When I wake up the next morning, he’s pulling on shoes. “Hey you. About time you woke up. I’m heading out to meet Paul. Sure you want to stay home?”
“Absolutely. I will be a good little shop keeper and you can tell me all about it when you get home.”
He kisses me and leaves. I dress and taking my cup of tea, walk downstairs to open the shop.
I get a steady flow of customers. I’m busy enough showing this and ringing up that, it’s lunchtime before I know it. I am a little concerned that Zeke hasn’t come back yet. I didn’t think it would take this long. I am just trying to decide what I want to grab to eat when Rhyssa walks in.
“Can you take lunch? I mean, close the store and eat with me?” She is still haggard and drawn. Her eyes have dark circles under them and I suspect that she has not slept—at least not well—for at least four or five nights.
“Sure, I was just thinking about it. Let me flip the sign.” I do so, and we step across the street for a meal…and some deep discussion. I can tell that she wants to bare her soul to me… and it’s not quite what I want to digest today, but maybe I can find out something that will help solve the puzzle.
We are seated near the back and she maneuvers it so that she has her back to the door. I don’t mind, so I don’t call attention to this finagling. I am looking at the menu when she sighs. A very loud, theatrical—but still heartfelt—sigh.
“Oh my god, Mattie. I am such a fool.”
I gaze at her with the most nonjudgmental expression I can muster. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
“I feel so stupid. He said I was special, that we were…recreating the Sacred Unity of the God and Goddess, that I gave him something so unique…he fed me this line of shit and I ate it up like…an idiot.” A tear trickles down her cheek and somehow this is more intense than if she suddenly burst into wild and hysterical sobbing.
“You know. John Robert Schmidt, Lord God Almighty in his own mind…and slimy bastard!” She spits this out with an understandably large dose of venom.
“Oh Rhyssa…” I don’t know what to say to her. I agree with her on both his vanity and his questionable parentage.
“Oh Mattie. I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. I deserved it. I would not believe you when you said that he just wanted to …well, fuck…women. I tried to convince myself that he was seeking the Great Rite because of his higher…spirituality. God, what a fool I was. I should have listened to you. And Zeke.”
“For what it’s worth…some of life’s lessons…”
“I know, oh do I ever know. This one has been a very hard one. Did you know that he was also having sex with Jane and Shelly?”
The first doesn’t surprise me, but the news about Mrs. Johnson does. Wonder how Mike felt about that—if he knew.
“I didn’t know about Jane until Sunday. We were having dinner together and she just blurted it out. She wanted him to marry her, and she was asking me why she kept falling in love with married men who wouldn’t leave their wives for her. When I asked her who she meant and she said John Robert, I could have killed him then.”
The impact of what she has just said hits her. “OH GOD! I didn’t kill him. I swear I didn’t…but I was so angry with him…and with her. I thought she was my friend.”
She draws a deep shuddering breath. “He never said that he would marry me. I have to give him that much credit. He never made that kind of promise to me.”
I have to wonder what kind of promise he did make, but I figure now is not the time to ask.
“I was so mad, I just told her flat out that he was screwing me. She didn’t want to believe me, but I began describing it—and him. She had to believe me when I could tell her some of his exact techniques. She slapped me…and ran out of the house. I haven’t seen her since and I don’t want to.” Rhyssa has a strangely triumphant look. “I’ll bet she killed him. Jane was not… normal… when her husband left her. She had to spend some time in a loony bin because she kept stalking him and his new…lover.”
I can feel my skin crawl at the vindictive tone she is using and I can’t help but worry about why she is telling me this, instead of the police. I get a flicker of a picture in my head…Jane in handcuffs, being carted off for the murder of John Robert and I realize that Rhyssa is hoping to hurt this woman who was her friend…but who got the promises Rhyssa wanted from the man they were both intimate with.
The waitress saves me from having to invent a reason to leave. I order the smallest thing I can with the hopes of eating it quickly and getting out of there. I prefer not to have Rhyssa mad at me if I can help it. Thank the gods I have never, never slept with John Robert.
She seems willing to let the subject drop and for the rest of the meal, we talk of nothing in particular. I don’t have much appetite and I am very glad when I can look at the clock on the wall and beg off dessert to open the store back up. I go and leave her sitting there, staring into her plate and contemplating mayhem for Jane Harris.
It gets later and later and there’s still no sign of Zeke. I am at the point of calling his cell phone when our car pulls up into the driveway. There’s no one in the shop and we only have an hour before the usual closing time, so I am quite content to flip the sign early and close up for the night.
I am closing shutters when he walks into the house. “Let me help you. We need to go upstairs to talk about my day.” He looks…old. My Zeke looks like he has aged forty years since he left the house this morning. I begin to feel a sense of doom as I empty the register.
Once everything’s done downstairs, we go back up into our own space. I am even more afraid when he walks over to the refrigerator and takes out the bottle of vodka. He takes a huge swallow of it. He looks at the bottle and turns it up into his mouth again.
