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A Beth-Hill Novel: Karen Montgomery Series, Book 1: Budget Cuts
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A Beth-Hill Novel: Karen Montgomery Series, Book 1: Budget Cuts


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Are creatures of the night and all manner of extramundane beings drawn to certain locations in the natural world? In the Midwestern village of Beth-Hill located in southern Ohio, the population is made up of its fair share of common citizens...and much more than its share of supernatural residents. Take a walk on the wild side in this unusual place where imagination meets reality.


Karen Montgomery was an ordinary woman until she stumbled into the extraordinary... A bargain with elves worth its weight in gold. A plague of sinister ladybugs. Rogue vampire hunters, including one who tries to turn over a new leaf--with disastrous consequences. A ghostly huntsmen of the Wild Hunt wishing for redemption. Karen's life will never be the same again.


Karen Montgomery is used to taking care of the unpleasant jobs no one else wants to deal with. When a shortage of funds forces her to fire fifteen employees from the library, she isn't happy, but the nasty task has to be done and she is, after all, the boss. But Karen finds finishing her task impossible when she can't seem to track down Ivy Bedinghaus, a night clerk she's never actually met. Once she finally does confront Ivy, she's thrust into a conflict centuries old that makes her previous troubles radically pale in comparison.

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Chapter 1


"I wish it didn't have to be this way, but we need all the extra money we can get." We were halfway through a year fraught with monetary concerns, and the library was feeling the pinch. Eliminating Sunday hours had been the first step. The second step had been to cut the pages' hours until most of them had quit in frustration. The third step had been to close the libraries earlier, which had incensed both teachers and parents, not to mention the students who now had no place to study. The fourth step...layoffs. I parroted the director's next words in my head--lord knows I'd heard them enough. "If the library is going to survive this, we have to cut down to the bone."

My job was safe. Even a skeleton crew needed an Assistant Director/Building Manager/Technology Supervisor, but I would have given almost anything to remove some of the names from the director's list.

"You want me to fire every single one of these people?" I waved the list under the director's nose. "All of them?" 

The director's lips pursed into a frown. "It's kinder to say layoffs, Karen. And I have faith you'll handle this with your usual tact." She picked up a folder and opened it; a clear indication that our interview was at an end. 

Of course I would. I'd call the sacrifices into my office--separately--and leave a box of tissues in plain view on my desk. I'd school my features to show utter sympathy, and tell them that their career at the library was over until further notice. And I'd feel like the worst sort of hypocrite, knowing that my job was safe.

There were fifteen names on the list. Of the fifteen, I knew five employees by sight. Seven were pages, the rest of our small system's minimum wage workers. Two were relatively new hires, traditionally the first to go. And one, Ivy Bedinghaus, was listed as a Night Clerk at the Beth-Hill Branch Library. 

"A what?" I stopped in the middle of the hallway.

Penny, the receptionist, gave me a startled look. "Ms. Montgomery?"

"Do we have any...Night Clerks at any of the other branches?" I asked, still staring at my list. Penny's name was not present. Someone had to answer the irate calls about why the library couldn't afford to purchase the newest John Grisham.

"Night Clerks?" Penny tapped a few keys and stared at her computer. "No, ma'am. Just the one. In Beth-Hill.

She said the town's name as if I should have known some awful secret about it. I frowned at her. "What's so different about Beth-Hill?"

Penny hesitated, and a flush of red stained her cheeks. "Oh, ma'am, I don't like to gossip..."

Which was an outright lie. I'd caught her instant messaging her cousin in the next county over more than once. "Out with it. Why is there a Night Clerk in Beth-Hill and not anywhere else? What does a Night Clerk do?"

"Umm, clerk during the night?" was Penny's helpful suggestion. I glowered at her. "Oh, surely you've heard some of the stories..."

"Pretend I haven't." I kept a weather ear out for the click of the director's door, just in case, but I doubted she would emerge from her cave. Give her a pot of coffee and an internet connection and she might not show her face until spring... I forced my mind away from uncharitable thoughts.

Penny took a deep breath. "Oh, they're a bit...odd over there."

"Odd how?" Libraries were libraries, right? Granted, there were some strange librarians out there, but a whole town?

"Odd like..." Penny fluttered her hands through the air. "Like, there are stories."

I sighed. "What kind of stories?" Penny mumbled something I didn't catch. "What?"

"Witchcraft stories. Beth-Hill was the site of a witch trial back in the 1800s. They've never recovered from that." Penny shrugged. "You weren't born here, ma'am. I don't expect you to understand."

I didn't understand, but I had lived in the area for ten years. The residents of small-town Ohio mistrusted anyone who couldn't prove that their ancestors had been founding fathers. And I had no way of knowing where mine had been when Beth-Hill had conducted its witch trial. 

"What happened to the witch?"

"Oh, she wasn't convicted. If you ask me, she should have..." The phone rang, saving me from Penny's observations of the nameless witch's faults. I heard indignant sounds from the receiver, and abandoned her to her fate.

