Earlier this year, a person from my writers’ group decided to get authors together and publish a mystery anthology. Introduce fans of certain authors and genres to a wonderful world of words they might not find otherwise.
And she asked me to contribute! Not that I have “fans”…seriously, some of the authors in this anthology have several books out. But a chance for me to put more of my weird out into the ‘Verse was tempting.
However, as I prepared to e-mail back a “yes, I sure will”, I paused. For the word MYSTERY stared at me with its little beady eyes. Mystery? I don’t do mysteries. To help connect the different genres and styles, we would use the game of Clue as inspiration, each choosing a color, murder weapon, and room.
How could I pass up the opportunity? I told her I would try to come up with an…
I’ve been invited to stop in and visit at two new sites at the end of this week. Yay for me! A chance to meet new friends. On October 23, I’ll be a guest blogger on The Wickeds blog: https://wickedauthors.com/. I hope you can stop by to meet me. I’ll be dropping in, off and on, during the day to check on comments.
On Saturday, the 24th, I get to do a Facebook chat with readers from 3:00 to 3:30 CST during the Tattered Pages Scare-O-Thon. When it’s my turn, try not to be too scared by George, Ansel’s pug. He can look ferocious:) The whole day is going to be fun on their site. If you have time, you might want to drop in to meet some of the other authors:
This week, for my October Halloween story, I have Jazzi and Ansel attend a house walk, and Jazzi sees a lot more than renovations and decor.
Halloween Open House
Jazzi climbed out of the pickup before Ansel could circle to open the door for her. Her tall, handsome Viking grinned. “Excited much?” he asked.
She pulled the booklet with the houses open for viewing from her jacket pocket. “We get to see what other people have done to their houses. Maybe we’ll get some ideas for our next flip.”
The older neighborhood north of town was full of stately, larger homes. The entire street, from Lake to State, about five blocks long, had banned together to do a Halloween walk to raise money for the Philharmonic, and twelves homes were open for viewing. Cobwebs stretched across bushes in front yards. Oversized spiders dangled from tree limbs. Orange lights glittered in bushes and trees.
Ansel grinned when they walked to the first porch and three life-sized witches, stirring a cauldron, cackled as they passed. He’d bought the same decoration to put in their basement.
A skeleton greeted them in the foyer of the three-story Georgian home. A nice touch. The volunteers inside were all dressed in costumes, but Jazzi’s gaze slid to the marble floor in the hallway, the wide dramatic staircase that led to the second floor, and the high ceilings with chandeliers. A hostess gestured for them to start with the room to their left and circle to the back of the house, then the front room on the right before going upstairs.
The first room took Jazzi’s breath away. The study was paneled in dark wood and lined with bookcases that went from floor to ceiling. Every shelf was filled with books, some of them with worn leather covers and yellowed pages. A velvety easy chair nestled in the corner with a floor lamp spilling light beside it. As she admired the chair’s deep crimson, a lovely young woman chose a book from a shelf and settled onto its cushions, curling her legs under her. She’d pulled her lustrous, dark hair into an updo and wore a long dress with puffy sleeves, a tight waistline, and a floor-length bell-shaped skirt.
Jazzi stared. “Is that girl part of the Halloween theme?” she asked Ansel.
He followed her gaze and frowned. “What girl?”
“The one in the chair.”
He shook his head, giving her an odd glance. “I don’t see a girl.”
“But she’s. . .” Jazzi stopped in mid-sentence. The young woman was gone. She rubbed her eyes, straining to see, but she wasn’t there. Had she imagined her?
A man cleared his throat behind her, impatient for them to move on. They were holding up the line. She and Ansel hurried into the dining room, one of the largest she’d ever seen. A gleaming mahogany table stretched long enough to seat twenty people comfortably. White wallpaper sprinkled with violet-colored flowers adorned the walls, and a huge bouquet of white and purple flowers sat in the center of the table, directly under the heavy chandelier with its three tiers of crystals that lit the room.
Jazzi could imagine dinner parties given here with the table set with fine china and crystal glasses. Not her style. She and Ansel invited twenty people to their family meal every Sunday, but they preferred casual entertaining. Nothing fancy. Still, she could appreciate a formal setting like this.
As they moved to the kitchen, she stepped back into a corner so people could pass her. She wanted to take her time to enjoy it. Kitchens were her and Ansel’s favorite rooms. Every inch of this one had been renovated with white cupboards, granite countertops, and stainless-steel appliances. As she was admiring the hand painted tiles of the backsplash, the scene before her blurred. The cabinets morphed to solid maple, and a pump provided water for the sink. A black cast iron stove sat in the corner. Blinking, she tried to make sense of what she was seeing and was about to leave when the same young woman entered the kitchen door. Her arms full of produce from her garden, she spread it on the wooden worktable, then went to a simmering pot on the stove to check its contents.
“She isn’t real.” Jazzi said the words aloud, and the woman turned to lock gazes with her. Her cobalt blue eyes filled with tears and she whispered, “Help me.”
Goosebumps raised on Jazzi’s arms. When she rubbed them to get warm, Ansel lowered his head to study her.
“Are you all right?”
She shook her head. Nothing was right about this. Swallowing hard, she whispered, “She’s here again. She asked me for help.”
He turned to the stainless-steel, six-burner stove, pinching his lips together. “I can’t see her.”
“I can.” But as she said the words, the woman disappeared. Ice ran through her veins. What was happening? She looked up at Ansel. “Do you believe me?”
“Yes, but I don’t understand it.”
Bless him! He didn’t doubt her, even when she doubted herself.
He sounded concerned. “Do you want to see the rest of the house, or would you rather leave here to go to the next one?”
“I want to finish this.” She wasn’t sure if she meant the tour or the woman’s story.
Ansel nodded and reached for her hand. He held her close to his side.
The living room was wide and spacious like theirs. It had several seating groups and two easy chairs facing the large fireplace. Fake flames crackled in the gas insert. The room was warm and inviting with overstuffed furniture and antique tables. They left to climb the stairs to the second floor.
Five large bedrooms and three baths opened off a hall wide enough to walk side-by-side. When they reached the last bedroom at the end, Jazzi took a deep breath. The room ran from the front of the house to the back with its own private bath. A king-size bed with a canopy was the main focal point. Again, she stepped to the side to let people pass.
The soft gray walls morphed to soft brown wallpaper with rose and white flowers. The young woman bent to make her bed, pulling up a heavy rose-colored comforter and fluffing pillows to lean against the walnut headboard. Then she turned, smiling at a man chuckling at some private joke, standing on the opposite side of the bed. He was as dark and handsome as she was beautiful. But as Jazzi watched, he faded from view. When he was gone, the woman turned to her, tears spilling down her cheeks, and whispered again, “Help me.”
Jazzi had to stifle a sob. The woman looked so sad, so stricken. How could she help?
Ansel tugged her closer to his side, offering her comfort. He waited until she regained her composure. When there was a lull in viewers, they went to see the master bath. The tiny tiles on the floor suited the gracious style of yesterdays. A clawfoot bathtub nestled against the far wall, and double vanities took up the wall on their left. A walk-in shower sat opposite them.
Jazzi motioned to the long, wood framed mirror above the vanities to comment on it when the double sinks faded, becoming an old-fashioned wooden wash stand, holding a bowl and pitcher of water. She heard water sloshing and turned toward the tub. With a gasp, she stared. The young woman struggled in the clawfoot tub, raising her head above the bubbles in her bath to gasp for air, as a tall, heavy man with gray hair pushed her head back under the surface. Water splashed across the floor until the struggles stopped and the man straightened. When he turned to leave the room, Jazzi got a good look at him. An aged version of his son. He walked past them, unseeing.
Jazzi’s body shook, and she reached to hold on to Ansel to steady herself. He gripped her and put an elbow under her arm to lead her down the stairs and out of the house. The backyard was alight with pumpkin lights strung from one tree to another. He led her to the back corner to stand in the shadows.