I am ready to rip my clothes and scream as I can feel the anguish coming off of him. When he sets the bottle down, there is a lot less in there than when he pulled it out. I stand in the middle of the room, helpless to comfort him until I know what has torn him apart so badly.
He walks over to me and I fall into his arms. He holds me tight against his body and all I can do is hold him just as tightly. Whatever it is that has happened… I am getting flashes…dirt and stone, some small animal being cornered. There is a badger in a hole…shovels.
I get the impression of rage, a man’s face being hit over and over again…fear. I go cold to realize that the greatest feeling I have is death.
“Zeke? What happened?” I lean back to look up at him. Dear gods, his face is so full of pain…He opens his mouth and all that comes out is a sob. He suddenly lets go of me and runs to the bathroom. I am right behind him so I see him spew the contents of his stomach into the toilet. He is violently ill and I don’t know if it’s from the onslaught of vodka he just poured into himself or what he saw today.
His body heaves again. Beneath the sound of the purging he is moaning, a terrible, almost subsonic tone. Vader is right behind me, barking at this madman we unexpectedly have in our bathroom. Zeke straightens up to wipe his mouth across the back of his hand. He takes a deep breath and looks at himself in the mirror. His eyes meet mine in the reflection and he turns away, but not before I see the horror and bleakness in them.
He picks up the glass we use for rinsing and runs it full of water. He swallows this down as rapidly as the vodka…he sets the glass back down and walks towards me. I hold out my arms and this time, he falls onto his knees and into my embrace. I clutch his head to my body as he puts his arms around me like a drowning man.
“Oh gods, Mattie. Oh gods. Sweet Divine Mother.” He is praying…to me? “Dear, sweet Mattie. I am so glad that you did not go with me today.”
“Zeke. My love. Zeke, tell me what happened, please.” I put my hands on each side of his beloved face and make him look up at me.
He raises tormented eyes to mine. I lean over and kiss him. He responds like I am saving his life…but I break away gently, oh so gently. And repeat the question.
“I met Paul at the police station and we went out to the Johnson’s. I don’t know why we did it, but we took one of the canine units with us. We were examining the altar when one of the dogs went wild…just behind it. It started digging and its handler was trying to call it off when it dug up…an arm.”
I go very still and try to remember to breathe. “Zeke. It was Mike Johnson, wasn’t it?”
“Paul would give you points for that. Yes. And he’s been dead at least since Monday. I have spent the day with Paul trying to fill out all the paperwork that is involved when you find a body. I also had to help calm Shelly Johnson down. She went hysterical and we ended up shipping her out to the hospital where they sedated her pretty good.”
All I can think is, if they dug up my…husband, my lover, my life…I would be plenty hysterical myself. I cannot even bear to think what she is going through.
“Jesus, Mattie. Someone beat the shit out of him and then bashed his head in. His face was all…” Zeke buries his face into my body and I hold on tighter. We stand this way for a moment and then he pulls back. “Whoever did it was really pissed off. I doubt somehow that this was a premeditated murder…”
“So why was he buried behind the altar?”
“We think it was because the dirt was softest there. Mike had just put the altar in”
“So who looks like they’ve been in a fight lately…” My voice trails off as I think of John Junior’s lovely black eye.
Zeke picks up on it instantly. “You think…if Mike ever caught up to the man who impregnated his daughter, he wouldn’t be talking first, that’s for damned sure.”
I can only agree with this assessment. “Did you tell Paul this?”
“No, we were so busy with everything else.” He stands and walks…dear gods, like an old, old man…out into the living room. He picks up the phone and dials.
“Paul, it’s Zeke. You need to get John Junior…ask him where he got the fabulous shiner he was sporting when he was in here this afternoon.” He pauses, listening to the man on the other end. “Yeah, she knew before I could tell her. Told you so.
“This is her idea anyway …as she pointed out to me, Mike Johnson would kill the man who knocked up his daughter. He had real issues about the whole pregnancy thing. Seems Laurie’s mother left him before he knew that he was going to be a daddy, and once he found out…he got real protective of his baby’s virtue.”
Another pause. “Oh, we found out from Shelly, who says she saw them screwing in front of the altar… sacrilege on top of fornication. She’s not in any condition to tell you right now, but you could ask Eric Adamson. He knew as well since he taunted John Junior with it just yesterday.”
He hangs up the phone and sits on the sofa. “One other thing you might like to know. They found the pie Laurie was supposed to be taking to John Robert…under Mike’s body.” He stares out into space. “Wonder what poison they will find in it.”
I won’t let Zeke cook, but he comes to sit on the stool while I start gathering items for dinner. I hand him a cup of tea and he grimaces at it, but sips on it while he tells me about the altar.
“He was really something. He had carved all sorts of animals on this huge piece of wood that he put on top of the stone piles. Hang on.” He goes downstairs and I can hear the outside door open as he goes to the car. I guess he’s getting his notebook, which is proven just a few minutes later as he comes back in holding it. He lays it up on the counter and turns the pages until he gets to his notes. He turns it so that I can look at the picture he drew of the altar.
