Chapter 20 – Altar’ed States, Part 1

Monday is cold but clear.  We bundle up and head out to run errands.  Vader refuses to go near the curb—he hasn’t been on that side of the walk since the accident.  He also has to be carried across streets now, which I am happy to do for him.  Poor dog.

I breathe easier once we get all the weekend’s take into the safety of the bank.  I’m not exactly worried about having the money in the house over the weekend, but I prefer not to push my luck if I don’t have to.  It’s the best system we have found and it works, so I deal.

We go home long enough to drop Vader off and get the car to go grocery shopping.  He only tolerates being left home because he knows that we are hunting and foraging.  He anticipates good things and we don’t disappoint.  We especially splurge at the holiday season …seafood and specialty foods, that exquisite coffee that costs a fortune and we only buy once a year.

I lay in my supply of candied fruits to make next year’s fruitcakes.  We will eat one of last year’s a slice at a time throughout the next few weeks.  I soak them in brandy so they are almost lethal—and everyone who has ever been fortunate enough to try it loves it.  We give them as gifts to the family and those few select friends who rate such fare.

I did not give one to Rhyssa this year, as it seemed very poor taste to bestow a dessert upon a woman who is grieving for her lost…whatever John Robert was to her…who died from eating dessert—and a fruit dessert at that.  I chickened out and just sent a lovely house plant.

It takes numerous trips to unpack the car and by the time I can get it all put away somewhere, we have full cabinets and there’s so much in the refrigerator, I end up putting the excess cold food in the one downstairs.  Vader has sniffed and examined every bag but I manage to get his food and treats put up before he can liberate them from the packaging.

Zeke pulls out cookbooks and starts looking at recipes.  He wants to do something “different” with oysters, which we will eat tonight.  I like them raw, but he refuses to “eat snot” and will only consume them cooked, preferably in a rich sauce.

They are always wonderful when he does prepare them, but occasionally I sneak out like an addict looking for a fix and go the nearest raw bar.  Once I down several dozen, I can come back home and then I tell him that I am overcome with lust because of eating all the oysters.  Everyone knows that they are an aphrodisiac…and he is very happy to play along with the joke.

I could eat oyster crackers and he would agree that they make you horny as well.  Especially if you dip them in oyster sauce—or eat them with oyster mushrooms.  See where I’m going with this?

I have somehow managed to put the recent tragedies out of my mind until that damned phone rings.  When Zeke answers it and says Paul’s name, I am brought back down to reality with a heart-wrenching thud.

“We’ve been running errands and I haven’t checked messages yet.  Don’t you ever take any time off?”  Zeke grins at the answer.  I can tell by the tone that it was not polite.

“Hang on, let me ask her.”  He puts his hand over the phone and looks at me.  “Paul would like us to come to the station, now if possible, and answer some of what he calls ‘Pagan-type’ questions.  You mind?”

“We can go, as long as dinner is not delayed until after my bedtime.”

“She says yes, but not forever.  We’re having oysters for dinner.”  He gets that wicked grin on his face.  “I didn’t say they were for me.  I don’t need any help in that department.”

I walk over and smack his butt.  “OW!  Now look what you did, she hit me.  Officer, I want to report domestic violence.”

“Hah!”  I hit it again.  “Everyone knows that the police don’t like to get involved in couple’s spats…since the cops are the ones who end up hurt.”

I can hear Paul’s answer since Zeke holds the phone out.  “She’s right, you’re on your own with this one.  See you when you get here.”

Zeke hangs up the phone and begins to stalk me.  I run and try to dodge him.  Vader gets into the action, barking and running under our feet, but the man traps me in the corner of the kitchen and before I can stop him…he gives me two big swats on my butt.  Then he spins me around and kisses me.  “Get your coat, let’s get this done with.”

I feel like an old pro, walking into the station yet again.  Paul is standing at the front desk talking to one of the other officers when we come in.  He greets us, and then instead of leading us back to his desk, takes us down another hall.

