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Tattoos and Portents–13

Hester keeps trying to make things ahead for the Christmas Eve dinner she invites her coven and their families to.  But when a voodoo priest is busy creating undead, she has to deal with one interruption after another.  This Saturday, though, she finds time to bake cookies.  Yes.  Even supernaturals are tempted by cookies.cookies-1387826_640

Chapter 13

Snow started falling on the way home. Southern Indiana was a lot warmer than the northern part of the state, but we still had white winters. My coven and I had bespelled the roads inside our boundaries to be free of ice and snow so Raven could use his Lamborghini with no worries of ice or slippery spots. As we approached our driveway, I waved my hand and the outside lights all lit. Icicle lights hung from the roofline of our tall Victorian with a deep front porch. Lights rimmed the porch roof, too, and they twinkled on the arched walking bridge that spanned the stream at the side of our large property. More glowed from the gazebo. It looked like a picture card winter wonderland.

Raven dropped me off near the kitchen door, then he and Claws drove farther to park the car in our garage. My ocelot didn’t pad into the house, like usual, but ran toward the tree line near the river. He’d explore instead of waiting outside our bedroom door.

Raven shook snow off his black hair as he stepped inside and hung his coat near the door. Then without a word, he scooped me up and started upstairs. My fingers slid under his sweater to feel his warm skin, his hard muscles. He kicked the door shut on his way to the bed. We were finally alone, and we meant to enjoy it. Later, much later, we heard Claws lie against the door in the hallway. Raven got up to let him in the room. We slept with no blind on our window so that Hecate’s moonlight could shine in and bathe us in her silver beams.

Raven slid across the bed to spoon his long, hard body against mine, and I fell asleep cradled in his warmth. We slept in since it was Saturday and neither of us had to rush to our jobs. We took our time showering and getting ready for the day. I was going to bake and make candy the entire day. School was still open all next week, but after Friday, we started Yule vacation. Yule Eve was on a Tuesday night, and Yule itself was Wednesday, so I had more time to prepare, but I knew I’d keep losing evenings and days to trying to find the voodoo priest.

When Raven and I finally started down the stairs to begin our day, Claws ran to the front door and a deep growl rumbled in his throat. I frowned. What could bother him outside? No enemies could pass our wards. What had him so upset?

I went to the door and opened it to glance outside and stared in surprise. The young shifter who’d run away with the witch in the dream huddled on our porch. “How long have you been here? You look half frozen.” I opened the door wide and motioned him inside.

The poor boy shivered in our entryway, and I went to start the coffee pot while Raven frowned at him. “Are you in danger?”

“No, but all I can think about is Laurel. I want to help you find her. Don’t try to send me back home. I can’t go there. When my father found out what I was doing, he disowned me. I’m banned from our town.”

I could see his father doing that. My thoughts immediately flew to the boy’s mother. I felt sorry for her. If Raven ever pulled something like that, he’d be out of the house, and my kid would be home. But Raven would never be that stupid.

Raven led the boy into the kitchen, and I poured him a cup of coffee, then I poured cups for Raven and me. “I can’t keep calling you shifter or kid,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Flint, my dad says I’m flint gray in my wolf form.” He sipped the coffee, holding the mug in both hands to warm himself, and I could almost watch him thaw a little. He hunched his shoulders. “I don’t have any money. If it’s all right with you, I thought I’d sleep in my car until we find Laurel. Is there a law about that in Muddy River?”

I grimaced. “There’s no law, but it’s not going to happen. You’ll stay here with us. Things have been more chaotic than usual, though, so we’re in and out a lot.”

“I couldn’t do that.” He started to shake his head, but Raven interrupted him.

“Either here, or you can sleep upstairs of my office and the town’s jail. I used to live there until I met Hester.”

“You wouldn’t mind if I did that?”

“It’s empty right now. There’s furniture and a bed but no groceries.”

“I’ll call Ruby,” I said, “and tell her to make a tab for you at her diner, and we’ll pay for it later.”

“I don’t want . . . “

I shook my head. “You’re no good to us if you’re weak and hungry. The undead defeated you before. If you’re going to help us, you need protection from voodoo magic. I’ll get you the pouches you need. And Raven needs to teach you how to kill the undead.”

He stared. He obviously hadn’t thought things through very well when he came here, but his intentions were good, so we were going to make it work. Besides, I liked anyone who wanted to help our poor witch, and especially a young shifter who loved her this much.

“Did you bring extra clothes?” Raven asked.

“I have a suitcase with everything I own. I can’t go back.”

With a nod, Raven started to the door to get his coat. “Follow me into town, and I’ll show you my old apartment and give you a key. You won’t be able to get in the office. A door opens onto the stairs that lead to the second floor. Then I’ll take you to Noira and Sugi’s bakery and get you some rolls and bread for breakfast, and we’ll stop at Faiza’s grocery to buy you some supplies.”

“Are there any jobs I could do here to make money?”

Raven hesitated. “Toothy and Paws are looking for someone to hire, but it’s long hours.”

Flint’s eyes lit up. “I don’t mind hard work.”

“You might mind this. They run a chicken and poultry farm. Every kind of chicken known to man, ducks, and geese, even pheasants. Their daughter sells eggs to the bakery and at the market in town.”

“Will they hire me since I’m a stranger?”

Raven smiled. “After Paws hears your story about the undead taking your young witch, she’ll probably invite you stay to eat supper with them. She’s a cat shifter with a big heart. If you’re interested in meeting them, I’ll drive you out to their place.”

I glanced at Claws. “Do you want to go with them?” But my ocelot had traveled enough lately and went to stretch in front of the fireplace in the front room. I kissed Raven on his way out the door and watched him drive away before gathering things from my pantry to get some baking done today.

I had five dozen chocolate crinkles, five dozen M&M cookies, and three dozen sugar ‘n spice cookies done before Raven’s Lamborghini returned. Brown’s squad car pulled in behind it. I wiped my hands on my apron with a sigh. If Brown was here, something was up. While Brown and Meda stepped out of his car, Cein’s red Corvette pulled in behind them. It must be something big.

They all crowded into the kitchen and started toward the long wooden table. Cein stared at the cookies cooling there and grinned. “Has Raven tasted them yet for quality control?”

I shook my head. “No better time than now.”

I’d made another pot of coffee for my demon’s return and poured everyone mugs. Hands reached for cookies while they sipped the hot brew.

Raven gave me a sympathetic look and I shrugged. I could always make more. “You must have heard news,” I said.

“Oren called.” Raven reached for a chocolate crinkle, one of his favorites. “A tiny town that’s more like a spot on the road went missing, every mortal gone.”

“How many? What ages?” I asked.

Brown’s lips turned down. “Four retired couples, three young families with seven kids between them.”

Sparks flew from my knuckles. Kids. The priest had killed kids.

Meda looked at the sparks and nodded. “He’s pushed his luck.”

“Oren’s asked for backup. We’re going to meet him, then visit the town.” Raven’s strong jaw was set in an angry line. “The youngest kid was only six.”

That was the age young witches started school. I bit my bottom lip. If we could find the priest, he deserved swift and horrible punishment.

Raven glanced at the kitchen, at the bowls waiting for more ingredients. “I’ve been an enforcer a long time, and I have lots of help. You could stay home this time. We can handle this.”

I shook my head. “If you find a trail that leads us to the priest, I want to be there to watch him die.”

Raven grinned. I wasn’t usually this blood thirsty, but the priest had earned his way to my most wanted list. I wanted him dead, and if he suffered first, all the better.

He gave me a look of approval. “That’s my girl, a healthy sense of justice and revenge.”

We bundled up and drove to meet Oren.

Tattoos and Portents–12

Raven and Hester don’t welcome every supernatural to Muddy River.  Luckily, the minotaur shifter, who’s churlish and obnoxious, only came to have Hester stop the dreams that came with his fresh tattoo.



Chapter 12

I got up early enough to fix breakfast for Raven and Cein before I left to teach school. I wasn’t a big fan of a morning meal, so satisfied myself with toasted crusty bread with melted butter and cherry preserves. Raven and Cein chowed down eggs, bacon, and pancakes.

Before getting ready to leave the house, I opened the pantry door and scanned its contents. “Tonight, we’re finally staying home. I have everything I need to bake the rest of my cookies for Christmas and maybe make white chocolate bark candy.”

Cein’s golden eyes lit. “Will I be in the way if I stay another night?”

I laughed. “No, I’ll put you to work.”

“Really? Do we get to taste any of the cookies or are they all for Christmas?”

Raven grinned, going for one last cup of coffee. “It’s our job to taste them to make sure they’re good enough for guests. If you stay in town, she’ll probably invite you to Christmas dinner, anyway.”

Cein raised his eyebrows, waiting for my reaction.

“No one should celebrate Yule alone. You have to come.”

He went to the sink to rinse his coffee mug—a thoughtful guest. “I didn’t see a hotel or bed and breakfast in town. Is there somewhere I could rent a room if I stay a week or two?”

Raven went to shrug into his leather jacket, so Cein followed him to pull on his wool coat. “Remember I told you that some parents turned against us? We had to destroy or banish them, so we still have a few empty houses in Muddy River and one a little outside of town, but still protected by Hester’s wards.”

Cein looked surprised. “Your whole town is protected by wards?”

“And the Fae cast an illusion spell so mortals don’t see us,” Raven added. “Anyway, if you want to camp out in one of the houses, you can take your pick.”

“Do you treat every stranger in town this well?” Cein asked.

I snorted. “No, only the ones we’d like to keep.”

“And you’d like me to stay?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Claws went to rub against his leg, voting in his feline way. “You’d make a great addition to Muddy River. What do you do for a living anyway?”

“I run a travel agency. Mostly, I can plan exotic or specialized trips for my clients online, but sometimes, I need to meet with them to flush out an itinerary.”

“See?” I shrugged into my own coat. “We don’t have a travel agent here. But Raven should warn you. If you like the house outside of town, you’ll have lots of privacy, but Boaz and Melodia will be your closest neighbors.”

He scowled. “With the girl?”

I grinned. “Lust will probably show up on your doorstep to borrow a cup of sugar every chance she gets.”

He shook his head. “She’ll get tired of being ignored. I do like some privacy. Mind if I look at that place?”

“If you like it, it’s yours,” Raven said.

I called to Claws and started out the door. “Time for school,” I said.

Raven started to his Lamborghini, and Cein asked, “Can I go to your office after I see the house and see what you’ve discovered so far?”

“I’ll introduce you to Brown. He’s half shifter and works as a deputy sheriff in our area.”

