We curl up to sleep but I just can’t get there. Zeke is out like a light and when he stretches out enough that I can slip out of his arms to leave the bed without waking him, I do.
I pull on my robe and go into the living room, closing the door behind me. I go into the kitchen and pour a glass of brandy and then go into the office. I sit at the computer and open up Word to start some writing. Zeke’s notebook is on his desk, so I snag it and open the pages. I look at all his notes and sigh. I want this in some sort of order, some semblance of cohesiveness so that I can analyze it.
I shut Word and giving another sigh, open up Excel. I figure it’s easier to manipulate the data if I put it all in a spreadsheet. I begin making columns and entering the notes he has made. I have to keep adding sub columns as I want to arrange things. I keep moving things and each time I do, I thank the computer gods for whoever invented cut’n’paste.
I pick up my brandy glass and I’m surprised to see that it’s empty. I stand up and when I look at the clock, I am amazed to see that a couple of hours have gone by. I flex my wrists and make fists to relax my hands. I wander back in the kitchen and decide to switch to tea.
I’m standing there waiting for the pot to boil when Zeke comes out of the bedroom with sleepy eyes and Vader at his heels. The dog looks at me reproachfully and heads down the stairs. Oops…
“What’s the matter, babe?” He comes up to me and nuzzles my neck. “Can’t sleep?”
“Too many questions, Zeke. Too many why’s and where’s and who’s. I’ve been trying to arrange your notes in some order, any order…just to see if things began to add up.”
“So far, I just have about five really pretty spreadsheets with no correlation between much of anything.”
“How long have you been up?”
“For about two and a half hours.”
“Oh. Want a massage? Or are you going to go back to your spreadsheets?”
I would kill my own mother for a massage. Dumb question. I turn off the fire under to teapot and guide my masseur to the massage table. Before he can choose the oil he wants to use, I have stripped down and am on that table.
“Don’t like this much, do you?” He teases me. “I hate having to drag you in here to torture you like this…”
I giggle and then groan as he begins rubbing the oil on me. The scent of it carries up to me and I am glad to recognize my favorite sandalwood. His hands are so strong and so soothing…he strokes up the backs of my calves and by the time he reaches my back, I am sound asleep. I don’t even wake when he somehow manages to lift me and put me back into our bed.
I am a little surprised when I wake there in the morning…
I am pulling on my shirt when I walk out into the kitchen. There is a cup of tea for me… at least, I think it’s for me so I drink it. And it’s warm. I pet Vader who has run up to greet me and look around for my man. Then I hear the clicking of the computer and I walk into the office.
“I am putting your spreadsheets into a folder on the desktop and sharing it. I want to be able to work on it, too. You did a really awesome job lining things up, Mattie. The information is in a much better format. I want to email it to Paul, if you don’t mind.”
“Thank you, share away. Please do work on it…and I don’t care if you send to him, if he’ll send us goodies too.” I lean over and kiss him.
It’s nice to know that I am slightly more important to him than technology since he stops his typing long enough to kiss me back. And rather thoroughly.
“I have taken the liberty of adding notes and markers so that we can cross reference things. And your additions about Samhain and that ritual reminded me of something.”
“I have not gone to look at Mike Johnson’s altar. I couldn’t see it in the dark when we were there and I want to know why he wouldn’t let us get near it. I want to see it.”
“So how do you plan on doing that? If you go at night, when they can’t tell that you are in the yard, you ummm still won’t be able to see it. If you going during the day…”
“Yeah I know. I was hoping you would help me figure something out.”
“Shall I call Shelly and arrange a shopping expedition?”
“I think a pub crawl is more likely to appeal to her…but I was wondering what you thought about using the police to get us in there?”
“What do you mean?”
“I would also like to see Mike Johnson. I think his methods of dealing with his daughter are reprehensible, but I would like to know that he is among the living.”
“Zeke! Do you think he’s dead?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“Well, if that clock is right…”
“Of course it’s right, it is the computer clock and it’s set from—“
I interrupt him. “My point is, I have a shop to open. You’ll have to wait to see the altar.”
“Oh gods, I didn’t know it was that late. I have to get dressed since I am supposed to be downstairs.”
I look down at his lovely nude body. “Oh I don’t know, we might sell a lot more if you ran around like that.”
“Well, if it will help the store.”
“On the other hand, you can’t run it by yourself.”
“And why would I be running it by myself?”
“Because I’d be in jail for killing the first woman who looked at you with lust in her eyes.”
“I see how you’re looking at me now, and I suspect that you wouldn’t be in jail, you would have had to commit suicide.” He grins at me and I grab his face to kiss him.
