Category Archives: Uncategorized

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: https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/book.aspx/37932

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tattoos and Portents–9

Hester and Raven stop at Derek’s bar on the way home, and the Druid Aengus meets them there.  Druids are experts on Celtic symbols.  He reads the tattoos the witch embedded in Festus’s and Boaz’s skin.

celtic tattoo

 

Chapter 9

Raven stopped at the Druid community again to keep Aengus up to date on what was happening. He and Afric listened carefully, then Aengus said, “Are you stopping at Derek’s bar for supper?”

“No reason not to,” Raven said. “We’re hungry, and no one wants to cook.”

“Mind if I join you there?”

I grinned at him. “You’re always welcome. You’ll fit right in.”

He laughed his big, booming laugh. In his long priest robe with his big, black beard, he’d turn heads. “I only wear this get up around here. When I venture outside of our settlement, I wear jeans and a flannel shirt like everyone else.”

“I’ve never seen you in jeans.” I couldn’t picture Aengus in ordinary clothes. My fire demon only wore black until recently, and it was a pleasure to see him in low riding blue jeans and snug thermal shirts that showed off his taut muscles. I didn’t think that would be the case with our Druid.

Aengus rose and winked at me. “This is your lucky day. Give me a minute to change, and I’ll follow you into Muddy River.”

When he came out wearing loose Levi’s and a bomber jacket, his keys in his hand, I blinked in surprise. “You look like Hagrid from Harry Potter.”

His dark eyes twinkled. “I’m taking that as a compliment. I’ve read and watched that whole series. I always liked Hagrid.”

“So did I.”

Raven nodded toward the door. “Ready to go?”

Aengus kissed Afric on the way out and followed us to Main Street, parking in the lot for Derek’s bar. The minute we opened our car doors, Claws saw some of his familiar friends at the edge of the asphalt and left us. When we walked into the building, Derek looked Aengus up and down, then grinned.

“Welcome, Druid.’ He scooted people off the stools to make room for us. “What’s your poison?”

We ordered our usual wine and beer, but Aengus ordered mead. When he sipped it, he made a face. “Tastes like Kool-Aid.”

Derek laughed at him. “If you want chouchen here, you’ll have to sell us some. No suppliers stock fermented honey. I started a micro-brewery, though, and have an ale you might like.”

With an amiable shrug, Aengus downed his drink. “Bring it on. Does it pack more punch than this?”

“It’s not chouchen, but it’s not Kool-Aid either.” Derek poured him a glass and crossed his arms, waiting for his reaction.

“I like it. Great flavor. Pour me two more.”

That taken care of, I looked around the room. Gray and Syn were sitting at a nearby table with Simon Seer, Muddy River’s public-school teacher who had the gift of sight. I was going to say hi to them when Speedy stuck his head out of the kitchen and said, “What’ll it be? You have to be hungry by now.”

Bless Derek’s cook. He did his best to keep us well fed. We’d finished ordering when Festus and Boaz arrived with their wives. Raven had called them to let them know when we’d be back in town.

As they settled, Birch came in and sat next to Syn. She called to me. “I really enjoyed subbing for you today. The four girls who are going to graduate this year are awesome. I’d love working with them more.”

“They could use that. Any time you want to stop by the school to tutor them, let me know.” I was hoping to talk to her about leading a new, young coven, but now wasn’t the time. After Birch graduated, she’d attended every monthly meeting of our coven. She’d have a lot to teach new witches.

Brown bumped Aengus’s shoulder and motioned to Festus and Boaz. “Those are the two men who woke up with tattoos and visions.”

Festus overheard him and studied our Druid friend. “I’ve heard that you’re an expert on Celt tattoos.”

Aengus nodded. “Would you mind showing me yours?”

“Maybe you can make some sense of it.” Festus started to roll up his shirt sleeve, and Boaz did the same. Aengus’s eyes went wide when he saw them. “These are old school. Most Fae wouldn’t know about them.” He took off his bomber jacket and rolled up his flannel shirt sleeve, then his tattoos reached for theirs. Dark ink swirled through the air. The bar went quiet.

When the tattoos connected, Aengus closed his eyes. He didn’t move for several minutes. When he opened them again, he said, “The witch who did this only had enough strength to tell her story a little at a time. She’s desperate. Her tattoos are like writing messages in bottles, hoping someone finds them and understands them.” He touched Boaz’s tattoo again with his own. “There are three more tattoos out there somewhere. If you can find them, you’ll learn more.”

“Can you sense where they are?” I asked.

He pinched his lips together and frowned. “They’re close. I can feel them.” Then he shook his head. “That’s all I’ve got. Lir is about to pack up his van to deliver our settlement’s goods to towns that have ordered them. Lots of mistletoe.” He winked. “Would you like for him to ask around everywhere he goes?”

“Would you please?” Melodia asked. Our siren leaned against Boaz for comfort. “I can’t stop thinking about the poor witches in cages.”

Aengus nodded. “Witch magic and our magic can work well together on this. We’d like to find the witches, too, and stop the voodoo priest.”

“Will Lir be in any danger if he questions people about tattoos?” I liked the young Druid with his flowing copper hair and mischievous grin.

“I wouldn’t think so.” Aengus finished his second ale. “The priest only wants witches. The worst that can happen to him is that he’ll return with a tattoo of his own, and we can help him with that.”

I relaxed a little, and Raven said, “Brown and I will try to find any supernaturals who’ve traveled near the Ohio River lately. Maybe that way, we’ll find someone else the witch embedded a dream into. We’ll call around and let people know what we’re looking for.”

For the moment, there wasn’t much more to do. We finished our meals and paid our bill, leaving a generous tip. Then we got ready to go. It wasn’t so late that Raven and I couldn’t sit in our own living room, sipping a last glass of wine in front of the yule fire. It would be nice to have time to decompress. With a wave, Aengus turned toward the Druid village. As we walked to the SUV, Claws hurried to join us. Raven drove faster than usual on the way home and when we reached it, I invited Brown and Meda in. But thankfully, they were anxious to get home, too. We’d all investigated and talked about the priest and missing witches enough for one night.

Tattoos and Portents–8

Raven and Hester, along with Brown and Meda, drive to meet a supernatural sheriff who works both sides of the Ohio River.  They meet and battle their first undead throng.

Chapter 8

undead

This time, my students looked eager when I introduced another new witch to them. After all, they’d had me as their teacher year after year. Someone new would be exciting.

“Students, this is a fellow witch of mine, Birch. She graduated from this school three years ago. Birch, these are my students.” I motioned to the board, and Birch grinned.

“Ah, I remember. The day’s lessons. I remember exactly how this works. We’re going to be fine.”

The students looked at each other with smug smiles. That concerned me. Our usual, consistent pattern had been broken up, and they obviously were looking forward to it. Birch was young with silky white-blond hair and moss green eyes. They’d think they could get away with more. After all, they might be young witches, but they were still kids. I decided to make them think hard about misbehaving. I turned to Birch. “If you have any problems, let me know, and whoever caused them will wish they hadn’t.”

