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Monday, December 7th
Meandering footprints marred the snowy path leading to a quaint chapel in St. Michael’s Cemetery. The chapel was covered with straggling and decayed reminders of last summer’s lush and vibrant ivy. The harsh, clanging echo of a shovel striking frozen earth broke the silence of the early morning calm.
The Collective, a group of six men and seven women, clustered around the wielder of the shovel, watching his progress. His every breath huffed with the labor of trying to break the frozen ground. He steamed white puffs into the cold winter’s air as he exhaled. He drew in a sharp breath of relief as the shovel finally broke through the hardened earth. Each slice of the shovel into the ice-encrusted ground reminded him of the sound of a knife blade going through skin and hitting bone. He grimaced at the thought and pushed his flashbacks of war to the back of his mind. He clenched his cold hands around the handle of the shovel and continued his work like any good soldier would do.
He had doubts about whether this was the correct thing to do, but they had taken him into their sanctuary when he’d arrived in Creekwood. They had fed him, given him clothes and counseled him. They had prayed for him and with him. They gave to him when so many others had taken away. He could finally help them, and so he did; digging a hole in the frozen earth so that their work could begin seemed such a small price to pay for their kindness. Hushed voices broke the quiet of the winter’s dawn. He heard plotting and scheming in the hissing voices around him. The tone of the conversation dripped with acid, and he quietly prayed for them and the souls against which they plotted and schemed.
When the hole was three feet deep and three feet in diameter, The Collective moved closer and peered into the hole. A small, round woman with cropped red hair, a sour face and a prominent birthmark over her left eye pulled a small cloth sack from her enormous handbag. Alice opened the sack and took out pictures of Carl Parkins and Marnie Reilly. She placed the pictures into the hole. Next, she removed two vulture feathers from the sack and placed them atop the pictures. She sprinkled some of the frozen earth over the top and then dried leaves of water hemlock and a scattering of rock salt. Last, she added a dead rat with six black feathers from a crow piercing its chest. Alice stepped back and motioned for the other members of The Collective to complete their tasks. One by one, they picked up handfuls of dirt and, in turn, threw their dirt into the hole. When the hole was filled, Alice stepped forward and jabbed a sprig of holly wound with a sprig of mistletoe and a sprig of water hemlock into the earth. Alice stood back and looked at the first step of the ritual that they were creating. The final step in the ritual is always a chant, and so it began:
“The divine power of The Collective, gathered in glorious quest,
Emblazons power on hallowed ground and scavenging pest.
Your duty is to abolish those we distrust!
Accept your burden, and make it just!
We beseech the Holy Spirit for absolution;
Protect our souls as we deliver retribution.
So it shall be!”
The Collective held hands in a circle around the small grave, chanting as the sun peeked over the hill of St Michael’s Cemetery.
Alice tied her scarf around her red, chubby face and flashed a satisfied smile. “Well, then, by Christmas we won’t have to worry about Carl and Marnie damaging our reputations anymore. God will protect us. He will keep us safe.”
The man who had just dug the hole moved to the inner edge of the gathering. He turned slowly and watched the expressions on the faces of the members of The Collective. He stopped when he reached Alice and anxiously said, “Ma’am, I d-d-don’t understand w-w-why you w-w-want to hurt these p-p-people. Carl was kind to me, and I thought you all liked him. Didn’t h-h-he help you, too? Didn’t he help y-y-your c-c-clients?”
Alice shook her head dismissively.
“We don’t want to hurt them, Patrick. We want God to teach them a lesson. Carl has left our group to work with Marnie. She mocks us, calls us names and steals our customers – well, our clients. She has spread horrible rumors about us over the years.”
Alice paused and looked up into Patrick’s face, searching for his understanding and acceptance.
After a few minutes, she continued, “We helped her, Patrick, just as we helped you. She has taken our love and kindness and thrown disdain and disrespect at us in return. She has taken Carl away from us, too. Carl was a very important part of our team. His work brought money to The Collective. He helped us pay our bills. He helped us take care of people like you. We need to find another source of income now to continue our good work. We want to help people like you and others who are tormented by pain and spiritual hunger. We need a new energy healer to ensure that money flows and that we, The Collective, prosper.”
Alice stepped back and turned to the others for confirmation.
As they all stood beneath the rising sun, nodding in agreement with Alice, a crow flew overhead and cawed at them. Patrick looked toward the crow, flinched and shook his head fretfully.
“That’s a b-b-bad omen. What you have d-d-done h-h-here is wrong. You should n-n-not have d-d-done this.” Patrick nervously searched the faces of the people in the group – eyes darting from person to person. He wrung the hem of his camo jacket in his hands, and he leaned into the group and whispered, “God will p-p-punish y-y-you for this.” As he searched the faces and saw no remorse, his voice grew louder and stronger and he shouted, “G-g-god will p-p-punish you. God will punish you. God will punish you!”
Patrick stood with defiance in the center of the group. The dull expressions on the faces that looked back at him told him it was futile to believe that anyone in The Collective would regret their actions. He crushed the hem of his jacket with trembling hands and anxiously retreated a few steps.
“I have seen evil and hatred in my life. I have seen people killed and maimed and destroyed out of hatred. So much evil, b-b-but n-n-nothing that compares to the evil I-I-I see in front of me. Your souls are empty… d-d-dark… sick – all of you. Empty and d-d-dark and sick,” Patrick lamented, turning slowly and purposefully to address everyone in the group.
“Hang on just one minute, Patrick, and you listen to me,” Alice chided, anger reddening her face under her twisted brow.
“No!” shouted Patrick as he turned quickly and ran down the path, covering his ears as the crow flew over again and cawed.
Alice turned to the group and ordered, “Someone run along and get Patrick. Who knows what that idiot will do. That boy’s behavior, well, we never know when he might explode, PTSD and all.” Alice rolled her eyes.
A tallish, skinny man with a sallow complexion and beady brown eyes hidden behind huge eyeglasses, Allen patted Alice’s chubby shoulder reassuringly. He bent close to her ear and spoke quietly. “Don’t worry. Patrick is a harmless soul. He won’t do anything to hurt any of us. He has his mental exercises; Carl made sure of that. We’ve taken care of him. He’s as loyal as a Labrador. Of that, I am certain.”
Alice scowled and shrugged away from Allen’s reassuring pat. “That boy isn’t harmless. He’s a train wreck waiting to happen and we’re sitting on the railroad crossing with no gas,” she replied sharply.
Allen turned to watch Patrick running away. He touched his bicep lightly and truly wished that he’d put a nicotine patch on this morning. It was going to be a long day.
“Alice, let the boy go. He’ll be back in time for lunch. He never misses a meal. He’s just like a Labrador. He’ll be back,” Allen assured her.
Alice watched Patrick disappear down the snowy path and knew that Allen was probably right, even though she’d had a nagging feeling since she woke up that morning – about what, she didn’t know. It was just there, nagging at her. It was true. Patrick never missed an opportunity to eat. She let that thought settle for a moment, and a small smile came to her lips. She gave a slight nod. He would be home for lunch, and the doubt crept back in, replacing her smile with a pained grimace.
Patrick halted sharply, glanced quickly up the road to see if anyone was chasing him and looked up to the sky. He saw the huge crow soaring toward him and land softly on a long granite tombstone. Patrick stepped off the path and studied the crow as he preened his glossy feathers with his yellow beak under the rising sun. The crow turned his head and peered directly at Patrick. Patrick eased forward gingerly to read the stone.
“Colin Reilly and Sophia Reilly
Loving Parents of Marnie and Sam”
He continued reading the poem that followed.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
He studied the tombstone and crinkled his forehead. He took a small step back and murmured to the crow, “Marnie? Marnie Reilly? This is a sign, right? You’ve given me a sign, haven’t you?”
The crow ruffled his feathers, cawed, spread his wings, and flew away. A northern wind swept through the cemetery and whistled through the tall pines and the bare, leafless branches of the trees.
Patrick shivered and pulled his gloves out of his coat pockets. His hands were cold, his ears hurt, his eyes were teary, his feet were numb and his nose was running. He stomped his feet to get some feeling back, shoved his gloves onto his hands, wiped his nose on the back of a glove, turned toward the path and ran as if the devil himself was following him. He had to get to Creekwood. He had to find Marnie Reilly and Carl Parkins. He had to warn them – of what, he wasn’t sure.
“Come on, Tater. Get a move on!” Marnie Reilly gave Tater’s lead a light tug. Her rough-coat black-and-white Border Collie, Tater shot her a quick, distracted glance and continued snuffling through the powdery snow. Sniff, sniff, sniff and then head up, still and watchful. Ears perked up, listening, alert.