I left them before I heard the rest. If I hurried, I’d only beat my students into the building by a few minutes. I was writing the day’s assignments on the chalkboard when they gushed into the classroom.

Asch raised her hand. “Is it true? Is there a Phoenix in Muddy River?”

The girl wriggled with excitement. I got such a kick out of her. There were students who were more serious than she was, and students who made better grades, but no one was more enthused. “Cein’s half Phoenix,” I told her. “And half warlock.”

Her eyes went wide. “Is he more powerful than you are?”


I watched her gather up the courage to ask a question she must have pondered for a while now. “Is our enforcer more powerful than you?”

“My mate, Raven? We’re equally powerful, but none of this has any bearing on your lessons. So get to it.”

A smile quirked her lips and she reached for her spelling book. Spelling wasn’t nearly as intriguing as magic, but it was necessary to be a well-educated witch. The rest of the day sped by, For their craft, we made the symbol for the wheel of the year with eight spokes inside the circle, symbolizing: Yule (or winter solstice), Inbolc (at sundown February 1st through February 2nd—the midpoint of winter when things begin to stir to life beneath the surface), Ostara (the spring equinox), Beltane (May Day or May 1st), Litha (summer solstice), Lammas (August 1st to celebrate the annual wheat harvest, celebrated by blessing a loaf of bread), Mabon (the fall equinox), and Samhain (celebrated at sundown October 31st through November 1st in honor of the last harvests of the year).

I had to chant a spell to freeze each student in place during their magic practice, they got so enthusiastic, but when I released them, the last hour of school went quickly. At closing time, I was in as big of a hurry to leave the building as they were. I was excited about spending an evening at home. When Claws and I walked into the kitchen, though, and Raven greeted me with a glass of wine and a bouquet of flowers, I knew our plans had changed. I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Sorry, Hester, but Brown and I found another man north of Muddy River with a tattoo. He’s driving to meet us at Derek’s bar, and Aengus and Afric are coming, too. So is Cein.”

“Where is Cein?” I took a sip of my wine and laid the flowers on the countertop.

Raven searched in a bottom cupboard for a pitcher to put them in. They were beautiful—a mix of yellow and pink roses with carnations and orchids woven into baby’s breath. “He liked the property by the river and drove back to where he lives to pack a few things to move here.”


“Not yet. When the owners moved, they left some furniture behind, enough to live there. If he likes it, he’ll send for the rest of his things.”

That made sense. I smiled. “He’ll make a great mate for Lust.”

Raven lifted a brow. “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?”

“He doesn’t stand a chance.” I opened a cupboard over the refrigerator where I stored potions I rarely used. I added a bit of one to the water for the flowers. They’d last a long time now, just like the Yule tree. “Lust is beautiful, smart, and determined. His directness won’t bother her. And even without magic, she can be alluring.”

A slow smile curved Raven’s lip. “I see what you mean.”

I arranged the flowers in the pitcher. It was nice to have a touch of summer among all of the winter decorations. I glanced at the kitchen clock. “When will the man get here?”

“In an hour, and I’m warning you now, he’s downright churlish. If I didn’t really want to see the dream attached to his tattoo, I’d let him keep it and never sleep again.”

I made a face. I hoped the man didn’t annoy me too much. I wasn’t in the mood. Raven came to stand behind me and massage my shoulders. “Did you have a good day at school?”

My brow rose higher and he laughed. “That’s your school teacher eyebrow. When it goes that high, I know you’re irritated.”

“You’re trying to mollify me. I’m not a child. You don’t need to jolly me into meeting him.”

“I don’t care if you like him or not, but I don’t want you to zap him before I get to see the dream.”

That made me smile. He knew it would. Shaking my head, I finished my wine, then went upstairs to change. Since I didn’t want to go to town tonight, I meant to make him regret it, too. I poured myself into my tightest pair of jeans and a form fitting sweater with a deep plunge. When I came downstairs, he groaned.

“That’s not fighting fair.” He tossed back the rest of his beer. “I’m going to have trouble concentrating now, and you know it.”

I took a tube of lipstick from my purse and applied bright red—his favorite—then blew him a kiss. “When we get home, I’ll be too tired to do anything but relax.”

He narrowed his eyes, smiling. “We’ll see about that. I know the right places to nibble.”

I blinked. “Now who’s not playing fair?”

He laughed, and we both shrugged back into our coats to drive to town.

Everyone was already there when we walked into the bar. For once, Claws accompanied us inside. He scanned the familiar faces, and his gaze settled on a thin, wiry man with a beak-like nose and a permanent scowl. My cat sat at my feet when I took a bar stool next to Cein’s, looked at the man, and growled. I grimaced. If my cat didn’t like him, I wouldn’t either.

The man asked Derek, “Is that them?”

“Yup, Hester and Raven.” Derek gave a brisk nod, not bothering to look at him when he answered—a sure sign Mr. Charming must have already annoyed our friendly vampire.

The man’s lips curled down. “Nice of you to finally show up. I’m a busy man. If you wanted information, you should have come to me.”

Sparks bounced off my knuckles and the floorboards undulated as I locked gazes with him. “Do you really want to antagonize the witch who can help you?”

The bar went quiet. He looked me up and down. “If you have a problem with me, get over it. I’m not impressed with little witches. I didn’t call you. Your man called me. Do you want to see the dream or not?”

“Not the smartest move to make.” Derek said it loud enough for him to hear.

“Just serve me a beer and shut up. I haven’t had any sleep for five nights, and I’m not about to play nicey-nice.”

A small wind whirled around me. “Do you want to stop seeing the dream?”

Lust clapped her hands. “I’ve never seen you at work before, Hester. Mom and Dad always make me stay home when there’s trouble.”

Melodia glared and a spout of water shot out of her hand, soaking Lust’s right shoulder. “Remember your manners.”

Lust made a face but leaned back in her chair to watch.

The man’s scowl deepened. “What is this town? A place for freaks to congregate?”

Raven had heard enough. Flames danced around him like an aura. “I’m taking it you don’t live close to any other supernaturals?”

“Nope, I live in a mortal town.”

“Probably better,” Raven said. “You don’t play well with others.”

The man’s eyes narrowed, and he pushed to his feet. He started to shift, then returned to his mortal form. “Don’t mess with me. I’m half bull shifter. When I change, I turn into a minotaur.”

“All the better.” Raven’s flames leapt higher. “Hester and I like our beef rare.”

His face red with fury, the guy started to the door, but Cein’s voice stopped him. “If you ever want to sleep again, you’d better see this through.”

Pinching his lips together, he sat down. “What do you need to do?”

Boaz, Festus, Cein, and Aengus began rolling up their sleeves, so he did too. He jerked when the tattoo on his arm writhed and stretched to connect with theirs.

A huge wood stretched in the air with a marshy area in its center. A house on stilts rose in the middle of the marsh. The vison wavered for a moment, then became clearer.

“How’s she showing us this?” Raven asked. “Everything else has been what she can see in the basement.”

“She’s poured her energy into one of the undead,” I said, “and she’s seeing what he sees. That takes a lot of concentration. She won’t be able to keep it up long.”

Rows of housing, like barracks, sat on the east shoreline. A big barn stood close to them. The vision tramped down a set of stairs to the barn’s basement, and that’s where the three cages were. He slid trays of food under the bars, then climbed the steps again, walking toward one of the barracks. He watched another undead pass him on his way to work on a new set of houses. The priest was building them around the marsh. An altar sat under a dead oak tree.

I heard Afric gasp. Oak trees are sacred to Druids. The priest must have killed this one on purpose. The undead started inside one of the buildings, and the vision wavered again, and then disappeared.

“She’s out of energy,” I said. “She passed out. I can feel it.” I blinked as the bar returned to its normal self.

The man turned his attention to me. “Is that it? Is the dream gone?”

Lust asked in a quavering voice, “Has the priest drained so much blood from the witches that he could create that many undead?”

I nodded.

The man said, “That’s not my problem. You promised me you’d get rid of my dreams. Are they gone now?”

I shook my head. “I have to touch your forehead and let the witch know we saw her vision. Then they’ll stop.”

“So do it already.”

Raven patted my hand. “We saw what we needed to see. We always keep our part of a bargain.”

I sneered. “I’m not going to hurt him. I’ll just release him.” But he knew me too well. If it hurt a little when I touched him, it wouldn’t have bothered me. But I’d be good. I pressed my finger to his forehead and chanted my spell. “You’re okay now.”

He pushed to his feet. “Then I’m out of here. And don’t call me again.”

“Don’t worry.” I watched him leave and wanted to cheer. If I’d had sage in the SUV, I’d have burned it and chanted a cleansing spell for the bar.

The men rolled their sleeves back down and no one talked for a minute. Finally, Cein asked, “What does the priest need with that many undead? He has to know that any supernatural with any strength could defeat them.”

“Maybe he’s not interested in us,” I said. “He sent spirits to spy on the voodoo community in Drago’s area. They couldn’t pass my wards, but how many voodoo priestesses have wards to protect them?”

“They have their own magic, though,” Raven pointed out.

“To guard against dark voodoo magic, but does it stop the undead?”

Derek stared. “You think he wants to take over other voodoo communities?”

I drank the last of my wine and nodded for another. “I can’t think of any other use for an undead army. If he attacked mortals, they’d hunt him down.”

Derek came to pour us more drinks and called for Speedy. “Their suppers are on the house tonight. Every time they come here, we put them to work.”

“That’s my job,” Raven argued.

“And my job is to keep my customers happy. What are you hungry for?”

Poor Speedy. Everyone in the bar ordered at the same time, but we realized that, so we were patient while he filled each one. That gave us more time to speculate.

“Since you’ve seen the marsh and the barracks, do you know where they’re located?” Cein asked.

Raven let out a long breath and shook his head. “No, but it should make finding them easier.”

I wasn’t sure about that, but we’d exhausted any ideas about dreams or voodoo that we had, so I turned the conversation to small talk to enjoy the rest of our meal.  Cein left the bar when we did and walked with us to our car.

Night had fallen, and I stopped to enjoy the view of Muddy River dressed for the holiday. Lights twinkled on every street lamp and greens adorned every shop. He looked, too.

“You’ve made a pretty town with nice people. Mind if I show up at your office again tomorrow, Raven?”

“You’re welcome any time. You’re invested in finding the priest, too. We’ll be happy for your help. Bring your laptop.”

“Are you comfortable enough in your house?” I asked.

“The furnishings are a little sparse, but I can manage. And you were right. Lust walked to bring me a casserole dish from her mother. She told me she’s learning to cook and she’d be happy to bring me a meal now and then since I’m a bachelor.”