He opens the door and ushers us into the lab.  The altar is on one of the tables and there is a young man going over it with a brush and magnifying goggles.  He picks up a camera and takes a picture of where he was just examining it.  Putting the camera down, he goes back to using the goggles and he almost has his nose on the altar.

We walk up to it and I am in awe of how beautiful it is in real life.  The animals look like they are almost breathing, they might even jump off and run around, they look so real.

Paul turns to Zeke.  “I know that you can do psychometry.  Can you manage it with gloves on?”

“Not really.”  Zeke answers him and he sighs.

“Damn.  Let me see…”  He turns to the technician.  “Rob, are you getting much from this?”

The young man lifts his head and pushes the glasses up.  “No.  Too rough a surface, out in the elements.  I have marked off where the deceased might have had violent contact with it.  But I sure can’t find fingerprints, hair, skin cells…or body parts.”

“So it won’t mess the field if someone were to touch, very lightly, say one corner of it?”

“Naw.  In fact, you can touch pretty much all over except say…here (and he points to a spot) or here (another spot, about a foot from the first).”

Zeke stands facing the altar, mimicking John Robert’s stance Samhain night.  Rob watches him, fascination apparent on his face.

“What are you going to do?”  He asks, but Zeke has already begun the deep breathing exercise that prepares him for this.  Paul answers the tech.

“He is going to touch that piece of wood and maybe be able to tell us more than we know now.  This is not official, it does not get recorded in your notes.”

“You mean he’s a touch-know?”  Rob has startled Paul.  He has used the word that Pagans and psychics use among themselves to describe the ability of touching or holding an object and then getting mental images about it.  Zeke is awesome at it and is available, for a small fee, at your next bar mitzvah.

Paul just nods.

“Cool.”  The tech perches on a nearby stool.  As he shifts, I catch a glimpse of a tattoo on his arm.  I look closer at it and he turns to catch me staring.

“Hey.”

“Hey.  Native American Shamanistic?”

“Yeah. How’d you know? No, wait…let me guess. You’re the psychic?”

“Sometimes.  The arm band is a big clue.”

He grins at me.  “Maybe I just like South Western art?”

“Maybe.  Or maybe you’re the medicine man for your group.”

He blinks and then leans over to look at me.  “How…no, I know how…you’re good.  You’re very good.”

Paul’s head swivels between us and I can tell that he is learning new things about his co-worker.  “You know, we need some sort of password or secret handshake.”

Rob throws his head back and laughs.  “You, too?  I had no idea.”

“We are everywhere.”  I say in my most sepulchral voice.  Both men chuckle and nod.

“So what is this arm band?”  Paul comes over to us.  Rob lifts the edge of his sleeve and show him.

Paul turns to me.  “So how do you know that he’s the medicine man?”

I chuckle.  “Well, that particular design is not tattoo studio flash.  You cannot just walk into a place and pick it off the wall.  Trust me, there’s tons of symbolism in it, and I know that not just anyone gets it.  You have to earn that.”

Rob nods while I am explaining this.  “So…maybe you’re not so psychic after all?”  He wiggles his eyebrows at me in a leer.

I look at him and smile.  “You left your wallet at your boyfriend’s house.”

He gasps and sputters.  “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for that?  I was going to go to DMV today to get a new license…”  His voice trails off as he realizes what I have just done.  “Okay, okay.  You win, you are The Psychic.”

Paul snickers. “Oh, ho.  She just outed you on two counts, didn’t she?”  Rob looks nervous until he sees that Paul doesn’t care any more about his sexual orientation than he does about his religion and they both turn back to watch Zeke.

He reaches out and just barely lays his hands on the altar.  He skims above the surface, dipping a finger in here or there as he follows the line of the carvings.  The three of us fall silent and watch him.  I am gradually aware of him barely vocalizing—it’s a low humming drone of sound and I recognize it as the “Om” mantra.

Zeke tends to make this sound without realizing it when he is reading an object.  The greater the intensity of feeling, or the more detailed or vivid the images, the louder it gets.  And he is increasing the volume.