***

By Tuesday of the next week, I had whittled my list down to the last two pages and Ivy Bedinghaus. The box of tissues on my desk looked rather worn around the edges, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from sending unkind thoughts in the director's direction. This budget crunch was not her fault. And it was in my job description to maintain the daily workings of the library system.

By Thursday, repeated calls to the Beth-Hill Branch Library had netted me with nothing to report. Ivy Bedinghaus couldn't come to the phone right now. Ivy who? Oh, Ivy never arrived before sunset, and the evening reference librarian would know how to reach her. Employee records left me with an out-of-order phone number and an address that seemed to belong to a cemetery. 

I was beginning to doubt that Ivy Bedinghaus existed. Perhaps some enterprising embezzler had created an employee out of thin air to cover their crime. According to her employee record, Ivy had been working for the library since 1954, when the Beth-Hill branch opened. She was well-past retirement age. I pictured a doddering old librarian, bent and wrinkled, carefully arranging the shelves every night in anticipation for the next day's crowd. It was a nice image, but it couldn't continue. Ivy Bedinghaus had to go. And since she wouldn't return my calls, I would have to find her myself.

I waited until dusk, hopped in my car, and drove to Beth-Hill, determined to set things straight. The branch--a tiny little building badly in need of repair--sat in the middle of a strip of storefronts. I saw two pizza places, a bookstore, a cafe, and what looked to be a coin shop vying for space with a movie theater (one screen), a bank branch, and a small general store. Very picturesque.

I pulled up in front of the library an hour before closing and walked inside to dead silence. The library clerk's eyes were closed, the reference librarian was nowhere to be seen, and a tiny wisp of a page pushed a loaded book cart to the back of the room. 

There were no patrons in evidence. The daily newspapers sat neat and folded on the reading table, the new books--what little there were, at least--shone with fresh polish. The carpet, although old and worn, did not have a single speck of dirt on it, and even the book drop at the circulation desk looked brand new.

"Oh!" Plump, bespectacled Marla Peterson hurried out of the stacks. "Ms. Assistant Director, ma'am! I'm so sorry...Janet's allergies are acting up and she's been on medicine..." 

The clerk snored. I thought about firing her on the spot, but her name had not been on my list and I had fired enough people this week. "Call me Karen. I'm here to speak to Ivy Bedinghaus. Is she working tonight?"

"Who?" Over the phone, I could excuse this strange forgetfulness, but in person, it was frightening to behold. Marla smiled and shook her head. "Are you sure you have the right branch, Ms. Assistant Director?"

"Call me Karen." I held out Ivy's employee folder. "And I'm positive I have the right branch."

"Oh." I watched her gaze for a spark of recognition as she read the scanty notes of Ivy's long career. 

"She has to be close to retirement age, wouldn't you think?" I asked. "I'm sure you've heard about the cutbacks..."

"Oh, yes...of course. Ivy." Marla tried to smile. "I've been working too many nights, I think. Ivy's a wonderful employee, Ms...Karen."

"I'm sure she is," I said gently, "but the library's budget has been slashed again. The other branches don't have Night Clerks..."

"I don't expect they do." Marla pursed her lips and stared down at the folder. "I don't expect they do."

"Can I see her?" I prompted. Overtime had been cut as well, and I'd been at work since seven. "I promise it won't take long."

Marla sighed. "If you must." She stayed silent until we reached the children's section. "Ms. Karen, I..."

But I had already spied the workroom door. I opened it and gave her my best professional smile. "I'll only be a minute." I stepped inside.

The room was dark, but a small light burned behind a set of metal shelving near the back of the room. I heard the unmistakable sound of books being put into order, and saw a shadow behind the shelves, hard at work.

"Ivy Bedinghaus?"

The sounds stopped.

"I'm Karen Montgomery, the assistant director. I've been trying to get hold of you..."

"Yes, I know." The voice wasn't old or feeble, but young and firm. I frowned and walked up to the edge of the shelving. The shadow didn't move.

"I'm sure you're aware that the library has experienced some terrible budget cuts." 

Silence.

"We've done our best not to come to this point, but we have no choice. We're being forced to lay off some employees to save..." 

When I stepped around the shelving, I saw the same young page I'd seen before. Her pale, wispy hair made her look even younger than she seemed at first glance. But when she met my gaze, I saw something old in her eyes, something I did not wish to examine fully. I stepped back.

"Where's Ivy Bedinghaus?" My voice sounded more frightened than firm.

The girl smiled. "I'm Ivy Bedinghaus."

"You can't be." I held out the employee folder. "Ivy Bedinghaus has been an employee of the library since..."

"February 13, 1954." 

I narrowed my eyes. "You can't be more than sixteen."

Ivy tucked a strand of white-blond hair behind her ear. "Seventeen."

"If you're seventeen, then how can you..." I shook my head. "I don't know what kind of scam you're trying to run here, but..."

Ivy held up her hand. "Wait. I'll explain."