I grinned. “Watch out. She can’t enchant or glamour you, but she can charm you. I like her. She’s as direct as you are.” And I thought they’d make a great couple.

“She’s a kid.”

I shrugged. “She won’t be a kid forever.”

He shook his head, and we separated to our different vehicles. “I hope he stays in Muddy River,” I told Raven on the ride home.

“Me, too, but he likes being left alone. If people pester him too much, he’ll be gone.”

I’d gotten that feeling, too. “Then we’ll let him call the shots. When he wants to be around us, we’ll welcome him. If he doesn’t, we’ll keep our distance.”

He glanced my way. “You kept your distance from me when I moved here.”

“You gave off the same vibes Cein does. You didn’t want to get close to any of us. You wanted to be impartial so that if you had to fry us, it was just part of the job.”

He shook his head, remembering. “Little did I know. And then I had to work side by side with you and saw the error of my ways.”

“You were too bossy and annoyed me.”

“But I’m a fast learner. I changed my approach as soon as I realized I meant to make you mine.”

“I’m glad you did.” I loved everything about my fire demon. I reached out to put my hand on his strong thigh. “I’m not as tired as I thought I’d be tonight.”

He grinned. “Neither am I.”

Claws gave a small growl from the back seat. He knew what that meant. Our bedroom door would be closed, and he’d be left in the hallway for a while. But Raven had won over my familiar, too, so he tolerated it.

Supernaturals at Winter Solstice

I’m knee deep into my fourth Muddy River novel that I’ve been posting here.  My fictional supernatural town is populated by witches, vampires, a fire demon, shifters, a siren, Fae, and Succubi, among others.   Part of the fun of writing them is the background that goes with each of them.  I’m a fan of myths and legends, old tales and beliefs.  Demons were often described as incubi, the infamous creatures who supposedly entered women’s dreams and led them astray.  Vampires, of course, have all kinds of baggage that go with them.  In some stories, they drain mortals dry while “nice” ones sip from them, but they leave two bite marks on their victims’ necks.  Sunlight was their enemy.  And writers tweaked how they described them to suit their needs.  Almost everyone agrees they were sexy and alluring and could glamour people.  Witches have been shown as everything from old crones with wild gray hair and warts on their noses, who offer young girls poisoned apples, to mortals gifted with magic who can use it for evil or good.

In Muddy River, my witches are all good.  They have to be with Hester as the leader of the town’s coven.  Those who resort to the dark arts are punished or banished.  As a matter of fact, every supernatural in my southern Indiana town has to obey the rules or Raven, Muddy River’s enforcer, will banish or incinerate them.  And anyone foolish enough to interfere with the town’s citizens will face Hester and Raven, who’ll hunt them down.

In this book–TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–the story takes place in December leading up to Christmas, so I wondered how a witch would celebrate the holiday.  And that led me to Yule or the Winter Solstice.  For witches, it’s the time of year when the days begin to grow longer and Light returns to the world–a time to celebrate.  Yule logs are lit in the fireplace, and candles glow on mantles and window cases.  In the books, I’ve put a Druid settlement close to Muddy River, and the witches and Druids share some of the old Celt practices.  Aengus and his fellow Druids collect and sell mistletoe.  I’ve also put a voodoo village, run by a high priestess, just across the Ohio River.  Their religion, too, is based a lot on Nature, but their magic differs from the others.

Occasionally, I’ve bent beliefs and legends to suit my story, but I try to give a true feel to each supernatural.  In the chapter today, I introduced a man who’s half Phoenix, half warlock–Cein.  Since supernaturals had to scatter and hide to avoid being hunted by mortals, it’s common for them to intermarry, mixing one gene with another.  He got lucky.  His combination of strengths made him very powerful.  But it’s not just genes that have mingled with one another.  Over time, supernaturals adopted some of the customs of the mortals they have to deal with so often.  So gift giving has become a happy tradition to celebrate friendship and love.

For the holiday season, Muddy River’s streets are decorated with evergreens and lots of lights.   Hester’s baking cookies and making candies for when her coven comes to her house to celebrate.  Troubles don’t disappear at holidays, though, so Hester and Raven have to find a voodoo priest who’s kidnapping witches, even as they struggle to finish up their holiday chores.  And just like them, I hope you can juggle the busyness of the season with the joy it symbolizes.  Happy writing!

Tattoos and Portents–11

Raven and Hester drive to Derek’s supernatural bar to meet a new man who blacked out and woke with a tattoo that triggers the same dream every night over and over again.  As always, Hester’s familiar, Claws, goes with them.

Claws and his familiar friends--twitter post

Chapter 11

The next day, my students and I followed the same routine of the day before. We hurried through our morning lessons, then took pieces of thin rope to make witches’ knots in the afternoon.

“At one time, witches used these to ward off evil. The circle represents infinity and protection, like making a circle of salt protects you. The design’s a little like a Celtic cross with four points symbolizing the four elements.”

It took a while to tie the knots to make the design, and I let each student make three of the decorations for their trees, each in a different color. By the time we finished, Birch walked in the classroom door, and she helped with our spells and chants practice. I smiled at her. I hadn’t expected to see her so soon.

When the last parent picked up their child to leave for the day, we returned to the classroom and Birch could no longer hold in what she wanted to tell me. Her words burst out of her. “I talked to my parents. They love the idea of my staying here to lead a new coven. The supernatural community they’re moving to doesn’t have that many young people. They think I’ll be happier here. And we can always visit each other.”

“Thank you!” I was thrilled. The more I thought about it, the happier I was that young witches in Muddy River would keep training after they left my school. “Would you like to come to my house for supper tonight? Any questions you want to ask me? We can hash out a plan.”

She shook her head. “I’d love to, but I need to get home. My parents have been stalling about moving because they knew I didn’t want to. My dad’s brother lives in Arizona with a lot of older supernaturals. They’ll love it there, but they want to sign papers to leave me their shop, and I’m going to buy their house . . . our house. They’re in a hurry to leave before the roads get too bad in January. I’m going to miss them. I’ve never lived alone, so it will be nice to have something to distract me and help me interact with more people.”

She sounded happy but uncertain. It was hard to take such a big step. I hugged her. “I’ll be here for you. My coven will be, too. We all think of you as ours.”

Her eyes misted, and she blinked away tears. “Thank you, that means a lot to me.”

When she left, I swept my hand to tidy the room, then bundled up. Claws and I trekked across the snowy field to go home. Raven wasn’t back from the office yet, so I made a pot of coffee and when it was ready, held the mug in both hands to warm them. The chill had finally left me when Aengus called.

“Just wanted to let you know that Lir left our settlement today. He should be back by Friday. He hopes he’ll learn something on his trip.”

“It would be nice if he found someone else with a tattoo.” I was about to say more when I heard Raven’s car pull into the drive. “Raven just got home. I’ll share your news with him, too.”

“Has he heard anything?” Aengus asked.

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” I waited for Raven to come through the kitchen door before saying, “Aengus is wondering if you’ve learned anything new.”

My demon shrugged out of his leather jacket and hung it on the coat tree by the door. He was wearing a lightweight sweater today and looked especially good. When he nodded, I put my phone on speaker. Raven came closer and said, “At the office today, Brown and I called every supernatural who travels for his job and got lucky. We found a man two towns over who came home from his trip with a tattoo and nonstop dreams. He’s driving to Muddy River tonight to meet us at Derek’s bar. He’s desperate. He hopes Hester can help him.”

“Then I’m coming tonight, too,” Aengus said. “So is Afric. She’s tired of letting me have all the fun.”

I smiled. Druids were like witches. Females were treated as equals and often held high positions in their society. Afric might serve snacks and coffee when we visited their settlement, but she was a lawyer and could call on lightning as easily as her husband.

Raven chuckled. “We’re meeting at five thirty, a little earlier than usual. The bar shouldn’t be as busy then.”

“We’ll be there.”

Once Aengus disconnected, I turned to Raven. “Coffee or wine?”

He started to the refrigerator. “I don’t get as cold as you do. Wine for me. Are you ready for a glass?”

We sat across from each other at the kitchen table to talk about our day. I told him that Birch had agreed to lead a new coven. He said that he and Brown had called every supernatural on their list of travelers for the areas close to the Ohio River.

“If we have the time, we’re making lists for every area we enforce, but we’ll have to do it one county at a time. We were surprised how many supernaturals live scattered among mortals, and we didn’t realize how many of them traveled for business.”

“And out of all of your calls, you only found one who came home with a tattoo?”

He nodded. “That means there are two more tattoos out there somewhere that we didn’t find.”

“A good reason to make your lists.” I sipped my Riesling.

He grew thoughtful. “I’m looking forward to meeting Cein, the man who’s driving here tonight. He’s half Phoenix. I’ve never met one of those before.”

I frowned. I’d never met one either. “What makes him a Phoenix?”

“He said he bursts into flames once a month and is renewed. He shifts into a giant Phoenix—the bird—when he changes.”

“I didn’t even know a real Phoenix existed.” My first thoughts flew to Harry Potter and Dumbledore. I’d loved that series. In the books, when his bird fought, it was formidable. “

“Neither did I.” Raven smirked. “I thought they were a myth. I can’t wait to meet Cein. I called Festus and Boaz, and they’ll be at Derek’s tonight, too. Boaz said they have to bring Lust. They’ve left her alone twice now, and they don’t want to do it again. A neighbor promised to keep an eye on her, but Lust makes her nervous.”

I could understand that. If the girl didn’t want to listen to someone, she wouldn’t. “Is it all right with Derek if they bring a fifteen-year-old into his bar?”

“He made an exception for them this time.”

I looked at the clock and hurried upstairs to change. I wasn’t going to wear my black witchy clothes to town. Just like Aengus, I changed into jeans. I didn’t have any flannel shirts, so I pulled a black sweater over my head. When I came downstairs, Raven’s gaze smoldered as he looked me up and down. What can I say? He’s a demon. Their hormones never calm down. But then, I was beginning to think mine were going to stay in hyperdrive, too, since we’d met. I shook my head at him and reached for my coat. “Save those ideas for later.”

He shrugged into his leather jacket. “I don’t have to. They’re always there.”

It was a short drive to the bar, and as usual, Claws ditched us for his friends. Familiars enjoy hanging out with each other. I’d worried about how well an ocelot would get along with a gaggle of cats, but they made it work. A red Corvette neither of us recognized was parked close to the door, so when we walked in, we scanned the room for a new face.

Derek nodded at us. “That’s them, Raven and Hester. Hester helped the two men with tattoos from Muddy River. She’ll help you, too.”

The man stood and stretched out his hand to shake ours. “Hello, I’m Cein.”