The minutes pass.  He goes back and forth across the surface, making a systematic examination—first left to right, then top to bottom.  He reverses the directions and does it again.  He stops at what he would describe as “hot spots”, where the sensation is particularly strong.  Finally he lifts his hands and turns around to face us.  He folds himself neatly into the lotus and holds out his hands to me.

I take the cue and go sit in his lap.  I can feel the energy zinging off of him and I know that he has an enormous amount of information to tell Paul.  I get flashing glimpses of it, but I don’t say anything yet.  He will indicate if I am to fill in the blanks.

Paul raises his eyebrows and tilts his head with the obvious question.  Zeke nods and he opens up the faithful notebook.  Rob is likewise alert and I notice that he too has pulled out writing implements.  I close my eyes and lean back against Zeke, who rests his hands on his knees.  I place my hands on top of them and we begin to breathe together.

After several breaths, he speaks.  “First, the obvious things.  I have to say it.  The man who made this, who carved it, was a genius with wood.  Consciously or not, he managed to put a great deal of information into each picture he has on it.  It almost feels like…he had each person touch their totem animal and charge it.  I can read all of the coven members, which I expected.

“What I did not expect was that I can read myself as the wolf.  I have never touched this altar before.  I was very careful not to overlay my identification with the wolf in Mattie’s dreams as being the same wolf on the altar.  But when I touched it, it was definitely me.”

He takes a slow breath and lets it out before he continues.  “I paid close attention to all of it, but especially the Goddess figure once I realized that all of the creatures on the wood represented a real person.  I wanted to know who Mike Johnson thought was the Goddess incarnate.”

I get the picture in my mind from him, he’s broadcasting it so loudly.  It bewilders me and I am trying to understand how this could be when Paul interrupts.

“You want to speak it out loud for the mere mortals?”

“Sorry.”  Zeke smiles at him.  “It’s Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice.  The mythology is that She is the goddess who weighs the heart of the deceased against her ostrich feather to determine whether the soul would go into the underworld or not.”

Paul just stares at him.  I can tell that Rob has no idea why this is significant.  I enlighten him.  “Rob, my full name is Ma’at.  Everyone calls me Mattie.”

I can see the full appreciation of our reaction as he processes this introduction.  “Let me guess.  You never touched the altar, either.”

“Right.”

Zeke nods.  “And it is not usual to picture her with a fox, but Mike has done just that.  When I read the fox, I don’t get the same…pictures…as I do with the symbolic totem animals.  Mattie and I both know that the fox is our dog, Vader.  He happens to look like a black fox with no tail.”

Rob instantly grasps this one, as does Paul.  “There is no visible tail on the carving.”

“Exactly.”  Zeke resumes his explanation.  “Paul, the guesses that we made about identity for each animal are pretty much correct.  It helps that we know certain totem animals for people in the group, but I truly did not let that interfere with what I got off the carvings.  But we did match them up accurately.

“Let’s start with the snake.  It is John Robert.  There is a real sense of personal superiority that emanates from the wood.  I got a feeling of perpetual hunger, a desire for more.  I got other images, but I cannot separate them from my feelings for that—man—so I do not trust the veracity of them.  For what it’s worth, I got flashes of women’s faces, probably his harem.  Or women that he wanted.”

I can feel him tense up when he says this and I know, I just know, that he saw my face when he touched that snake. Damn John Robert.  Oh wait, too late.

“I thought it was interesting that I did not get any flashes of his wife’s face, but he did have some ideas about his daughter.  They weren’t the sort of things a father should think about his child.”

The revulsion just pours off of him and I have to agree.  Both of the other men also look disgusted.

I breathe deeply and try to think good thoughts.  It must work because Zeke relaxes and breathes with me again.  We wait for Paul to finish the note he’s writing and then Zeke starts again.

“The Goddess may or may not actually represent Mattie, but it did have the feeling of a wish for justice, a way to right the wrongs that Mike felt.  I have to wonder if he was slightly precognitive, since the Goddess wears a necklace that is remarkably similar to the one that I just gave to Mattie last night.”

