Mystery Musings

My critique partner and I exchanged manuscripts last week.  We read and marked up each other’s pages and exchanged them again at writers’ club on Wednesday.  I value her comments, and hopefully, she values mine.  We write in different genres, but she reads mysteries now and again, and I read Regencies and enjoy historical mysteries from 1790 to the late 1890’s (I can be had by a Jack the Ripper time period story).

Unlike my friend, I’m not an expert on either the actual events of the prince regent or Queen Victoria’s England.  But Regencies, like Jane Austen, concentrate a great deal on social mannerisms and the aristocracy, and I enjoy both.  When I think of Queen Victoria, unfortunately, I think of squalor and social injustice.   One of the reasons I enjoyed Carnival Row on Prime TV was because it reminded me of Victorian England, which might make you think that I’d love everything Charles Dickens.  But you’d be wrong.  I struggled through his books, mostly because of his writing style.  Now mind you, there’s plenty of squalor and social injustice around today, but it’s too real, so I only read about it infrequently, and only if it’s the background for a great mystery.

Once you hit World War I or the roaring twenties or, even worse, Hitler and World War II, it’s slower going for me unless the story tempts me so much, I bite the bullet and plow through the rest.  I make an exception for Agatha Christie, who did include events surrounding World War II in her mysteries, but then, she didn’t dwell on them and they’re only there to add weight to her crimes.

I was a huge fan of Georgette Heyer, and my friend, Julia Donner, writes Regencies that remind me of hers.  They mix romance and dire circumstances into a stew that keeps me turning pages.  And there’s often humor.  One of the reasons I enjoy Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series so much is the time period–1830.  Men ruled the world and practically owned their wives.  They could beat them as long as they didn’t kill them, but there were always women who proved to be the  exceptions.  Lady Darby’s first husband mistreated her cruelly, and his death brought scandal on her.  But she’s smart and resilient, and her second marriage to Sebastian Gage allows her to become his partner in solving crimes.  Her books offer intriguing chunks of history with clever mysteries.

Another writer who mines historical mysteries during the Regency years is Darcie Wilde with her Rosalind Thorne series.  Again, a noble woman is reduced to restricted circumstances but overcomes her near poverty by solving crimes for wealthy ladies who’d rather keep their secrets…secret.  I read and enjoyed the second book in the series, A Purely Private Matter.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t add Gothic literature to my list of time periods that tempt me.  Anna Lee Huber’s novels often have that same dark, brooding feeling, often in an isolated area like the ones old Gothic romances employed.  They make me think of Jane Eyre, an educated woman alone, sent to an imposing house with dark secrets, who falls for the brooding, often rude, man who employs her.  What fun!

Do you enjoy historical novels?  If so, does a particular period tempt you more than others?  Is there a period that you’d rather avoid?  I go back and forth between historical and contemporary novels.  That gives me variety, which I like.  Do you prefer contemporary?  (I love comments.)

TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–21

Is Muddy River getting a new Druid as a resident?

pizza & wine

 

Chapter 21

Most of Muddy River was celebrating Yule as they always did, but Raven and I had decided to stay home and work. We’d postponed the big supper we had with friends when we’d put off Yule Eve, so we had a day to huddle and review everything we’d learned about the voodoo priest.

Raven sipped coffee at our long kitchen work table. “When I talked to Donella, she begged us to find Spellyr’s body. I told her we were doing our best, but she’s a mess right now.”

I brought the coffee pot to the table to refill my mug. We’d eaten so much, so late last night that we hadn’t wanted much for breakfast, settling on croissants from Sugi and Nora’s shop. “Donella’s family lives in Muddy River. She’ll need them now. They’ll give her plenty of support.”

Claws went to lie next to Raven’s feet, and he reached down to scratch behind the ocelot’s ears. “Ruby put a sign-up sheet at her diner for people to volunteer to take casseroles to Donella’s each night for the next month. It’s mostly full.”

That was the wonderful thing about Muddy River. We supported each other. I’d have to remember to make a dish for her.

Raven reached for his laptop just as his cellphone buzzed. He listened intently before hanging up and looking at me. “Brown and Meda are coming over. He just got a call from a deputy he works with. A mother went to spend Yule with her daughter and her family in a small town an hour from here, and the entire town is empty. Deserted.”

“Dead.” The priest wasn’t wasting any time. He was creating undead faster than we could keep track of him.

He nodded. “Another sheriff called Brown. A family who lives in a remote area that he works is missing.”

“Is there a pattern?”

“That’s why Brown’s coming. We’re going to try to connect the dots for each missing person call. Maybe we can come up with something.”

Before Meda and Brown arrived, Birch called. I could hear the loneliness in her voice as she said, “I’m sorry to bother you, and I know canceling Yule was mostly my fault, but it feels strange being in the house alone today. Mom always made a big event of each holiday. Everything’s closed or I’d go somewhere to eat and be around people instead of bothering you, but I was wondering. . . “

I interrupted. “Brown and Meda are on their way here. We’re talking strategy. Want to join us?”

“Thank you, Hester.”

“See you soon.” I glanced at Raven at the end of the call. “Will we be in your way? Do you want me to take my witches to the attic so you can work in peace?”

He shook his head. “They can help.”

I wasn’t sure what we could do, but we’d try to make ourselves useful.

He grinned. “If nothing else, with three witches in the kitchen, we should have something interesting for supper tonight.”

I frowned. “Interesting? What does that mean?”