I folded my arms. "Please do."

"I've worked in this branch since it opened." For the first time, I saw something other than humor in Ivy's blue eyes. "I'm the one who rescued New Johnstown's books from the flood in '87. I've guarded the rare book room in the main library when Charlie needed a break. I've..."

"Wait a second. You've already said that you're only seventeen. Don't lie to me. And who's Charlie?" The only Charlie I knew of was the founder of the library itself, and he had been dead for fifteen years. And the flood had been before my time, but I did remember an odd story about it. Perhaps Penny would know.

Ivy bit her lip. "I'm sure he'll vouch for me."

"There isn't any vouching to be done," I said. "I have no choice but to let you go, Ivy. I hope you understand."

"But I'm the library's oldest employee!"

At the moment, I could have cared less if she was the library's last employee. "I'm sorry, Ivy. I have no choice. The library just doesn't have enough money."

"I'll work for half of what I make now," Ivy said, desperate.

"You only make minimum wage. Any less than that would be illegal." Although if she truly had worked since 1954, she should have been making a lot more than minimum wage. Yet another odd thing about her employee file. No raises. No reviews. I wondered what minimum wage had been in 1954. Two dollars an hour? Less?

Ivy's chin began to wobble. I glanced around for a box of tissues, but the battered desk was bare, save for the lamp.

"Do you realize how hard it is to find a job in this town?" Ivy wiped her eyes and turned away. The desk lamp threw her shadow against the wall and made it into a monstrous shape, dark and foreboding.

"The fast food restaurants are always hiring," I suggested. "And I'm sure they pay better than the library ever did."

"You don't understand," Ivy whispered.

"I wish I had better news, budget-wise," I said. "But it's only going to get worse. If this keeps up...I'm sorry."

Ivy's shoulders shook. And although I wanted to pat her back and tell her everything would be okay, that wasn't the professional thing to do. So I left her alone, and avoided Marla's accusing gaze as I walked back to my car and drove away.

That night, a howling storm swept into town and left three thousand inhabitants without power. The library's security system went haywire, and the security company called--you guessed it--me. 

I grumbled something into the phone, pulled on a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers, and dashed through the pounding rain to my car. 

The drive to the main library took over an hour. By the time I pulled into my designated parking spot, it was well-past the witching hour.

The emergency lights cast dim glows across the silent stacks. As I entered the foyer and disabled the alarm, I thought I saw a shadow slip past the nearest display of bestsellers, but the lights from a passing car dispelled any notion of an intruder. Still, it wouldn't hurt to check. The library needed good publicity for the next election cycle, if the levy were to succeed. After-hours intruders would not endear the library in the hearts of the public.

Empty libraries hold a certain mystique. The books loom in the darkness, both strange and surreal. In daylight, they're only books, nothing more. In darkness, they hold the keys to every impossible dream. 

I ignored shifting shadows and half-imagined movement and tried to flip on the overhead lights. Nothing happened, of course. A faint thrill of unease crept up my back and made me shiver; I put that down to the chill in the air and began my rounds.

As I approached the Rare Book room, I thought I heard a whisper of sound. I stopped, straining to hear through the layers of insulating books, and heard the sound again. It was a voice, low and indistinct.

I stood and listened for a minute, trying to make out the words, but I couldn't hear clearly through the leaded glass doors that led to the Rare Book room. The leaded glass doors that should have been locked. I tried the handle. They weren't.

I glanced up at the portrait of Our Founder as I tiptoed into the room. He looked rather ghostly in the gloom, staring down at me from the top of his princely domain. If one of the librarians' had left a radio playing overnight, I'd feel like an idiot for creeping around in the dark, but it was my duty to investigate. I marked up another job position to my list. Assistant Director/Building Manager/Technology Guru/Security Guard. It was a shame that none of my jobs paid enough for me to spare the library its budget woes. 

But when I saw who sat at the Reference Desk, I forgot all about feeling stupid. "You!"

Ivy Bedinghaus spun the chair around to face me. "I smelled you as soon as you walked in the door."

"You...you what?" I stared at her. 

"I set off the alarm. I knew they would call you."

"But..." I valiantly tried to collect my thoughts. "No. I don't even want to hear it. Stay right there. I'm calling the police."

Ivy stood. "You're making a mistake, Ms. Montgomery."

I picked up the phone. "The only mistake I've made is..." My voice trailed away when I saw the elderly gentleman standing underneath Our Founder's portrait. "Who's that?" My mind didn't want to accept the resemblance between the man in the portrait and the slightly transparent man standing in front of the display case.

Ivy gently removed the handset from my grip. "Why don't you sit down, Ms. Montgomery? Charlie and I will explain everything."

"Charlie?" I croaked.

The man bowed. "At your service."

I think that was when I fainted.

***

I awoke some time later to find I lay on the lounge in the staff break room. The comforting smell of coffee rumbled from the ancient percolator on the counter, and Ivy Bedinghaus stood in front of it, frowning.