“Okay! You caught me. You are the sexiest man alive and you drive me crazy by flaunting your masculine beauty.”
He looks at me with a strange expression. He catches my hand and stares up into my face, peering into it like he’s trying to read something.
“What is it, Zeke?”
“Well, yes. In a totally manly way! I mean…you know, like Michelangelo’s David.” Oh gods, I have insulted his manhood.
“You think I’m beautiful?” He repeats the question. He doesn’t sound insulted.
“And sexy? And I drive you crazy?”
“Yes. Yes!” Now I’m confused.
He throws his arms around me and squeezes me tight. “Oh Mattie, I love you!”
“I love you, too.” I wiggle to be able to look at him. “Want to tell me what this is all about?”
“I had no idea that you thought I was beautiful!” He is smiling like he’s just won…the Mister? America Beauty Pageant.
“I keep you, don’t I? I let you in my bed, don’t I? I let you share my house, my car, my dog…my body, don’t I? I put up with your odd habits, don’t I?”
He stares at me. “What odd habits? What are you talking about?”
“I mean that odd habit of loving me no matter how dense I am. I have always thought you were beautiful and wonderful and I love you. I’m just a ninny for not telling you.”
The conversation must be over because I cannot speak with his mouth over mine.
We only open fifteen minutes late.
There is a constant flow of shoppers, all seeking the perfect holiday gift, no matter which holiday they celebrate. Christmas, Hanukah or Yule—I have things that will serve for each as well as coordinated wrapping paper. I even have a small Kwanzaa section—mostly the candleholders and appropriately colored candles, but I do have some interesting African wood carvings. I barely have time for lunch, which Zeke fixes and brings me on a plate.
I don’t mind being busy. It keeps me from having to think about bad things like John Robert’s death and Laurie’s predicament; it helps the time go quickly and I am watching those clock hands getting nearer and nearer to closing time. They are almost there when the door opens…and most of the coven—such as it is—walks in.
I quickly note that Mike Johnson is still among the missing; of course John Robert is not there and Laurie is also absent. Shelly is holding onto Dorie and seems to be leading her. I guess she must be over the effects of her poisoning if they have let her out of the hospital. She looks as substantial as ever, which is to say, not at all—so it’s hard to tell if there are lingering effects from eating mistletoe.
Rhyssa doesn’t look any better than she did on Tuesday and Eric is still moving like a spooked horse. There are a couple of other people with them that I remember from the Samhain ritual, but don’t know their names. And bringing up the rear—and somehow, still looking like a truculent weasel, is John Robert Schmidt, Junior.
I haven’t seen him in several years while he’s been away at various schools, but he hasn’t changed a bit. He has always reminded me of villains and snitches and assorted other bad guys. He doesn’t look anyone in the eye and you almost expect him to talk out of the side of his mouth, like a B movie gangster. Today he happens to be sporting a fairly spectacular shiner and I have to wonder how he got it. The colors are just beginning to fade but it is still very impressive.
I motion for Zeke to join us as they approach the register. Vader has already insinuated himself between me and this group of…witches, who look more like lost sheep right now. Except for John Junior, who is more like the coyote that will make off with one of these sheep… and already has, if Shelly is right.
“Mattie?” Apparently Shelly has been appointed spokesperson. “We were wondering…”
“Yes?” I can hardly wait to hear what they want. I’m sure it’s not good, whatever it may be.
“Well, with John Robert dead—“ and she turns to glare at Rhyssa who is trying to cry but snuffles it up and stops with the look. “Anyway. We were wondering if we could hold our Yule ritual here.”
Here? Where that same John Robert beheaded MY wolf? Smashed Pan, also known as…the Green Man? A horrid thought occurs to me and I wish, I wish I knew where Mike is. I can hardly speak for indignation at the presumption. Once again, my darling rescues me.
“We are not set up for rituals, Shelly. There simply is no place inside, and I don’t think you want to spend the whole evening outside. We don’t have any way to make a fire out there.”
Lies, lies, lies…but blessed lies all the same. I don’t want these people in my house. I can barely stand to see them in the shop, but I can’t do too much about that. I make a mental note to make some “soap” with Zeke’s beloved Bailey’s Irish Cream and wash his mouth out for such lies tonight.
He continues. “It’s just a thought, but perhaps individual rituals, each person doing their own in the privacy of their home, might be more …respectful… for this Yule.”
They stare at him as if he’s just grown another head. Damn, they really are sheep. You can tell that they don’t have a clue about doing their own ritual. They begin to babble this at him.
“Oh no! Lord Candeur said that we should always celebrate together.”
“I can’t call the Quarters in my house!”
