TATTOOS AND PORTENTS — 16

When Hester and Raven get back to Muddy River, they stop at Derek’s bar to regroup.

bartender

Chapter 16

Our vehicles got really crowded. Drago’s witch rode back to Muddy River with Raven and me, Brown and Meda. We dropped off Oren on our way. Laurel and Flint and the third witch we’d freed rode back with Boaz and Cein. The first thing we did when we reached home was stop at Derek’s bar.

“The three witches need food and fast,” I told Speedy when he stuck his head out of the kitchen to check on us.

“And you?” he asked.

“Burgers for everyone,” Raven said. That made everything simpler…and quicker.

Boaz had called Melodia on the way, and she and Lust walked into the bar a few minutes after we did. I’d called Birch, so she and Lir were there, too, seated with Aengus and Afric. Someone had let Festus know, because he and Wanda were sitting at their favorite table. Gray and Syn were with them to check on Brown and Meda. Gray might have taken off when Brown was young so that mortals wouldn’t suspect either of them were shifters, but he sure liked keeping track of his son now.

“Eat first, tell us what happened second,” Derek ordered. He’d looked at the witches, who were barely hanging in there, and knew they needed energy. When their food came, they practically attacked it. Speedy watched them and went to make more. By the time they finished their burgers and fries, he slid another plate in front of them. When we finally ate our last bites and Derek replenished our drinks, Aengus said, “Can you talk now?”

I nodded to Raven, and he told them, step by step, everything that had happened.

Afric gulped down the rest of her ale. “I wish I knew some way to control spirits. They ran to Buthay while you fought and gave him plenty of time to disappear before you reached his camp.”

That was the thing about voodoo spirits. They could travel fast. I looked at Festus, Boaz, Cein, and Lir. “Do you still have your tattoos?”

They rolled up their sleeves, and Festus stood up to cheer. “It’s gone!”

Laurel winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to harm you. I didn’t know any other way to call for help.”

Cein immediately said, “You had to do the only thing you could. We all understand that.”

Festus nodded agreement. “I didn’t mean anything, girl, but I can’t pretend I’ll miss it.”

She smiled, looking stronger already after having a meal.

“Where did you learn Celtic tattoos?” Lir asked, rubbing his arm where the tattoo had been. Faiza came into the bar and sat next to him. She leaned to see his bare skin and grinned. Birch glanced at her and frowned.

Interesting. Like the witches, Lir looked better but still weak.

Laurel studied him. “Are you the one Buthay cursed?”

“Yes, but Hester made a potion for me, and Birch is fussing over me every day. I’m starting to feel better.” His gaze went to Birch, and his green eyes glittered with amusement. He was teasing her, and she flushed. She liked it. Our young witch had better be careful. Lir was clever and playful. He loved to keep people off kilter.

Aengus gave Laurel a gentle smile. “Your tattoos aren’t used often these days. They’re from the old Celt ways. Was someone in your family a Celt?”

“My grandmother was full Fae and married a Celt. I’m half witch, half Fae.”

“That explains it then. It’s a pleasure meeting someone who still knows the old ways.”

Raven returned to the problem of the voodoo priest. “He escaped with three barracks full of Undead and four dark witches.”

“Maybe he’ll decide it’s too dangerous here,” Festus said, sounding hopeful. “Maybe he’ll run as far from us as he can.”

“It won’t be far enough,” Raven finished his beer. “I still want to stop him. Either that, or he’ll kill more mortals. We can’t let that happen.”

Meda yawned. She tried to cover it, but Brown saw her. “Tired?” he asked.

“It’s been a long ordeal.” My fellow witch hadn’t skirted any responsibility, but then, no one in my coven did. “I’m ready to sleep in our own bed.”

Raven nodded and turned to the three witches. “Flint’s staying in my old apartment in town. Laurel can stay with him, if she wants to. If you’d like to stay at our house, you’re welcome. You can call for someone to come to get you in the morning.”

“I don’t want to leave.” Drago’s witch squared her shoulders and straightened her spine. “Not until you find Buthay. I want to help you hunt him and kill him.”