“Tater, it’s 6:15. It’s cold. It’s dark, and I need to get to the office. Come on, buddy. Move it!” Marnie scolded softly.
Tater turned and walked slowly to Marnie’s side. He sat, looked up at her and patted her leg with his paw. Marnie bent and unclipped Tater’s lead so that he could run off some energy on the last leg of their morning jog.
“You are a cheeky brat, Tater. Let’s go get breakfast.”
Marnie and Tater jogged through the moonlit woods and headed to the cabin as light snow fell around them. The woods and its creatures were just waking up to a fresh dusting of snow. A doe stood stock-still on the path ahead, and a rabbit snowshoed out of the undergrowth and into the clearing. Tater turned his head sharply, but he continued trotting at Marnie’s side along the path to the cabin.
There was something about this time of year. Thanksgiving was just over; holiday parties were in full swing, and Christmas was on the way. Marnie’s brain raced with the myriad of things that she had to do over the coming weeks, and her thoughts drifted to another topic entirely – a tall, intelligent distraction. He annoyed her. Detective Daniel Gregg was the most infuriating man whom she had ever met, and truth be told, she kind of liked that about him. He challenged her.
She stopped running when she saw Danny; he was shoveling a small bit of the driveway just outside the big garage door. He was a bit of a neat freak about shoveling the snow into even piles on either side of the garage. Danny was also pedantic, and that was another thing that she actually liked about him. It annoyed her, but it certainly wasn’t a deal breaker.
Danny was an oddly handsome man. His dimpled smile didn’t quite go with the rugged face that wore well laugh lines and the slight crinkle of crow’s feet. His thick, sandy brown hair was often slightly messy from running his fingers through it when thinking or stressed. He was a tall man, solidly built and some would say a force to be reckoned with when angered or protecting the innocent. His sharp wit and astute sixth sense about people made him a great cop. A steely blue gaze is the second thing that most people notice about Danny. The first is his badge; he wears his gold shield with great pride.
A widower, Danny lost his late wife Sarah several years back to suicide. No matter how Danny tried to forgive himself, just under the surface loomed guilt for not saving Sarah from her deep dive into depression. He lost his mother Carol to depression and suicide, too. He still carried a great deal of guilt because he couldn’t save the two women whom he loved dearly. Danny typically steered clear of relationships. Investing emotionally in love was low on his list of priorities – until now. Danny met Marnie while investigating the murder of her ex-lover, Ken Wilder. She annoyed the hell out of Danny, and he had found her to be the most irritating woman whom he had ever met. Her kindness, independent nature, warmth, wisdom, sassiness and beauty won him over, yet she still frustrated him beyond belief.
“What do you think, Tater? Is he a keeper?” Marnie glanced down and tugged gently on one of Tater’s ears.
Tater glanced up at Marnie, barked twice, smiled a big Border Collie smile and then ran full speed ahead to Danny.
“You’re a traitor, Tater!” Marnie giggled to herself. She called out quietly to the birds and trees, “The canine vote is in, ladies and gentlemen! Tater thinks that he’s a keeper, but for the lady… well, folks, the votes have yet to be counted! Tune in next week for the final tally!”
Danny’s head shot up when he heard Tater’s bark. He clapped his hands and called to Tater. “Come on, boy. It’s time for breakfast,” he said.
Tater skidded to a stop on the icy path at Danny’s feet. Danny stooped to ruff up Tater’s fur, all the while watching Marnie walk the rest of the way up the path.
Danny smiled and commented, “Tater seems to be in good spirits this morning. He seems okay today.”
Marnie pushed snow around the path with the toe of one running shoe and replied, “His energy seems to be back. At least he’s smiling again. It seems to come and go. I could punch my brother in the face for what he’s done.”
Danny nodded somberly, remembering. Marnie looked out into the forest, folded her arms around herself and shivered as the last few weeks played out in her head.
Marnie’s abusive and wealthy ex-lover had been found murdered in the shed in her backyard. She was set up to take the fall for his death. At first, Marnie had believed that The Collective had tried to frame her for Ken’s murder. As it turned out, her best girlfriend, Kate Parish, and her brother Sam, whom she had believed was dead, were responsible. Making matters more treacherous, they had tried to kill her when plans hadn’t worked out the way that they had wanted. The collateral damage had been two dead police officers, two wounded officers and the loss of her home. Well, the house wasn’t lost; she just couldn’t bear the thought of living there with the memory of all that spilled blood and death on her doorstep – spilled blood for personal gain. Marnie was thankful that Danny had given her and Tater a place to call home while she searched for a new house.
Kate’s involvement had been a hard pill to swallow. Marnie and she had been friends since grade school. They had seen one another through good times and bad. Kate’s betrayal was almost worse than her brother’s treachery. Marnie and Sam weren’t close. The sibling rivalry created by Sam years earlier left Marnie marginally unsurprised by his actions, but Kate was different. The bond that they shared had been strong – some would say sisterly. Marnie had believed that Kate always had her back – until now.
Marnie stood motionless on the path – thinking. She was a clairvoyant – a reluctant clairvoyant, but a clairvoyant nonetheless. She had tapped into her gift when the situation had become dire. She needed answers, and with a bit of divine guidance, she had received helpful information from her mother and father who had passed away years earlier. They were on the other side of the veil – the veil between this life and the hereafter. A veil that Marnie protected every day. A veil that she considered sacred. The veil is sacred and should never, ever be torn down for personal gain.
The Collective was a group of charlatans. Marnie had spent some time with them years earlier when she had escaped her abusive relationship with Ken. Her friend Carl Parkins, a once brilliant psychotherapist, had introduced her to the group, thinking that she might like to socialize with people who were also spiritual. Marnie soon learned that The Collective had no regard for right and wrong. Everything that they did was for money or favor. They didn’t care about the poor souls that they duped. The Collective pulled threads out of the veil every day, fraying its edges with their lies and trickery. They sold hope to people who were searching for answers – people who needed professional help, not a tarot reading or a potion. Marnie left the group and spent her time discrediting them. A successful psychologist, Marnie reached out a hand to The Collective’s victims. She did everything that she could, in a spiritual sense, to weave the threads back into the veil and help the souls damaged by The Collective.
Marnie shook her head, clearing away the memory, and said, “Right! Time to move. We need to get breakfast, and I need to get to the office. There’s a lot to do.”
Marnie, Danny and Tater climbed the steps to Danny’s cabin. Once inside, Danny disappeared into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee for himself and a pot of tea for Marnie. Marnie went upstairs to get ready for the day, and Tater scooted under the pool table and chewed contentedly on a bone.
As Danny made coffee and tea, his mind drifted to Marnie; it did that quite often these last few weeks. He shook his head and grinned. Marnie came into his life a month ago when he was investigating the murder of Ken Wilder. He walked into her house on Creek Road on November 9. From the moment that he laid eyes on Marnie Reilly, he knew that everything was about to change – he knew it in his gut.
Marnie Reilly is compassionate, ethical, quirky and loyal – qualities that actually irk some people. She is a force of nature for sure. Tall and athletically built, Marnie’s style is casual – she opts for jeans and boots over skirts and heels. Her job calls for skirts and heels – her home life the former. Her straight blonde hair, with hints of strawberry shining through the long layers, falls just below her shoulders. She normally wears it in a ponytail, but Danny loves it when she lets it fall loose around her shoulders.
Marnie is incredibly independent and guarded. People who know her well attribute this to the tragic and untimely death of her mother and, just a few years later, her father. She believes that she can take care of herself. She hates asking for help, and she doesn’t let people in easily, but when she does, she expects them to be kind, considerate and honest. She’s had her fair share of bad relationships. The worst, or the absolute worst, had been Ken Wilder; he was a cruel and abusive cheater – not a good guy.
The first thing that most people notice about Marnie is her eyes – aquamarine and haunted. Aquamarine is the color; haunted is her gift of clairvoyance revealing itself. The second thing that people notice about her is her undying devotion to her Border Collie Tater. They’re a package deal.
Marnie dedicates her life to fixing things – mainly people and stray dogs. She’s a psychologist, but she refers to herself most often as a counselor. Marnie is often so busy fixing things for others that she forgets to take care of herself. Does she really forget, or is there just so much to fix that she focuses on other things? Danny isn’t sure, but he plans to stick around to find out.
Marnie crunched through the snow on the way to her office. She glanced up at the sky, thinking to herself that a white Christmas was likely. She could hear the church bells ringing in the distance. Snow fell softly on her face as she walked through town. She stopped for a moment, closed her eyes and breathed in the smells of the season – balsam, wood fires and the aroma of cinnamon and ginger wafting from the bakery. Her cheeks and nose were pink from her walk through the cold of the morning. The falling snow kissed her gently with each falling crystal. Tater stood quietly on his lead next to her, watching with intelligent eyes.
