On The Rocks: A Coven Cafe Mystery

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Chapter 2

The infection raged through Ian’s blood stream like an army of fire ants, burning up his organs and frying his brain. He tossed and turned under the thin hospital sheet, sweating through another backless gown every few hours. The sponge baths from the nurses were largely wasted on him, as he only had a vague notion of what was happening. Before the intravenous antibiotics took hold and began to vanquish the bacterial invaders, his mind swam like a flying fish, diving deep into hazy, underwater dreams and occasionally leaping up for a glimpse of reality.

On the fourth night, he found Janice.

In the corner of a vast, empty ballroom, he came upon her dancing. She was wearing a filmy nightgown, completely absent of color. Her bare feet glided across the dusty dance floor, her eyes closed. Lyrical music guided her steps, but there was no band, no orchestra to be seen. She had no partner except the melody, the rising and falling lilt of the violins, a sound so filled with longing, it plucked at Ian’s heartstrings. Her face wasn’t sad, though. Her expression was peaceful and relaxed.

His dream had to hold a message. Janice was alive. Dead bodies don’t dance. She must be alive. Somewhere.

Or was she dead?

Her eyes had been closed. Yes, she was dancing, but where was that strange, dust-covered ballroom with cobwebbed chandeliers? He had never seen her wear a colorless nightgown like that. In fact, he had never seen her waltz. He was fairly certain she didn’t know how. Their wedding had been a civil ceremony at Nyack's Town Hall. No cake. No champagne. Just an invisible shotgun wielded by her father, Charles Vanderwald the Third.

What did it all mean? Was it just a dream? Or some kind of vision?

Ian knew the one person who might have a clue.

“What the hell did you do to your eye?” He loomed over her, hands on his hips.

“Nothing,” the princess lied, trembling under the thin blanket.

What could she tell him? I plucked out all my lashes because I felt like it. That would only get her slapped around.

“You look like a circus freak.” His jaw muscles clenched, his back teeth grinding.

She dropped her gaze and stared the bed sheets. They were stained, dingy gray, and smelled of stale sweat and sex. The blankets were old woolen things, ragged with moth holes. He had taken her clothing and left her with just a faded blue tee shirt. There was no way she’d survive in this place through the winter. No heat, no insulation in the walls. She tried not to think ahead, but sometimes her brain couldn’t help it.

“I said, you look like a freak.” His fists tightened, cocked and ready. She’d been beaten so many times, she’d lost count.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. Apologizing worked about half the time. The rest of the time it just made him madder.

“You should be. Don’t do it again.” Bending, he stepped into his pants and slid them over his knobby knees. She watched him finger the leather of his belt.

No, she mentally pleaded. Not the belt. Please.

He paused. She held her breath.

Then she watched the leather strap slip slowly through his belt loops.

She could tell he was savoring the moment. Using the belt on her would make him hard again. Her pain meant his pleasure. He wasn’t leaving anytime soon.

Ian adjusted the bed so he could sit up. The infection finally seemed to have surrendered to the onslaught of the drugs. The fever had come and gone more than once, but eventually passed. No more sponge baths since now he was able to walk, with assistance, to the shower. The pain in his ribs had dulled to a moderate ache. He no longer felt like his body was being drawn and quartered.

“You look much better today.” Angelica slid her chair closer to his bedside. “Almost human.”

“Thanks.” He smiled at her. “I think.”

“Ready for a night out on the town? A little drinking and dancing?” Her brown eyes twinkled at him.

“Not quite.” Ian avoided alcohol completely. He had observed its effects on several of the people he loved. Angelica wasn’t quite as pristine, but she was a saint compared to Janice. His wife was a full-blown alcoholic. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“About dancing?”

“Sort of. I had a dream. Maybe it was a dream, I’m not totally sure. But I know I saw Janice. She was dancing in an empty ballroom. All alone, no partner, no band, no orchestra. She was wearing a nightgown and her feet were bare.”

“You think this dream has some meaning?” Angelica’s eyes became serious.

“Does it? You tell me. You’re the expert.”

“No, I’m not. I don’t know much about dream interpretation. It’s different from a vision that comes out of a trance, or another type of waking state.”

“Oh.” Ian wasn’t sure he understood. “You sound like an expert.”

She laughed. “You’ve seen me make enough mistakes to know that I’m far from an expert in any of this stuff.”

That much was true.

Angelica couldn’t see into the future like some kind of gypsy with a crystal ball. But she could sometimes see into the present and the past, and discern things that were happening outside the scope of her normal senses. She had even been able to communicate with people using only her mind.

“Tell me what you think it means.” She reached for his hand and held it.

“Well, my first reaction to seeing her dancing was that she must be alive. But then I noticed her eyes were closed. So that was weird. And she was doing the waltz. There’s no way she knows how to waltz.” Ian had never told Angelica about his secret dance lessons. The entire basketball team had studied ballroom dance during his senior year in high school. They had sworn each other to secrecy and no one had ever broken the pact. Ian had been the star of the dance class, and had continued lessons on his own after high school. He was proficient in all the various ballroom styles.