I can feel that one, warm against my skin.  He reaches up and pulls it out of the front of my shirt to show Paul, who nods and writes.  Zeke drops the crystal back down to its nest between my breasts, using his fingers to ensure its placement and then puts his hand back on his knee.

“The dolphin is Rhyssa.  There is an almost unnoticeable connection to the snake, which would verify her secret relationship with him.  The badger identifies itself very much as Mike.  He resents the snake even as he bows to its authority.  Since the rabbit nearest him seems to be Shelly, I would suggest that he at least guessed at the sexual activities of his wife with the High Priest.  There is a fair amount of anger directed at her as well.

“She also has that tenuous connection to the snake.  I think if you examine the altar closely, you can actually see light lines linking them.  I get an impression of the weasel attacking the badger, as well as one of the rabbits.  When I touch that rabbit, I think it’s Laurie.  It is the most…vapor-like of the rabbits.  It seems to be a rabbit on the outside, but there is something else wearing the rabbit’s skin, like a disguise.”

He leans into me as he tries to recreate the images in his mind.  I close my eyes and let the thoughts and pictures in my head flow…and catch a glimpse of…a mink or a stoat…relatives of the weasel, but not quite the same…it has a white coat and the eyes are blue.  It is gleeful, proud of its disguise—but not realizing that the rabbit skin is falling off and its true nature is apparent.

I describe this and can hear the scritching of pens as both men add this to their notes.

Zeke shifts and I move, but he holds me tight against him until he settles back on the floor.  “The doe is Dorie.  It hates the snake, hates the lines that connect it to the rabbits and it hates the rabbits for being connected.  But the depth of this hate is more than just unfaithfulness.  It seems to come from the past, before the group was together.

“The doe grieves for something lost, like a child…but very, very long ago.  This grief is held over her like an axe and the snake enjoys reminding her of the hurt.  She can’t put it behind her because it is used like a weapon against her.”

“So something happened a long time ago that John Robert kept reminding her about?”  Paul looks up from his pad of paper.  “Something that she now has festering inside of her?”

“Pretty much.  And whatever it is, it’s major.”

“Any ideas about it?”

“No.  She doesn’t want to think about it, has tried to let go of it, but he kept making her remember…she keeps squashing it down.”

I can’t imagine forcing someone to relive bad memories over and over.  Just one more thing to add to John Robert’s karmic debt load.  He will be a long time repaying this life.

This time, it’s Zeke who takes the deep breath.  “The weasel is John Junior.  It’s very hard to see much as he is in shadows, which is not really news to any of us.  The mouse is afraid to the point of incoherence.  She has a strong connection to the hawk but I can’t tell if she’s afraid of it or the snake.  Another fuzzy image.

“The hawk is Eric.  It longs to fly, but is held to the ground.  Again, very obvious, given what we know about the situation.  He is very sick, something that will kill him.  I don’t think he knows it, but the sensation is there.  And it’s not…very pleasant.”

Poor Zeke.  To say “not very pleasant” is probably a large understatement.  He would feel exactly what the disease is doing to Eric.  I remind you…psychic gifts are not the wonderful things that those who do not exercise theirs think that they are.  Everyone has some level of ability…not everyone uses it.

“Okay, that’s about it for obvious meanings of the animals.  The altar itself has several layers…of things that have happened around it.  Shelly’s story about Laurie and John Junior having sex in front of it is…shall we say, verified.  I even got glimpses of the Samhain ritual.

“On top of these…vignettes, there is the fight.  It’s no good as evidence, but I would be willing to swear that John Junior is the one who smashed Mike’s face.  Laurie stood there and watched them fight and her…pleasure at seeing her father beat is disgusting.

“She actually enjoyed seeing him suffer.  I keep seeing a woman’s face and I think it may be her mother.  The feeling I get is that she demonized Mike in Laurie’s mind so this was almost more her revenge than any true desire on Laurie’s part to make him pay.”

He is holding me so tight against himself now that I can barely breathe—and I can feel what’s coming so I don’t struggle out of his arms.