“Ah, Tater,” cooed Marnie. She reached down and tugged gently on his ear. “The season of miracles is upon us, buddy. I need to have faith that the heavens will guide us. We just need to listen. Divine guidance is there if we listen with our hearts.”
Tater smiled up at her and wagged his tail happily. Marnie patted his head, and they crunched through the snow the remaining few blocks to her office.
Marnie sat at her desk with her eyes closed, her hands resting gently on the papers in front of her. When the outer door opened and the bell rang, she didn’t move. She heard them moving through the outer office, their presence comforting. Then she felt them standing in her doorway. She didn’t look up. She knew they were there. She could smell their aftershave – both earthy with citrus undertones – the scents complemented one another. These were the scents of the two men whom she trusted most. She sat quietly and reflected.
Detectives Tom Keller and Daniel Gregg watched her for a moment, looked at one another and shrugged.
“She must be meditating,” Danny whispered.
“Maybe she’s trying to pick something up – you know, energy, from the papers on her desk,” Tom said quietly, nodding in Marnie’s direction.
“Maybe she’s talking to someone,” Danny whispered and pointed up with a mischievous grin. “You know, a long distance call.”
Tom looked uncomfortably around the room and tried to hide a shiver. He was Marnie’s best friend from childhood, and he was always unstrung by her powers.
Danny laughed quietly and backed out of the room, pulling Tom with him when he heard the bell above the door ring once more.
Carl Parkins came through the door, loaded up with packages. He placed the bundles on the floor and smiled at Tom and Danny.
“Good morning, gentlemen. How are we today?” Carl crossed the room and put his hand out to Danny.
Danny shook his hand, but narrowed his eyes at Carl. “Whatcha doin’ here, Carl?”
Carl turned to shake Tom’s hand. He glanced over his shoulder at Danny and replied, “I’ve got a meeting with Marnie. We’ve got a few things to discuss, and I’m dropping off these packages for Toys for Tots. Marnie wants to make sure that the balls stay in the air. Now that Ken’s dead, she’s decided to ramp things up a bit with the drive.”
“Yeah, we know about that, but what do you have to do with that?” Danny asked, narrowing his eyes once again.
Carl shifted uncomfortably and nodded toward Marnie’s office. “Like I said, I have a meeting with Marnie.”
Before Danny could respond, Marnie walked out of her office. She looked around the room and grumbled, “Play nicely, boys. The smell of testosterone is drifting into my office.”
Marnie crossed the reception area to the kitchenette, poured herself a glass of water from the dispenser and started going through a drawer in the kitchenette. She frowned and turned to her assistant’s desk to find it empty.
“Has anyone seen Andrea?” Marnie asked.
Danny shook his head. “Nope. She wasn’t here when we arrived.”
Carl nodded and added, “She’s at the bakery. I passed her on my way here. She said that you’re in a shitty mood and maybe some sugar would sweeten you up.” He laughed and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot in the kitchenette.
Marnie’s face clouded. Glancing sideways at Carl, she shot back, “I’m not in a shitty mood. There’s a lot to do, and I’m just, um, focused. I’m focused on getting things organized, and I have a full schedule. I’m not in a shitty mood. I’m focused.” She wheeled about and stomped back into her office with her water.
“Whoa… that was quick. She’s still not coping, is she?” Tom asked, looking from Danny to Carl.
Carl shook his head and replied, “Nope. Then again, I think she’s coping more than most people would be. How would you be handling everything that’s gone on the past few weeks?”
Marnie slumped in her chair, contemplating the last few weeks once again. So many lives damaged and all that blood. Marnie shivered and refocused her attention to the papers on her desk and to Tater, who was under her desk.
Tater was quietly chewing on a marrow bone given to him this morning by Danny’s grandmother. Gram had stopped in on her way back to her diner from her early morning visit to the butcher. Tater looked up for a minute and went back to chewing his bone. Marnie was worried about him. He hadn’t been the same since her brother Sam had tried to choke the life out him a few weeks ago. He wasn’t smiling as often, and he was unusually quiet. He typically ran out to greet people when the bell rang over the office door, but here he was chewing quietly under her desk. He wasn’t obeying her, and he was distracted on their morning runs.
Marnie picked up the phone to call the vet’s office, but was distracted by Danny’s presence in her doorway. Her frown from earlier disappeared as she looked up and smiled. He was tall and broad, and his face was the perfect combination of craggy and handsome. When he smiled back, two big dimples lit up his face and melted her heart.
“What can I do for you, Detective?” Marnie teased.
“Well, to start, I was wondering where Tater is? He didn’t run out to greet us.” Danny tipped his head to the side, scowling slightly.
“Under here chewing a bone your grandmother dropped in for him this morning. He’s still not himself. He was fine for a few days, and he seemed okay for a few minutes this morning, but it’s like he remembers what happened. I’m worried about him, Danny. I was just getting ready to call his vet.” Marnie scooted her chair back, looked under the desk and glanced back up at Danny.
Danny walked around Marnie’s desk and peeked under. Tater looked up for a second and went right back to chewing on his bone.
Danny puckered his brow and turned to Marnie. “He didn’t smile. Let me get Tom. He always smiles at Tom.”
A few minutes later, Tom walked around Marnie’s desk, got down on his hands and knees and stuck his head under the desk.
“Hey, Tater Tot,” Tom called calmly. “Whatcha doin’? Come on out and see your Uncle Tom.”
Tater let out a low warning growl. Surprised by Tater’s reaction, Tom withdrew, knocking his head on the underside of the desk. He shot a look of concern to Danny and Marnie.
“Somethin’ ain’t right there. Tater doesn’t growl at me. Never has, even when he’s eating. Have you called Ellie?” Tom stood and turned to Marnie.
“I was just about to do that. He’s not himself at all,” Marnie said wincing. She picked up her phone to call the vet.
Danny and Tom left Marnie to her phone call and went back out to the main office. They heard the bell ring again as Andrea walked in carrying two boxes from the bakery.
“Good morning!” Andrea chimed cheerfully, nodding to Tom and Danny. “Donut, officers?” she teased with a wide grin and put the donuts on the small table in the kitchenette.
Danny acknowledged Andrea with a slight nod of his head and a smile. “Mornin’, Andrea. You got a jelly donut in one of those boxes?”
“Yes, of course. Would I get donuts and not have at least one jelly donut for the man who almost always puts a smile on my boss’s face? Get in there, and find out what the hell is going on with her. She’s been crabby all friggin’ morning,” Andrea retorted and held out the box to Danny.
“She’s worried about Tater,” Danny advised. He helped himself to a jelly donut and nodded toward Marnie’s office. “She’s calling the vet right now.”
Tom leaned on the sink in the kitchenette with a bear claw in his hand. Between bites, he said, “I just stuck my head under Marnie’s desk, and Tater growled at me. Somethin’s not right.”
Andrea walked past Tom, gave his cheek a light slap and teased, “If I were cornered under a desk and saw that mug coming at me, I’d growl, too.”
She smiled sweetly, turned, winked at Danny and walked to her desk.
“That’s like the third or fourth time in the past few weeks that you have intimated that I am a very unattractive man,” Tom complained, looking at Andrea blankly.
“You’re not unattractive, Tom. I just like messin’ with you.” Andrea smiled and wrinkled her nose at him.
“Andrea, stop flirting with Detective Keller,” Marnie said dryly as she walked out of her office, pulling on her coat clumsily as she went. Tater was following slowly with his head down. “Can you please move my 11:30 and 12:30? I’m taking Tater to the vet right now. He just growled at me, and that’s not okay.”
Danny helped Marnie into her coat and looked down at Tater. “What’s up, pal?” Tater looked up at Danny with mournful eyes and put his head down again.
“I gotta go. Sorry, everyone. Carl? Can we catch up after hours?” Marnie glanced in Carl’s direction.
Carl nodded his head and replied, “Yeah. Sure. I’ll be around most of the day. We can chat around 5:00.”
“Detectives, did you need me for something?” Marnie asked, turning to Danny and then to Tom.
“We’ll catch up later. Just need to finalize a few things regarding Sam and Kate. You can have your car back, too. The forensics team just released it this morning,” Danny advised.
He took Tater’s lead off the coatrack and handed it to Marnie.
“Thanks. We’ll talk in a bit.” Marnie bent to clip Tater’s lead onto his collar. She stood straight, nodded to the room and then left.