“What did you see?” He studied her face in concern.
She choked out the words. “Her father-in-law drowned her. I just watched him.”
His lips pressed together in an unhappy line. “She wanted someone to know.”
“I feel so sorry for her. She looked so happy with her husband.”
“This happened a long time ago?”
She nodded. “No running water. A pump in the kitchen and wash stand in the bathroom.”
“It had to be close to when the house was built. Probably at the beginning of this neighborhood.”
She let out a long sigh and leaned against him. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. I hope I never do again.”
He gestured at the pumpkin lights. “It’s Halloween. The time the veil between the two worlds is supposed to thin.”
“It’s never thinned for me before.” And she liked it that way. They stood there a little longer, letting her heartbeat slow down and the cold leave her bones, but when they started to leave, she jerked to a halt and tightened her grip on Ansel’s hand.
She was standing in a cemetery, surrounded by gravestones. A tall, impressive carved monolith rose in front of her with DORANTE carved into it. Her gaze shifted to the seven granite stones in a row ahead of it. Ogden (1822-1901). His wife, Hilda (1826-1904). His daughters, Martina (1854-1942) and Lenore (1856-1879). Martina’s husband, Lawrence (1853-1940). Ogden’s son, Pierce ( 1859-1894), and Pierce’s wife, Camille (1861- ). As she frowned at the empty date for Camille’s death, movement caught her eye. Camille’s ghost rose out of the ground from Pierce’s grave and whispered, “Help me.”
Jazzi nodded. Now she knew what Camille wanted. Turning to Ansel, she said, “We have to dig up Camille’s body and bury it where it belongs.”
“Do we know where to find it?”
“Her father-in-law buried her in her husband’s plot.”
“Are we going to finish the tour?” He didn’t look as enthused as he had before.
“Not this time. I need to call Gaff.” Her detective friend had worked with her long enough, he might believe the story she was about to tell him.
Gaff not only believed her, he helped her dig into the cold case. They found old newspaper clippings about how a young, beautiful wife disappeared three days after her husband died of a high fever from diphtheria. She left no note, no way to find her. She simply left and never returned. The father of her husband reported that she was never a stable or dependable person, and that it didn’t surprise him that she’d run away. She came from a rich family that spoiled her, and that while she gave a substantial amount of money to his son to start his business, her only interests were giving large dinner parties and entertaining herself.
When Jazzi read the aged article to Ansel, he grimaced. “The dad wanted his son’s business and knew that if he got rid of the wife, he could do as he pleased.”
That’s what she thought, too, and when she went with Gaff to meet Martina’s granddaughter, she was sure of it. The young woman had the same dark coloring as Pierce’s ghost. The girl sadly shook her head when Gaff explained that they’d come to question her about her missing relative, Camille Dorante.
“My grandmother could never understand why Camille ran away. She often told me what a beautiful, kind woman Camille was, and how perfect of a wife she was for her brother.”
“But Ogden never liked her?” Jazzi asked.
She shook her head. “She was everything he despised—graceful, loving, generous. According to my grandmother, her father was a hard man. Her mother was just as cold. But her younger sister, Lenore, was an indomitable spirit full of life and laughter.”
“But she died young?” If Jazzi remembered, she was only twenty-three.
“Polio. Everyone swam in the river in the summer, and Grandma suspected she contracted it there. But Lenore never believed in clinging to sorrow. She believed in living life to the fullest and instilled that in her siblings.” The girl leaned forward. “By the way, I’m Jennifer. And I’m curious. Why are you asking about this now? It happened before I was born.”
Jazzi took a deep breath, feeling uncomfortable. “I had a weird thing happen when I went on a house tour and saw Camille’s ghost as we went through her home.” She explained.
“Camille’s buried in Pierce’s grave?” Jennifer thought about that. “The ground would have still been freshly dug three days after his death. It would have been easy for Ogden to bury her over his casket.”
Jazzi nodded. “We’d like to dig up his plot to find her bones. I think she wants people to know what happened to her and to have a proper burial.”
The girl nodded. “If you find her, my family and I will pay for her funeral and we’ll be there when she’s finally laid to rest.”
Two weeks later, it came as no surprise when Camille’s bones were found where she’d shown Jazzi they’d be. No grass grew on Pierce’s plot or the empty one next to his. It was as though Ogden’s sin had blighted it.
True to her word, Jennifer and her husband paid for a lovely casket and were there when Camille was lowered into the ground. They all sucked in deep breaths when the minute Camille’s grave was filled, lush grass spread over it and her husband’s.
Jennifer blinked back tears. “She’s free now. So is he. He must have stayed behind with her.”
Her husband cradled her shoulders just as Ansel cradled Jazzi’s. Even Gaff looked caught off guard. Finally, they all turned to leave the cemetery. On the drive home, Ansel reached to pat her hand. “You did a good thing, but I don’t want to meet any more ghosts on Halloween, not even nice ones.”
I recently finished reading Anna Lee Huber’s A STROKE OF MALICE, a Lady Darby novel. Her writing is so rich in detail, it always takes me longer to read her than most of my favorite authors. I’d been reading a little more than I usually do, anyway, and I wasn’t ready to pick up another book. Then I remembered that she had a novella in an anthology with three other authors. The idea of shorter reads appealed to me.
I’d recently written a Jazzi and Ansel story for MURDER THEY WROTE, the anthology I put together with six other writers, so I was curious to see what THE DEADLY HOURS was like. I haven’t finished reading the entire thing, but the concept interested me.
I like short stories, so for years, I used to buy the Sisters In Crime annual anthology of top women mystery writers. These often had twenty different authors in them, and the stories were short and usually had a punch. I found I liked anthologies more than story collections, where each story was by the same author. Anthologies had more variety of voices and styles.
Our anthology had seven longer stories by seven different types of authors: historical, speculative, psychological, literary, and cozy. And each story was different. THE DEADLY HOURS has four authors, and each story is novella length. What interested me the most, though, is that instead of being a variety of plots, they each continue the theme of a cursed gold watch.
Susanna Kearsley starts the overall story with her novella in Italy, 1733, and tells how the watch came into being and how it was cursed. At the end of her tale, a Scottish assassin steals the watch and takes it to Scotland with him. Anna Lee Huber takes up the watch’s evil doings from there when Lady Darby and her husband Gage desperately search for it to put an end to the disease that’s ravishing Edinburgh, 1831. Lady Darby tries to rid the world of the wretched thing and its curse, but of course, Christine Trent finds a way to bring it back in her Edinburgh story in 1870 when a series of murders rocks society. And that’s as far as I’ve read so far. But fingers crossed C.S. Harris finally puts an end to the foul time piece in her novella, set in England, 1944, ending the anthology.
It was fun to see how four different authors advanced the story in each quarter of the book. The longer novellas made a nice bridge between short stories and full length novels. I enjoyed it. But when I finish the last one, I’m going to be ready to dig into a book again. I’ve had my break, and I’m ready for the long haul and luxury of more pages focused on one tale.
For October, I wanted to share a few short stories for you–Halloween stories. This time, I’ve thrown Lux and her hunky chef, Keon, into volunteer work at the local community center, where they’re making a Halloween snack every Thursday for the people who congregate there. But they have to worry about more than making pumpkin bread and popcorn balls when the center’s director receives threats from the Grim Reaper.
Trick or Treat
(a Lux mystery)
Keon’s brother, Tyson, could be too persuasive. I disconnected our call and glared at the calendar on the wall. Why had I agreed to volunteer once a week at the community center he worked at? How did he always talk me into things I didn’t want to do? It was my own fault for working long hours to finish my assigned article so that I’d have more free time during October. I love autumn and wanted to enjoy it, but I shouldn’t have told him I didn’t have a deadline looming over my head.
Keon walked into the kitchen, looked at my face, and grinned. “Whoa! That’s your ferocious scowl. What did he hit you up for this time?” My hunky chef already had on the loose, drawstring pants he wore to work, along with a snug black T-shirt. He looked darned good in them. The white chef coat waited for him at his restaurant.