“If I’m right, things are coming to a head. We should be battling the priest pretty soon, and then we’ll have Yule Eve one night and Yule the next. So we should think of something different this time.”

“Chili?”

He shook his head, unimpressed.

“Homemade pizzas?” I didn’t bother with those often. Raven liked Hawaiian, and I liked chicken club. Muddy River didn’t have a pizza parlor, and it was a bother making two different types for supper for just the two of us, so I usually passed.

His tawny eyes lit up. “Hawaiian?”

“My friends will be here. Maybe we’ll make a few different kinds.”

“Can Brown and I grab scraps while you work?”

“Don’t you always?”

He laughed. “This is going to be a good day.”

We got busy cleaning our breakfast things, and soon Brown and Meda pulled in our drive with Birch only a few minutes behind them. All of us circled the table while Raven and Brown spread a big sheet of tissue paper and drew a quick map of our area. The paper wasn’t the best to work with, but it’s all I had that was big enough. Both men checked their laptops and began marking spots where people had disappeared. When they’d marked them all, they were all concentrated north and west of us.

“We’re going to start calling around to ask other enforcers in that area if they have anything for us,” Brown said.

I frowned. “On Yule? Will people be in their offices?”

Brown grinned at me. “Muddy River’s the only supernatural town I know with enough witches to bother with Yule. Shifters and vampires don’t pay much attention to it.”

I blinked. Most Celts cared about it, but then, shifters and vampires weren’t as close to Celts as Druids and witches were. “They never picked up the mortals’ celebrations?”

“We tend to stay away from most things mortal,” he said.

For good reason. While the men began their calls, Birch, Meda, and I went to my long counter tops and started pizza dough. We decided to have fun with it, making some with honey, adding garlic and cheese to another batch, and even adding a few jalapenos to a batch Meda wanted to try for a southwestern pizza. I wasn’t sure how some of them would turn out, but there’d be enough it didn’t matter.

I was stirring sauces for toppings, and Meda and Birch were chopping all sorts of things to sprinkle over the sauce, when someone knocked at the front door. I frowned. Hardly anyone came to the front porch. Friends usually knocked at the kitchen, so I went to see who was there. When I saw Lir trying to peek through the glass, I smiled and invited him inside.

The Druid jammed his hands into his pockets. “Aengus let me come back to celebrate Yule with you, but then it was put off and I wasn’t sure what to do until he told me to come anyway. I stopped at Birch’s house, but she wasn’t there.”

“She’s here.” I gestured toward the kitchen. “She’s helping me make pizzas.”

“Pizzas?” He inhaled the aromas of garlic and onion, tomato and basil, and followed me into the kitchen. When Birch looked up and saw him, her face lit up. So did his when he saw her. He looked uncomfortable and then said, “How’s it been going, shop girl?”

She pinched her lips together. “I’m the shop owner, and business was great right up to Yule.” She studied him. “What about you? How are you doing?”

“Fine. Feeling lots better.” He glanced around the kitchen at all of us watching them and listening.

Raven’s lips twitched, and he sent me a look. It was obvious the two of them were hooked on each other.

I smiled. “The witches in my coven said business was better this year than usual, both in town and over the internet. Cordelia told me that she sold more jewelry than she ever has before, mostly rings. She thinks a lot of women are going to be proposed to this Yule.”

Lir’s brows went up. “Really? I’ve been thinking it’s about time I took a wife.”

Birch’s color heightened, her cheeks pink. “Do you have to mate with someone from your village, another Druid?”

Lir slipped off his coat, and I took it for him. He looked at Birch. “I’ve known all of those girls since I could crawl. I was beginning to think I might be single my whole life until I came to Muddy River.”

Her eyes grew bright. “And now?”

“I sure wouldn’t mind joining up with a witch. Our magicks work well together.” He gave her an intense stare but kept his voice casual. “What about you? Are you getting ready to find someone?”

“I’ve dated everyone in town, but I’m still single. My parents have moved away, and I’d rather be with someone.”

“What about me?”

She gasped in surprise, and we all grinned as she flew into his arms. Raven pushed away from the table and started to the basement.

Lir watched him, looking worried. “Did I offend him? Should I have done this in private?”

I laughed. “Just the opposite. He’s ready to celebrate. We’re happy for you.”

Raven returned with two bottles of champagne. “Congratulations!”

Brown closed his laptop, and we all came together to toast the new couple. “When’s the official date for your mating?”

Lir wrapped an arm around Birch and tugged her close. “I hope tonight when I officially move in with her.”

“Aengus has given you permission to move here?” I asked.

“He encouraged it, as long as I drive to the Druid village to work with him every week day.”

Meda and I nodded to each other. “Then our coven will ward the road from here to there,” she said. “It’s time. We’re working together more than we used to.”

Raven went for more wine, and the rest of us got busy putting together a meal.

“What about your work?” Lir asked. “Do you need to finish it?”

Raven pointed to the tissue map on the table. Dots formed a circle, and he’d marked an X in its center. “We think the priest must have settled around there. Brown and I are going to drive there tomorrow to try to find him.”

“And battle him?” Lir asked. When Brown nodded, Lir said, “I can come with you.”

“No, you can get the last of your things and move here tomorrow,” Raven said. “You shouldn’t start your stay here with a battle. We have plenty of help. Cein and Boaz are coming with the four of us, and so are the three witches he held captive. Drago’s witch is as strong as some of the members of Hester’s coven. We promised them they could help with our final battle. And I hope this is our last one.”