I sat up and instantly wished I hadn't. The room swung around my head, and suddenly the smell of coffee wasn't so pleasant anymore. "What did you do to me?"

"You hit your head when you fainted," Ivy said without turning around. "I'm trying to make coffee, but..."

"Shake the pot a little. It sticks." That added yet another job to my list. Head Coffee Maker. Lord, yes. I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes. Memory returned in slow trickles, aggravating what had to be a concussion. Perhaps I had hallucinated the transparent man standing in front of the display case. But I'd seen him before I fainted and hit my head.

And he had borne a marked resemblance to our late Founder.

"What's going on?" I demanded as Ivy poured me a cup of coffee. I had to sit up to accept it, but the room stayed put. "Do you realize I could have you arrested for breaking and entering?"

"I didn't break anything," Ivy said. "Charlie let me in." She sat down at the battered break table and clasped her hands together. "You have to listen to me, Ms. Montgomery."

"I can't do anything about your job," I said. "I wish I could. I wish..."

"Oh, but you can." I wondered if she knew how brightly her eyes glowed in the fluorescent lights. 

"No, I can't." I set the untasted coffee on the table and stood. My legs wobbled a bit, but I thought they would hold me as far as my office. I needed to find a phone. "I'm sorry, Ivy, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave. If you're not out of the building in five minutes, I'm calling the police."

I must have been woozier than I thought. Ivy beat me to the door, and I didn't even see her move.

I gaped at her.

"Please, Ms. Montgomery." She had a stubborn set to her jaw now and a steely glint in her eyes. "Hear me out."

I stumbled back as she approached. "You can't..."

"One hour. That's all I ask." Ivy stayed in front of me, as if she expected me to rush to the door. 

"This is...kidnapping," I squeaked, unnerved by the look in her eye.

Ivy shook her head. "No. If you decide not to help or believe me, then I'll let you go and never darken your door again."

"And if I decide otherwise?"

"Then you might be able to save the library and its budget and never have to worry about money again."

That was a nice thought, even if she was crazy. I sat down. "Okay. One hour."

For the first time that evening, Ivy looked a bit nervous. She took a deep breath. "First, you have to meet Charlie."

I followed her back to the Rare Book Room, clutching the cup of coffee like a life preserver. During library hours, of course, food and drink were forbidden in the public parts of the building, but I thought I might need something strengthening in my stomach, since I was about to formally meet a ghost.

A ghost. Just the thought made me wish I had stayed up to watch the Halloween special on the Discovery Channel last month instead of reading Jane Eyre for the fortieth time.

Ivy led the way into the Rare Book Room. I followed after a moment's hesitation. One hour.

"I have to admit that the afterlife isn't what I expected," a voice said near my ear. "Ms. Karen Montgomery. Assistant Director, Building Manager, Technology Supervisor, Jack-of-all-trades..." The voice sighed. "I remember those days fondly."

I came very close to dumping hot coffee down the front of my sweatshirt. "Damn it!"

Ivy giggled. "Charlie, that wasn't nice."

A wavery form appeared ten feet away, slowly coalescing into a dapper old man wearing a three-piece suit and carrying a straight black cane. He smiled at me. I gritted my teeth and hung onto consciousness with the rest of my strength.

"Charles Dalton, I presume?"

He bowed. "In the spirit. I'm very pleased to finally make your acquaintance. And I do apologize for frightening you earlier."

He frightened me now, but I wasn't about to admit that. "Apology accepted." 

"Won't you sit down?" 

My knees wanted to pretend they were made out of rubber, but I stood firm. "No thanks. I'd rather stand."

Charles Dalton favored me with a slightly incredulous look, then nodded and turned away. "As you wish. Are you at all familiar with the history of the library?"

I narrowed my eyes and tried to think. I remembered vague references, but my job had been to keep the library running, not to investigate things past. "I'm afraid not."

"My family used to be quite prominent in this town."

"Hence Dalton Street, Dalton Way, Dalton Park," I murmured under my breath.

Ivy glanced at me. I thought I saw a hint of amusement in her eyes.

Dalton continued as if he hadn't heard. "We helped build this town into what it is now, and some of us--a scant handful nowadays--decided to stick around to make sure Beth-Hill remained something to be proud of."

"If you were such prominent members of the community, why isn't the town named after you?" I asked.

"When Beth-Hill was founded, my great-great-great grandfather named the village Daltonsville." Dalton ran one shimmering finger down the spine of a battered book. "After his eighteen-year-old daughter was kidnapped by the fairies..."

"What?" But after that one shocked second, who was I to doubt his word? I was in the library talking to a ghost, after all. Why couldn't there be fairies? I waved my hand and sank down into a chair. "Never mind."

"Bethany Dalton was returned seven years after she vanished, but she never recovered," Dalton said. "My ancestor was so bereft by her disappearance that he changed the town's name three years before she returned."

