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A Slice of Death: A Coven Cafe Mystery BOOK 1

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Chapter 2

June, 1987

The headline on the front page of the Sarasota Herald read, “Suspected Pedophile Found Dead.” She wondered how the reporter had discovered the man’s hidden secret so quickly. Had he committed more crimes against young girls after escaping prosecution in New York and moving down to sunny Florida? If so, how had he continued to elude capture? She scanned through the article, looking for the cause of death.

“The victim sustained injuries to several body parts, although the damage did not appear to be fatal. The cause of death remains under investigation, and natural causes have not yet been ruled out,” she read.

The particular body parts were not named. Either the police had requested that such details be withheld from the press, or this newspaper was classier than most. She guessed the former was probably closer to the truth.

“The victim, originally from Rockland County, New York, had been living with his mother for approximately ten years under a false identity. A significant collection of child pornography was found on the premises, leading investigators to uncover his former identity. At the time of his death, the victim was wanted for questioning in New York regarding a case of statutory rape and several counts of sexual assault against a minor.”

Wow, this reporter had really done her homework. Or she had an inside source in the police department. Either way, it was time to get her butt out of Florida. Now.

She had been living in various motels, out of a couple of suitcases, for the better part of a year. By moving from place to place on a regular basis, she maintained her anonymity. The staff here at the Residence Inn might recognize her face if questioned, but she was sure it would never come to that. Anyway, no photograph matching her current description existed.

Her face was a work in progress. The scars had been expertly repaired with extensive skin grafts by one of the finest plastic surgeons in the nation. While under the knife, she had requested a few more cosmetic changes. She wound up with an average face, attractive enough, but one that wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. In other words, perfect.

She had also shaved her head close to the scalp and bleached the remaining fuzz snow-white, lending her a striking resemblance to the Irish rock star Sinead O’Connor. This was purely accidental. Her goal was to be able to change her appearance quickly and completely. Wigs, scarves, colored contact lenses, and hats would do the trick. She could go from punk rocker to homeless bag lady in under thirty seconds. Most people who noticed her bald, scarf-wrapped head assumed she had cancer and carefully avoided her eyes. This also suited her purposes. But hidden beneath her nondescript, baggy jeans and sweatshirts, her body exuded strength and vitality. She had been studying a mixture of martial arts since leaving her hometown at the tender age of fifteen. Not to mention, several other arts.

Now she gathered her clothing and personal items, shoved them haphazardly into her bags, and headed out the door. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she paused to examine her face, trying for objectivity. It was a miracle that she appeared so normal. Dr. MacGaffney’s reputation was not inflated; she was truly the best. Almost all of her scars were now on the inside.

Hustling down the hallway, she mentally ticked items off her checklist. She was already paid up through the end of the week. No bill to settle. A taxi to the airport could be hailed right outside the lobby. She was going to have to lay low for a bit.

Handing the keys across the front desk, she waited for a printout of her receipt. As the receptionist turned toward the printer, she placed a newspaper down on the desk. She had been reading one of the more lurid national tabloids. The front-page headline screamed: “Sarasota Pedophile Found Frightened to Death!”

A pretty damn good guess.

August 2, 1987

Early Sunday morning, Rory Anderson cut himself shaving. Nothing major, just a nick to the right of his Adam’s apple. Strange. He almost never slipped like that. Grooming was something Rory took seriously. He tore off a square of Charmin Ultra and pressed the corner against his throat. A bright red blossom spread across the thin paper. Rory cursed and reached for the roll again. He must have sliced himself deeper than he thought.

Even with a wad of toilet paper glued to his neck, Rory knew he looked good. Better than good. He turned to admire his perfect profile. He was pushing thirty, but still had a thick head of honey-colored hair, bronzed skin (thanks to his sessions at the tanning salon) and the sculpted physique of a classic Greek statue. Not one of those busted ones that were always missing crucial parts.

The Andersons owned and ran Marydale, a retreat center and summer camp for rich city girls. Their property comprised several hundred acres stretching all the way down to Nyack Beach State Park on the banks of the mighty Hudson River. Hook Mountain’s rust red, rocky face rose dramatically from Marydale’s green and sloping fields. The family’s imposing brick mansion sat at the end of a long, curving driveway overlooking the estate’s impeccably manicured grounds. As far as pieces of real estate in Upper Nyack went, this was about as upper as you could get.

