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Excerpt: Sweet

I’m working hard on a romance novel I’ve whipped up titled Sweet. Take one fiesty, pink haired chocolatier named Ruby Fontaine, add gorgeous but cold  hotel general manager Delilah Kerrigan, and mix n a missing journalist, a very tempting police detective, and a lot of delicious chocolates to get a tasty, tantalizing treat of a romance.

Here’s an excerpt for you to enjoy on Valentine’s Day.

CHAPTER ONE

         Ruby Fontaine nestled a dark and deliciously bitter Venezuelan chocolate ganache and pink salt truffle in each small white box, followed by a vanilla bean and stout burnt caramel bonbon. The lids went on next. Tying shocking pink ribbons into neat bows around the hundred boxes took longer. At last, she finished and stepped back from the workbench to admire her handiwork. Another triumph for the Magic Bean.

She enjoyed putting together pretty wedding favors for brides and this order was no exception. Each box held two confections—a small sample of the handmade, artisanal chocolates helping cement her reputation as a skilled chocolatier. She packed up the boxes and checked her To-Do list. Without a storefront, working out of a rented commercial kitchen meant taking on-line orders only, but one day, she’d own a real shop.

Time to get started on the goat’s milk chocolate fudge.

Moving across the space, Ruby caught her reflection in the steel refrigerator door and paused to poke at her hair. The cotton candy pink had faded and grown out over the last few weeks to show dark blonde roots. Orange next time? Ugh, no. The tint would do no favors for her pale blue eyes, which a former girlfriend had described as the color of anemic cornflowers during their break-up. I’ll stick with pink for now. Better touch up this weekend. She also decided to change the tiny hoop nestled in the curve of her nostril to a stud.

She took what she needed from the refrigerator and busied herself at the stove.

Her cell phone rang. She fished the device out of her apron pocket. “Thank you for calling the Magic Bean, how may I help you?”

“Rosie, thank God … it’s me. Beatrice. Uh, you know. Bee Brooks.”

“I know who you are, Bee.”

“I’ve got a serious emergency on my hands!”

Ruby kept a close eye on the candy thermometer clipped the side of the heavy saucepan holding the simmering fudge mixture. “What’s wrong?” An unwelcome thought struck her. “Is Katie all right?”

“Yes and no.” Beatrice sounded frazzled. “I mean, yes, Kaitlyn’s fine right now. In about two hours, though, my daughter and twenty other kindergarteners will be psychologically scarred for life because it’s her birthday, I was supposed to order cupcakes for the class, and I forgot. How the hell could I forget something so important?”

“Bee, calm down and—”

“You don’t understand! Chloe Parkinson’s mother had a specialty cake made at that fancy bakery, you know the one over on Twelfth Street and Main, and for a solid week, I swear, all Kaitlyn talked about was that damned unicorn carousel cake. So I promised her ballerina princess cupcakes with the frosting and the spun sugar that looks like your hair—”

“Bee, if you’d just let me—”

“Ballerina princesses aren’t exactly in, but it was that or cats farting rainbows, and I forgot, and I’m a very, very, bad mother! The worst. Like, the Attila the Hun of mothers. What am I going to do, Rosie? I screwed up Kaitlyn’s birthday—”

“Will you please shut up for two seconds?” Ruby half shouted into the phone. Silence fell, but Beatrice didn’t hang up in a snit, thank goodness. She checked the thermometer. After rescuing the fudge and setting the pot on a rack to cool, she summoned patience and said, “You’re not a bad mother, Bee. I’m sure you’ve been busy working on that newspaper story you told me about. Katie will forgive you. She’s six years old.”

Beatrice drew a shaky breath. “Yeah. Okay, yeah, you’re right. I panicked. But what am I going to do? Help me, Rosie-Wan, you’re my only hope.”

“Come over to the kitchen,” Ruby said, chuckling. “I’m sure if you show up with anything sugar related, Katie and her friends won’t miss the cupcakes.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Beatrice ended the call.

Sighing, Ruby put her phone away and went to hunt for supplies in her inventory. By the time Beatrice swung through the back door, she’d already started assembling treats in individual clear cellophane gift bags set out on two trays.

“You’re a godsend, honest,” Beatrice said, grinning and tossing her purse on top of the counter. Her sleek brunette bob swung forward to brush her cheeks when she bent over to examine the bags. “I’d look like a real chump in front of the other moms, to say nothing of the teacher, Mrs. Woods. Every time I drag myself to one of her joyless conferences, I swear the woman’s judging me and finding me wanting.”

Ruby pressed her lips together to keep from saying, the situation isn’t about you, it’s about making Katie happy, and continued selecting sweets. She reminded herself that Beatrice was sometimes self-centered and a bit oblivious, but also fiercely devoted to Kaitlyn.

Beatrice waved a hand. “Gluten free, I hope. Kids are delicate these days.”

“No gluten, no nuts,” Rosie replied. “They’re getting a couple of goat’s milk chocolate mini-bars. Real fruit gummy hearts. You’re lucky I made brown rice cereal treats with raspberry marshmallow for a client this morning, so you can have those. I’ll make more.”

“Sounds yummy. Save one for me.”

“You need to stop at the party supplies store on your way to the school. Don’t make that face, Bee. Buy some favors like mini boxes of crayons, stickers, and little coloring books—enough for each bag. Tie the tops closed with these purple ribbons. And be sure you get Katie a tiara and a sparkly wand. Don’t forget.”

“Can’t you do the shopping? I’m useless at that girly stuff,” Beatrice said, snitching a passion fruit gummy heart. “Mmm, these aren’t bad.”

“Pay attention. You need to go the party supplies store. I don’t have time,” Ruby said, thinking about the ruined pot of fudge she’d have to throw out. Maybe she could recycle the mess into an ice cream sauce.

“Fine. Whatever.” Beatrice gave in with bad grace. “Stickers, you said?”

“Age appropriate. And crayons and coloring books. Ask a store employee to help you.” Ruby stuck an orange-pomegranate lollipop in each bag. “Hang on a second.”

She went to a desk crammed in the corner and leaned over to peer at the computer. A few taps on the keyboard brought up a large file. She quickly cut and pasted several blocks of information into a new document and printed out a copy before returning to Beatrice.

“Here’s an ingredients list,” she said, handing the copy to her friend. “Give this to Mrs. Woods. She can make sure none of the students with dietary restrictions have allergies or intolerances to any candy in the goodie bags.”

Beatrice rolled her eyes, but accepted the sheet of paper.

“Anything special planned for the birthday girl?” Ruby asked, smiling at the mental image of her honorary niece. She’d bought Kaitlyn a child friendly digital camera and planned to bring the present over to Beatrice’s house after supper.

“I hadn’t really thought … would you take her tonight? I’m meeting my informant for an interview and I’ll probably run late.” Beatrice lowered her voice although they were alone. “I’m getting close, Rosie. Real close. There’s a lot more going on than anybody knows. When I file my story it’s going to break City Hall wide open.”

Ruby snorted—in her opinion, a morally bankrupt politician wasn’t news—and focused on a more immediate concern. “Did you tell Katie you won’t be home until late?”

Beatrice blushed and averted her gaze. “Would you mind taking her out to eat? Maybe someplace fun?” she asked, evading the question.

“I’ll do my best, but you need to talk to your daughter. I mean what I say, Bee. Don’t leave me holding the bag. Katie needs to hear from you why you won’t be there.”

“Aw, for fuck’s sake, do I really have to be the bad guy?”

“You’re a mother, that’s part of your job. Suck it up and deal.” Ruby pointed at an empty glass jar on a corner of the workbench. A label on the jar read, You say it, you pay it. “You owe me a dollar for the F-bomb.”

Beatrice heaved a put-upon sigh, dug in her purse for a wallet, and shoved a folded bill through the slot in the metal lid. “Still with the swear jar? God—I mean, gosh darn it to heck.” She raised her hands in the air. “Okay, whatever, fine. Party supplies store. Buy stuff to amuse children, put into gift bags, apply ribbons. I think I’ve got it, Rosie. Thanks.”

“Here you go. Give Katie a kiss for me.” Ruby passed over the cardboard box she’d packed the bags in. “Should I pick up Katie from school?”

“I’ll drop her off at your place. Three-thirty work for you?”

“Sure.”

Scooping the box under her arm, Beatrice grabbed her purse and left the kitchen.

Ruby started working on a new batch of goat’s milk fudge. Once she finished the task, she made crispy rice treats, ancho infused ice cream sauce from the fudge ruined earlier, and several flavors of gourmet marshmallows.

New out-of-state orders came in from the website for the Magic Bean’s signature Three Little Pigs brittle: bourbon, pecans, and morsels of fried pancetta, guanciale, and apple wood smoked bacon. She grinned. Looks like a BLT for lunch.

A few hours later, she finished packing and sorting boxes for shipment tomorrow and glanced at her watch. Her stomach sank. Three o’clock already. Good grief! She snatched at her To-Do list and ticked off items, double checking shipping and delivery labels, and ensuring she had everything ready for the following morning.

Satisfied at last, she locked up and left.

The rented kitchen wasn’t far from her apartment building. Pre-rush hour traffic proved mercifully light, but an accident at an intersection had her snarled with other cars moving at a snail’s pace for twenty minutes before she could continue at a normal speed.

Finally, she pulled her old Dodge truck into the tenants-only, below ground garage only to find a lipstick red, sporty MINI Cooper Coupe parked in her assigned space. A space she paid thirty dollars a month to reserve, no less.

She gripped the steering wheel and stared in disbelief at the MINI. Some inconsiderate so-and-so had stolen her spot! She despised bad manners almost as much as swearing.

Checking her watch, she realized she was appallingly late. Beatrice and Kaitlyn must be upstairs waiting for her. No time to make a complaint to the management office. No time to sit there and fume, either. She banked her frustration and drove forward, intending to swing the truck around and try the visitors’ parking lot next door.

When she noticed a well dressed woman coming out of the stairwell at the back, her suspicion flared. She braked and waited to see where the stranger went. Her patience was rewarded when the woman crossed over to the MINI. A-ha!

Now intent on confronting the woman who’d stolen her spot, Ruby got out of her truck, flushing when opening the door caused a loud, grating squeal to reverberate off the concrete walls and ceiling. She’d meant to grease that hinge for weeks. Embarrassment added fuel to her annoyance. “Hey!” she called. “That’s my parking space!”

The woman turned her head. Loose chestnut curls slithered over the shoulders of her navy blue suit jacket. “I’ll be leaving your space in a minute,” she said, her freezing tone and cold gray gaze suggesting she spoke to an idiot.

Ruby’s cheeks heated further at the attractive woman’s disdain. Common sense urged her to return to her truck. Instead, she put her hands on her hips and stayed right where she stood. Someone had to take a stand for civilized behavior, otherwise there’d be chaos. “You shouldn’t take a space reserved for tenants. There’s a visitor’s lot next door.”

“Really?” The woman jerked open the MINI’s door. She paused, her gray eyes flashing dangerously. “Just look at all the fucks I don’t give.” She slid into the driver’s seat, slammed the door shut, and rolled down the window. “By the way, Miss Manners, you can take your little lecture and shove it up your ass,” she ranted before starting the MINI’s engine.

The car backed up and suddenly peeled out of the garage, leaving behind smoke, the stink of scorched rubber, and skid marks on the concrete.

Ruby waved a hand in front of her face, wrinkling her nose at the smell and the woman’s lack of manners. The gesture brought her watch in sight. Her stomach dropped. She pushed the confrontation to the back of her mind, scrambled to park her truck, and hurried to the elevator on the other side of the garage.

Getting off on the third floor, she stumbled to a halt in the empty corridor. Where are Bee and Katie? She walked to her apartment. Beatrice must be running a late too, in which case her own tardiness would go unnoticed.

After another half-hour passed with no word from her friend, she began to fret in earnest. When Beatrice continued to ignore her calls, the concern turned to worry.

At four-fifteen, the school called to let her know no one had collected Kaitlyn yet.

The worry became full blown panic.

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consequence of murder coverThe first book in my new paranormal mystery series is The Consequence of Murder, and will be published by Bella Books in February. In case you missed out earlier, you can read an excerpt here.

“The gruesome discovery of a mummified corpse wakes up something inside investigator Mackenzie Cross. Seeing and hearing things that just don’t happen in Antioch, Georgia, she finally accepts that the very angry ghost of the dead woman is demanding Mackenzie find out who murdered her.

Under ordinary circumstances, she would turn to her best friend, sheriff’s deputy Veronica Birdwell, but not only is Mackenzie unsure how to bring up a very real ghost, she is uncomfortably attracted to Veronica who is straight and off limits. She also has another case involving a cheerleader, a blackmailing preacher and a rattlesnake—life is already too complicated to risk love.

I’m already hard at work on the second book, which will be titled Burn All Alike.

If you like to read about solving puzzling cases, danger, supernatural goings-on, a little romancin’, and lots of Southern charm, you’ll like the Mackenzie Cross Paranormal Mysteries.

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consequence of murder coverBella Books will be publishing my paranormal mystery, The Consequence of Murder.

This is book one in a proposed series. In The Consequence of Murder, Mackenzie Cross has to figure out who murdered a pretty teenage girl, Annabel Coffin… but the victim’s been dead since the Fifties, her spirit’s on the warpath, and there are people still alive who want to keep the truth buried. Here’s a taste of the book for you to enjoy!

———-

CHAPTER FOUR

Mackenzie crossed the street quickly, feeling chilled despite the heat. What the hell had happened back there in the coffee shop? An image of the gray woman, especially her flat black gaze, sprang to mind. Cold. Unfriendly. Almost menacing.

She told herself to stop being silly.

Fact: people did not vanish into thin air.

Fact: coffee cups did not spontaneously break of their own accord.

Fact: eyewitness testimony was unreliable. Human memory was fallible, the senses imperfect, the brain given to filling in blanks with fantasy.  Just because a person claimed to have seen something did not mean they actually saw it. They just believed what they saw, a subtle but important distinction.

The inevitable and reasonable conclusion: she had spilled coffee on herself, gotten flustered, and caught a glimpse of someone—maybe a woman seated elsewhere—which her agitated brain had imagined as a ghostly figure that subsequently disappeared. Afterward, she’d jerked in surprise or bumped the table, breaking her coffee cup.

Satisfied by the logical explanation, she entered the dry cleaner’s shop, dropped off her blouse, and left. By the time she reached her office, the event had become a memory of clumsiness and her own embarrassing suggestibility. Tomorrow, she’d have to apologize to Jo-Jo for making such a fuss over nothing.

Maynard was still at her office, supervising the removal of the mummified remains into a black station wagon illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant. He’d been joined by Dr. Hightower, a gastroenterologist and Antioch’s part-time medical examiner.

“Don’t make faces at me, Jimmy. You know I live above the bakery,” Mackenzie said when she approached, hoping to forestall a lecture from Maynard. “I’m not snooping. I want to go home. There’s a shower with my name on it.”

“What did you hope to accomplish by sticking your nose in my crime scene, Kenzie?” he asked, giving her a decidedly evil eye. “You could’ve compromised evidence.”

She returned his glare, though her heart wasn’t really in it. “I call shenanigans, Jimmy. There’s no evidence and you know it. We already had this argument. As I recall, I won.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Besides, it’s my damned office. I have files in there, things I need to have so I can find things for my clients and make money. I make money, I pay my taxes. Your salary is paid by my taxes. See the way it works? The circle of life. Now do we still have a problem?”

Looking irritated, he waved her through without another word.

Mackenzie sidled past Dr. Hightower, who had a habit of inquiring about people’s bowel movements at inconvenient times and places like the grocery store checkout line. She wasn’t his patient, but her Uncle Anderson was, and she didn’t need the doctor loudly whispering to her about Uncle Anse’s chronic constipation problem in front of Maynard.

Using her key, she opened a green painted metal door set into a narrow wall between the building that housed her office and the bakery next door.

A fluorescent light flickered on when the door closed behind her, revealing a flight of cement stairs sandwiched between the outer brick walls of the two buildings. The space was claustrophobically small, airless, and hotter than outside. The air was redolent of baking, scented with cinnamon and spices, sugar, yeast, and chocolate.

Mackenzie trudged up the steps, trying not to brush her borrowed T-shirt’s sleeve on the stained  bricks. Another metal door at the top of the stairs—this one painted peacock blue—yielded to another key, and she went inside her apartment, blessedly cool since she’d had the foresight to leave the air conditioning set on seventy-five degrees that morning.