I will admit to have wondered once or twice about the origin of the town's name. But I'd never asked anyone. If I had asked Penny, would she have told me the fairy story? Or would she have some mundane reason for the unusual name. Like Revenge, Ohio. I'd always wondered about Revenge, Ohio...

I wrenched my mind back to current events. "What does this have to do with saving the library?"

Dalton huffed into his moustache. "A little history never hurt a soul. And you need history if you want to understand what I'm going to tell you next."

I took a sip of lukewarm coffee and nodded for him to continue.

"After Bethany returned, my ancestor claimed the fairies owed him seven years of payment for taking his daughter from him." Dalton shook his head. "You can imagine what the fairies had to say about that."

I tried to smile. "I'm not sure I believe in fairies, but I'll suspend my disbelief for the time being."

Ivy sighed behind me. "Ms. Montgomery..."

"Ivy." The humor faded from Dalton's voice. "We discussed this."

"She has to know eventually." Ivy stood and crossed her arms. "I can't hide forever, Charlie."

"Don't tell me you're a fairy," I snapped. "This is a bit much. I can handle ghosts. I can even handle breaking and entering. But I can't..."

"I'm not a fairy." Ivy squirmed under my gaze. "I'm a vampire."

For the first time in my life, I couldn't think of a thing to say, except to repeat her words. "A vampire." I wanted to protest that she had to be delusional, but I was sitting in the Rare Book room talking to a ghost.

Ivy flushed. "Yeah." 

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. When I opened them again, both Ivy and Dalton were staring at me with identical expressions of concern on their faces. 

"And this is why, I presume, you're the Night Clerk?" My voice sounded a little strained. I struggled to remain calm. 

"It really is difficult to find a job in this town," Ivy said softly. "I can't get a driver's license, and I..."

"Why can't you get a driver's license?" 

Ivy's lips twisted in what might have been a smile. "The exam stations close before dusk. And they'd want my birth certificate, and social security card..." 

That could pose a problem, especially if her appearance did not match the dates on her identification. No one would believe that Ivy was sixty-five years old. I had to remind myself that I didn't really believe her, but with Charles Dalton in the room, belief seemed to be a moot point. If ghosts could exist, why not vampires? 

"So you're a vampire." I took a deep breath. "Okay. What does that have to do with your story, Mr. Dalton?"

"Do you know the tales about Fairy Gold?" Dalton clasped his hands in front of his waist and leaned on his cane. 

"I know it never sticks around for long," I hazarded. Folklore had never been my forte. 

Dalton nodded. "Fairies are tricky beings. They think it amusing just to put a glamour on garbage and leave it for unwary humans to find. The unlucky soul, thinking himself rich, might spend the gold to free himself from debt, then discover, days later, that his riches amount to a handful of rotting leaves."

"The...fairies did this to your ancestor?"

"They tried. But Jacob Dalton was too wily for even the fairies, and he insisted on a contract written in blood. But before he could act on the terms of that contract, he died."

That sounded a bit fishy to me. "Of natural causes?"

Dalton shrugged. The gesture seemed strange coming from a man of his stature. "No one ever proved he was murdered. Bethany was sent away to an asylum, where she eventually died."

"What about the contract? Did Jacob Dalton have other children?" I had to admit I was intrigued by the story. 

"No, he didn't. I'm descended from his brother's son, and that side of the family was never interested in the supernatural. The contract was never found. And people searched for it diligently, mind you. That much gold, won square and fair from the fairies..." He shook his head. "Quite a few people got arrested for digging up the ancestral grounds."

"Which are..." There were quite a few old, rambling houses in Beth-Hill, but the village had no historical society to document its unusual history. "And what does this story have to do with saving the library?"

"The house sits right outside of town. You passed it on your way here, but you can't see it from the road." Dalton glanced at Ivy. "And the contract has never been found."

A glimmer of understanding took root in my brain. "Wait a second." I stood. "You don't seriously expect me to believe..."

"If you found the contract and forced the fairies to pay up, the library wouldn't have to want for money, Ms. Montgomery." Ivy was standing, too, her eyes radiating intensity. "And you're the only one who can find it."

I took a step back and banged into my chair. "Wait a second. Why am I the only one?"

Ivy was beside me, again without seeming to move. She put her hand on my arm. "Because Charlie and I know that you'll give the money to the library."

Unspoken words hung in the air, but I didn't want to listen to them. I licked my lips. "But the director wouldn't?"

"Giving the gold to the director would not be a good idea," Ivy said.

"Why not?"

Ivy and Dalton exchanged a glance I could not interpret. I sighed and let my question pass.

"Bethany had a child in the asylum," Dalton said softly. "For better or for worse, they let her keep her daughter until she was five, and then the little girl was farmed out to various uncaring relatives. She married a man by the name of Jacobs, and they had four children. Their second daughter, Amelia, married a man named Tobias Whitting, and they had two children. Amelia and Tobias divorced. When Amelia remarried three years later, her children took the name of their new father, James Huntington.