The students squirmed. I had many ways I could discipline someone, but I rarely needed to worry about it. Usually, if the classes got antsy or rowdy, a loud clap of thunder that shook the building helped calm them down.

Birch raised a warning brow at them. “No worries. I remember your thunder and can make my own.” An air witch, she whispered a chant and the building rumbled.

The students sat up straighter in their seats, and I smiled. “I haven’t pinned anyone to the wall with wind for years now, but that works, too.”

She laughed. “I’ve never tried that. Let’s hope someone misbehaves so I can test it out.”

They glanced at each other nervously, and I knew Birch wouldn’t have any problems. With a wink at her, I went to pull on my coat, and Claws and I trudged across the snowy field to home. Meda and I slid into the back seat with Claws while Raven and Brown settled in the front of the SUV.

As he pulled onto Banks Road, Raven said, “We might as well get comfortable. We have to cross the Ohio River this time, and it takes a while to get to the bridge.”

Even with Raven’s heavy foot on the gas pedal, it would take a couple of hours. I leaned forward in my seat to ask Brown, “How’s your murder investigation going in the mortal town?”

He grimaced. So did Meda. “Turned out the woman’s husband killed her and tossed her body in a nearby lake. He thought he’d weighed it down, but the rope was old and snapped. Waves washed her to the shore.”

Meda added, “They’d been married a few years and the wife’s glow had rubbed off. He’d met someone else and wanted to get rid of her.”

“Why not just divorce her?” I asked.

“He couldn’t afford to keep the house and his new big pickup,” Brown said.

I shook my head. “At least most supernaturals aren’t tempted by money. We’ve lived long enough, we’ve accumulated enough stuff to make do.”

Voice dry, Raven quipped, “No, we’re just temped by power. Same thing really. Look at Murlyn. How many wives did he drain to take their magic?”

He was right. Once in a while, I was hard on mortals. That tends to happen when they hang or burn your entire family like they had in Salem. Humans measured success by dollar signs. We looked at how much magic we had. And unscrupulous individuals were willing to cheat and steal to get what they wanted. Not much difference between us and them.

We made small talk for the rest of the trip, and I enjoyed listening to how happy Brown was that he’d settled in Muddy River with Meda. The shifter was besotted with his wife, and to make things even better, he could enjoy his dad since Gray had mated with Syn and settled in town, too.

“We’re just hanging stockings for our Christmas exchange with each other,” Meda said. “None of us really needs anything, so the presents are just for fun, but we’ve donated money to an orphanage we found in Indiana.”

That surprised me. “An orphanage? For supernaturals?” So many married shifters couldn’t have children, most supernatural babies were snatched up as soon as they were available.

Meda shook her head. “No, this one’s for mortals, but once we visited the gorgons’ orphanage to help Prim find the new settlement’s children who went missing, it made us think about any child who didn’t have a home, a family. Those kids broke our hearts, so we decided to help as many kids as we could, ours or mortals.”

I wasn’t sure what I thought about that. We couldn’t admit we helped mortals. We didn’t want them to know we even existed. The very same children Meda and Brown helped might grow up to hunt us, like the cult we’d fought not that long ago.

Raven glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “They’re just kids, Hester. If they grow up happy, they’re less of a threat.”

I grimaced. “Unhappy, angry people are more dangerous, I agree. “But mortals are like rabbits. They reproduce faster than we do.”

“That’s because they don’t live as long. If we had more babies each time a batch grew up, we’d spend hundreds of years raising them.”

I laughed. “You’re right. One brood every century or two is enough.”

With a grin, he raised his eyebrows and locked gazes in the rearview mirror. “Well?”

“We’ll pitch in,” I told Meda. “Kids are kids. You’ve found a worthy cause.”

“Good!” Meda’s entire family had survived Salem and the witch hunts. She started to tell us about the orphanage on the last leg of our trip, and Brown joined in. Soon, Raven was pulling into a long drive that led to a big log cabin deep in a wood. At my frown, he explained, “We’re meeting this area’s supernatural sheriff, Oren. He’s half shifter like Brown, and he works with mortal enforcement, like Brown too.”

He parked close to the sidewalk that led to Oren’s front door. When we reached his porch, the door opened and a lanky man with sandy-colored hair and tawny eyes the color of Raven’s motioned us inside. Claws stopped and hissed at him, hesitating.

Oren laughed. “Your familiar doesn’t like me. I’m a cat shifter. When I change, I’m a cougar. He’s not sure about that.”

I patted Claws’s head and continued into the cabin. My ocelot followed me. Oren motioned us to the living room with a massive fireplace. He had a tray with a coffee urn and mugs and cold meat sandwiches on a large ottoman in the center of a group of easy chairs.

Once we’d served ourselves, he leaned back in his chair and asked, “Where would you like to start? What would you like to know first?”

“We’ve learned that a voodoo priest has kidnapped at least three witches, and he’s using their blood to give him the power to raise undead. That’s as far as we’ve gotten,” Raven said.

Oren raised his eyebrows, surprised. “Brown told me you were worried about undead. Sounds like a bigger problem than I thought, though. The first I heard about corpses going missing was in the closest town I watch. A few disappeared, but it’s too small for many to go missing.”

“Did Bronwen and Evander live there?” I asked. She’d said they left the town they loved because of missing bodies.

He nodded. “I was sorry to see them go.”

“Is most of the town supernatural?” It seemed Bronwen had mentioned living with mortals, but I couldn’t remember.

“It’s a mix,” he said. “Mortals and supernaturals are neighbors, but the supernaturals keep their magic to themselves. The mortals don’t suspect.”

“And if they did?” I wondered if after they’d known each other for years if the mortals would overlook magic and not fear it.

“I think they suspect but never ask.” He reached for another sandwich. “I work with a mortal police department at a nearby larger city, and when odd things happen, a few of the cops come to talk to me. They know I’m different, but they don’t want to know how.”

I nodded, and Raven said, “We’re tracking the voodoo priest through dreams.” He stopped to explain, and Oren again looked surprised. “In the dreams, we saw eight undead carry a witch into a basement. By now, there are probably more of them.”

“Dreams, huh?” Oren shook his head, perplexed. “That’s a first. I’ve never dealt with those. But I can tell you this, in the city, quite a few homeless are coming up missing. One night, they’re living under a bridge, the next night, they’re gone. And I work north and south of the Ohio River. We’ve had enough bodies disappear on both sides.”

Brown looked grim. “It sounds as though when the priest runs out of corpses, he kills mortals to make enough undead.”

“Do you have a lot of homeless in the area?” Meda asked.

“Only in the cities. Not that many around here, but we have our share of wandering rogue supernaturals. Does the priest ever take them?”