Danny turned to Tom with worry written all of over his face. “Tater’s out of sorts. She’s out of sorts. They’re both up at night sitting by the fire, not sleeping. Marnie’s barely eating, and she’s working crazy hours. They’re going out for a run every morning and evening, but they’re not settling in. I think that we need an intervention. We need to do something about this. They were both fine on Thanksgiving, and now, well, they’re not okay. Everything has sunk in, and they are not okay.”
Tom winked at Andrea and Carl and turned to Danny. “You know, there is a solution. Move her out of the spare room and into your room, and things might change. All that sexual tension can’t be good for anyone.”
Danny glared at Tom and shook his head, “Sex? You think this is about sex?! You’re an idiot, Tommy. What happens between me and Marnie is between me and Marnie.”
Danny’s phone began ringing before he could say more.
He answered it curtly, “Detective Gregg.”
He listened intently, his annoyance with Tom gone for the moment.
“Yes, sir. We’re on our way,” he responded.
Danny grabbed his gloves out of his pockets and reached for the door.
Over his shoulder, he scolded, “I’ve got work to do, and so do you, Detective Keller. We’ve got a body on the tracks.”
Danny yanked the door open, and the little bell rang violently. He looked up and shook his head.
Tom shrugged as he zipped his jacket and headed out the door with a small salute.
Left alone, Carl turned to Andrea. “So, Marnie said you needed my help getting another consult room set up. What can I do?”
Andrea let out a long sigh and nodded to a door at the back of the office. When she spoke, her tone clearly revealed that she was not pleased with Carl’s presence in Marnie’s life or counseling practice. Carl’s previous ties to and involvement with The Collective made Andrea wary of his intentions. Marnie could often be too forgiving; Andrea wasn’t. She would make it her personal and professional mission to ensure that Carl didn’t have an opportunity to hurt Marnie or her practice.
“Right through that door, Carl. Set it up however you like. I ordered the stuff that Marnie asked me to order, and it’s all still in boxes. The desk is old, but it’s in good shape. We have a new chair arriving sometime today,” advised Andrea, obviously not intending to help him with the setup.
Carl smiled awkwardly and walked toward the door. He stopped abruptly and turned back to Andrea. The situation weighed on him heavily. He knew that there was suspicion – a sense of intrusion with Andrea that he could not understand.
Trying to cut the tension, he offered, “Hey, I’m not here to cause problems. I’m here to help and to get my life back. I don’t know or care much what you think you know, but Marnie offered me help and I accepted. Do you think maybe you and I could get along?”
Andrea narrowed her eyes at Carl and threatened, “You do anything to damage her reputation or anything that brings that loony group in here, and I swear to God that I will stomp on you like a bug.”
“Oh, so that’s it. Andrea, I am not planning to get in touch with The Collective or anyone in The Collective. I’ve had enough of that life. This is where I want to be. I want to fix my reputation and start doing good work again. That part of my life is over,” Carl assured and gave a resolute nod of his head. He turned on his heel, walked into the room that would be his office and closed the door softly.
For a moment, Andrea was stunned by his candor and wondered why she might just be starting to trust him. She shook her head and got back to work.
Carl sat on the corner of his desk, contemplating Andrea’s distaste for his presence in Marnie’s life. He wasn’t sure how to win her over. He laughed quietly to himself. Winning people over was typically not a problem for him. Carl was tall and academia attractive. His short russet hair with graying temples and his perfectly groomed silver-specked russet beard and mustache added to his professor-like appearance – things most people found comforting. He’d been told that his deep browns eyes held warmth, empathy, wisdom and a spark of mischief. Maybe I need to change my look? Carl looked down at his clothes. Chinos, button-down shirt and suede driving shoes. Hmm… Nothing sinister about that.
Carl took his pipe and a satchel of cherry tobacco out of his shirt pocket; he opened the satchel and fiddled tobacco into his pipe. He set the pipe between his teeth for comfort. He wouldn’t light it here in the office; he would wait until he went out for a walk at lunchtime. Carl looked around, assessing his work space. He lifted a box of office supplies off the floor, set it on top of the credenza and went to work setting up his new office.
Marnie and Tater walked down the street to Ellie’s office. Tater’s steps were slow, soundless. He didn’t sniff or lift his leg on anything along the way. He hung his head, barely keeping at Marnie’s pace. She stopped several times and looked down at him, but he didn’t look up and smile.
When they arrived at the vet’s office, Dr. Ellie Nikol was chatting with an elderly man who was holding a cat carrier. The cat looked out from behind the small screen of his carrier and hissed at Tater. Tater stepped back, flattened his ears to his head and ducked behind Marnie, putting his nose between Marnie’s legs to peek out.
Marnie reached down, patted Tater’s back reassuringly and cooed, “It’s okay, boy. The cat can’t get you. It’s locked up.”
Just like they are – Sam and Kate. Both are locked up now, waiting for justice to be done. No reassurance helps me, Marnie reflected. She shook her head and smiled absently at Ellie.
What a lovely friend she had in Ellie. Ellie loved animals and had the most beautiful nature. She was tough but kind, and her kindness showed in her cute face. She was medium height, athletic in frame. Her short brown hair had streaks of ash blonde running through it, and her light hazel eyes twinkled.
Marnie loved spending time with Ellie. They always laughed when they were together, and no one could pull her into line better than Ellie.
As the old man and his hissing cat left, Ellie shut the door, gave Marnie a quick hug and looked down at Tater.
“How are you, Tater Tot? I hear you’ve had a rough few days. Let’s take a walk back to my office and see if we can figure it out.” Ellie took the lead from Marnie and gave Tater’s back a firm stroke.
Marnie followed and sat on a chair in Ellie’s office. Ellie sat in her desk chair, put on her reading glasses and opened Tater’s file.
“Okay, from everything you told me on the phone, poor Tater here, in my humble opinion, has had a shock and is adjusting to a whole lot of change.” Ellie looked at Marnie over the top of her reading glasses.
“Uh, yes. I would say that’s about right.” Marnie nodded.
“You told me earlier that you’re not staying at your house. Right?” Ellie asked.
“Right. We’re staying with Danny Gregg at the moment. He knows that I don’t want to be at the house after everything that happened, and he’s letting me use one of his spare rooms,” Marnie replied, shifting in her chair.
“You could’ve called me. We would have made room for you at our place,” Ellie said, giving Marnie a sideways glance.
“No. You and Julie have enough on your plates with her kids and your practice. It wouldn’t have been fair. Besides, we’re comfortable at Danny’s. It’s a nice big cabin in the woods right off Lake Road. It’s lovely.” Marnie looked down at Tater and asked, “Isn’t it, buddy?”
Tater flopped down on the tiled floor and looked up at her with sad eyes.
“He’s not happy, Marnie. Look at him. He’s miserable. You’ve taken a pack animal who has had Beta status for years and knocked him down to Gamma. His routine has been disrupted, and he’s sharing you with a man. Plus, your brother tried to choke the life out of him a few weeks ago,” Ellie commented matter-of-factly and wheeled her chair over to the exam table.
The exam table was low to the ground – perfect for dogs like Tater. Ellie knew that dogs could be intimidated by so many things in a vet’s office, and she wanted her furry patients to be relaxed for exams. The dog’s comfort was paramount in her practice.
Ellie slapped her hand on the table and called to Tater as she gave his lead a gentle tug. “C’mon, mister. Step up, and let’s have a look.” Slowly, Tater eyed the table, leapt up easily and sat down.
Marnie shook her head and responded, “He’s not sharing me with a man. It’s not like that. We’re – um – Danny and me – we are trying to figure out the relationship thing, and Tater and I are only staying there until I can find a new place. It’s only been three weeks, and nothing has happened – not that I wouldn’t like something to happen – but we’re being logical about it. It would be stupid to jump into a full-on relationship while living under the same roof after such a tragic event. It would be stupid.”
Marnie realized that she was rambling and stopped.
Ellie stared at Marnie over the top of her glasses again and, with a hint of sarcasm, replied, “Yeah, it would be stupid to meet a gorgeous man and have a relationship with him. Poor you.”
Ellie tipped her head at Marnie as she felt around Tater’s rib cage and lower abdomen. The dog shifted just once at Ellie’s probing hands.
“Well, you need to concern yourself with Tater’s diet. The poor boy is constipated. What have you been feeding him?”
“Tater? Constipated? No way! He’s eating what he normally eats – kibble and fish. Sardines, tuna, you know the usual,” Marnie responded sharply.
“You mentioned to me when you called that he was chewing a bone. What kind of bone?” Ellie asked.
“Uh, a bone bone. A marrow bone. Danny’s grandmother brings him one most days,” Marnie answered.