I heaved a frustrated sigh. “I’m going to give cooking classes once a week every Thursday for the month of October. Tyson wants me to make enough fun Halloween treats for everyone to take home with them.”
“Everyone at the center?” Keon chuckled. “That’ll be nice for them. What if I help you? What do you want to make?”
“You haven’t thought this through. The class doesn’t start until one thirty and lasts an hour. Won’t that rush you for going into Seafood & Catfish to prep?” His restaurant was upscale but flavored with the roots of the soul food his mother made for them growing up. Mrs. Johnson was a wonderful cook, but when her kids were home, she was always on a tight budget.
He reached for the hoodie he’d hung on the hook by the garage door. “We’ll make simple stuff. By one-thirty, Tyson’s already served the free lunches the center gives out. I was thinking of traditional Halloween snacks like caramel apples, pumpkin bread, popcorn balls, and Rice Krispy treats topped with melted chocolate sprinkled with candy corn. On the last Thursday, maybe we can even go in early and make something a little special for their lunch—pumpkin soup and “mummy” dogs—then do decorated cookies for their treat.”
“We’ll need at least fifty of everything.”
“No problem. We can make everything ahead and then just demonstrate what we did for the classes.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that? Simple. But then, he was the chef and I was only a lowly home cook. I loved inviting people over to eat supper with us, but that was a whole different thing than feeding a crowd.
He tousled my copper hair, making it crazier than usual. “See? This isn’t going to be so bad. Remember how good we felt last Thanksgiving when we helped make a meal at the center? Remember how much joy that brought them?” We’d served it on the Wednesday before our family get-together. Keon had twisted friends’ and suppliers’ arms to get lots of donated turkeys, hams, and sides. Any leftovers were divided up and sent home. I couldn’t believe how happy it had made the center’s regulars.
Now, I felt guilty for being such a grouch about donating time to help others. If Halloween treats made the holiday special for them, then why not? I hugged my man. “You’re a genius.”
“Not really, but I try to keep up with you. Journalists think too much. I have to work to get a step ahead. When do we start? Next Thursday’s October first.”
“Bingo. One week away. That’s when we’re up.”
“That’s not much notice. Then it’s pumpkin bread for sure. It’s easier.”
“And everyone loves it.” I’d go to a restaurant supply store and buy lots of disposable loaf pans. Then each person could take one home with them. . .if they had a home. Not all of them did.
Keon dropped a kiss on my forehead and hurried out the door. He had lots to do for tonight’s special—seafood chili. I poured myself a glass of wine and headed to the living room. I had plans for this evening, too. I turned on the TV and started my movie. When the first scene of Hocus Pocus hit the screen, I reached for the bag of popcorn I’d bought for this occasion. I’d toyed with the idea of buying a black candle but wimped out. Why push your luck at Halloween?
The Thursday class came faster than we realized, but when we left for the center, we took sixty loaves of pumpkin bread with us. Then we set up the table to demonstrate what we’d done for residents who wanted to watch. I’d printed out the recipe for them, even though I doubted they’d ever make it.
Tyson sauntered up to thank us. Keon raised an eyebrow at his brother. “Next time you need our help, give us a little more notice, will you?”
With a grin, he admitted, “I didn’t think about doing this until Lux told me she had more free time than usual.”
“And you don’t think she’s earned that? That maybe you should have left her alone?”
Tyson glanced at me, trying to gauge how irritated he’d made me. “Sorry, Lux. I did take advantage of you. Does this mean fewer free suppers when I call at the last minute?”
Typical Ty, more worried about losing free meals than aggravating his brother or me, but that was part of his charm. I glanced at the people starting to congregate for the cooking lesson. “Let’s let it slide this time, but stop pushing your luck.”
His worried frown evaporated, replaced with a smile. Keon’s warning hadn’t stuck.
When everyone settled in place, we added ingredients to the huge bowl on the table to demonstrate quick bread making, step by step, then handed out recipes and answered questions. The longer the lesson went, the more people glanced at the loaf pans visible in the kitchen
Keon motioned toward them. “We made some earlier. If you line up, we’ll pass them out.”
People sprang from their seats and hurried to the kitchen window. We had enough for everyone there and some extras. Abraham, the center’s director, waited until the last person was served before coming out of his office to see if he could nab a loaf or two. He always kept a close eye on things, making sure things ran smoothly. In his early thirties, short and thin with longish, light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, he looked nervous today. Unusual. He handled all kinds of small problems and emergencies here without getting ruffled. He smiled when we handed him an extra loaf, but the smile was strained.
“Are you all right?” Something was bothering him, that was clear.
He tried for a careless shrug but didn’t pull it off. “I got an odd text message today. It felt like a threat.”
“What kind of threat?” Who’d send mean messages to Abraham? He did everything he could to help people in need.
He pulled out his cellphone and scrolled to the message for me to see.
ARE YOU READY FOR TRICK OR TREAT? WHICH WILL IT BE FOR YOU? YOU HAVE THREE WEEKS BEFORE I DECIDE. THE GRIM REAPER.
A chill went down my spine. Was this guy serious? “Whoever sent this sounds like a loony. You should call Pete.”
Tyson and Keon came to read over my shoulder. Keon’s jaw set in a stubborn line. “This might be some crazy who’s stalking you. You can’t take a chance. Lux is right. Call Pate.” Pete was the detective living with Keon’s sister and my best friend, Gabbie. Abraham had met him before when we found out his previous assistant and her husband were drug dealers. That’s how Tyson got a job here, to replace Amelia.
“So you think I should worry?” Abraham asked.
“Yes.” Tyson pulled his cellphone out of his pocket. “You call him, or I will.”
“Why risk it?” I asked. “You just never know.”
Abraham made the call, but we couldn’t stay to hear what Pete said. We had to leave so Keon could get to his restaurant on time. Driving home, he asked, “Do you think this Grim Reaper is for real? Or is some teenager having fun playing a prank for Halloween?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to research news articles on my computer tonight. That message felt a little too real to me.” After all, I was a journalist. I’d been a reporter in Chicago before I’d moved to Summit City and gone freelance.
When Keon left for work, I plopped my fanny in my office chair and started looking for odd news about community centers and a Grim Reaper. Unfortunately, I found articles in newspapers concerning two men that didn’t reassure me. A volunteer who supervised a soup kitchen in southern Indiana had received odd notes from a Grim Reaper a year ago and had ignored them. On Halloween, police received documents that proved he used the soup kitchen to sign people up for cheap rent in rundown houses he owned. Most of them had no heat or running water.
The year before that, a man known for his charity works had received similar warnings. While away on a trip, his mansion mysteriously burned to the ground on Halloween. When police tried to contact him at the charity auction he’d said he was going to, they couldn’t locate him or his wife. They eventually tracked them down to a resort in Palm Springs. No one would have ever been suspicious of how he spent his funds if the fire hadn’t started. Had the Grim Reaper set it?
I didn’t bother digging for more. Those articles worried me enough. Why had he chosen Abraham for this year’s threats? Abraham was as honest and sincere as any person could be. Regardless, I called Pete to tell him what I’d found.
“I don’t like it,” Pete told me. “There’s a pattern, and it looks like this guy’s a wacko. Do you think he even makes sure who’s innocent or guilty?”
“In the two cases before, he chose people he knew were guilty.”
“Then do you think he chose Abraham because of Amelia and Rob? Abraham had no idea they were dealers.” Pete had worked with Keon and me when a drug dealer had targeted Keon’s brother Tyson, and we’d discovered the dealer’s wife worked at Abraham’s community center where Tyson volunteered. If the Grim Reaper chose Abraham because of that, it wasn’t fair. Abraham had no idea what Amelia was doing.
“Maybe he hasn’t done his homework this time.” I saved the articles to a new file and planned to add to them later.
“Maybe.” Pete sounded worried. “You’d better warn Abraham and Tyson, so they can be more cautious than usual.”