“Don’t we have to have special incense?”
“Where do I find a script for the ritual?”
Zeke holds up his hands to stem their flood of noise. They are all looking at each other and they are all talking so it takes a moment for them to realize that he has done this. One by one, they fall silent. “I’m sorry, but this is not my problem. You all will have to figure this out—in whatever way will work for your group. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“But you and Mattie are part of our group…” Rhyssa trails off.
“I appreciate your feeling that way, but really, we’re not. We have joined you for some of your rituals, but we are not a part of the coven. We have not been initiated, nor studied your (and he has a barely perceptible pause but I notice it) traditions. It would not be right for us to try to run the ritual for you.”
“Oh. Oh. Ummm, I guess you’re right.” She turns to the others. Her gaze settles on Dorie. “Did Lord Candeur finish the script for Yule? We could use that if he has.”
Dorie doesn’t seem to hear her, since she’s staring off vaguely into the dining room.
“Dorie!” Rhyssa repeats her question once she’s gotten the woman to look at her.
“Mmmm. I don’t know. I didn’t see it on his desk at home.” She stops and everyone just keeps glancing at her. They must be used to her form of communication because after a moment or so, she speaks again. “Of course, he did do some of his writing at work so it might be there. If the police would let you look…”
We all wait again, but this must be the extent of her message. Rhyssa nods, as if punctuating Dorie’s sentences for her and this signals the rest of the group to start chattering again.
“I can call Jane and ask her if he was working on it there.” Rhyssa volunteers this idea.
“I’ll get Mom to take a look again at home.” The weasel speaks…and apparently he inherited his father’s volume with his mother’s rather nasal voice. Not a pleasant sound.
“Ummmm. Excuse me?” Eric hesitantly murmurs. No one responds, so he tries again. “I said, I have an idea.”
They all twist their heads to look at him—and they all have the same expression on their face. It takes me a minute to recognize it as the same look I get when Vader comes in after finding a particularly pungent odor to roll in. I wonder why they are so…disgusted.
“I ummm have a ritual, not as good as Lord Candeur’s, I know, but something…and I umm thought, well, perhaps…we might…you know.” He blushes and hangs his head for an instant, then raises it up again to look each of them in the eye. “I have studied and I have been initiated, so I could…well….maybe…ummm.”
“Do NOT even think that you—YOU! Of all people—could fill his shoes and take over this coven. If he thought you were capable to be High Priest, he would have done your third initiation and you would BE a High Priest. But you’re not, so don’t go getting ideas in your head now that he’s not here to keep you in your place!” Shelly’s outburst is amazing and terrifying. Her face has turned bright red and she is throwing her arms all akimbo, pointing her finger at Eric. I have the irreverent thought that it’s a good thing it’s not loaded, or he’d be dead.
He looks like he wishes he were dead. He is totally pale and shaking, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. He gulps and takes a breath. I am even more amazed that he is going to answer her. “Now see here…”
“Oh for god’s sake, shut up, Eric. We all know that you wanted his position and now that he’s dead, you think that you’ll just have it handed to you.” Nasty words, coming from the dead man’s son—whom I have never seen, not once, at ritual. Why does this matter to him?
“At least I won’t be fucking all the women, whether they want it or not!”
“You can’t even fuck any woman, you useless shit.”
Oh dear. This is definitely not good for my business, but while I may honor the concept of “in vino, veritas”, I also know that testosterone can be an excellent truth serum.
It does not fail me.
“I certainly don’t fuck an innocent girl, get her pregnant and then leave her to deal with it by herself, you bastard!”
“Fuck you. That’s none of your goddamned business.” This is said with such vehemence, the spittle flies out of John Junior’s mouth like a fountain.
“Is Mommy going to take care of that as well? Just like she’s taken care of all of your fuck-ups?” Eric taunts him. “How about I give you another black eye to match the one you’ve already got?”
The rest of the group is standing stock still, like they have been flash-frozen into place. The two young men have assumed classic poses…both of them with clenched and raised fists, both of them leaning towards the other when Dorie reaches out and slaps her son.
“STOP IT! Take me home, NOW!” She grabs his arm and heads out. I am still reeling from the shock of the volume she has just used…it was actually loud. She pulls her offspring out of the store and the others glance around and follow her out. Baa baa baa.
I turn to Zeke. “What the hell just happened here?”
“We just saw a landmark moment, folks…Dorie Schmidt has outdone herself today—shrieking at her son AND hitting him, all in one day. My goodness…” And he begins to laugh. I join him and Vader bounces between us, trying to figure out why we’re carrying on.