His real name was Warren Junior, but his six younger siblings christened him Rory from early on and it stuck. As the eldest son, he was first in line to inherit the whole package at Marydale. He was already living in The Big House with his trophy wife, a former Russian ballerina, and their twin toddlers. One of each, of course. His parents had retired to Florida’s swanky east coast while a couple of his younger, degenerate brothers inhabited the camp’s staff housing, doing very occasional odd jobs.

“Shit!” His damn neck would not stop bleeding. Rory reached for a decorative fingertip towel hanging by the side of the sink, then thought better of it. He could already hear his wife’s cheese-grater voice, harping away in his head. Better not mess up his new shirt, either. Katarina would kill him. She spent a fortune on their clothes, even for the kids. Anything with the smallest stain went straight into the trash.

I must look de part, she always said. Like she was just an actress in some made-for-television movie and none of this was for real. She looked the part, alright, but she was hard. And sharp. The woman was all pointy elbows and bony toes. And not just her body. She was sharp like a tack in her mind and sharp as a knife with her tongue. The opposite of Dawn, his high school sweetheart, who was all warm and soft like a poached egg with a runny yolk.

Mmmm. Must be hungry.

But he couldn’t grab breakfast until his fucking neck stopped bleeding.

That gave Rory an idea. He ripped the tissue off his throat, causing a fresh trickle. He tiptoed into the kitchen, knocked over a chair with a clatter, and let out a yelp as he sprawled across the tile floor.

“Rory?” Katarina called from the bedroom. “Vas dat you yelling?”

A moment later, she craned her long, skinny neck through the doorway. “Oh my Got!” His wife stepped fully into view, hands planted on her protruding hipbones. “Grow up, vould you, please? You promise me you are done vit dese idiot jokings. I swear to Got, de next time I vill cut your troat myself and leave you on de floor for de children to find out. Now get your ass up. You are going to make us to be late for your church. Again.”

Hard, Rory repeated to himself. Like a friggin’ rock.

While Katarina clicked back to the bedroom on stiletto heels to finish her make-up, Rory hauled himself into a chair and dabbed at his throat. He guessed his wife was too jaded to fall for any more of his practical jokes. Too bad. It could have been a good one. Real blood and everything.

A couple of miles across town, Angelica sat cross-legged on a firm, round cushion. In front of her, a single candle flame flickered, lighting a page from her decade-old Nyack High School yearbook. Her eyes burned, as if she were trying to incinerate one single square. Her mind was as focused as a laser. Or, to be more accurate, a razor.

2 Days Later

Tuesday, August 4, 1987

As she was getting dressed, the dogs finally arrived. Angelica had been keeping an eye out through the bedroom window and noticed their dark shapes pacing by the front gate. Flying down the stairs and out the door in her bare feet, she threw open the gate and dropped to her knees to embrace her three friends: Ebony, Hawk, and Slice.

Her canine companions had traveled for several days and were exhausted. Their feet were damp and dirty, their fur matted with burrs. Angelica hustled them into the kitchen where she filled a mixing bowl with water. As they lapped, she rooted around in the fridge, searching for raw meat. A leftover piece of grilled salmon, a small tub of tarragon chicken salad, and a container of organic cottage cheese were about the best she could manage.

“I think someone may have forgotten to mention something.” Erica’s solemn gaze traveled back and forth from the three dogs splashing water across her immaculate kitchen floor to Angelica’s rear end poking out of her refrigerator door.

“I can’t seem to find any meat in here.” Angelica glanced back. “The dogs probably haven’t had a decent meal since I left them on Saturday morning.”

Erica attempted to peer around Angelica’s bottom. “Do they eat eggs?”

“Good thinking.” Angelica removed the carton. “You weren’t planning on making an omelet this morning, I hope?”

“Nope, they’re all yours. I’ll just have yogurt. And Harry only has coffee in the mornings. Black.”

“Yeah, it smells fantastic. I need to grab a cup.” Angelica peeled the lid off the cottage cheese container and pulled three ceramic bowls from the cabinet. She scooped a dollop of cottage cheese into each, and cracked a few eggs on top. The dogs licked up every drop then stared at her expectantly. “I need to hit the butcher’s shop on the way home today. They go through a whole chicken per day, between the three of them. And I’m already starting to feel weak from this diet of rabbit food you’ve been feeding me.”