Raven poured himself a second cup of coffee. “Not that we know of, but we don’t have many homeless, supernatural or mortals, around Muddy River.”

Oren snorted. “What shifter, vampire, or warlock would be stupid enough to mess with you and Muddy River’s witches? And let’s face it. Mortals can’t even see your town.”

True. We’d picked our area because it was remote. “Do you have any place we could visit where someone disappeared?” I asked.

Oren nodded. “An older man in his early seventies lived five miles from my place. He disappeared two weeks ago.”

“Was he healthy?” Brown asked.

“Sure looked like it. Never had trouble keeping up his place and stocking enough wood for the winter. His property’s marked off with yellow police tape, but I can take you there.”

“Great.” Raven finished his coffee and stood. We followed Oren to his official SUV, and he led the way to the old man’s house. Like his, we followed a long drive to a stone cottage surrounded by trees.

Oren searched for a key to let us inside, but I waved my hand and the door open. He grinned. “Handy trick. Wish shifters could do that.” Then he led us into the main room of the house with a pot belly stove in a corner of the living room and a wood burning stove in the kitchen. Neither were lit. It was colder in the house than it was outside.

Meda shivered, and Brown wrapped an arm around her to pull her close. Shifters were like demons. Their bodies emanated lots of heat. Then we all sniffed the air at the same time. Looking at each other, we shook our heads. Nothing. But I could feel a tingle of magic in the air.

“Something was here,” I said. “But it’s no magic I know, and it was never very strong.”

“If we walk the perimeter of the house, do you think you could pick up something?” Raven asked.

“It’s worth a try.” A strong enough breeze blew across an open field east of the house that Raven moved on the other side of me to block it. We spread out in a long line—me at one end and Oren on the other—when a flurry of spirits swarmed toward us. They whirled to reach Meda and me, then quickly veered toward Oren. He tensed, ready to shift, but I shook my head. “They can’t harm you. Don’t panic.”

Claws’s fur stood on end, and he swatted at them with his paw. Then he turned toward the tree line behind the house and growled. We looked in that direction. A dozen undead shambled from it. They were so slow, we had to wait for them to grow closer. They split into two groups, one coming toward me, the other for Meda.

“They’re after witch magic.” Flames danced like an aura around Raven.

I studied them. Five gray-haired men, two younger ones, three women dressed in out of date jeans and coats, and two men with hair so long and skin so gray, I couldn’t determine their ages. Must be the homeless who’d gone missing. “Are any of these your missing neighbor?” I asked Oren.

He scanned them and then jerked in surprise. “The fourth one from the right.”

I repeated the information Jamila had given us for how to kill them, and Oren nodded. Then, once they were near enough, Meda and I raised our palms and blasted energy. Body parts flew from the ones we’d hit, and Oren turned to us, eyes wide. Eight still shuffled toward us. Raven shot fire from his fingertips, and half of them turned to ashes. Four left. I took the one on the left, Meda the one on the right, and Raven the two in the middle. Every undead was . . . dead.

“You made that look easy,” Oren said. “I didn’t even have to shift.”

I shook my head. “They’re stronger than I thought. Meda and I have as much energy as witches get, but it took direct hits to kill them.”

“Can I defend myself against them?” he asked.

“They probably won’t bother you unless you try to defend someone,” I told him. “They aren’t interested in shifters.”

“Thank Hecate for small favors.” He’d taken off his leather gloves and pulled them back on again.

Brown smiled. “I like battles when all I do is watch.”

With a grunt, Raven started to the bodies. “Some of these were neighbors and friends. They deserve a decent finish. We can’t leave their bodies scattered all over the yard.”

Oren followed him and stopped to stare at a head that had rolled to a fence surrounding a vegetable garden. “That’s old Luther, who lived here. I’ll call the local authorities and let them know he’s dead. He has a son in California.” He stopped at another head and neck. “Glen lives two towns over, only fifty-six. He had his car jacked up and was working on it when the jack gave. He’s one of the corpses that disappeared.” He hadn’t been a pretty sight before we blasted him. He looked worse now. Oren went from body to body, making notes to report so that people would know their loved ones were dead and gone.

When he’d finished, Raven went to each body part and cremated it. “Did you notice what happened to the spirits when we started to fight?”

Brown pointed a finger in the direction of the river. “They took off that way to report back to whoever sent them. Tattletales.”

Raven’s dark brows drew together as he scanned the area. “Back toward the river. That might be where the priest lives.”

“No help there,” I said. “There are miles and miles of river with mostly trees and brush.”

Oren led us back inside the house and looked from one of us to another. “Did I imagine it, or when the spirits flew toward us, did they veer away from you four before they came at me?”

I pulled the two pouches on the leather cord from beneath my coat to show to him. “One pouch is for witch magic, the other made by the voodoo women in Drago’s territory. No voodoo magic can harm us. I keep spare potions and pouches in my SUV. Do you want one?”

He blinked at me. “You don’t know me. You’ve never met me until now. You’d offer me your magic to help protect me?”

I reached out to pat his arm. “You’re one of us. And you’ve helped us, so now you’re a friend.”

Oren scanned us again. “I like this. I have a feeling it can’t hurt to have you guys as friends.”

“If you need us, call,” Raven said. “We’ll come.”

We walked back to our vehicles, and I dug a leather cord with pouches out of a container I kept in back of the SUV. “We could pour potion around your house, too, and chant a ward so no enemies can pass it.”

“You’d do that?”

“It won’t take long.” We followed him to his log cabin, and with all of us working together, Meda and I protected his property and home in half an hour.

He waved us good bye, and soon, we’d crossed the bridge back into Indiana and were following the river road home. We didn’t talk much, each lost in our own thoughts. The voodoo priest wasn’t just stealing bodies now. He was killing people to create them. What for? What did he hope to do with an army of undead?

 

 

Tattoos and Portents–7

Raven and Hester visit the young shifter’s parents, and they don’t get a friendly greeting.

 

canstockphoto7334671

Chapter 7

I was teaching at my reading circle the next day when Meda walked into the room. I stared at her in surprise.

She smiled at me and my students. “Raven called. He asked me to take your place in the classroom today, so that you can drive with him and Brown to the small town where the first witch disappeared.”

The students looked nervous and started to squirm. I raised an eyebrow at them, and they stilled. I didn’t believe in hiding things from young minds, so said, “Do you remember how often I’ve warned you that young witches need to be careful? A young witch disappeared from a nearby town. Raven and I are trying to find her.”

Blythe reached for Asch’s hand and both girls stared at me with frightened eyes. I wouldn’t tell them more. All they needed was the main fact, not the details. I wanted them to have a healthy fear of the world outside of Muddy River, but fear could be debilitating, too.

“Remember,” I went on, “when you’re in Muddy River, our wards protect you. No enemies can pass them. You’re safe here.”

The girls’ shoulders relaxed. I motioned to Meda to introduce her. “This is my friend and a member of my coven. Meda, these are my students. Their lessons are written on the board, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy meeting a powerful witch from our community.”