Time flies once the drama is done and before I know it, it’s time to close up shop. This time it’s Zeke who is about to lock up when Paul shows up on the doorstep. He comes in and watches us finish up the tasks of day’s end before we all walk upstairs.
“This is of course an official police visit.” He grins at us.
“Of course. Did you get my email?” Zeke heads into the kitchen, with us following him.
“Yeah. Interesting arrangement.”
“That’s Mattie’s work.”
“It certainly puts a new light on things.”
“I thought so, too. She tends to think outside of the box…while the rest of us are still arguing about whether to use the box cutter or not.” He smiles at me. “Any word on Mike Johnson?”
“No and you all are making me nervous because you keep asking. Why is he important?”
“Didn’t say he was…I would just like to know where he went.”
“And what is the note about his altar?”
“Ahhh. We did not get a chance to really look at it. He wouldn’t let us near it before the ritual, and it got too dark during…of course, we left right afterwards. I want to see it.”
Zeke is pulling food out of the fridge. I gather up the salad stuff and start chopping. I look over at Paul and he sees the question in my eyes.
“No, my dear. Thank you, but I really have to keep this as pure as the driven snow so that we can keep some credibility in anything you tell me and I need to pass along. I will eat when I get home.”
“There’s some stuff I want to share with you all, see if you can figure it out.” He pulls out his official notebook. Zeke stops cooking long enough to pull his unofficial one out to take notes.
“The deceased’s clothes were stacked neatly on the filing cabinet. His shirt had a hole through it—in the back. His body has the matching hole in the back which of course was not visible to you.”
I stare at him. “That means that someone…rolled him over and stabbed him again.”
“I would suggest that one person stabbed him in the back and someone else came in and stripped him, arranged him face up and then stabbed him again.”
“I’d go along with that.” Zeke stirs something that smells wonderful. I finish up with the salad and we all sit at the table. I feel funny eating while Paul watches, but I’m hungry and it’s been a long day.
“TV has really done us in.” He sighs. “Everyone has seen enough of the crime shows to know to wear gloves…or clean off prints. We didn’t find much of anything that would match up…his prints were there, of course. Jane Harris, Laurie’s on the door knob. The athame is too carved to hold much of a print…but I’m hoping you can tell me about it.”
Zeke glances over at me and I nod. “I sold one that looks amazing like the one found in John Robert’s chest—to Mike Johnson, about three months ago, just after Mabon. He was sort of weird about it, asked for a dagger, but he chose an athame. He was also very interested in the herbs…” I stop talking, trying to remember which herb I had been looking at when he was shopping.
“Oh? Any particular one?” Paul has his pen ready to write this down.
“No-o-o-o. He just asked if we had dangerous ones…no, he actually asked me if we had ‘poisonous herbs’ because I told him that anything that was lethal was kept locked up.”
“What exactly is your procedures for herbs that are deadly?”
“First off, you have to understand that almost anything can be…bad for your health…if taken in a large dose. So I have a lot of herbs that are not locked up that could cause some nasty reactions. But, and I stress the but, herbs that are known to be dangerous, such as pennyroyal or belladonna, are kept in a locked cabinet. I have a form that the person has to fill out asking why they want it, what they are going to do with it, and they have to sign a disclaimer waiver as well. I also make a copy of their driver’s license. This seems to weed out the serious user from curious daredevils.”
“So you have belladonna?”
“Actually, no. There is no ritual use for it that I know of, no one has ever asked for it and I wouldn’t sell it anyways. It’s bad news.”
“It certainly was for John Robert.” Zeke pipes up. “We don’t keep arsenic or cyanide.”
“Glad to hear that. So tell me what you do have.”
“Pennyroyal. Mistletoe. Yew. Mugwort, St. John the Conqueror. Wormwood. We also keep the orris root locked up.” Zeke grins at me. “Mattie has such a fondness for it.”
Paul looks confused and I enlighten him. “Orris is one of the ingredients in gin, and that is his way of getting a dig in at my martinis. But it does cause hallucinations, which is why gin drinkers are crazy.”
“Ahhh.” He makes a note. “So you keep these locked up, and record who buys them.”
We both nod.
“So how easy is it to get mistletoe oil?”
“It’s not hard. We usually have it in stock, although I used what was left in our protection ritual and we haven’t bought any more.” Zeke looks thoughtful. “But the bottle was not full when I got there. Mattie, who else has used it?”
“Hang on, let me get the book.” I run back downstairs and am flipping through it when I come back into the kitchen. “Oh gods.” I sit down, hard.
“What? Who?” Both men lean towards me.