“So,” Erica said, ignoring the complaint, “you didn’t tell me you were bringing three dogs with you.”

“Technically speaking, they found their own way here.” Angelica returned to the fridge for another container. “Your asthma is under control, right? But I guess I could make other arrangements for them, if you’re opposed to having them here.”

Ebony, a solid black Italian mastiff built like a bulldozer, swung her blocky head in Erica’s direction, flinging a long thread of drool. Hawk, the most intelligent of the three, went to sit in front of Erica’s chair, his long shepherd snout tilted upward in order to gaze into her eyes. Slice, a tiny miniature pinscher mix, curled up at Angelica’s feet and tried to look unobtrusive.

Erica shook her head. “How could I possibly resist this display?”

Angelica smiled. “You always were a pushover when it came to animals.”

“Humph.” Erica negotiated the maze of dog bodies and removed a goat’s milk yogurt from the front of the fridge. “Did you look over your schedule of clients for today?”

“Yeah.” Angelica boosted herself up to sit on the edge of the counter. She began spooning chicken salad directly from the plastic container into her mouth. “My first reading is at noon and I’m booked straight through until dinner.”

“An auspicious start to your new career.” Erica stepped over Slice and took a seat at the kitchen table. Ebony laid her massive head on Erica’s bony lap, instantly soaking her silk pajama pants with cottage cheese-flavored drool. Erica grimaced. “What’s your plan for this morning?”

“I was thinking I’d conduct a little research over at the library. Make it seem like I have a clue what I’m doing. And I guess I should buy a deck of tarot cards.” Angelica scraped the last few chunks of chicken into her mouth. Her eyes came to rest on the ladder of scars lining the insides of Erica’s thin arms.

“Nothing like waiting until the last minute,” Erica chided. “Check Liberty Crafts. If they don’t carry them, Pickwick probably does.” She rinsed out her yogurt container before dropping it into a bin filled with recyclables. The dogs watched her every move. “I can see where Hawk got his name.”

“And you know Slice’s specialty.” Angelica winked.

Erica nodded, but couldn’t quite muster a smile.

Nyack Library was originally built in 1903, a handsome structure of red sandstone and smooth river rock. Although a modern wing had been added onto the back, from the street the building retained its historic facade. Inside, Angelica discovered a substantial collection on the occult, including various forms of fortunetelling and the deciphering of the tarot. Her prior training had not included tarot reading, although she had practiced and developed some skill in clairvoyance. With only a couple of hours to cram before her first client, she planned to rely mainly on intuition. Luckily, intuition was her strong suit. And she already had a gut feeling about this coming afternoon.

She arrived at the café early in order to grab a quick lunch before her first reading. The same hostess, Debbi, a.k.a. Minnie Mouse, seated her with barely restrained euphoria. “I’m your first client,” Debbi squeaked as she passed Angelica a menu.

“Then I’ll be chatting with you very soon.” Angelica turned her attention to a handwritten list of specials.

After a salad of mesclun topped with grilled baby lamb chops, reminding Angelica of meaty lollipops, she sat back with a sigh. Still sucking on a rib bone, she closed her eyes. Thanks to the volume of the alternative music piped through the café’s stereo system, she was able to practice her power breathing without alerting the other customers. She kept the growling low, sending vibrations down through her ribcage and into her belly, while Kate Bush wailed about running up a hill.

Next, Angelica tested her intuition, sensing the energy in the room and trying to get a reading on it. Nothing in particular caught her attention.

At first.

Her eyes snapped open. Someone had entered the restaurant. His aura jolted her like a cattle prod. Angelica forced herself to wait for more information rather than turn her head to look. Her neck stiffened with the tension.

“Welcome to the Coven Café. It is our great pleasure to serve you,” Debbi gushed with her usual gusto. “Are you alone for lunch today, sir?”

“Nope, I’m meeting a ‘friend.’” Angelica’s head whipped around at the sound of his voice. She saw Rory Anderson wink at Debbi and flash his ultra-wide trademark smile, along with his air quotes.