She gave a naughty grin. My friend was a beauty with wavy, golden hair and sky-blue eyes. The students openly gazed at her and then relaxed at her mischievous expression. She was winning them over. “I was trained by Hester, too. If you graduate and keep training with our coven, you’ll grow strong. I’m going to enjoy meeting our town’s next generation of witches.”

Still, our class had never had a disruption like this before. They weren’t used to it. Neither was I. Part of the price of mating with our town’s enforcer. As I walked to the hooks where our coats were hung, I grimaced. “Thanks for coming, Meda. I appreciate it.”

Her grin widened. “I never get to mingle with our friends’ children. They don’t come to coven meetings until they graduate. You might never ask me back. I was one of your unruly students, remember?”

I laughed. “Just as long as you’re not an unruly instructor.”

She made no promises, and I tugged on my heavy coat, then Claws and I crossed the field to our house. Brown was already there, and both men started toward my SUV the minute I reached the driveway.

Claws and I sat in the back seat while Raven and Brown talked shop in front. Once we were on the road, Brown turned to me, excited. “I found the young shifter who ran away with the witch. He’s home. He and the girl did run off together, since his dad didn’t approve of him marrying a witch instead of a fellow shifter. They were attacked near a small town on the Ohio River by a mob of Undead. They battled them, but every time he slashed one of them or she blasted them, it didn’t matter. They wouldn’t die. I thought you’d want to hear what he says.”

I frowned. “The young witch must not be very powerful if her blasts didn’t kill them.”

“No training,” Raven answered. “You don’t realize how much of a difference your school makes in Muddy River. Most towns don’t have special classes for witches.”

Being aware made a difference, too. I was glad Raven and I had warned Muddy River about animated corpses and how to defeat them. We wouldn’t have known how to, either, if we hadn’t talked to Jamila. Of course, Raven would have torched them, and I was fairly certain if I blasted them, they’d be bits and pieces. The young witch’s magic must not be that strong.

“Maybe the voodoo priest can’t gauge how strong a witch is,” I said.

Raven shook his head, disagreeing. “I’ve thought about that. I think the young witch was his first captive, and he purposely picked someone he felt sure he could handle. He used her blood to make himself more powerful so that he could capture someone even stronger.”

Brown turned to stare at him. “What do you think he’s trying to achieve?”

“With the first witch, we only saw one undead. There might have been more, but he didn’t use them to catch her or carry her. When Brown talked to the shifter, he said that an army of undead attacked him and his witch girlfriend.”

“Did he give a number?”

Brown gave a wry grin. “Eight or ten, not exactly an army, but too many for them to fight.”

Raven’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. He wasn’t happy with whatever he’d decided about this case. “When we saw Boaz’s dream, eight undead carried the witch from Drago’s settlement and a cage into the basement. That’s three witches.”

“Do you think he’s keeping more of them? Could he have a second place with more cages?” I cringed in the back seat, and Claws raised his head to study me. I stroked his fur to let him know everything was okay. I’d decided there had to be three witches, too, but I hadn’t considered he might have more of them. “You think he’s using blood sacrifices to help him create more undead, don’t you?”

Raven nodded.

A gloomy thought. What did he plan to do with them? Since we didn’t have to cross into Kentucky, we didn’t have to drive out of our way to find a bridge. We were nearly at the young shifter’s town, an hour from Muddy River. He lived with his parents in a small community, and as we entered it, I cracked my car window to sniff the air. Every resident here was a shifter of some kind.

“These people are serious about being pure bloods,” I said. Belladonna’s father, Blood Sharpe, had been like that. A full-blooded vampire who lived in Muddy River, he’d despised mixed breeds. Never mind that he married a half witch, half mortal, who was as big of a snob as he was. He’d wanted to drive any supernaturals with lesser magicks out of town and considered Festus and Wanda beneath him. When Raven torched him, no one in Muddy River missed him.

Brown, part shifter, shook his head. “These people must be short-sighted. Two shifters can’t reproduce unless a powerful witch brews a potion so the wife can keep from changing every full moon and carry her baby to term.”

“Maybe that’s why some supernaturals resent witches. Most of us rely on one or more of their potions. Some people begrudge it when they have to depend on someone else.” We’d reached the young shifter’s address and Raven parked at the curb.

I huffed. “Wolves! Some of them are happy to bite the hand that feeds them.”

“At least we’re not like vampires,” Brown teased. “They’d rather bite your neck than your hand.”

I laughed. Humor was welcome at the moment, and he had a point. Point. Pointy teeth. I wouldn’t go there.

We climbed out of the car, Claws staying by my side, and I studied the house—a solid square of brick that looked more like a fortress than a home. Every house in town was tall and solid. “Looks like everyone here is ready to defend himself. They’d be safer if they had a mix of magic instead of only relying on muscle and fangs.”

Raven started up the walk, and a voice called from the cracked door, “Stop right there. Identify yourselves.”

“I called earlier. I’m Raven Black, the enforcer for Muddy River. This is Deputy Sheriff Brown who patrols our area, and that’s my wife, Hester Wand, the head priestess of Muddy River’s coven.”

The door opened wider and a man with broad shoulders and a heavy build stepped onto the front stoop. Not one house had a porch. Porches invited neighbors to stop and linger. The man looked us up and down. “We didn’t ask you to come to help us find my son. We went out ourselves and found him, searched until we found his scent. The undead had left him, bloodied and near gone. They didn’t think he’d make it. Didn’t realize he was a shifter and would heal, even though it would have taken a long time. We brought him home and nursed him back to health.”

“You could have called us, either of us,” Brown said. “And we’re glad your son’s all right, but we’d like to ask him about the girl who was with him.”

“She’s nothing to us. Find her on your own.”

Flames sizzled over Raven’s skin. My fire demon was irritated. “We came to talk to your son.”

“You’ve wasted your time. Go away.”

Raven took a stance that clearly said that he wasn’t going anywhere. “We’re going to talk to him one way or another.”

The man narrowed his eyes, raised his face and sniffed the air. His lips turned down. “Are you three strong enough to fight each and every one of us here?”

Raven shot fire at the lamp post at the end of their driveway. In seconds, it was ashes. When the man growled, I stomped my foot, and his entire house shook. Fur sprang out on Brown’s face and arms. Raven gave the father a level stare. “Want to find out?”

Shoulders stiff, body rigid, the man opened the door wider and angrily invited us inside. He walked to the staircase that led to the second floor and yelled, “Boy! Come down here.”

A young man who looked to be in his early twenties bounded down the stairs. His open expression and partially curved lips set me at ease. How a kid could look so friendly and sweet with a father like his baffled me. But then his mother came from the back of the house, and she had the easy charm of her son. Obviously, the kid took after his mother.

The father didn’t motion us to sit, busy scowling at Claws by my side. The mother smiled, though, and said, “Make yourselves comfortable. Would you like coffee or tea?”