Meda and I exchanged glances. Astra might as be as powerful as some of our younger witches, but my coven was stronger than most people realized. The young witch who’d run off with Flint still had a lot to learn, and we’d have to make sure she wasn’t hurt while we fought. The third witch, Lucia, could probably hold her own against the Undead. I’d have to pair her with one of us so we could shield her if she needed it. But it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to stay behind, and they’d learn from being in a battle as big as the one we faced.

I was worried that Lir and Birch would argue to join us, but Birch shook her head. “I’m not strong enough yet. I’d only get in your way. I understand.”

I heard her dismay and shook my head. “You’re young. We’re ancient. We’ve been practicing for centuries. You’ll get there. Keep learning new spells.”

“But I’m not there yet.” She reached for Lir’s hand. “Come back to us, though. We need you in Muddy River. I need you.”

Promises were pointless. No one could predict if we’d win or lose, so I said, “We’re going to do our best. That’s all I can tell you.”

“In that case. . . “ Meda carried bowls of dough to the work table. “Let’s enjoy each other while we can. Let’s make great pizzas.”

Raven rolled up his map, and I sprinkled flour on the table top. I went to turn on the ovens while people rolled out their dough.

“Fingers crossed they all turn out good,” Raven said.

We switched moods, laughing and talking while we came up with whatever struck our fancies. Claws went from one person to the next, begging for treats. And maybe Hecate was blessing us or the planets aligned, because each pizza tasted wonderful.

At the end of the night, when everyone finally left, Raven pulled me into his arms and nuzzled my neck. “This was a perfect day. Happy Yule, my favorite witch.”

With a grin, I clapped my hands, and all of the lights went out. I tugged Raven down onto the couch with me. “It’s time you gave me your present.”

He chuckled. “This one’s mutual.”

“Even better.” I pressed my lips to his, and heat surged through both of us. This was going to be a Yule to remember.

Cover Reveal for GRINDERS

I never know what C.S. Boyack is going to come up with next, and this time instead of fantasy with pirates and Serang, he’s written a cyberpunk novel that will be out soon.  To whet your appetite, I invited him to my blog to share his cover and tempt you with a teaser.  Here’s Craig:

I’m here to reveal my newest cover and talk a bit about Grinders. This time, I’m tackling a cyberpunk world. It’s one of those worlds where the Internet and being connected too much controls our lives.

One of the things I like about science fiction is the ability to project current events into the future. I call this, “Poking things with a stick.”

I poked a lot of things in this book, but most of them are in passing. Some of them show up in advertisements, which are invasive in this world. Others might just be a news blurb. There are times when I dive a bit deeper, and not everything is negative. Here is a small list of things that show up in the story:

  • Global warming
  • Plastic pollution
  • Helicopter moms
  • Cyber shut-ins
  • The energy crisis
  • New ways for package thieves to operate
  • Police who can’t carry guns until they are five-year veterans
  • Homeowner associations

There are a lot more, and most of them are pretty subtle. Cyberpunk is not known for deep plots, but I wanted one anyway.

Grinders is set about a hundred years in the future, in San Francisco. The main characters are cops assigned to the Grinder Squad. This is the duty nobody wants, and you almost have to screw up to get this assignment.

Grinders exist today, but I ramped them up for this story. These are people who surgically modify themselves, or each other, in basement surgeries, beauty salons, and tattoo parlors. Real world examples are those who implant chips under their skin to allow themselves to unlock doors or start cars without a key. There has even been one who injected dye into his eyeballs in an attempt to see in the dark. In that example, it actually worked but the results were temporary.

My story involves the downside of these modifications, why they’re illegal, and most of them are a bit more extreme than the real world versions. For example, you’ll meet Brandi, who has moth-like antennae implanted into her forehead. They aren’t just cute, they allow her to taste virtually everything. She’s almost like a bloodhound, only using the sense of taste.

Grinder Squad rarely ever does anything, but the new girl on the squad, Jimi, wants to bust a grind shop in the worst way. She feels like it could be her ticket off this crap detail and on to better duty.

One of my silly goals was to release the book in time for Chinese New Year. I’m not going to make it. I still need to finish my final pass, send it to the formatter, and get my promotional posters. It’s going to need a blurb, too.

I targeted this date because in the story, it’s the Year of the Rat. An important part of the story takes place at San Francisco’s annual parade. There are even a couple of rats in the story that play a pivotal role. Aside from that, I was born in the Year of the Rat.

Readers won’t actually care about my silly target date, and it’s more important to give everything the final polish. What I did get in time was cover art. So Gong Hei Fot Choi, everyone, and enjoy the cover. The story will be available before you know it, and I’ll announce that on my blog.

cover for Grinders, C.S. Boyack

C.S. bio & blog

 

 

TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–20

The women at the voodoo village only practice good magic, but it still makes Raven and Hester nervous.

voodoo woman in yellow turban

Chapter 20

Raven and I ate breakfast in silence until he finally looked at me and said, “I’m sorry. Yule is something you look forward to, and you’ve done a lot of work to make it special for everyone, then I brushed it aside as if my investigation is more important. Spellyr’s dead, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. We could have waited two days to visit the voodoo village.”

I swallowed down some of my hurt. “It will make Donella feel better if the women can tell her Spellyr’s spirit is free, but I already know it is. The priest can only control bodies, not peoples’ wills or spirits.”