She dropped her keys on a small table, added her wallet and cell phone, and kicked off her shoes before going to her bedroom.

In the act of pulling the oversized T-shirt over her head, Mackenzie paused when she caught her reflection in the mirror above the dresser, half expecting to see a silver-gray woman. She relaxed when the mirror only showed familiar amber eyes gazing back at her, set in a face that resembled her maternal great-grandfather more than her mother or father. Long dead before her birth, she’d seen pictures of the stiff-backed old man in the family albums. He’d been a quarter Cherokee and a quarter Creek, and two thirds son-of-a-bitch according to her grandmother. His ancestry lent her complexion its reddish-brown tint.

She changed into a worn cotton shirt and shorts, and ran a brush through her thick, coarse,  black hair. Moisture in the air had made her naturally kinky hair more unruly than usual, puffing it up into a frizzy mare’s nest. Gathering the mass together, she secured the ponytail high on her head with an elastic band to keep it off the back of her neck.

In the living room, she flopped down on the L-shaped sofa and reached for the remote control, which should have been on the side table. When her groping hand closed around nothing, she glanced over and found the remote missing. She grimaced, trying to remember where she’d left it. She looked around. Not on the coffee table. Not on the floor. Not on the sofa. Not on the chair. Not on the bookshelves lining the walls. Where had the remote gone?

She stuck her hand between the sofa cushions, coming up with $2.49 in change, a silver bracelet she thought she’d lost last week, a handful of popcorn kernels, a ballpoint pen, and a lint fuzzed peppermint.. At last, her fingers closed around a solid plastic shape. The remote! Smiling, she drew out… her cell phone.

What the hell? She frowned, certain she’d left her cell phone on the table in the hall.

Mackenzie rose and padded barefoot to the hall. On the little ebony side table with the malachite top, a bijoux French antique and a thrift store find, were her wallet and keys, apparently undisturbed. Yet she clearly remembered leaving her cell phone here, too.

Am I going crazy? she wondered.

The skin on the back of her neck prickled. Goosebumps swept over her arms. Mackenzie inhaled. For a second, she could have sworn she detected the faintest hint of a dry, dusty scent that reminded her of the smell in her office. She exhaled and returned to the living room, deciding she had better turn down the thermostat before she froze into a popsicle.

When she returned to the living room, her gaze zeroed in on the remote sitting on the side table next to the sofa, exactly where she recalled putting it last night.

“I must be losing my marbles,” she muttered, thinking about a few weeks ago when she’d misplaced her car keys in the refrigerator of all places. She carefully put the phone on the coffee table in plain view, sat on the sofa, and used the remote to turn on the television.

The screen flared to life, but she was only able to press the button for the next channel before the television clicked off. She turned it back on. As soon as the picture appeared on the screen, she tried to change the channel. Again, the television cut off.

Mashing the ON button did nothing. The remote was dead.

“What the hell?” Must be something wrong with the batteries, she thought.

Growing annoyed, Mackenzie heaved herself off the sofa and stomped to the kitchen for fresh batteries. When she returned, the television remained stubbornly off when she pressed the remote’s ON button several more times. She turned on a lamp, confirming the electricity in the apartment was working. The problem must be with the television itself.

She knelt on the floor to check behind a bookcase for the electrical outlet, making the baffling discovery that the television wasn’t plugged in. But it had turned on twice, hadn’t it? Stretching her arm as far as possible, she grabbed the cord, plugged in the television, and sat back on her heels to use the remote.

Nothing happened. She scowled.

Her phone rang.

She stood to retrieve her phone and answered the call. “Cross speaking.”

“You ever hear of Annabel Coffin?” Maynard asked without preamble.

“Who?” she replied.

“She was buried behind your office wall.”

Mackenzie crossed to the sofa and sat down. “Don’t know her.”

“Doc Hightower found a charm bracelet on the body when it was being moved,” Maynard said, the line crackling slightly with static. “One of the charms was inscribed with that name. I’m trying to find out if anyone knew her.”

“And you called because you miss hearing me talk? I told you before, Jimmy, I moved into the office three years ago. The body must’ve already been there. Why would you think I’d know anything about this dead woman?”

“I called because I want you to ask your mother about her.”

Meredith’s stomach lurched in alarm. “What does Mama have to do with any of this?”

“According to another inscription on the charm, your mother attended the same high school in the same year as our victim. It’s possible she’ll recognize the name.”

Put that way, how could she refuse? “Fine, I’ll go over there tonight,” she said. “Although I don’t know why you can’t just talk to Mama yourself.”

“Let me know what you find out.” He terminated the call.

She stared at the phone in her hand and snorted. Putting down the cell phone on the coffee table, she went to grab the remote, only to find it gone.

After a brief, internal debate, she walked to the hall. Sure enough, the remote sat on the ebony and malachite table.

Unbidden, memories of campfire stories and family legends sprang to mind. Her great-uncle Stapleton swore he’d seen a ghost in an abandoned funeral parlor when his friends had dared him to peer inside the window. And great-grandmother Beryl Rose had maintained to her dying day that the spirit of a child haunted a well on her property.

Like many small Southern towns, the city of Antioch had its share of strange happenings. As a child, she’d heard about the ghostly motorcycle rider on Conklin “Haint” Hill, the crying stone angel in the old Oak Grove Cemetery, the ghost of a headless woman who groped along the railroad tracks near the Weatherholtz Bridge on full moon nights, and other restless spirits. She hadn’t believed a grain of truth existed in the stories until now, when she was forced to reconsider her skepticism.

The more she tried to find an explanation for the television becoming unplugged, and the remote and her cell phone shifting places without human intervention, the more she came to the reluctant conclusion that the cause might—just maybe—be supernatural.

Cold dread settled heavy in her guts. Feeling foolish as well as apprehensive, she returned to the living room and cleared her throat.

“Uh… is anybody there?” she asked aloud, praying she wouldn’t receive a reply.

After several minutes of waiting, no answer seemed forthcoming.

Sighing in disappointment mingled with relief, she turned away, only to violently start when the television came on with a blast of sound that left her deaf to her own scream.

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As a treat for fans of my work, and a thank you to those generous souls who have helped me recently with good vibes and donations when I had to be hospitalized and my right leg amputated, here’s something for  you…

I’m working on the sequel to Barking at the Moon (watch this space, folks) but also working on a new project: a horror novel set in the American South during the Great Depression to be titled O Daughter of Jerusalem. The format will be unique, I think – each chapter is a story, and all the stories are linear and feature the same characters. Got it? Okay, here’s the first story, which I hope you enjoy!

O DAUGHTER OF JERUSALEM
Nene Adams copyright 2011


AND THE WORKS OF HER HANDS ARE PRESERVED
Pitchpine, Florida to Hartsville, Florida

The hennaed spit-curls framing the fat woman’s forehead were plastered down by sweat.. “Can you find her?” Mrs. McCall asked as she leaned forward, her eyes filled with hope and a terrible fear, her lipsticked mouth trembling. “Can you find Kathleen?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no…I reckon it depends on how bad you want that daughter of yours found,” said Madam Zenobia, otherwise known outside the traveling carnival’s gypsy fortunetelling tent as Olivia Jean Suggs. She flattened her hands on the table. “I got a spell would do the trick, but it sure ain’t for the faint of heart.”

“I don’t care what it takes…I’ve got to have my baby home, safe and sound.” Mrs. McCall’s pudgy white-gloved hands clutched the purse in her lap.

Olivia put on a sorrowful expression. “The ingredients are dear, very dear.”

Tears glistening, Mrs. McCall took a handkerchief from her dress pocket, using it to mop her face. “I’ll pay whatever you want. Money don’t matter to me. Ever since my Arthur was called home, bless his soul, Kathleen is all I have left of him. I can’t help thinking about her, how scared she must be, taken away from her home and all. You warned me,” she gasped. “You told me to beware this day. You told me something terrible would happen.”

“I did, I warned you ‘bout a future calamity. Wish to God I could’ve told you how to protect your daughter, your sweet Kathleen, only what I see ain’t always clear.”

“Oh, you aren’t to blame, Madame Zenobia! Please don’t think I blame you. How could you know? But now you’ll help me. How much money do you neef? If I don’t have the cash on me, I’ll go the bank in the morning, I swear. Just tell me what I have to do to save my baby and bring her home to me.”

“I reckon fifty dollars would about do it,” Olivia said. “It’s a lot, I know.”

Mrs. McCall fumbled in her purse. “Good thing I collected the rents today.”

Olivia made a show of reluctantly accepting the five dollar bills, keeping her grin tucked down deep inside where it wouldn’t show. Fifty dollars would buy food, cigarettes and illegal whiskey, even after the carnival’s manager and the fixer took their cuts.

“You can’t go to the police,” she said, pinning the woman with a sharp look. “Can’t tell nobody. They hear tell of your troubles, I can’t help you no more. Menfolk got theit own ways of doing things. Us women got to stick together, you understand?”

“Of course, of course, I understand, I do,” Mrs. McCall said with pathetic eagerness.

“All right then.” Olivia leaned back in her chair, drawing the shawl tighter around her shoulders despite the stifling heat. The dimness inside the tent, lit only by a single candle, lent a semblance of richness to the fake coins clattering on the shawl’s fringe, the cheap bangles on her wrists, the tattered rug thrown over the tabletop. A well-thumbed Bible lay near her hand, the black calfskin cover soft and greasy from daily handling. “This spell ain’t no Devil’s work,” she said softly, making the woman draw forward to hear her. “This here’s God’s work, the work of Moses and Jesus and Solomon, wise men all.”

“I believe you.”

“So first you gotta pray, ask for the Lord’s help.” Opening the Bible’s cover, Olivia withdrew a small sheet of paper covered in esoteric symbols copied from an old book of her mother’s. She had scrawled lines of text from another book in the center, her handwriting uncertain but legible. “You say this prayer tonight at exactly nine o’clock—not one minute before, not one minute later. You say it three times. Three times only.” She pushed the paper across the table to Mrs. McCall, who picked it up, frowning.

“Happy is she whose heart is fixed to call upon the name of the Lord,” she read aloud.
“When she remembereth the name of the Lord, she will be saved.
Her ways are made even by the Lord,
And the works of her hands are preserved by the Lord her God,
And what she sees in her bad dreams, her soul shall not be troubled.”

The creases in Mrs. McCall’s forehead disappeared. “Sounds kind of like the Good Book to me,” she said approvingly. “But what’s all this chicken scratch around it?”

“The names of angels,” Olivia said in her deepest tone, “in Moses’ own writing.”

“Moses himself…my goodness.” The woman looked impressed.

“Now you say that prayer like I told you. After that, you draw yourself a nice bath, nice and hot, and you put this powder in it. Be sure to put the water all over your body.”

“Why?”

“This here’s a special powder with hyssop in it, to purify you like the Bible says. ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’” Olivia quoted the Psalm from memory. The powder was actually made from salt and dried roadside weeds ground together with a touch of orange peel, but it sounded dramatic. She had never met a mark that didn’t love drama, the more thickly laid on the better.

“After the bath,” Olivia went on, “you go to bed with that prayer under your pillow. If God’s willing, He’ll either give you a sign about your Kathleen, or maybe, just maybe…” She paused, letting the tension build until the woman opposite her turned a brilliant shade of scarlet, squirming in her seat with ill-concealed impatience. Only then did she continue, “Maybe if God’s merciful, He’ll bring your little girl home safe.”

Mrs. McCall grunted out an explosive breath. “Do you really think so?”

Olivia inclined her head. “It’s in His hands now.”

“Amen. Oh, let it be so!”

“Now you go home and do like I told you. And I’ll give you one more piece of advice: whatever happens, don’t go in Kathleen’s bedroom tonight. The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform, so stay in your own bed, and don’t get up till after dawn.”

“I’ll will, don’t worry. I just want my daughter to come home.”

“This ain’t no easy task God asks of you.” Olivia tapped a fingernail on the Bible. “Do what I say, or He may visit more calamity upon you. Hear me?”

“Yes, yes, I’ll follow your instructions to the letter. Thank you, Madam Zenobia, thank you very much,” Mrs. McCall gushed, almost crushing Olivia’s hand in her grip. “I’m so grateful. You’ve been good to me, a true friend when I was in sore need, what with my Arthur gone and all, and me a woman alone.” She began to cry again, great gulping sobs she tried to muffle with her handkerchief. “Send my poor child home,” she said, her voice watery.

Olivia managed to calm Mrs. McCall after a few minutes, coaxing the sniveling woman out of the tent and sending her back to her nice house in town. As soon as she was alone, she tied the tent flap closed. Feeling frowsy from the heat, aware of the wetness trickling under her arms, she shed the shawl and the purple cloth turban she wore as part of her ‘gypsy’ persona, freeing her sweat-matted black hair.

Taking a bottle of cologne from its hiding place under the table, she poured a generous amount on a rag, wiping her bare arms and legs with it, pulling up her dark blue dress to stroke the cool rag over her inner thighs, her skin pink from the heat.

The tent flap shook as if someone was trying to enter. “Come back later,” Olivia called, rubbing the back of her neck with the sweet-smelling rag, enjoying the spicy fragrance that cut through the tent’s musty fug, as much a part of the canvas as the mildew stains creeping greenish black along the bottom. “I’m communin’ with the spirits.”

The shaking stopped.

Sighing in pleasure, Olivia unfastened the first four buttons on her dress, running the rag under her rayon slip, over her chest and breasts. Her nipples tightened. A bath sounded good, better than fried chicken and gravy, better than genuine sloe gin. Tomorrow morning, she would find out if any of the girls from the hoochie koochie show wanted to share a bath with her, since many hands hauling buckets of water made the labor lighter.

Hanging the rag on a nail stuck in the tent pole, she reached for a pack of cigarettes on the table, freezing with her hand outstretched, a jolt of shock jumping her heart to her throat.

Someone stood in the gloom, a tall figure with a burning crimson eye…no, Olivia realized, exhaling panic in a rush of breath, a person smoking a cigarette.

“I done told you not to come in here,” she snapped, hastily holding her dress closed. In her fright, her accent slipped from a genteel drawl to the Kentucky twang of her youth. She struggled to recover her composure. “Now get out before I holler for help, mister, ‘cause if I do, some mean boys gonna come in here and give you a whoopin’ you ain’t gonna forget.”

“You the conjure woman?” the figure asked, apparently unimpressed by her threat. The crimson end of the cigarette bobbed up and down with each word.

Olivia considered screaming—there had to be at least one roustabout in earshot, and for all she knew, the intruder intended to rape her or worse—but something about the voice made her pause. It did not sound much like a man.

The figure stepped closer to the candle on the table. Light bloomed on a woman’s face, tanned like a farmer’s with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Smoky red hair hung past her shoulders, the color sullen as if she had dipped her head in a greenwood fire. The cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth smoldered. “I asked if you was the conjure woman.” Her dark eyes stabbed at Olivia, who shivered before she recalled what she did for a living.

“I can conjure,” she told the woman, lowering her hand and raising her chin, pretending indifference to her unfastened dress. “Spirits of power obey me when I calls at the crossroads,” she went on, warming to her familiar spiel. “Got black cat bone. Got powders get a man to bend over and do your will. Got spells keep a husband faithful, hex your enemies, heal your ills, tell your future.”

“Do all that, huh.” The cigarette glowed briefly as the woman inhaled, then smoke trickled from her nostrils and mouth as she continued, “You find things been lost?”

“Sure can.” Olivia ran an expert eye over the woman’s attire: an old and much-washed faded black dress gone rusty at the seams, cinched in at the waist with a wide leather belt, and buttoned-up boots like her grandmother used to wear. Not much cash there, she decided. Probably had a couple of dollars pin money in a purse fastened to her girdle.

“Then I reckon you better find Kathleen McCall,” the woman said coldly.

The unexpected statement made Olivia’s throat close around a knot of fear. Everything she knew about blowing off marks flew out of her head She gasped, questions and accusations and protestations crowding her mouth so she could only let out a dismayed squeak, suddenly nauseated by the scent of tobacco smoke, and the strong cologne fragrance rising from her skin. While Olivia struggled to speak, the woman tossed her cigarette on the ground, planting the toe of her boot on the glowing spark, then she was gone, vanishing out s slit in the back of the tent in a swirl of rusty black skirts.

For several long seconds, Olivia remained rooted to the spot, her chest convulsing. At long last, she managed to suck in a wet breath, and another, and finally the cramps eased. Trembling, she sat down in the chair, pulling the discarded shawl over her shoulders for warmth despite the tent’s oppressive atmosphere.