Funny, everyone who met him felt that way.

“Me, too,” the third witch told us. She looked at Flint. “Do you have a couch we can sleep on? Anything’s better than the cots Buthay put in our cells.”

“We have a few more empty houses,” Meda said. “We can help you move into one tomorrow. I’m sure we can round up enough beds.”

Plans made, we went our separate ways. We were all tired. All I wanted to do was crawl under our covers and sleep. It was so late when we got back, Claws curled in front of the fireplace and purred, happy to be home. Raven stopped in the kitchen, though, and sniffed the air.

“I smell cookies.”

I laughed, glad my cookie frenzy hadn’t gone unnoticed. My fire demon’s priorities put sweets at the top of his list. Hopefully, I tied with them, but I wasn’t sure.

Being Benched Is A Bummer

We’ve had a lot of company and seen a lot of people over the holidays.  Most of our friends have retired and their kids are grown.  But all of us can still be rattled when our kids hit a bumpy patch, friends hit snags, or health problems knock us sideways .  It’s frustrating to feel helpless.  The thing is, there are a myriad of things we can’t do much about.

Once kids grow up and move away, there’s only so much you can do to help them.  Sometimes–and this is even worse–you have to watch them make mistakes, get hurt, and lick their wounds.  It’s hard.  When you really care about people, the first instinct is to fix things for them.  But often, that’s not possible.  It’s not always even the best thing to do.

One of my friends is a therapist, and he uses the term “helicopter parents.”  They hover over their children, trying to protect them and shield them from being hurt or disappointed.  They think they’re helping.  They’re not.  Life isn’t always smooth or easy, and kids need to learn to deal with that.  But, if the problem is too big, and you CAN make a difference, wouldn’t you be tempted?

In the mysteries I write, my protagonists are usually dragged into trying to find a killer because they’re trying to help someone they care about.  In all three series, my protagonists are amateur sleuths, so the stakes have to be high enough to make them get involved.  In my Jazzi Zanders series, Jazzi usually knows the person who was killed or the person who’s a likely suspect and might be blamed.  In Muddy River, Raven’s the area’s enforcer.  It’s his job to find a culprit and punish him.  But Hester’s a teacher and the leader of the town’s coven.  She joins in trying to solve the crime because she takes any injury to someone in Muddy River personally.   In the new series I’m working on, Lux is a journalist who’d rather report a crime than try to solve one, but when her friends are in danger, she digs deeper to find the killer before someone she loves gets hurt.

I’ve read mysteries–and enjoy them–where the amateur sleuth takes risks just to satisfy her curiosity.  I’m sure there are people like that, and writers can make them believable, but myself, I’d steer clear of anything that might cause me bodily harm unless I was REALLY motivated.  That’s my protagonists’ approach to crime solving, too, and I think watching a loved one suffer for whatever reason–fear of going to prison, blamed for a crime they didn’t commit, fear that they might be the next victim, or grief because someone they loved died would be enough to make them jump in to help.  They’re not helicopter friends, but the type of friends you can count on in your time of need.

My protagonists aren’t the type to stay on the bench when they can make a difference.  They can’t stand sitting on the sidelines.  In life, sometimes, that’s all a friend can do.  And it’s awful.  We can’t fix the problem or make it go away.  The most we can do, at times, is to be there for moral support, to listen, and to share part of the burden.  But in mysteries, sleuths find the clues they need to solve the crimes.  And that’s the beauty of them.  As writers, we can make justice prevail and provide a satisfying ending.

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–15

Hester and Raven find the voodoo priest’s settlement.

canstockphoto0699509Chapter 15

Raven left the house right after breakfast. On a Sunday. Our day to enjoy each other. Once he was gone, the house felt empty. I thought about Birch and understood why she took in Lir. I used to love solitude. Not anymore. Not when it stretched for an indefinite time before I’d see Raven again.

I did what I usually do to distract myself. I got out the ingredients to bake and cook. I baked so long that by the time I crawled into bed at the end of the day, I fell into an exhausted sleep. And that’s how I spent the entire rest of my week. I’d teach, come home and start cooking, grab something small for supper, then make candy until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. By the time I went to bed late Friday night, I was in a horrible mood. Even the sky over Muddy River looked dark and threatening, reflecting my feelings.