"Amelia's son died in a tragic accident when he was seventeen. The daughter, Karissa, dropped out of sight and resurfaced ten years later with three children and a hard-luck story her mother was happy to believe. Karissa's eldest daughter, Janet, married a man named Bernard Rubengia. They had..."

"I hope there's a point to this," I interrupted. "I've never been interested in genealogy."

"I'm almost finished," Dalton said, unruffled by my rudeness. "Bernard and Karissa had five children. Two died in infancy. One vanished, the black sheep of the family. The other two remembered their family folklore and wrote the stories down. Both died unmarried, spinsters to the end."

"I suppose we have the book in the library?"

Dalton glanced at Ivy again. "No. The only two copies in existence..."

"It took us a while to figure it out," Ivy said, picking up the thread of the story. "Charlie knew right away, but I wasn't so sure, until he showed me an ancient photograph of Bethany Dalton." 

"You found a photograph of Bethany Dalton?"

Ivy pulled a small photograph album from the bookcase behind the reference desk. She handled it with reverence and none of the hastiness of youth. When she'd found the right page, she passed the book to me.

I stared down at an oddly familiar face. The girl in the photograph was young, perhaps seventeen, which would place the photograph right before her abduction. She wore a white ruffled gown and a corset that cinched her waist so tightly my own waist ached in sympathy. Her hair looked to be light brown, and it was piled on top of her head in an artfully messy chignon. She held a book in one hand--a fitting testament to the Dalton's eventual founding of the library.

Her face looked very familiar.

I tried to say something, but my mouth wouldn't form the words.

"What was your mother's name, Ms. Montgomery?"

"Harriet." My voice wouldn't rise above a whisper. "Harriet Isington Montgomery. She...she died three years ago."

"Do you know anything about her family?" Ivy kept her voice low and soothing. "Her father, perhaps?"

I cleared my throat. "She was adopted. I never knew--or had the urge--to try to find her birth family."

Ivy handed me a purple folder. "You might want to look at this, then. It took us eight months to gather all the records."

Inside the folder was a copy of my mother's birth certificate. Her mother's name was listed as Annabelle Simpson. The father...Martin Rubengia, deceased. 

"The black sheep of the family, I presume?" Both Ivy and Dalton nodded. 

The next piece of paper was a newspaper clipping, detailing the tragic, fiery death of Martin Rubengia, who had perished while attempting to save his girlfriend from a burning building. Annabelle Simpson was in critical condition at the local hospital and eight months pregnant.

She had lived long enough to name her daughter Harriet. The orphaned baby was in the local papers for weeks after the incident, until a quiet couple by the name of Ann and Harold Isington adopted the infant and took her away from the hullabaloo. 

"For a black sheep, he turned out to be a responsible young man," Dalton said. "That side of the family never amounted to much, in truth, but I'm proud to know he didn't..."

I tried to crack a smile. "Resort to a life of crime?"

"It's been known to happen."

"Did his parents know?" I wondered how they would have reacted. With surprise? Fear? Would they have insisted on adopting my mother?

"They were dead by then, and the spinster sisters moved out of state. No one connected the Rubengias with the Daltons, even though we were well aware of the connection farther back in the line. With no family to pay for his funeral, the townspeople took up a collection and gave him a proper burial beside Annabelle."

"I've been to their graves," Ivy said. "I can take you there, if you ever want to go."

"I thought you said you didn't have a driver's license," I said, more out of habit than any desire to know.

"I don't. But even vampires have friends." 

Vampires. Oh, right. Were there more in Beth-Hill, or was it a one-vampire town? My knees gave out. I sank into a chair. I wanted to bury my head in my arms, but I set the folder on the table and faced Ivy and Dalton with only a small tremor of delayed shock.

"Okay. Let me see if I've got this straight." I closed my eyes and tried to force my thoughts into some semblance of order. "Point One: There's a contract somewhere that details an agreement with fairies for seven years of payment."

"Gold, if the stories are true," Dalton said. 

"Do you know how much gold?"

"Jacob Dalton believed his daughter was worth her weight in gold," Ivy said. "I've read his diary."

"I suppose that's in the library as well?" 

Ivy opened her mouth to answer me, caught a glance from Dalton, and subsided. "No."

I glowered at them both. "Point Two: I'm descended from Bethany Dalton. You've made that quite clear. What comes next? How am I supposed to find a contract that vanished over two centuries ago?"

"Ivy's been deciphering the diaries, but she hasn't found any clues."

"Could he have had the contract with him when he died?" I asked. "How did he die, anyway?"

"A wild horse trampled him to death," Dalton said. "It would have been quite simple for the fairies to use a Phouka or some other creature to kill him."

"And how do you know the fairies didn't take the contract and tear it up?" I had no idea what a Phouka was or did, and didn't really want to know. 

"Jacob Dalton might have been unlucky, but he was no fool," Dalton said. "He hid the contract in a safe place."

"He mentions the contract in his diary, but he hasn't mentioned his hiding place," Ivy said. "I thought we could start at the house and work from there..."