Smoke from the woman’s cigarette lingered in the air, a long flat gray ribbon that twisted this way and that before dissolving a wisp at a time until nothing was left but the acrid smell. By that time, Olivia had calmed.

That woman saw Jake steal the girl, she thought. She followed him here. She’s tryin’ to put the frightener on me. Bitch probably wants money to hold her tongue. Who does she think she is? The notion of being played like a mark made her angry. She stood, jerking the shawl off, and stomped out of the tent.

James “Big Jem” Foster, the small outfit’s manager and talker; had trained for preaching in his youth, which showed in his beautiful, deep, cultivated voice that could charm the last cent from a mark’s pocket. He stood on the wooden platform in front of the big tent now, a tall, skinny man in a good suit overlooking the crowd—mostly men and boys in dungarees from the farms outside town, some town folk wearing string ties and clean shirts, their women and children in Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, all eager to be dazzled.

“Watch that doorway, folks,” Big Jem said, pointing to an opening in the tent behind him. “We’ve got a free show for you, that’s right, a free show right here, right now, just for you, the good people of Pitchpine, so come closer, don’t be shy, watch your neighbor’s toes and come on closer ‘cause you sure don’t want to miss a thing when the free show starts.

“Fellas, I want you to come right on up close for the best look, ‘cause when Wanda the Wickedest Woman in the Western Hemisphere begins her snake dance, you won’t believe your eyes at the things she can make her snake do! Wanda’s going to wiggle, and she’s going to jiggle, and she’s going to let you see it all, but you’ve got to move in, move in, never mind your neighbor, gentlemen, this is the free show you do not want to miss!”

Olivia skirted the gawkers packed around the platform, heading straight into the big tent. Ranged around inside were some of the carnival’s sideshow performers: a bearded, hugely obese woman covered in tattoos; Siamese twin boys attached at the waist; the lizard man with his scaly bumpy skin; Wanda Hayes the snake charmer, wearing a flesh colored bodysuit with spangles sewn here and there, a python wrapped around her waist while she waited for her cue; and Jake Schuyler, the Hollow Man, so emaciated every bone in his body poked out visibly, a skeleton wrapped in tight fitting skin.

She went over to Jake, careful to keep her voice pitched low in case they were overheard. Big Jem knew about the kidnapping con, but no one else. “A woman came to see me,” she said. “Told me I’d better find Kathleen McCall right quick.”

Jake had no eyebrows—he shaved off all his body hair—but one of the bony ridges over his eye quirked. “So what?” he asked in his nasal ‘Noo Yawk’ accent, so harsh to her ears. “We got the fix in good here. Even if the girl’s mama beefs us to the cops, they won’t do nothin’. Big Jem owns ‘em till we blow out of here.”

How to explain that the strange woman had frightened her? Olivia knew Jake would scoff at her apprehension. “I just think we ought to be careful,” she finally said.

He sneered. “Keep your nerve. Don’t be dumb. You got the money?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’ll deliver the brat home tonight, don’t you worry. Now scat, sister!” Hee-hawing with laughter, he spun away from her.

Still troubled, Olivia went to her travel trailer, unhitched from her black 1930 Ford Model-A pickup, which had been almost new when she bought it for twenty-five dollars cash from a desperate man on the side of the road somewhere…Kansas, maybe, she thought, walking up the steps and opening the door, or maybe Arkansas.

The trailer’s interior was small, containing a bed, a folding table, and two chairs. A wooden cabinet with a mirrored front held liquor, cigarettes, and a private stock of food, while a steamer trunk contained her clothes.

Although it was past nine o’clock at night, at this time of year the sky was still light, buttermilk clouds and pinprick stars against a broad swath of pink turning to lavender and blue at the horizon. Sun down, moon not yet up, and an irritation of mosquitoes already humming their thirst around her. Olivia lit a mosquito coil, a necessity in Florida, and opened the cabinet to retrieve the bottle of bootleg bourbon she had bought yesterday.

Closing the cabinet door, she thought she smelled cigarette smoke. Was that the scuffle of a foot on the floor? Turning her head slightly, she caught a glimpse of curly golden hair caught up in blue ribbons, a child’s pretty doll-like face with a pouting Cupid’s bow mouth…Kathleen! Whirling around, her pulse pounding in her head, she found no one there.

Could the girl have escaped? Olivia wondered, swallowing a mouthful of bourbon straight from the bottle to calm her nerves, buzzing worse than the mosquitoes. She went to the door, looking outside for any sign of Kathleen in her ruffled white dress. Nothing. Perhaps she was seeing things, she decided, but a chill of uncertainty drizzled down her spine.

Taking another drink, and a third swig for courage, she left her trailer, headed for Jake’s travel trailer about twenty yards away.

Tall grass and taller weeds whipped against her bare legs as she walked through the lot. Patter from the agents operating the joints drifted to her, promises of groceries from the Wheel of Fortune; inexpensive glass gravy boats, vases and candy dishes at the ball toss; doll babies and other worthless flash never to be won in rigged games. Garlands of bulbs on poles around the carnival, powered by a gasoline generator, further lightened the night.

Olivia reached Jake Schuyler’s trailer, a small metal box on wheels. Going through the unlocked door, she was immediately struck by the stink of vomit and excrement. Jesus, don’t Jake clean up after himself? Seeing no obvious cause for the stench, she decided an animal must have defecated under the trailer.

Light poured through a window on the side, white as melted vanilla ice cream, shining on the closed lid of a trunk next to an unmade pallet. She paused. Where was Kathleen? Jake was supposed to give the girl ‘medicine’—chloral hydrate—to keep her quiet. Kathleen ought to have been sleeping on the pallet, but she wasn’t there…and Olivia felt a horrible premonition grip her as her gaze turned to the closed trunk.

Her mouth went dry, her guts twisting in knots. Cold sweat swept over her body. She could hardly move, but she forced her stiffened legs to take her to the trunk, and forced her hand to reach out, to lift the lid and show her what lay inside.

The crawling horror she saw did not stick in her mind very well, just snatches of details like the little form so unnaturally still, and the golden hair untouched, and the ruffled dress no longer white but covered in filth, and the flies…sweet Jesus, the flies…

The lid slipped from her convulsing grip, slamming down with a solid chunk.

Somehow, without being conscious of running, she found herself in the cab of her truck, hanging onto the steering wheel, her foot on the accelerator. The road whipped by in the shine of headlights, dirt and gravel spewing under the tires. She drove until exhaustion forced her to the side of the road. When she woke, she drove on. Sunset to twilight, dawn to dusk, only stopping to fill the truck with gas or fall into a sleep troubled by dreams that left her sweating, dying inside, burnt up with a fever that would not die.

Every now and then, she thought she saw a glint of sunlight on golden hair, a child’s doll-like face with things squirming from a Cupid’s bow mouth, and she drove faster.

At last, after God alone knew how many days of driving through the flat Florida country, one morning she spied a familiar figure walking down the road: a woman with smoky red hair, her black dress fluttering against her legs in a whisper of a breeze.

Olivia stood on the brake, the truck coming to a shuddering halt. As if released from a spell, the reason for her flight came flooding back to her. She gasped, her belly clenching.

“Took you long enough to get here,” the woman said as she opened the door, stepped on the running board and into the cab, setting a large black snakeskin doctor’s bag and a rucksack with a bedroll tied to it on the floorboards between her booted feet.

“Lady, who the hell are you?” Olivia asked, dulled by weariness.

“Evadne Wylde,” the woman replied. “Most folks call me Vandy.”

Sitting in the driver’s seat with the sun and the heat beating through the dusty windshield, Olivia did not know what to say or do. A fat fly hummed into the cab through the open window, making her shy violently.

“Be hush,” Vandy said, “it ain’t here for you.” She shooed the fly away.

Her throat raw from holding back what she suspected were screams, Olivia rasped, “What do you want?”

“Keep driving north. You’ll see when we get there.” Vandy’s dark eyes turned outward, to the dirt road lancing straight between two fields of green sorghum stretching east and west. “Move along, Olivia Jean Suggs. Daylight’s burning.”

Too tired to defy the strange woman, too frightened to ask how her name was known, Olivia drove north as directed. Soon she came to a sign—Pitchpine City Limits 1 mile— and a familiar lot fenced lot, the grass mashed down where the carnival tent and platform and joints and trailers and trucks had stood. Trash littered the place, mostly broken bottles, papers and empty cans. To her astonishment, it looked like the carnival had upped stakes just the night before when she knew Big Jem had intended to leave the morning after she found the dead girl—no, she would not let that image return—the morning after she fled. That had been, what, a week ago? Longer? And her driving all the while.

“Last night,” Vandy said in answer to her unspoken question. “The carnival moved on lasts night as planned.”

“I don’t understand,” Olivia said, keeping both hands on the steering wheel, her face as tight and hot as her chest. She felt as if the truck was the only real thing in the world, and if she let go, her mind would fly away with it.

Vandy affected astonishment. “Don’t you? My, my, my, how soon we forget.” She shook a cigarette from a pack she dug out of her dress pocket, striking a match to light it. The brimstone scent of the spent match coiled around the truck’s interior.

The woman’s mass of smoky red hair fluffed around her head like a lion’s mane, framing a tanned face with a beaky, thin-bridged nose and prominent cheekbones. Despite the fan of wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, her age seemed impossible to determine. Anywhere from thirty to fifty-five, Olivia decided. The body under the black dress seemed solid, the kind of strength that comes from a lifetime of hard labor.

“Have you forgotten sweet Kathleen McCall?” Vandy asked, blowing smoke out the passenger side window, her gaze intense. “Do you not remember what you saw?”

Olivia gagged. Scrambling out of the truck, she barely made it to the side of the road before she vomited, spewing bile and chunks of meat she did not recall eating. The vile taste made her sicker. Again and again she heaved, her stomach cramping until nothing else came up. Standing straight, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

What I saw in that trunk don’t own me, she thought, clinging to that slender hope with desperation.. I can forget. It weren’t my fault.

Her heart knew better.

“I see you do remember,” came Vandy’s cool voice from right next to her.

Unable to bear it any longer, Olivia rounded on Vandy, shouting, “What the hell do you want from me?”

“Retribution.” Vandy’s eyes glittered like black diamonds as she took another drag from her cigarette. “Go on, tell yourself you ain’t at fault, but you surely share the blame, yes, you do. There’s consequences, you know. Not thirty pieces of silver, but fifty dollars cash—the price of that little girl’s future. Olivia Jean Suggs, you hold life too cheap. Things have to change. ‘For the day of their calamity is at hand,’” she quoted, “‘and the things that shall come upon them make haste.’ Do you hear them? Do you hear the things coming for you?”

“No,” Olivia denied, though her ear caught an edge of a sound in the distance, a many-footed rustling reminiscent of hunting hounds, their bellies low to the ground, rushing eagerly upon their prey. Her mind shuddered away from what that sound implied. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re crazy.”

Vandy shook her head. “Am I the one who drove day and night and went nowhere fast? No man can escape his fate, and no woman, either.”

“Stay away from me.” Saliva filled Olivia’s mouth. Almost weeping, she spat a thick wad of sputum on the ground. “Leave me be.”

“I’m offering you a chance to live, which is more than you gave Kathleen McCall.”

“Don’t you talk to me…just go away.”

“Listen to me, and no back talk.” Vandy took Olivia by the upper arm and hauled her in close, so close the animal heat of her body seemed stifling. The smoke from her cigarette stung Olivia’s eyes. “You want to live, you do what I say. It’s that simple,” she said. “Otherwise, you might as well lay down right here in the road and die.”

A flash of gold in the corner of Olivia’s eye had her turning her head to catch the fading after-image of a little girl in a once white dress, her empty eye sockets shadowed except for the faintest malicious gleam in the center. Olivia sobbed, biting the edge of her hand. From afar yet nearer than before, the hunting pack belled.

“Our sweet Kathleen is…attached to you, let’s say,” Vandy said, releasing Olivia with a push, as if to deliver her into the phantom’s waiting arms.

Olivia stumbled, but caught herself. “What does that mean?”

“It means if you want to get rid of a wait-about afore it gets rid of you, you’ll have to do something about it.” Vandy said, flicking her cigarette away. “The longer a wait-about hangs on you, the more wicked it becomes, and the harder to dismiss. First thing we do is get back in the truck and go find them carnival folk of yours.”

Live or die. When it came down to the line, most of God’s creatures chose life. This might be some kind of con, but if it was, Olivia could not divine the meaning of it. She walked to the truck, pausing with her hand on the door handle. “I never believed in Mama’s spells and such,” she said. “I thought it was all a trick, just stuff out of books.”

“There’s tricks and there’s tricks,” Vandy told her. “You’ll learn the difference.”

Suddenly, the fear clutching Olivia shifted to resentment, a kicked dog showing its teeth. “I didn’t kill that girl,” she said, glancing at Vandy sidelong. “It was Jake done that.”

Vandy spoke almost kindly. “Not necessarily true to the core, but you done other bad things in your life, Miss Olive. You cheated and you lied, you stole from hard-working people who could ill afford the theft. You’ve left hungry families in your wake. You’ve left disaster. Maybe you ain’t murdered a body directly, not like pullin’ a trigger or cuttin’ a throat, but you been responsible for enough misery to taint your soul, and that’s like prime steak to a wait-about. They eat that up and don’t need no gravy to help it down.”

Olivia did not want to answer, getting into the truck and starting the engine. An instant later, Vandy swung into the cab. “Wait a sec,” she said, rummaging in her rucksack. She produced a white metal ear trumpet, a stylized dome with the S-curved stem of the earpiece rising from the side like a charmed snake. “I got to figure out the way.”

Pacing to the middle of the road, Vandy knelt, set the ear trumpet on the ground, and put her ear to the end of the stem, looking for all the world like a demented, deaf granny attempting to hear worm music in the soil. Unsettled, Olivia watched.

Utter concentration on her face, Vandy’s eyes drifted closed. One minute stretched to two. Olivia waited, squashing the mean urge to blow the horn just to scare the snot out of the woman. A couple of crows quarreling in the field caught her attention, a furious flapping of wings and raucous caws, black feathers swirling up and settling softly on the earth. When she returned her gaze to the road, Vandy was on her feet, brushing the powdery dirt off her skirts.

“Straight ahead,” Vandy said, climbing into the passenger seat and returning the ear trumpet to her rucksack. “There’s a crossroad about ten miles yonder. Go left there.”

“How you know that?” Olivia asked, curiosity overriding her wariness.

“If you listen hard enough, you hear what you need to hear,” Vandy answered, which was no real answer at all.

Huffing, Olivia sent the truck into motion. As she drove, trying to avoid the worst ruts in the road, she considered what Vandy had told her about the bad she had done.

Everybody sins, she thought. Ain’t nobody got a pure soul in the world ‘cept maybe a newborn baby. So what if she had fooled stupid greedy men who probably beat their wives and drank their paychecks away, or stupid greedy women who cheated on their husbands and told lies about their neighbors. A successful con depended on such people’s greed, their desire to get something for nothing, often at the expense of someone else. You can only cheat a cheater. An honest man passes by a racket every time.

Of course, Jake’s kidnapping scheme was not the same. She cursed the Hollow Man, and her own stupid greed that led her to help him.

Next to her, Vandy sighed, taking out two cigarettes. She lit them both with a match, handing one to Olivia. “You’re thinkin’ so hard your hair’s about to catch fire,” she said.

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m thinkin’ I ought to pull over and kick your ass right out of here,” Olivia replied, drawing the bitter tobacco smoke deep into her lungs.

“You’re welcome to try, baby girl. Can’t say as I think you’d enjoy it much.” Vandy’s glance was filled with amusement.

Setting her jaw to keep from yelling blasphemies, Olivia drove.

Smoking in silence, tapping cigarette ash out the open window, Vandy propped her booted foot on the dashboard . Harsh white sunlight lent an edge to the geometry of her features. When they reached the crossroads, she said, “Go left.”

Olivia obeyed. To break the silence which soon became oppressive, she turned on the radio, surprised to pick up a local station so clearly, a blast of gospel choir music she had heard in church as a child. After that, Vandy sang along to what sounded like an old murder ballad with the saddest violin Olivia had ever heard. The woman had a decent voice, strong if unschooled, but at least she could hold a tune—more than Olivia could say for herself.

O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O what did he do?
Fixed my grave, fixed my grave, and around it the white roses grew.
O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O where are you found?
In the water, in the water, forbidden the cold clay around.”