He was almost as tall as Raven with a lean, hard build. His mahogany colored hair waved back from his high forehead, but what really intrigued me were his eyes—pale golden. Not the amber of Raven’s, but as golden as a full moon when it first rose. I could feel his power when our fingers touched.

Raven must have felt it, too. He narrowed his eyes, studying him. “You’re more than just a Phoenix.”

Cein nodded. “I’m half warlock, too.”

What a combination! The man had magic, and he could shift into a fearsome bird. He lifted a brow to study us in return. “I’d guess each of you is still more powerful than I am. I hope I never find out.”

Raven smiled. “You won’t unless you become an enemy. I don’t see any reason why that would happen.”

Cein took a stool and waited for us to join him. “You never know. Two towns ago, three vampires turned against me. One of their mates fancied me. Even though I didn’t fancy her, they came together to attack me, and not one of the other supernaturals in the entire town came to my defense.”

“But you’re here and alive,” I pointed out, “so I’m guessing you won that battle.”

His lips turned up at the corner. “I guess that’s obvious, but I moved to a more secluded spot after that. Living with supernaturals had as many pitfalls as living with mortals.”

“Not here,” Festus said, walking through the door with his wife, Wanda, and heading for their favorite table. “Here, we help each other.”

Cein frowned, his expression clearly stating he didn’t believe that. “You might think that now, but it can change.”

“Anything can change,” Raven told him. “A while back, we had a group of parents who turned against us, but we fought them together.”

“I’d rather rely on myself.”

Just then, the back door opened again, and Boaz and Melodia walked in with their daughter Lust. An unusual name, but it fit her. The girl was as alluring as her mother, a siren, and as sensuous as Syn, our favorite succubus. Lust saw Cein and stopped in her tracks. Cein glanced at her and looked away, unimpressed. She was only a girl, after all, only fifteen.

Boaz studied his tired face, the weary droop of his shoulders. “Are you the man with another tattoo?”

Cein studied him. “You got one, too?”

Boaz nodded, then motioned toward Festus. “Him, too.”

Before they could compare stories, Aengus and Afric strode in. Cein narrowed his eyes, studying them. Aengus took up a lot of space—a bear of a man. Afric was nearly as tall as her husband but whipcord thin with a long, thick braid of auburn hair hanging halfway down her back. He sniffed, then frowned. “I don’t know your scent.”

“Druids.” Aengus tilted his head, studying Cein just as openly. “And you?”

“Half Phoenix, half warlock.”

Aengus threw back his head and laughed. “No wonder I didn’t recognize your scent. We’re Celts, both from Britain. Never met the likes of you. Where’s your origin? Greece? Rome?”

Cein nodded. “My parents still live in Europe, but finding a fellow Phoenix is nearly impossible. When I wanted to find a mate, I moved to your country, thought I’d have better luck. I was wrong.”

Lust raised a black eyebrow at him. “We intermarry in Muddy River. Maybe you should look for some other supernatural. I’ll be available in three years.”

Cein stared at her. “What are you?”

“Half siren, half vampire.” And evidently in the grip of raging hormones. She looked like she’d gladly enchant Cein on the spot. As a matter of fact, I decided there and then to make a pouch to protect him, because Lust had a mind of her own. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she tried.

Melodia scowled at her. “Daughter, we know your magicks. Don’t even think about it.”

Aengus’s laugh boomed again. “Beware, Phoenix. Sirens are alluring.”

Cein shook his head, dismissing Lust’s lush, ebony hair, green eyes, and full lips. “She’s a kid.”

Those full lips pressed into an angry line, but Boaz gave her a stern look. “We brought you to the bar to take care of business. If everyone’s here, let’s get to it.” The girl might be powerful but so were her parents.

Aengus, Festus, and Boaz began to roll up their shirt sleeves, so Cein did, too. Afric leaned forward to see them better. When the inky swirls reached for each other, she gave a small gasp. And as before, a scene materialized in the air over the bar. It began where the last one left off, with the undead carrying Drago’s powerful witch on a stretcher and placing her in a cage in what appeared to be a basement. As before, the voodoo priest came to drain her. Then he turned and started to our witch’s cage.

We could feel her fear pulse through her, her determination to fight him if she could. She took a stance and raised her palms, but he stopped in front of her cage and smiled at her. A winner’s smile, smug and gloating. Then he raised his own hand and opened his fingers. He bent his head to blow across his palm, and dust whirled toward her. She tried not to breathe it in but couldn’t hold her breath that long. It tingled in her nostrils, and she felt light-headed, dizzy. As she started to fall, strong arms caught her. When she woke, she didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious, but her wrists were bandaged. They’d drained her, and she felt weak. She looked across at the stronger witch, and she was standing at the bars of her cage, watching her. More, there was a third cage in the room now, too. That witch was watching her, also.

Footsteps shuffled down the stairs, and the undead brought all three of them big trays of food to restore their energy. Our witch looked at the heaping plate of chicken stew over rice and wanted to ignore it, wanted to force herself to not eat, but the priest had drained so much magic from her, she was starving. Feeling defeated, she sagged on her narrow cot and gave in to hunger.

How long could she endure this? How long would it be before the priest found enough stronger witches that he wouldn’t need her anymore? Thoughts and fears pinged against her skull, and then she pushed them away. Somewhere, far away, she felt a new magic, something stirring at the far corners of her psyche. She called to the other witches.

“Do you feel it?”

They both nodded.

“If we could reach whoever it is, maybe he could help us.”

The powerful witch frowned. “I don’t know that magic.

“I’m part Fae,” our witch told her. “I’m too weak to send him a message alone. Will you help me?”

Two more nods, then energy rushed to her and she shut her eyes and concentrated as hard as she could. She sent the unknown man a dream and embedded it as deep as she could before passing out.

The scene faded. Cein blinked, then rubbed his forehead. “The young witch sent the dream to me?”

I nodded and went to stand close to him. He pulled back, not sure what I meant to do. “If I touch your forehead, I can let the girl know we saw her message, and the dreams will stop.”

“Is the dream the only thing you’ll remove?” Our Phoenix didn’t trust easily.

“She stopped mine,” Boaz said. “I can sleep now.”

“Me, too,” Festus told him. “Before Hester helped me, I thought I’d go nuts, watching the same dream over and over again.”

He glared at me. “I don’t know you or any of these people.”

Lust smiled at him. “I won’t let anyone harm you.”

He grimaced, unimpressed.

“It’s either that, or I can’t remove the dream,” I said.

With a shrug, he leaned forward. “Then do it.”

I pressed a finger to his forehead and chanted my spell. When I removed my finger, he touched his forehead, too. “I feel different. The dream’s gone?”

I nodded.

“Thank you.”

Before he could say more, Afric’s hands knotted into fists. “Aengus, we have to stop this. That priest’s a fiend. I want him dead.”

“Stand in line,” Cein told her.

She leveled a gaze at him. “Are you willing to stay in Muddy River and help us find and fight this man? When we kill him, I want Raven to turn him to dust. No, dust is too good for him. I want him to be dirt that we grind under our heels.”

He looked surprised. “You’d welcome me to battle with you?”

With us, yes, if you’re an ally. If not, we’ll destroy you.”

He smiled. “I like you people. You say what you think, don’t you?”

“There are too many powerful supernaturals living here to play power games,” Raven told him. “We all respect each other or there’d be constant squabbles.”

“And Raven’s our enforcer,” Festus added. “If we break the laws we made, he’d be happy to turn us into toast. Or ashes.”

I watched him. The man was so tired, I’m surprised he could drive here. “It’s not safe for you drive home,” I said. “Why don’t we eat supper here, then you can follow us to our house and spend the night? You’ll be rested if you want to leave in the morning.”

If I want to leave? Did you expect me to stay?”

“If you want to help us find the priest, you’ll need our help,” Afric said. “We’re not going to do all the work for you.”

Raven frowned. “Wait a minute.” He turned to Cein. “When do you burst into flames each month?”

Cein actually grinned. He’d been so gruff and untrusting, I wasn’t sure he had any sense of humor. “I ignite on the last day of each month. I won’t burn your sheets and bed.”

Raven relaxed. “In that case, you’re welcome to be our guest.”

“Right now, all I’ll do is fall into a bed and sleep,” he warned.

“That’s what you need.” I looked at Derek. “I’d like another glass of wine and a burger.”

Everyone started placing orders, and Speedy raced around the small kitchen, trying to fill them all. When we finished eating, Raven tossed money on the bar. “Let’s call it a night.”

“Are you staying?” Afric asked as Cein stood.

“I haven’t decided.”

“We’re not calling you when we go after him,” she said.

“That’s fair.” There was no rushing him.

When we left and walked to Raven’s Lamborghini, Cein raised his eyebrows and gave a low whistle. Raven gestured toward his red Corvette. “You like cars, too, huh?”

“Low to the ground and fast,” Cein said.

Sweet Hecate, I’d stick to my SUV. It was more practical. Claws ran to jump in the car with us but stopped to sniff Cein first.

“My familiar,” I told him.

He reached down to stroke his head and rub behind his ears. Claws’s purrs rumbled, and my traitorous ocelot jumped in the front seat of the Corvette, obviously enamored of our new friend.

As I slid onto the Lamborghini’s passenger seat, I grumbled, “That cat is a little too independent. When I met you, he wouldn’t leave you alone. Now Cein.”

Raven laughed. “He sees you all the time. Besides, he knows you’re safe in Muddy River. You don’t need him. Your wards won’t let any enemies close to you.”

When we reached our tall yellow Victorian, Raven let me out at the front door, then drove to park in the garage. Cein parked on the other side of the drive so Raven could leave if he needed to. Then we all ended up in the kitchen. While Raven poured a last round of drinks, I ran up to the attic and returned with a potion for Cein and a leather cord with two pouches on it.

“Here. For you. The potion will immunize you to a siren’s songs, and the pouches will protect you from curses and voodoo magic.”

He didn’t question me this time but drank the potion and draped the cord over his head. He took a sip of his beer, clearly puzzling over something. “Could that little girl really mesmerize or enchant me?”

“You’re strong enough, you could probably fight her magic, but this way, you don’t have to.”

He shook his head. “Do all girls her age start thinking about boys?”

“Probably. A lot of supernaturals mate at eighteen. Their magicks surge at the same time as their hormones, and they’re ready.”

Raven glanced at my cell phone on the table and asked Cein, “Is there someone you should call to tell them you’re staying here?”

He shook his head. “I live alone. There’s no one who worries about me.”