“Done.” And the minute I disconnected with Pete, I gave each of them a call.
I checked with Abraham during the week, but another text message didn’t come until the next Thursday we worked at the community center. This time, we made caramel apples, and more people came than last time for the lesson. We’d anticipated that and dipped seventy-five apples. We had enough left over to give Tyson three to take home. He lived in the basement of his parents’ condo, so he could share with Keon’s mom and dad. We gave two extra to Abraham, too.
The message had been the same as last time except for the timing.
ARE YOU READY FOR TRICK OR TREAT? WHICH WILL YOU RECEIVE? YOU HAVE TWO WEEKS BEFORE I DECIDE. THE GRIM REAPER.
“Did you try to reply to his last message?” I asked. “To tell him you’ve heard about the two other people he chose and what happened to them, and you don’t deserve a trick?”
“I tried,” Abraham said, “but my text didn’t go through. Pete told me the reaper probably used a burner phone and threw it away after texting me.”
I hadn’t thought about that. I was glad Pete had. He’d obviously tried to trace where the text came from. Smart move.
When we left the center, I was more worried than before. “What could the reaper do to Abraham if we can’t stop him?” I asked Keon. “He can’t accuse him of skimming money or charging an outrageous salary for heading up charities or cheating the poor. Abraham hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“Would he plant false evidence to make him look bad?” Keon asked.
I stared. “Why would he do that? So far, he’s tried to bring his own brand of justice to what he considers grave wrongs.”
“But who made him judge and jury?” Keon asked. “People who take that route have something wrong with them.”
Why would he do that? That thought struck a chord. Why would someone reinvent himself as a Grim Reaper once a year on Halloween? Had he suffered great wrongs at the hand of someone who pretended to be well-intentioned? And if he had, how in the world would I find out what that wrong was?
When Keon left for his restaurant, I returned to my office to start digging for new information. Halloween had to play a part in this, so I searched for newspaper articles for traumatic events in Indiana in October for the last twenty years. If our reaper was older than that, I’d have to try again. There weren’t as many hits to look at as I’d thought. But a few things popped up that made me dig deeper.
One article told about a three-car collision the night before Halloween that killed five people. I skimmed what happened but didn’t see anything that seemed to tie into do-gooders gone bad. Another article was about a house fire that claimed most of a family a week before Halloween. The fire fighters decided a person fell asleep while smoking, and the lit cigarette fell between the couch cushions. The fire spread from there. I passed on that catastrophe, too. Finally, I found an article about a teenage girl who went to her parents’ barn and hung herself on Halloween night because the choir director at her church had raped her. Her brother had tried to shoot the choir director, but his father wrestled the gun out of his hand. The director lost his job but never went to prison. He claimed the sex was consensual, and the girl was almost seventeen, so legal. No one could prove what the boy’s sister had told him. Bingo. That one I printed out to keep.
I found one other article about a boy who was going door to door to deliver popcorn he’d sold for Little League when the coach’s son, bigger and stronger, beat him up to take the money. When the boy told the coach what had happened, he and his wife swore their son was home with them when it happened. They accused the kid of keeping the cash to buy himself a gaming system. The coach was a businessman, involved in lots of local things, and when the boy’s parents made a stink about what happened, he turned the town against them.
I printed that story, too. And then I began to dig more. The boy’s father worked at the man’s company. He was fired a month later and no one else would hire him. The family couldn’t make their house payments and had to move in with the boy’s grandparents in another town. The grandfather was an alcoholic and beat the boy every time he drank too much. I printed all of that out, too, and e-mailed the articles to Pete. Two candidates who might become a Grim Reaper.
After more digging, I learned both boys, grown now, still lived in Indiana. And both had become filthy rich. I was still doing background checks on them when Keon asked, “Have you solved it yet?”
I jumped at the sound of his voice. I hadn’t heard him walk into my office. Then I shrugged. “I have two candidates. See what you think.” I handed him my pile of printed articles.
He went to get a beer and stretched in his favorite recliner to look through what I’d found. When he finished, he looked at me. I’d turned off my computer to join him in the living room. “Could be either one,” he said.
“That’s what I think, too.”
“It’s a toss-up. Then again, neither of them might be the right guy.”
I grimaced. He had to state the obvious. “How was your night?”
“Busier than usual. People must have been in the mood for shrimp scampi, our special.”
“What’s the special for the weekend?” I asked.
“Bouillabaisse with crusty bread and a spinach salad.”
My mouth watered. I’d snacked on hummus and pita for supper. “I might come to give that a try.” The only evenings he was home were Mondays and Tuesdays, but sometimes, if I went to his restaurant before rush hour, he could sit with me a while. Such was life when you lived with a chef.
He grinned. “I’ll save you a table. Just tell me when.” He liked it when I stopped in to try his food. Not that I’d ever had anything I didn’t like. Except for maybe the oysters Rockefeller he cajoled me into trying. I’m not an oyster girl.
He looked tired. He’d started early at the community center, then left there to work a long shift. “Want to head to bed early?”
His chocolate brown eyes gleamed. “What have you got in mind?”
“Not that. You look wiped out. I was thinking about sleep.”
His lips curled but he didn’t argue. A sure sign he was really dead on his feet. I waited for him to finish his beer, then we went upstairs and were asleep in less than half an hour.
Pete struck out following up on my articles. Both men had alibis on the Halloweens when something happened, but then both of them were rich enough to hire something done. On the third Thursday at the center, Keon and I had made a hundred popcorn balls. Even more people showed up for our cooking class. And after they left, Abraham showed us yet another text from the Grim Reaper.
I skimmed it this time. Yada yada. One week to go.
Abraham tried to pretend that he wasn’t nervous. How could he not be? I was nervous for him.
“I’m bringing my gun next week, and I’m staying with you every minute until November first.”
Keon raised an eyebrow. “Then I’m taking the day off to help out, too.”
I started to protest. “Aren’t you busy on Hallo. . .?”
He shook his head. “A lot of people stay home to pass out candy or have parties. We’ll plan something that Mark and I can make ahead. Maybe a buffet.”
What kind of seafood went with Halloween? I frowned at him. “What would you serve?”
“A local baker makes bread bowls shaped like cauldrons this time of year. We could fill those with clam chowder. I saw a picture of crabs arranged on a platter to look like a giant millipede.”
I shuddered. Those things gave me the creeps.
He shrugged. “We’ll think of something.”
Abraham put up his hand to stop us. “I appreciate your offers. Really I do. But this reaper hasn’t killed anyone. He tries to bring up some kind of scandal. I don’t have one, so I should be okay.”
“He picked the wrong person this year.” I crossed my arms over my chest, determined. “Who knows what he thinks you’ve done? I’m staying with you on Halloween. That’s all there is to it.”
Keon nodded to me. “Where she goes, I go.”
“Me, too,” Tyson said.
“We’ll order a pizza and have it delivered to your house,” I told Abraham. Then I looked at Tyson. He could eat an entire pizza by himself. “We’ll order a few of them, and we’ll make a nice night of it.” No one knocked on our door for trick-or-treating anyway. My wealthy neighbors went to elaborate parties instead.
Abraham held out his hands in defeat. “In that case, thank you. I’ll appreciate the company.”
I didn’t stop digging just because we had a plan. And before Halloween, I was pretty sure who our Grim Reaper was. When I researched the coach who’d lied to ruin the boy and his family, I learned that twenty years later, someone built a new tool and die company only a few miles from the town he lived in. That company made so much money and had so much business, it tanked the coach’s business. By then, the coach’s son had joined in as a partner, and they’d invested to expand their building and hire more people. When they lost most of their customers, they had to file for bankruptcy. Workers who were laid-off got better jobs for better pay at the new place.
An apt revenge. Even better, the new building was just outside the borders of the town that had turned on the family. They didn’t receive one penny in taxes. All the money went to the next town that began to grow prosperous.
I chewed my bottom lip in frustration. The reaper was so meticulous about being fair, about being righteous—in his own way. How could he not see that Abraham deserved praise, not punishment?