“Right. Well, has it occurred to you that Tater has never been a beef eater? He’s always eaten fish, chicken and vegetables. Suddenly, beef has been introduced into his diet. He can’t digest it the same. This happens with a lot of Border Collies. Stop giving him beef bones, make him feel important and he’ll be fine. Give him some yogurt and half a can of pumpkin tonight, and take him out for a long walk. It will take care of itself in a couple of days,” Ellie prescribed, giving Tater’s head a pat.
“That’s it?” Marnie asked as she roughed Tater’s fur and kissed his head.
“That’s it.” Ellie nodded. “Now, let’s talk about you and Detective Daniel Gregg, shall we?”
“No. We’re not having that conversation today. Tater and I are heading back to the office. I have work to do.”
Marnie curled her lip at Ellie and put Tater’s lead on him. Tater jumped gently off the exam table and stood there looking between his mistress and his doctor.
“Marnie, sit down,” Ellie said sternly with raised eyebrows. She pointed to the side chair next to her desk.
“Sit down, Marnie. We are going to have this conversation. You need to talk to somebody who isn’t Tom Keller or Carl Parkins.” Both Marnie and Tater sat, both reluctantly.
Marnie shrugged her shoulders and sheepishly asked, “What?”
“Don’t ‘what’ me. You know what. Take a chance, Marnie. How often do gorgeous, kind men walk through your door? Hmm? C’mon, Marn. Stop protecting yourself and let him in.”
Ellie put her hand on Marnie’s arm and looked intently at her friend.
Eyes on Tater, Marnie responded, “Who says I’m not letting him in? I am. Slowly, but I am. I think I’m doin’ pretty well for a woman who’s had relationship train wrecks most of my life.”
Marnie scratched Tater’s ears and looked down at the ground.
“Marnie, you need to stop protecting yourself. All guys are not Ken Wilder. All guys are not going to treat you like a punching bag, and all guys are not going to try to string you up with piano wire,” Ellie responded with less sympathy than she had intended.
Marnie’s hand instinctively went to her neck. She felt the scar left a few years earlier when Ken had wrapped piano wire around her neck. The memory rushed back, and she had to count to 10 in her head to push through the panic attack that she felt coming on.
Ellie stood up and walked to a cupboard. She took a small treat out of a bottle and gave it to Tater.
“Doggy laxative. I can’t handle that sad face any longer. Take a long walk through the park on the way back to the office. Trust me.” Ellie laughed and handed Marnie a plastic bag.
Marnie nodded and confessed, “Look, I know that Danny is nothing like Ken. I get that, but I really just want to take things slow with him. He’s a lovely man, and I don’t want to screw things up.”
Marnie stood and put her hand on the doorknob.
Ellie threw her head back and feigned a growl of exasperation. “Really? Marnie, just sleep with the man. Have some fun. Relax. Let your hair down, literally. Get rid of the ponytail. Let your hair down, girl. Seriously, you are wound tighter than a clock. Poor Tater here is absorbing your stress. I was at the cabin on Thanksgiving. The sexual tension between the two of you hung in the air like… like, well, I don’t know like what, but it was there. You two are perfect for each other. Take it to the next level, Marnie.”
Ellie patted Tater gently on the rump and slapped Marnie on the backside.
“Get out of here, and don’t come back until you’ve done as you’re told,” Ellie scolded.
“Don’t slap me on the ass. You know how much I hate that!” Marnie gritted teeth and clenched hands.
“Get over it. Go back to work, walk through the park and think about it.” Ellie pushed Marnie and Tater out the exam room door.
“I’ll call you later and let you know how the little man here is doin’,” called Marnie over her shoulder.
Marnie and Tater walked through the outer office to the street and headed to the park.
Even though she knew that she was talking to the door, Ellie quickly shot back, “More importantly, let me know how you and the big man are doin’.”
Detectives Gregg and Keller stood somberly to the side of the railroad tracks leading out of town. They were standing at a section of the track just outside of a nearly collapsed tunnel. This set of tracks hadn’t been used in over a year, and according to a recent budget report, it wasn’t scheduled to be repaired for a long time.
The man was lying face down in snow-covered gravel. He wore jeans, a belt, a plaid flannel shirt and socks. He had neither a coat nor shoes – no wallet, no identification of any sort. The only things that had been found by the forensics team were a coin and a business card.
The forensic tech handed the evidence bag with the coin in it to Danny and passed the bag with the business card in it to Tom.
The coin was just a bit bigger than an inch around – maybe pewter or nickel, dull and heavy. Wings unfurled, an angel kneeling in prayer adorned one side. Danny flipped it over to find a verse on the reverse of the coin. Squinting, he read aloud:
Guardian Angel, protect us all,
Giving strength when we might fall,
Watching, guiding, lighting the way,
Through the night
And every day.
Danny frowned, turned the bag over a few times and glanced at Tom. “What have you got?” Danny asked Tom.
“You first,” Tom replied, dropping his hand with the business card in it to his side.
“Just a coin. A guardian angel coin to be exact,” Danny said. “Your turn. What are you hiding there?”
Tom shifted from one foot to the other. He closed his eyes briefly and held out the evidence bag to Danny.
“Shit!” Danny shouted.
The quiet of the crime scene was broken by Danny’s shouted expletive, which traveled down the tunnel, echoed and made the patrolmen and forensics team jump.
Danny turned, paced away a few steps and studied the scene from different angles. He walked around the perimeter a few times, looking at the card again with each turn. Shit, he muttered to himself.
Tom stood quietly next to him, staring up the tracks to the tunnel. Tom did a double-take; he was certain that he’d just seen something move inside the tunnel. Just a flash of movement. Something gray or red – or both. He shook his head and returned his attention to Danny, who was still turning in circles trying to put the pieces together.
“Hey, guys!” Rick Price, head of forensics, called out to Danny and Tom, “Something here you might want to see.”
Rick had rolled the body over thinking cause of death might be an overdose, and he had rolled up the sleeves looking for signs of track marks. Danny and Tom approached and saw several tattoos on the man’s arms. Each arm had three tattoos – symbols. All were charcoal tattoos – no color. Danny took photos and stood back to examine the pictures. Tom knelt down and examined the man’s arms.
“Is that it? Are there others?” Danny asked.
“None that I can see without undressing our victim here, which is not terribly respectful,” Rick replied, looking over the top of his glasses at Danny.
“Yeah. I guess so, but can you check his chest?” Danny asked.
Rick bent over the body and undid a few buttons of the flannel shirt, revealing a large tattoo of the All Seeing Eye.
“Can you send me pictures of anything else that you find?” Danny requested.
“Sure. We’ll get him out of here shortly. We’ve got three ahead of him, but Dr. Markson should have those finished by the time we get back,” Rick replied.
“What are the other three?” asked Danny.
“One’s an overdose, one’s a drowning and the other appeared to be a heart attack,” Rick answered.
“Any of them suspicious? Any tattoos?” Danny asked.
“Not as far as I know. We’ll see what Dr. Markson’s reports have to say,” Rick replied.
Danny turned to leave and caught a glimpse of movement near the tunnel. Something gray or red – or both. He watched the tunnel for a moment and saw that Tom was studying the same area. He saw nothing further, touched Tom’s arm, nodded toward the car and walked away with Tom following, muttering to himself.
Patrick needed to find Marnie Reilly. He’d asked around, and when no one could or would tell him anything, he went back to The Collective’s house and snuck quietly through the back door.
Patrick knew that they’d have information somewhere, and of course, he found it easily in the files in the cellar. The file on Marnie was intriguing. He decided that he wasn’t going to leave it with them. He stuck it under his shirt and down the front of his pants, tucked his shirt in and zipped his jacket. He went back to his room, gathered his things and then walked out the front door. No one was there to stop him. He knew that they were all at Station Hall preparing for tonight’s event. He wondered if Marnie would turn up tonight to keep them honest. He hoped not. After what he witnessed today, she was in enough trouble with them.
Patrick thought about making himself a sandwich to satisfy the rumbling in his stomach, but he left, more eager to be away from here. He wandered into Creekwood Square. The bus out of Creekwood would take him to the top of Creek Road. He looked at the bus – nearly empty; no one would bother him. He gazed up the road. Too long a walk – yes, the bus would do. He thought that Marnie’s house should be easy to find. There wasn’t much out there.
Patrick boarded the bus, found a seat near a window close to the back of the bus and closed his eyes for a moment. The bus was quiet midmorning. There were only two other people traveling with him, not including the bus driver. In the second seat, there was a young girl of about 10 years old. She had long, thick, brown braids with thick bangs to frame her round freckled face. She wore a purple puffy jacket, red ski pants and purple boots. She was fiddling with her phone and didn’t appear to even notice him. Further back, a lump, covered head to ankles under a gray wool blanket, appeared to be a man, considering the boots sticking out into the aisle, but Patrick couldn’t be sure. He seemed to be sleeping. Patrick passed both to take a seat near the rear.