We declined and sat on one side of the room while the mother, father, and son sat across from us.

Raven calmed his voice. “We came to hear what happened to your son and the young witch with him.”

The boy winced. “They took Gaia. We’d stopped to talk, to make plans, and she wanted to stretch her legs. She wandered toward the river, and a horde of undead rushed her. I ran to help her fight them off, but no matter what we did, they wouldn’t die. Once two of them had her, the rest turned on me. We fought until one hit me from behind and knocked me out. They left me for dead, and when I came to, Gaia was gone.”

Brown pinched his lips together. “Undead aren’t fast. The priest has to have a compound close to that area.”

“But if he’s illusioned it, we can’t see it. It’s still too much territory for us to drive close enough for Hester to feel his magic,” Raven said.

The boy swallowed hard. “What do they want with her? What will they do to her?”

“They’ve caged three witches, and a voodoo priest is bleeding them for their power,” Raven told him.

The mother looked upset, but the father crossed his arms, unmoved. “She’s a witch. Her own people should rescue her.”

Mother and son gave him dirty looks, but he didn’t mind. His expression set into even deeper grooves.

“You’ll care when an army of undead attack your community,” Brown snapped.

“Won’t happen.” The man couldn’t be moved. “What would they want with shifters?”

Raven ignored him, turning his attention to the son. “Where were you when you battled them?”

“Near the Ohio River, close to the central part of the state.”

Almost to the bridge we crossed so many times. On both sides of it, there were miles and miles of isolated houses, small farms, and towns. It was a perfect place to hide or disappear.

***

Meda called Brown on the drive home. He listened to her, then said, “Meda’s inviting you to our house for supper when we get home. She wants to hear what happened today.”

Raven and I both nodded a yes. I, for one, would be happy not to cook when we got back. Besides, I was anxious to hear how my students did without me there.

We didn’t talk much on the return journey, and at the speed Raven drove, we were pulling into Meda and Brown’s driveway sooner than expected. Christmas lights twinkled from their front porch, and their yule tree blazed with tiny white bulbs in their big front window. As we’d passed through town, I’d enjoyed all of the multi-color lights and garlands that decorated every street lamp.

Claws sped to the front door. He was particularly fond of Meda’s familiar—a Siamese cat. Meda opened the door wide to invite us all in. I could smell the pine scent of the fresh wreathe as I passed it. Inside, though, the aroma of a chuck roast beckoned us into the kitchen.

“I thought a pot roast would be safer than most meals,” Meda explained. “Timing’s more flexible. If you got back later than I expected, it wouldn’t matter.”

“I love roasts.” Raven tossed his coat on the back of his chair and took a seat.

Meda placed the Dutch oven with the meat, carrots, and potatoes on a trivet in the center of the table. “Supper’s family style tonight,” she told us.

Brown stood to scoop food on plates, and Meda brought bottles of wine and beer. Soon, we were eating, drinking, and talking.

“What did you learn?” she asked.

We let Brown explain. When he finished, she took a deep breath. “So the priest’s using witch’s blood to make his own magic stronger.”

I nodded.

“And you think three witches have been taken?”

“At least,” Raven said.

Hopefully, that was all. I frowned, thinking. We had another piece of the puzzle we hadn’t explored yet. “Another place we should visit is the town Bronwen and her husband lived in before they moved here. Bodies kept disappearing there, remember?”

Raven and Brown locked gazes. Raven turned to me, interested. “It was in Kentucky near the river, wasn’t it?”

I nodded.

“We should drive there tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow? I already missed one day of teaching today.” I didn’t have control issues, but I did feel better when I kept an eye on my students. I knew them better than anyone else and could gauge when someone was getting behind or struggling with a subject. If Odifa was teaching with me in December, I’d feel better leaving the classes in her capable hands. But she was busy teaching young Fae children all month.

Meda squirmed. “If you’re traveling tomorrow, I’d like to go with you. But if you need me . . . “

Her voice trailed off, and I shook my head. “You know, I’ve been thinking for a while that Muddy River should have a second coven for the younger witches who’ve graduated from my school. I know some of them feel intimidated coming to our meetings. We’re all so much older and stronger than they are.”

Meda’s blue eyes went wide, but she nodded agreement. “Your students are so bright, they should keep training like we do. But they’ll need a priestess. Every coven needs a leader.”

I’d already thought about that. “I was thinking of asking Birch,” I told her. Birch had graduated with Belladonna’s class, a true young witch. The rest of us looked eternally in our late twenties because of the youth potions we drank, but Birch was only twenty-one. She wouldn’t even need a potion for several more years.

Raven frowned. “She’s the witch who helps run her parents’ boutique in town, isn’t she?”

I nodded. “She’s smart, talented, and no push-over. She could train with our coven so she stays ahead of the true young witches in her own. If she wants the job.”

Brown looked confused. “Are you saying you want to stay home tomorrow to ask her about it and train her?”

“No, I want to ask her to take over my school room tomorrow so she can meet the new young witches and see their potential. Then she might understand why I’d like to start a new coven.”

Raven beamed at her. “A good idea. Want to call her now?”

I rose from the table and wandered away from them to make the call. I could concentrate better that way. Birch sympathized with my need to visit the town with Raven and agreed to help me out. It had been easier to convince her than I’d expected. I returned with a happy smile plastered on my face.

Brown grinned. “You’re really into this new coven thing, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I should have thought of it a long time ago. We’ve had a gap between graduation and more training for a while now.”

“And she must have said yes?” Meda asked.

“We can leave town as soon as I introduce her to my students and help her settle in.”

Pleased, Raven stood. “Thanks for the supper, Meda, but we’d better get home now and gear up for tomorrow.”

Meda and Brown waved us off, and I was happy when we reached our own house. The yellow Victorian, as always, cheered me as walked to the kitchen door and stepped inside. When we finally stayed home a while, I wanted to return to cookie baking. But for now, I was satisfied to pour myself and Raven glasses of wine and cuddle on the couch in the living room. Claws sprawled at our feet, and I could feel the tensions of the day unravel. We could worry about voodoo and the undead tomorrow. Morning would come soon enough.

Muddy River Christmas

We’ve barely tipped our toes into December, but before life gets too busy, I thought I’d share a Muddy River Christmas short story to put you in the mood.  Even when life gets dicey, magic can happen:

Christmas tree up close

 

A MUDDY RIVER CHRISTMAS BY JUDI LYNN

Snow covered the ground in a white blanket. As I looked out my kitchen window, I watched my familiar, Claws—an ocelot—make his way to the river bank at the back of our property. The cat didn’t like snow, but he liked staying in our old Victorian house day in and day out even less.

I heard Raven’s Lamborghini pull in the driveway and make its way to the garage. A short time later, I listened to my fire demon stomp his feet on the door mat near the back door, and a minute later, he made his way into the kitchen. His black hair was messed by a sharp breeze. The cold air had colored his cheeks and his amber eyes gleamed. He looked more scrumptious than usual.