More determined than ever, Keon and I dressed and went to the center earlier than usual on the last Thursday we’d volunteered for, Halloween. We both wore loose sweaters to hide our guns. I hoped we didn’t need them, but I wanted to be prepared. I wouldn’t let anyone harm Abraham.
We’d baked dozens and dozens of pumpkin-shaped cookies for our demonstration, and we brought all of the ingredients to make pumpkin soup and “mummy” hotdogs—wrapped in dough—for the free lunch, along with lots of varieties of chips. So many people showed up, every table and chair were filled, and everyone got a small bag of cookies to take home.
People lingered longer than usual, enjoying the apple cider and bags of candy we’d set out on the counter. It was nearly dark when the center finally began to clear, so we were surprised when a mail truck pulled into the lot and a mailman walked inside.
He glanced at us and asked, “Abraham Holmes?”
“That would be me.” When Abraham walked forward, I tensed. Was the mailman bringing a legal time bomb? Some accusation he’d have to refute? Was he a real mailman?
“You need to sign for this,” the man said and handed Abraham a thick envelope.
Hands shaking, he signed, and the mailman turned to leave. We all held our breaths as Abraham broke the seal and opened the envelope. He tugged out what was inside and then stared.
“What is it?” I couldn’t stand the suspense.
Abraham glanced up at us, a stunned expression on his face.
“Well?” If I had to, I’d rip the papers out of his hand.
“It’s letter of thanks and a check for $100,000 for the center and another check for $10,000 made out to me.”
I couldn’t take it in. I couldn’t react. It was too much of a shock.
Abraham handed me the letter, and Keon and Tyson moved closer to read over my shoulder. At the top of the page, in big, bold letters, it said TREAT.
My hand began to shake. I was so relieved, I didn’t know what to do, what to say.
Keon saved me. “Congratulations!” He slapped Abraham on the back.
Tyson’s grin spread from ear to ear. I skimmed over the letter. At the end, it said, “I’ve satisfied my need for a just revenge. Now I want to turn my attention to rewarding those people who’ve given generously of their time and resources. I know your assistant betrayed you, but you didn’t let it affect your work for the center. I hope this helps you help those in need. P.S. The $10,000 is for you. You deserve a better life, too.”
Tears slid down my cheeks, and Abraham hugged me to him in concern. “I’m sorry I caused you so much worry.”
I shook my head. “Happy tears. I’m so glad for you!”
We stayed to talk a little longer, then Keon and I packed up our things to go home. On the way, he glanced at me, grinning. “Not what you expected.”
“Every article I read was about retribution. It scared me.”
“Your little boy’s grown up,” he said. “He’s turned into a man and he’s come to realize hanging on to past hurts harm him as much as the people he’s punished.”
I smiled, hoping Keon was right, that the reaper was ready to reap happiness. That would make this one of the best Halloweens ever.
Reading is the way I relax at the end of the day. I usually give myself one and a half to two hours to read before I start for bed. I think my parents instilled too much work ethic in me, but I feel guilty reading during the day. I feel like I should be “doing” something. I’m retired, so I thought that guilt would go away, but not so much, even though I tried giving it up for Lent one year. It’s still stuck with me.
I can’t read lying in bed. I either get antsy or I fall asleep. HH watches TV lying on the couch. I can’t do that either. It’s an upright position for me. And when I pick up my Kindle, it’s a comfortable chair with a good lamp.
I like to mix up the genres of the books I read. Lately, I bounced from science fiction to urban fantasy to cozies to historical mysteries. I just finished A STROKE OF MALICE by Anna Lee Huber, and I loved it. Sad to say, though, this book catches me up on the Lady Darby series, so I have to wait for the next one to come out. <sigh> But she does have a novella in a recently published anthology, so I bought that. The Deadly Hours. It follows a cursed watch from one owner to another to tell what havoc it wreaks.
I finished the first novella in the collection last night. Actually, I stayed up late to finish it. I’ve never read Susanna Kearsley before. It took me a minute to get into the story and her writing style, but then I was hooked. I think it’s hard to pull off a strong hero who’s a man of few words, but she did it. A hardened soldier, Hugh MacPherson is on a mission to keep the Duke of Ormonde alive from an assassin sent to kill him before he reaches Rome. But for this mission, Hugh’s accompanied by his clever wife, Mary. The push and pull of his emotions, which he rarely shows, are fascinating. At the same time, his Mary is trying to make him understand that she doesn’t want to be locked in their room and protected. She wants to be part of his life. Add to this an infamous pirate now working for his government, who owns the cursed watch, and there are many layers to this story. Even a card game becomes part of the strategy. And the ending had several clever twists. A real winner.
Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby novella is the next to further the story of the watch. I’m looking forward to that one. Then there are two more, and they both sound wonderful. I’ve read C.S. Harris and enjoy her Sebastian St. Cyr series, but Christine Trent is new to me. Always a good thing to find new authors to follow in an anthology.
(Which, by the way, is a good reason to check out the anthology I’m in with six other talented writers. I know. A cheap plug. Sorry about that, but I’m really proud of Murder They Wrote, and I’d love for it to find more readers).
Anyway, I hope you’re enjoying what you’re reading as much I am right now. Next up on my list is The Lab by D.L. Cross, the last book in her thriller/scifi series, and I can’t wait to see what happens to the characters I’ve followed through her last four books! So I KNOW there’s even more good reading in my future.
I have a fondness for GOOD witches, like Hester and her coven in Muddy River, so I wrote a Muddy River short story last year, too. If you didn’t read it, or want to read it again, it had more witch lore in it than the latest one. And if you’re not into the supernatural this time of year, hope you have a wonderful October anyway!
A Muddy River Halloween
Realistically, there’s only a full moon about once every nineteen years for Halloween, or what we refer to as Samhain. This was one of those years, and I was as excited as all of the other witches in Muddy River.
“You lived with Celts for a while, didn’t you?” my mate, Raven, asked. Samhain was their holiest festival, the beginning of a new year. The time when nights grew longer than days.
We were sitting on the front porch of our Victorian house in the evening, watching the sun set. Raven knew the important blips in my life history, but we’d both lived a long time. We’d only touched on the big things in our pasts. “I was born when the Celts settled in Ireland, around 500 B.C.”
He was older than I was. Lillith had sucked out his last breath and blown her own into him, making him a demon, long before that. I could understand why she’d turned him. Who wouldn’t want a few centuries to enjoy him? Hopefully, we’d be partners even longer than that.
“But all witches celebrate Samhain, don’t they?” My fire demon had battled witches many times, ones gone bad, but had never lived with one. He didn’t know as much about us as I’d expected.
I nodded. “We follow the pagan traditions.”
“How long did you stay in Ireland?”
“Until the fourth century when the Anglo Saxons began to invade. Then we moved to Europe. When the witch hunts started there, we moved to the New World, thinking we’d be safer. We weren’t.” I was the only one of my entire family who’d survived Salem.
“Do you still believe the old pagan ways?” He stretched his long legs. Raven’s six five of pure muscle. When he stretches his legs, they reach all the way to the porch railing.
I took a sip of my wine. “Even witches study science in school, but science doesn’t really explain magic, does it? Our Hecate is goddess of the moon and hunt, so we always celebrate a full moon and the solstices.”
“But Samhain isn’t a solstice, and there’s rarely a full moon.”
“No, it’s a night to celebrate the last harvest. It’s the start of our New Year. The entire town parties—all of us—witches, shifters, and vampires. We’ve lived long enough to remember the old ways. In old beliefs, the veil between the two worlds thinned. We use it to honor our dead ancestors. When a full moon and Samhain fall on the same night, it’s a really special occasion.”
His lips quirked in a smile. “So Muddy River’s going to go all out for this?”
“Of course.” Claws padded onto the porch to join us. My ocelot/familiar had spent enough time prowling the river bank at the far back of our property. He sprawled at my feet and closed his eyes. “We’ll have to leave a saucer of milk out that night.”