I usually made an effort to contain my magic, but at the moment, I didn’t care. Tomorrow morning, I was driving to find my demon whether he wanted me to or not. School was out for the holidays, and I didn’t have to return until Raven came with me.

Claws woke first. I heard his restless pacing. He missed Raven as much as I did. “Easy, cat. We’ll see him soon.” I was packing a few things for the trip when Boaz called.

“Any news?” he asked.

“Nothing. School’s out. I’m going after him.”

I heard his chuckle. “In the Lamborghini? On snowy roads? I’ll come pick you up. The waiting’s getting to me, too. Lust asks about Cein every day. She’d come with us if I’d let her.”

“She’s probably powerful enough, but who knows how ugly this is going to get? She doesn’t need to see a magic war at fifteen.”

“Agreed. I’m on my way. Call Raven and tell him we’re coming. And tell him the town will be glad to see you leave. They’re tired of gray, grumbling clouds.”

My demon’s mood wasn’t any better than mine. He growled when he answered the phone. “Nothing. We’ve got nothing. We’ve driven all over this part of Indiana and Kentucky, and we have nothing to show for it.”

“Maybe our luck will change. Boaz and I are leaving now. The witches used all the magic they could. Let’s hope it’s enough.”

“How’s Lir?” he asked before I disconnected.

“Birch is nursing him back to health. He’s getting stronger every day. I stopped at her house to check on him two nights ago. He’s impatient to get out of bed, but he seems to be enjoying himself, teasing and pestering Birch.”

I could hear the smile in Raven’s voice. “And Birch? Is she doing better without her parents?”

“Lir’s a good distraction. They’re both getting better together.” Boaz’s pickup pulled into our drive. “Gotta go. Boaz is here. See you soon.”

Before I hopped into his pickup, while Claws curled on the backseat, I chanted a quick spell.

“What’s that for?” he asked as he started toward River Road.

“It blocks my magic so the priest can’t feel it.”

Boaz gave me a sideways glance. “You’re just full of tricks. Did you get a hold of Raven? Where are he and the others staying?”

“At Oren’s house. I’ve been there and protected it.”

“Good, I don’t want to find out how well vampires do with voodoo magic.”

“Didn’t I give you protective pouches to wear?” He wasn’t wearing one now.

“You gave them to everyone in Muddy River, but once in a while, I work with an accountant who’s a warlock. He’s not very strong, and he travels a lot. Just like Lir, I thought he could use a bit of protection.”

I rolled my eyes. “I never said that each person in Muddy River was only allowed to have one set of pouches. All anyone has to do is ask me for more, and I’d give them to them.”

He grinned. “I’m a financial advisor. We have to have every term spelled out for us. You didn’t make that clear.”

Obviously. It was becoming abundantly clear people must think I rationed my magic, but I had plenty to spare. I handed him a leather cord with pouches and pointed to the box with more that I’d brought. “Those pouches will protect you from voodoo. I wear mine all the time.”

He stopped the truck to slide his over his head and then we set off again.

It took us two hours to reach Oren’s house. It felt like we were crawling, he drove so slow, but I glanced at the speedometer, and he was going seventy. Boaz didn’t stomp his foot on the gas pedal and fly down county roads like Raven did. When we parked next to Oren’s log cabin, my demon came out to greet us.

“Good. You made decent time. Mind if we travel the backroads some more to look for the priest’s hiding place?”

Oren came to welcome us, too. “For Hecate’s sake, at least let them get out of the pickup and stretch their legs. They probably haven’t had anything to eat yet.”

Raven sighed, frustrated. “Sorry, I should have thought of that. I’m just tired of coming up empty. Maybe we’ll have more luck with you here.” He gave me a look. He was hoping I could feel the three witches’ magic.

I got out of the pickup and came to stand beside him, pressing a hand to his arm. His body vibrated with energy, he was so wound up. “Give us half an hour. Then we’ll leave with you.”