He nodded, looking nervous, a rare thing for him. “I thought a long time before I fell asleep last night. And since we’ve mated, you’ve gotten people to help you cover teaching whenever I go out of town on a case and might meet an enemy. You cook for me every night after you’ve worked all day. I don’t take that for granted. I appreciate it. But I’m so used to doing things my way, I didn’t stop to think about putting off my work for Yule. I’ve never given it much thought, but it’s important to you, and I should have taken that into consideration.”

I grimaced. How could I stay mad at him? I went to wrap him in a hug, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

“I love you, Hester.”

I rested my head against his strong chest. “I love you, too.”

“Are we okay now?”

“We’re always okay, but we’re not always going to agree. That’s impossible. We’re two different people.”

“I’m fine with that, but I don’t want to aggravate you just because I’m thoughtless. If we butt heads on something, that’s a different matter.”

I glanced up at him and rubbed his cheek, he looked so troubled. “Raven, we’re just people. We’re going to mess up, even if we have magic. That doesn’t make us perfect.”

He snorted. “Sometimes, I think it makes things harder.”

So did I. What had my grandmother always told me? With great power comes great responsibility. Everything had a trade-off. I stood on tiptoe and kissed him. “Lighten up, fire demon. Let’s put this behind us. Our friends are going to be here soon, and you always get uptight when we visit the voodoo community.” We both did. Their magic was similar to witches’ but different enough to make us wary.

He dipped to kiss the top of my head. “I’ll be extra wonderful at Yule this year to make up for making you miss it tonight and tomorrow.”

“I’m holding you to that.” But the man was pretty wonderful, as was. “Now let’s get ready.”

We bustled around for the next few minutes cleaning up our breakfast things and pulling on winter boots. Claws kept coming to rub against our legs, happy we’d made up. He didn’t like it when we argued. When Boaz and Cein pulled in our drive, we were ready to go.

Once we left Muddy River, the roads had been plowed, but they were messy. If Raven were driving his Lamborghini, it would be splattered with sludge and filthy by now. He’d hate that.

Cein quirked an eyebrow at me. “Looks like you two have made up. Are you okay with missing Yule Eve?”

What a sweet man. He’d caught my mood and cared. I smiled. “I’m fine, and it won’t happen again.”

The Phoenix shifter chuckled. “It’s fun watching you two. You’re about evenly matched, aren’t you? You must be on a pretty even footing.”

“That, and we respect each other.”

I didn’t tell him, but if he mated with Lust in a few years, they’d be equals, too. But then, so were Boaz and Melodia. Most of my witches had married equals. We followed the river until we came to the bridge that crossed into Kentucky. Then we drove through Drago’s settlement and past that to the voodoo village.

As we drove between the bare, gnarled trees that led there, Boaz and Cein frowned, growing nervous. The tree branches arched overhead, blocking out the sky. They couldn’t see the houses until we drove into open space again, and then they stared. Every single home was gray with a gray shake roof and a black door. The bog stretched behind them, and the cemetery and church painted black with bloodred doors sat off to the side. We could already feel the change in the air, the magic that made us squirm, and by the time Raven parked in front of Jamila’s long, narrow house, we were all on edge.

I kept reminding myself that these women only practiced good voodoo, but even that was built on a base of blood, unlike ours. And it tainted the vibes that permeated their area like a dark aura.

As soon as Raven turned off the vehicle’s engine, Jamila opened the door and motioned us inside. As always, she was dressed in a long colorful skirt and a turban. A strand of silver hair escaped from it, and she pushed it back. Her skin was smooth, ageless. She narrowed her eyes at us. “Why are four nice people like you driving all the way to see me on your Yule Eve?”

We might not know much about her magic, but she knew about ours. Raven told her about the voodoo priest and the undead he was creating and finally, about Spellyr.

When he finished, she turned to Cein with an appreciative eye. “And you? Why’d you come?”

Cein looked taken aback. “One of the witches the priest kidnapped spelled a tattoo on my arm to send her dreams to me. When I saw them, I knew I wanted to help her.”

Jamila glanced at his ring finger. “Not married?”

Frowning, he studied her. “No. Why? I’m not a virgin if you need a virgin sacrifice.”

Jamila threw back her head and laughed. “I like you. We don’t use peoples’ blood for our magic. But I can feel your power, and you’re nice to look at it. I offered my girls to Raven, but the demon turned me down. Mostly women live here. We don’t marry often, but we do want children. You can have your pick to spend the night with, one of them or all of them. Then you can return to Muddy River.”

He jerked away from her, looking shocked. “Not my thing. If I had a child, I’d want to be part of its life.”

She sighed and shrugged. “Tell the others in Muddy River. We’re looking for powerful men to make babies. We’ll welcome them, pleasure them, and then send them away.”

Cein glanced at Raven, unsure what to make of the offer, but Raven raised his eyebrows. “She means it. No strings attached.”

Boaz grinned. “Where were you when I was childless and single? I roamed this area for a while before I settled in Muddy River. I was all into fun with no commitments.”

“And now?” Jamila asked. She laced her long fingers together, tilting her head while she measured his worth.

“I mated with a siren and have a daughter—half siren, half vampire. A little frivolous fun isn’t worth my life.”

Her dark eyes lit with amusement. “I’ve heard sirens can be jealous.”

“You heard right.” Boaz gestured to me. “But Hester didn’t give up Yule Eve to listen to us flirt and haggle. She came to ease Donella’s mind, to let her know Spellyr’s spirit is free, that the priest doesn’t control it.”