Raven frowned. “Why? Claws doesn’t like milk.”
Fire demons obviously didn’t share our rituals. “It’s tradition, like hanging a Christmas stocking. Cat Sith, from Celt mythology, is a black cat with a white spot on its chest. If you leave her a saucer of milk, you’ll be blessed. If you don’t, you’ll be cursed.”
“Like trick-or-treaters?” he asked. “If you don’t treat them, they trick you.”
I nodded. “Cat Sith is said to be a witch who can transform to a cat and back nine times in her life.”
“Hasn’t she used those all up by now?” he asked.
I smiled. “No one wants to risk it. I personally think she can shift back and forth at will.” If I could brew potions to aid every Were in Muddy River to easily shift, I’m sure she could, too.
With a chuckle, he stood to go inside and bring us fresh drinks. When he returned, the horizon was turning a deep rose, and the sun blazed a bright orange as it sank out of sight. The night air held the scent of rich earth and harvests and the tang of the river. I’d picked most of the herbs from my witch’s garden, and they were hanging from the rafters of my attic, drying.
We sat in silence until stars twinkled in the black sky. Then finally, we went inside. This year, Samhain would be even more agreeable than usual, happening on a Saturday. This weekend, tables would line Main Street, filled with food families carried in. One table would be set, holding sweets and treats for the dead who came to visit us. Each member of my coven, including me, had already hung autumnal wreaths on our front doors.
When we climbed the steps to bed, Raven threw the curtains open so that the moon could beam in on us. It was already bright. Soon, it would shine enough to light our festivities in town. The Harvest moon was a sight to behold.
The next few days flew by with people busy decorating Main Street with pumpkins, their orange representing the vitality of life to offset black tablecloths, symbolic of death. On the actual night, candles and lanterns were lit everywhere to the light the way for the waning sun. Before the feast began, every door I saw had a bowl of cream sitting beside it.
Raven, as Muddy River’s enforcer, announced the beginning of the festivities. People laughed and talked as they ate. Then the music started. Shifters, in their various forms, whirled their partners onto the street to dance. When the last notes ebbed, they’d leave to race toward the woods surrounding the town to hunt. My coven performed a cleansing spell for the entire area and then chanted for Hecate to bless us with her silver beams. We all ate, drank, and danced until I was too weary and went to find a chair. Raven joined me, and we were watching our fellow citizens when I noticed a black cat, padding from one building to the next, taking one lap of milk from each bowl set out. Until it reached Red’s gas station. Red was an enfield shifter—part fox/part eagle. He sat at the end of the last table, alone. Typical. The man was almost a recluse, who lived a simple life with simple needs. He could fix anything, a wonderful mechanic, with a quick mind and nimble fingers. Five ten, with a stringy build, red hair, black eyes, and a sharp nose, he even looked clever. But he hadn’t put out any cream.
The cat stopped at the door of his station with its small, attached house. It turned to scan the people partying, and its golden eyes stopped and stared at Red. The full moon shone on the small white spot on its chest and I offered a quick chant that Cat Sith wouldn’t curse Red. Too late, the cat turned to stalk away, and a long tree branch crashed onto the roof of Red’s house.
For weeks after that, once Red fixed one problem, another showed itself. I liked Red. He should have put out cream for Cat Sith, but I didn’t think he deserved all of the curses that plagued him, one after another.
I almost dreaded driving to town on Saturday, afraid to hear what had befallen him this time. I was delivering a new batch of potions to Prim for her magic shop when I saw a young witch, maybe only six or seven, trudging tiredly down Main Street on her way through town. Her clothes were tattered, her red hair dirty and matted. She stopped to stare longingly into Noira and Sugi’s coffee shop at their glass counter, filled with baked treats. I was walking toward her when Red opened the door of the shop to leave. He stopped when he saw the small girl with her nose pressed against the glass.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. She was the most bedraggled thing I’d seen for a long time.
Cringing, she took a step away from him.
“No need to be frightened. I was going to go back inside for another cup of coffee. Would you like something? My treat? I hate to eat alone.”
Really? The man usually avoided company. The girl stared, clearly thinking of bolting, but then pressed a hand to her stomach and nodded.
Red opened the door and motioned her into the shop. “Order whatever you want. Everything these girls make is wonderful.”
By the time I followed them inside, the girl had a slice of quiche, two donuts, and a cream puff sitting in front of her with a glass of milk. Red was sipping at his coffee. He nodded for me to join them. “Hester, let me introduce you to my friend. She seems to be alone, and I have no idea where she came from or where she’s going. She’s not the talkative type.”
I sniffed the air. Clearly witch magic. I studied the girl, then tried a smile. “Does your family live around here?”
For such a young girl, she came across as worn and tired. She tilted her head, clearly taking my measure, then asked, “You’re an old witch, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “I’m the leader of Muddy River’s coven, and I teach young witches at my school for magic.”
Another long pause, then she said, “I don’t have a family. My dad said my mother was a witch, but she left when I was a baby and I don’t remember her. Dad got sick and died. I buried him and stayed in our house as long as I could, but all of the food ran out, and I didn’t know where to go.”
Red stared at her. “You don’t have any aunts? Uncles? No one?”
Chin high, she shook her head. “But I’m strong and a hard worker. I can earn my keep.”
“Earn your keep?” Red looked appalled. “You should be in school or outside playing with friends.”
“No time for that,” she said. “I need to eat, to find a place to stay. I came here to find a job.”
He turned to me. “I need an assistant. My house isn’t big, but it has two bedrooms. Can she go to your school?”
I forced down a smile. Red had always managed before. “My classes have already started. She’s behind, but I’ll help her catch up.”
He frowned at the girl. “There you go then. You have a home if you want one. I can offer you that.”
She shook her head. “The old woman told me to go to this town’s gas station. I’m meant to try there first.”
Red’s jaw dropped. “Why is that?”
“If the man’s kind to me, we’ll both be blessed. If he isn’t, his curse won’t lift, and she said to find Hester.” She looked at me. “That’s you, isn’t it?”
I nodded and pointed to Red. “And Red’s the man who owns the gas station.”
It was the girl’s turn to look surprised, then her whole expression lit. “She sent me to you.”
Red lowered his eyes. Voice small, he said, “She’s being kinder than I deserve. I forgot to put out cream.”
When the girl frowned, confused, I said, “Red will explain. If everything’s settled here, I need to get going. Raven will be home soon.”
On the drive out of town to our house on Banks Road, I remembered a lesson my grandmother often repeated. “The cream we leave for Cat Sith is really a reminder to be kind to our fellow beings.” Red might have forgotten to put out cream, but he’d taken in a small orphan. And that act of kindness would enrich not only her life but his as well. Cat Sith had blessed them both. A happy ending to a special Samhain.
I thought I’d surprise you with a story to put you in the mood for Halloween. Who doesn’t need a nice witch or two for the holiday?
(Muddy River short story)
Rowan leaned across the wooden work table in our kitchen, watching me add the last ingredients to my stew. I gave it a stir, then turned to swipe carrot tops and onion skins into the trash. It was chilly outside, nearing the end of October, but the kitchen was warm with steam rising from the simmering pot on my six-burner stove. She fidgeted with the hem of her long-sleeved sweatshirt.
“Thanks for seeing me on your day off, Hester. I hate to bother you, but I don’t have very much witch magic like you and your coven. And I think I need help.”
“What kind of help?” I poured us each a cup of coffee and motioned for her to sit down. I needed to add a few seasonings to the pot before I joined her.
“The thing is, I don’t know if I’m losing my mind or if someone’s sneaking into my house in the middle of the night. I put up wards, but. . .” She sighed. “They’re not very strong, maybe not strong enough.”
One more stir and I turned to her with a frown. “What does this someone do? Does he take things?”
“No, nothing’s missing, but for a while now, I’ve felt like someone was watching me when I sleep. That’s just weird, right? I mean, why would anyone do that? But then, when I opened my eyes last night, a man was standing over me.”