Patrick studied the road signs at each stop. He didn’t want to miss Creek Road. When the bus slowed down at the fifth stop – his stop – Patrick jumped up, hurried up the aisle, muttered his thanks to the driver and hopped down the steps to the shoulder of the road. The door squeaked shut, and Patrick turned slowly, taking in his surroundings. Creek Road loomed ahead of him. It was a tree-covered lane, really. There were pines, firs, cedars, spruce, leafless maples, birch, ash and a few others that Patrick didn’t know. He walked slowly up Creek Road, stopping every few yards to take in the smells and sights of the forest. He knew that there was water close by; he could smell it. An icy north wind blew up the drive. He shivered, pulled his collar up and continued walking. Patrick stopped at the top of a big driveway and let out a sigh of relief.
There it is. Marnie’s house, Patrick thought to himself. It’s the same house in the picture that The Collective has on file. It’s beautiful.
Marnie’s house was a large Cape Cod with a sprawling driveway. The forest surrounded the house, and there was a bridle trail to left that looked like it might lead down to a creek or a lake. He stood at the top of the driveway, admiring the house and land, and wandered down the driveway.
It looks like home. It looks like a place that I could call home, Patrick thought, as he walked up onto the veranda and rang the doorbell. He looked around as he waited. He noticed yellow tape flicking in the breeze and walked over to inspect it. It was crime scene tape. Then he remembered the news of the last few weeks.
This is where the two officers were murdered and where Ken Wilder’s body was dumped. Alice was talking about this just a few days ago; she was talking about Marnie staying with a friend. He remembered Alice had gestured quotes every time she said “friend.” I think Alice mentioned something about the situation being shameful. Alice sure gossips a lot. She says a lot of bad stuff about people. I can’t be around her or anyone in The Collective anymore. I need to get away from them forever. The Collective is trouble. They’re all trouble with a capital “T.”
He turned the situation over in his head several times, thought about the rights and wrongs of it and decided his next step. Marnie’s house was empty, and it would make a good home base for a short while.
He reached and opened the storm door and turned the knob on the big oak door. Locked. He released the storm door slowly, soundlessly. He went around the side and peered through the windows. It looked cozy and warm. He tried the side window, and it gave. He pushed hard, and the window creaked in its frame. As he scrambled through the window, he listened closely for an alarm. Nothing. He fell into the living room, stood up and assessed the room. He nodded his head with approval. This will do for now.
He went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. There wasn’t much in it. No milk, a few eggs, some cheese, pickles, mayonnaise, a few withered vegetables, apples, wine and beer. He looked in the pantry. Bingo. It was fully stocked. There were coffee, tea, canned goods and cans of evaporated milk. He opened a large chest freezer. It was fully stocked, too. He wandered around the house searching for the cellar door. He needed wood for a fire. A house this size would surely have a wood room and a cold storage room with more food. He settled himself into Marnie’s house.
Marnie and Tater walked slowly through the park. As they walked past Station Hall, Marnie heard the irritating drone of Alice’s voice barking directions at the other members of The Collective. She was fussing about something, walking back and forth, taking things out of the trunk of a car and stacking cartons on the sidewalk as she glowered at the others. Marnie frowned and kept walking.
Alice glanced up, saw Marnie walking nearby and toward them and yelled, “Marnie, get out of here. You’ve caused enough trouble for us. You are no longer welcome. Leave us alone!”
Marnie rolled her eyes, threw a dismissive toss of her arm and walked on with Tater. Alice picked up a handful of snow, made a snowball and threw it as hard as she could at Marnie. It wasn’t a very good snowball or a very accurate throw, but it managed to hit Marnie lightly on the arm. Marnie stopped and shook her head at Alice. Sad, sad little woman, the gesture said.
Not getting the response that she wanted, Alice made another snowball and threw it with all of her might. This time, the snowball missed Marnie and hit Tater squarely on the back. Tater shook the snow away and growled. Marnie shot an icy glare at Alice. She walked quickly across the path and stood tall in front of Alice, reining in Tater’s lead.
A scattering of The Collective’s members watched in silence and gathered closely together on the sidewalk outside of Station Hall to await the heated exchange that would surely ensue. They mumbled quietly to one another and waited for the action to start. They were not disappointed.
“What the hell is your problem, you stupid, stupid woman?! How dare you throw snow at Tater!” Marnie shouted, her eyes wild with anger.
Marnie stood a foot taller than Alice, and confronted, Alice shrank back against her car, pulling her scarf up around her face.
Marnie continued. “I’m going to call the SPCA and report you for cruelty to animals. They’ll make your life uncomfortable for a while!”
“Marnie, calm down,” soothed Allen. He saw that Alice was losing face with the crowd.
He pushed his way between Marnie and Alice.
“I’m sure that Alice didn’t mean to hit Tater. I’m sure that snowball was meant to hit you.” Some in the crowd tittered behind gloved mits.
“No shit, Allen. You know what? I’m just going to call the police station right now and have a chat with Detectives Gregg and Keller. I’ll file a complaint and make sure that they come and arrest Alice just when she’s going up on stage tonight. How would that look to your fans, you little troll?” Marnie threatened and edged closer to Alice.
Alice was now covering her face with her pudgy hands.
Allen reached out and put his hand on Marnie’s shoulder, both to ease her back and calm her anger.
“C’mon, Marnie. There’s been enough torment. Step back and leave Alice alone. She’s still upset with you and your friends for kicking us out of your office a few weeks ago.”
Marnie slapped Allen’s hand off her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” Marnie warned.
A low growl started again in Tater’s throat. Marnie looked down and saw a snarl forming around his muzzle. She pulled his lead gently.
“C’mon, Tater. Let’s go,” Marnie said soothingly to Tater and turned to walk away.
No longer threatened by her proximity, Alice shouted, “You’re going straight to Hell, Marnie Reilly! Straight to Hell! Living in sin with that detective and threatening people. You’re going straight to Hell. The Lord is coming for you, Marnie. He’s coming for you!”
Marnie turned around and glared at Alice for a few seconds, then her face softened in pity. Marnie dug deep for her counselor-brain to take over – for just a second – but then it was gone. She took a deep breath. Her voice changed from anger to softness and steadiness, and her eyes lifted so to seem condescending.
“I feel sorry for you, Alice. You need help. You ooze hatred. You have a big black hole in your soul, Alice, and you know what? I’m quite certain that the Lord isn’t judging my choices the way you are. You have no right to judge me, Alice, and I have no right to judge you. Why are you so filled with hatred? That’s the question that you should be asking yourself. What is it about you, Alice, that makes you hate me so much? What is it about you?”
Marnie turned sharply and walked away, leaving a shocked Alice searching for words. Her crowd, uneasy, drifted back and murmured amongst themselves.
Allen placed a hand on Alice’s shoulder to calm her down.
“Alice, why do you have to instigate. Why can’t you just leave well enough alone?” Allen asked.
Alice shook her head and mumbled, “Marnie Reilly is going to straight to Hell, and I am going to do whatever I can to help her along.”
“Alice, you are making things worse for yourself and for the rest of us. Let it go. Let. It. Go,” Allen scolded. “I’m heading home for a few minutes to get some lunch and a nicotine patch. Your behavior, Alice, does nothing to help my anxiety. I want a cigarette so bad right now, I… I… I don’t know what. Stop looking for trouble, Alice, where there isn’t any.”
As Marnie walked past the police station, she looked up and considered whether she should report Alice. She shrugged her shoulders and walked up the steps. Sergeant Beaumont was sitting at the duty desk, talking on the phone. When he saw her, he smiled and waved her up the stairs to the squad room. Marnie smiled, waved, pushed through the doors and went upstairs. Sergeant Beaumont had been so kind to her in recent weeks. She and Tater stood at the entrance of the squad room and searched for Tom and Danny. Both were on the phone, so she waited.
Captain Sterling, the commander of their unit, walked out of his office and stared for a moment in her direction. Marnie smiled and stayed where she was. She knew that she wasn’t one of his favorite people and was surprised when he waved to her and walked over. Captain Sterling didn’t dislike Marnie, but he didn’t like her, either. He was a bit wary of her gift. He was a nonbeliever and felt that anyone who believed in psychism or the paranormal was a bit daft. Captain Sterling wasn’t entirely comfortable with the influence that Marnie had on his two best detectives, either. Both adored her, and it concerned him that she used her “feminine wiles” as a distraction.
Captain Sterling was a barrel of man with a big face, bristly white hair, bear-paw hands and fingers that looked like thick sausages. He carried himself with the confidence of a man much taller than he was, and he had an annoying air of authority – excessive authority.