Oren led us into his home. “I’m no cook, but I have sandwiches if you’re hungry.”

We were. We all shared an early lunch, but I could tell that Brown and Meda were as exasperated as Raven. They must have covered a lot of ground with zero success.

Raven forced himself to be patient until we finished eating and got to relax a few minutes, then he said, “Ready now?”

Oren shook his head but didn’t argue. Claws and I rode in the SUV with Raven, Brown, and Meda. Cein, Flint, and Boaz followed in Oren’s vehicle. We went up and down one country road after another until the sun sank lower in the sky. It was almost dusk when I held up my hand and said, “Stop!”

Raven slammed on the brakes. I jolted forward before my seatbelt stopped me. Oren had to pull alongside us so that he didn’t run into our SUV. People started to complain but Raven ignored them. “What do you feel?”

I got out and waved my hands in the air. At the end of a weedy field, a huge bubble became visible in front of us. I smiled. “Magic. A protective shield.”

Meda and I strode toward it, the others following close behind.

It was almost dark. It was hard to see. “Should we come back early tomorrow?” Oren asked.

I shook my head. “Hear that?”

Everyone grew silent and concentrated. Then we caught the noise of people dragging their feet in a slow march. A lot of them.

“The undead. They’re heading toward a town,” Brown said.

We ran to catch up with them, then go past them. We planted ourselves between them and wherever they were headed. And when they came into sight, two witches were with them.

I sniffed. “A foul stench—dark magic.” A slew of spirits swarmed close to them. When the spirits saw us, they turned and fled.

“They’re afraid of you,” Boaz said.

I shook my head. “They’re returning to the priest to warn him we’re here.”

The witches stopped, studying us. Then one stepped across from Meda and one across from me. Meda grinned. “We’ll take care of them if you guys slaughter the undead.”

“There are kids with them,” Boaz said.

“Just bodies,” I reminded him. “Their spirits have gone on, and the priest has no right to use their flesh. If you behead them, you free them from him.”

Fangs sprang past his lips and his nails grew into long, sharp talons. Brown and Oren stepped out of their clothes and shifted—Brown into a werewolf, Oren into a huge mountain lion. Cein’s body elongated and feathers popped out of his skin. He opened his beak in a screech of anger and leapt into the air. Flames flicked around every inch of Raven.

The witch across from me raised her palms, and I threw up an invisible shield. Her magic bounced away harmlessly. “Are you ready?” I asked the others.

“Just keep the witches out of our way,” Raven growled.

We all started forward. The priest’s witches were stronger than I’d expected, and we volleyed back and forth, first one spell or chant then another, until I stomped my foot, knocking them off balance, and Meda and I finished them. We’d kept them battling us while Raven and the others plowed through the undead. When we finished, I studied the battleground. Bodies and heads lay separated all across the field. So did burnt corpses.

Boaz returned to his human form, scanning the field and beyond. “Let’s find the priest before we dispose of the bodies properly.”

My thoughts, too. I wanted to find the witches and free them before the priest could harm them.

We returned to the protective bubble I’d found and Meda and I gingerly put out our hands to measure its strength. “We’re in luck,” I said. “The witches were too weak to call on a proper one.”

Meda and I raised our palms in unison and blasted it. The entire field of energy fell. We marched forward, anxious to find the priest and battle the rest of his undead. But when we reached the compound, no one challenged us. Were the undead asleep? Would we find them in the barracks?

Raven scowled at the house on stilts in the center of the marsh. “How do we reach it?”

A tentacle lifted out of the water, and I pulled him back. “Things are living in there.” I threw a protective shield around myself and lowered a hand into the water. Sharp teeth tried to bite through my shield. I waited until they stopped then pulled my protection back a few inches to shoot energy out my fingers. I started small, and fish like piranha immediately floated to the top of the water. So did some odd-looking beast with a dozen tentacles. Once the area around my palm was safe, I motioned to Raven. He lowered his hand and let flames blaze in all directions. The water boiled and bubbled until it was filled with dead creatures.

