Kicking It

Page 1

FORKED TONGUES

A Holly and Andrew Story

BY RACHEL CAINE

It wasn’t the first time I’d woken up to a cross burning on my front lawn, but it was definitely not my favorite time, either.

The first I knew about it was the sudden violent movement of the bed as my boyfriend, Andrew, jumped out from under the covers. When Andy moved like that, I instinctively moved, too; I wasn’t battle-tested like he was, and I didn’t have gunslinger reflexes, but I could throw myself facedown on the floor with the best of them.

“Goddammit,” he growled, and twitched the curtains aside a little more. I caught a glimpse of firelight. “I’m about to shoot some sumbitches, Holly.”

I lifted my head from the floor, crawled to the window, and peered out through the bottom. Yep. Cross, burning on our lawn, and a beat-up red pickup zooming down the street, full of heroes wearing black ski masks, armed with cheap beer and attitude. “No shooting,” I told him. “This may be Texas, but we don’t like to have gunfights in the streets.”

“All right,” he said. “I’ll just follow ’em home and shoot ’em in their own yards. That’s civilized.”

Andy’s voice was tight, and I couldn’t really tell if he was just being scorchingly sarcastic. After all, he’d been born into a different time—a time when it was perfectly okay to take your grudges all the way across town, and also to shoot up Main Street on a Saturday night, just because it was Saturday night. And if you lost your gunfight, you might be displayed in a stand-up coffin for a day or two with a sign around your neck as a lesson to others.

Andy was Old West at its best, and sometimes at its worst, too.

He’d been brought back from his long-ago death a while back, but he still hadn’t quite adjusted to modern life . . . and I was sometimes afraid he never would.

He was yanking jeans on now over long, lean legs, and his eyes were narrowed and glinting like stone in a hard-set face. Handsome man, Andy Toland—broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, an old-fashioned kind of handsome that had an interesting dash of mischief to it. And history. The scars on his chest, some still red, were a road map to a hundred tales, most of which I knew I’d never learn.

But he could hold a grudge. Oh, yes.

As he pulled his checked shirt off the hanger in the closet, I scrambled up and put a hand on his arm. That stilled him, just for a few seconds. Long enough for me to say, “No, Andy. Stay here. Stay with me.” It was a magic incantation, something I said to him almost every day—sometimes a murmur on the edge of sleep, sometimes caught on a breath during lovemaking. But it meant something to me, and to him.

He shot me a guilty look as he put on the shirt and quirked a quick smile in apology. “All right, I ain’t going,” he said. “Rubs me sandy to let them get away clean, though.”

“Hey, they did the hard work of building the damn thing, hauling it, sticking it in the ground, and setting it on fire,” I said. “It’s the least we can do to let them drive off drunk and run into a tree.”

He hugged me, his shirt still hanging open. “And that is why I love you, Holly Anne Caldwell. Because you’re just so saintly about it all. Hey, what is that you have on?”

“Nothing,” I said, and put my arms around his neck. “Why? You like it?”

“I think it suits you fine,” he said. “Wish I could take you back to that bed and tell you plain, but—”

“But the neighbors might be scandalized.”

“Mostly by the burning cross we left burning.”

I pulled away from him, reluctantly, and dressed quickly—underwear, because going out without it would scandalize the already-butt-hurt neighborhood, and then a pair of jeans I could afford to get dirty and a work shirt I normally chose for gardening. Thick work boots, too.

By the time I was dressed, had grabbed my cell phone, and went outside, Andy was already using our fire extinguisher on the cross. I called 911 with the report and took a cell phone picture before the fire was out completely, then a few more with the flash for good measure.

It wasn’t a huge cross; I guessed our harassers hadn’t been especially ambitious this time. But our neighbors were awake and watching, though no one came out. My house was in a quiet suburban neighborhood, one of those that kept the sidewalks clean and had association meetings about “bad elements.” I was not ignorant of the fact that I was one of those bad elements, especially since not one of those watching came out to see if we were okay.