“Ms. Reilly, what can we do for you today? It’s always good to see you and Tater. Detectives Keller and Gregg are returning phone calls. Can I get someone else to help you?” Sterling asked.
He stood with his chest out, and he twiddled a pen back and forth between his sausage-fingers.
“No, sir,” Marnie replied with a shake of her head.
Marnie hoped that one of them might see her soon. She wasn’t comfortable with Captain Sterling. He didn’t necessarily make her nervous, but his bluster and officiousness made her the tiniest bit edgy.
“I just stopped in for a moment. I thought perhaps Danny and Tom might like to get some lunch.”
Tom glanced up at hearing her voice. He smiled, waved, kicked Danny’s chair and nodded in Marnie’s direction. Danny looked up, smiled two big dimples in her direction, held up his index finger and mouthed “one minute.” Marnie nodded.
Captain Sterling saw the exchange and dryly commented, “Well, it looks like they’re nearly done. Have a nice day, Ms. Reilly.”
Sterling turned and headed back to his office before she could respond. Marnie watched him disappear into his office and shrugged. This wasn’t new. Captain Sterling was always just a bit dismissive of her. Maybe that was it. Maybe that was what bugged her about Captain Sterling.
Tom finished first and walked across the squad room to greet Marnie. Tom’s tall lanky frame always made Marnie laugh just a little. He was built like a distance runner, he had short black hair, he sported chiseled features and his eyes were so blue that they were almost violet. He would be handsome if he wasn’t Tom. He was cute, though. Marnie knew him too well, and while most women swooned over him, she would always remember him as he was when they were kids. She loved him just the same.
Tom bent down, gave Tater a scratch and asked, “What was Ellie’s prognosis? Tater okay?”
“Yeah. Apparently he’s not coping with all of the change, and he’s a bit constipated from all of the bones,” Marnie replied.
She bent down and patted Tater’s head.
“I have to watch his diet for a few days and get him back on track. I really need to find a new house, too. I guess that I can start looking this weekend. Wanna go house shopping with me?” Marnie asked.
“Aren’t you going to stay with Danny through Christmas and the new year?” Tom asked, raising his eyebrows.
He glanced over his shoulder at Danny, who was just hanging up the phone.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Tom. Let’s talk about it later, okay?” Marnie replied.
Marnie furrowed her brow and watched Danny pull his jacket off the back of his chair and walk toward them.
Tom put a finger to his lips, nodded his head and went back to his chair to grab his jacket.
“Let’s go get some lunch, Ms. Reilly. Hungry?” Danny came to a halt in front of her, stooped to pat Tater and then tugged Marnie’s hand gently. Suddenly, Ellie’s words and the sting of the butt slap sent a chill through Marnie, and she wished that she had not stopped, the confrontation with Alice no longer with her.
“I could eat, but I really need to get back to the office. I’ve got client appointments this afternoon and an appointment with a financial advisor. I’ve got to figure out what to do with the inheritance from Ken, and I need to work through the Toys for Tots thing, too. There’s a lot to do,” Marnie replied.
“Look, we need to talk to you about something altogether different, but you do know that you don’t have to try to do everything by yourself. Tom, Carl, Andrea and I are all here for you, and I think that Ellie would really like to help, too, if you’d let her. You’ve got a whole squad room of guys who will help get toys sorted out, and I’m sure that we can find some people to do the wrapping. Let’s go to lunch, talk about the case we’re working and break everything down – make a list and plan. We can get it all done. Don’t worry,” Danny reassured.
Marnie loved and hated this about him. She knew that he would help and that he would get others to pitch in, too. The biggest challenge for her was to give in and let him. Easier said than done. But there was so much; maybe she could use some help.
“Okay. Let’s get some lunch, then I have to get back,” Marnie relented with a nod.
“C’mon, Tommy. Let’s take this lady out for lunch.” Danny grinned, pushed the door open and motioned out the door with his head.
“Danny, before we go to lunch, maybe we should show Marnie what we want to speak to her about. Might be better before lunch rather than during lunch? I know that I don’t want my appetite ruined,” Tom suggested. Marnie raised her eyebrows in curiosity.
Danny stood with his hand in the middle of Marnie’s back, nodded and gave Marnie a small nudge toward an interview room.
Tom, Marnie and Tater walked into the first available interview room while Danny went back to the squad room to get the case files. Tater trotted into the room, circled the table three times and then curled up under the small, gray metal interview table.
“What’s going on?” Marnie asked.
“We’ve got a suspicious death down on the railroad tracks – you know, the tracks that are no longer in use near the old tunnel that’s about to cave in,” Tom answered.
Marnie gave Tom a long sideways glance.
“Yeah, and what does that have to do with me?” she asked slowly.
“Well, the victim…”
Tom started to respond, but Danny came back into the room with the files.
“Marnie, we need to ask you a few questions about a case we’re working on,” Danny said matter-of-factly.
“Uh huh. The last time that you had to ask me a few questions, Detective Gregg, you thought I’d killed someone. Let’s just not play games, okay? What the hell is going on?!” Marnie demanded.
Tater heard Marnie’s voice rise and peeked out from under the table, ears perked and mouth closed tightly.
“It’s nothing like that, Marnie. It’s just that we found your business card in the victim’s pocket. We don’t think that you had anything to do with it, but we’re just hoping that you can identify him,” Danny assured.
“My business card?” Marnie asked. Her eyebrows shot up, and her shoulders stiffened.
She reached a hand out and rubbed one of Tater’s ears. Her voice had softened, so the dog sank back and sighed.
“Yup. See here. This is the card that was in his pocket. It doesn’t look like the cards that you use now – you know, today – so I thought that it might be an old design.” Danny handed Marnie the evidence bag.
Marnie sat down in one of the uncomfortable chairs and studied the business card. Tater stood and rested his head in Marnie’s lap.
“I haven’t used this card in years. I was certified as a counselor at that time and had just completed my master’s, and I wasn’t a practicing psychologist yet.” Marnie examined the card closely.
“You’re a psychologist?” Danny asked.
“Yeah.” Marnie turned to Danny and frowned.
“You always say you’re a counselor. You never say psychologist,” Danny responded.
“You sometimes say you’re a cop and not a detective,” Marnie challenged. “Potato, potahto!”
Danny’s and Marnie’s eyes locked as each leaned on the table. Danny clenched his jaw, and Marnie squared her shoulders. Tom rolled his eyes, opened the case file and put a photo of the victim on the table in front of Marnie.
“Okay, Sherlock and Frau Freud, do you think that we can get back on topic, please, or do you want to stand around and talk about your credentials a bit longer?” Tom asked sarcastically. He pushed the photo across the table and closer to Marnie.
Marnie shot a glare between the two detectives and finally studied the photo. Her face lost all color and expression. She reached out and touched the man’s face lightly with her fingers. She closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them, tears spilled silently down her cheeks and onto the table in front of her.
Tom sat on the table next to her and studied her face. Danny pulled a chair out and sat opposite her.
“Marnie, who is it?” Tom asked, placing a hand gently on her shoulder.
Marnie searched for words, but couldn’t speak. When she opened her mouth, no words came – just heart-wrenching, sorrowful sobs. Danny moved quickly around the table to comfort her, but he was too late. Tom put his arms protectively around Marnie, and she wrapped her arms around Tom’s neck as she clung tightly to her best friend.
Danny stood helpless – not knowing what to do – so he stroked Marnie’s arm gently and remained quiet. Tom was murmuring something to her, but Danny couldn’t hear. Marnie’s sobbing drowned out Tom’s words.
Between sobs, Marnie gasped for air and finally croaked out, “It’s William, Tom. You must remember William?”
Tom’s face blanched. He hugged Marnie tighter as he turned to check the picture and whispered, “I do. I remember William, Marnie. I remember William.”
Tater sat at Marnie’s feet, gently put a paw on her leg and whined. Marnie drew back from Tom, bent and hugged Tater tight and then held his face in her hands. Tater searched Marnie’s face with his intelligent gaze and bumped her gently with his nose.
“Okay. Right now, I really don’t want to be this guy – the irritating detective who is trying to solve a case – but who is William?” Danny asked.
“William was a friend. He was a foster kid my folks took in when we were in middle school. He stayed with us until he was 16, then he just disappeared. My parents searched for him everywhere; we all searched for him – Mom, Dad, Tom, me, Kate…” Marnie replied, wiping her nose with a tissue that Tom had handed her.
“Sam? Did Sam help you look for William?” Danny asked.
“Probably. You know, I don’t really remember. Not sure Sam was around much then. He would have been away at college.” Marnie frowned, searched her memory and looked to Tom to confirm.