“He punched John Junior and the boy fell.  Mike started to rush at him, and Laurie threw herself at her father, who was not prepared for it.  He staggered back and hit his head on the left altar support stones.  When he didn’t get up, the two of them panicked.  I sort of get the impression they ran off, but then I can sense him being buried behind the altar, in the only soft soil around.  Maybe they came back?  I’m not sure about that part…anyway… “Once I read all of this and came back to just sliding over the animals again, the Laurie rabbit changed a little…like the hidden animal had suddenly discovered the skin slipping off and pulled it back into place.  The stoat is well covered now.  Pull the skin off, Paul.  She will turn into a rabid she-weasel in front of your eyes.”

Paul sighs and finishes scribbling notes.  “We have to find evidence.  Where is the shovel?  Why was the pie thrown in first?  And John Junior says that he got that shiner from his mother when she was thrashing around from mistletoe poisoning.  We simply cannot place him at the scene.  Shelly Johnson is in no condition to answer any questions.  The doctors still have her doped to the gills and she’s not conscious.”

Rob is reading back over the notes that he has taken.  “But the police can talk to Laurie, who was home all afternoon, since she had been grounded by Mike Johnson.”

Paul looks over at him.  “We talked to her the night John Robert died, but we didn’t try to find out what she had done that day…just walked her through the evening’s events.”

I stop paying attention to their conversation because Zeke is trembling behind me.  I get up far enough to be able to turn around and look at him.  He’s ashen and I know that it’s a reaction to the reading.

“Paul?”  He doesn’t answer me.  “PAUL!”  This time he turns around.  When he sees what condition Zeke is in, he strides over to us.  He helps me get Zeke to stretch out on the ground.  Rob runs up with a blanket that he’s pulled out of some cabinet.

“I need something for him to eat, to help center and ground.”  Rob nods and runs out of the room.  Paul spreads the blanket over him while I sit and put Zeke’s head in my lap.  I put my hands on his face.

“Hey you, look at me.  Zeke?  Zeke!  Look at me!”  I say it loudly, making him moan and try to get away.  I don’t let him and he slowly, finally opens his eyes to look up at me.

“Head….hurts.”  I should have known this, it’s one of the prime results of him doing this.  I lightly stroke my fingers across his brow, using the action to “pull” the pain out of him.  I use feather touching all over his face, each time picturing the pain as something I can grasp and remove from his skin.  I shake my hands off in the opposite direction, “throwing” the pain away.

Rob comes back in the room at a trot.  He has that quintessential cop food, a glazed donut, in his hand.  He gives it to me and I break off a piece to put in Zeke’s mouth.  He chews it slowly and swallows.  I immediately put another piece in.  This one also goes.  The third piece is there when he reaches up and takes it from me, to put in himself.  He then takes the rest of the donut.

He eats it and I can feel his energy levels settling back to almost normal levels.  We will take a bath when we get home to finish the process.  His color evens out and he sits up.  I watch him closely, but I can tell that the worst is over.

Paul squats down to peer at him.  “I am so damned sorry.  I forgot that doing this gets you.  You okay?”

Zeke nods.  “The sugar helps.  I can’t hang around though…I need to get in the tub.  That will take care of the rest of it.”

“Right.  This helps a lot.  We can’t exactly go to a jury with it, but it lets us concentrate our efforts where they will pay off the most.  I really appreciate this, Zeke.  I know how hard it is for you.  Thank you.”

Zeke slowly gets to his feet and we all help him up.  He sticks out his hand.  Paul grasps it and they shake.  He turns to Rob.  “Thank you for the donut.”

“No problem, man.  I have never seen such a totally cool reading.  Glad I could watch.”  They also shake hands.  Then it’s my turn and we head home.

Zeke lets me drive so I know he’s really worn out.  We get home and immediately go upstairs and into the bathtub.

I leave him soaking and go out to start some dinner.  I hear him splashing and then he’s standing in the doorway, wrapped in a towel.

“Hey, I want to fix the oysters.  Back away from the stove and no one will get hurt.”

I figure if he can joke about it, he’s doing well enough that I had better just back away.

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