On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 15

Charles Vanderwald the Third emerged from the wooded grove with Angelica stumbling in front of him. The sight stole Ian’s breath.

His father-in-law held the blade of a large knife against her throat. A hunting knife exactly like the one the psychopath had stabbed into Ian’s lung just a few short weeks ago.

Rage exploded through Ian’s body and brain. He whipped the revolver around to point at his father-in-law’s head, a good twelve inches higher than Angelica’s. If he could just keep his grip, keep his aim steady, he could do this. They were no more than thirty yards away. An easy shot, the adrenaline whispered to him.

“Put the gun down, son.” Vanderwald’s voice was smooth and calm, used to issuing commands. "You don't want to watch your lover perish in my arms."

“I’m not your son.” Ian's extended arm shook violently. He was losing his grip. If he dropped the gun, it was all over.

“Yes, you’re right about that. I’ve never thought of you as a son.” Vanderwald regarded him, his eyes cold and calculating. “I find it hard to believe you brought your new girlfriend with you. I was under the assumption you cared more for her than that. But I see now that your choices are always selfish.”

“Shoot him, Ian,” Angelica encouraged from behind the blade. “You can do it.”

Ian had to hand it to her. He would have been way too scared to trash talk a murderer in her position. “I appreciate all the advice, but could the two of you please shut the fuck up? I don’t want to miss.”

“I’ll be the one giving the orders around here,” Vanderwald stated calmly. “And this is your last warning. Drop the gun or watch this woman’s life end before your eyes.”

“Then what, Charles? I’ll be next? And the girl in the cabin? Her, too?” Ian paused when he heard the wailing escalate. “You like that sound, Charles? You enjoy the sound of an innocent girl suffering? Does make you feel powerful?”

Vanderwald chuckled. “You’re very amusing, Ian. I will say that for you. But this is becoming tedious. If I have to draw blood to let you know how serious I am, then I shall.”

“I’m fine, Ian. Go ahead and shoot him,” Angelica said.

Vanderwald grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back, exposing her throat. “Drop it now. Last chance.”

Ian's insides twisted in fear. He tossed his gun to the side. It landed in the dry weeds.

“Excellent choice." Vanderwald smiled. "Now lie down. On your stomach. And stay still.”

Ian bent down, easing his already wounded body onto the dirt path. He heard Vanderwald urge Angelica forward. As their rustling footsteps came closer, he could see their legs and feet out of the corner of his eye.

“Down on your knees,” Vanderwald told Angelica.

She sank to her knees in the dead grass. As Vanderwald leaned over to retrieve Ian’s gun, a shot rang out. Angelica instinctively rolled several times to get out of the line of fire.

Ian wrapped a hand around Vanderwald’s ankle and yanked hard, jerking the leg out from under the old man. A whoosh of breath left his father-in-law’s body as he collapsed face down in the dirt.

“Nobody move!” Longuria appeared out of the pine grove, the barrel of his gun leading the way. “Are you two okay?”

“Yeah,” Angelica responded. Ian heard the tremble in her voice. She rose to her feet and brushed herself off.

Ian went straight for his gun, snatching it up and turning the barrel toward Vanderwald. “Hands behind your back. Now.”

The man didn’t budge. In fact, it didn’t look as though he was breathing. There was no blood, no obvious gunshot wound anywhere. Suspicious, Ian nudged him in the shoulder with one foot. Still nothing.

Holding the gun against the back of his father-in-law’s head, Ian bent down and placed two fingers along the side of his neck. He felt a very weak pulse. “Help me turn him over. I think he might be hurt.”

“Watch out. He could be faking it,” Longuria warned, coming up by Ian’s side.

They studied the body for another moment. No sign of respiration. Angelica kept her distance, moving closer to the cabin.

“You wanna help me flip him?” Ian asked. “He’s got a hunting knife, so be careful.” If his father-in-law was hurt, he was in no great hurry to get help. But they still needed to disarm him.

“Ready.” Longuria grabbed a shoulder so Ian went for a hip. Their killer felt like a bag of bones as they rolled him over.

Once he was flipped, one of the reasons he felt so light became clear. He had already lost quite a bit of blood. More was seeping out through the knife wound in his chest. The blade had entered at a forty-five degree angle, aimed upward underneath his ribs. His bony fingers were still wrapped around the hilt.

Vanderwald had accidentally fallen onto his own blade when Ian yanked his leg out from under him. Either that, or he had suddenly decided to commit hara-kiri. The latter seemed highly unlikely.

Angelica waited in front of the cabin. “Is he alive?”

“Not very.” Longuria didn’t sound too upset.

Ian let out a shaky breath. He didn’t feel too sad about this turn of events, either.

“Can you call our guests to the table?” Erica asked her partner.

Harriet jammed her fingers into the sides of her mouth and whistled for everyone to come to the kitchen as though she were calling the dogs. The dogs, of course, were the quickest to respond.

“Harry!” Erica scolded, swatting her across the butt with a tea towel. “Not like that.”

Harriet slid a pair of oven mitts on and lowered the thirty-pound, golden brown, perfectly roasted turkey onto the table. “I hope she eats as good as she looks because this baby is quite the looker.”

“Are you sure she’s a she?” Bruce, the bartender, peered at the bird more closely. “Might be a Tom. Those pecs look nicely developed to me. And I’m an expert on that topic.”

Felix, the hostess from the café and Bruce’s roommate, giggled. “I’ll vouch for that. He rarely looks at anything else at the gym.”

Ian grinned at Angelica.