Those words made me sad for him. I’d waited a long time to choose a mate, but I always had someone who’d care if I was in trouble—my parents, my coven, friends in Muddy River. Raven had been more standoffish, but even he had friends who were fellow enforcers. “You never get lonely?” I asked.

“Sometimes, but it’s safer this way.” He finished his beer and yawned. “I need sleep.”

I took him up to the guest bedroom and showed him where the clean sheets were. He thanked me, and I pulled the door shut behind me when I left. Claws settled in front of it, intent on watching over our guest. I glared at him on my way back downstairs.

Raven and I didn’t stay up much later. It had been a long day for us, too. And we both worked tomorrow. If Raven and Brown got lucky, maybe they’d find another supernatural with a tattoo.



Tattoos and Portents–10

pentagram in a circle

Chapter 10

My students looked happy to see me the next day. They’d enjoyed having substitutes, but even they were ready to return to our old, comfortable routine.

At reading circle, Ashe asked, “Did Witch Birch tell you how good we were?”

I nodded and raised my voice so that everyone would hear. “I saw her last night, and she had nothing but good things to say about all of you.”

The students smiled, happy with themselves.

“She made you sound so good, I thought we’d do something special after lunch if we get all of our morning work done.” That motivated them enough that our reading, writing, and arithmetic went faster than usual. I’d thought it might. So, after lunch, since Yule was only two weeks away, I brought out craft supplies and showed them how to make different witch symbols to hang on their trees at home. We started with a pentagram. After we glued popsicle sticks together in the shape of a star, I showed them how to glue those onto a clear plastic circle. While they worked, I explained in more depth what each point stood for.

“The bottom four points symbolize air, water, earth, and fire. The top point symbolizes divinity, and the circle represents wholeness. Our magic is a unity of the physical and spiritual worlds. Harmony is when the two become one.”

I showed them how to use translucent paint to make blue waves in the upper top. left space. Swirls of clouds decorated the top right, then green leaves went on the lower right, flames on the bottom, and a night sky with stars on the bottom left.

When we finished the pentagram, I passed out heavy foam board, and we cut out the symbol for the triple moon, then painted it golden yellow. As they worked, I explained, “For us, the triple moon represents the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth or the Triple Goddess. The crescent moon facing left symbolizes the maiden—beginnings, love, and purity. The full moon in the center represents the mother or divine love, and the crescent moon facing right, the waxing moon or the crone phase where we reach spiritual wisdom, the Goddess at the height of her magical abilities.”

By the time we finished the triple moons for them to take home, we’d reached the time to practice spells and chants each day. I pointed to the chalkboard. “There are your practice sessions for today. Tomorrow, each of you will make a witch’s knot to take home, and I’ll explain its meaning.”

The next hour flew by. The oldest students were practicing obfuscation spells while the youngest worked with their wands to levitate small items. Again, I had to summon a clap of thunder to get their attention to send them home. Claws opened an eye to give me an evil glare. He didn’t like thunder, but even he had lost track of the hours. He was usually pacing around the room by now or lying by the door to hurry us home. The students walked out of the building, laughing and talking with each other, proudly showing their ornaments to their parents when they slid into cars. We’d had a good day.

I picked up my wand and quickly tidied the room, then grabbed my coat and started for home, Claws running ahead of me. Raven’s car was gone when I got there, so on the spur of the moment, Claws and I got into my SUV and drove to town. I parked behind Birch’s boutique on Main Street, right across from Raven’s office, and walked inside. Birch stood behind the counter, alone.

“No parents today?” I asked.

She grimaced. “They’re letting me run the shop more and more. That’s why I couldn’t make it to your school this afternoon, and I wanted to. They’re tired of the snow and cold and want to retire some place warm.”

I couldn’t hide my surprise. This was the first I’d heard of that. Would Birch move with them? So much for my idea of having her head a young coven. “Are you going to sell the shop?”

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to go. They’re talking about leaving it to me. I’ve already hired Allegra to work here part-time in the evenings.”

Allegra had graduated from my school in the same class as Birch. She was pretty and sweet but not very powerful. She was a hard worker, though, and she’d married a man who was one-fourth vamp last year. I’d heard she was looking for a job.

I pressed my lips together, unsure of myself now. “When do you have to decide if you’ll stay or go with them?”

Birch studied me. “Does it matter?”

I smiled. She was a smart girl. She knew I’d come here for a reason. “I was going to ask you to lead a new coven of young witches for Muddy River, but that will take time. I’m not happy that most girls stop training once they leave my school. You didn’t, and look how much more you’ve learned. You come to every monthly meeting.”

She blinked, surprised. “If I started a new coven, could I still come to train with you and your witches? I don’t want to stop.”

“If would be even better if you stayed with us. You could pass what you learn on to the new witches.”

Her green eyes lit up. “I’d love to lead a new group, but does Muddy River even have enough witches to make a new coven?”

“Maybe not right away, but once you get established, more will come. You’ll probably end up with more than twelve, but that’s all right. You can practice with all of them, but pick the witches you want to make the final thirteen, including you. My coven’s so old and established, we intimidate some of the younger girls.”

Birch came out from behind the counter and began to pace. “If I stay here, I can buy my parents’ house and run the shop. And I could make Muddy River stronger, even safer.”

I wanted her to take her time and to think it over carefully. “Leading a coven is a serious responsibility. You don’t have to decide right now. Talk to your parents about it, then let me know.”

“I want to do it.” She stopped walking and faced me. “But you’re right. I should talk to Mom and Dad first. And I still want to visit your school once or twice a week to help the older girls train.”

“Works for me.” I started to the door. “And you don’t have to rush anything. Give me a call either way, though, when you decide, will you?”

She nodded, returning to her spot behind the counter, her forehead crinkled in thought. I glanced across the street, but the closed sign hung in Raven’s window. He must be meeting with someone today. Since I was in town, though, I decided to stop at the grocery store on my way home. When I walked in, Faiza glanced away from the customer in her check out lane, saw Claws and me and started to smile. But then, when no Raven strode in behind me, the smile crumpled.

I shook my head at her. “My hottie demon isn’t with me today.” The girl has a crush on my husband but is content just to look at him and drool. I swear, if the entire town of Muddy River burned to ashes in a fire and if Faiza could only rescue one person, it would be Raven.

Claws padded to the young Fae and rubbed against her thigh. She reached down to scratch him under his chin. In Muddy River, familiars accompany witches everywhere, and they choose favorite people to nuzzle.

I left Claws to it and went to the meat case. I’d decided to make a quick stew for supper tonight since we were staying home. I bought a flat-iron steak to cut into bite-sized pieces instead of stew meat that I’d have to cook for hours to make tender. I added the usual potatoes, carrots, and onions to my cart, along with the greens to make a salad, then went to Faiza’s line to pay. I’d glanced in Sugi and Noira’s bakery when I passed it and was glad to see it was open. I’d buy a crusty loaf of bread there and a dessert. My demon loved his sweet treats.

Faiza likes me, even though Raven had chosen me as his mate, so I asked about her family.

“We’re all fine. My parents are starting to badger me to find a mate, though. At this point, I think they’d even be happy with a mortal. They’re starting to worry I’m going to stay single forever.”

I laughed. “No one around here has caught your eye?”

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “It’s a small town. I’ve known everyone since I could walk. I see them come and go at the store every day.”

“Have you thought about visiting Drago’s market once the weather’s nice again? He has as many types of supernaturals living there as we do. Maybe you could meet some cute Fae to flirt with.”

She grinned. “Not a bad idea. If I work up the nerve to go, will you go with me?”

“Sure, but do you need a chaperone? Won’t I get in your way?”

“I won’t be brave enough to go without you.”

“Then in spring, we’ll plan a road trip.” I left her happier than she’d been when I came in. Next, I went to Sugi and Noira’s. They were stringing Yule decorations around the ceiling of their bakery. A giant gingerbread house sat on their glass counter, and gingerbread men were for sale in the case.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to bring anything on Christmas Eve?” Noira asked as she rang up my bread and chocolate noel log cake. Claws had gone behind the counter to get lovies from Sugi, who always fussed over my big cat.

I shook my head. “You bake six days a week for everyone else. I’ll have plenty of cookies and candy for Christmas Eve.” I started to the door. I usually stayed to visit with them, but they were busy today, and I wanted to get home. Claws reluctantly left Sugi to hop in the SUV, and we drove home.

Raven’s Lamborghini was in the garage when I got back. When he saw my grocery bags, his tawny eyes sparkled. “I see a bakery box.”

We shared the events of our day as we unloaded groceries and started supper. While I made the stew, he worked on the salad.

“Brown and I spent the entire day digging up facts on the towns south of Muddy River. We made a list of supernaturals who live in each one—the mortals too. Then we found out the occupations of every single supernatural and highlighted the ones who travel for their businesses, even if it’s only occasionally. Now that we have their names, we’ll start calling them tomorrow.”

I turned to look at him. “That had to be a lot of work.”

“It was. I don’t know why we’ve waited this long to do it. After we find the voodoo priest, we want to do it for the entire area we patrol. This is the second time something like that will come in handy.”

I told him about visiting Birch, Faiza, Sugi, and Noira, and then sat down to eat. We took a short break after that, and then we pulled out all of the ingredients to get started on baking Christmas cookies. By the time we quit, we’d made snickerdoodles, chocolate chip cookies, and peanut butter cookies. Once they’d cooled, I stored all but half a dozen of each and took them to the freezer in the basement.

Contented with what we’d gotten done, Raven aimed a finger at the yule log and set it ablaze, then we snuggled on the long sofa and sipped our wine. The voodoo priest would have to wait. I felt sorry for the witches he’d kidnapped, but we’d done all we could. Hopefully, we’d find another tattoo soon or some other clue, but in the meantime, we sat in front of the fireplace to enjoy the holiday spirit.

Nothing on the calendar next week

I finished writing my plot points for Jazzi 6 and sent them to my editor.  38 of them.  And they were long.  But that’s one chore done.  This book will have two different unrelated murders in it, and my plot points ended up stretching more than usual.  I guess I should have expected that.  If one murder takes a lot of scenes to solve, two murders with different motives take more.   But they’re done.  And I’m not going to start writing the book until January, so the ideas have plenty of time to stew in my mind.  I like giving them time to settle and ferment and maybe even change.

Speaking of outlining, our writers’ club carry-in was Wednesday, and one of our members is studying K.M. Weiland’s book on how to outline.  It’s detailed, so we talked about how we developed our stories a little.  He’s like me and needs structure to find his way.  We’re in the minority in my group, but that’s okay.