“Lilith, also known as Sara Schmidt. Bought a half an ounce in August, along with several other herbs for making protection incense. She replenished the herbs not even a month ago, but not the oil. I didn’t think about it because that much oil should last for a while.”
All three of us are staring at each other. “Got a chocolate cake recipe?” Paul asks.
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Zeke stands up and pulls out his cookbook. He looks in the back and finds the recipe he wants. “Here, it calls for a cup of melted butter…but any fat substitute would work…including some mistletoe oil.”
“Do you know if Sara cooks?”
“No idea. But if she can follow a recipe…”
“I heard that she was in big trouble with her father because of Eric Adamson.” Paul refers to his notes. “Apparently it was even in the local paper?”
“We heard from Rhyssa that they had been found in bed together. I’m not totally sure that it was because Eric loves her deeply, truly…I think he’s been using her to get to John Robert and guarantee his initiation.” Zeke answers him.
“Initiation? For what?”
“You haven’t heard? Eric is another one who has argued with Lord Kiss My Ass—“
“Who? You mean John Robert Schmidt?” Paul interrupts him.
“Lord Kiss My Ass is what Zeke has always called him. So appropriate, don’t you think?” I smirk at Paul who nods his head.
“Anyway, you two. Eric had been a good boy and studied hard, was looking forward to the day when he would be handed the power wand…and John Robert wasn’t doing it fast enough to make him happy. There have been a couple of fairly unpleasant scenes out in public about it.”
“Do tell.” Paul leans on his hand and indicates that we are to explain.
We tell him about the scene at the restaurant just after Mabon, and the rumors that Rhyssa had told us and the grand announcement of Eric serving as Oak King, which apparently meant that he would be initiated in High Priest-hood. And then of course the enraged father’s discovery of his daughter’s downfall…and the scene in our shop that afternoon.
“You mean that they wanted YOU to run the ritual?” Paul is astounded.
“Oh yeah. John Robert made sheep out of them.. They don’t have a clue on how to do it for themselves. And Eric was trying to offer them a solution…which not a one of them wanted at all.” Zeke shrugs.
“I thought that was a little strange. They were so earnest about having the ritual, but when one of their own stands up, they turned on him like a pack of…rabid sheep. I thought Shelly was going to have apoplexy, she was so angry about the whole idea.” I take a sip of my tea. “He and John Junior almost came to blows.”
“Because he was offering to run the ritual?”
We then have to explain the whole episode with Paul making notes the entire time. He makes us repeat it several times, especially when we get to the part about Dorie shouting at her offspring and smacking him across the mouth.
“Never a dull moment in here, is there?” He flips back a few pages. “Okay, let’s see if there was anything else. Oh yeah…we are working on identifying the car that hit you. Steven Baker, the young man who called it in, has told us what kind of car it was. He’s into cars so he noticed things like the tinted windows and detailing. We are trying to track it down, but the driver must do his own work since we can’t find a shop around here that has done any of it.”
I can’t stop the shudder that goes through me. I see the whole thing again in my mind and I am reliving it…Zeke reaches over and touches me.
“Hey, come back. It’s done, we’re okay. Let it go.” He holds my hand.
I take a deep breath and try to relax. It’s hard to let it go…I almost lost the two most precious things in my life to that car.
“Mattie? I’m sorry, I just wanted to let you know…” Paul won’t meet my eyes.
“It’s okay. It just was a really bad day.”
He finally looks up at me. “I want to catch that sonuvabitch more than you can imagine.”
“Not nearly as much as I do.”
“Oh I don’t know about that.” He takes a breath and looks back at his notebook.
“We definitely did not find a half of an apple pie at John Robert’s office. His business partner is going insane because he can’t go into the office until we are through with it. And we’re not yet.” Paul turns pages. “And I think we can make a trip out to examine the altar. Can you go tomorrow?”
Zeke looks over at me. “You all right by yourself for a while, or do you want to close up the shop and go with us?”
I answer before I can really think about it. “No, I’ll stay here. Vader will be with me. I don’t want to see the altar as much as you do. Go, I’ll be fine.”
He turns to Paul. “What time?”
They agree on the hour and Paul stands up. “Thanks for talking to me. Let me know anything new that crops up. See you tomorrow.”
Zeke walks him downstairs and when he comes back, he has a thoughtful look on his face.
I hand him a small glass of Bailey’s. “Here, wash your mouth out, boy.”
“What are you talking about?” He takes it from me anyway.
“All those lies you told today…for shame. Telling falsehoods to all those people. You should be soundly kissed for them!” I am giggling by this point and he realizes what I am talking about. He takes a mouthful of the liquid and very obviously swishes it around in his mouth before swallowing it. He even obliges me by making a face at it.