“Oh. Do you see your friend here?” Debbi was clearly too polite to repeat his air quotes, so she flapped her hands like baby bird wings instead.

“Yeah, as a matter-a-fact, I do.” Rory jerked a thumb toward an open menu with a platinum blonde bouffant sticking out above the top. Angelica noticed he had a large gauze pad taped to his throat.

“We have a new fortuneteller in residence starting today, sir.” Debbi led the way to the bouffant’s table, right beside Angelica’s. “She’s completely booked for this afternoon, but I can bring you her schedule if you’re interested in a reading sometime later in the week.”

“A reading?” Rory spat the word out as if a cockroach had crawled into his mouth. His brow creased as he scanned the room, taking in the planetary charts, the decorative witches on broomsticks flying over each table, the bartender wearing a pointy hat. “What the hell kind of place is this, anyway?”

Debbi jabbed the menu into his hand. “This is a fine dining establishment.” She emphasized each word, turned on her heel and whisked herself back to her station. Angelica mentally offered the hostess a high-five.

While Rory squinted at the menu, most likely attempting to translate such words as ratatouille and millefeuille, Angelica adjusted her chair so she could observe him out of the corner of her eye. Removing a box of matches from her skirt pocket, she lit the stubby candle on her tabletop.

“How do you like this place, baby?” the bouffant asked. “Isn’t it adorable? My Jazzercise instructor told me about it. He tends bar here on the weekends. I didn’t think we’d run into anybody we knew.”

“Yeah, it looks like they only serve women here. And mostly really ugly ones. Wait a fucking minute, is this some kind of lesbo joint? Jesus Christ, Dawn!” Rory’s voice carried across the room.

“Hush.” Dawn leaned over the table—serving up an abundance of cleavage—to pat Rory’s arm. “Calm down, silly boy. I’ll protect you from the big, bad lesbians. Did one of them bite you in the neck?”

Rory touched his bandage, scowling.

Debbi flounced over to Angelica’s table. “Are you ready for my reading? I asked Vivian to cover my station for a few minutes.”

“Of course. Please have a seat.” Angelica made an effort to ignore the table next door. “Before we lay out the cards, I’d like to take a moment to breathe together. If you don’t mind, please close your eyes… Yes. That’s wonderful. Now place the palms of your hands on the table. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nostrils.”

As Angelica led Debbi through a calming and centering ritual, she focused her own attention on the burning candle, allowing the flame’s glow to expand and fill her vision. A long-buried memory floated to the surface of her conscious mind.

May, 1978

“Tonight’s the night…” Rory crooned into her ear, doing his best Rod Stewart imitation. They stood next to the steps leading up to Fifth Avenue, near the entrance to the high school, saying an extended goodbye. It took all her strength not to swoon into a pool of jelly at his feet.

She and Rory had been dating ever since football season. He had asked her out right after Halloween. At the following game, he gave her his school jacket with his name embroidered across the front. She wore the jacket every day since, all through the freezing cold winter when her down coat would have functioned way better. She didn’t care. She might have been turning blue, but he had chosen her. Out of all the girls in school who so obviously lusted after him, she was his chosen one.

She wasn’t a cheerleader, could barely turn a cartwheel. She wasn’t an athlete, either. She would probably rate her own looks as mildly attractive, if you were a fan of long hair and long noses. But miles from bombshell. She couldn’t compare to the boobilicious Dawn DaCosta, for example. Yet here she was, president of the freshmen geek squad, dating Rory Anderson, senior heartthrob, voted most handsome in the yearbook, captain of both the football and lacrosse teams. It was too good to be true.

Although Rory was no doubt the hottest catch, he wasn’t actually the nicest boyfriend. On several occasions, she had wondered if she might not be better off with no boyfriend at all. No, she quickly amended in her head, he wasn’t that bad. Rory was just a jokester. He loved to clown around and get a laugh from the guys. Unfortunately, the laughs often came at her expense.

Like the time they were walking side by side in the hall, right after school let out. Rory had grabbed the hem and pulled her wraparound skirt up around her ears. Everyone in that crowded hallway got a good look at her underwear before she managed to yank her skirt back down. Rory practically wet his pants, he was laughing so hard. But they’d only just started going out. She couldn’t get mad, not unless she wanted to ruin everything.