Now that my Jazzi book is planned out, I can return to working on the two books I’m writing simultaneously.  I’ve missed them.  Hester’s had to find substitute teachers to take her place in her school for young witches twice now, and she’s ready to get back in the classroom to check on her students.  They’ve been so good to the friends who stepped in for her that she decides to reward them by letting them make witchy ornaments for their Christmas trees at home.  The ornaments serve a double purpose.  First, the kids love making them.  And second, she explains the meaning of each one while they work.

I was fascinated by the articles I read about the pentagram inside a circle.  I never realized that each of the five points stands for different elements: earth, air, water, and fire with the top point symbolizing the spirit, and that a witch can rotate the pentagram, not for Satanic purposes, but to concentrate on one element of magic more than another.  The circle stands for infinity and unity, so that the physical and spiritual are combined to channel magic. Interesting, at least to me.  Hester goes on to make other symbols, but I only had room for two of them in the chapter I polished today.

I didn’t get to my contemporary mystery at all while I worked on plot points, but I’m looking forward to writing new pages for it tomorrow.  My daughter Holly asked to see what I’d done with it, so far, so I sent her the pages I have done; and she called today to tell me she was surprised by them, since they’re not at all like a cozy, and she liked them.  Always a relief.  She’s a tough critic.  She gave me plenty of ideas on how to tweak the things she thought I skimmed over (I do that in first drafts), so I’m one step ahead on that.  I’ll have ideas to fix those flaws when I do rewrites.

But the really good news is that I don’t have anything on my calendar for next week.  NOTHING.  I’m hoping to duct tape myself in my office chair and pound on my computer until my fingers grow so thin, I can’t keep my wedding band on anymore.  Okay, that won’t happen.  I’m always telling my HH that I’m working fanny off, but he always tells me it’s still there:)  Regardless, I hope I get a lot of work done on both books next week.  Even if I’m lucky and I do, I’ll still have a lot more to do.  But I’m getting there.  Little by little like the tortoise, and some day in the dim future, I’ll cross over the finish line.

I know December is a busy month for everyone, but I hope you find a minute or two to hit the keys.  Whatever happens, I hope you enjoy the season.  And happy writing!  Or reading!  Or celebrating with friends!

And remember, I welcome comments and questions.  Just saying…


A Jazzi Christmas Short Story

I posted this story on my webpage when I had one, but I don’t think many people read it from my blog, so I’m sharing it here.  For me, Christmas means cookies, and Jazzi thinks so, too.  But delivering cookies gets her in trouble.  You never know where you’re going to find a body:)

Santa Claus

The Body Dressed Like Santa

The entire butcher block countertop of the kitchen island was covered with different kinds of Christmas cookies and tea breads. Jazzi had set out eight disposable aluminum pans to fill. For this time of year, she’d found some that were red and green for the holiday.

“I’m going to give each family two cookies per person of each kind,” she told Ansel.

Her tall, hunky Norseman frowned. “Will there be any left for us?”

The man loved his cookies. His holiday generosity ended if he didn’t get his share of goodies. Actually, he loved food in general. Since he’d moved in with her, he swore he’d never eaten so well. Neither had George, his pug, but George wasn’t a fan of sweets, so he curled on his dog bed in the corner to supervise.

“Okay, let’s get started.” Jazzi reached for eight spice cookies to layer in Jerod and Franny’s tin. Jerod’s kids, Gunnar and Lizzie, would have to fight her cousin for these. Franny didn’t even try. They were his favorites. Ansel took his cue from her and added spice cookies to the tins near him. When they finished, there were half a dozen left.

“Only six for us?” Ansel complained.

“Of those. We have lots more cookies to go.”

He didn’t look happy.

Chocolate crinkle cookies came next, then Mexican wedding cakes, oatmeal and raisin, sugar cookies, and peanut butter. She’d made double of the chocolate chip cookies. Those were the kids’ favorites. Ansel’s blue eyes lit up when she brought out the snickerdoodles and had a dozen left over for them. Those were his favorite. The fragile, fancier cookies came last—the cherry-coconut bars and macaroons.

When they finished, they bundled the tins up and added gift tags and ribbons, then got ready to deliver them.   It was still early in December, so in theory, winter wasn’t official yet, but an inch of snow covered the ground and it was darn cold outside. Most of Jazzi’s family lived on the south side of River Bluffs, so they loaded the cookies and George into her pickup and headed across town.

River Bluffs was the second largest city in Indiana, but it still had a small-town feel. Its nickname for a long time had been the city of churches. People still thought of themselves that way, but traffic was heavier than it used to be and traveling across town took longer.

Gran and Samantha lived almost all the way to Ossian, so they decided to deliver to them first. Gran lived on enough property that, at eighty years old, she still put out a huge garden every year and kept chickens. Often, when she came to their house for the Sunday meal, she brought fresh eggs.

Gran grabbed Samantha’s hands and grinned from ear to ear when she saw Jazzi and Ansel at their door. When she saw the big tin of cookies, she almost pulled them inside. “Isn’t my sister, Sarah, wonderful, Samantha?”

Whenever Gran felt stressed, she reverted to bygone days, reliving her younger years, and Jazzi became her sister in her mind.   Otherwise, Gran was as sharp as a Jeopardy contestant with more energy than most. Something must be bothering her today. Jazzi hated to see her upset. She had a special soft spot for her. She’d learned how to cook in Gran’s kitchen. Mom avoided stoves as much as possible. So did her sister, Olivia. But Jazzi loved puttering around with recipes, and Gran had been happy to teach her.

Samantha gave Jazzi a small smile and shrugged. “Your grandma’s been a bit confused today.”

Jazzi studied her. “Is something bothering you, Gran?”

She hugged herself, clearly upset. “Poor Brady, just because the body’s on his property doesn’t mean he killed him. He’s going to need your help to clear his name.”

Ansel frowned. “Brady?”

“Franny’s nephew,” Jazzi told him.

“Have you met him?” Ansel had been engulfed and welcomed by her family since he’d started working with her and Jerod. He knew most of the aunts and uncles. Had to. They showed up every week for the Sunday meal.

Jazzi shook her head. “Franny talks about him a lot, but we’ve never met.” Worry wriggled through her. Gran had been born with the gift of sight. When she saw something, it always happened. Jazzi had wondered why Gran hadn’t seen Aunt Lynda’s murder, but Gran explained that Lynda and the baby she’d given away were too close to her. After a little research, Jazzi found most psychics couldn’t predict their own futures.

Trying to calm Gran, she asked, “Is the body on Brady’s property now?”

“Could be. You’d better go look.”

“I will, Gran. And Ansel and I will help him all we can. Don’t worry about that.”

Gran blinked, satisfied, and reached out to pat her shoulder. “You’re a good girl, Jazzi. With your help, Brady will be all right.”

Good. Gran was back to being herself again. Kissing her goodbye, Jazzi watched Ansel pick up George to carry to the pickup. The pug didn’t like to get his paws cold and wet. He didn’t like to climb stairs either. The pug was spoiled rotten.

“What now?” Ansel asked as he slid behind the steering wheel.

“Let’s finish delivering the rest of the cookies and make Jerod’s house our last stop. We can ask Franny where Brady lives, then maybe we can grab Jerod to drive to Brady’s house with us.”

“Does Brady live close to here?” Ansel headed to Jazzi’s mom and dad’s subdivision on the southwest side of the city.

“Just over the bridge on Anthony, near the river, but I don’t know the exact street.” River Bluffs got its name from the three rivers that converge downtown. “Franny’s really proud of him. He came home from Afghanistan, confined to a wheelchair. He hasn’t let it slow him down, though. He’s married with two kids and has a good job in a factory as a software engineer.”

“Makes me want to help him out even more.” Ansel turned into Mom and Dad’s addition. When he knocked on the door, Mom’s two labradoodles ran to peer out the window and bark at them. The dogs loved company. They were almost as social as Mom—a hairdresser.

Jazzi heard the TV in the family room. Dad would be watching sports. Mom opened the door to invite them in, but Jazzi shook her head. “We have more deliveries to make, and I’ll see you tomorrow at the Sunday meal. We just wanted to bring you some cookies.”

Mom nodded. “Thanks, kid. We’ve been waiting for them. We’ll try not to eat them all in one night.”

With a wave, Jazzi and Ansel returned to the pickup to drive to her sister, Olivia’s apartment. As usual, Thane was there. Jazzi had put four of each cookie in her sister’s delivery, expecting him.

Soon, they were pulling into Jerod’s driveway, and Jazzi squared her shoulders, trying to bolster her courage to share her bad news. Jerod saw them on his front stoop, opened the door, and reached for the aluminum pan. He tore off the wrapping on his way to the kitchen.

“No one gets any of the spice cookies but me!” he called out.

Gunnar and Lizzie came running, grabbing for the chocolate chips. Franny came last. She smiled. “I love them all.”

Jazzi licked her lips, nervous, and Jerod raised an eyebrow at her. “I know that look. When we were growing up, you always licked your lips before you told me you broke one of our toys or did something stupid.”

“I didn’t do it this time.”

His frown deepened. “Then who did?”

“I don’t know.” She told him what Gran had said.

Franny’s freckles seemed to grow paler. She put her hand to her throat. “Gran’s never made a mistake when she sees things, has she?”

“No.” Jazzi looked at Jerod. “Do you want to go with us when we go to Brady’s? Neither of us has met him. He might not want to hear this from a stranger.”

Jerod turned to Franny. “Would you rather go? I’ll stay home with the kids.”

“Not me. I don’t want to search for a body. You go. Brady likes you.”

With a nod, Jerod went to get his coat. He grabbed two spice cookies on his way out the kitchen door. When they reached the pickup, he climbed into the backseat on the opposite side of George.

“Did you bring your pug to sniff out the corpse?”

“No, that would traumatize him. George is sensitive.” Not that she’d noticed, but who knew a six-five Viking would fuss over his fur baby so much?

Jerod gave them directions to Brady’s house, and it was late afternoon by the time they arrived. More houses than usual were decorated for Christmas up and down these streets. Colored lights glowed from gutters and bushes. A red sleigh sat in Brady’s front yard, filled with fake poinsettia plants.

Jerod led the way to Brady’s door and knocked.

“Give me a minute!” came a voice. A mid-thirties man with brown hair and sky-blue eyes opened it to welcome them. He looked up at Jerod from his wheelchair and frowned.   “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have stocked up on beer and snacks.”

“This isn’t a social visit.” Jerod introduced everyone, then explained.

Brady looked stunned. “You think there’s a body on my property?”

“I hope we’re wrong, but we’d better check it out. Mind if we look around?” Jerod turned to go back outside.

“Go for it. I have trouble moving this chair in the snow. I wouldn’t be much help.”