Once that was done, I used my magic to move earth until a dirt bridge crossed from our side of the marsh to the house on stilts.

Raven’s lips curved in a cruel smile. “I finally get to meet the priest.” He hurried across to the ladder leading to the priest’s house. I blasted the door, and Raven rushed inside. No one was there.

We moved to the barracks next, walking in one, then another. All empty. Finally, we went to the barn and descended the steps into the basement. All three witches lay on the floor in their cages. I waved my hand to unlock them.

Flint rushed into the one holding Laurel. He picked her up gently and cradled her in his arms. She groaned, and hope filled his eyes. He looked at me. “Can you help her?”

Meda and I each went to her side and laid our hands on her. We poured healing magic into her, and slowly, she blinked and tried to sit. Flint leaned her back against his chest, supporting her.

Laurel pointed. “We’re all weak, near dead. Buthay didn’t need us anymore. He’s recruited enough dark witches to help him animate the dead.”

Meda and I went to the other two witches and pushed enough energy into them to keep them alive. They needed a good meal. Their magic was spent. Boaz and Cein helped Drago’s powerful witch lean against the bars of her cage. Raven and Brown helped the third witch.

I frowned, confused. “Why would witches who practice the dark arts join with Buthay?” An apt name for an evil priest.

Laurel explained. “Witch magic can’t raise the dead. With their blood, he can. The witches liked his power.”

“But isn’t he afraid that once he raises an army, the witches will kill him and take it over?”

The powerful witch smiled a cold smile. “If Buthay dies, so do the bodies he controls.”

Raven ran a hand through his dark hair, still confused. “We know he’s building an army, but what for? What’s his ultimate goal?”

“To create his own voodoo kingdom,” the third witch said. “He’ll destroy any good voodoo communities who won’t join him.”

Like the one in Drago’s territory in Kentucky. Our friends.

“And the witches?” I asked.

“They hope to form an army of their own, all dark witches, working alongside voodoo. When Buthay captures people to create more undead, he promised them the peoples’ blood to spill on their own altars.”

I shivered. More adversaries who lusted after power. And they struck me as more ambitious than Murlyn had ever been.

Tattoos and Portents–14

The three witches the voodoo priest kidnapped join together to mark where they’re being kept with strong magic, but the priest feels the change in energy and realizes what they’re doing.  They can’t send a message in a bottle, so they imbed a tattoo that holds a dream on Lir’s arm.  The priest attaches a curse to it, though, and Lir barely makes it back to Muddy River in one piece.

voodoo face

 

Chapter 14

The trip was mostly a bust. We followed Oren to the houses crowded together on both sides of the road, parked, and walked through each of them. A wind blew, making us hunch our shoulders and pull our heavy coats tighter. Inside each house, furniture was overturned, a Christmas tree was knocked over, its ornaments rolling to every corner of a room. People had fought the undead, but they’d obviously lost. Deep grooves plowed through the clean snow, and we followed the path farther down the road until tire tracks marked where several large vehicles had parked. Then the trail disappeared.

We’d all been hoping for a shred of luck, some small clue to point us toward where the priest was, but Hecate didn’t surprise us with any small blessings. We returned to town, frustrated and tired. On the way, my cellphone buzzed. At my hello, Aengus rushed to say, “I’m coming to Muddy River. I’m bringing Lir. He came home with a tattoo and dreams. And something else.”

“What something else?” I asked.

“I’d guess a curse. He’s in bad shape.”

“We’ll be at Derek’s bar in twenty minutes.” I turned to Raven. “Hurry.”

“I’ll meet you there.” Aengus disconnected.

I didn’t think we could go faster than we were, but I was wrong. Raven’s foot pushed harder on the accelerator and my SUV’s tires flung snow and mud behind us. I thought I was the only one white knuckling my door handle, but even Cein was clinging to his. When we entered the bar, Aengus and Afric were already there, holding Lir up between them. The bar was full. Word must have spread that something had happened. Birch was sitting at a table, alone, looking worried. Afric’s purse was next to her, and she was staring at Lir, who could hardly stand.