I started to the table to sit across from her, but she gripped her coffee cup so hard, I thought she might break it. I made her nervous, so I’d kept my distance, trying to put her at ease. She still needed space, so I leaned against the kitchen counter instead. “Was this man someone you know?”
She shook her head. “The room was dark, and I couldn’t see very well. He wore a hoodie, and the hood shadowed his face. He scared me so much, I leapt out of bed to run away. He followed me and then . . .disappeared.”
“I don’t know.” The poor girl looked embarrassed just talking about it. She had to be desperate to come to me. We weren’t even acquaintances. She hadn’t attended my school for witches, and we rarely passed on the street.
I knew her parents. They lived in the north suburbs of Muddy River. Her mother was only one-fourth witch, and her father had so little magic, he wouldn’t have been able to shift if I hadn’t laid hands on him to help him survive the change. They’d passed on even less magic to their daughter, so she’d attended Muddy River’s public school. She was a pretty girl in a fresh, wholesome way with silky light brown hair and hazel eyes. “
“Did you see the man disappear?” I asked.
She looked confused. “He was there one minute and gone the next.”
“Did he touch anything? Make any motions with his hands?”
She tilted her head to the side, thinking. “He was standing by my bookcase, facing away from me. But maybe. . .” She shook her head. “I can’t be sure.”
I turned on the oven and transferred my stew to it to finish cooking. “What if I follow you to your house so you can show me where the man stood?”
“Now? When you’re in the middle of making supper?”
“It’s stew. It will be hours before it’s ready. Raven should be home by then.” My fire demon was helping Toothy, a shape shifter friend of ours who had a poultry farm on the north side of town. A fox-shifter was sneaking inside our borders to steal chickens from him.
Every fall, there was some sort of mischief when it got close to Hallows Eve. Samhain brought out the wild side of some supernaturals. Rowan still hesitated, so I went to grab my sweater. “Come on. I need to see where this man disappeared.” As I walked out the door, Claws—my ocelot familiar—fell into step beside me. If a stranger was popping in and out of Muddy River, he meant to be beside me when we met.
Rowan drove a compact, gray car, and I followed her to the suburbs where her parents lived. She turned on a street a few blocks from theirs and pulled to the curb in front a cozy, one-and-a-half story bungalow. It was painted a spice color with pale gold trim. Pumpkins lined the steps that led to her front door. She kept wiping her hands on her jeans as we walked up the sidewalk and fumbled with her key to let me inside.
“I don’t bite,” I assured her.
Her cheeks reddened with a deep blush. “Sorry. It’s just that I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Then you know I help people who live here.”
She gave a quick nod. “I never thought I’d have to come to you.”
“I’m glad you did.” I looked around the room. “Your home is adorable.” Antiques mingled with overstuffed furniture in a warm, comfortable décor.
She smiled, pleased, then jammed her hands in her jean pockets. “Thank you. I’ve redone everything except the upstairs. I’m going to start on that next year.”
I walked closer to the bookcase on the far wall. “Is this where he stood?”
Claws hunched on the floor by my feet, ready to pounce. He felt the same vibes I did. “Have you bought anything new to decorate it lately?”
Her eyes flew wide in surprise. “The black cat bookend. I found it at Muddy River’s market.”
“One of my coven’s booths?”
She frowned. “No, three weeks ago, an old woman was selling things out of the trunk of her car.”
Not good. Raven usually patrolled the area, but Drago had called him to help with a problem at the voodoo settlement that weekend.
“There was only one bookend?” I stepped closer to study it.
“Yes, but it fits perfectly where it is.”
It did, but I was betting there was a matching mate somewhere in someone else’s house. “It’s possible you have a stalker.”
“Why would anyone do that? They could just say hi to me when we meet.”
“I doubt it’s someone from town. You work for Karnil at the gravel pit, don’t you?”
“Answering phones. Filing. Things like that.”
“He thinks the world of you, and if anyone messed with you, they’d have to answer to him. I don’t know too many supernaturals who’d like to risk that.” None of us wanted to anger an incubus.
She looked down, a blush staining her cheeks. “He’s a wonderful boss.”
He would be. He might be powerful, but he was every bit as nice. I pursed my lips, trying to decide the best way to help her. “I think your bookend is a portal that connects with its mate, wherever that one is. Someone’s using it to travel here to spy on you.”
She laughed. “Then they’re going to get really bored. I don’t do anything exciting.”
“That’s why I think the man’s a stalker.”
“But how would he even find me? I never leave Muddy River except to go to the market on Saturdays.” We’d closed the booths on October first. The weather was too unpredictable once the fall solstice passed.
Had the man found her there? Or had he bought the other bookend and been whisked here on accident? We’d built the market far enough from town that we allowed mortals to shop there. Was it possible a mortal was visiting our town? We’d put up wards to keep them out, and the Fae had spelled an illusion so they couldn’t see Muddy River. Had one found a portal that brought him here? Not to harm us. No enemy could pass our wards. But to gaze at Rowan in her sleep?
That seemed likely to me, and I knew what I wanted to do about it. “Would you mind if Raven and I came here tonight, and I reversed the portal to take us to the other bookend?”
She gripped the edge of the bookcase, licking her lips nervously. “You mean, to where the man lives?”
“I hope so, but we won’t be able to identify him without you.”
Her grip tightened. “I have to go with you? What will you do to him?”
A fair question. “We’ll take away his portal, and then he can’t find or enter Muddy River again. He can’t sneak into your house to watch you sleep.”
She worried her bottom lip. “You won’t hurt him, will you? Raven won’t turn him to ashes? He’s never tried to harm me, hasn’t even touched me.”
“We’ll just take his portal and pop back home.”
She straightened her shoulders, trying to summon her courage. “When should I be ready?”
“Midnight should be late enough. He should be home.”
“I’ll be ready.” Her voice shook. She’d fret about going with us for the rest of the day, but if we got lucky, when we returned to Muddy River, she’d own both bookends and wouldn’t have to worry about a stalker ever again.
When I pulled into the drive of our three-story, yellow Victorian home, Raven’s Lamborghini was already parked in the garage. He’d left the door up for me, but I closed it and parked close to the kitchen door. We’d take my SUV when we went to Rowan’s tonight.
My mate was waiting for me when I walked through the door. He tugged me into a hug and leaned down to nuzzle my hair. “You smell delicious. So does the house.”
I laughed. “Stew. And I baked an apple pie this morning. Did you catch the fox-shifter?”
“We did. For recompense, he’s helping Toothy clean the poultry pens right now, and Paws invited him to stay for supper.”
Toothy’s wife, a cat shifter, was a softy, but cooking for the man who stole your chickens seemed a bit much. “Is she getting lonely out there since their kids grew up and moved out?”
“Empty nest is hitting her hard, but mostly, she felt sorry for the guy. A rogue werewolf attacked him and he’s in pretty bad shape, barely escaped alive. Can’t really hunt until he heals. He was stealing because he was hungry.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t tell me. They’re letting him stay with them until he’s better.”
He grinned. “They have a small house where a handyman used to live, and I’d lay odds it’s going to have a new occupant from now on. They really can use the extra help, and the shifter can use a safe home.”
He raised a dark eyebrow, studying me. “When I left this morning, you were planning on staying home today. Where did you get off to?”
I told him about Rowan and my plan to use her portal to find out who was visiting her during the night.
He glanced at the kitchen clock. “It’s almost six. You can fill in all of the details during supper.”
Which meant he was hungry. We made a quick salad, and I took the stew out of the oven. The meat was fall-apart tender. Raven grabbed a loaf of crusty bread, and we sat down to eat. By the time we’d finished, he wore a deep scowl.
“Some old woman came to our market and sold enchanted items out of her trunk?”
“That’s where Rowan bought the bookend.”
“From now on, when I’m out of town, I’ll have Brown or Strike watch over things there.”
“Probably not a bad idea, but my coven and I warded the entire area, including the parking lot and the road we take to get there.”