“Did you tell your mom you’re sleeping over at Dawn’s house tonight?” Rory’s question jolted her out of her reverie.

“Uh, oh yeah, I told her.” But she didn’t need to use the lie. It was Friday and she knew her mother would be out drinking at the Hilltop Restaurant until the wee hours. By the time her mother stumbled home, she would be way past wondering where her daughters were. Past remembering they even existed.

“Coooool.” Rory drew the word out, pressing his lips against her ear. Her legs melted underneath her. He slid his palms down her back and cupped her rear in his hands. Pulling her closer, away from the wall, he pressed the full length of his body against hers. “See ya tonight, then.” He grinned, showing his sharp, pointed canines, then slapped her ass. Hard enough to leave a mark.

She staggered back when he released her, bumping into the retaining wall next to the stairs. A million tiny specks of light burst behind her eyes. Her vision blurred for a moment, as if her eyes were literally refusing to see what was right in front of her.

“Now, open your eyes.” Angelica forced her mind back to the present as she handed the tarot deck to Debbi. “Imagine the faces of the people and the situations you would like to learn more about.” As Debbi squeezed the deck with both hands, Angelica continued to stare into the candle’s flame. The memory of a long-ago fire flickered on the edge of her consciousness. Beware the wolf.

“Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me?” Rory asked behind her.

You are definitely hot,” Dawn purred.

Angelica slid the burning candle over to the side of the table. In her mind’s eye, she watched the tiny inferno expand, imagining a roaring campfire instead of a single candle. Beware the wolf, the witches warn.

“If you feel ready to begin, please pass the deck to me. Try to hold your questions in your mind as I lay out the cards.” Angelica cupped her palms together like a bowl, trying to keep them steady, but she couldn’t control the trembling. The fire’s hiss becomes a roar. Debbi must have noticed; she looked up into Angelica’s eyes with concern.

“I’m sweating like a pig over here!” Rory yelled, mopping his forehead with a napkin. “Can I get a glass of water, for God’s sake?”

Vivian, their waitress, hurried over, bringing Rory an enormous goblet of water.

With shaky hands, Angelica arranged the tarot formation. In her mind, she watched the campfire expand into a wild bonfire. She remembered how the blue and orange flames leapt toward the inky sky that night, the pine needles soft beneath her body. The witches gathered in a circle, chanting her name. The wolf was prowling. Then came the searing pain. She could feel Debbi’s eyes on her as she tried to hold back the tide of memories.

“JESUS CHRIST, I’M BURNING UP!” Rory’s chair toppled over as he jerked to his feet, frantically unbuttoning his shirt. His hairy chest was blotchy-red, drenched with sweat. Dawn’s lips silently formed the word No! as Rory yanked his shirt off. Vivian spun around and ran toward the now half-naked man with her tray outstretched, as if attempting to block this offensive view from the other paying customers.

Angelica swiveled in her seat just in time to see Rory snatch the goblet of water off his table. Before she had a chance to duck, he threw the full contents into his face, dousing not just himself, but also Angelica, her table, her cards, and her candle. The tiny flame sputtered out.

“Ahh, that’s much better.” Rory retrieved his chair.

Bending forward over the sodden table, Angelica hid her face behind a wall of wet hair. She dabbed with her napkin at the card formation. The upturned cards on top were the Hermit, the ten of swords, and the Hanged Man. The Hermit reveals the darkness.

“Are you alright?” Debbi rested a hand on Angelica’s shoulder.

Angelica lifted her head and blinked a few times to clear her vision. She sensed the entire restaurant watching. So many sets of eyes on her. Afraid to speak, she slid the wet matchbox into her skirt pocket.

Debbi hurried over to the bar for a few cloths to help Angelica dry the cards, shooting Rory a dirty look as she passed. He was oblivious to the sodden fortuneteller behind him, occupied with re-buttoning his damp shirt and pretending nothing happened.

Angelica struggled to get a grip. She had completely lost control. And she couldn’t afford such mistakes. Not at this point. How much had she given away? She was certain Debbi sensed something strange going on.

Forcing her attention back to the tarot, she concentrated on reading the future. Something about these particular cards held a message. She was sure of it. And it wasn’t just for Debbi.

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