“The penis is still attached. And from what I can tell, it’s pretty much intact.” The Sarasota County Medical Examiner knelt beside the body of a middle-aged man, peering intently into the torn crotch of his trousers.
“I guess that’s good news. At least I know I didn’t step on it or kick it under the couch by mistake,” Detective Rayburn replied.
Draped upon the antique davenport like an afghan tossed from a spinster’s shoulders, the dead man’s body was apparently whole. He was fully clothed, though his beige polyester slacks sported several frayed lacerations, allowing the pair of bloody boxers beneath to protrude. His eyes were wide open, even in death, his mouth stretched into a macabre mask as if caught mid-scream. The terror on his pasty face was unmistakable.
In the overheated sitting room, the reek of congealed blood and bodily gasses mingled with another cloying odor. Cheap potpourri in porcelain baskets dotted the room, adding an artificial rose note to the nauseating mix. Multiple bookshelves lining the walls held an impressive collection of those Hummel figurines dressed up for seasonal activities. The tiny cherubs smiled innocently, averting their eyes, denying any connection to the victim and his injuries. The profusion of delicate breakables made the detective feel as if his feet were several sizes too big for his body. Which they actually were.
Someone with an extreme hatred of tchotchkes could be behind this crime, Rayburn thought, scanning the cluttered room. No horizontal surface was left unadorned. And the smell in this place was making him want to go postal himself. Why did all the older folks in Florida have to keep their homes at a balmy eighty-five degrees?
“There are no other obvious marks on the body,” the ME continued. “Beyond the damage to the genitalia, which must have been painful, but certainly not fatal.”
“Any clue as to the cause of death here?” The detective hoped for something clear-cut. He was mere months away from retirement and could use a break. But there was no forced entry, no sign of a struggle beyond a single hand-hooked throw rug slightly askew. And it was possible Rayburn had accidentally kicked that himself with his size thirteen feet.
Well, there was that ceramic angel on the floor next to the davenport. The dead guy could have knocked it off the end table when he collapsed, though.
“Doesn’t look like suicide,” the ME replied, dryly. “That’s about all I can tell you until I get him on the table, do a tox screen. You know the drill.”
Rayburn spied the elderly mother of the victim out of the corner of his eye. She sat at the kitchen table, folding and refolding a linen napkin with two shaking hands. This lady was seriously nervous. Yeah, she had come home from her seven-day Caribbean cruise to find her son’s dead body stinking up the place. But this old gal was hiding something. He was sure of it.
The detective sauntered closer to the kitchen, hoping his huge feet would stay silent. What was she staring at?
An orange on the floor.
The old lady jumped like a jackrabbit when she caught him watching her. Huh. Most people don’t keep fruit on the floor. And if someone drops a piece, they normally pick it straight up. Her look of horror was his second clue. The detective was willing to bet this old bird had cleaned up evidence of a struggle. In her haste, she had missed this piece of dented citrus. She couldn’t clean up everything.
“So, are we calling it murder?” Rayburn paused at the kitchen doorway, turning away from the mother.
“Suspicious death, for now. Give me twenty-four hours, at least, then I’ll be in touch. You never know, could be natural causes.”
Yeah, right. Like this guy looked in the mirror, caught a glimpse of his outdated get-up and greasy comb-over, and gave himself a heart attack.
Doesn’t explain the mangled balls, though.
Six Weeks Later
August 1, 1987
The air plastered his skin like a wet washcloth. Although Detective Ian McDaniel had pressed his suit first thing that morning, he could feel the fabric immediately wilt as he stepped outside. Nyack normally received a bit of a breeze off the Hudson, but on this particular Saturday, even the river was sluggish and flat, as if it had been ironed alongside his gray suit pants.
Across the street, a black stretch limousine eased away from the curb, stirring the thick, humid air. A young woman was left in its wake, an enormous paisley suitcase in each hand. He watched her head turn on a slender neck as she scanned up and down Broadway. Dark curls cascaded over her shoulders.
McDaniel was fairly certain she couldn’t have seen him, hidden as he was in the doorway of his brick apartment building. Two mature weeping willows guarded the entrance, creating an effective screen. And there, in the grass below the willow tree, he noticed something out of place: a pair of binoculars.