Sniffing the air, he put the bags he’d carted inside on our wooden work table. “The kitchen smells good. The ham and roasts make my mouth water.”

I nodded. Eight pies sat on the countertop, ready for our guests tonight. I invite my entire coven and their families to our house to celebrate Yule every year. Witches have no qualms with Christmas. We just celebrate it for different reasons than most. December twenty first is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Which means, from now on, each day grows a bit longer. So we eat and toast the birth of the Sun God, the Turning of the Wheel—our calendar. We put a Yule log in our fireplace and even decorate an evergreen tree. Of course, the stars on our trees stand for pentagrams, not the star of Bethlehem. And most of us exchange presents to rejoice in the flow of positive energy into our world, friendship, love, and peace on earth.

I already had a sweet potato casserole in the oven, roasted green beans with hazelnuts and feta, plain and oyster dressings, and a Waldorf salad. A few of my coven—not all of them were cooks—were bringing dishes to share, too. At the last minute, Raven had decided that wine and beer weren’t festive enough and had run into town to buy champagne.

Raven beat whipping cream while I glazed the ham. And then cars started pulling into the driveway. Sugi and Noira, who own the coffeeshop in town, arrived first. They’d offered to bring something, but they bake all the time for their shop. I’d told them to take a break and just bring themselves. Meda and Brown strolled in next with a large pan of scalloped potatoes. Chloe and Archer came with the famous mac ‘n cheese he serves at his carryout barbecue restaurant. The people and food just kept coming.

We were all raising our glasses in a toast when a burst of energy exploded near the archway to the living room and a man with a gun aimed at something popped before us. We stared at him, and he stared at us. I sniffed. A mortal. Then he turned the gun our way.

How in Hecate had he gotten here? My coven and I had protected Muddy River with wards. No enemies or mortals could pass them. But he had, hadn’t he? Someone had transported him to us. I raised my hand and chanted a shield.

“Stay back, or I’ll shoot,” he warned. He looked to be in his late twenties—a thin young man with wavy brown hair. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a tweed jacket.

Raven scowled, and fire danced around him in a flaming halo. “I wouldn’t pull that trigger if I were you. If it hits Hecate’s shield, it could ricochet.”

The man’s eyes practically bulged from his face. Then he glanced at Archer whose fur was beginning to sprout. Chloe’s bear shifter didn’t like to be threatened. The shooter’s hand trembled, and he had to grip the gun with both hands to steady it. “Don’t take one step toward me, or I swear, I’ll take out as many of you as I can before you get to me.”

“We don’t want you here.” I frowned. “Who sent you?”

“Sent me? A minute ago, I was standing in front of a house where an old woman lives. She’s a witch, I know it. Owls come and go from her house. Green smoke drifts out of her chimney. Since I moved next to her, nothing’s gone right. She’s hexed me is what she’s done. I looked it up online. The only way to break a hex is to kill the person who sent it, but I couldn’t do it.” His shoulders slumped. “Who knows what will happen to me next? Maybe she’ll turn me into a toad.”

I stared at him. “Do you live in Pennsylvania?”

He jerked, caught off guard. “How did you know?”

Raven frowned at me, raising a dark eyebrow in question, and I explained. “My dear friend, Carlotta, lives there. She prefers everything old-fashioned, won’t buy a cellphone, so sends owl messages instead.”

“But Carlotta. . . “ Raven’s frown deepened, confused.

“Aurel’s wife is named that, too.” He was a vampire friend of ours. “But my Carlotta is ancient. We meet every once in a while at solstice festivals.”

“Solstice?” The man scanned us nervously. “Are you all witches?”

Raven grimaced. “No, but none of us are mortal.”

He stared, unsure what to make of that.

“What’s happened to you since you moved next to my friend?” Carlotta was a white witch, like me and my coven. “She wouldn’t curse anybody.”

His gun hand dropped to his side. “What hasn’t happened? My girlfriend dumped me. My publisher dumped me. And I found out I have cancer. Twice now, I’ve caught my neighbor stirring brews in her backyard and sending the smoke to my place. How do you fight a witch?” He winced at that and grimaced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you. But. . . “

I shook my head, smiling at him. “If Carlotta made brews for you, she was trying to help you.”

Rubbing his forehead, he sounded frustrated. “I like her. She was always nice to me. At least, I thought she was. Until. . . “

I interrupted. “She must like you, too, but it sounds like she couldn’t cure your cancer, so she sent you here.”

He raised a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose before settling his glasses back in place. “Is that what happened to me? I was in front of her house, then everything blurred, and then I was here. She sent me to you?”

I hesitated a minute. “She knows lots of different supernaturals live here, not just witches.”

“Why does that matter?” Raven narrowed his eyes, studying the man.

“Witches might not have a cure for cancer, but if a vampire or a shifter bit him, their immortality would wipe the disease out of his system.”

“Bite me?” He stared. “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea.” He backed toward the door. “Then what would I be?”

“One of us.” Raven gave him a level stare. “And we’re not so bad. You probably couldn’t see your family again, though.”

“Never again?”

“They’ll age,” Raven said. “You won’t. They’ll wonder.”

The man ran a hand through his hair, upset. “This was a bad idea. Can you send me back?”

“If that’s what you want. What’s your name anyway?” I asked.

“Jason. And I appreciate what Carlotta was trying to do. At least, I think I do, but I love my family. I don’t think I could choose to never see them.”

Archer spoke up. He was back in his mortal form—big and brawny like the grizzly he shifted into. “How far has the cancer progressed? How long will you see them anyway? And do you have good insurance? What will it cost for them to watch you die?”

Jason winced. “I’ve already decided not to fight it, to only take meds for the pain.”

Meda’s husband, Brown—a deputy sheriff who worked with supernaturals and mortals—gave him a sympathetic look. “Raven and I could fake your death, something fast, so that your family would think you died in a car accident and your body burned to ashes. In some ways, that would be kinder to them.”

Jason’s eyes went wide, clearly shocked. “You do that?”

“We’ve done it before.” Brown glanced toward Raven, who nodded.

The poor man looked so overwhelmed, I took mercy on him. “We’re not trying to pressure you into anything. Carlotta must think you’re worth saving, or she wouldn’t have sent you here. But we won’t harm you, and neither will she. She can even concoct brews to take away your pain. They’re better than meds. This isn’t an easy decision, though, so take your time.”

“I don’t have much time.” His shoulders drooped.

I sighed. “You have to decide. Until you do, we can send you back to Carlotta. And for Hecate’s sake, lock that gun away.”

He looked embarrassed. Then he looked at our Yule meal. “Can I stay to eat with you?”

No mortals were allowed in Muddy River, but this was Yule time, after all. We could make an exception. Raven went to get another chair and I put another setting on the table. Then we all raised our glasses again, and this time, we did toast.

