I am still trying to figure it out the next day. Zeke and I don’t get much of a chance to discuss things since we have a hectic shop full of people all day long. We don’t even get a lunch break, which doesn’t happen very often but with Christmas only a couple of days away… People are insane—but I do profit.
We finally close at quarter past seven, since we have a dickens of a time getting that old lady to pick one, any one!—of the amethyst cathedrals she has been looking at for about an hour. I only stock about five at a time, so she definitely was not someone who makes hasty decisions.
Paul watches this farce for almost fifteen minutes since he showed up on time. We finally convince her that her darling grandchild will just adore that very one, and if she would please step to the register… I am ready to commit grannycide when she finally leaves.
“Boy, you treat all your customers that good?” Paul is laughing at us.
We grin back at him and Zeke just nods. “Oh no, some we treat even better.”
We do all the closing up routine and I’m trying to figure out how to include Paul in this, since he’s been here three times and hasn’t helped yet. I settle for handing him the day’s take while I close out the register. After all, if you can’t trust a policeman to guard your money, who can you trust?
Zeke closes the last shutter and we all troop upstairs to put the money in the safe. We will deposit it on Monday and I can pay bills for another month. It was a good day. Long, but good.
Paul agrees to a glass of iced tea as we prepare dinner. I agree to a glass of merlot, even though I have an empty stomach and it will probably go straight to my head. Zeke pulls out a couple of containers and suddenly, we have hors d’oeuvres, or bait on a cracker as we call them. I happily snag a couple to stave off starvation. Zeke pops one in his mouth and motions me out of the kitchen. I go around the counter and sit next to Paul.
“So how do you want this, most sensational first, or chronologically in order?” He asks, pulling out that famous notebook.
“Chronological.” Zeke answers, and when Paul looks at me, I nod my agreement—my mouth is too full of Zeke’s homemade pate to speak politely.
“Okay, in order then. We got back some more results from John Robert’s tests. He died between eight and nine o’clock. The lab says that based on that, he ingested the belladonna about six. So he ate it for dinner. According to his family, they all ate together. So it wasn’t the main meal, but we knew that.” He takes a breath.
“Dorie says that there were a bunch of things available for dessert, including the chocolate cake that she ended up having for breakfast—and a lovely miniature English trifle, just the right size for one rather portly man who liked his sweets. She says that she has no idea where it came from, as, and I quote, ‘stuff shows up here all the time. Hell, even the chocolate cake just showed up.’ Sara and John Junior more or less say the same thing. Neither one of them knows where the desserts originated.”
“I’ll bet Sara knows where the chocolate cake came from.” I mutter this, but Paul hears me and he nods his head at me.
“I’ll bet she does, too, but so far, we have no evidence. I did ask them both about mistletoe and they just pointed around to all the decorations that Dorie has slathered about the house. I have never seen so much greenery inside a building. She must have bought out all the mistletoe and evergreen boughs from nurseries for miles around. There is not an undecorated spot. The patrolman who did the investigating did note that there is a type of a crèche, with a baby laid in oak leaves in the manger and Mary and Joseph are naked. He was not amused.”
The three of us are and we all snicker.
He turns back to his notes. “The boys in the lab took the handle of the athame as a personal challenge and managed to get a couple of prints off of it. They identified one set as Eric Adamson’s, which substantiates his claim that he stabbed John Robert in the back. Laid almost on top of his prints is a woman’s print, and we are trying to find out who owns that finger. We do know that it’s not Jane Harris, whose prints are all over the office. Since she is the deceased’s secretary, this is not a big deal.” He pauses. “Maybe. We have an anonymous tip that she was performing more than secretarial duties for him.”
I shift at this piece of information; the motion catches Paul’s attention and he looks up at me with a questioning gaze.
“I’ll bet I know who gave you that anonymous tip.” He tips his head at Zeke, who smirks before telling him that I had lunch with Rhyssa the day before. Paul turns back to me and asks me to tell him the entire conversation. I do so.
“Great. So he was having sexual relations with at least three women who were not married to him. It must be good to be the High Priest.” He sighs. “I will get someone to check on Ms. Harris’ past and just how loony she was when the husband left her. Back to my story… We found the Yule ritual in the office. I don’t think Eric would have wanted to perform it, since this is the first time I have ever heard of the Holly King beating the Oak King and only letting him rule as his loyal vassal.”
“Huh?” Zeke and I are both surprised. We all three of us know that Yule is when the Oak King takes over as king and ruling for six months, until Summer Solstice when the Holly King returns to claim his throne. John Robert had found a way to get around Eric’s promotion permanently.
“Well, it had a long speech by the Holly King, extolling his own virtues and how he worked so hard that basically he was going to take a vacation and let the Oak King run things—but by his rules. He had written a major oath of fealty for Eric to essentially swear total obedience and subjugation to him. It’s not something I would have ever agreed to, but then and again, I don’t want to be High Priest.”
“So did Eric know about this?” Zeke asks the question I am thinking.