Not one.

“Holly,” Andy said, in a much different sort of voice—a sober one. “Better come see this.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about at first; when you’re facing a five-foot blackened cross still giving off wisps of smoke, it does tend to command center stage. But then he pointed at the ground in front of it.

Punched into the lawn by a knife was a picture. I turned on the light on my cell phone and crouched, not touching it or the knife, to study it, and I felt my stomach withdraw into a tight little clench as I realized what it was.

It was a photo of a dead woman, staring up at the camera. Her throat had been slashed, and her mouth was open and bloody; it looked as if she’d been beaten before the final cut. Her eyes were open and empty.

And I knew her. So did Andy.

“That’s Portia,” he said. “God damn them. Want to tell me I shouldn’t have shot them on their porches now?”

No. No, I didn’t. But I took in a deep breath, dialed 911 again, and reported the photo.

I asked for Detective Rosen, to save time; he’d show up, where some of the others might not. They’d have all kinds of excuses—out on a call, unable to respond, batteries dead. But the truth was that after the particularly painful murder of one of their own, Detective Prieto, a significant portion of the Austin Police Department didn’t want to protect and serve people like us.

People like witches, I mean.

Andy nodded toward the cross. “We should get that thing down.”

“No,” I said. “Leave it up. Let them see it as it is.”

“Want me to set it back on fire, too?” His voice was too tight, and so were his shoulders. He prowled restlessly, back and forth, and I could feel the fury snapping off him like invisible lightning. Andy was a dangerous man in this mood. “Not taking this flat on my back, Holly. Not taking this any damn way. They want to come at us, they better come ready for hell.”

Moments like this, I wished that witchcraft worked the way it did in the movies . . . that I could just murmur some fake Latin and blow away bad things. But the tradition of it had come down through the ages, and it was not only hard, but each of us was limited in what we could do with it. Andy and I, we were potions witches; give us time and ingredients, and we could do everything from heal the sick to raise the dead and keep them walking. But potions took time, energy, and concentration, and they didn’t keep well.

Potions couldn’t help us with something like this. Might as well take a slug of whiskey to calm the nerves, and then break out the shotgun.

There were a few witches in the world capable of actually cursing someone, fast and with effective spells. I’d never met one, and they damn sure didn’t live in Austin, Texas. The picture of Portia proved she wasn’t one of them, either.

We sat down on the steps of the house, and Andy put his arm around me. We didn’t speak. I watched lights go on and off in the other houses and thought that this would, yet again, be brought up at the association meeting as a disruption. We were those people now. And while we lived in a time a bit too PC for pitchforks and torches, I could feel the tide of sentiment turning against us.

Witches had come out to the public in an odd sort of way, about ten years back. Two specialists had teamed up because they wanted to solve a murder. One was a potions witch, and the other was a witch who specialized in making shells—creating a perfect copy of a human, but without the spark of life. A potions witch—commonly called a resurrection witch, when they did what I do—could brew a potion that put the spark of life back in, and that was exactly what they’d done. Together, they’d brought back a murder victim from beyond, to tell the incredulous detective all about his murder. And who did it.

Other witches teamed up for the same purpose. Before long, unsolved cases were being closed right and left . . . but there was a hitch. Even the strongest resurrection witches—and I was among them—couldn’t keep a dead soul in a resurrected living body for long. We expended our own energy to seal the bond, and the dead . . . Well, death had its own gravity. Eventually, it pulled the soul away. The longer that soul had to stay, the more it, and the witch, suffered. So the logical recourse for the cops was to record the testimony of the resurrected, and play it in court.

Turned out that was ruled unconstitutional at the highest levels, and now testimony of the dead no longer counted. It still solved cases, but it was inadmissible. The business for resurrection witches had fallen off significantly, and although people still wanted their loved ones revived for a brief period, it wasn’t exactly a cash-heavy business.