Jamila’s expression turned serious. “If not for Hester, the priest’s spies would have come into our village, and he’d have sent his undead here for us. What can I do to help you, friend?” She turned to me.

“Can you call Spellyr’s spirit and send him on his way?”

With a nod, she went to get her coat. “Come with me.”

We followed her into her snowy backyard and walked to the end of her long garden, lying dormant. A chicken coop was behind her garage, and she stepped inside its fence, grabbed a chicken, and wrung its neck. Then she shut the gate, walked to a tree stump and grabbed an ax from a nearby woodpile. She chopped off the chicken’s head and chanted, sprinkling its blood over a small altar under a trellis. I’d thought it was a bench, but after I saw the stains, knew better.

When the chanting stopped, she called “Spellyr! Come.”

A breeze blew, and a spirit flew toward us. It circled us a few times before slowing and forming the shape of our dead friend. When he saw us, he smiled.

Cein’s hands clenched, but he stayed his ground. Boaz shifted nervously from one foot to another.

Jamila nodded toward us. “Spellyr, your friends are worried about you. Your time here is short before you have to move Home. Are you all right?”

He took a step toward us, and it was all I could do not to take a step back. “Free my body,” he pleaded. “I don’t need it, but I don’t want the priest to use it to kill more innocent people. I never hurt anyone while I was alive. I don’t want to now that I’m dead.”

Raven nodded. “We’ll do everything we can.”

“That’s enough.” His image started to glow, growing brighter. “You’ll find my body and release it.” He grew so bright, I had to turn my head, and then he was gone.

Jamila smiled. “He could go home now. You lifted his burden.”

We stared at each other, feeling awkward. She gripped the chicken’s legs and started into the house. “Supper,” she said, smiling.

We walked to the door with her, then paused. “Thank you for helping us,” I said. “Is there anything you need?”

“A strong, handsome man for three nights if you can find one.” Then she chuckled. “And more pouches if you have them. Two more women joined our settlement. And a new baby was born.”

Nodding, I went to the SUV, the men following me. I grabbed a half dozen leather strands with pouches and carried them back to her. Then we hugged, and I joined the others to start home.

As we sped past open fields covered with snow, Boaz shook his head. “I know those women are our friends, but Jamila freaked me out. So did seeing Spellyr. I know death. I’m a vampire. My master drained me before he fed me his blood and changed me over, but somehow even that’s not as creepy as women who chop off chicken heads and call spirits.”

Raven smiled. “Maybe you freak her out as much as she does us.”

“Maybe.” But Boaz didn’t sound confident of that.

“The thing I don’t understand,” Raven said, “is why the priest went out of his way to antagonize us again. He knew we’d kill whoever he sent on the road from Muddy River to the Druid village. He took a chance sending a small army for one person. Why?”

I pursed my lips, thinking. “Maybe this is a dare. Maybe he wants us to track him to his new location. He must think he can defeat us there.”

“Then I’m coming with you,” Cein said.

“So am I,” said Boaz.

“I promised the three witches who stayed in Muddy River after we rescued them that they could join us when we went to battle him,” Raven said. “They’re not happy they weren’t with us the last two times we fought his undead and dark witches.”

I knew Raven had been sharing everything that had happened with them. And I knew they’d stayed just to battle the priest. “Do you call them when we meet everyone at Derek’s bar?” I asked.

He grimaced. “I just tell Brown, and he passes it to the people who are on our phone chain. I forgot to add them, but I will tonight. Remind me.”

I nodded. The priest had held them hostage a long time and then left them to die. They deserved to know.

We made small talk the rest of the way home. When we were almost to town, Raven sighed. “I’d stop at Derek’s for supper, but he’s probably not open. Want to come to our house, and we’ll make something simple to eat?”

Cein shook his head. “Derek told me to stop. Since we weren’t doing Yule Eve at Hester’s, he said he’d keep her hours and stay open tonight, then close when she has her coven over for their get-together.”

“Nice.” Raven turned onto Main Street and parked in the bar’s back lot. Only a few cars were there. “Looks like a small crowd,” he said.

But when we walked inside, every table was full. People stood and cheered, “Happy Yule Eve, friends!”

I blinked, surprised, and then I saw every member of my coven in the crowd, and my throat closed. Raven looked stunned, too.

Meda laughed. “I know we screwed up your get-together, so Birch and I wanted to make up for it. This isn’t the same, but it has to do for now. We all brought party food. We love you guys, and we want you know it.”

My eyes misted and I blinked back happy tears. “Thank you.”

Our friends held up noise makers and blew into them, and the party started. No, it wasn’t Yule Eve. For me, it was even better. I loved my coven, and I loved almost every person in Muddy River. This was a wonderful surprise. Even the three guest witches and Flint were there.

By the time we left and headed home, I was on a happy high.

Mystery Musings

What did I do before I got Netflix and Acorn?

The Old Poop and I have been married for 48 years. I still have to pinch myself when I say that. It doesn’t seem possible. The time has gone so fast, and we’ve had so many up and downs, and we’re still together.

I call him the Old Poop because my daughters and I watched the Jane/Henry Fonda movie On Golden Pond, and that was Katherine Hepburn’s nickname for Henry Fonds. In the movie, the retired professor growled and fussed a lot, but he had a heart of gold. My daughters watched him connect with the prickly boy Jane Fonda drops at his doorstep, and they said, “He’s just like Dad.” And he was. My HH might grump, but he always comes through. And he’s a heck of a lot more romantic than I am.