“Oh yes, he certainly did. The police have custody of the postmarked envelope that John Robert used to send Eric’s copy of the ritual. He got it Monday morning. That so-and-so made sure that Eric knew he was about to be forever relegated to a subordinate position within the coven.”
And John Robert had made sure that he had a faithful flock of sheep, so Eric could not even begin to conceive of the idea of splitting off and forming his own group. But was it truly motive for wanting to kill the High Priest? Who made that trifle of a trifle, absolutely fatal to the one person most likely to eat it?
“We have gotten back a preliminary report on Mike Johnson’s autopsy. We really don’t think he was poisoned, given the condition of the body. The coroner says that he was in a hell of a fight. He had several broken ribs, a broken finger, severe contusions on his knuckles. Both eyes were showing bruises, which meant that the damage occurred before death.
“There’s more along those lines, but the cause of death is more or less a blow to the back of the head. From the shape of it, it seems that his head hit on one of the altar rocks. We think he was hit from the front hard enough to fall back and hit his head on them and that’s what killed him.” Paul looks at us. “For what it’s worth, and while it doesn’t do a damned thing for Johnson, it appears to have been an accidental death.”
But not an accidental burial. Someone was trying to hide it and someone knows how it happened. I hate the feeling that I probably know “someone”.
Zeke dishes up our meal, then sets our plates on the table so Paul and I move around to sit there with him. I am not so full of appetizers that I don’t want dinner, but after the subject of discussion, I really don’t feel hungry. I poke at the food.
Paul turns a page or two, looking for the next thing he wants to tell us.
“Eric Adamson walked into the police station at approximately eleven o’clock this morning to confess that he had gone to John Robert’s office the night of his murder. He claims that he walked in to find the body already on the floor, quite dead. He admits that he lost his head…he pulled out the athame that Mike Johnson had given to him in anticipation of his role as Oak King and plunged it into the High Priest’s back.
“He said that it was symbolic of how “that son of a bitch High Priest bastard” had stabbed him in his back. Then he says he heard a sound, like someone walking around and he ran out. He thinks that there might have been a person in the front office, but he wasn’t sure and he didn’t hang around to find out.” He closes the notebook.
We sit there, trying to figure this new addition to the mess we already have. Then Paul begins to chuckle and we look at each other like he’s gone off the deep end.
“Oh yeah. We got the lab results back on that pie. No poison.” He laughs again. “But it is by god crammed full of ginseng.” Apple pie sex enhancement? We have to laugh as well.
Once we settle back down, Zeke tells him our ideas about the altar. He takes copious notes and I have to speculate on just how many of those little notebooks he goes through in a week. We are finished eating before we talk it all out. Vader benefits tonight since I just can’t eat much of my dinner. At least Zeke doesn’t give me a hard time about starving children in China.
Paul leaves and we end up back on the sofa, trying to watch something, anything, on the TV that will distract us, if only for a little while. It doesn’t work. Finally I come up with an idea.
“Yes, my darling?”
“Wanna get naked and rub our bodies together?”
“Why would we want to do that?” He opens his eyes real wide and tries to look innocent. I love it when he plays dumb because then I get to show him exactly why we would want to do just that…and it distracts for a while.
Sunday is just as hectic as Saturday was, even if it lasts only half as long. At least we had a big breakfast so I don’t starve to death before it’s time to close shop and have our Yule ritual. Zeke putters in the kitchen while I go upstairs into the attic to set up the space we will use.
As I shift the few pieces of furniture, I have to wonder what John Robert’s sheep are doing for ritual tonight. It doesn’t take me long to be ready for ours.
We shower together to prepare, using the sandalwood soap for purification. We wear the robes I made for our first Yule together; we only use them this one time each year. We gather up wine and some cookies for Cakes and Ale before walking upstairs. We go through the ritual, each of us alternating parts and moving in the dance of celebration and worship.
We welcome the Oak King and pay honor to the darkness of the winter season. Zeke and I both like to pay particular reverence to this, the dreamtime of the Goddess as she awaits the coming of spring. This is a time of introspection and healing, preparing for the new year.
Vader sits quietly beneath the table we are using as an altar and watches us. He only comes out to share Cakes and Ale. Once we’ve finished the ritual part of our evening, we head back down into the kitchen for our feast. Zeke has outdone himself this year and we have a wonderful meal. We skip dessert. For some reason, neither of us has the taste for sweets.
We exchange our presents after we are done eating. We open the ones we put in each other’s stocking—little odds and ends—first. Larger presents are next. I give him some computer stuff, a leather hair thong that he had admired at the fall craft festival in town, some new shirts.
He gives me funny socks, a couple of books that I had been lusting after—but wasn’t willing to pay the price for, a silver hair brush. We laugh while Vader paws and bites his way into his new chew bone; we admire how lovely he looks in his new collar.