I often felt that we’d revealed ourselves for nothing, really. As my dad used to say, no good deed goes unpunished.

Which explained the burning cross on my lawn.

A regular patrol car arrived without lights or sirens and parked at the curb under the pecan tree; the two patrolwomen seemed professional enough, and they interviewed Andy and me separately. Detective Rosen arrived about thirty minutes later, just after I’d taken a seat on the step again. Andy was still talking to the officer. He was holding his temper, but I could see it was an effort.

“Can’t keep him out of trouble, can you?” Ed Rosen asked, and sat down next to me. Even at this predawn hour, he was well dressed, in a gray suit and a tie. I never could get a read on Rosen’s mood; he always seemed completely closed off. I respected it, but it could also be off-putting at moments like this, when I badly needed someone to be on my side.

“Considering we were sleeping in our own beds, we’re doing our best, sir,” I said. “It looked like the usual nonsense, a truck full of drunk as**oles with a cross and a Google map. The thing looks too nice for them to have nailed it together, by the way. I think they stole it from a church.”

“It takes a special sort of self-righteousness to steal a cross from a church to burn on somebody’s lawn,” he agreed. “Also, usually some alcohol.”

“Check that off your list. I saw the bottles in their hands.”

“Recognize anyone?”

“Ski masks,” I said.

“License plate?”

“Did you miss the part where I said we were in bed?”

“Then why am I here, Caldwell?” His voice had taken on a weary edge, and I realized he thought I was just taking advantage of the fact that we’d worked together a couple of times before. I missed Detective Prieto. He’d been surly and difficult, but I’d always known where he stood.

A lot of people thought it was my fault he was dead. They weren’t completely wrong about that. His murder had stirred up all kinds of trouble in Austin, and now, six months later, it was becoming popular to hate our witches. Churches were more vocal. None of us much dared to have a Facebook or Twitter account, which might be used to track us down; the digital threats made it almost useless, anyway. Considering that Austin had always been a model of tolerance and support, it felt like a last-stand situation to me.

“Come look at this,” I said to Rosen, and walked him over to the picture. He examined it as closely as I had, shook his head, and took some photos of his own. “The woman in the photo is named Portia. I don’t know her last name. She’s a foreseer witch, runs some kind of tarot-reading business.”

“Here in Austin?”

“I think so,” I said. “I’ve never been to her place. I met her at a conference.”

Rosen glanced up at me, and his gaze lingered. He had a long, rectangular face and a fringe of thick silver hair, with thick eyebrows to match. Kind of a silver fox, actually. “Witches have conferences? What do you do, exchange spells? Sell each other cauldrons?”

“Something like that,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood for mockery. “A woman is dead, Detective. So maybe you could stop judging and investigate?”

“We fully investigate everything that’s reported,” Rosen said. “Even when it’s a waste of time.”

“You think a dead witch is a waste of time?” That calm, quiet voice came from behind me. Andy had walked over to join us, probably drawn by the dark energy of our face-off. He did love a good fight. “Where I come from, the law had to pretend to do a little more work before they gave up, at least.”

“Where you’re from, the law was whatever the man with the fastest gun said it was. At least, that’s what the stories say.” Rosen studied Andy for a moment. “Can’t see it, personally. All this gunfighter bullshit.”

Thank God Andy wasn’t wearing a holster and a six-gun. I still saw the impulse travel through his body, the twitching of fingers on his right hand. And I saw the dark, uneven slice of the smile on his face. “Probably is bullshit,” he agreed. “I’d stick with that, Detective. But, hand to God, you’d best get to digging on Portia’s death, or I will.”

Rosen kept eyeballing him. “Is that a threat, Mr. Toland?”

“Not toward you, sir.”

So very polite, all this male aggression. “Do you need anything else?” I asked Rosen. I was regretting that I’d asked for him on this, but I honestly couldn’t name a single detective at APD who would have been any more receptive just now. “Because it’s been a hell of a night so far.”

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