, which ended in a wheeze.

That’s not it. That’s not it at all. It’s just… something.Something I couldn’t put my finger on.

But whatever the ‘it’ was that was causing me to hesitate, it wasn’t right. In fact, it was very off.

None of this mattered, however.

Nina Davenport was here, in my house, she was my next consultant. Once they came to me, once they’d been judged worthy of the Oracle’s help—it was my job to help them.

And that is what I’d do.

I just wished I knew how.