They appeared to be fairly old, but perfectly clean. He picked them up, wondering who could have placed them so serendipitously in this spot. The lenses were free of any smudges. Had someone been bird watching?
He brought the binoculars up to his face as the strange woman struggled to open the wrought iron gate. She was wearing way too much clothing for a hot summer day: a multi-layered black skirt down to her ankles, a white blouse festooned with ruffles, and heavy leather boots that appeared to have been stolen from a member of Hell’s Angels. Maybe she was a pirate?
It might have been his imagination, but he could have sworn there was something familiar about her.
She stopped when she reached the front steps, and paused, possibly admiring the architecture of the Victorian mansion. One of the largest and most elegant homes in Nyack, it had been completely renovated, inside and out, by the couple who also owned the Coven Café. He knew the owners pretty well. After all, Nyack was still a relatively small town. That is, if you didn’t count the tourists. And you couldn’t count them, even if you tried. Was this woman a tourist?
“Too bad this couldn’t have waited until fall,” she mumbled to herself as she struggled to lift the latch on the front gate. Out of the limo for a full thirty seconds, and her armpits were already damp. But there was a reason she had elected to make this journey just now. In a few shorts weeks, the Harmonic Convergence was scheduled to occur. This cosmic alignment of the planets was due to usher in a new era of peace and harmony, after hundreds, maybe thousands, of years of violence, war, and pestilence. That was what all the New Age literature said, anyway. She might not have been a true believer, exactly, but here was an opportunity to use the entire force of the cosmos for her own benefit. Why not take advantage? And with the task she had planned, she needed all the help she could get.
She maneuvered through the gate, suitcases banging against her motorcycle boots. Her eyes roamed over the freshly painted front porch, the ornate gingerbread woodwork, the floor-to-ceiling windows, and on up to the tiny widow’s watch perched like a square cherry on top of a fancy wedding cake. Many years had passed since she last set foot in this town. She had particularly missed the sight of these lovely old Victorians. Satisfied, she hefted her two suitcases, along with a handful of skirt, and strode up the steps to the front door.
The doorbell was an old-fashioned gadget, something like a bicycle bell, with a grating metallic ring. As she waited, music throbbed through the floorboards from a stereo inside. A moment later, Harriet Felch swung the door open, an exuberant grin on her face.
She hesitated, giving a very subtle shake of her head, intended only for Harriet. In the background, the Indigo Girls sang their hearts out about how they could get closer to fine.
“I’m Angelica Davenport.” Her eyes warned Harriet to be cautious.
“Course you are!” Harriet yelled over the music, her Southern accent evident. “C’mon inside, girl, ’fore you let all our cool air out.”
Angelica nodded stiffly and bent to lift her massive cases. Harriet leaned forward to help and gasped at the weight of just one.
“Holy hell. Whatcha got in this thing? An iron lung?”
“Nah, I had to sell all my antique hospital equipment to pay for the limo.” Angelica allowed herself a smile. “That’s probably the one with the terrarium.”
Harriet shook her head as she led the way up the polished staircase. Angelica marveled at her host’s unusually tall frame, wide shoulders, and muscled waistline. Harriet could easily be mistaken for a linebacker, or possibly a human refrigerator. She was naturally a big girl, but her hobby of Olympic weightlifting packed the pounds onto her sturdy frame. Although she could deadlift more than twice her own weight, could easily toss Angelica like a beach ball, Harriet had the temperament of a golden retriever puppy: happy, friendly, easy-going. And loyal.
Once the front door closed behind the two women, Detective McDaniel emerged from under the weeping willows and crossed the street, lingering in front of the wrought iron gate. He caught a hint of perfume in the air, something exotic he couldn’t possibly name. He had never smelled anything like it before. His eyes wandered up the windows, hoping to catch another glimpse of the dark-haired stranger.
“You have your own sittin’ room up here, as well as the bedroom, an office, and a full bath.” Harriet gestured through the bathroom door toward the claw-foot tub and separate shower stall. The accommodations were beyond luxurious. “I hope you’ll be comfy.”