"The house. Right. The ancestral home of the Dalton clan." 

"It's been empty for twenty years," Dalton said. "But if he hid it anywhere..."

"It's a wild goose chase," I protested. "And I can't..." I looked down at Bethany's photograph. Seven years with the fairies. Worth her weight in gold. She had died in an asylum through no true fault of her own. And if we found the gold or the contract, and the money was given to the library...

I sighed. "Okay. I'll help you."

Ivy beamed. Even Dalton smiled.

I held up one finger. "But. We don't go charging willy-nilly into the breach. If we're dealing with..." I closed my eyes and felt a queer shivering in my stomach "...Faerie, then we need a plan of attack."

"Attack?" Dalton frowned and glanced at Ivy.

"Or, at least, a plan," I amended. "Instead of starting at the house, why don't we start at the source? Have either of you had dealings with Faerie before?"

"Not in this lifetime," Dalton said.

Ivy shook her head. "No. But I know someone who has."

This someone of Ivy's acquaintance lived in the middle of the State Park that surrounded Beth-Hill. I didn't dare ask Ivy if he was another vampire. My sanity had been shaken so many times already, I wasn't sure it could withstand another blow.

"He owes me," Ivy said. "I don't think he'll refuse to help us."

I rubbed my eyes. "This...friend of yours."

"Nathaniel," Ivy said. "And he's not really a friend. He just owes me a favor."

"Yes." I tried to find the right words to phrase my question, but my brain didn't want to deal with subtle niceties. I sighed. "Okay. Am I driving?"

We left Dalton behind in the rare book room. He tried to explain why he couldn't come with us, but I didn't understand half of what he said. It did make a certain amount of sense that a ghost would be tied to one place, and most of the folklore I'd read had dealt with that particular problem in vague references and snippets of tales.

At least the storm had stopped. I glanced up at the full moon just as a wisp of cloud covered it.

"This Nathaniel." I still couldn't quite put my question into words. "He's not..." I glanced at the moon again. "He's not a werewolf or anything, is he?"

Ivy snorted. "No. He's not a werewolf."

With only a couple of hours sleep under my belt, I had to use almost all of my strength to concentrate on staying awake. I turned down a gravel road at Ivy's instruction, and coasted to a stop when the road ended a mile later.

"What next?"

Ivy smiled. "We walk."

I eyed the dark forest in dismay. "Walk? In the middle of the night?" 

"You can stay here," Ivy bit her lip. "It won't take me very long to reach their cave, and..."

"This...Nathaniel lives in a cave?" I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the steering wheel. "I'll stay here." My sense of adventure had packed its bags and left me hanging.

Ivy slipped out of the car. I tried to follow her path as she stepped into the forest, but she vanished too quickly for me to track. It didn't take me long to fall asleep.

An hour or so later, I awoke when someone knocked on the driver's side window. I almost expected to see a cop standing in the murky darkness, but it was Ivy, returned from her errand. A darker shape stood behind her, his face a white smudge in the moonlight. 

Ivy tapped on the window again. I rolled it down.

"Nathaniel has agreed to take us into Faerie, but we have to leave now." She glanced over her shoulder at the dark figure of Nathaniel. "It will be dawn in three hours."

Urgh. That meant I'd been awake almost all night long. "Can I leave my car here?" 

"No one will harm it." Nathaniel stepped closer and I saw him clearly for the first time. Dark hair swept down over his collar and outlined his face, which was too thin to be handsome and too...unearthly to be real. He wore normal clothes: jeans and a button down shirt that shimmered when he moved, but he did not seem comfortable in the confines of mundane clothing. Physically, he looked no more than nineteen, but when he met my gaze, I felt an odd sense of oldness from him, as if the weight of his gaze carried far more age than his physical form.

"Nathaniel, this is Ms. Montgomery, the Assistant Director of the library. Ms. Montgomery..."

"You might as well both call me Karen," I said, and opened the driver's side door. The interior light flashed on, blinding me for a moment until I closed the door again. I blinked to clear my vision.

Nathaniel smiled. "Karen, then. Has Ivy informed you of the rules?"

It was too dark, even in the moonlight, for me to see Ivy's flush, but she turned away.

"Rules?"

"You cannot eat or drink in Faerie, even if you feel that you are starving. Never stray from the path, and try your best not to insult anyone." He spoke with a stilted formality, choosing his words with care. 

Fear tried to close my throat. What had I gotten myself into? "Okay." My voice emerged as a squeak.

"Ivy, you should have told her this." Nathaniel's voice was mild, but it carried an undercurrent of anger even I couldn't miss.

"I thought it would be more plausible coming from you," Ivy whispered.

Nathaniel's mouth twisted. "I see." He turned to me. "Are you ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be." I stared into the dark forest and fought back a shiver. "How will we get to Faerie?"

"I'll lead you there." Nathaniel pressed a small flashlight into my hand. "Use it if you must, but use it sparingly."