Raven stood to help me carry dirty dishes to the sink. I rinsed them, and he loaded the dishwasher. “Are you saying the old woman couldn’t be an enemy?”
“She must have been harmless or she couldn’t have gotten in.”
He shook his head. “I’m going to be interested in whom we find and how the portals work.”
“So am I.” And in five more hours, hopefully, we’d know.
We had to leave Claws at home. It would be too easy to lose him when we transported. Rowan was pacing back and forth past her front window when we pulled in her drive. She hurried to the door to let us in, and then swallowed hard when she looked up at Raven. My fire demon was six-five of pure muscle with ebony hair and amber eyes. If I made the girl nervous, he intimidated her.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“How does it work?” She pulled the sleeves of her heavy sweater over her hands, hiding them.
I shook my head. “We have to be holding hands when I touch the portal and say my spell.”
Raven reached for my left hand and then for hers. For a minute, I thought Rowan was going to turn and run, but she pushed her arm out to him. Once we were all connected, I put my hand on the black cat bookend and chanted.
Wind rushed by us, and the world blurred. All we could feel was motion. And then it stopped. We found ourselves in the study of an old, tall and narrow house. Dark walnut bookshelves lined its walls, filled with tattered books with yellowed pages. A desk sat near the far end. The matching bookend sat on its corner. A black cat was curled on the cushion of a well-worn wingback chair lit by a floor lamp. A tiger cat sprawled on one book shelf. It blinked its yellow eyes at us. An orange tabby stretched across papers on the desk. Another cat licked its paw on the rag rug in the center of the room.
Comfortable surroundings, but then I smelled a gush of magic and raised my palms. An old woman stepped through the door, wearing a long, black robe. A witch. She grinned when she saw us and focused on Rowan. “Hello, dear. So good to see you again.”
Raven dropped our hands to let sparks skitter across his skin. The woman watched him, delighted, then said, “You have no need for that. I have no desire to harm any of you. I might have gotten a bit too zealous playing matchmaker, though.”
“Explain.” She might look like an innocent old thing, but I wasn’t going to let my guard down.
She held up a finger for us to give her a moment and turned to call, “Rhys! I need you.”
Footsteps sounded in the hall and a young man stepped into the room. When Rowan saw him, she blinked. “It’s you.”
A blush crept all the way to his hairline and he looked down. He wasn’t handsome, but he was attractive with brown hair and soft brown eyes. In a low voice, he mumbled, “I’m sorry, Astra. I’ve caused trouble for you.”
“Nonsense, boy. I’m the one who sold the bookend to the girl, and then I asked you to bring me the bookend in my study. I’d spelled it so when you touched it, you’d go to her.”
He jerked up his head to stare at her. “But why?”
“You talked about her every time you came home from that market. You’ve had a crush on her from the first time you saw her.”
I was growing impatient. I turned to Rowan. “You know this man?”
Her blush matched his. “That’s why I’ve been going to the market every Saturday, hoping to see him.”
“Are you his mother? Grandmother?” I asked the woman.
She shook her head. “Some poor young witch left him on my doorstep when he was hardly a month old. By the time I found her, she was already in her grave. Her father was furious she’d gotten pregnant and blasted her. She’d brought Rhys here to hide him.”
Raven’s sparks disappeared, and he studied Rhys. “You raised him?”
“He’s been such a joy to me. Such a good boy. I’ve tried to teach him our ways, but he didn’t get his mother’s magic. It’s like that sometimes with boys. It’s latent, but it’s there. Without magic, though, he can’t pass your wards. They reject him as a mortal.”
I was more confused than before. “Do you want him to move to Muddy River?”
“I hadn’t thought of it until he came home each Saturday with stories of the beautiful girl he’d met. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. You transported here, so you can’t know, but I live two towns over from you. Close enough for him to visit me, but he’d be safe inside your borders. With so little magic, his safety worries me. And if he mates and has daughters, they’ll inherit his mother’s gifts.”
His children would probably have stronger magic than him or Rowan. . .if the old woman’s matchmaking worked. But when I looked at Rowan, the way she glanced at Rhys, and the way he looked at her, I thought Astra might be right. They liked each other, and they’d make a good pair.
Raven let out a sigh of resignation. “Just tell me this, Rhys. If you could transport to see Rowan, why didn’t you wake her? Talk to her? Why just look at her while she slept?”
Rhys’s gaze rested on Rowan as he answered. “Because she lives in Muddy River, and your wards rejected me. I didn’t think I had a chance of winning her. And even if I did, I didn’t want her to leave there—to give up her family and friends. And she doesn’t have very much magic either. She’s safe there. She might not be if she lived with mortals and rogues. It felt hopeless.”
I liked him better for that answer. He was willing to put Rowan first. There was nothing for it but to remedy this problem. I reached out and placed my hand on Rhys’s arm, then pushed magic into him. He winced and yanked his sleeve up. A small black cat stained his arm. It looked like a tattoo.
“That’s your entry mark,” I told him. “You can cross our borders now.”
He blinked, surprised, then turned to Rowan with a wide smile. “I’d love to see you again. Do you mind if I drive to visit you?”
Her grin was wider. She reached for his hand and then held out her other hand to Raven. “Do you mind if I take him home with me tonight?” she asked Astra.
I blinked, surprised. “Aren’t you moving awfully fast?”
“We talked for hours at the market. I know him. I haven’t met anyone in Muddy River who makes me feel like he does.”
All righty then. No more arguments from me.
The old lady chuckled. She pointed to the bookend. “Come and go as you please.”
Rhys opened his lips to thank her, but she waved him off. “Go. Have fun, boy. Stay as long as you like. I’ll be here when you come back.”
That was a dismissal if I’d ever heard one. I took Raven’s hand and laid my other hand on the portal. After a swoosh of air, we were back in Rowan’s living room.
The two young people turned to each other, and Raven shook his head. “We’re out of here. You two have a lot of things to discuss.”
Yeah, like that was what they were going to do. We headed to the door and let ourselves out. I waved my hand over it to lock it. On the drive home, Raven gave another shake of his head. “Well, in all my years, I’ve never had an experience like that.”
Neither had I, but I was glad it had happened. Rhys and Rowan would be mated before Muddy River celebrated Samhain. And they’d have something special to remember every year at this time.
I’ve been reading fast-paced, high tension books lately. Three in a row–The Nine by D.L. Cross, Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews, and then The Twins by D.L. Cross. They’re WONDERFUL books. I loved every one of them. But I’m a mystery lover at heart. So it was time for me to go back to my roots, what makes me feel good. Stories where the good guys win and the bad guys get punished. A more leisurely pace. As much atmosphere as action. So I started Anna Lee Huber’s A Stroke of Malice.
I have a thing for historical mysteries, especially anything around the Regency or Victorian period. I’m also a sucker for a good cozy. Let’s face it, to me, a cozy is almost a guaranteed good feeling read, and sometimes, that’s exactly what I want. Something that warms the cockles of my heart at the end of a day. And of course, I love the puzzle of a good mystery.
I read at a slower pace when I read these. I want to savor them. I’m glad the hero or heroine isn’t in danger and I have to speed to the next chapter to see if they survive. I’m going to take my time with A Stroke of Malice. The next one doesn’t come out until next April. 😢
My daughter’s coming to stay with us on Saturday and Sunday, so no reading then. When kids come, everything else gets pushed aside. I mean to enjoy every minute with them that I can. And when she leaves? It’s back to reading at the end of the day. Slow and leisurely. By the time I finish, I have a feeling that D.L. Cross’s last book in her Astral Conspiracy series will be out, and then I’ll be turning pages as fast as I can again. But it’s so nice to settle in to enjoy good mysteries when I need some warm and fuzzies to relax.
P.S. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but for the first time ever, I added a page for What I’m Up To at the top of my blog. I’m usually so boring, there’s nothing to report, but this time–hold your hats–I have FOUR events coming up in the future. Who knew?