“I will. Thank you so much.”
Harriet waved off the thanks. “You get yourself settled in. Relax a bit. I know you could use it. Join us for dinner at the café whenever you’re ready. I’m gonna head up there right now.”
Angelica fought the urge to wrap her arms around Harriet. Could anyone see them? She guessed those lace curtains allowed in more than just the light. Instead, she thanked her host again, the words echoing inadequately in her ears.
As Harriet jogged back down the stairs, graceful despite her bulk, Angelica unpacked a few necessities. Her two American toads would appreciate a little light and oxygen, not to mention a cricket snack. The rest of her animals traveled on their own and would arrive in the next few days, most likely after dark.
“I guess I could use a bath,” she said to the toads. “I’d let you join me, but you guys hate the bubbles.” The two toads blinked their silent agreement. They preferred to sleep during the day, being nocturnal.
Angelica placed the glass terrarium on top of the dresser next to the bed, then stripped off her traveling clothes. She ran the bath water steaming hot, which was how she always liked it, regardless of the temperature outside. Squirting rosemary gel under the faucet, she stepped into the bubbles and sank all the way up to her chin. Her tense muscles began to unkink while the rosemary scent revitalized her mind.
Starting this new chapter of her life here in Nyack would not be easy. She would have to be extremely careful, on her guard at all times. The Harmonic Convergence would occur in a few short weeks, and everything had to be in place by then. She breathed in through her nose and exhaled slowly with a low growl in her throat. Power breathing, as she called it, helped to sharpen her focus. And she needed every advantage now. The tiniest slip could mean the collapse of everything she had set in motion.
After toweling off, she chose a wine-colored velvet skirt with a flowing black silk blouse for the dinner meeting. She then applied a thick layer of make-up, something she normally abhorred. But she would have to get used to it now. She penciled around her eyes with black kohl and added some blood red lipstick. A liberal dose of her signature scent behind the ears and knees followed, a potent aphrodisiac she blended herself from thirteen different essential oils. After pulling on her scuffed boots, she clomped down the stairs and out the front door.
On Broadway, she hung a left, passing many historic homes as she headed toward downtown Nyack. Every house was unique, something she had always loved about this town. Specialty shops, now filled with tourists from Manhattan, lined both sides of Broadway, as well as Main Street. Here, she turned left once more and climbed the slope away from the Hudson River.
She was back. After so many years away.
But the reunion tasted bittersweet in her mouth.
Everywhere she looked, she found holes in the landscape of her memory. Holes where people or places belonged but were no longer there. The last time she stood on this sidewalk, her roots were firmly entrenched in this place of her birth. But she had since been uprooted.
Silently mourning the loss of her old Nyack, the village where she had once greeted everyone she passed on the street by name, Angelica practically bumped right into a customer coming out of Koblin’s Pharmacy. An elderly black woman with a red and white cane tapped her way across the sidewalk. Angelica recognized the familiar face and froze mid-step. Then she noticed the cane. Barely daring to breathe, she made a wide arc around the old woman.
Thinking she was home free, Angelica glanced back as she continued up Main Street. But the old woman had stopped dead in her tracks and seemed to be staring with her sightless eyes after Angelica. She lifted her cane, pointing. Angelica didn’t wait. She spun around and sprinted the last block to the restaurant.
Panting, her heart thudding, she lurched through the doorway of the fuchsia-colored bungalow into the darkened interior of the Coven Café. Lit only by candles and small stained glass lamps, planetary charts and diagrams decorated the walls in celebration of the imminent Harmonic Convergence. Witches of various shapes and sizes adorned every surface. The square tables, draped with black cloth, were all occupied. Couples and friends, young and old, dressed casually or flamboyantly, shared food and drink.
“Are you alone tonight?” the hostess squeaked, lifting a single menu. Her voice reminded Angelica of Minnie Mouse. She sported two bouncing black ponytails above her ears and only needed the floppy, polka-dotted bow in her hair to complete the image.
“No, I’m joining the owners for dinner.” Peering into the dimly lit corners, she searched for Harriet.