We sit for a while and look at our loot, then he goes into the bedroom and I know that he is getting me The Present. We each find one main present every year and it is the highlight of our evening to bestow it upon the other. I can hardly wait to see what he has found for me this year. He’s been hard pressed to surpass our third year together, when he gave me the little black puffball of a puppy that has grown into The Devil’s Spawn.
He comes out…and there’s nothing in his hands. He notices my curiosity as I try to see if he’s got something in his pockets and he gets an evil grin on his face. He sits facing me and just waits while I try to figure out where my present is.
He lets this go on for a few minutes and about the time I’m starting to frisk him, he takes my hands in his, then kisses me. It’s the kind of kiss where I forget my own name, let alone that he’s supposed to be giving me a gift…
“Don’t you want your present?” He pulls back and then ducks as I take a swing at him. He laughs and catches me to him again. He pulls one hand and pushes the other so that I am sitting with my back to him. “Now sit still.”
He does some moving around behind me and then he tells me to close my eyes. I do, and I can feel him bring something past my face and his hands fasten…a necklace around my neck. I start to reach for it, but he stops me from touching it.
“Mattie, I love you and I want to spend the rest of this life and every life with you. I cannot imagine life without you. Merry Yule, my darling.” He gently stands me up and leads me to a mirror. He keeps his hand over my eyes until we are standing in front of it and when he takes it away, I gasp.
There is a huge emerald crystal nestled between my breasts. It is on a heavy gold?—yes, gold—chain and it is the most beautiful piece of jewelry I have ever owned. Other than his ring that I wear… It glints and shimmers as I move. I touch it lightly and I can feel the energy from it, like the Universal song that comes from all living things. I stare at it and see trees and green growing things. The stone on my hand seems to glow even brighter next to it and I am overwhelmed. I can feel the tears trickle down my cheeks.
I turn and face Zeke. He tenderly wipes my tears away, then slips a finger under my chin to tip my head up to his. I kiss him with all that I am.
When we finally break apart, I thank him. “Oh Zeke, this is gorgeous. Thank you so much…I don’t know how to thank you properly…”
He smiles, a wicked and sly smile. “Oh I think if you let me ravage you, wearing nothing but the necklace, I will consider myself properly thanked.”
And he says that like it’s going to be an onerous task. He also has not forgotten that it’s his turn to get The Present. He cocks his head at me and I point at the sofa. He goes to sit down while I go down into the shop.
I have to hide things from him down in the stock and it takes me a few minutes to get the box. I smile at the irony of our selections, since I am giving him jewelry, too. Must be the year for sparklies.
He has Vader on his lap and is petting him when I get back upstairs, but he rather rudely dumps the dog and holds out his hands when he sees me. I tease him by snatching it back and putting it behind my back. He makes a face and I laugh at him, so he pouts.
“All right, you.” I take a deep breath. I am about to head out into what could be dangerous waters for me. I am about to offer him something I have never given to any man. I hand him the box. “Zeke, I saw this and…well, I wanted to…umm. Oh hell.”
He looks at me and just waits. He knows that I am not good at this. I try again.
“If you were not in my life, I would just lay down and die. I can’t even bear to think about trying to get through my day without you. When the car hit you—“ I choke up. Deep breath. Another one. “When the car hit you, I just wanted to lay down there with you. I love you so very much. Happy Yule, my dearest love.”
Now he is the one who is choked up. He doesn’t even open the box, but pulls me down to kiss me like I’ve never been kissed before. Hours later…or minutes, time is meaningless at this point…he lets go of me and I sit next to him and motion that he is to open the box.
He pulls the ribbon off and lifts the lid. Another wrapped box sits inside. He glares at me and pulls it out. He tears the paper off this box…to find another box in different paper. I begin to giggle as he keeps opening smaller and smaller boxes, each one holding yet another box.
He utters a new and charming curse word each time he reveals yet one more wrapped present. He has nine of them to get through before he pulls out the tiny box. He stares at it and this one does not get a swearing. He gingerly takes it out and holds it, sitting very still.
I am holding my breath until he finally lifts the lid to see what he’s been working his way into. He looks at the ring and then turns tear-filled eyes to me. “Oh gods, Mattie.”
“Zeke, you want to go steady?” My voice breaks as I ask this, but I can hardly wait to hear the answer.
He just leans over and puts his face into the crook of my neck. He’s getting it wet. But I hear the whisper. “Yes, oh yes.”
He holds the box out to me and then holds out his left hand. It is obvious that he wants me to slip the ring on his finger. I take it out of the box and slide it onto his ring finger.
It fits perfectly. There was not a moment’s doubt that he would have it once I saw it. It is silver, a wolf’s head with emerald eyes. I hold his hand to study the ring, and how it looks on him. Like the statue in the garden, it looks like it has always been there. Then I do something that startles him—I kiss the ring first followed subsequently by turning his hand over to kiss the palm.
He doesn’t say a word, just picks me up and takes me into the bedroom. Within a nanosecond or less, both of us are wearing only our presents.
It’s a good thing that Vader has a doggy door…we’re too busy celebrating the Yule to let him out.