As soon as we took our usual stools, the men started rolling up their sleeves, Cein joining them. Birch reached to roll up Lir’s while the Druids kept him as steady as possible. The second Lir’s arm was bare, the tattoos reached for each other.

The girl felt another stirring of magic. A new supernatural must be close by. She stood at the edge of her cage and looked toward the two other witches caged near her. They rose their palms in unison and chanted a spell to mark where they were being held. They were all so weak, only a powerful witch would feel their magic and be drawn to it if she got close enough.

They could feel the tattoo embedding itself into some unknown’s skin, their dream entering his mind, but then they faltered. A dark magic was joining with theirs. The priest must have sensed the stirring of their energy and was sending a curse to the person they’d chosen. They dropped their hands, fear gripping them. Would the person survive? Had they accidentally doomed him?’

A horrible laugh filled the basement and dark magic swirled around them. They cringed to press themselves into corners, but the priest’s magic found them. The girl tried to cling to consciousness, but couldn’t.

The dream ended. Lir’s entire body started shaking, his head drooped.

“Can you help him?” Aengus asked.

I laid a hand on his forehead and forced healing magic into him. The shaking stopped, but his fever still raged. I pressed my lips together. “Did he wear the pouches I gave him?”

Aengus shook his head. “He gave them to a man three towns over who constantly travels for a living. He thought he needed it more.”

A sigh of frustration left my lips. “He should have asked me for another one. The pouches would have repelled the priest’s voodoo. But I can make an antidote. It won’t be an instant fix. He’ll have to rest, and someone will need to give him the potion four times a day. He should stay in Muddy River. He’s not strong enough to travel.”

Afric looked at Aengus. “I can stay here to tend to him. You need to lead our solstice services. Only the high priest can climb our sacred oak and cut its mistletoe to make the elixir that cures infertility and poisons.”

“We always do that together,” Aengus said.

“Lir needs us now.” She propped him against her side so that she could raise her hand and feel his forehead. “He’s burning up.”

Birch pinched her lips together. “He can stay with me, and I’ll care for him. My parents left Muddy River this morning. The house feels empty. I need something to distract me.”

“Who’ll watch your shop?” I asked.

“My assistant. She needs the extra money. And the shop feels weird to me without Mom and Dad. I’ll adjust, but it’s put a damper on Yule. Doing something else right now would be good for me.”

I turned to Aengus and Afric. “Lir won’t get better care than Birch will give him. She’ll make sure he has whatever he needs. And he deserves our help. He went out of his way to ask about the voodoo priest as a favor to us.”

“Will you call us and let us know how he’s doing?” Aengus asked. “I’m the one who sent him to ask about the witch. It’s my fault he’s sick.”

I shook my head. “It’s the priest’s fault, Aengus. We’ll heal him, and when we find the witches, we’re driving to free them and finish the priest.”

“When you fight him, I’m going with you,” Boaz said.

I glanced at Melodia and she nodded. “My husband’s powerful. He can help. Besides, I’m guessing Cein will go, too, and if anything happens to him, Lust will never forgive us.”

Cein blinked. “Will people quit saying that? She’s a kid.”

Boaz’s lips twitched, his opinion obviously similar to mine. “Keep telling yourself that, but my daughter has a mind of her own. She’s chosen you. Someday, we’ll be happy to welcome you to our family.”

Cein grimaced, dismissing his words. “I’ll worry about that when the time comes. For now, since the witches marked where they’re being kept, can we find them? Will we smell their magic if we get close enough?”

Raven nodded. “Our odds are better. Tomorrow, I’m taking Hester’s SUV, and I’m driving to the Ohio River. I’ll drive up and down it and as many backroads as I can, looking for them.”

“I’m going, too,” Cein said.

I started to say I would, too, but Raven shook his head. “I’m staying down there as long as it takes to find them. You have another week of school to teach. I won’t go after them without you or Boaz. When we find the priest’s settlement, I’ll call you, and we’ll wait for both of you to join us. We’ll need your magic.”

Brown glanced at Meda, and at her nod, said, “Count me in now. My sense of scent is better than most.”