The song made her skin ripple with goosebumps.

About an hour later, Olivia estimated, a convoy of trucks hove into view. She recognized the vehicles, some with colorful banners pinned to their sides. Blowing the horn, she passed the line of trucks, headed for Big Jem’s Foster’s coupe leading the way. Spotting her, he signaled the others to go ahead, pulling his coupe over. She parked behind him.

“Hey, Jem, sorry about that last night,” Olivia said, hopping out of the truck to greet him. “I had me quite a scare—”

“What the hell’s going on with you and Jake?” Jem demanded, as furious as she had ever seen him. “He’s gone. Lit out on his own without paying what he owed, same as you.”

“Sorry,” she repeated, wilting a little under Jem’s glare. “How much?”

“I guess you owe me his share as well as yours.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Does it look like I care what you think? Give me a C, we’ll call it even”

A hundred dollars! Olivia opened her mouth to protest, shutting it hastily when Jem glowered at her, seeming to gain height and breadth as he loomed with menace evident in every long loose line of his body.

“Don’t think you can bamboozle me, girl,” he rumbled deep in his chest. “I figure that kid’s kidnap went sour, and you and Jake are on the lam. That’s fine, but there’s money owed. You can’t give me cash, you’ll pay in kind. Work it off till I say the debt is done.”

“Tell you what,” Vandy spoke up from next to Olivia, “let’s settle this nice and polite like friends ought to. Pleasure to meet you, sir.” Jem’s hands were as big as scoop shovels, but she took one and shook it as if welcoming a stranger to church. When she released his hand, Jem’s palm was dusted with a trace of white powder.

To Olivia’s astonishment, after a blank moment, Jem said to Vandy, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. How do, ma’am?”

“I do fine, sir, very fine indeed. Now you say Miss Olive here owes you a hundred dollars…are you sure that’s right? Seems kind of high to me.”

“Well, you see it’s two debts—”

“I think you’ll find it’s one debt alone.”

Jem paused, his brow crinkling. “Yes…yes, I believe you’re right,” he said slowly. “I must have made a mistake.”

Her eyes widening, Olivia clapped both hands over her mouth, deathly afraid of what might happen if she interrupted.

“That’s all right. We’re friends here. We forgive each other our mistakes.” Vandy shot Olivia a warning glance before turning back to Jem. “I suppose you deserve some compensation since Miss Olive left your employment without givin’ you no notice. Let’s say five dollars. Do you consider that fair?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am, fair it is.” Jem’s face was covered in sweat, his mouth drawn back in a rictus nearly to the angle of his jaw. His gaze rolled towards Olivia. She recoiled from the raging, agonized expression in his eyes, having no doubt that had he been free to do so, he would have struck her and Vandy dead. Nevertheless, when Jem spoke his voice held nothing but perfect courtesy. “Five dollars will do me fine, just fine.”

“Miss Olive, kindly give this gentleman five dollars,” Vandy said.

In her dress pocket, Olivia still had the fifty dollars she had taken from Mrs. McCall. She peeled a five dollar bill off the roll, pushing it into Jem’s hand. His skin seemed unnaturally clammy to her touch. She pulled away, moving closer to her truck when his fingers clenched into a fist, and his arm jerked as if testing invisible bonds.

“So we’re square now, ain’t we?” Vandy said, prowling around Jem’s rigid figure. If she noticed him struggling by inches to throw off her influence, she did not show it. “I suppose you don’t mind tellin’ me where I can find that fellow Jake.”

“I don’t know,” Jem gritted through hard clenched teeth. “Jake Schuyler ran off, snuck away in the night like a thief.”

“But maybe you know where he’d go,” Vandy pressed, taking the steps necessary to put herself right next to him, their bodies almost touching. “Where his people might be.”

The tendons in his neck straining, a vein swelling alarmingly on his forehead, Jem closed his mouth, compressing his lips. Sweat soaked circles under the arms of his white shirt. Finally, he let out an explosive breath mingled with tiny droplets of spit and blood. “Town called Hartsville,” he said hoarsely, “about a hundred fifty miles east of here, past Larondo Lake. Schuyler’s aunt lives there. He has no other living relatives.”

“Thank you, sir. Very much obliged to you for your help. If I was you, I’d forget about Jake Schuyler and Olivia Jean Suggs; they got no interest for you no more.” Vandy walked quickly to the truck, motioning for Olivia to get inside. “Drive, drive, drive,” she chanted under her breath as she slid into the passenger seat. “If you love your life, get us out of here.”

Wasting no time, Olivia put her foot on the accelerator, watching not the road ahead but over her shoulder to see Jem grow smaller and smaller in the distance, the man vanishing at last from view. “Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed, turning her gaze back to the road. “What the hell was that? What did you do to him?”

“A little something to make him bend to my will for a minute or two,” Vandy said. The doctor’s bag on the floorboard gaped open. She snapped it closed, but not before Olivia caught a glimpse of brown glass bottles, a jumble of bags, boxes and jars. “Had I the time, I’d have crossed him proper, but a dab of Do As I Say was what I had to hand.”

“I never seen Big Jem act like that.” Awed by the other woman’s demonstration of real power, Olivia slowed the truck’s headlong flight, reducing the speed to negotiate around a bend in the road. “My mama used to sell Bend-Over oil to women,” she offered. “S’posed to make their husbands and boyfriends go all soft for them. She put honeysuckle in it, I remember, though it didn’t seem to do much. What’s in that powder of yours?”

Vandy shrugged, slumping down in the seat. “Licorice root,” she said, “and Johnny Conkeroo, that’s what I use. I’ll learn you how to find the plants one day, tell the proper words over them..” She fell silent, finally rousing after several minutes to add, “Don’t expect me to compel folks like that every day of the week, baby girl. It’s hard work, I tell you, harder’n digging ditches in Hell with a candy bar spoon.”

“But you’ll teach me how to do that to men?” Olivia asked, thinking how easy it would be to use Do As I Say to make marks fork over their earnings without a murmur instead of running a risky game on them. Why, she could be Queen of the World in no time!

“You’re in for a mort of troubles, you keep them kind of thoughts in your speckled little head,” Vandy said flatly.

Olivia flushed, touching her freckled nose. The self-consciousness did not last, driven away by other concerns, such as how did Vandy keep reading her mind? Or had she grown so transparent? She did not know which possibility frightened her more.

“Use conjure like that, you won’t tend to live very long ‘cause the first man you lay that trick on and it don’t take, he’ll kill you dead, like that.” Vandy went on, snapping her callused fingers. “Better keep it for when you need it. And quit worrying so much about money. You’ve had money, more money than some folks. What good did it do you? Are you living in a fancy house, wearin’ fancy clothes with a fancy man on your arm?”

“Don’t want no fancy man,” Olivia retorted.

“That’s as may be, but I reckon what you want ain’t money, ain’t no fancy house…no, I reckon what you want is power. You want respect, which you ain’t had in your whole life.”

“You don’t know me one bit, lady. You don’t know shit.”

Vandy made another shrug. “I’ll teach you to conjure, Miss Olive. What you do with it is your own business.”

Olivia turned on the radio, letting the music wash over her to drown out her troubled thoughts. The further she drove, the more pops, hisses and crackles of static interfered with the station’s broadcast signal until it began fading in and out, rendering Gene Austin’s crooned When Your Lover Has Gone to an occasional ghostly soft snatch of song. Flicking the radio off, the risked a glance at Vandy, who appeared to be napping.

Two hours later, her eyes scratchy from the sun’s glare and the blood warm wind, Olivia stopped the truck beside an acre or more of strawberries, long rows of green plants sprawled limp on the sandy soil as if exhausted by the heat. The farmer’s clapboard house stood in the distance, a dingy white square against a blue sky.

Vandy sat up, yawning.

“Looks like a nice place to rest a while,” Olivia said, nodding at the wide ribbon of sparkling water stretching for miles. Cypress trees lined the bank, creating an umbrella of tempting shade.

“So it seems,” Vandy said, scrubbing her palms over her face and smoothing back her wind-ruffled hair. “Well, let’s shake the dust off. I don’t suppose you have anything to eat?”

All of a sudden, it struck Olivia that her trailer was gone, left behind when she took panicked flight from the carnival, and not in evidence when she later returned to the lot. “Damn! Damn, damn, damn it to hell and Gehenna!” she cried, hitting her fist on the steering wheel. The blow hurt, but not nearly as much as the loss. Everything she owned was in that trailer: clothes, liquor, a few bits of jewelry, and her bankroll, of course—five hundred sixty-two dollars and thirty-seven cents tucked into a jar hidden behind the bed. The only things she had in the world right now were the truck, the clothes on her back, the cracked patent leather shoes on her feet, and forty-five dollars in her pocket.

Vandy had the nerve to chuckle. “It’s not the end, you know. We’ll get by.”

“Easy for you to say,” Olivia muttered.

“Let me have a chat with the farmer yonder, see if he’s a mind to sell us a bite to eat. When we get to Hartsville, there’s bound to be a store that’ll be glad of your business. We’ll get you fixed up proper.” Vandy opened the door, stepping on the running board. “Why don’t you go and cool your feet in the water? I’ll catch you up.” She went tromping between the rows of strawberry plants towards the house, her smoky red hair ablaze under the sun.

Olivia drove on until she could park the truck closer to the river bank. Taking off her shoes, she hiked up her mid-calf length skirts to her hips. The grass felt prickly under her bare feet but the water was deliciously cool when she waded out a little way. After a silent debate, she took off her dress entirely, remaining clad in a thin slip.

Her dress frankly stank from too many days of wearing it in hot weather. She wished for soap, but decided she would have to make do with slapping the dress around in the river in the hope of knocking some of the smell out of it. As she twisted water out of the garment, Vandy returned, picking her way along the river bank balancing a wooden crate in her hands.

“Fresh milk,” the woman said, “half a loaf of bread, butter, cheese, a cucumber, a tomato, and Mr. Gibson said we’re welcome to strawberries, too.” She put the crate on the ground and stood surveying Olivia. “Didn’t think to buy a ball of lye soap from his wife, ‘cause I reckoned on finding a place to stay with a bath soon as we get to Hartsville. Hey, don’t be mad, Miss Olive…that dress’ll dry out quick in this heat.”

Wading out of the river and pretending she did not notice Vandy’s bright black gaze, Olivia spread her wet dress over a cypress branch, and flopped down on the grass which scratched her skin, promising herself a soak in a bathtub later. “I’m parched,” she said, holding out a hand. “Pass me that bottle.”

Lunch tasted good. Vandy used a pocketknife to cut slices off the bread and cheese, slapping them together with butter to make sandwiches. The cucumber and tomato they ate in chunks with their fingers, washing everything down with swigs of milk. Afterwards, Vandy picked strawberries so ripe they were sweet without needing sugar. Olivia gobbled far too many for her stomach’s comfort.

Licking pink juice off her lips at last, she lay down on her back, staring up at the leafy branches above her head, moved by a steady wind to show flickers of gray-edged clouds scudding west. Brutal humidity had sweat sticking to her skin. “Think it might rain,” she said, distracted by the lingering taste of strawberries in her mouth.

“Think you might be right.” Vandy sighed. Unlike Olivia, she remained fully dressed, right down to her buttoned-up boots. “Tonight, we’ll find a place to stay. Tomorrow, we’ll find Jake Schuyler’s aunt, maybe find Jake himself.”

“What for?” Olivia asked, rolling over to prop herself on an elbow so she could peer at Vandy. “What’s Jake got that you want?”

“That wait-about fastened on your neck as a millstone won’t go away by itself,” Vandy said. “Take a gander at your shadow What do you see?”

Looking down, Olivia caught a glimpse of her shadow, just a blot around her feet in the sun where the cypress tree cast no shade. Abruptly, she went cold, her lunch surging up to clot thick in her windpipe. Attached to her feet, another shadow stretched further out, a black shape with two pipe stem legs, an inverted bell of a dress, thin arms, a fluttering mass of thread-like hair…she scrambled up, choking on a scream.

“Easy, be easy, don’t do yourself no harm.” Vandy’s hand wrapped around her ankle. The touch made Olivia shiver. “Sit down, and I’ll tell you what we’ll do.”

Slowly, cautiously, Olivia sat on the grass, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. After a comforting squeeze, Vandy’s fingers fell from her ankle.

“Told you before, wait-abouts can be right ugly,” Vandy said. “We need to get rid of the one ridin’ your shadow else it’ll surely take your life. Only way to do that is lay the girl to rest at a crossroads or in prayed-over ground like a churchyard. From what you said, Jake Schuyler killed Kathleen McCall. Stands to reason he knows where her body lies.”

O Karie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O where are you found? The mournful tune ran through Olivia’s head. She curled up tighter. “Don’t feel no different,” she whispered.

Vandy stood. “Give it time. You might find it a mite bothersome.” She paused. “You gonna run or you gonna do this right, lay that little girl to rest?”

“Ain’t going nowhere,” Olivia said, her stomach aching—from too many strawberries, or from the awful visible proof she was haunted, she did not know.

Taking the empty milk bottle, Vandy rinsed it in the river, careful not to wet her boots. The bottle and the waxed paper wrappings from the butter and cheese went into the crate, which she picked up. “Your dress looks dry to me. We’d best move on, got some miles to go yet. First, though, be sure to turn around and drive me over to the Gibson’s house, ‘cause I surely don’t feel much like stomping over Hell’s half acre to return a milk bottle.”

An hour and a half of driving brought them to Hartsville, a larger town than Pitchpine. In addition to the usual drugstore, feed and hardware store, grocery and other retail businesses downtown, Hartsville also boasted a library, a bank, a diner, a hotel, and a movie theater.

Vandy grimaced when Olivia suggested stopping at the hotel. “Word of a stranger runs through places like this faster’n grass through a goose,” she said. “We stay there, risks Jake getting word through his aunt and rabbitin’ out of here. But to be honest, I’m too tired to hunt up a boarding house, and you was promised a bath, so the Hotel Cocoanut it is.”

The clerk behind the front desk did not seem thrilled with their appearance, nor with the fact neither of them had proper suitcases, but Vandy paying for the room up front changed his manner from pompous to servile in a second. Olivia sniggered softly at the transformation, not caring when the man cut his eyes at her, the faintest sneer curling his lip. Money talked a language everybody understood, she thought, especially in the sticks.

The room was in the back of the hotel overlooking palm trees and a courtyard. A single bed, Olivia noted, but big enough for two, and the sheets were clean, the straw mattress and feather tick freshly aired. A table and two chairs stood under a window, open to let in a cooling breeze that smelled like rain.

Vandy plopped her rucksack and doctor’s bag on the dresser. “I seen worse,” she remarked. “You feel up to shopping?”

Olivia thought longingly of the bathroom at the end of the hall, but conceded to Vandy’s suggestion. Dragging herself out of the hotel and down the sidewalk, she let Vandy steer her to the department store where she selected some clothing and a suitcase to hold everything. Vandy paid the bill, and Olivia let her, figuring the woman owed her for turning her life upside down. Afterwards, they went to the drugstore for other essentials, and Vandy treated her to an ice cream soda at the lunch counter.

While Olivia found the treat nice, she wondered what Vandy wanted. In her experience, people gave nothing away without expectation of repayment.

On the way back to the Hotel Cocoanut, Vandy halted outside a Baptist church on Main Street, the steeple with its gilt cross shining like real gold. A banner tacked to the front of the building read Poor Relief Fund – Raise the Spirit by Raising Money to Aid Distressed Farmers. The woman nodded at the sign. “Seems like it’d be a good idea for you to get rid of that blood money you’re carrying around..”

“What?” Olivia released the handle of her new suitcase to clutch at her dress pocket.

“You heard me. That money’s been cursed, Miss Olive,” Vandy said. “Better to give it away, let it help other people, do good works to draw off the spirit poison.”

Olivia scoffed. “I worked hard for this bankroll, and every other penny I ever earned,” she said. “Ain’t nobody never give me charity. Root, hog, or die…that’s the same rule for everybody if they want to eat good and sleep dry. I won’t give my money to no farmers. They can work or starve, same as me.”

“You’re missin’ my point. This ain’t charity. Mrs. McCall’s money is cursed. The more you spend, the worse the curse. You haven’t looked in a mirror lately, have you?” The corners of Vandy’s mouth curled up in a tiny smile that chilled Olivia’s blood.

Panicking, Olivia dashed over to a parked Packard, looking at her reflection in the side-mirror. The sight was familiar: a fall of jet black hair chopped off at the angle of her jaw, brown eyes under straight black brows, nose and cheeks sprinkled with freckles, a dimple in her chin same as her father’s. Everything seemed normal. Sighing in irritation at such a waste of time, she began turning away only to stop when a change in her reflection caught her eye. Gazing in the mirror straight on showed her what she expected, but a sideways glance told another story. A sickly sinking feeling dropped her stomach to her toes.

A naked skull, all white bone and empty eye sockets, grinned at her in the mirror.

Backing away, Olivia heard Vandy say, “Was we in the middle of nowhere, I’d tell you to burn them bills, but giving them away to a church’ll take care of the problem.”

Olivia drew the money out of her dress pocket, handling the five dollar billsgingerly, at arm’s length as if they had changed to a nest of rats about to bite. “What do I do?” she asked, her heart fluttering like a trapped wild thing.

“There’s bound to be a collection box inside.” Vandy clasped her shoulder, steering her to the door and opening it. A wave of warm air scented faintly with vanilla gusted out.

“And this’ll fix me?”

“For now.”

She did not like the sound of that, would have preferred a more definite answer to her dilemma, but standing on the sidewalk arguing about it did not get the job done. Steeling herself, she went inside, half expecting the money in her hand to burst into flames.

In the vestibule, the pine floorboards gleamed with polish. Pegs for hats and coats made a line on one wall. On the other wall, a calendar hung from a nail. Below that stood a table with a vase filled with Queen-of-the-Meadow, or Joe-Pye or purple boneset as her mother called it, the clustered flower heads a pinky-lavender color. Next to the vase stood a big glass jar with a slit in the lid, a few dollars and some coins visible. A paper label pasted to the front of the jar read Relief Fund—God Will Bless You. In a shaky old man’s scrawl, someone had added, “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty. The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.” So says God’s Good Book. Amen.

One by one, Olivia folded the bills and fed them through the lid, watching them fall to join the others in the jar. Finished, she fidgeted a moment, wondering if there was something else she ought to do—pray, maybe, but she hadn’t felt the urge to talk to that mean sumbitch Upstairs since He saw fit to kill her daddy in a mine accident.

Behind the door that led to the sanctuary, Olivia heard an organ groan as the player warmed up, then launched into a spirited rendition of Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

She left, blinking as she exited into bright sunlight.

“That’s better,” Vandy said, giving her a critical once over. “Grab your suitcase, and let’s see about that bath.”

Later in the hotel, in the blue-tiled bathroom down the hall, filling a tub with tepid water that had a rotten egg tang to it, Olivia poured in a handful of complimentary bath salts so she wouldn’t have to glimpse her reflection in the water.

The next morning after checking out of the Hotel Cocoanut, and eating a breakfast of coffee, toast and eggs in the diner, Vandy had Olivia drive to the grocery store. A brief consultation with the men already lazing on the porch playing checkers led them to a singe story white-washed house on Daly Street belonging to Jake Schuyler’s aunt, Mrs. Bernice Newman. Olivia parked the truck opposite the house.

From her doctor’s bag, Vandy produced a black candle and a vial of oil. Taking a square cut from a brown paper bag, she wrote Jake’s name nine times with a fountain pen filled with red ink, then turned the paper ninety degrees. Choosing a black ink pen, she wrote her own name nine times across his, spacing the lines of text as evenly as possible.

“I ain’t taking no chances, we need that fellow to speak if we find him,” she said to Olivia, anointing her fingertips with oil from the vial and rubbing them on the candle. Putting the paper square on the dashboard, she lit the black candle’s wick, letting wax drip on the paper a moment before securing the candle upright in its own grease.

Pointing at the candle, she murmured, “A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood are an anathema unto the LORD. From a deceitful mouth, from a froward mouth, from the false witness with wickedness in his heart, let there be uttered truth.”

Olivia watched with mingled fascination and dread. This went beyond any of the simple charms she had heard her mother speak when other women came to the house seeking help—to gain good luck in gambling, to bring straying husbands home, to receive a favorable verdict in a court case. “What’s all this for?” she asked.

“I’ve crossed his name with mine, to put my power over him,” Vandy explained, “and dressed the candle with Domination oil. Got sweet flag in it, and witch’s grass, and other stuff to bind a man’s will. It’s a stronger persuader than Do As I Say. Now, Miss Olive, tell me the truth and shame the Devil…can you pick pockets?”

The apparently nonsensical question made Olivia gape a moment before outrage set in. “Do I look like a thief to you?”

“Do you want me to answer such a damn fool question?” Vandy asked, the wrinkles fanned at the corners of her eyes deepening as she frowned. “Can you do it or not?”

“Yeah,” Olivia admitted sullenly, “I learnt how, but I ain’t real good at it.”

“You think you can put something in a man’s coat pocket without him knowing it?”

“Could try.”

Vandy made a face, but she reached into the doctor’s bag, coming up with a black flannel bag about the size of a match box. “Dried fire ants, graveyard dirt, devil’s dung, virgin scammony, broken piece of razor, sprinkled with holy water, over-spoke with words of power.” Using the point of a nail, she scratched Jake’s name on a little circle of flattened lead, which she added to the bag before pulling the drawstring tight. When she finished, she handed the flannel bag to Olivia, whose flesh crept at handling it.

“Go outside the truck and call her,” Vandy commanded.

Olivia almost asked who, but realization struck as she opened her mouth. “I ain’t callin’ no haint,” she protested, thrusting the loathsome object back at Vandy, who refused to take it from her.

“Listen, there’s more to this than finding that child’s body. You think the law will arrest Jake on account of a conjure woman hexed him to confess? Who’s gonna pay for Kathleen McCall’s death if not Jake Schuyler? If man’s law can’t touch him, a higher law will,” Vandy said starkly, pinning Olivia in place with her flat black gaze. “That trick bag is filled with ruination and damnation everlasting for whoever killed the girl. The wait-about wants retribution for a life cut short. You call her, ‘cause she’s ridin’ your shadow.”

Gulping, Olivia eyed the little black bag in the palm of her hand. “And if I don’t?”

Vandy shrugged, leaning back in the passenger seat. Smoke from the burning candle left a long smudged finger of soot on the windshield in front of her. “Then I reckon you’re gonna lose your life afore too long,” she said.

“I didn’t kill Kathleen. I didn’t!”

“So you said, but you helped Jake’s dirty scheming, didn’t you? You profited from it. Makes you as guilty as him what done the deed.”

Olivia closed her eyes, knowing Vandy was right. Unbidden, a memory of Kathleen’s face swam up from her memories—not the recent horror but as she lived, all pretty pink and white and gold, alight with simple joy, never knowing pain until the last lingering moments locked in a sweltering trunk. At last, she opened her eyes, surprised to find her cheeks wet. Wiping the tears away, she said, “Tell me what I need to do.”

A set of instructions later, Olivia found herself standing on the sidewalk in the morning sunlight. It had not rained yet, but the dark fat-bellied clouds boiling in the east promised a real frog-strangler by afternoon. Humidity wrapped around her like a sopping hot mop, but it was terror made her stink, the fear gushing acrid from her pores.

Turning so the sun fall across her to form a long shadow on the street, Olivia held the trick bag out. “Kathleen McCall, I call you once. Kathleen McCall, I call you twice. Kathleen McCall,” she said, “I call you three times.”

The breeze turned cold. Her shadow oozed, seemingly turning as liquid as bubbling tar, then transformed into a child’s shape, small and thin and somehow very, very angry. Death had stolen Kathleen’s innocence, given her strength and anun-childlike purpose.

Olivia licked her lips, repeating what she had been told to say: “Kathleen McCall, Kathleen McCall, Kathleen McCall, I call you three times.”

A thin, dry, reedy voice—a child’s voice scratchy from weeping—whispered in her ear, Not my Mama.

A powerful slap rocked Olivia on her heels. Trembling, her jaw and cheek on fire and already stiff, she said, “Kathleen McCall, I offer you retribution.”

An invisible hand slapped her chest, then her thigh through the cotton of her dress. The blows hurt, as did the sharp fingernails that tore three bloody strips from her arm. She forced herself to remain standing still.

“He hurt you, Kathleen. Jake Schuyler took your life. If you want revenge, take it.” She dangled the black flannel bag. “If you want justice, take it. I offer retribution.”

The shadow cocked its head. A blow struck Olivia, this one akin to being slugged with a concrete fist. Blood and snot flooded from her nose over her lips, the metallic taste coating her tongue. Hearing Kathleen’s wild laughter, she waited for the strike that would kill her. Instead, the shadow on the ground suddenly reared up, a flat black silhouette like a paper cut-out standing in front of her. She felt the menacing weight of its regard. The shadow leaped, but not at her. Thinning to a long snaky wisp, it flew around her head and into the trick bag she held, finally disappearing.

Olivia breathed heavily through her mouth, afraid her nose was broken.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Vandy asked, making a startled Olivia jump.

“Not bad?” Olivia spat blood on the ground. “Girl punches like Kid Berg.”

Vandy put a gentle hand on either side of Olivia’s face, turning her head this way and that as she assessed the injuries. “Beats being dead by a mile. Don’t think your nose is broke, though you’ll have one hell of a shiner before sundown. We’ll put a raw steak on it.”

“Don’t do me no favors, “ Olivia grumbled, probing the inside of her mouth with her tongue to check for loose teeth. “Now what?”

“Now we see Mr. Jake Schuyler.”

A brief delay to disinfect Olivia’s scratches with iodine and wrap a bandage around her forearm—magic supplies weren’t the only things contained in the doctor’s bag—she and Vandy walked up the porch steps and knocked on Mrs. Newman’s front door.

The knock was answered by a small nervous woman wearing a housedress, her hair in curlers covered by a pink net. “Can I help you folks?” she asked, her overly bright gaze flitting from Vandy to Olivia and back again.

“Mrs. Newman, I sure hope you can,” Vandy said, smooth as fresh butter. “Is your nephew Jake to home, by any chance?”

“J-J-J-Jake? Uh…he’s not here, hasn’t been here in some time.”

Olivia read the lie in the way the woman’s scrawny hand clutched the front of her housedress. Vandy must have seen it, too, since she said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, please excuse me,” while shouldering Mrs. Newman aside to go into the house uninvited.

Jake Schuyler waited for them in the living room, his skeletal frame disguised by loose-fitting trousers, a shirt and a jacket. On sighting Olivia, he gave her a humorless grin. “Hey there, sister, looks like you been ten rounds with a mean right hook.”

Steeling herself, Olivia went over to give him a hug, slipping the trick bag into his jacket pocket as she embraced his hard bony torso. “Good to see you, too, Jake,” she said, releasing him and stepping out of his reach.

Vandy remained to one side. In her black dress, against the living room’s pastel painted walls and fussy decor, she resembled a crow trapped in a mass of cotton candy. “Ma’am,” she said to the aunt, “do you think you might spare me a glass of water? And in the meantime, I’ll just have a friendly little chat with Jake here.”

“Oh! Oh, yes, certainly, where are my manners,” Mrs. Newman fussed, turning wide round eyes on her nephew. “I’ll just be…I’ll be in the kitchen,” she added, leaving the room.

“Who the hell are you?” Jake growled, leveling a glare at Vandy, who stuck her hand out. In an automatic reflex, he took it. When he withdrew, his fingers had a slight oily sheen. Like Big Jem, he suffered a blank moment before his body went rigid, caught by the spell.

“My name’s unimportant,” Vandy told him. “I want to talk about Kathleen McCall.”

A tremor ran through him. His face flushed. “Okey-doke,” he said, sounding more pleasant than Olivia expected. He might have been making polite chit-chat at a church social. “What can I do you for, Red?”

Vandy made no objection to the nickname. “Did you kill Kathleen McCall?”

“Yes, yes I did.”

“How did you do it?”

“A stupid accident.” A bead of sweat ran into his eye. He blinked. “I was keepin’ the brat quiet with knock-out drops, yeah, but then Wanda came over lookin’ to get some dope offa me. Man, that snake-hipped bitch was beggin’ for it, and I gave it to her all right.” The bald man cupped his crotch to make his meaning clear. “But I had to hide the kid, so I gave her an extra dose and stuck her in my old trunk. Guess Wanda fucked my brains out ‘cause I forgot about the kid until Olivia showed up screechin’ and snivelin’ about it.”

Anger put heat in Olivia’s face. Vandy laid a quelling hand on her arm. “Where did you put Kathleen’s body?” she asked.

Jake twitched. “I dumped the body in Lake Larondo on my way to Hartsville.”

Olivia felt faint. Jesus, she had waded in that water! A noise from behind made her turn to see Mrs. Newman standing in the doorway that led to the kitchen, an apron with apples printed on it pressed to her face with both hands. She could offer the woman no comfort, so she switched her attention back to Jake and Vandy.

“I want you to listen to me, Jake,” Vandy said, ignoring Mrs. Newman’s quiet muffled sobs. “We’re fixin’ to leave your aunt’s beautiful house in a minute. When we do, you’ll get in your car and follow us to Lake Larondo.”

“Sure thing, Red, I can do that, yeah,” he replied, still jovial despite the muscle jumping in his jaw, and the desperate helpless fury in his eyes.

When Vandy walked out the front door, Olivia followed, aware of Jake strolling along at their heels. In the truck, the candle still burned. A pool of soft black wax covered much of the writing “Drive to the lake,” Vandy said. When Olivia made to roll up the window, the woman stopped her. “That flame ain’t going out ‘less I tell it to,” she said.

Olivia drove to out of Hartsville to Lake Larondo, peeking every now and then into the rear view mirror to see Jake’s flashy, movie star Chrysler Imperial tooling about a car’s length behind her Ford. True to Vandy’s word, the candle flame guttered but did not blow out despite the wind of their passage. Nothing was said during the journey.

Reaching the lake, Olivia parked under a cypress tree. She remained in the truck nursing her bruises while Vandy got out, waiting for Jake to park his Imperial. When the bald man joined her, Vandy spoke to him quietly, too quietly for Olivia to overhear.

Swallowed by clouds in a leaden sky, the sun disappeared, leaving only a weak grayish light behind. A rain-laden wind sent Vandy’s smoky red hair streaming forward to hide her face. Olivia watched as Jake waded fully clothed into the lake, each stride taking him deeper and deeper, the water rising to his knees, his waist, the middle of his chest.

He stopped.

The candle flame went out with a sound like the softest sigh.

Olivia gripped the steering wheel, her stomach aching worse than her battered face.

A swirling began in the water, centered around his body. Jake’s expression turned to utter horror. His mouth falling open to let out a bellow that reached Olivia’s ears, he scrambled towards the shore only to jerk to a stop. His scream took on a shrill, disbelieving note as the water around him billowed with red. Pulling his arm free of the whirlpool, he stared at the blood-spouting stump where his hand used to be.

Jake’s scream was cut off as some force yanked him under. He surfaced after several moments with water and incoherent yells bubbling out of his mouth, flailing and splashing with handless arms, his face a bloody ruin with a single eye bulging white from the socket. Olivia sat there, no longer shaking but numb as she watched him sucked under the lake again, and this time, the mutilated man did not reappear.

The agitated swirling gentled, finally ceasing all together.

A trunk bobbed to the surface, sedately floating to the shore where Vandy waited.

Remaining in the driver’s seat, Olivia waited, listening to the scrape and bump of Vandy loading the trunk into the truck’s bed.

A few minutes later, the woman opened the passenger side door, sliding onto the seat . Her boots and the hem of her black dress were wet. She took a pack of cigarettes from her pocket, scraping a match into flame with her thumbnail. Lighting both cigarettes, she passed one to Olivia, saying, “There’s a crossroads three miles back. I’ve got one of them folding shovels in my rucksack. Think we can beat the rain?”

Taking a drag off her cigarette, Olivia looked at the lowering sky, feeling clean for the first time in what seemed like years. The future stretched ahead—not the one she would have chosen, but it would have to do. “Yeah,” she replied, starting the engine, “I think we can. How long’s it gonna take you to dig a hole six feet deep?”

Vandy blew smoke out the window. “Aw, Miss Olive, that hole I’m fixin’ to dig is for the crossed paper and candle.” Her smile made her briefly handsome. “Always bury your conjure work at a crossroads when it’s done, or throw it in running water. As for sweet Kathleen…that girl’s mama deserves to know what happened to her child, so we’ll drop the trunk off at the church in Pitchpine if that suits you, and then be on our way.”

Thinking of the fat woman with her hennaed spit-curls, and the raw piteous pouring out of her grief, Olivia nodded. “Suits me fine.” She flicked the radio on, unsurprised when the mournful strains of a violin filled the cab as she drove the truck onto the road.

O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O why you away?
‘Cause he took me, ‘cause he took me, on a darkened and gray dismal day.
O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O what of his crime?
He will die, he will die, and I will be revenged in my time.”

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Flowers of Edo: a Ghost Story is in print and available at Amazon.com and other on-line retailers. A novel of history and horror from award-winning author Nene Adams.

“Kazuko has tattoos on her body and deadly secrets in her heart. Employed as a house guard in a brothel in the infamous Yoshiwara pleasure district of Edo, the Shogun’s capital city, she also earns money intimidating gamblers who owe debts to the local gang. The life she has built with her disfigured lover, Mayumi, is good until the day the gang boss, Oni, hires her to kill a samurai who jilted his daughter. Her blood-soaked act unleashes a powerful spirit of vengeance that threatens to destroy everyone around her, including those she would sacrifice her life and her soul to protect. For Kazuko to save herself and Mayumi, she must overcome terrifying supernatural threats as well as the violent hazards known as the “Flowers of Edo.” A ghost bent on destruction…A city in flames!”

CHAPTER EIGHT

There is no death
There is no life—
The skies are cloudless
And the water is clear

Chidori’s eyes bulged, the whites speckled with blood flecks where tiny veins had burst. Her lips were drawn back to show her blackened teeth in a fearsome rictus. Urine streamed down her legs, soaking the mats beneath her.

Madam Hayate entered the room, her scowl turning to a look of blank astonishment, followed by horror. Without saying a word, she turned around and stumbled out. As if waiting for this cue, the other women in the room—prostitutes, maids and servants—fled in mass panic. In moments, Kazuko found herself alone with Chidori and her invisible attacker.

No, not quite alone, she thought as she caught sight of a figure out of the corner of her eye. Turning to meet the new threat, Kazuko saw a young girl wearing the same purple furisode, her black hair disheveled, her hands limp and dangling uselessly from her wrists. More disturbing, the girl hovered a few inches in the air, making clear her lack of legs.

Kazuko recognized her as the same girl she had seen on the path from Jigoku shrine, but she now realized the “girl” was actually a yūrei—a ghost.

She wanted to run, but a strong sense of duty held her in place despite the fear that sent a chill crawling over her skin, trickling down her spine to pool like ice water behind her navel. Gripping the hilt of her jutte, she tried to remember how to breathe though her lungs protested. Cold suffused her, making her movements stiff and clumsy, but still she forced herself to go to Chidori, whose struggles were becoming weaker.

Dropping her jutte, Kazuko began tugging at the obi around Chidori’s neck, but found it was like struggling with an agile serpent. Her fingertips slipped again and again, her nails sometimes scoring Chidori’s skin. The obi constantly evaded her grasp as if had a mind of its own. Wishing for a knife, she gasped when one end of the sash shot straight up, wrapping around a ceiling beam. Within seconds, Chidori was drawn up onto her toes, then her feet left the floor entirely as she was hoisted kicking into the air.

Desperate, Kazuko grabbed Chidori’s legs, trying to support the young woman’s surprisingly solid weight while flailing at a nearby cosmetics case, finally knocking the lid off. Unable to get close enough to see inside, she rooted around the contents by feel, finding and rejecting several combs, cakes of pressed powders, charcoal sticks, gourd bottles … at last, something sharp sliced her finger, a stinging stripe of pain she welcomed since it meant she had finally found the hairdresser’s razor.

Balancing Chidori on her shoulder, Kazuko hooked a stool with her foot, drawing it nearer. “Take a breath!” she ordered. “Do you hear me? Take a breath and hold it.”

Presuming Chidori obeyed, Kazuko eased her down onto the stool, but the obi yanked the young woman up again so that her toes scrabbled above the wooden surface. She did not have much time. By scrambling onto the stool herself, Kazuko was just able to reach the length of obi stretched between Chidori and the ceiling beam. She sawed at it, the pale pink silk parting under the razor’s edge, but slowly. Too slowly, she realized when Chidori began jerking, urine running down her legs, and finally went limp.

Kazuko hacked at the obi, sweat running down her face despite the cold that frosted her breath. Finally, the silk parted with a tearing sound. Chidori dropped straight down to lie crumpled in a heap her pretty face bloated, blood on her mouth where she had bitten her lips. The young woman’s eyes were fixed open, wide and unblinking..

Although Kazuko carefully cut through the part of the obi around Chidori’s throat, in her haste, the razor also severed several locks of the young woman’s hair. The cut ends of the black strands prickled her wrists as she worked. The moment it was possible, she flung the pieces away from her. Chidori did not move, did not breathe, did nothing except lie there staring upward, looking like a broken doll. Perhaps a doctor or a priest might have saved her life, but Kazuko did not own the powers of medicine or prayers.

Standing from her crouch, Kazuko turned to the corner where she had seen the yūrei, but it was gone. A slight slithering sound caught her ear. Shifting her gaze from the dead prostitute, Kazuko saw the pieces of the obi racing along the floor, fusing together to form a single length. Her heart gave an unsettling lurch when the newly formed obi undulated under a table like the snake she had mentally compared it to earlier. Sick with revulsion, Kazuko took a cautious step, then another, but stopped when Chidori let out a hiss.

Her spirits rose a bit despite the frightening circumstances. Relieved she had been mistaken about Chidori’s demise, Kazuko whirled around to find herself facing a figure drawn from the depths of nightmares.

It was Chidori, but not the young woman she knew. This Chidori floated an inch or two in the air the tips of her toes scraping the mats as her legs swung to and fro. She hung gracelessly in space, all limp loose limbs and tangled, half shorn hair, her hands clasped together in front of her. Chidori’s face remained horribly bloated, her eyes still wide in a death-stare, but Kazuko sensed an intelligence lurking under the dead woman’s skin, inhabiting the place where her soul had been before the life was choked out of her.

Fear beat like a brazen gong in Kazuko’s head when a small, long-tailed fireball suddenly blazed to life, dripping pale blue flames and bobbing next to the floating corpse—a hitodama, according to folklore: the spirit of the newly dead.

You, a voice whispered, the word coming from inside Chidori’s bloodstained mouth. Kazuko noted with dumb horror that Chidori’s lips did not move.

You, the spirit possessing Chidori’s dead flesh continued, gaining volume. You…and my father…now I cannot find… him.

Kazuko forced herself to speak, each word scratching through her dry throat and leaving it raw. “Who? Who do you want?” she asked. “Your father?”

You took… what was… mine.

The lavishly decorated furisode Chidori wore changed color, the embroidery disappearing, the murasaki purple bleeding away to leave the silk as white as a burial robe. The air filled with the choking stink of burning hair, making Kazuko nauseous. As the smell waned, Chidori’s body collapsed, the furisode resuming its normal appearance, then vanishing altogether, leaving the young woman dressed in a red under-kimono.

An uneasy hollow rush in her gut left Kazuko trembling. Her knees giving out, she fell next to Chidori’s body and lay there, her stomach heaving. Closing her eyes, she tried to control herself, exerting every ounce of will to still her shaking limbs. The smell of burning hair was gone, replaced by the odor of piss from the puddle less than a hand’s breadth from her nose. Opening her eyes, she saw the young woman’s body in an awkward sprawl, the under kimono rucked up to her thighs. The possessing spirit appeared to be have fled.

Kazuko rolled over, abruptly remembering the obi and how it had slithered under a table, a hidden threat that might emerge at any moment. Alarm clenching in her chest, she scrambled up and backed out of the room. Bumping into someone, she turned to confront Madam Hayate. The skinny little woman was wild-eyed, her mouth working silently as if she chewed on curses. It took Kazuko a moment to capture her attention.

“Chidori is dead,” she reported, trying and failing to maintain a stoic expression.

Madam Hayate shook her head, still looking shocked. “Most regrettable,” she said in a low voice that did not resemble either the girlish chirp she used for customers, or the uncouth staccato bark reserved for the servants, employees and prostitutes working under her roof. She sounded lost, and Kazuko felt an unexpected sympathy.

“I will have to buy another girl child from the country, and hope famine drives the price down,” Madam Hayate continued muttering to herself. “A lengthy apprenticeship, expensive lessons, hairdressers, kimono, teahouse fees… all for nothing! Maa! Why did that stupid Chidori have to commit suicide? I’ll lose double income until the new girl is trained!”

Her pity evaporating, Kazuko shrugged. It was clear that Madam Hayate would deny the evidence of her eyes in favor of a more mundane explanation for Chidori’s death. No doubt other witnesses would do the same. “Shall I fetch the police?” she asked.

“For a whore’s suicide? There’s no reason to involve them. I’ll send someone to the temple for a priest. Yet another expense!” Her vexation clear, Madame Hayate stumped off, leaving Kazuko to deal with the sniveling servants and shocked prostitutes.

As she had predicted, no one admitted to having seen Chidori attacked by a ghost. Instead, as the evening progressed, the servants recovered to gossip about how sad Chidori had seemed lately, how she had been disappointed by a lover, or forced to take the abortionist’s medicine to be rid of an unwanted child… every excuse for suicide they could imagine, including rehashing the plots of several well-known kabuki plays.

Fortunately, none of the customers caused trouble. Kazuko spent most of her shift sitting on the bench by the open front door, staring outside, thinking about what she had seen and heard. Now that some time had passed, she found the incident increasingly unreal. Had she really seen a yūrei kill Chidori? Impossible, yet she had no reason not to trust her senses.

Why had the ghost in the purple furisode killed Oni, Fujiwara and Master Odake as well? Kazuko had no doubt the “girl” she had seen was responsible for the rash of so-called suicides. Was it some kind of vengeance? What did it have to do with her? What about the curse? Who had put it on her, and what did it mean? Were these things connected? Questions flew round and round in her mind, unanswered and possibly unanswerable.

When the brothel closed, the last customer escorted to the door and bowed away, Kazuko returned home to Mayumi, carefully not discussing what had happened. After a late night snack of roasted sweet potatoes, she fell asleep while listening to her lover read from The Tale of Genji. In her troubled dreams, handsome Genji transformed into a purple skinned demon who pursued her through a landscape filled with the dead. Over and over, the demon whispered, you took what was mine, until Kazuko woke drenched in sweat.

In the morning after breakfast, unable to endure Mayumi’s concerned glances any longer, she walked to the low-class teahouse where Old Tsurayuki had directed her to find the mysterious woman named Reiko who might help her. On the way, she stopped at a shop to buy bean paste candy wrapped in colorful paper as a visiting gift.

When she arrived at the teahouse, four roughly dressed men lolled on the dilapidated building’s veranda drinking from jugs of shōchū, a strong distilled brew favored by the lower classes. The men stared at Kazuko, their expressions hard and suspicious. She kept her gaze lowered, slipping off her sandals and putting them in a rack provided for the purpose. Going inside, she was unpleasantly surprised when no one greeted her. In fact, it took several minutes before anyone noticed her.

At last, a slovenly waitress answered her question. “Upstairs,” the woman replied, rudely scratching her head with the stem of an unlit pipe. Dandruff scattered on the shoulders of her dark blue kimono, a few stray flakes floating into the tea bowls she carried on a tray. Kazuko made a mental note to accept noting to eat or drink while she was there. The waitress continued with an impatient sigh, “Go to the room at the end. You can find your own way.”

Disgusted by the waitress’ lack of manners and equal lack of hygiene, Kazuko went up the staircase as directed, kicking a dead rat out of her way, much to the annoyance of a white cat who hissed at her. In the room at the end of the narrow hall, a soft bloom of light shone behind the closed shoji’s paper panes. Kneeling down, Kazuko opened the door, clearing her throat with a polite, “Ano,” to warn the occupant of her presence.

“Please step in,” a woman called from inside the room.

Kazuko stood, but knelt again as soon as she entered the room, sliding the package of candy towards the middle aged woman kneeling opposite her. “Good morning. My name is Muna. Please accept this trifling thing,” she said as etiquette demanded. “Are you Reiko?”

Ohayō, Muna-san. Yes, I am Reiko.” After tucking the candy into her sleeve, the woman put her hands together, resting them in her lap. In contrast to the waitress downstairs, she was well groomed, her black kimono paired with a blue and grey tiled obi. Buddhist prayer beads were wrapped around her bony wrist. “Will you take tea?”

“No, thank you.” Kazuko let her gaze drift around the room. Unusually for the time of year, no charcoal brazier burned, but enough residual heat seeped through the floor from downstairs to keep the temperature on the edge of tolerable. A small cabinet, a portable shrine, a round container filled with sand, and a table were the only furnishings.

When she looked at Reiko, she realized the woman’s pupils did not dilate in the oil lamp’s light. Reiko was blind. “Excuse me for disturbing you,” Kazuko said. “I was told—”

“That you have been cursed?” Reiko interrupted. “Was it Tsurayuki who sent you?”

“Yes.”

Reiko’s lips twitched “If Tsurayuki sent you, the curse comes from the dead.”

Kazuko stiffened. The fortune teller had told her: I never take money from those whom death has touched. “Who is it?” she asked, wondering if Magistrate Ochi had somehow crawled out of a well-deserved Hell to torment her further.

“Has someone in your family died recently?”

“No. I killed a samurai in an honor duel, but the spirit I saw was female.”

“You saw it?” Reiko sucked air through her teeth in astonishment. “Maa!”

“And it spoke to me.” Kazuko repeated what the ghost had told her.

Reiko digested the information. Finally, she said, “Muna is not your true name. Do not be angry You need not tell me; I have no interest in knowing who you are.”

Making a neutral grunt, Kazuko hid her surprise at the woman’s perceptiveness. Not even Mayumi knew her real identity. “An innocent girl was strangled by a ghost last night while I watched it happen,” she said, a mix of anger and guilt at her failure to save Chidori curdling deep inside her. “Other people have died, too—people known to me, connected to me. What have I done? Does this have to do with the ghost? Why have I been cursed? Which gods must I appease?”

Reiko did not answer Kazuko’s questions. Instead, she posed one of her own. “You’re certain you didn’t recognize the onryō?”

“I’m certain.” Kazuko strove for calm. According to popular folktales, an onryō was a particular kind of ghost driven by an insatiable need for revenge—and not necessarily revenge against a particular person. Sometimes, an onryō tried to wreck the lives of any innocent person who came into contact with it, or the object or location it haunted. If this spirit was targeting her for some reason, Mayumi might also be in danger. “But it can’t be an onryō,” Kazuko went on. “When I saw it, the ghost wasn’t wearing funeral robes.”

“Is that so?” Reiko’s eyebrows rose.

“It wore a purple silk furisode.”

“How curious! Well, not every ghost will show itself as if it comes from a kabuki play, you know. Obviously the furisode is important.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Can you tell me anything else?”

Kazuko shook her head. Remembering Reiko could not see her, she replied aloud, “There’s nothing else. I’ve told you everything.”

Reiko rose, moving to the cabinet and withdrawing several items: an incense bundle, a catalpa wood bow, a slender bamboo rod, and a large doll wrapped in silk brocade. The bow’s seemingly incongruous presence informed Kazuko the woman was an itako, a shaman skilled in ancient traditions who healed illnesses by calling on the gods, but also specialized in the ritual of “bringing down” the dead to speak to the living.

“Can you help me?” Kazuko asked, but Reiko remained silent.

After kneeling and arranging the items in front of her, Reiko lit the incense in the lamp’s flame. Thin smoke ribbons weaved upward from the sticks, perfuming the air with the pleasant, slightly bitter scents of aloes wood, camphor and Chinese herbs. Reiko stuck the incense into the sand-filled container, then picked up the doll, offering it to Kazuko.

About as long as her forearm, the doll’s head was a round polished knob of mulberry wood, the surface carved with the merest suggestion of features. Somehow, Kazuko knew the doll represented a female figure. A rich, red brocade splattered with gold swaddled the doll’s truncated, stick-like body, the cloth bundle tied in the middle with a silken cord. Unsure what she was supposed to do with it, she held the doll between her hands.

“Whisper your true name to it,” Reiko instructed.

Feeling awkward, Kazuko obeyed, putting her lips to the doll’s head.

“Think of the onryō you saw,” Reiko went on, laying the bow across her lap. “Picture it in your mind. Imagine the shape of the onryō’s face, every feature in detail if you can.” She started the ritual by beating time with the rod on the bowstring with one hand, while rubbing her prayer beads with the fingers of the other hand.

The two sounds—the bowstring’s musical twang and the dry rustling click of the beads—were soon joined by Reiko chanting in a harsh reedy voice, “Ichi no yumi mazu uchinarasu yumi no hatsune yo ba…” as she invited divine beings to attend the ritual. She also called upon Kazuko’s life-gods and the Bodhisattvas who had guarded her from birth. This went on for several minutes while Kazuko waited, still holding the doll.

Reiko switched to a new chant, this one calling upon the onryō Kazuko had witnessed. Lacking a date of death, she incorporated the purple furisode as an identifying element. Soon she began to sway back and forth, clearly entering a trance.

Remaining quiet, unwilling to disturb the ritual, Kazuko soon noticed the incense smoke had changed. Instead of drifting towards the ceiling, the threads of smoke clung together, forming a ball that hovered over Reiko’s head. In the center of the ball, a hazy image started to form. Fascinated despite herself, she stared at the phenomena until a sharp rending crack jerked her attention to the doll she had been unknowingly squeezing in her hands.

A horizontal split had appeared in the doll’s wooden head in the same place as its vestigial mouth. Kazuko watched in alarm, the split widening until a jagged, gaping dark hole marred the doll’s face. Hoping she had not ruined Reiko’s property, she was about to gingerly put the doll down when she heard a thin, high voice echoing the itako’s chant.

The voice came from the doll.

______________________________________________________________________________________

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CHAPTER ONE
“Give Me the Pomegranate Wine!”

The William R. Stallybrass Memorial Library
St. James’s Street, London, England
1890

At such moments, Miss Felicity Smith cursed the interest in antiquarian books that had led to her current employment. Most days, attending the absent-minded scholars who drifted into the Stallybrass library required an endless supply of patience, and an equally endless supply of handkerchiefs (for mopping up spilled ink, as well as smeared butter and bread crumbs from surreptitious luncheons). Today, however, the challenge was greater than usual.

Held by a gentleman dressed in a tailored suit, the revolver muzzle pointed at her head seemed as large as a cannon’s bore. Felicity straightened her spine, wincing as the vertebrae crackled. She had been trying to reason with this madman for ten minutes at least, and her first fear had long given way to irritation.

“I want that book, damn you!” the gentleman insisted.

“And I shall tell you once again,” Felicity replied, schooling her features to maintain a librarian’s stern mask, “as I have done several times already, this is not a public house, sir. Pray moderate the volume of your voice, and mind your language. There is a lady present.”

His hand trembled, as did the revolver, but only for a split-second before the trembling ceased. “You’re being deliberately difficult,” he said, flushing with anger. “I was told The Pomegranate Wine of Inherkhawy is here, at this library, and I will have it! Give it to me! Give me the Pomegranate Wine! Are you not in possession of your wits, woman? I have a weapon! If you want to live, give me what I want, or I will shoot you where you stand!”

Bristling, Felicity suppressed the desire to box his ears. The man acted like a spoiled petulant child denied a sweet. Had he stamped his foot and burst into tears, the resemblance would have been perfect. “Were you in possession of your wits, my good man,” she said with exaggerated patience, “you would have told me the title of the book you desire as soon as you came into the library, rather than stand there blustering in such a ridiculous fashion.”

“Just give me the book!” he demanded.

“I cannot.”

He seemed astonished. “You defy me?”

“This is a private lending library. The Pomegranate Wine of Inherkhawy has been lent to one of our subscribers,” Felicity took great pleasure in telling him. “It is due to be returned in a fortnight.”

His mouth worked but no sound emerged. At last, he gulped air, his throat working, gazing around the room as if seeking a more helpful assistant. There was no one else, Felicity could have told him. The other librarian—seventy years old, half-deaf, half-blind and over fond of cherry brandy—was no doubt napping in his office following his usual mid-morning tipple. “Get it back,” the gentleman ordered after a moment, looking pleased by the idea. “Yes, you can get the book back. I’ll wait. It can’t be long.”

“Allow me to explain a simple fact which seems to have escaped you,” Felicity snapped, tilting her chin to its most imperious angle. “A firearm is not a magic wand. You cannot simply wave it about and expect your wishes to be fulfilled. The book is not here. It has been lent. I cannot simply ‘get it back.’ That is not the way the Stallybrass library serves its subscribers..”

“I’m not afraid to shoot you,” he said, gesturing with the revolver.

“So I gathered.” Felicity did not mean to sound quite so dry.

. Instantly, his expression turned to stone, as if she had accused him of cowardice. “I survived the march to Kandahar in ’80 with General Roberts, you know.” The last was spoken with a fleeting air of pride.

“Ah, an Army officer,” Felicity said, taking a closer look at him. The gentleman was well-groomed, freshly shaved apart from the dark moustache that smothered his upper lip. The suit made of dark blue superfine bore the unmistakable perfection of Saville Row tailoring. His hair pomade smelled of sandalwood, the fragrance clashing with the gin-and-tonic scenting his breath. He seemed little different from the normal London boulevardier, likely a younger son of the peerage, moneyed and idle. Lavender gloves covered his hands, but his complexion did seem rather swarthy for an Englishman. The ruining effect of a tropical sun, she decided, that even a decade home had failed to fully heal.

“85th King’s Light Infantry,” he said. “Captain Montgomery Hamilton, if you’ll pardon the impertinence of introducing myself,” he added with a slight sneer.

“The ‘Young Bucks,’” Felicity said, recalling the regiment’s nickname.

“Why, yes!” Hamilton was too surprised to maintain a threatening air. His manner changed, as if they were exchanging polite chit-chat at a garden party given by a mutual acquaintance. “Do you have a brother, madam, or was it your father…?”

“My uncle commanded a company of Bengal sappers before his retirement.”

Hamilton paused to think. “Not Colonel Harland Smith?” he asked.

“The same,” Felicity replied, bemused by the sudden switch in his attitude.

“The officers used to call him Old Deuteronomy, you know, on account of his beard,” Hamilton said, giving her a small but genuine smile. “Fell below the bottom of his waistcoat, it did, astonishingly thick and luxurious. His orderly combed it out every morning. The wogs thought it brought them luck. Practically a separate entity, that beard. Very Biblical.”

“So I gathered when last I saw Uncle Harland, who retired to Sussex to keep bees. The famous beard is now a veritable hedge that has swallowed his face from eyebrows to chin, much to my Aunt Dorcas’s disgust.” Felicity attempted to return his smile but her face felt stiff, and all she could manage was a grimace. “Now that we know one another better, Captain Hamilton, perhaps you’ll be good enough to lower your weapon.”

“Not until I have that book, Miss Smith.” The friendliness melted away, leaving him resolute. “I must have it. If the volume is not here, tell me where it may be found.”

“Captain, I refuse to give you confidential information regarding our subscribers!” Felicity stood firm. She refused to set Hamilton upon an innocent person. Perhaps if she gave him an excuse to leave, he would go away, allowing her time to inform the authorities. “I can alert you when the book becomes available,” she offered. “You are not a subscriber, but as a favor I will grant you access during regular business hours to study the Pomegranate Wine of Inherkhawy, and you may even use my own office for privacy if you wish.”

“You don’t know what it’s been like, this hell, this awful living death,” Hamilton said, looking haunted. The revolver began trembling again. Felicity tried not to look at it. “The doctor said it will make me mad,” he continued. “The disease will make me mad, then I’ll rot and I’ll die, Jesus help me.” He let out a sound like a sob.

“What disease?” Felicity asked in bewilderment. “And what does Pomegranate Wine have to do with it?”

“It’s the cure, damn you.”

“The cure for what disease? Come, sir,” she added when Hamilton shook his head, “tell me. Perhaps I can suggest a different book to suit your purpose.” That would do as well, she thought. Anything to make this madman leave the library before poor addled Mr. Ludwell woke from his nap and came blundering into the scene.

Hamilton hesitated, finally bursting out, “The French disease, madam!”

“Cholera?” she asked, still groping for his meaning. “Measles? Influenza?”

“No, the Great Pox,” he said bitterly. “An infection I got from a Haymarket whore, damn her, and damn you, too.” His finger tightened on the trigger. At that moment, Felicity believed he might shoot. She held her breath until he lowered the revolver. “The whore temped me,” he whispered. “Tempted me with her eyes and her body.”

Understanding dawned. Given his earlier comment about rot and insanity, she ought to have known his ailment was syphilis, which also turned its sufferers violent in the later stage. As an unmarried woman, Felicity supposed she should have no knowledge about such immoral things as venereal disease and prostitution, but curiosity and a catholic taste in books had led her to read some very enlightening literature published by the Reform House for Fallen Women around the corner. The illustrations were particularly eye-opening.

“You understand now, don’t you?” Hamilton pleaded. “It isn’t my fault. The whore tempted me. I was told by a friend I’ll find the cure within the book’s pages, so you see I must have it. I must! If you don’t give it to me, you’ll be guilty of murder.”

Caught by the remembrance of an intriguing illustration in a Reform House pamphlet on marital relations—the positions of the figures seemed ambitious at best, not to mention somewhat ridiculous—her mind had wandered. However, this patently absurd assertion by Hamilton recaptured her attention in a way the revolver could not. “Captain, I assure you Pomegranate Wine is a collection of Egyptian love poetry written by an Eighteenth Dynasty court harpist, translated into German and English by Dr. A.B. Liebing in 1872,” she said crisply. “How can poetry possibly provide a cure for your illness?”

He turned a sickly shade of grey. “Love poetry?”

“Yes.”

“Not a book of ancient medical cures?”

“Not at all,” Felicity said, reaching over to pat his arm. She went on, almost sorry for the man, “Your friend has deceived you, either willingly or through error.”

“But Eddie told me!” Hamilton cried in disbelief.

Felicity sighed. “You can no more expect a cure for syph… er, your unfortunate affliction from Pomegranate Wine, sir, than to find a discourse on Dr. Fordyce’s sermons for young ladies in a copy of Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight.” She had tried to read Sir Richard Burton’s translation, but found the text far too florid. “Perhaps your friend meant you to consult the Ebers Papyrus, which is an ancient Egyptian medical text. It can be found, I believe, in the University of Leipzig’s collection.”

Hamilton’s shoulders slumped. He wiped the palm of his free hand across his sweaty forehead. “You’re lying,” he said, clearly attempting to sound more confident than he felt. The weakness in his voice gave the effort away. “I don’t believe you.”

“Nevertheless, I’ve spoken nothing only the truth,” Felicity said. Sugar-coating unpleasant facts did no good, in her opinion. Pretty lies and sympathy would not help Hamilton, and it was high time this farce ended. It was nearing eleven o’clock, and she expected the postman to make the second morning delivery any moment. “Your disbelief changes nothing,” she continued. “You will find no magical cure here. I suggest you return to your doctor’s surgery and do as he tells you. That is your best course of action.”

“Liar!” Hamilton sobbed, leveling the revolver at her. “You’re a damned liar and a…”

Felicity never learned what else she was, for at that moment a woman appeared behind Hamilton, rapping him smartly on his head with a walking cane. He dropped without a sound, the revolver skidding across the floorboards to disappear beneath a bookcase.

The unexpected turn of events rooted Felicity to the spot. Her astonished gaze traveled from the unconscious man sprawled near the Astronomy section to the woman standing over him. The stranger owned a face too sharp-boned for beauty, Felicity thought. A generous mouth was her best feature. Dark blonde hair was pulled into a simple chignon. She wore a violet silk dress, the sort of garment easily purchased prêt-a-porter at any London department store. Keen blue eyes returned Felicity’s stare, and Felicity tried to suppress a sudden blush.

“Forgive me,” the woman said, taking a step forward and politely offered a gloved hand. “Miss Minerva Walcott, madam, how d’you do? When I came inside, I noticed the gentleman was threatening you, and took the liberty of intervening.”

Felicity murmured her own name, shaking Minerva’s hand. She was astonished by the woman’s bold action. Most ladies would have fainted, screamed themselves hoarse or run away. Hearing a groan, she bent to check if Hamilton had roused. He remained unconscious, but Felicity thought she had better turn him over to the authorities as soon as possible. “Thank you,” she said to Minerva. “I appreciate your assistance. It was quite opportune.”

“You are welcome, Miss Smith.”

To her chagrin, Felicity realized she had begun patting her hair to check for loose pins, and made herself to stop. This was no time to preen. “I suppose we had better summon a constable to deal with Captain Hamilton. He’s quite mad, I’m afraid.”

Minerva’s eyebrow twitched upward. “Well, that explains why he threatened to shoot such a perfectly charming lady. Are you hurt at all?” she asked, opening the beaded reticule hanging from her wrist.

It was Minerva who demonstrated charm, Felicity decided, her cheeks growing warm under that steady blue-eyed regard. “I’m unharmed, I assure you,” she replied, waving aside the bottle of smelling salts Minerva offered.

“Shall we step outside and see if a constable is in the immediate vicinity? I will stay with you, if you don’t mind,” Minerva said, returning the bottle to her reticule.

“I will be grateful for the company.” Despite the calm façade she had maintained for Hamilton’s benefit, Felicity’s nerves were frazzled. Taking as deep a breath as her corset allowed, she led Minerva through the library. As they paced toward the door, she became aware of Minerva’s scrutiny, and knew how she must appear: her cursed ungovernable chestnut curls springing out of their restraining pins in messy corkscrews; her oval face, too pale, too bland to be interesting; the snuff-brown dress she wore at least three years out of date. Felicity found herself wishing she had chosen the newer pink gown that morning, which might at least have lent a touch of color to her countenance.

“Your father is Professor Rowland Smith, is he not?” Minerva asked suddenly.

“Yes,” Felicity answered with some surprise. “Do you know him?”

“By reputation only. He was a professor at Oxford, and now collects books, I believe.”

“Father is always hunting rare volumes.”

“Would he be here, by any chance? Perhaps I’m being forward, Miss Smith, but I appreciate an introduction. My brother was a pupil of Professor Rowland’s,” Minerva explained, “and I have often wished for the opportunity to thank him.”

“I regret Father isn’t in England at the moment,” Felicity replied “He’s in Buda-Pesth negotiating the purchase of a 1588 second edition of Maestlin’s Epitomie Astronomiae. I’m afraid he’s often away on business.”

Minerva’s glance was sympathetic. “His absences must be very trying for you.”

“I enjoy my work in the library, Miss Walcott. Father’s trips abroad do not inconvenience me in the slightest.” Felicity paused at a small table near the entrance to put on her brown felt hat, tying the ribbon under her chin. A mirror hung on the wall next to the brass plaque announcing the library’s opening hours, but she did not look into it. Telling herself that vanity was unbecoming in a spinster, Felicity took a parasol from the elephant’s foot umbrella stand—a hideous relic of his salad days in India, Mr. Ludwell claimed, but she suspected a second-hand shop was the true source—and gestured for Minerva to precede her out the door.

It was a beautiful spring day, the sky a clear cloudless blue that reminded Felicity of Wedgwood pottery. It might have been very pleasant had St. James’s Street not been such a busy thoroughfare. The day’s beauty was shattered by the sheer unbroken rush of traffic flying from Piccadilly to Pall Mall and back again. Horse’s hooves churned up the muck that coated the road, cart and carriage wheels rattled, drivers shouted abuse at each other, and the air smelled strongly of dung, dust and coal smoke.

Felicity spotted a sleek black carriage standing a few yards away. Remembering the cigar store next door, she wanted to dismiss the vehicle from her mind, but the scrap of fustian attached to the door seemed odd. There could be only one reason for it, but why did the nobleman who owned the carriage want to cover the painted crest to conceal his identity?

She glanced around for a constable, turning to address Minerva. Without warning, a rag clamped over her nose and mouth. Startled and no little frightened, Felicity instinctively sucked in a breath, recognizing too late the sweet odor of chloroform. She stiffened, clawing at the muscular arm looped around her neck, but her attacker was unrelenting, the chloroform fumes potent. Fear gripped her no less mercilessly than the man who held her immobile. The Wedgwood sky whirled around her. From a distance, she thought she heard Minerva speak.

“Do not be alarmed, Miss Smith,” Minerva said. “No harm is meant to you.”

No harm? Dizzied, her head spinning, Felicity’s eyes drifted shut. She slumped in a semi-swoon, unable to stand on legs weakened by the drug..

Thankfully, strong arms caught her before she completed her collapse to the pavement.
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Miss Smith & the Devil’s Library
To be published 2010 by PD Publishing

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“The yellow thread of exposure seems to be inextricably woven into all fabrics whose strength is secrecy.”
~ Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss) 1874-1926

CHAPTER ONE
London, England
December 1889

“Much gladness! Much gladness!” the Oriental magician cried cheerfully, producing a glass bowl brimming with water and two bright goldfish from the sleeve of his brocade robe.

In an excess of excitement, Rhiannon Moore crumpled the Athenaeum Theatre’s programme between her gloved hands. On the stage, the magician handed the goldfish bowl to his assistant, then he began whirling around on stiffened legs, pulling yards of colourful ribbons from his mouth and flinging them towards the audience. Earlier in his performance, he had eaten fire, caused dancing devils to appear in smoke, produced cups of coffee from an apparently empty cauldron, made his female assistant appear in a glass cage suspended above the stage, and escaped a locked trunk submerged in a tank filled with water. In terms of remarkable effects, Wu Wang certainly lived up to his billing as the Most Astonishing Celestial Conjurer in the World.

Now if only the woman sitting next to her would stop spoiling her enjoyment of the spectacle by providing practical explanations for Wu Wang’s magic tricks.

“I believe he has concealed tightly wound coils of thin silk ribbon in his mouth, tucked into his cheek or beneath his tongue,” Lady Evangeline St. Claire murmured.

Rhiannon loved Lina to distraction, but the woman’s commentary was annoying in the extreme. She wished Lina might be stricken dumb, or, at the very least, take the hint that destroying the magician’s delightful illusions with cold-minded deduction was not fair — not fair at all!

“He might even have such a coil in his sleeve,” Lina went on, “raising a hand to his mouth to create the pretence of—”

Her patience at an end, Rhiannon nudged Lina with an ungentle elbow in the ribs and hissed emphatically, “Shhh!”

Lina gave her a sidelong glance of reproach, but Wu Wang — having extracted a final length of bright scarlet ribbon from his lips, which pooled on the stage floor like a splash of blood — was about to perform the death-defying climax of his act, the one the programme called ‘Execution at the Jade Dragon’s Order’. Rhiannon would tolerate no interruptions.

With Lina subsided into sullen silence at last, she felt free to focus her attention back on the stage, where the magician was making his preparations. As Wu Wang apparently spoke no English apart from his signature phrase, ‘much gladness’, his pretty lady assistant translated the stream of sing-song gibberish that poured from his mouth.

“Since the magician Colleuw of Lorraine first penetrated the mystery of the bullet catch in the 1500s, many deaths have resulted from the performance of this magical conjuration, including that of Colleuw himself, who laid a curse upon it with his dying breath,” the translator chirped in lightly accented English. Like the magician, she was clad in a Chinese robe and loose trousers. Her black hair was fastened into two peach-shaped buns on the sides of her head, and her make-up was exaggerated, blue and yellow and scarlet over a pearl white base, making her resemble an Oriental doll.

She continued, “Wu Wang most humbly requests that the ladies and gentlemen gathered here this evening remain in absolute silence during the commission of this deadly experiment. There is a possibility that he could lose his life tonight; he must concentrate his powers if he is to emerge unscathed. The slightest sound may have devastating consequences.”

The audience remained hushed, the atmosphere strained with suspense. Lina stirred beside her and seemed about to speak. Rhiannon gave her a sharp glance and another elbowing that made her close her mouth with a snap. Satisfied Lina was not going to spoil this part of Wu Wang’s act, Rhiannon settled into her seat and prepared to be thrilled.

“It is well known in the Empire of the East,” the assistant said, “that every lady and every gentleman, no matter how high or humble their station, has the ability to channel the magnetic currents that surround us. You have the power to control the ætheric forces that are suspended between Heaven and Earth. You control Life and Death. During the bullet catch, Wu Wang asks that everyone in this theatre lend him their assistance by concentrating on creating a mental-electrical shield surrounding him, strong as steel yet insubstantial as light itself, to prevent the bullet from penetrating his body.”

A combination of newfangled electric arc lights and the more traditional limelights and gaslights glared brightly on the stage, making the colours of the painted backdrop and the performers’ sumptuous costumes appear even richer.

Rhiannon inhaled deeply, wondering whether she ought to take a whiff of the restorative vinaigrette she carried in her reticule. The air in the theatre was overheated and stuffy, redolent of cigar and cigarette smoke as well as viciously competing ladies’ perfumes, gentlemen’s colognes and fragrant hair pomades. A big bronze incense burner on the stage added to the mélange of scents with puffs of tuberose-scented smoke that made her nose itch.

The last time she had been to the theatre was during her estrangement from Lina, and while the company had been unobjectionable, the experience had not been entirely pleasant due to the blue funk she had been suffering at the time.

Rhiannon closed her eyes for a brief moment in thanksgiving. Thank God they had both come to their senses! She opened her eyes, ignoring the discomfort of perspiration trickling between her breasts — the temperature in the auditorium was stifling enough that three ladies in the Dress Circle had earlier swooned and been carried out to nearby refreshment rooms to be revived — and fixed her gaze on the stage, where the magician made a splendidly exotic sight.

In the Manchu fashion, Wu Wang’s glossy black hair had been allowed to grow long from a patch on the crown of his head. This was plaited into a queue that hung down his back to his buttocks; the rest of his head was shaved clean. His plait twitched when he brandished a gun and showed a bullet to the audience, then a blue and white porcelain dish which, he explained through the translator, he would hold in front of his body to catch the death-dealing missile. A volunteer from the audience was called for, answered from the stalls by a stout, white-haired gentleman with a military bearing. The volunteer was brought onto the stage where he was exhorted to examine the bullet to his satisfaction. After some scrutiny, he declared it genuine, and was ushered back to his seat by the lady assistant.

Throughout Wu Wang’s act, the orchestra had been playing a whimsical air with an Oriental flavour that reminded Rhiannon of Mssrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado. Now the music turned darker, the violins taking precedence with a shivering vibrato that echoed sympathetically in her body. Rhiannon could feel tension mounting in the auditorium, heightened by the oppressive heat. Apprehension and the weight of her heavy green velvet dress were smothering her. She sat straighter in her seat, trying to swallow around the growing knot in her throat. Her mouth was dry. Her nerves were drawn tight as wires. She dared not look away. Reaching out blindly, seeking reassurance, she clung to Lina’s hand.

Wu Wang stood on one side of the stage, holding the porcelain dish at arm’s length between his hands, as if the fragile thing could ever make an adequate shield. A masked and robed male assistant was on the other side of the stage, taking ostentatious aim with the gun that Wu Wang had loaded only seconds before. The orchestra music softened in volume but not intensity, the violins becoming a drone over which the reeds conversed in whispers of sound that rose trembling to a crescendo as the assistant pulled the trigger and—

Bang!

Crack!

There was a puff of white smoke. The porcelain dish shattered. Wu Wang staggered a couple of steps to the left, his slippered feet crunching on china shards.

The music faltered to a confused halt, punctuated by the flat blatting of a horn. Rhiannon screamed, as did many of the other women, the sound mingling with shocked masculine bellows. On the stage, Wu Wang looked puzzled. A crimson stain was rapidly spreading across the yellow brocade. Lifting a hand, he pushed a finger into the ragged, scorched hole in the front of his robe. His finger emerged red and dripping. Another woman screamed; the sound was shrill and sharp enough to hurt the eardrums. It was his lady assistant. She let out another shattering wail when Wu Wang collapsed to his knees.

“I’ve been shot,” Wu Wang said, breaking the shocked silence. “Close the curtain,” He spoke perfect English laced with a Scottish accent. Rhiannon could see a froth of bloody bubbles smeared across his mouth. Horrified, she gripped Lina’s hand more tightly as the curtain was hurriedly drawn across the stage, hiding the tragedy from view. The last glimpse she had of the gruesome spectacle was the lady assistant on the floor beside the fallen conjuror. The woman was crying in loud hysterical gulps, her hands clasped to her painted face.

The audience exploded in a buzz of conversation. Rhiannon heard the people around her speculating loudly. Almost all of them seemed convinced that Wu Wang had been a victim of the curse his assistant had mentioned.

After a long, patience straining moment, a gentleman in evening dress, whom Rhiannon presumed was the theatre manager, emerged onto the stage from the wings. The man was pale, his unhealthy waxen skin drawn tight over the bones of his face.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “please accept my apologies for the unfortunate interruption of Wu Wang’s performance.” He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped it across his sweaty brow. The curtain behind him billowed, ripples of disturbance flowing along its length. In an otherwise silent auditorium, the muffled sound of a man’s curse from backstage could be clearly heard. The manager flinched but went on resolutely, “We will be continuing the evening’s entertainment in a few moments, and beg your indulgence for the delay.”

He sketched a brief bow and went back into the wings. Following a cacophonous squawk, the musicians regained their composure as well as some semblance of proper tuning, and the orchestra began playing a sentimental parlour song.

The manager’s place in front of the curtain was taken by a blond young lady who had a bunch of pink roses thrust behind her ear. Her toilette showed signs of haste; there was a smear of lampblack beneath one eye, and the line of bright red pomade on her lower lip was crooked. She smoothed down her white ruffled skirts, smiled, and began to sing in a lilting soprano:

“Slowly we glided with soft breezes blowing/
Bright were the stars in the blue sky above…”

Rhiannon turned to Lina, scarcely able to credit what she had just witnessed. The magic trick had gone terribly wrong! Was Wu Wang dead or merely wounded? But how could he have survived being shot in the chest? Why had he pretended not to speak English? A slew of questions threatening to flow out of her mouth in an uncontrolled gush, Rhiannon forced herself to pause. Lina’s handsome countenance bore such a fierce scowl, her dark brows nearly met over the bridge of her nose.

“What is it?” Rhiannon asked, concerned.

“I believe that some wickedness is afoot,” Lina muttered. She rose from her seat. “In fact, I am sure of it. Come, my dear. We must act at once before vital evidence is lost.”

“What is it?” Rhiannon repeated, although she rose and followed Lina’s tall form down the aisle. Gooseflesh rose on her arms, along with a bolt of freezing cold that lanced down her spine and caused her to shudder despite the auditorium’s heat. She could not get the image of Wu Wang’s bewildered expression out of her mind. Ignoring Rhiannon’s question, Lina marched to the metal pass-door almost hidden at the right side of the stage and slipped through it. Rhiannon stayed on her partner’s heels, unwilling to be left behind.

The backstage was a claustrophobic warren of tiny rooms, corridors, and oddly crowded spaces crammed with equipment, canvas sceneries, props, racks bristling with costumes, and other theatrical paraphernalia. Stacked cages of monkeys, small dogs, and budgerigars howled, barked, and shrieked. The newfangled electric lights had not been installed here; instead, hissing gas jet sconces on the flaking, green-painted walls provided light and added to the unrelenting, stifling heat. The contrast between the elegant front of the theatre and the chaotic, shambling backstage could not have been more pronounced.

Rhiannon brushed past a woman in flesh-coloured tights and a scandalously short skirt softening what smelled like tallow in an iron dish hooked over a gaslight’s flame. Rhiannon blinked. Was the woman about to fry up a late dinner or a fantastically early breakfast? But a table held small pots of dry pigments — zinc white, yellow ochre, and vermillion were among those she recognized — as well as mixing bowls. It seemed the woman was blending her own greasepaint. Lina did that at home every so often, sitting in the study with pots and jars and other supplies, a little Bunsen lamp sizzling at her elbow while she created cosmetics for her extensive disguise kit.

Lina moved with such confidence that no one questioned her at first, not even the liveried theatre assistants who were clustered together in groups, smoking cigarettes and chattering. Rhiannon recognized some of the performers in various states of dress and undress, including Miss Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Burgoyne, a male impersonator who stood in the doorway of her dressing room looking very cool in shirtsleeves and trousers. A thin towel was looped around the woman’s neck, and a cheroot smouldered in the corner of her mouth. Geraldine’s gaze flickered over Lina briefly, lingering on Rhiannon as she walked past. Rhiannon flushed under that disconcertingly direct regard.

They penetrated deeper into the backstage area, towards the dressing rooms reserved for the principals. Rhiannon became conscious of glances being thrown her way, assessing her expensive gown, her emerald ear-bobs, the gold and opal Eros brooch, inherited from her late aunt, Lilybet Beaton and worn as a pendant on a collar of pearls around her neck. Lina’s own gown of violet velvet trimmed in black marten fur and her extravagant ruby parure were subjected to equal scrutiny. She was also aware of an undercurrent of fear, evidenced by the performers’ white, shocked faces, and the whispers on the edge of her hearing that repeated the word ‘cursed’.

Finally, as she and Lina were approaching the thickest knot of people hovering near an open door, the theatre manager stopped them with a polite bow.

“Madam,” he said to Lina, “pray excuse my insistence that you remain in the auditorium…for your safety’s sake, you understand. It is not prudent for you to—”

Lina interrupted him by handing the gentleman her calling card, taken from the beaded reticule hanging on her wrist. The diamond buckle clipped to the dark coils of her hair struck sparks from the light. It was ornamented with a curl of ostrich feathers dyed violet to match her gown. The feathers shivered with each small movement of her head. “I presume you are the manager of this establishment, are you not?” she asked in her haughtiest tone.

The jewellery, the obvious costliness of Lina’s gown, the title on the calling card, her regal bearing, and her cut-glass Oxford accent made the manager’s spine straighten to its utmost rigidity. Rhiannon could almost read the man’s mind, his thoughts were so transparently reflected on his face. Lina was Quality — of that fact, there was not the slightest shred of doubt. Rhiannon understood his dilemma. A person in his position could not afford to give offence to the leisured class, but on the other hand, he could not condone a vulgar curiosity seeker, no matter how privileged she might be.

“I am the Athenaeum’s manager, Lady St. Claire,” he replied, but he did not move from his position, continuing to block the narrow corridor.

“Have you summoned the police? Scotland Yard?” was Lina’s next question.

He frowned. “Milady, that truly isn’t necessary—”

She interrupted him again. “I assure you, Mr…” Her voice trailed off and she raised an inquiring eyebrow.

He answered without hesitation, “Algernon DeLille, milady. And I—”

“Mr. DeLille,” Lina said, cutting him off a third time, “I assure you that the police must be called upon to begin an investigation without further delay.”

Rhiannon wondered why Lina was so insistent. Surely Wu Wang’s injury had been sustained accidentally! No other explanation seemed possible.

DeLille evidently thought so, too, for he wasted no time in objecting, “Wu Wang is dead, milady, in my opinion — and that of the theatre doctor, it must be stated — a most unfortunate misadventure whose blame rests entirely at the victim’s door.” His voice lowered. “Perhaps Wu Wang disturbed the spirits and has suffered for it. The trick is cursed, you know.”

Lina’s confidence remained unruffled. “Wu Wang’s shooting was not the result of a curse, nor was it an accident,” she declared.

The bald-faced pronouncement left DeLille gaping but he soon rallied. “How can you be sure? I beg your pardon, but I should think a lady would concern herself more with what is proper in her sphere, rather than make rash statements—”

“I know how the trick was done, Mr. DeLille,” Lina went on impatiently.

“What of it?” the man almost snapped. His hands were trembling slightly. Rhiannon realized that DeLille’s temper was beginning to fray, and no wonder. Still, he collected himself and added, “I apologize, milady. As you can well imagine, the distressing event this evening has left none of us quite ourselves.”

Waving away his apology with her programme as if it was a pesky fly, Lina asked, “Will you summon the police, or shall I?”

The lines around his mouth deepened, but he remained polite. “I will not, milady, without sufficient reason to do so.”

“Sufficient reason?” Lina’s emerald-green gaze glittered.

Rhiannon’s heart suddenly thumped against her ribcage, leaving her more breathless than before. She recognized Lina’s expression, the way her features sharpened with keen interest, and knew very well what that look boded. The only female consulting detective in London — almost certainly the Continent, and possibly the world, as well — was on the scent of a crime. Rhiannon began to doubt her certainty that Wu Wang’s death was an accident. Lina was rarely wrong about such matters.

“My good fellow,” Lina continued coolly, “I may state with absolute certainty that if the gentleman was, indeed, shot and killed by a bullet during the performance of ‘The Jade Dragon’s Execution’, as seems to be the case, then this was…” She paused for several nerve-wracking seconds. (No doubt for dramatic effect, Rhiannon thought wryly, as Lina never could resist playing to an audience.) At last, she continued, “An act of wilful, deliberate murder.”

What little colour he had retained now drained from his face until DeLille seemed as white as his celluloid collar.
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The Curse of the Jade Dragon
Fourth in the Gaslight Series
Coming 2010 from PD Publishing

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