"Thanks," I said, surprised. His hand was cool and dry. "So." How did one find the correct phrasing for such a personal question? Should I even ask him? I took the plunge. "What are you? A fairy? A werewolf? Another vampire?"

He glanced at me. I thought I saw a touch of amusement in his eyes. "Actually, I'm a member of the Wild Hunt."

The Wild Hunt? I struggled against the insane urge to laugh. Nathaniel's face blurred in my sight.

"Ms. Montgomery?" Ivy sounded worried.

Nathaniel touched my arm. I pulled away, one hand locked over my mouth as I fought against disbelief. A tear slid across my fingers, sparkling in the moonlight. I couldn't seem to catch my breath.

I slid down the side of my car and hugged my knees to my chest.

"Ms. Montgomery?"

Nathaniel crouched in front of me, his face a careful mask of neutrality. "Will you survive this?"

The odd question shocked me out of my misery. "What?" My voice cracked. I tried again. "What do you mean?"

"Is it so much to realize that what you thought you knew as fact was wrong?" His voice was as gentle as a summer breeze. "That there is more to life than modern man can ever imagine?"

I considered his question very carefully. "No. I suppose not."

Nathaniel smiled. "Then don't fight it. Accept it."

I snorted. "That's easy for you to say. You're a..." member of the Wild Hunt, dammit. 

He waited, silent. Ivy hovered behind him, her face lost in shadow.

I took a deep breath. "If you're a member of the Wild Hunt, how can you be human, too?"

Nathaniel grinned. I told myself it was my imagination that made his teeth seem sharper than they truly were. "I would not be able to help you if I were merely a Hound."

I straightened up. My knees tried to buckle, but I locked them into place. "What else?" I directed my question to Ivy, who retreated from my tone of voice. 

"What else?" She laughed, nervous. "I'm not sure you want to know. Even now..." She bit her lip and looked away.

Nathaniel's sudden frown told me more than I wished to know about his relationship with Ivy Bedinghaus. He did not trust her, and I wondered why.

"Ivy." His voice raised the hair on the back of my neck. "You asked me to help you contact Amalea's family. You did not tell me why." All at once, I saw the Hound in him, the same sudden stillness as a dog about to lunge. I almost expected him to growl.

She shrugged. "You wouldn't have agreed to help us if you knew the whole story. But now that I have your word..."

Indecision struggled in Nathaniel's gaze, along with the knowledge that he had been outmaneuvered. He bared his teeth and closed his eyes. I saw him hold back the beast.

"Very well." His voice did not betray his fury. "You have my word. I will take you to Faerie, but that is all I will do."

I expected Ivy to explain to him of our quest, but she shrugged her shoulders again and nodded. I stared at her, appalled by her rudeness.

"Ivy, what will it hurt to tell him?" I put on my Assistant Director persona and folded my arms. Vampires, ghosts, hounds...Assistant Directors had to be prepared to deal with almost everything, but they had not covered the supernatural in library school. But I was well aware that my inexperience in dealing with the supernatural put me at a marked disadvantage. Ivy had set up this meeting; and it was up to Ivy to explain her reluctance to tell Nathaniel of our Quest.

Ivy frowned. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd need to know."

"If you intend Amalea harm..." Nathaniel left the threat unsaid, but he didn't have to voice it. 

"At the moment, all we want to do is ask a couple of questions," I said before Ivy could speak. "It concerns a bargain Faerie made with an ancestor of mine and whether or not it was ever fulfilled."

"It wasn't," Ivy snapped. "I would have found proof if it had been."

"Faerie is a place, not a person," Nathaniel gazed at me for a moment, then transferred his gaze to Ivy. "What type of...bargain was this?" His eyes narrowed. "And why the secrecy?"

"You owe me a favor, and I have your word," Ivy reminded him, her voice cold.

Nathaniel stiffened. For a moment, I thought he might lash out against her, but he held himself stiffly in place, his eyes narrowed to slits.

I touched his arm. His muscles jerked under my fingertips. "I see no reason not to tell him, Ivy."

Ivy's bad mood vanished as quickly as it had come. She rubbed her eyes and shook her head. "It involves gold."

Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. "I think I've heard this story." 

"Not many people have heard it," Ivy said. "It's died out, in modern times. I think the last time someone printed the legend in a newspaper was more than thirty years ago."

"You forget. I've been here for much longer than thirty years." Nathaniel glanced at me. "The elves made this bargain. Faerie is only where they live."

He looked no more than twenty. I opened my mouth to ask, then remembered Ivy had been working at the Beth-Hill library since 1954, and she was only seventeen.

"I think we're wasting time," I said, breaking the silence. "The longer we stand here arguing about it..."

Nathaniel shook his head. "I wish you luck, but prying gold from the elves is like..." he glanced at me, "trying to pry a book from a librarian's cold dead fingers."

"Very funny," I said sourly.

He did not smile. "That was no joke."

And on that pleasant image, we made our way into the forest.



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