He likes to tease me and say that he should have known his life was changing when he married me because I warned him way ahead of time that if we got married on the day he wanted and then honeymooned for two weeks after, he’d have to stop every Sunday night to watch Henry VIII because in the series at that time, Ann Boleyn was going to being beheaded. Now, I mean, who could miss that? Not even for honeymoon fun.

Since then, the poor man has watched more fantasy and mysteries than he ever thought might be in his future. And now that we have Netflix and Acorn, his nights are filled with Longmire, Hercule Poirot, and The Queens of Mystery. Not that he minds them that much, but he sure pretends he does. He does grumble once in a while about Carnival Row and The Witcher. They’re a little dark for him, but his idea of fun is the movie Borat and anything by Mel Brooks. I’m put upon, too😊

I’m not quite sure why, and it’s something I need to think about at some future date, but I enjoy British mysteries a lot more than American ones with the exception of Longmire. We just went to see the movie Knives Out, and we both loved it. And that had an Agatha Christie feel to me. I like formats where the author says, “Here are the suspects. Try to pick the right one.” And then gives you a clever puzzle to figure out.

It makes me a little sad to say that we don’t watch very much regular TV anymore. 30-minute sitcoms don’t interest us much, and even the CSI and dramas don’t bring us back every week. But as hooked as I am on the foodnetwork every Saturday morning, when the shows are original and not repeats about cooking, the Old Poop is just as hooked on the Great British Baking Show. What can I say? Our tastes have changed over the years.

But I’m still hooked on a good mystery. And thankfully, we now have Netflix and Acorn.

Tattoos and Portents–19

Love means….when you’re mated to a witch, you’d better say “I’m sorry.”

Chapter 19

We woke to heavy snowfall. After all, it was December in Indiana, and even though we were in the southern tip of the state, on the Ohio River, we still had winter. My SUV plowed through slippery streets, but Raven’s Lamborghini was so low to the ground, it didn’t fare as well. Spellyr Blaster mowed lawns in the summer and did snow removal for winter, and once he cleared the streets, my coven and I sent blasts of warm energy to melt the ice.

I liked Spellyr. He was a kind, pleasant man. When his daughter Bru, along with every other girl in Belladonna’s coven, died from a spell that backfired on them, he and his wife refused to join Blood Sharp’s vigilantes. The parents who did join him killed an innocent man because they suspected him of making the magical pouches their daughters wore that killed them.

Bru was a sad loss for Muddy River. She was young and would have left Belladonna when she older and wiser. I felt sorry for the parents whose daughters had turned to the dark arts, because I knew most of them would have gotten smarter with a little more time.

No one in Spellyr’s family was very powerful, including Bru. He was only one fourth witch, but that didn’t stop him from contributing to Muddy River. I was in the kitchen, pouring coffee for Raven and me, when I heard his snow plow rumbling down Banks Road. He cleared the town’s main streets before working on the road that followed the river.

When he’d almost reached our house, I threw on a coat and boots to carry a few cookies and a cup of hot coffee out to the street for him. He saw me and idled the heavy machine’s engine.

“Thanks, Hester!” He gratefully took a sip of the hot brew. “A couple more hours, and I’ll be done.”

“Take care,” I told him and headed back inside, grabbing the paper on our front porch on my way and carrying it into Raven. “Do you need to go to your office today?”

He was dressed in dark jeans and a lightweight black sweater. When we’d met, he only wore black in reverence to the severity of his job. Either that, or he knew he looked darned good in it. With his ebony hair and tawny eyes, black was a good color for him. He reached for the paper. “I should at least check in to see if there are any messages. Cein’s stopping by today, too, so I can catch up with him.”

I frowned. “Has he moved his furniture here yet from his house in the middle of nowhere?”

“It’s coming today. I promised to help him unload it and settle in.”

“But he’s not crossing our borders to get it, is he?”

Raven gave me an encouraging smile. “He’s staying inside your wards, so he’ll be safe. Well, from the priest anyway. Lust is coming to help him arrange furniture, too.”

I laughed. “Good girl.” She wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to be with him.

“What are your plans for today?” he asked.

“I’m in good shape for Yule Eve, so I thought I’d head to the attic and make more pouches. We’re running low on them.” I went to the pot for more coffee then grabbed a scone I’d taken from our basement freezer last night. Raven grabbed two scones and sat across from me.

He pressed a hand to his pouches, hidden under his sweater. “We don’t want to run out of these.

I didn’t like to run out of any witch protections, so when he left for work, I climbed the steps to my attic workroom and pulled down herbs and plants hanging from the rafters. Claws followed me and sprawled near one of the dormer windows in the pitched roof. Two hours later, I’d ground all of the ingredients and chanted them into power, then filled fabric pouches. As a precaution, I always chanted a spell so that they wouldn’t work for enemies or anyone using dark magic.

Since I was upstairs anyway, I took down a few of my old spell books to look through to study what my mom and grandmother had used when they practiced magic. I had a wall of books and chants from my family and other witches I’d known when they were still alive. When my ancient, good friend Carlotta was with us no more, she’d willed her spell book to me. I liked to page through them occasionally because over the centuries, someone I’d known had encountered just about anything a witch would ever have to deal with and had come up with ways to battle it.