“No worries,” Jerod said. “We’ll let you know if we find anything.”

And for a while, it looked like for once, Gran had made a mistake. But then Jazzi looked at the muddied snow in the flowerbed beside the garage. Something was barely sticking above the dirt and she went to see what it was.

The toe of a black, shiny boot shone when the sun hit it. No one wore boots like that, did they? She called for the guys, and they came to check it out. Arming themselves with garden rakes from the garage, they scraped enough dirt away to realize it was the kind of boots Santa wore. A little more work and they found a red pantleg, hemmed in white fleece.

Jerod scratched his head. “Someone buried Santa here.”

Ansel pulled his cellphone from his pocket. “That’s what it looks like. He made his appearance a little early, didn’t he? I’m calling Gaff.”

Detective Gaff had worked with them when Jazzi and Jerod found Aunt Lynda’s skeleton folded in a trunk in their attic. He returned when Jerod discovered another body buried near their septic tank.

“Gaff? Sorry to bother you on a Saturday,” Ansel said when the detective picked up, “but we found a dead Santa and need your help.”

“Really? Santa?” If Gaff stopped taking their calls, Jazzi wouldn’t blame him.

Ansel explained. When he hung up, he gave them a quick nod. “Gaff’s on his way.”



Part 2


Jerod, Ansel, and Jazzi waited inside the house until Gaff and the crime techs arrived. Poor Brady kept staring out the back window toward his garage.

“Sophie and the kids will be home in an hour. They went to see a movie. Do you think everyone will be done by then?”

Jazzi shook her head and looked up expectantly when Gaff gave a quick knock on the door and stepped inside.

Gaff shook his head at her. “Too soon to know anything. The victim is dressed like Santa, though. His bag for presents was buried with him, but it’s empty except for a box with a pair of earrings.”

Brady moved his wheelchair out of the way so that Gaff could take a seat at the end of the couch. “Has he been there long?”

“It doesn’t look like it. It’s so cold, though, it’s hard to tell until there’s an autopsy.” Brady blanched at the word, and Gaff hurried on. “Have you been home all day today? Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”

“I’ve been here, but I was working in my office on the other side of the house. Since Sophie and the kids were gone, I thought I’d squeeze in a few hours on a program I’ve been trying to get done.”

Gaff studied him. “How do you cope in a two-story house? Aren’t the bedrooms upstairs?”

Brady pointed to the chair lift attached close to the stair railing. “I have another wheelchair up there. I only go up for bed. Sophie and I still like to sleep together.”

“Can you stand at all?”

“With difficulty on two special crutches. Are you trying to decide if I could conk Santa on the head and bury him?”

Gaff looked up from his notes. “I don’t like to leave anything unanswered. How did you know he died from a blow to the head?”

“I didn’t hear anything. I’d notice a gun shot, even if the killer used a silencer. And if Santa was stabbed, you’d think there’d be a scuffle and blood.”

Jerod crossed his arms over his chest. “He’d have to wheel himself out there to bash the guy and then kneel in the snow to dig the hole. Did you see any wheelchair tracks? Anyplace where he’d balance on his knees to dig the hole?”

Brady smiled. “The detective’s just doing his job, but thanks for jumping to my defense, man.”

Jerod snorted. “You were in active combat. If you were going to kill someone, you’d be better at it than this.”

Gaff shook his head. “I’m just getting started, Jerod. Give me some credit, but I think that’s all I need for right now. The tech guys might be here for a while. If you don’t want your wife and kids to see us loading Santa onto a stretcher, you might want to call and let them know what’s going on.”

Brady nodded and reached for his cellphone.

Gaff stood to leave. “I’d wish you happy holidays, but you’re probably not in the mood right now.”

Jazzi walked him to the door. “Thanks for coming.”

“I didn’t have a choice. You sure know how to get a man’s attention. You keep calling with dead bodies for me to see.”

Laughing, she watched him trudge back to the garage to talk some more to his team. They stayed a little longer with Brady before he said, “You don’t have to babysit me. This shook me up for a minute, but I’ve been through worse. I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?” Jerod asked. “This is hitting home base.”

“It’s my yard, but at least I don’t know the victim. At least, I don’t think I do. I didn’t have to watch any buddies die.”

“Okay, then. Take care, bud.” Jerod patted him on the shoulder. “If you need anything, call.”

On the way to the pickup, Ansel glanced back at Brady’s house one last time. “He lives right across from the levee the city built to protect this neighborhood from flooding, and he owns a corner lot. The levee’s high enough, if someone jumped Santa near the river, no one would see what happened.”

Jazzi frowned. “But why drag him to Brady’s flowerbed to bury him?”

“The river rises every time there’s a heavy rain. Isn’t it suppose to rain later this week when the temperatures climb a little?”

Jerod scratched his chin. “You think the water might wash the body higher on the riverbank. You could see it when you cross the bridge. Maybe the killer didn’t want it found.”

“But why?” Jazzi couldn’t fit all of the puzzle pieces together.

Ansel turned left on Anthony to head south to Jerod’s house. “If we find out who Santa was, maybe we’ll find out.”




Part 3


On Sunday, Jazzi and Ansel worked most of the morning getting the food and house ready for the Sunday meal. The nine-foot Christmas tree was already up and decorated near the front window in the kitchen’s sitting nook. The banisters were wound with greenery and the fireplace was hung with Christmas stockings—five of them—Jazzi’s and Ansel’s, one for each cat, and one for George. The small tree Jazzi had put up in her apartment each year now sat on a side table in the living room. The meager amount of decorations she’d bought for her apartment wasn’t close to enough for the stone cottage. They still needed to buy more, but that could wait.

While Jazzi cut chunks of chicken breasts and salmon to drop into the seafood curry, Ansel put red table runners down the center of the long farmhouse table and the folding table they put up beside it. Jazzi helped him load dishes and bowls on the kitchen island for people to grab for the buffet-style meal. At the last, Jazzi added shrimp to the curry while Ansel loaded the bread pudding with its rum sauce along with the Caesar salad and rice.

They’d just finished when people started trickling into the house—a dozen in all. Jerod and Franny got there first with Gunnar and Lizzie. Jerod’s parents came next with Jazzi’s mom and dad, who’d brought Gran and Samantha, close behind them. As usual, Olivia and Thane hurried in last. Once everyone got their food and settled at the table, the talk turned to the body buried in Brady’s yard.

“Gaff called last night, and the victim was named Barry Yearwood,” Jazzi told them. “He’d just gotten out of the army, and his wife expected him home on Monday. She was worried that he wasn’t going to make it since bad weather is predicted out east later tonight. The weatherman predicted airports might have to close.”

“He must have come home early to surprise her.” Jerod gave a nod, apparently liking that idea. “That might explain the Santa suit and the earrings in the bag.”

Ansel reached for more salad. “Seems a shame that the guy made it through the military and got killed the minute he got home.”

That thought sobered Jazzi, but her mom shook her head in disbelief. “Do you know his wife’s name? Mariah Yearwood is a regular customer of mine. Her husband was getting out of the service soon. She talked about it all through the last haircut I gave her.”

Jazzi’s mom and sister ran a hair salon together and knew more people than Jazzi could keep track of.

“Gaff didn’t mention a name,” Jazzi said, “but I can ask him.”

Mom pursed her lips, thinking. “Mariah lived on base with her husband while he was stationed in the states but came back home when he was sent to Japan. She’s not the type of girl who likes to be alone. From a few things she’s said, I wondered . . . Well, it’s not nice to gossip, but she mentioned a friend’s name a lot.”

“A man’s?” Ansel asked.

Mom nodded.

Jerod piled seconds in his bowl. “Do you think she planned on divorcing her husband to throw him over for a new guy?”

“Oh, no. Mariah said her friend never sticks at anything. He’d never settle down. Her husband offered her the security and spending money she likes. His checks pay for her car and rent.”

Ansel raised a blond eyebrow at Jazzi. “Later tonight, you should call Gaff, just in case. He might want to check on some of this.”

She nodded but noticed that Gran was fidgeting with her napkin. They were upsetting her. She glanced around the table. “Are things getting busy for all of you? You’re all are super social. Are you invited to a lot of parties?”

They all got the hint. The talk turned to holiday get-togethers and events. Gran went for a second glass of wine, and the meal finished on a lighter note.

Before she and Ansel started clearing the dishes, Jerod’s dad turned to him. “You guys have got to be close to finishing the fixer-upper you’ve been working on. What’s your next project?”

Jerod scowled. “We haven’t decided yet. That’s bothering me, but we haven’t found something we think we can flip. We’re going to have to look harder.”

“Our garage has gone together with a couple more businesses close to us to help out a family we’ve adopted for Christmas.” Eli was a mechanic who worked on imported and high-end cars. “The house they rent is a disaster. I was thinking you guys might slap some new paint on the walls to cheer it up a little for the holidays. They can’t afford to. They can barely make ends meet.”

Jerod turned to her and Ansel. “We could do that, couldn’t we?”

Ansel looked excited. “I’ve always wanted to adopt a family for Christmas. They give you lists of what they want for presents, don’t they?”

Eli nodded. “It’s going to break your heart when you look at it. These people asked for the basics. We’ve collected plenty of money for them, more than they asked for.”

Jerod locked gazes with Jazzi. “Cousin?”

“Let’s do it. We have the time, and your dad has the money.”

Eli grinned, and so did Gran.

“I’ll bake them some pies.” Gran was always willing to lend a helping hand.

“We’ll pitch in, too,” Mom said.

If they were lucky, they could do more than just paint the peoples’ walls.

Jazzi didn’t think about contacting Gaff until the last person left and the house was quiet again. When he listened to her news, he sighed over the phone. “How do you always have information before I have time to ferret it out?”

She had to chuckle. “Luck?” Possibly bad luck. She’d rather not be involved in his investigations. He’d included her when he interviewed her friends and family about Aunt Lynda. Her death was an old crime with no new clues. The people involved were ones she’d known well for a long time, so he swore people told her more than they’d tell him. And he was probably right. If the crime hadn’t been so closely tied to family, though, he wouldn’t have let her anywhere close to his work. And she liked it that way.

He snickered. “You’re still a step ahead of me. Is there anyone in River Bluffs that someone in your family doesn’t know?”

“There has to be, but a lot of people go in and out of Mom and Olivia’s salon, Jerod and I have worked on a lot of fixer-uppers, Jerod’s Dad’s a mechanic, and Franny’s mom works part-time at a grocery store and volunteers at the pet shelter. We meet a lot of people.”