Tom shrugged and added, “I don’t remember, either. It was a long time ago. I do remember the three of us – Marnie, Kate and me – searching all of our favorite spots. To be honest, William wasn’t around all that much when he was here. He was involved in a lot of sports, and he helped Mr. Garver at the grocery store after school and on weekends, you know, when he wasn’t playing football, basketball or baseball. He was closest to Marnie, but he wasn’t an easy guy to know.”
“He was a year older than us. He was fun. He would fish with me and take me out on the boat. We talked a lot. He had a tough time – his mother was involved in drugs, to what extent, I really don’t know – and his dad was in prison. He killed someone. That’s how he came to live with us, and Tom is right. He was always busy once we were in our teens. I had a huge crush on him, but he was always interested in Kate. Most boys were interested in Kate. You were, weren’t you, Tom?” Marnie said.
Tom rolled his eyes and blushed a bit. “Not really. She was a bit of a princess most of the time. She stopped being fun when we were around… what? 12 or 13?”
Marnie nodded and added, “Yup. That’s about the time she got boobs and decided being pretty was better than fishing and playing tag.”
“Anyway!” Danny interrupted, “Kate really isn’t the topic here.”
“Anyway! I was William’s buddy. The one who helped him sneak in if he missed curfew.” Marnie shrugged and glanced back down briefly at the picture on the table.
Danny shook his head at her.
“Anyway, do you two have a last name for William?” Danny asked.
Tom and Marnie responded in unison, “Williams.”
Danny looked at them doubtfully.
“What? Really?” he asked.
Marnie replied, “Yeah, and guess what his middle name is.”
“Let me guess. William?” Danny replied with sarcasm.
“Nope. It’s Billy.” Marnie rested her chin in her hand.
“Seriously?” Danny asked.
“Yup. William Billy Williams,” Marnie replied.
Danny shook his head in disbelief. “Well, that’s definitely different, but it gives us something to work with. I’ll be back in a minute. I’ll get someone onto finding out what William Billy Williams has been up to since he disappeared.” Danny put his hand on the doorknob to the interview room door. “Tom, can you show Marnie those symbols – you know, the tattoos? Maybe the Good Witch of the North here can tell us what they mean.”
Danny walked out into the squad room while Tom spread more photos out onto the table.
Tom smirked. “Good Witch of the North? That’s a new name. I kind of like that one. I was hoping to hear him call you darling or sweetheart, but Good Witch of the North works. It brings a bit of lightness to this dark and somber day.”
“Shut up, Tom.” Marnie scowled. “A friend is dead and you… you… well, you know better.”
Tom stood straight, dropped his chin to his chest and pointed to the photos. “Marn, have a look at these. I’m sorry for the content, but we really need to understand what these symbols mean. Danny thinks this one is a devil symbol. What can you tell me?”
“What? A devil symbol?” Marnie asked and put her attention to the photos. “This one here? This is a pentacle, also called a pentagram. That is not a devil symbol. This is a five-point star. It’s a pagan symbol of protection. It represents five elements – earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Danny’s thinking of a hexagram. Now, a hexagram is a different story. A hexagram, well, that is a devil symbol. It has six points and six sides.”
“You mean like 666?” Tom asked with an uneasy tone.
“Yeah. Like 666,” Marnie replied with a curt nod, “You don’t want to mess with that one, but the pentacle, it’s all about protecting yourself. Are all of these tattoos on William’s arms?”
“Yes. We took pictures at the scene.” Tom shivered, remembering the morbid scene.
“Holy crap! Something had him scared. All of these symbols – every single one – these are for protection. That’s a lot of ink. He was protecting himself from something or someone.” Marnie turned the photographs over and trembled.
Sitting back in her chair, Marnie felt under the table for Tater. His nose bumped her hand, and he nuzzled her palm. She scratched his ears and turned her attention back to the symbols.
Danny returned to the interview room with three coffees.
“Sorry, Tater. I don’t have anything for you, buddy,” Danny said.
He held out his full hands so that Tom would take a coffee. He handed one to Marnie and pointed down to photos.
“What do you think? Devil worshipping?” he asked.
Marnie shook her head, flipped the photos over and spread them out. She pointed to the tattoos in the photos.
“No, not at all. As I was just telling Tom, this is a pentacle or pentagram. It’s a five-point star, and it’s for protection. You’re thinking of a six-point star – that’s for the devil. See this one here? This seven-point star? This is a septagram – a faerie star or elven star. It represents heaven, the seven chakras and the seven directions – north, south, east, west, above, below and within. The septagram is for protection and harmony,” Marnie said, pulling her chair closer to the table.
Danny sat down in the chair next to her. Tater dropped his head into Danny’s lap, and Danny scratched his ears. Tom stood over their shoulders with his hands on the backs of their chairs.
“What about this one? This weird stickman,” Tom asked.
Marnie glanced up at him and shook her head. “That’s not a stickman, Tom. That’s an ankh. It’s also for protection. The Latin phrase for this is ‘crux ansata.’ Translated – cross with handle. It’s also the Egyptian symbol of life. I’m pretty certain that Wiccans use this symbol to represent life. Um… I’ll have to double-check, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a symbol of eternal life and, I think, the sun and, as I mentioned, protection.”
Danny pointed to one of the symbols. “This one here. This is a Celtic symbol, isn’t it?”
Marnie nodded. “Yes. It’s a Celtic knot. This particular one is a shield, or it represents a shield – no matter which way you turn it, it’s always the same. It’s endless – unbroken. It represents the four elements of earth, fire, water and air – also for protection. People often wear a Celtic knot to ward off negative energy.”
Marnie tilted her head back to see Tom. He was truly enthralled with the symbols and their meaning. Digging into the details of a case always held Tom’s attention; he couldn’t get enough detail, and he would investigate endlessly to find answers.
Danny touched Marnie’s arm and pointed to another tattoo.
“What about this one, Marnie?” Danny asked.
Marnie rubbed her eyes, dabbed her nose again with the tissue and then shifted her attention back to the photos and the tattoo to which Danny pointed on William’s forearm.
“This is actually quite interesting.” Marnie picked up two of the photographs and held them up. “If you look at these two, the Eye of Horus and the Eye of Ra – same-same really, but they’re not – but they are. Sorry. Some say Horus and Ra are the same being. Some say they are not. The Eye of Horus is for protection and healing. The Eye of Ra is for protection. Both are Egyptian. Horus is the Sky God, and Ra is the Sun God. Horus’s eye was injured, then it healed. Um… I think that there were connections to power, good health, healing, redemption and transformation related to the Eye of Horus. I’ll have to look it up to be sure. The Eye of Ra, um… I’ll have to look that up, too. I know that there is a connection to power and authority with both, but it’s been a long time since I studied these. The key thing to remember is that both are for protection. I think that’s the tie-in.”
When Marnie finished speaking, Tom slid the photo of William’s chest in front of Marnie. Marnie tipped her head and rested the side of her face in one hand as she studied the image. She furrowed her brow as she focused on the symbol.
“Well, what I do know is that William was scared absolutely shitless of someone or something. You don’t have all of these symbols of protection tattooed on your forearms and chest for the fun of it,” Marnie speculated.
“Some people just like tattoos, Marnie. We all know that. There are a lot of people out there who cover their bodies with art,” Danny said.
Marnie turned slowly toward Danny. “Danny, this tattoo on his chest is the All Seeing Eye or the Eye of Providence. It’s associated with Freemasonry, the Illuminati, Christianity, Egyptian gods. Note the triangle around the eye. That triangle – the three sides – represents the Trinity. I do remember that William remained devout throughout his time with us. He never missed Mass on Sunday, he never ate without bowing his head in prayer and crossing himself and he never ate meat on Friday – not just the Lenten observance – I mean, never meat on Friday. Never. I can go on and on. William was devout. The Eye of Providence tattooed on his chest absolutely convinces me that he was afraid. I’m taking a shot in the dark, but I’m guessing that he thought that, if the other symbols didn’t work, this one sure as hell would. If you look up ‘providence’ in the dictionary, you’re going to find that it loosely means ‘the protective care of God or the higher power you believe in.’”
Marnie pushed back from the table and patted her knees to call Tater to her. Tater stood slowly, his back end up in the air as he stretched and yawned. He trotted to Marnie and placed his head in her lap for an ear scratch.
Danny studied the photographs and symbols silently while Marnie and Tater played a game of fetch with a crumpled-up piece of paper from the wastebasket. Tom stood staring off into space, contemplating their next move, and he broke the silence in typical Tom-fashion.
“I’m hungry. Let’s get out of here,” Tom announced, as his stomach growled in protest of the lack of sustenance this late into the afternoon.