I was jotting down new spells to teach my coven when I heard Raven’s car race down the driveway. And I mean race. Claws jerked his head up to stare at me. I shut my books and put them away. Something must be wrong, so I hurried downstairs to meet my fire demon. He entered the kitchen with Cein close behind him. The Phoenix shifter wore a scowl as dark as my mate’s. Donella followed them inside. When I saw her, my stomach knotted. She was Spellyr’s wife.

I locked gazes with Raven, and he gave a sad shake of his head. “Spellyr never came home today. He started plowing early, and it never takes him this long. He’s always home by now. Donella’s worried about him.”

I would be, too. I turned to her. “Did he stay inside Muddy River’s borders?”

Donella bit her bottom lip. “He talked about plowing the road all the way to the Druid’s village since Aengus was driving here more than usual.”

“That’s not protected.” My voice came out hoarse. We’d been attacked on that road the last time we took it. “Muddy River’s wards protect us, and the Druids’ wards protect their settlement, but we never warded the road between us.”

She wrung her hands. “I told him that. He knew, but when that man gets something in his head, he doesn’t always listen to reason.”

Raven glanced at my coat near the door. “We’re going to look for him.”

“I’ll come with you.” Claws padded by my side as we walked to my SUV. Donatella sat in the backseat with me, with Claws between us, and Cein rode shotgun. He was nearly as tall as Raven, so it was hard to look over his shoulder at the road ahead. And his shoulders were as broad as Raven’s. He kept running a hand through his wavy, mahogany hair. He was as nervous as I was.

A few minutes later, we sped through town. Twenty minutes later, we saw Spellyr’s snowplow half on, half off the road. Raven pulled up behind it, and we got out to check the area. Lots of footprints trampled the soft, white blanket of snow at the road’s shoulder. Then we saw blood. Too much blood. Claws followed the tracks and scents over the field and through a wood until we came to another road. It wasn’t plowed, so we could see one set of wide, thick tire marks that stopped nearby and then did a U-turn heading west.

“Someone drove a heavy truck of some kind to drop people off and pick them up,” Raven said.

We returned to the SUV and found the road with the tire tracks, then followed them until we came to a highway. It had been plowed. There was no way to follow them anymore.

Spellyr was gone.

Tears streamed down Donella’s cheeks as Raven returned to the snow plow. The keys were still in the ignition. Cein got out to drive it home, and we waited to make sure the plow started before we followed him back to Muddy River.

Once again, we trudged into Derek’s bar and people came to hear the news. As it spread through town, Prim walked into the bar and took a stool. The lovely Fae reached for Derek’s hand. “Are you okay?”

Our vampire bartender bristled with anger. His fangs sprang past his lips and his wife stroked his arm as he fought for control. Finally, he nodded. He and Spellyr had been friends. Spellyr mowed around the bar and plowed the parking lot. He even cared for Derek’s yard and drive at his home.

Birch came and pinched her lips into a fretful line. She looked at me. “What if he’s not dead?”

I’d thought of that but didn’t want to upset Donella. Her face crumpled, and she cried harder on the stool next to mine. I rubbed her back.

“What if they made him one of them?” Donella sobbed. “An undead?”

I didn’t know what to say to comfort her. Finally, I said, “The priest will only have his body. His spirit is already gone.”

“Are you sure?” She wiped her eyes, but more tears came.

I glanced at Raven. “Tomorrow’s Yule Eve, and then we’re celebrating Yule with friends. But the day after that, we can drive to Drago’s settlement and ask the voodoo women who live there if Spellyr’s spirit is free.”

Before Donella could finish nodding, Birch said, “We’d all understand if you postponed the get-togethers for a day or two, Hester. Will the food you made keep if we put the celebrations off a bit?”

Put off Yule? It was tradition. “The food’s not a problem, but everyone’s counting on. . . “

Meda stood at the table she shared with Brown, Gray, and Syn. She looked around the bar. Most of the witches in my coven had come when they’d heard about Spellyr. “What do you say, guys? Can Hester check on Spellyr first?”

The entire bar nodded in agreement. Syn grinned. “It’s not like witches or supernaturals believe in Santa. We celebrate the spirit of the season—giving and caring. How can we celebrate until we know Spellyr’s spirit is safe?”

Raven nodded, weighing in with the others. “Every family can celebrate on Yule, but we’ll postpone our get-togethers until after we visit the voodoo village.”

I felt my body tense. Energy prickled over my skin. I’d worked so hard to get everything ready, I felt letdown. I didn’t like it, but what was I going to do? I’d been outvoted. I didn’t have to be graceful about it, though. I didn’t say anything, and Birch squirmed nervously. So did Meda. The members of my coven wouldn’t meet my gaze. Finally, Raven glanced at me then looked away. Next year, they could organize Yule Eve and Yule.

Speedy came out of the kitchen to take food orders and Derek started pouring drinks, but no merriment filled the bar. The crowd sat subdued by Spellyr’s death and my silence. I knew I was being a downer, but I didn’t care.

Cein leaned his elbows on the bar to tell Raven, “I’m coming with you. If anyone tries to surprise you, you might need backup.”

Donella gave a raspy sigh but shook her head. “I should go, too, but I’m sorry. I want to know, but the voodoo women terrify me.”

Raven glanced at me to comfort her, but I turned my head. He’d made a decision without asking for my input, he could deal with whatever came up. “We’ll tell you as soon as we learn something,” he promised.

There’d be no we about it. He could call her with the news.