Jason filled his plate and listened to us talk. He smiled now and then but didn’t join in. I got the impression he was a quiet, thoughtful man. No wonder Carlotta liked him.

Finally, when we were finishing dessert, Meda looked at him and asked, “If you have a publisher, you must be an author. What do you write anyway?”

He blushed, the red creeping all the way to his hairline. He pushed his glasses further up his nose, mumbling, “Mysteries solved by witches.”

She burst out laughing. “And you make us the good guys?”

He nodded.

“No wonder Carlotta likes you.” She raised her glass to clink it against his.

“Do you have a big family?” I asked him.

“No, only my sister, mom, and grandmother. They live close to each other in California.”

“How often do you see them?” I’d been close to my family before they all died in the Salem witch trials. Sometimes, I still missed them.

He looked down, embarrassed. “Probably only once or twice a year, not as often as I should.” His gaze slid away from us and he grew distant. We left him to his thoughts. When everything was winding down, he finally spoke. “All three of those women are strong. They can weather anything. And I’m too young. I don’t want to die. If I decided to be a shifter, could I be one that turns into an owl?”

Brown grinned at him. “So that you can visit Carlotta? You can do that, can’t you, Hester? If I bite him and you rush magic into him at the same time?”

I nodded. “I’ll get him a potion that helps him shift easily, too.” We’d lost too many young Weres during their first shift, so I’d bespelled a brew to remedy that.

Jason took a deep breath and let it out with a gust. “Then let’s do this. Then I can fly to spend New Year’s Eve with Carlotta, can’t I? If she lets me in her house, I can shift where no one will see me. Maybe she’ll let me stay with her a while until I get used to the new me.”

I smiled but didn’t comment. If he moved in with Carlotta, he’d probably never leave. She was like that. Brown looked around the table. “I’ll wait to bite you until after everyone leaves. It’s going to hurt. A lot. But Hester can remove the pain once it’s done.”

It wasn’t until everyone said our goodbyes that we led Jason to the attic where I stored my books of spells. I looked up the correct one, and when Brown and Jason were ready, I wrapped Jason in my magic. Brown hadn’t exaggerated. The attack wasn’t pleasant, but I immediately eased the pain when it was finished. Half an hour later, Jason’s body transformed into an owl.

I went to the window at the back of the room and opened it. “Fly to Carlotta’s, tell her the news, and when you’re ready, drive your car back to Muddy River. Brown and Raven will do the rest. You might want to wait until after the holidays, so your family can enjoy them.”

With a nod, he stretched his wings and flew into the darkening sky.   Brown and Meda watched him before saying their goodbyes. Then Raven helped me clean the kitchen, and we settled in front of the yule log in the living room. Its last embers would die at midnight.

Raven shook his head, stretching his arm across the back of the sofa to rest it on my shoulders. “This was a Yule to remember.”

I had to agree. “A perfect night for rebirth. Jason’s life will just get longer and better, like the days.”

Tired of company and celebrating, Claws stretched across our feet, purring loudly. The hand on the mantel clock ticked one-minute past midnight, and the log went out. Time for bed. Tomorrow, the day would be filled with a little more light.

Tattoos and Portents–6

Raven and Hester stop at Aengus’s Druid settlement on their way back to Muddy River.

Druid's Stonehedge

Chapter 6

Raven decided to make a quick stop at the Druid settlement on the way home. “We should warn them, too,” he said.

Like the voodoo village, every house in Aengus’s settlement was gray, and the houses were arranged in a pattern—all of them the exact distance apart and facing toward the town square where the worship hall, healing well, and twelve giant stones stood. Each house was built the same, a Shaker style, no frills, no ornamentation, the only difference between them, the sacred tree in each back yard. Raven drove straight to the worship hall where Aengus, the head priest, and his wife Afric lived.

Claws opened his eyes when the SUV stopped, saw where we were, and closed them again. He’d been here with me before and knew we were safe. No need to stay by my side. When we knocked on the door, Aengus threw it open and beamed at us. “Welcome, friends! Come in. Come in. Lir’s here, too. We’re enjoying a glass of chouchen together. Join us.”

I’d had chouchen before, and it’s only safe in moderation. Made from fermented honey and fruit, it was more potent than anything I’d ever drunk. It took a lot to get a supernatural tipsy, but chouchen could do it.

We followed Aengus, a big bear of a man with a deep belly laugh, into his apartment behind the worship hall, and Lir and Afric raised their glasses to us in a toast. Afric was tall and whipcord lean with a sharp mind. She was the settlement’s lawyer while her husband was its judge. Lir traveled to sell and supply the settlement’s herbs and wares throughout the entire area. Young with flowing copper hair, his green eyes usually held a twinkle.

While Afric poured all four of us a drink, Lir asked, “What brings you here? We don’t see you often.”

Raven explained about Festus, the tattoo, and the vision.

Aengus’s dark brows pulled together in a frown. “And you say the tattoo held the vision the witch sent?”

I nodded. “She must be part Fae, too.”

“I’d love to see this tattoo.” His own forearms were covered with dark ink, and I’d seen his tattoos stretch to wrap around an enemy to hold him in place or squeeze him like a boa constrictor. He glanced at Lir, then at me. “Would you mind if we drove to Muddy River to meet this Festus?”

I smiled at both men. “You’re always welcome. You know that.”

Brown took a sip of his drink and coughed. Our deputy sheriff shifter had never experienced chouchen before.

“Be careful of that,” Raven warned. “It’s strong.”

“Now you tell us.” Meda held a hand to her throat. “I thought it would be like mead.”

Aengus’s laugh filled the room. “Druids are made of sterner stuff. When we make alcohol, we do it right.”

“I hope you have a potion for hangovers,” Brown grumbled.

“We don’t need one. We grew up on the stuff.” Aengus set down his glass and grew serious again. “You mentioned an undead. What is it and how do you deal with it?”

I explained about voodoo magic and shared what Jamila had told us.

“If a blast of magic can blow it to pieces, I’m guessing a strike of lightning would work, too?” he asked.

“If it’s a big bolt.”

He shrugged. “Then we can battle one.” Like witches and voodoo, Druid magic relied on Nature. We all used it in different ways.

When we finished our chouchen, we stood to leave. “It’s later than we planned,” Raven said. “We need to get home.”

“Should I call you before we come for a visit?” Aengus stood to walk us to the door.

I nodded. “Then I can let Festus know that you’d like to see him.”

“We’ll be soon,” he said.

It was dark when we reached Muddy River, but in December, that didn’t mean much. I looked at my watch. It was only seven thirty. I leaned forward in my seat to get Raven’s attention. “I’m hungry. Can we stop at Derek’s bar for supper?”

“A good idea.” Raven turned onto Main Street and five minutes later, he parked in Derek’s lot. When we opened our doors to get out of the SUV, Claws jumped out and ran to meet his other familiars, who were waiting nearby while their owners were inside. My familiar had seen enough people for one day and was ready for something different.