Thanksgiving in this house was going to be quite a different experience than the feast to follow at his sister’s place. Although the food on the table appeared traditional enough, the company was anything but.

“Everyone grab a plate, pile it up, and sit wherever you want.” Erica got the procession started by passing Ian a plate. As she guessed, he was not opposed to providing a demonstration.

Once they were all seated, with food and drink at hand, Harriet spoke up. “Can you fill us in on the case now? I mean, just the details that the public’s allowed to hear, of course.”

“Mmm.” Ian's mouth was already full.

“Should we really discuss this topic while we’re eating? On Thanksgiving?” This came from Erica.

“Yes!” The rest of the crowd bellowed in indignation.

“Well,” Ian began, after swallowing, “Charles Vanderwald died before the ambulance arrived on the scene. Because he fell on his own knife, and all of our stories matched up, the inquiry should exonerate me and Longuria pretty quickly. We found Maria Venutto locked in the cabin, basically unhurt. We guessed he must have hit her in the head, after luring her into his car, because she had a mild concussion. She had been raped, but no other injuries.”

“Thank God you found her so soon,” Harriet said to Ian.

“We need to thank Angelica, too. If she hadn’t finally learned to read those tarot cards, that girl would have been in for a horrific ordeal.” Ian scooped up another huge forkful of mashed potatoes, his appetite unaffected by his words.

“You mean all this time you’ve been faking it?” Bruce turned to stare at Angelica, mouth hanging open, pretending to be shocked at the thought.

Angelica shrugged. “Not faking, exactly…”

“Yes, she’s been faking it.” Erica ratted her sister out. “But not anymore. You can get a real reading now, if you’re so inclined.”

“I might need to find out if I still have a job,” Ian joked. “Chief White wanted to kill me for bringing Angelica to the cabin, but when she learned all the details, she decided we could adjust the story for the official report.”

“Have you heard anything about Ralph’s condition?” Angelica asked him. She and Ian learned the PI had overdosed the same evening they had stormed the cabin and rescued the hostage.

“The doctors say he’s going to pull through," Ian reported, wiping his mouth on a napkin. "He had already, uh, purged most of the pills before the ambulance got there.”

“Thanks for that lovely image.” Erica put her fork down, glaring from Ian to Angelica and back again.

“Sorry.” Ian grimaced at her, scooping up a forkful of succotash. “I figured Kaminski had to have tipped off Vanderwald that we were headed to the cabin. So I sent a couple of officers to pick him up on charges of aiding and abetting. But the officers found him on the floor, a shoe box full of empty pill bottles and a bottle of Wild Turkey next to him.”

"Was Kaminski the only accomplice?" Angelica asked as she reached for the stuffing.

"Not exactly. A teenager who worked at Jade Palace encouraged her friends who looked like Janice to take jobs there. She basically got those two girls killed."

"Nice friend," Felix commented. Bruce shook his head in disgust.

"And what about the psychiatrist you met at the hospital? The one with the blue eyes?" Ian had mentioned the strangely penetrating stare to Angelica.

"We had him picked up and brought in for questioning. He and Charles were apparently friends. But it's going to be close to impossible to make anything stick to him." Ian shrugged his shoulders. "I believe he sedated Janice on purpose, on Charles' request, but there is no way to prove it. And I'm sure he tipped Charles off when I was leaving the hospital and almost got run over."

"There will be a record of that phone call," Angelica said.

"Sure, but that proves nothing." Ian sighed. "Unfortunately, not everyone gets what they deserve."

“Can we change the subject now?” Erica muttered, looking sadly at her dinner getting cold.

Harriet lifted her fork and dinged it against her wine glass. “We have an announcement, people! Listen up!” She grinned across the table at Erica. “Do you want to do the honors?”

Erica blushed, a deep crimson climbing up her throat to her cheeks. “I didn’t know we were doing this today.”

“Everyone we love is here. Except your mom and Al, of course, but we won't be seeing them any time soon. Is there gonna be a better time?” Harriet raised her eyebrows and waited.

“I guess not.” Erica cleared her throat. “Harry and I have some news.”

“No way!” Angelica jumped up and darted around the table to hug her sister before another word was spoken.

“Yup. I’m pregnant.” Erica smiled triumphantly.

Bruce dropped his fork. It clattered against the side of his plate, flinging a dollop of cranberry sauce into the air. The ruby red glob landed on Ian’s knee.

“There goes another suit,” Ian said, under his breath.

Felix clapped his hands and bounced up and down in his chair.

“Yay! It worked!” Bruce, beaming, gave Felix a high-five. After smacking one palm, Bruce turned to high-five Ian, who found himself completely confused.

“Congratulations?” he said to Bruce.

“Damn straight! My boys know how to swim.” Bruce stood up, gyrated his hips in a circle, and finished off the dance with a few suggestive pelvic thrusts.

“Work that thang!” Felix encouraged, standing on top of his chair and joining the dance.

Ian and Angelica turned their heads in unison to stare at Erica.

“Yeah. Well. Harry didn't have the goods, as you could probably guess, so we had to borrow some from our very generous friend, Bruce.” Erica blushed some more.

“Our very, very good friend and Godfather-to-be,” Harriet added with an appreciative smile.

Angelica frowned at her sister. “No way. Did you two actually do it?”

“Why are you making that face? Like you just stepped in a pile of dog crap.” Bruce plopped back down into his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

“No,” Erica told her, laughing at Bruce. “We didn’t actually do it. We used the turkey baster method.”

"You used the turkey baster?" Angelica asked. "The same one..."

Ian stopped eating, fork in mid-air, and stared at the turkey in dismay.

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