Lust frowned at her father, and Boaz said, “I’m coming, too. If you meet a mob, another ally might prove useful.”

The man didn’t have much choice but to volunteer, or Lust would never let him hear the end of it. She turned sixteen soon, then it would only be two more years before she was legal mating age. She meant for Cein to survive until then.

Raven made desultory conversation as we ate our meals, trying to include me a few times, but I ignored him. Our food finished, we all scattered close to the same time. We drove Cein and Donella home before heading back to our house.

“On a scale of one to ten, how mad are you?” he asked.

“Eleven.” I turned away from him. The rest of the drive was in silence. Claws slunk into the kitchen with us, feeling our tension.

When we crawled into bed, I faced one direction and Raven the other. When he tried to move closer, I put an invisible shield between us.

“How long are you going to stay mad?” he asked.

“As long as I want to.”

He sighed and moved farther away from me. “Are you going to the voodoo village with us tomorrow?”

“I might as well. There’s nothing to celebrate here.”

“If we’re under attack, will you protect me or join the undead?”

“Don’t tempt me.”

He moved away a little farther. If I was lucky, he’d fall off the edge of the bed. But as I fell asleep, I stared out the window at the tiny slice of moon before it completely disappeared. No silver beams tonight. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.

Materialistic or Spiritual?

A wonderful man belongs to my writers’ group.  He’s a retired cop from Milwaukee, AND he teaches philosophy.  He’s writing a memoir about the experiences he had on the force from the time he was young and inexperienced to the time he retired, and his stories go from laugh out loud to deadly serious.  I love listening to him read when it’s his turn to share.

Since he has a philosophical bent, he told me that he believes most modern literature is materialistic, not spiritual.  I replied that I wasn’t sure I agreed with that.  But when he asked me why, I had a harder time coming up with an answer.  I’m not a fast thinker.  I have to ponder ideas and sort them.  But after pondering away, I haven’t changed my mind.  Maybe that’s because of the reading material I choose.

I read predominately mysteries, but I intersperse them with other genres.  And here’s what I think and the authors who’ve made me think it:

First, I don’t necessarily equate the spiritual with religion, just as I don’t necessarily equate justice with the law.  To me, being a spiritual person equates with trying to find the greatest good in ourselves, the divine.  And I’ll be honest.  I struggle with that, because I’m never sure exactly what I believe that means.  Anyway, here are my thoughts about the spiritual in literature:

I’ve only read two William Kent Krueger mystery/thrillers featuring Cork O’Connor–Iron Lake and Boundary Waters–but Cork wrestles with doing the right thing and balancing his Native American culture and beliefs with his Irish-Catholic upbringing.  Indian mysticism flavors everything in the stories.  Nature plays a powerful force.  The books are as much about Cork’s character as they are about surviving and catching the bad guys.

I’m a fan of Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby historical mysteries.  Kiera Darby survived a horrible first marriage.  In the 1830s, husbands OWNED their wives.  They could abuse them nearly any way they chose.  Sebastian Gage’s mother married beneath her, a commoner, and her family taunted and ridiculed young Sebastian.  When Kiera and Sebastian meet and fall in love, they both struggle to overcome their pasts and to treat those they meet, even their servants, even people who have wronged them, with respect.  They work to rise above the harsh lessons they’ve endured in life.  The quality of a person matters more to them than titles or wealth.  Is that a spiritual journey?  It feels like one to me.

But I’ve read lots of books where a plot revolves around people trying to find answers and overcoming their faults and shortcomings even while the main plot might rotate around a murder or romance.  M.L. Rigdon’s The Gracarin is a fantasy where the warrior Torak rules a country whose religion is based on nature and music, harmony, and where women are treated as equals.  He forms an alliance with another country that has a more structured religion, but the leaders of both worlds abhor debauchery, cruelty, and excess. They join forces to conquer the corrupt rulers of the wharf.  In many urban fantasies, the theme is good vs. evil.  Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series has an over arcing story question of Kate battling her father, who wants power for power’s sake.   Kate often doubts herself and her choices, which makes her journey all the more real.  Many mysteries star protagonists who try not to be stained by the bad people they battle.  They try not to stoop to their enemies’ levels.

In an extreme example, in Mark Lawrence’s fantasy, PRINCE OF THORNS, Jorg watched enemies kill his mother and young brother before they leave him for dead.  Worse, when he’s rescued and his father, the king, learns what has happened, he chooses not to go to war over the incident.  It would be too costly.  Angry and disillusioned, Jorg runs away and joins a band of ruffian misfits.  While he’s away, the king remarries, and when his new bride has a son, the king–his own father–wants Jorg dead.  Jorg does despicable things in the book, but it’s hard to hate him, because everyone else is worse, even the peasants.  Their hate is selfish and random.  Jorg’s enemies kill for land or profit, but Jorg kills to build an army strong enough to ultimately make him a ruler.  And he swears he’ll be a good one.  He has a conscience and a code of ethics, but they’re brutal by any standards.  But then, so are the times.  Jorg’s far from the spiritual journey most think of, but his struggles are real and beg the question: Does the end ever justify the means?  Everything in Jorg’s world is relative.  Does that preclude his journey from being spiritual?

I still don’t know if I have an answer to my friend’s question.  It’s possible I’m too practical to be philosophical.  Can a person be idealistic and practical at the same time?  I’m not sure.  But it was fun to consider the books I’ve read in a different light.  Any opinions you’d like to share?