If they are half as good as Zeke has drawn them, Mike Johnson must have had a definite talent. The animals are very realistic and very detailed as I examine each one. Then I begin to realize just what I am looking at. I have to put the knife I was using down and clutch the sides of the counter.
“Oh my god, Zeke.”
“Yeah.” He begins to point out specific animals. There is a large snake in the center, curled around a doe. The other animals are around them in a loose circle…except that there is no bear in Mike’s rendition of my dream. The wolf and the fox are on the edges of the circle, not quite in it…and at the top of the circle, there is a woman’s figure, wearing only a cloak of some sort. It is sort of a generic figure, could be any woman—but it could also be me. I look closer at the cloak.
Zeke has drawn it with little lines all over it and that confuses me. “What is the cloak made of?”
“It seems to be feathers. At least, that’s what it looked like there. Paul has been able to impound it as evidence and he’s taking pictures of it that he will email to us. He told me that he’s got a really good camera that will zoom in on the details.”
“What does it mean?”
“I would love to know. You suppose Rhyssa could tell us?”
“Ummm. That might not be the best idea.”
He quirks his eyebrows at me. I tell him about my day, and lunch with her. I continue cooking while we discuss how she has gone off the deep end, no matter what she says about Jane Harris not being “normal”.
By mutual agreement, we find a nice comedy to watch tonight. We snuggle in front of the TV and Vader curls up next to me as well. It feels almost strange, to be sitting calmly, with no shouting or noise…I have to wonder if this is the eye of our hurricane.
When the movie is done, Zeke goes into the computers and I can hear him tick-ticking on the keyboard. I finish cleaning up the kitchen, considering if I want some dessert when I hear him and I think he has said something to me.
“What?” I stick my head in the room.
“What, what?” He is startled and looks up at me.
“Did you call me?”
“Oh…no. I got the pictures from Paul. I’m going to print them out so we can look at them.” He pushes the button and does exactly that. Paul must have sent a bunch because page after page feeds out of the machine.
Zeke leans over and pulls them out. He begins shuffling through them, adding the new ones as they print. He finally has all of them in his hands. He smacks the side of them on the desk to neaten them up, grabs his notebook and motions me back into the main room.
He lays the photos out. There is a series of shots from left to right on the altar and he lays these so that they mimic the actual altar. Then he puts the close-ups of specific animals near the main layout. Once he has them arranged as he wants, he steps back and gently pushes me up to where I can see them clearly.
As I look at them, I suspect even photography does not do justice to Mike Johnson’s carving skills. I look at the relative positioning of each animal to the others. The badger is there, but near the bottom of the circle. There is a hawk to the right of the snake. I look closely at the doe to suddenly see a … weasel? It’s some sort of long bodied animal, and it is standing very close to the doe.
Crouched between her hooves is a mouse, almost unnoticeable but exquisitely cut out of the wood. To one side of the circle is a small pond, and there is a dolphin’s head sticking out. I reach out and just barely touch the photo of the wolf, standing almost on the edge of the altar and certainly not a part of the circle. An idea occurs to me.
“Zeke, what if…”
“What?” He is alert and watches me as I puzzle this out.
“What if each of these animals represents a member of the coven? They seem to be totem animals—even you and Vader are there, whether Mike realized it or not.” I point to the various creatures. “Rhyssa always wears a dolphin. Mike had a thing for badgers.”
Zeke begins to nod. “I think you’re onto something there. Okay, so let me write this down. Badger is Mike.” He mutters as he puts names on his drawings of the animals. “I think we know who the weasel is. And you suppose the mouse means Lilith?”
“If it does, than the doe is not Laurie Bradford, it’s Dorie Schmidt. Standing there with her husband and two children. Since we both know that the snake is John Robert.” I look at the photos. “But Zeke, there was a bear in my dream. And it’s not—“
“Not here. I know. I wonder if that means that there is another player in this drama, someone we don’t realize belongs in the group.”
“Or someone associated with one of its members.” I watch him add details to his notes from the photos. I go over and lean against his back, putting my arms around his waist. He squeezes them with his arms but doesn’t stop drawing. I put my cheek against his body and I can hear the steady beat of his heart, the uniform rush of air in and out as he breathes. I concentrate on being in this ‘now’ and I don’t want it to end.
It does. It always does. The phone rings and he answers it.
“Yeah.” His eyebrows go up as he listens to whoever is on the other end. “He did? Did he say why?” The explanation comes and it must be a good one, as he snorts. “That’s so bizarre as to probably be the truth.
“Yeah, we can. We usually close at seven. Okay, see you then.” He hangs up the phone and looks at me.
“You’ll never guess who turned themselves into the police station this evening, confessing to owning a certain athame and using it on John Robert’s dead body.” He watches my face, getting a grim smile on it as I become more and more bewildered.
“So tell me. It can’t be Mike Johnson since he’s in the city morgue.”
“It wasn’t Mike. It was none other than Apollo GoldenHawk, Eric Adamson himself.”