“I’m learning that.” He was quiet a moment. Finally, he said, “I’ll look into Barry’s wife more and get back to you. Thanks for the heads-up.”

“Any time.” But she sincerely hoped her involvement in murders had come to an end.



Part 4


On Monday, Jerod, Ansel, and Jazzi met at the house they were working on. The only thing that still needed done was installing new light fixtures so that the new owner could move in the next day. Jerod’s dad called with the family’s name and address that his work place had adopted. He gave them the list of things the parents and three kids had asked for. The list broke Jazzi’s heart. Sweaters. Sweat pants. Warm socks. A ham, green beans, and cornbread mix for their big meal.

Jerod hunched his shoulders. “This is just sad. My kids would never ask Santa for warm socks.”

Ansel glared at the list and shook his head. “I say we finish up here, then go shopping for these. We’ll deliver them now and tell the family to make a new list for Christmas morning.”

They didn’t dawdle. They got busy and by noon, they were ready to walk out of the house, stop somewhere for lunch, and go shopping.

They bought all the clothes and groceries, taking their time since no one would be home until after school and work. Then they drove to deliver them early. When they saw the house the family rented, though, they wanted to nail the owner to a wall, and they had the nail guns to do it.

A bucket sat under a leak in the ceiling.

“Bad plumbing,” the husband explained.

The porch sagged. The floors had chipped, faded tiles. But the place was spotless. When they left, Jerod gnashed his teeth. “No wonder they asked for warm clothes. Not one window had a storm on it. Drafts ran through every room. These people deserve better.” He pulled out his cellphone and called his dad. “How much money do we have to spend on these people?” He punched speaker.

“Five thousand dollars, if you need it. It’s all tax write-offs for us.”

“Mind if we try something else instead of painting the place?”

“It’s your call,” Eli said. “You guys know what you’re doing.”

They talked about it and drove straight to city hall.

“We’re looking for a house under five thousand dollars,” Jerod told the clerk. “We can fix anything but a terrible foundation. If we get a halfway decent day, we’ll even put on a new roof. We want to fix it and give it to our Christmas family.”

The clerk stared at them. “We have three houses marked to be condemned. They’re not worth fixing up. I’ll give you the addresses. If one of them works, you can have it. We’d like to see the neighborhoods improved.”

Jerod took the list and they went to search for a house. The first one was on a street that was lined with one horrible house after another. “Nope. It doesn’t look safe here.”

The second house was tolerable, but the third house had promise. “What do you think?”

They got out and walked around, peeking through windows. The walls looked solid. So did the floors, even though they were covered in ugly linoleum. The roof and porch needed repaired.

“We can make this one nice,” Ansel decided.

“It’ll take two weeks of hard work. I’d like them to be able to move in before Christmas,” Jerod said.

Ansel shrugged. “We’re between jobs. We have the time.”

Jazzi let out a breath. She’d been hoping for some time off. They were going to make a busy December even more rushed, but she’d like to see the people in a new home by Christmas, too. The men looked at her and she caved. “I’m in.”

They drove back to city hall, signed the paperwork, got the key, and returned to the house to take measurements and start working. This would be a quickie job—no sanding woodwork or fancy touches, no granite countertops or hardwood floors. Once they knew what they wanted to do, the guys went to order the materials and dropped Jazzi at home to load the sander into the back of Ansel’s work van. She’d already driven back to the project and started on the floors upstairs when they got back.

Jerod studied the three bedrooms and bath on the second floor. “The wood planks are decent. With some paint and stain, the rooms will look pretty nice.”

Ansel nodded. “While Jazzi does the floors, let’s gut the kitchen. If we call around, maybe we can get some of the people we buy appliances from to donate some scratched or dented ones to us. If worse comes to worse, we can buy used ones.”

“Good idea.” The guys went down to the kitchen and got busy. George didn’t like all the movement and noise, so moved to curl in a corner of the living room. She’d brought his dog bed inside with the sander. Ansel took the pug to work with them every day so kept one in the van.

They worked late and started early for a week until the house was starting to come together. They finally got a break on the weather and installed new black roofing shingles they’d gotten on sale. They didn’t get as lucky on the front porch and had to fix it on a day that was so cold, Jazzi lost feeling in her fingers. They didn’t have the time or money to install new wooden floors downstairs but got carpet on clearance for the living room and dining room, and they bought a roll of discounted linoleum in a brick pattern for the kitchen. It looked good with the bottom maple cupboards they installed. They couldn’t afford top cupboards so built open shelves instead.

Every ceiling and wall were painted when Gaff called.

“I finally cut a break on the Santa murder. Mariah’s boyfriend has been pawning diamond earrings and other jewelry. I found a pawnshop owner who identified him and what he sold. The items all match up to the items Barry bought with his debit card the day he was killed.”

Jazzi pressed a hand to her stomach. She felt sick. “So this was just a robbery? The boyfriend killed Barry over a few bucks?”

“Either that or he didn’t want to lose his new digs. He’s been living with Mariah for a while now. He’d have to move out when Barry came home. I’ve been watching her place, waiting to pick him up. No sign of him yet.”

“Thanks for letting us know, and good luck, Gaff.” The news was depressing, though. When she told Jerod and Ansel, Ansel scrubbed a hand through his white-blond hair, mussing it.

“The man served his country and came home to this? It stinks.”

Jerod’s lips pinched in a tight line. “When I go home tonight, I’m going to kiss my Franny. She wouldn’t take up with someone else when times got tough. My girl would see it through with me.”

They were waiting for appliances to be delivered and then the house would be done. No dishwasher, but a new refrigerator and stove. They both had scratches and dings, but they were on the sides no one would see. They’d had to go with new Formica counters and a stainless sink. The only rooms they couldn’t make as nice as they wanted to were the bathrooms. They’d had to settle on cheap tiles to line the walls around the bathtub, and they’d had that resilvered because they couldn’t afford a new one. The half bath downstairs barely had room for a toilet and sink.

By the time the delivery came and they finished for the day, the house was as good as they could make it. The furnace still worked, and the aluminum windows weren’t attractive, but they did the job.

On the spur of the moment, Jerod said, “Let’s go visit the family and bring them over. The house is in our company’s name. We’ll sell it to them for a dollar.”

“I want to fill the refrigerator and cupboards first,” Jazzi said. “I want a turkey on the top shelf, along with milk and eggs. I want cans of fruits and vegetables, and boxes of cornbread mix.”

Ansel laughed. “You always think about food.”

“And you’re lucky I do.”

That made him chuckle. “You shop while we collect the family. Call us when you have the groceries put away, and we’ll meet you here with them.”

They separated and by the time Jazzi called Ansel’s cellphone, she even had Christmas cookies she’d bought at a bakery on a paper plate on the counter.

Jerod had the husband and the family follow his pickup to the house. When they walked inside and stared around at the empty space, they looked confused. “It’s yours,” Jerod told them.

The man blinked. “Excuse me?”

“It’s yours. We’re fixer-uppers. The city gave it to us free, your Christmas helpers collected enough money, and we fixed it up for you.”

He shook his head. “How much is the rent? We can hardly afford where we are now.”

“No rent.” Jerod pulled out the deed and said, “We’re selling it to you for a dollar.”

“No rent?” The wife’s eyes went wide.

“Let’s hope that clears up some money for you.” Ansel nodded to Jazzi. “We wanted to make you feel at home.”

She opened the refrigerator and cupboards. The six-year-old girl squealed and ran to look at the turkey. “It’s so big.”

Jazzi’s throat tightened. It was twelve pounds, nothing special. The two boys saw the cookies and raced to them. “For us?”

“Look around. See what you think. And happy holidays,” Jerod said.

They watched the wife turn on the stove and clap her hands together when every burner lit. The father opened a bottom cupboard and said, “Kids, look. There’s so much food. How will we ever eat it all?”

Ansel reached for Jazzi’s hand and squeezed it. He rocked back and forth from toe to heel, he was so happy, and she loved her Norseman even more.

“We want to pay you for the new roof and everything you’ve done,” the husband said.

Jerod shook his head. “We got everything on discount. We paid for everything with donations from the businesses who adopted you. We all wanted to make sure you had a merry Christmas.”

When they finally walked to their vehicles to drive away, they looked in the windows and saw the family climbing the stairs to check out their bedrooms.

Before driving home, Jerod said, “’We done good.’ We can’t usually do anything like this, but I’m glad we did it this time.”

“We are, too. We’re going home to celebrate.” Ansel carefully laid George on the backseat of the van and tossed his dog bed next to him. He started to slide behind the steering wheel when Jazzi’s cellphone rang.

“It’s Gaff.”

She switched the phone to speaker and they all gathered around to hear what he had to say. “Hate to ruin the end of your day,” he told them. “But I interviewed lots of people and wrapped up the case. Barry Yearwood got into New York and thought he got lucky. According to a buddy, they both snagged tickets to fly home before the storm hit the east coast. That made it so Barry landed earlier than expected. He told a clerk he meant to surprise his wife and rent a Santa suit and buy her tons of presents.”

Jerod groaned. “Oh, man, this just keeps getting worse.”

Gaff sighed. “Yeah, when we picked up Lance, he said the poor guy showed up at Mariah’s doorstep, knocked on the door, and walked in while they were going to town. He said Mariah tried to play it off, but I mean, how do you do that? Barry turned around and stomped away, yelling that she’d hear from his lawyer, that they were done.”

Ansel shook his head. “Why not call it off with Lance when Barry left the base? Why take chances?”

“She never intended to quit seeing Lance,” Gaff said. “She thought she’d make excuses to meet him on the sly and Barry would never catch on. She wanted Barry’s money and her fun. Then she remembered that Barry had really good life insurance in case anything happened to him in the military, more than enough to support her. She promised to share it with Lance if he made sure Barry didn’t file for divorce. Lance raced after him and caught up with him at Brady’s house. Bashed him on the back of the head and tried to hide the body in his yard.”

Jazzi shivered. “It’s a good thing Gran has the sight. Who’d have looked for him there?”

“I hate to say it, but your family helped me solve another case.”

Jazzi didn’t know what to say to that. Finally, she settled on, “Glad we could help, but I’d rather not make a habit of it.”

Gaff laughed. “I second that. Have a good one, guys. Happy holidays.”

“You, too.” Jazzi put the phone back in her pocket and shook her head. “At least this one didn’t take too long.”

Jerod nodded. “We have everything in good shape for Christmas. I say we take off until the New Year. Then we can get started on our next job. We could use a vacation.”

Ansel and Jazzi nodded in unison. Jerod could spend time with his kids over their school break, and they could spend time with each other. Now that was a happy thought.

You can find the Jazzi Zanders mysteries here: