The Lost Witch

A Christmas Ghost

 

A short story by Kimberly Collins

Riley told Liz goodnight and shuffled down the hall to her bedroom humming A Christmas Carol. Luna, the oldest of their two cats, slinked along in front of her. Riley opened her bedroom door and hesitated before entering; she scanned the room, for what she wasn’t exactly sure. As usual, the laundry she left on the bed earlier had been folded and placed neatly on the bench by the window. She put on her pajamas—yoga pants and a faded AC/DC t-shirt—and scrambled into bed.

With Luna snuggled on the pillow next to her, Riley pulled the quilts tight around her neck and tucked them under her body, creating a safe cocoon. She reasoned that if her extremities weren’t hanging out, nothing could grab her. Having a portal to the spirit world under her bed had been frightening at first. Kinda cool, but scary. Just to be safe, Riley thought it best to not to have her hands and feet dangling over the edge of the mattress.

Sleeping in her own bed had been impossible for the first week after Aunt Chelle had closed the portal on Halloween night. The entire ordeal had been weird and crazy and frightening. When Liz said Riley could sleep with her, she jumped at the offer. Liz had also offered to let Riley swap for any of the other bedrooms, but she didn’t want another bedroom. She wanted this one, her mother’s old room.

Aunt Chelle had counseled Riley to not run from her gift, but to confront it, with all it brought—good and bad. After a week of sleeping with Liz, she decided to be a big girl and sleep in her own bedroom. The first week back in her bed, she hadn’t slept at all and ended up dozing in algebra class. The next couple of weeks were better, and by Thanksgiving she was sleeping through the night—mostly. It was now almost Christmas, and she still slept in the middle of the bed wrapped up in her quilts like a little patchwork burrito.

When she, Liz, and Aunt Chelle entered her room Halloween night, the blue mist that had seeped out of the portal was turning dark gray, with threads of black weaving in. It covered the entire floor and was crawling up the walls. The room had vibrated, and a loud, hypnotic hum filled the air. Aunt Chelle had warned them to block out the hum by repeating the incantation over and over.

Once they had entered Riley’s bedroom, Aunt Chelle instantly transformed from a sweet southern lady into a warrior witch. Riley was transfixed watching her move. It looked as though she levitated across the room, floating over the changing mist, bending it to her will. With reverence, Aunt Chelle gently removed a pendant from her pocket and held it out in front of her.

The pendant was a bright green stone held in a silver cage of Celtic love knots, just like those etched into the glass on the front door of the house. After the ordeal, Riley discovered that the pendant was a family heirloom. Aunt Chelle explained to her that to the casual observer and on its own, it held no significant power. However, to them, it was a powerful tool for good. The stone was peridot and had been passed down through twelve generations.

The story passed down with the stone was that it came from a meteorite that set the sky ablaze over Ireland in 1777. Riley’s ancestor, Kiara, found it, and when she picked it up, it began to glow so brightly that her entire face was aglow for days. Kiara had her father create the silver cage of Celtic love knots to protect it. She wore it around her neck for years, until a thief attempted to snatch it from her neck. After that, Kiara kept it on the chain in her pocket.

Riley got to witness the magical glow first hand Halloween night when Aunt Chelle held the chain in her hand and the pendant slowly moved in a circle. Glowing brightly, the stone lit up the room. Aunt Chelle whispered an incantation in the all but forgotten Celtic language, Manx. Riley had no idea what she said, not in English anyway. However, she could read the words as they left Aunt Chelle’s lips. She could see them filling the room and she understood them—in Manx.

Afterwards, Riley tried very hard to interpret the incantation in English, but she came up short. She could only get as far as the intent, which was basically Get the hell out of our house and don’t come back or the wrath of every female warrior in my family from generations past will torment you more than any hell ever could. As for speaking Manx, Riley couldn’t utter one syllable, but she understood the incantation. More importantly, she understood the power of the stone—and her Aunt Chelle.

Riley had a new respect for her Aunt Chelle. She was badass. She told those dark spirits to go back to the hell they came from … and they did. An incantation and a prayer later, the portal closed.

Throughout the ordeal, Riley could feel her mother’s presence beside her, as strong as that of Aunt Chelle. Riley couldn’t see her yet, but there was no doubt her mother had stood by her side making the same decrees as Aunt Chelle.

That had been six weeks ago, and still the only evidence of her mother was Riley’s folded clothes at the end of each day. She would take it. When her mother was ready to reveal herself, she would. Until then, Riley was content knowing her mother was there, watching over her.

Living with Liz, who was eleven years Riley’s senior, was the best Christmas gift Riley could ask for. Having been passed around from relative to relative for the past few years since her mother’s death had broken her in more ways than she had realized. Being in Knoxville with Liz and Aunt Chelle had opened her eyes to how lonely she had been and how much she missed her mother. Being fifteen was difficult enough, without having spirits following you around. Here with Liz, she could be herself, and she didn’t have to hide her gift. Most days, Riley thought of it more as a curse, but she was starting to embrace her weirdness.

Riley still had no idea what she would get Liz for Christmas. Even though Liz claimed she wasn’t a fan of Christmas and gifts were not required, Riley was determined to find Liz the perfect gift. But what? Riley had a little more than two weeks to figure it out. She drifted off to sleep and dreamed that Santa came rolling into town with the Sugar Plum Fairy on a meteorite full of peridots.

~~~~~

The next afternoon Riley entered the house through the kitchen door. Putting her school books down on the kitchen table, she tiptoed across the floor. She stood against the wall, listening to Liz’s conversation with a woman in the front parlor.

“Well, as you can see, the house is still in need of a lot of repairs and renovations. We aren’t ready for prime time yet,” Liz explained.

“Oh, dear. Yes, we understand that these renovations take time. And money. But this room, that amazing foyer, and your beautiful kitchen would be plenty for people to see. We can block off the rest of the house, so they won’t wander around.”

“I’m not sure, Mrs. Noakes. I know it’s for a good cause. But I don’t really decorate much for Christmas.”

“Nonsense! You can put up a small tree, some lights, a few candles, and it will be spectacular. There are so many people wanting to see this beautiful place. It’s one of Knoxville’s oldest houses—106 years old! And in the same family for all these years? It is a rare gem in our city.” Mrs. Noakes stood to leave. “I won’t take no for an answer, Elizabeth. The Old North Knoxville Christmas Open House won’t be the same without your home.”

Liz stood and walked her to the door. “I promise to think about it. I’ll get back to you by the end of the week with an answer.”

Liz closed the door and Riley stepped into the foyer. “What was that about?”

“That was the lovely Mrs. Noakes. She is president of the Knoxville Historical Society. They have a Christmas Open House every year here in Old North Knoxville. They want to include our house.”

“The Coven House? Seriously? With people—strange people—walking around and looking at our stuff? That sounds kinda weird,” Riley said.

“Yeah, I thought so too. Apparently, it’s a thing. They would see only the front parlor, the foyer, and the kitchen. Speaking of the kitchen, I need to bake a pie for my work Christmas party. By the way, it’s not a ‘coven house,’ and you shouldn’t say that out loud. We’re not a coven. We’re a family of witches. Big difference,” Liz said, zipping past Riley to the kitchen.

Following Liz, Riley took an orange from the fruit bowl and sat at the large marble kitchen island. The island had a marble top that came from the Candoro Marble Works in Knoxville in 1915, four years after the house was built. The marble was mostly pink, with a vein of gray running through it. The marble could be found in a few of the bathrooms as well. Their grandmother loved the marble top because it was easy to roll flour for biscuits, cookies, and pie crusts, as Liz was doing now.

“So, you gonna do it? When is it? How many people will show up? What will we do with the cats?” Luna and Jupiter, the cats, sat in the kitchen window grooming their fur, oblivious that they were a consideration in the decision.

“Whoa, so many questions. It’s scheduled for the weekend before Christmas, and I’m not sure whether I want to. There are too many things that could go wrong. You still have them showing up here to see you.”

Them showing up, is your fault. You’re the one they follow home from your death investigator job. Besides, no one can see them but me and your mother. And you sometimes. So, that shouldn’t be a problem. Is it the portal? Are you afraid it will open? We closed it.”

“And it will stay closed.” Liz said.

“Why do you really not want to do the Open House?” Riley asked.

“I’m not sure. Christmas has never been a favorite holiday of mine. My job is stressful and super busy this time of year—so many suicides and drug overdoses. Winter Solstice is two days before the Open House. Adding decorating and cleaning and all of that on top of a busy schedule, just seems … I don’t know … just too much.”

“I thought we were having just a quite evening here with Aunt Chelle for Winter Solstice? Dinner, a few incantations, a Yule log, and a few magic lessons for me?” Riley tried to hear Liz’s thoughts; Liz was too good at this and was blocking her. She knew it was intruding, but she really wanted to know why Liz was reluctant to show the house.

“That’s true, it will be a calm night with just the three of us.”

“Did you listen to Mrs. Noakes? Did she think something that bothered you?” Riley asked.

Liz looked up from her pie crust. “Yeah, she did. She was thinking about my mother and …”

“And?”

“She doesn’t like my mother. Apparently, they went to high school together. Mrs. Noakes was dating some guy named Bobby, and my mother took him away from her.”

“Aunt Chelle had the moves even back then. Sweet.” Riley finished peeling the orange. “This woman’s still holding onto that crap? Geez, what are we, still in eighth grade?”

“Well, it was a bit more involved than that. According to Mrs. Noakes’ scattered thoughts, she thinks Mom hexed him, or something. He eventually went crazy and committed suicide after Mom broke up with him a few months later.”

“Dang! That’s a lot to hear from a stranger. How’d you keep yourself together? I always wanna scream out at people.” Riley popped a section of orange into her mouth.

“You’ll learn to control that. We should practice on people at Walmart.” Liz took a piece of Riley’s orange.

“Will you ask Aunt Chelle about it?”

“I think I must. Mom will certainly want to be here for the Open House. I’ll need to prepare her for Mrs. Noakes.”

“So, we’re doing it?” Riley asked excitedly.

 

“I may end up regretting this, but I suppose we should.”

“Yippee! I have some awesome Christmas decorating ideas.” Riley grabbed her notebook and pen and started sketching out a plan for the decorations.

~~~~~

Riley went to bed that night with Christmas decorating ideas floating around in her head. She wrapped herself up in her patchwork burrito and drifted off to sleep. Luna and Jupiter curled up on either side of her pillow.

As she slipped into sleep, Riley immediately entered a vivid dream. She was climbing up to the attic of the house on steep, narrow steps toward the faint light shining through the attic door. Turning the knob and pushing the door open, she could barely make out the dust- and cobweb-covered antiques, dolls, and boxes. As she peered through the dimly lit attic, she could feel them close by, but she didn’t see any of them.

A large box in the corner held something familiar. The floor creaked under her feet as she stepped toward it. As she tugged on the crisscrossed flaps of the lid, she could feel someone inside the box pushing. She tugged, they pushed. The flaps came loose, sending a burst of dust into her face. Riley peered inside the dark box. She couldn’t see anything, but she knew someone was there.

She squinted into the familiar darkness of the box. Two eyes suddenly glowed back at her. Riley jumped, but wasn’t quite fast enough. A hand reached out and grabbed her throat. It was Troy, the kid Liz had brought home from the morgue Halloween night. He came out of the box and pushed her against the wall.

“Riley, you will listen to me. I’m sorry to do this to you, but it’s the only way I could get to you. You closed the portal and you ignore me outside. Coming to you in your dreams was the only way,” Troy said, releasing a bit of the pressure on her throat.

“What do you want?” Riley struggled to get the words out.

 

“You need to find my murderers. I told you Halloween night everything I knew about my murder. Liz was the one who collected my body—at least what was left of it. She talked to the cops.”

“If you’ll let go of me, we can talk,” Riley said.

“I can’t let go. If I let go, you’ll wake up, and it’s too hard for me to come to you this way. So, you need to listen to me.”

“Who killed you? You only told me their first names. I need their last names.”

“That’s just it. I only heard their first names—Ryan, Billy Ray, and Eli. Ryan was in charge, and he’s the one that stabbed me. They caught me out by myself after a football game. I was walkin’ home, and they ambushed me. They were carryin’ stuff out of an SUV into one of those old warehouses. They dropped somethin’ in that parkin’ lot. Liz needs to go look for it.”

“She can’t do that. She’s a death investigator, not a cop. She works for the medical examiner—not the sheriff.”

“Then she needs to tell the cops. She was there. She took pictures and put stuff in baggies. She’s the only one who can do this. Tell her.”

“Troy, I need more info. What were they carrying into the warehouse?”

“I don’t know.”

He suddenly released the grip he had on her throat, and Riley woke up. She was wide awake and sitting in her closet with the door closed. She felt weak, as though she had completed a marathon. She pushed the closet door open and crawled out to her bed; pulling herself up, she sat on the side. She looked at the clock; it was 3 a.m.

Blood dripped from her face into her hands. Her eyes had been bleeding again from being with Troy. She went to her bathroom and cleaned the blood from her face and hands. Her hair was soaking wet with sweat. Hot and thirsty, she tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen, and stood at the kitchen sink drinking glass after glass of water. Looking out the window above the sink, just beyond the rhododendron bush, she saw Troy. In a gesture to let him know she was on his side and not afraid of him, she waved. He acknowledged with a nod of his head and disappeared into the ether.

“Who are you waving at?” Liz was suddenly standing behind her.

Riley jumped, and the water splashed out of her glass and soaked the front of her t-shirt. “Holy cats! You scared the dead outa me.”

“Sorry. I woke up when you were thrashing about. What on earth were you doing?”

“Thrashing? I was thrashing?”

“Yes! It sounded like you were tearing the walls out of your closet. Are you okay, Riley? My goodness, your throat is bruised! What happened? Did you have a boy in your room?”

“What? A boy? No. No! We better sit down for this.” Riley sat heavily in one of the chairs at the old wooden kitchen table. “I had a dream about Troy.”

“A dream? Who’s Troy?” Liz asked.

Riley rested her elbows on the table and held her head in her hands. “Troy, the boy—the spirit—you brought home from the morgue. The first one to come through the portal? He was murdered? You found his body, at least parts of it, in an abandoned parking lot?”

“Ohhhh … that Troy. Yeah, we had a meeting about his case this afternoon.”

“You did? Why? Did you find his killers?”

“No. That’s why we met with KPD; they can’t find any clues or evidence. No suspects. Nothing. They wanted to review our crime scene photos with me and see if I remembered anything more about the scene.”

“What’s KPD?”

“Knoxville Police Department.”

“Got it. Troy said the people who murdered him were carrying stuff into the warehouse and they dropped something, and you took pictures of it,” Riley said.

“Did he say what it was? I have more than a hundred photographs.”

“He didn’t say, and he doesn’t know what they were carrying either. We need to go through those photographs again and again and again, until we find it. I can help. Maybe he’ll show me.”

We? You can’t help, Riley. Those are official crime scene photos. Of a homicide.”

“No one will know but us. I know you have them here. I know you! You’ve been looking at them all night on your computer.”

Liz hesitated. “All right, but just this once. And only because Troy’s standing outside waving at you. I’ll get my computer. You can put on some tea.”

Riley filled the copper tea pot with water and lit the burner on the stove. She took out two scoops of loose tea from the canister, filled two tea infusers, and placed them in mugs.

Liz returned to the kitchen and booted up the computer. The tea pot, sounding like a train whistle, notified Riley the water was ready for the mugs. She poured the hot water into the mugs and handed Liz her tea.

“No one can know I showed these to you. No one! Do you understand?” Liz asked.

Riley sat down at the table to look at the photographs of the crime scene. “I understand. Besides, who would I tell? I don’t talk to anyone but you.”

“Some of these will be hard to look at, so brace yourself,” Liz cautioned.

Liz was right; the photographs of Troy’s body were hard for Riley to look at. He was bruised, bloody, and mutilated. He had been stabbed multiple times in the chest, stomach, and face. “Why would anyone do this to a kid?” Riley asked Liz.

“That’s what we can’t figure out. He was a teenager, no money, no history of drugs, nothing like that. He was a good kid. But clearly, someone wanted him dead.”

“Gang related?” Riley asked.

“That was the first thing the cops thought, but there isn’t any indication of that. There aren’t the usual signs. Gangs typically leave a sign that it was them. They want to send a message to someone. But there was no evidence left behind. Nothing.”

“Well, Troy says otherwise. He said you saw it and took pictures of it. Let’s look through these, and maybe we can find something,” Riley said.

The two of them looked through dozens of photographs. Photos of Troy’s dead body, the parking lot, the grass, the chain link fence around the parking lot, the buildings, an abandoned car, everything Liz had seen that night at the crime scene.

“I don’t see anything strange in these pics. Just an abandoned parking lot, with lots of junk. Nothing else,” Riley said. “Well, it’s 5:30, I’m going to nap before school. Do you work today?”

“Nope. I’m off today. I’m going to clean and start decorating for the Open House. I may start putting up the lights outside today. Right now, though, I think a nap sounds pretty good.”

~~~~~

 

Liz and Riley spent all their free time the rest of the week cleaning, decorating, and getting ready for the Open House. As much as she hated to admit it, Liz was actually enjoying decorating. She had put the pictures of Troy away. Maybe if she didn’t look at them for a few days, she would see something different when she went back to them. There was something there poking at her subconscious; she just couldn’t see it with her eyes.

Riley had insisted on getting a Christmas tree, so now it sat, fully decorated, in the front parlor. It was a small, slender tree that didn’t take up too much real estate. They had found some old ornaments in the attic. Liz readjusted a few of them and stood back to assess the placement.

“Your mom just pulled in,” Riley announced.

“Really? Were we expecting her?”

“Not that I know of. It looks like she’s carrying a garment bag from a department store,” Riley said.

As Liz opened the front door, Chelle handed her a garment bag from Dillard’s.

“Mom, what’s this?” Liz asked.

“Take this. I have more,” Chelle said and returned to her car.

Liz carried the garment bag to the front parlor and laid it across the back of a chair. She looked at Riley and shrugged her shoulders.

Chelle returned with two shopping bags. “Mom, what is all this?” Liz asked.

“Well, since we’re hosting an Open House in three days, you girls need to dress like proper southern ladies. I picked up a few things for each of you to try. I think you’ll find them to your liking.” Chelle looked at each of them. “We’ll need to do something with your hair as well, and you’ll need makeup. No worries, I can get Gary to come over and work his magic.”

“Who’s Gary?” Riley asked.

“Mom’s hair and makeup person. She’s had him on speed-dial for as long as I can remember,” Liz explained. “He really can work magic—not our kind of magic, but the kind with concealer and hairspray.”

 

“Oh, goody.” Riley was less than impressed.

“Mom, please tell me you didn’t buy me a dress. I hate dresses.”

Chelle shot a disapproving look at Liz. “Yes, two dresses. And shoes. And jewelry. You can’t always run around in your “death uniform.” Besides, I understand that the new mayor will be part of the procession for the Open House, along with a lot of other people. So, you will wear a dress. Both of you.” Chelle pointed at both girls. “I selected colors that will bring out your best features—eyes and hair.”

“I’ve not owned a dress since I was ten years old, Aunt Chelle. And I’ve never worn a pair of high heels,” Riley said.

“There’s a first time for everything, dear.” Chelle handed Riley one of the shopping bags.

Liz rolled her eyes at Riley. “Let’s try these on, and get it over with.”

“Fabulous! I’ll make some tea and wait here in the parlor. I expect a full fashion show, so hurry up.” Chelle shooed them upstairs to change.

Ten minutes later the girls returned to the parlor modeling their new attire.

 

“Oh! You girls look simply gorgeous. Riley, I knew that green dress would look wonderful with your red hair. And Liz, my sweet child, that red dress really pops with your blondeness. Take your hair out of that damnable ponytail and let me see how it looks against the red. You girls look amazing. I suggest you practice walking in the heels.” Chelle sipped her tea. “Try on the other ones, but I think these are the winners.”

Chelle decided the first two dresses were the clear winners. She would have Gary show up a few hours early on Saturday to do their hair and makeup.

Liz and Riley returned to the front parlor. Chelle poured them each tea. “Let’s talk about the Open House. What do you need me to do?”

Liz took a deep breath. She knew she had to tell her mother about Mrs. Noakes and reading her thoughts. “Mom, there’s something else about the Open House we need to talk about. The lady coordinating the event is Mrs. Noakes. Do you know her?”

Chelle sipped her tea. “Mrs. Noakes? Hmmmm … it doesn’t ring a bell. What’s her first name?”

“Margaret, I believe.” Liz said.

“Margaret Noakes? Do you mean Margaret Adams? Wiry hair? Milky eyes? Frumpy?”

“Well, I guess. She was just kinda plain. Yeah, milky eyes,” Liz agreed.

“What about her?” Chelle returned her tea cup to its saucer and placed them both on the table.

“She came here to the house to invite us to be part of the event. Naturally, I wanted to know if her motives were pure.”

And?”

“Her thoughts were kinda scattered. I gathered from reading her that she may not be very bright. A little bit unfocused. She was thinking about you, Mom. And a boy named Bobby. She thinks you stole him from her—that you put some kind of hex on him and then dumped him. She blames you for his committing suicide.”

Chelle sat very still, looking out the window. She fondled her ruby and pearl earring. “Bobby Thompson. My dear, Bobby. After all these years, that’s what she still thinks? I thought everyone knew by now.”

“Knew what, Mom?”

“Bobby and I were dear friends in elementary school. He was probably my best friend up until about sixth grade. Then, like most kids do, we went our separate ways when we entered junior high. He was a football jock, and I was just learning to paint and was interested only in art and the weird artsy kids. And magic, of course. Bobby and I still talked from time-to-time, but we weren’t close any longer.”

“So, what happened?” Riley asked.

“Along about eleventh grade, Bobby and I ended up dancing at the homecoming dance. We talked and laughed and picked up right where we had left off all those years before in elementary school. It was as if we hadn’t been apart for even a minute. Keep in mind, Bobby was like the brother I never had, so, there were absolutely no romantic feelings there for either of us.”

“So, what Mrs. Noakes was thinking is all wrong?” Liz asked.

“Well, not completely wrong. All the girls wanted to date Bobby. Margaret followed him around like a lost little puppy. That girl was relentless. If she thinks for one minute he was her boyfriend, or she even had a chance, she was—and apparently still is—delusional. Bobby was a jock—tall and handsome, with a smile that would light up the darkest of places,” Chelle hesitated.

She continued, “Bobby was also gay. He had a boyfriend from another school. After we reconnected, he confided in me. Of course, I had known for years, but I couldn’t let on that I had any clue. Sometimes this gift can be a burden. I suppose I knew long before he did, or at least before he was willing or able to admit it to himself. He lived in this paralyzing fear that everyone would find out.

“He rarely dated and was afraid people would start talking if he wasn’t seen with a girl on a regular basis. So, he concocted this crazy idea. He asked me to pretend to be his girlfriend for just a while, and then we’d have a very public breakup. He could then act like he was always pining for me. He thought that would create the illusion that he had had a beautiful girlfriend and was just too heartbroken to really date anyone else.”

“What happened next?” Riley asked.

“We pretended to date for about four months, and then we had a dramatic, very public breakup. Everyone knew. It was the talk of the school.”

Chelle took a deep breath and fought back tears. “Then right after the holidays, he was out with his boyfriend and they were seen making out. He was convinced it was going to be spread all over town. He called me that night in a panic. I tried to convince him that the person who saw him didn’t know who it was. I couldn’t tell him how I knew, obviously. I even tried to cast a spell on the person who saw them, but not knowing exactly who it was, it was nearly impossible, unless I cast a spell on everyone in Oak Ridge.

“That was a Friday night. He didn’t leave his house all day Saturday or Sunday. Then Sunday night, his father found him hanging in the basement.”

“Mom, I’m so sorry. That’s horrible.” Liz took Chelle’s hand.

“Aunt Chelle, that’s such a sad story. What happened to the boyfriend?”

“Well, sweetheart, you’ll get to meet him Saturday. Gary was Bobby’s boyfriend.”

“Mom, I had no idea. Will you say anything to Mrs. Noakes?” Liz asked her mother.

“Doubtful. I just find it amazing that she still has no clue he was gay! Everyone talked about it afterwards. The facts about Bobby were put to bed a long time ago. No, I won’t say anything to her.” Chelle paused and winked. “I might cause her to spill her eggnog, but that’s about it.”

“Aunt Chelle, you’ve gotta show me how to make people spill their eggnog.”

“Absolutely! Off to the kitchen for a magic lesson.” Chelle led the way to the kitchen.

~~~~~

Liz and Riley were up early Saturday morning. They baked cookies and pies and made candy. After the last-minute touches were made to the decorations, they headed upstairs to shower. Gary showed up as scheduled to create his kind of magic with hair and makeup.

Promptly at 5:00, the first guests started arriving. Mrs. Noakes had indicated they should expect approximately thirty people, staggered throughout the event. At 6:00, Mrs. Noakes herself showed up with the new mayor and a few other city and county dignitaries.

Liz had met the mayor a few times at work. He’d won the mayoral seat in a special election, after the old mayor had been convicted of bribery. Mayor Hardin wasn’t a typical mayor in the traditional sense, he wore jeans and cowboy boots more often than a suit, and he rode a Harley to work most days. He was young, single, and damned good looking.

“Liz, I’d like to introduce you to Mayor Hardin,” Mrs. Noakes said.

“Liz? I didn’t recognize you outside of your normal habitat.”

“Hi, Mason. So nice to see you.” His thoughts jumped out at Liz—he couldn’t believe how beautiful she was, and he loved the red dress. So, her mom did know best.

“You live here?” Mason asked.

“I do. I inherited it from my grandmother. It’s been in my family since it was built in 1911.”

Mrs. Noakes interrupted, “I had no idea you knew the mayor, Liz.” Mrs. Noakes thoughts flew at Liz's head. How do you people do it? A family of crazy, weird women. You’re as strange as your mother. I’m sure you’re like most young women in this town, hanging out in places you know he’ll be, trying to get his attention. Trust me, sweetheart, he has no interest in the likes of you. And that red dress ain’t gonna do it either. He’s more suited for my niece, Caroline—a proper southern lady.

Liz was taken aback by Mrs. Noakes thoughts. Did she really think Liz was the type of woman that had to or would follow any man around to get his attention? Her mother was right, Margaret Noakes was delusional.

“Liz and I cross paths occasionally through work. I stop in at the ME’s office from time to time.” Mason turned from Mrs. Noakes to Liz. “Give me a tour?”

Liz smiled inwardly, before leading Mason from the foyer to the front parlor, and around to the kitchen. “Cookie?” Liz offered.

“Did you bake them?” He asked.

“I did. With the help of my cousin, Riley. She’s around here somewhere.”

~~~~~

Riley greeted the guests and explained the history of the house to those who asked. She also kept an eye out for Troy or Them. She was too busy talking to people to pay too much attention to the spirits lurking outside. As long as they stayed outside and didn’t try any funny stuff, she’d be fine.

She took a group of people into the kitchen. Riley was surprised to see Liz talking to a cute guy in cowboy boots. Riley immediately tuned into his thoughts. Appears he really likes the red dress.

“Riley, I’d like to introduce you to the mayor. Mason, this is Riley, my cookie assistant, I was telling you about.”

Riley was surprised at how strong his thoughts were. He really liked Liz. Good. She needed a boyfriend.

“Hi! Mason? Like the jar?” Riley asked.

Mason chuckled, “Yeah, just like the jar—but without the moonshine.”

 

“It’s nice to meet you.” Riley gave Liz a knowing glance.

“Liz, there you are, dear.” Chelle walked over to Liz. “And who is this nice young man?”

“Mom, this is Mayor Hardin. Mason, this is my mother, Rachelle.”

On the heels of Aunt Chelle, was Mrs. Noakes. Riley hoped Aunt Chelle would cause her to spill something on herself. The magic they had practiced earlier in the week was harder than Riley thought it would be. She had been practicing since then, with no luck. Aunt Chelle told her it was like working a muscle. Practice. Practice. Practice. Magic took work, focus, and intention.

Mrs. Noakes interrupted again. “Mayor Hardin, are you ready to visit the other houses? We have only so much time and four more homes to see.” Besides I need to get you away from these women. They’re like a deep sea that men go into and rarely come out of unscathed. Mrs. Noakes thoughts popped out directed at no one in particular.

“We just got here, Margaret. Let’s stay a few more minutes and visit with these lovely ladies. I promise we’ll make our rounds as scheduled.”

“How about some hot cocoa while you wait, Mrs. Noakes?” Riley offered.

“Certainly, dear. That would be lovely.” At least the young one has some manners.

Riley handed Mrs. Noakes her hot cocoa and waited for Aunt Chelle to pour it into her lap, all over her white dress.

“How is it that one family has such beautiful women?” Mason asked. “Rachelle, are you married?”

Mrs. Noakes’ scattered thoughts leapt across the kitchen. Riley, Liz, and Chelle all felt the negative jolt. Married? Yeah, try three times. Engaged probably more than that. She killed one boyfriend and one husband. How does she still look so damned young? Probably plastic surgery. She’s always been no good and a little weird. Calls herself an artist. Thinks she’s better than everyone. I have nothing to be jealous of. Yeah, she’s been married a few times, Mason.

Riley held her breath waiting for Aunt Chelle to make her move. Riley watched the energy leave Aunt Chelle’s body and make its way across the kitchen to Mrs. Noakes. The cup of hot cocoa Mrs. Noakes had just put to her lips wobbled, bobbled, and poured down her chin and her chest and into her generous lap. Her white dress was ruined.

Riley stood looking at Mrs. Noakes in amazement. She shot her thoughts out to Liz and Aunt Chelle. That was the coolest thing I’ve ever witnessed. Score one for Aunt Chelle! Yes!

Liz fired a thought back at her. Get that look of glee off your face. Get her a towel. It really was pretty awesome, Mom.

Thank you! Some people should know better than to fool with a seasoned witch. Aunt Chelle sent back to them.

Riley got Mrs. Noakes a towel and showed her to the nearest bathroom, so she could clean up. Riley returned to the kitchen.

“After the Open House, The Wild Love Bakehouse is hosting an after party. Will you ladies be attending? I think it starts at 7,” Mason said.

“I think we’ll be there. Right, girls?” Aunt Chelle asked.

“I’m not sure. I have an early day tomorrow. I have to be at the Forensics Center at six in the morning,” Liz said.

“Oh, come on, Liz. Please! We can go for a few minutes. Wild Love has the best pastries on the planet. We can’t pass that up,” Riley begged.

“Okay. Okay. But just for a few minutes. I guess we’ll see you there, Mason,” Liz said.

Mason’s thoughts rang out across the room. Don’t change outa that dress. Damn, I’d like to get my hands in that hair.

 

Liz blushed and turned away from him. “I’ll show you out, Mason.”

~~~~~

Riley, Liz, and Chelle arrived at Wild Love a little after seven. The mayor spotted Liz as soon as they entered and came directly over to her. “I’m so glad you ladies decided to come. Can I get you something to drink? They have all their signature coffee drinks available, as well as some amazing pastries!”

Riley had already found the pastries and decided on a piece of pecan pie and two shortbread cookies. She grabbed a hot tea to accompany them. She walked back over to Liz and Aunt Chelle. The mayor had been pulled into a conversation with some other people.

“You should totally try the pecan pie. It’s amazing! These people know how to bake. I wonder if they give cooking lessons?” Riley put the last bite of pie in her mouth.

“I like their chocolate croissants best. I may get one before we leave,” Liz said.

Riley felt a cold breeze stirring around her feet. She shot a thought out to Liz and Aunt Chelle. Did you feel that?

Yes! Liz and Aunt Chelle replied in unison.

What is that? I feel it moving up my body. Riley thought.

Someone or something just entered. Aunt Chelle replied. Turn slowly and scan the crowd to see if you notice anyone or anything unusual. It’s not a dead thing. It is a very alive thing. And it’s dark.

Riley turned slowly and tried to act normal. It was hard to be nonchalant when every nerve in her body was on high alert. There! Over there by the mayor. That’s the man that killed Troy. I can see it. I can see the whole thing taking place.

Liz replied. Are you sure? The man in the blue jacket?

I’m positive. He was there, he stabbed Troy over and over. Oh, no. I think I’m going to throw up.

Block it. Look at me. You can block this. Aunt Chelle guided Riley through it.

Riley, you really need to be certain. That man in the blue jacket is the son of the Knoxville Chief of Police, Liz mentally said.

I’m positive it’s him. Troy was walking through the abandoned parking lot. This guy was there. He was in one of those huge black SUVs. His name’s Ryan, just like Troy told me. He’s trafficking girls. He uses those abandoned buildings to hold them until he has buyers. Troy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He saw them dragging the girls inside, but it was dark, and he couldn’t see what they were carrying. But Ryan didn’t know that, and he killed Troy. What do we do? Riley asked.

 

Sit still, Chelle commanded. I’ll see what information I can get out of him.

 

 

Chelle approached the man in the blue jacket and extended her hand. “Hello there. I’m Rachelle, I don’t believe we met.”

Ryan smiled at Chelle. He was certainly charming, with a disarming smile. He had an almost innocent look. He took Chelle’s hand. She felt a jolt of darkness run up her arm. She could see where he had been and what his plans were for later that night. He introduced her to his father, the Chief of Police.

Chelle could see and feel Ryan’s dark energy around him. She would need to cleanse herself and the girls later. She had only seen this kind of darkness a few times in her life. He was a psychopath in the purest sense of the word.

His father on the other hand was a kind, gentle soul. Chelle gleaned from shaking the father’s hand that he was not Ryan’s biological father. Apparently, mama had had some fun with the best friend of the Police Chief back in the day.

 

Riley watched Chelle mesmerize the man in the blue jacket—and nearly every other man in the room—like a snake charmer. How’s she going to get info out of him? Why’s she touching him?

Touching him helps her see into his psyche more clearly. It provides a direct path to his thoughts and motives. It’s a valuable skill, but can also be very tricky and dangerous, she’ll need to teach you. Liz replied.

Chelle chatted with the man in the blue jacket and his father for a few minutes. Riley didn’t need to read their thoughts, just their body language, to know that Chelle made them think they were the most important men in the world.

Chelle stopped and chatted with random people on her way back to Riley and Liz. She was trying to act casual. She certainly knows how to work a room, Riley shot over to Liz.

That she does. It’s one of her best assets, Liz responded.

Chelle circled back around to Riley and Liz. That’s definitely him. That man has a dark soul. His father, who isn’t his real father by the way, is completely oblivious to his son’s activities. The Police Chief tells Ryan enough about the investigation so that he stays one step ahead of the police. He moved the girls after he killed Troy. They’re now in an abandoned building further up Central. He’s planning on meeting a buyer there Tuesday night. He has four girls between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. The buyer wants one more, so he’s out looking for a new victim. We need to figure out how to stop him, Chelle informed them.

How about an anonymous tip? Riley suggested.

That will free the girls, but it won’t catch him. He has to be caught in the act, or he’ll just walk away free and continue somewhere else,” Liz thought.

Can you break his legs or something, Aunt Chelle? Move a truck to run over him? Riley asked.

Not a bad idea. Maybe we can do something to stop him. He’s very dark. That kind of darkness takes special magic. Powerful magic. I don’t know if we have time to prepare, Chelle replied.

We have until Tuesday night. Let’s get out of here and go home and figure out what we can do, Liz suggested.

The ladies said goodnight to the mayor and returned home. They spent the better part of the night discussing what magic and what legal avenues they had for catching Ryan.

~~~~~

The next day Riley tried to summon Troy, but he hadn’t been around for a few days. She wanted to set those girls free. But how? She decided a chocolate croissant and a hot tea from Wild Love would help her think. She grabbed her cell phone and headed out. Putting her earbuds in, she turned up her music; that always cleared her head.

She was four blocks into the six-block walk to Wild Love. Standing on the corner of Emerald and Cornelia waiting to cross the street, she felt that cold breeze blowing around her feet again. She jerked her earbuds out and looked around, as a black Suburban pulled up next to her. Before she had time to react, the doors opened; a large man grabbed her and pulled her into the vehicle.

They slipped something over her head, so she couldn’t see them, but it didn’t matter; she could hear their thoughts. They tied her hands behind her back with zip ties. Riley tried to calm herself enough to hear their thoughts.

“Quick, get her to the warehouse with the others.” Ryan’s voice rang out over the speakerphone. “Are you sure she’s the one from the other night? The redhead?”

 

“Yeah, it’s the same one,” the large man who grabbed her confirmed.

“Great! Just what the customer ordered.” Ryan hung up.

The driver’s thoughts filled the small space of the SUV. I still think this is a bad idea. This girl’s too close to home. Her cousin works for the ME for cryin’ out loud. Ryan’s gonna get us all thrown in jail. This is my last one. I’m out after this.

They drove to the warehouse and the big guy carried Riley inside. She kicked and screamed and tried to bite him. He dumped her onto the concrete floor. When they pulled the cover off her head, there were four other girls staring at her.

“Merry Christmas, ladies.” The man said as he turned and walked out, slamming the metal door behind him.

 

To be continued …

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