“Whoa. Wait just a minute. Angelica Davenport. Right? Right? They told me you were coming. I’m so excited to meet you. I’ve already signed up for one of your readings next week.” The petite hostess bounced up and down on her toes. “Are you a Scorpio, by any chance? Because I’m a Scorpio.”
“Wonderful.” Angelica drew the word out, lowering her voice an octave to balance the mouse’s skittish energy. “I’ll be looking forward to working with you. And I’m a Gemini.”
“Just like my sister,” the mouse murmured, her eyes growing larger.
Angelica laid her palm on the tiny hostess’s shoulder and felt the muscles relax beneath her touch. The perky expression softened as she led Angelica to a corner table partially hidden behind a potted black bamboo plant. Handing over the menu, the mouse departed without another word.
At the bar, Detective Ian McDaniel sipped his soda. He didn’t turn his head as the newcomer passed, but once she took her seat, he swiveled on his stool to get a better look. Definitely the woman with the suitcases. A whiff of her fragrance hung in the air, and he breathed it in. He recognized the scent from earlier. A strong desire to bury his nose deep within her jet black hair washed over him. That was no ordinary toilet water.
Over at their corner table, the two café owners were already seated, conversing with their heads close together. They both smiled and rose as Angelica approached.
“Angelica, this is my partner, Erica Gold.” Harriet gestured grandly, projecting her voice over the background din of conversation. The crowd quieted in response to her booming announcement. “Erica, may I introduce Angelica Davenport.”
The presentation was so stiff and formal, Angelica had to bite back her laugh. She considered a sarcastic bow or possibly a curtsy, but having never done either, she didn’t think she could pull it off.
“We’re both so glad you could join us.” Erica grasped Angelica’s hand in both of hers. A much smaller woman, dwarfed by Harriet’s bulk, she had bony wrists, sharp cheekbones, and a chin like a chisel. Her grip was weak, but her eyes were warm and welcoming. She leaned forward to whisper into Angelica’s ear, “I wish I could give you hug.”
“Not here,” Angelica hissed back, glancing at the surrounding tables.
Harriet lowered her voice. “Why don’t we all have a seat?”
The rest of the customers returned to their private conversations.
“Your hostess is a bit much.” Angelica plopped down and opened her menu.
“Yes. Debbi is, er, rather spirited,” Erica said, her eyebrows raised. “The customers love her, though, and she’s a huge help around here. She grew up in the restaurant business. Her grandparents owned an Italian trattoria in Brooklyn.”
“Hope you’re hungry,” Harriet jumped in. “Gretchen, our head chef, is puttin’ this place on the map. We had a restaurant critic in here last week from the New York Times. Can you believe that? Haven’t seen the review yet, but it should be comin’ out soon.”
“She does this amazing roasted heirloom tomato tart.” Erica flushed with pride. “And the fried goat cheese salad is superb.”
“I’m mainly a carnivore these days.” Angelica searched the menu for some animal-based form of protein. “You do serve meat here, right?”
“We cater to all types, even you meat-and-potatoes folk.” Harriet pointed out the handwritten list of specials. “Try the steak-frites. You can get it rare.”
“Perfect.” Angelica sighed in relief. She would need plenty of red meat to keep up her strength. Scanning Erica’s thin face, she could see where a vegetarian diet led. How someone could choose to become so scrawny and anemic-looking, she could not fathom. It worried her.
“We should celebrate with a bottle of wine.” Harriet looked for their waitress.
Erica narrowed her eyes at Angelica. “Let me guess, something red?”
“Absolutely. That’s all I drink.” Angelica grinned. “Well, that and the blood of virgins at the new moon.”
“Yum.” Harriet played along. “I think I’ll order us a Malbec for tonight, though.”
As Harriet placed the order, Detective McDaniel finished his soda and stood to leave. He had overheard snippets of the conversation between the three women, including that stilted introduction. His curiosity regarding the alluring stranger had only been further piqued. It wasn’t unusual for him to stop by the Coven for the occasional meal or nonalcoholic beverage. Now he resolved to become a regular. He still couldn’t put his finger on what felt so familiar about this apparent newcomer. But he planned to find out.