“Where he goes, I go,” Meda told him. “Witches can’t scent like shifters, but I can defend your backs while you’re looking.”

“I want to go, too.” We all turned to see Flint standing near the back door. “Raven called me about the Druid’s new tattoo. Thank you. If we can find Laurel, I’m in.”

I frowned at Raven. “I’m glad you called him, but Flint’s too young. He hasn’t battled. . . “

“He has to learn some time,” my demon said, interrupting me. “And if you were out there, nothing would keep me from looking for you.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat. He was right. I’d tear the state apart if I had to, to find Raven. Flint had a right to join them.

With a nod, Raven stood. “Birch, you can follow us home, and Hester will get the antidote for Lir. Then I’ll follow you back here and help you get Lir to your house. Anyone coming with me tomorrow can meet me at my office at nine. We’ll leave then.”

I wasn’t happy on the drive home. I didn’t like sending Raven off without me. Even Claws was grouchy. But Raven had made up his mind how he wanted this done, and for once, I decided not to argue with him.

 

 

Time’s Running Out

I’m beginning to sympathize with the people who did NaNoWriMo in November.  They had a short amount of time to write a whole lot of words.  When I decided to try to write two books at the same time, I thought I had plenty of time to finish them before January.  And I would have, if everything had gone according to plan.  I know, I know.  How many times does that happen?  How many times do the best laid of plans of …well, you know.

I had both the Muddy River book–TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–and the contemporary mystery novel–OLD FRIENDS, NEW HABITS–plotted out.  I’d work on Muddy River in the morning, take a break to look at e-mails and twitter, etc. and eat lunch, then work on the Lux mystery in the afternoon.  And honestly, I was making great progress.  Until I had to stop to write plot points for my sixth Jazzi Zanders book.  The book isn’t due until May 4th, and I’ve never had to send in plot points way ahead before.  But there’s a funny little thing called a contract, and it listed Dec. 15th as the deadline for my cozy mystery outline.  Not sure why.  Maybe my publisher wanted to remind me that I had a book to write.  But it is, what it is.  So I had to put on my writing brakes and pound out plot points.  I need enough suspects, twists and turns, and clues to keep things interesting, and they took longer to figure out than I’d expected.   By the time I sent them, I’d lost almost two weeks.  Those two weeks pretty much doomed me.

I’m not sure that I can work on Jazzi, then if I get my pages done for the day, work on one of my other books.  The problem?  I get hopelessly messed up if I try to switch back and forth between first person and third.  And believe me, when that happens, you notice.

My daughter who’s a nurse in Indy and my grandson and his wife who live in Indy are all coming up to celebrate a late Christmas with us this weekend.  Cheers and happy dance!  We get to exchange presents and have the big, holiday meal.  By the time they leave on Sunday, though, there’s not a whole of December left.  Even if I took coffee intravenously and didn’t sleep at all, I wouldn’t have enough time to finish both books.  So, I’m playing with options.

Maybe I could write on Jazzi during the week and work on Muddy River or Lux on the weekends.  My husband would still remember who I was, wouldn’t he?  Or maybe I could write on Jazzi during the day, take a LONG break, and then work on one of my other books for an hour or two in the evening.  HH likes basketball this time of year:)

I’m guessing it’s obvious by now that I’m not sure what I’m going to do.  But I’ll think of something.  I always (okay, usually) do.  I’m too close to The End to give up now.  Light candles for me.  Send me happy thoughts.   And whatever you’re working on now, best of luck!



 

Tattoos and Portents–13

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

Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wouldn’t mind if I did that?”

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

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

“I don’t want . . . “

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

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

“Did you bring extra clothes?” Raven asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many? What ages?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We bundled up and drove to meet Oren.

Tattoos and Portents–12

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

minotaur

 

Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cein raised his eyebrows, waiting for my reaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you’d like me to stay?”

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

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

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

He scowled. “With the girl?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Permanently?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man asked Derek, “Is that them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope, I live in a mortal town.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

“So do it already.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my job,” Raven argued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s a kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were too bossy and annoyed me.”

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

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

He grinned. “Neither am I.”

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