When we walked in the bar, conversation stopped while everyone stared at us. They’d heard about Festus and his vison and wanted to know more. Derek nodded for two customers to move over to make room for us.

“We all want to hear what’s going on,” he told us.

Speedy, his cook, dashed from the kitchen. “First, let them order something to eat and drink. I’ve heard they were gone all day. Let them catch their breaths.”

All four of us ordered burgers. They were the best ones in town. Meda and I ordered wine, and the guys wanted beer. Once Speedy disappeared through the swinging doors to fix our food, people started asking questions.

Raven, our town’s enforcer, answered each one patiently. While we were talking, Festus and Wanda walked in for a late drink and snack—their usual habit. More questions were tossed at us.

Speedy had brought our burgers and fries when Boaz and Melodia walked inside and claimed a table. This time, we all stared. Our local vampire and siren rarely came to town, and when they did, they usually ate at Ruby’s diner down the street. Boaz had dark circles under his eyes. A bad sign. He was such a powerful vampire, he usually was in peak condition.

“What will it be?” Derek called from behind the bar.

“A whiskey sour for me,” Melodia said.

“Something strong enough to knock me out and help me sleep,” said Boaz. “Without dreams.”

I frowned at him. He was a financial advisor who usually worked from home. “Did you have to travel out of Muddy River recently?”

He blinked. “Only across the river, maybe a half hour from our house.” Melodia had to be near water, so their home sat close to the Ohio River banks.

“Past our town’s wards?” I persisted.

He nodded.

Festus stared at Boaz’s long sleeves. “Do you have a new tattoo on your left arm, one you don’t remember getting?”

Boaz’s jaw dropped. “How do you know?”

Festus raised his shirt sleeve to reveal his. When Boaz pushed up his sweater sleeve, both tattoos began to writhe and reach for each other. People squirmed to get out of their way. They pushed their chairs back to watch.

Intrigued, I stood and walked closer to see them better. When the tattoos touched, both men winced.

“Make it stop!” Boaz cried.

I laid my hands on each tattoo, and a current moved through my body, as if I was a conductor, joining the two. And just like before, the dreams played out like a movie in the air.

We stared at the same cage bars that we’d seen before, only this time, our witch must be pacing, because our view moved back and forth. We could feel her panic, hear her thoughts. She worried eventually someone would come to kill her to steal her power.

Footsteps shuffled on the stairs, and four undead clambered down the steps, balancing a stretcher between them. Four more brought a second cage and placed it across the cement room, then placed a new witch inside it. While she was still unconscious, a tall thin man with mocha skin and hair like a Brillo pad came to bend over her, sliced her wrist, and caught the blood from the cut in a drip pan. When he’d collected enough, he rubbed a foul-smelling salve on the cut to heal it. When he turned to leave, he glanced in the cage at her. And she knew. They’d drain her regularly to steal her blood and power, too. She wouldn’t let them. She’d fight it.

But as the men climbed the steps, and their footsteps faded away, so did the dream. It sputtered to a stop, and I placed my hand on Boaz’s forehead to recite my chant.

“You’ll only dream when a witch touches your tattoo. Now you can sleep.”

Tears slid down Melodia’s cheeks. “Those poor girls.”

When she grew emotional, she usually sang, and her song could lure men to their deaths. It wasn’t intentional. She didn’t want to harm any of her Muddy River friends. It was her instinct as a siren. I knew that, so I’d made a potion for everyone in Muddy River to make them immune to her melodies.

A dirge started low in her throat, but then she turned to Boaz, and when he blinked and smiled at her, she was so happy, a song tumbled from her lips. We all smiled with her. We could. We were safe. I’d made the potion extra strong to protect us from the couple’s daughter, Lust. Half siren and half vampire, the girl was powerful with long fangs. Her true danger, though, was that she could glamour and drain victims with her vampire energy or sing and enchant them like her mother.

For someone so young—she was fifteen and coming into her magicks—that much power put her in danger. There were always those who’d gladly steal it from her, like the voodoo priest we’d just watched.

I turned to Raven. “The second witch they put in the cage had black hair with a white widow’s peak and a heart-shaped face. That coloring’s distinctive enough, you should call Drago to see if it matches the description of the witch from his community who went missing.”

He nodded and reached for his cell phone.

By the time people asked more questions and we answered them, he put his phone away and nodded. “It’s her. Drago’s furious. He’s going to help us search for both witches.”

I still didn’t hold out much hope of finding them. If my birds couldn’t locate the voodoo priest, he was well-hidden. He might even have cast an illusion spell like we had for Muddy River. I clenched my hands into fists. I felt helpless, and that frustrated me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Okay, today’s post is going to be pretty cheesy, but Thanksgiving brings that out in me.  I’m indulging myself.  My mother used to write out, by hand, her favorite poems and keep them in a notebook.  When she died, I got that old book with yellowed, frayed pages and faded ink.  She had a lot of favorites, but for this holiday, I reread “Grandma’s Patchwork Quilt.”  I couldn’t find it online, and she didn’t list its author, or I’d give whoever wrote it credit.  And just a warning.  My mom was a fan of rhyming and sentiment.  Not my usual thing, but sentiment’s all right on Thanksgiving when lots of memories, some good, some not so good, well up that form the tapestry of the cloth of our family and life.  And I’m grateful for all of them.

I

Did Grandma ever tell you about the patchwork quilt,

That lies across the sofa in her room?

It is made from scraps of dresses

That she wore when she was young

And some of them were woven on a loom.

II

Sometimes when it is raining, and I can’t

play out of doors,

She lets me spread it out upon the floor,

And as I choose the pieces I like to hear about,

She tells me of the dresses that she wore.

III

Oh, it isn’t just the dresses that she tells about,

Its the things that happened when she had them on;

And almost every little piece in that dear old patchwork quilt,

Holds the memory of a sorrow or a song.

IV

Oh, things were very wonderful when

Grandmama was young.

You ought to hear her tell about it all–

The ladies all were beautiful,

The children all were good,

And the men were all so gallant and so tall.

V

She called the quilt her memory beds,

And every little piece is a flower blooming in its scented fold.

There are red ones for the roses,

And blue for don’t-forgets,

And yellow ones for sunflowers of gold.

There’s one she calls “sweet lavendar”

That smells like baby clothes,

And one of purple, like the sunset skies;

Oh, I never ask about these or the gray ones like the rain,

For when I do dear Grandma always cries.

VI

My grandma told me once that life is just

like a patchwork quilt,

Of births, and deaths, and marriages, and things,

And that sometimes when you’re looking for a lovely piece of old,

You only find a knot of faded string.

But she says the red is redder when it’s by a

piece of brown,

And gray is not as gray by sunny gold.

Oh, I hope I’ll have a lovely patchwork quilt

like Grandmama’s

To show to little children when I am old.