“Okay,” Angelica mused. “So you’re not sure if she’s alive. You think she might be dead?”

Ian nodded. He started to speak, but realized he was getting choked up. He took a deep breath, struggling to find the right words, afraid of how he must sound to her. “And I don’t really know which would be worse. Dead or alive.”

She squeezed his hand. “Either way, it’ll be okay. Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it. Together. We can handle it.”

He squeezed her hand back. He could feel the love behind her words. He wished he had the same confidence.

Angelica was strong. Her reserves had been tested numerous times. As a teenager, she had survived being badly burned in a malicious prank and also being lured by a sexual predator. She had ended up hunting down the pedophile after establishing that he had raped her younger sister Erica repeatedly. In addition, she trained at the gym most days of the week. Her body was as strong as her mind.

But Ian had serious doubts about his own strength. His body was thinner than ever, and he had always been a beanpole. His muscles were stringy and weak. Nurses had to escort him to the toilet. He had to hold on to the handicapped bars in the shower to keep from falling over. And his brain was addled with drugs.

He was in no condition to traipse around the county searching for his estranged wife. But what if NYPD Detective Longuria found her first? And what if she was dead? The sleazebag would probably try to pin something on him. No way the guy was above planting evidence. He had probably used the search of Ian’s apartment to pocket all kinds of potentially incriminating evidence.

No, Ian wasn’t at all sure he could handle the situation.

“When are they going to release you?” Angelica’s voice snapped him out of his depressing reverie.

“The doctor said possibly tomorrow. It’s been a full week already. And that’s on top of the two weeks after my initial surgery.”

“You must be anxious.”


“Red meat. Rare. And lots of power breathing.” Angelica’s smile looked devilish. “I’ll teach you.”

Ian frowned. “Did I miss something? What are you talking about?”

“You’re worried about getting your strength back.” She had obviously been reading his mind again. “If you want, I can help you. That’s a subject I’m very familiar with.”

Of course.

Back in high school, Angelica had spent months in this same hospital, receiving numerous skin grafts and plastic surgeries after enduring third degree burns to the scalp, face, and hands. Then she garnered her strength, learned the skills she needed, adopted and trained her pack of dogs, and exacted her revenge on the prankster who had purposely injured her.

How could he have forgotten? Maybe his mind was in worse shape than he realized. Or maybe he was just a self-absorbed prick who only registered his own pain and suffering.

He looked up and found Angelica shaking her head, disagreeing with his last thought.

“I remember now,” he told her. “I remember everything. And I’ll take you up on that offer. How about a steak dinner tomorrow night?”

“You’re on.” She leaned forward for a kiss.

The following evening, after being discharged from Nyack Hospital, Ian escorted Angelica past the onsite liquor store, past the bar, and into the restaurant section of the Hilltop. The Coven Café, owned by Angelica’s sister, Erica Gold, and her life/business partner Harriet Felch, probably had better food. Certainly it had a more interesting and eclectic clientele. But Angelica ate at the Coven on a daily basis, if not twice daily, so she said she didn’t mind a change. And Ian was on the hunt. The Hilltop had been a favorite haunt of his missing wife.

Once they were seated, his back against the far wall of the small establishment, Ian could see each and every person coming and going from both the bar and the restaurant. He planned to stretch their dinner over as many courses as possible in order to keep an eye on the evening’s customers.

“I think you’re distracted,” Angelica surmised. She was wearing an ankle-length spandex dress that hugged every sculpted curve of her body. When she removed her knitted poncho and hung it over the back of her chair, Ian heard the guys at the bar gasp, their heads swiveling around to take in the sight. “You seem more interested in those guys at the bar than me.”

“Well, they are pretty hot,” he teased, “but I think I got the better deal. You look amazing in that dress.”

“That’s more like it.” She settled into her seat and opened her extra-large menu. It stood almost two feet high, weighed at least ten pounds, and was about as thick as an encyclopedia.

“Let’s order some appetizers to start,” Ian suggested.

“Sounds good. But we need to stick with protein. Animal protein and root vegetables. Those are the most strengthening foods.” She turned another page.

“You make a romantic dinner sound like a science experiment.” But he was willing to go along with her recommendations. It had been a long time since he had been mothered. Not counting the ministrations of Chief White at the station.

A waiter arrived, pulling a pad out of his apron pocket. “What can I get youse guys to start you off? Something to drink?” He was tall and thin, with tufts of graying hair ringing a shiny bald pate. The Hilltop had been around forever, and the staff seemed to be aging instead of retiring.

Angelica asked for a glass of the house red wine. Ian tried to order a Diet Coke, but Angelica nixed that, suggesting a Virgin Mary instead. Ian gave in, but thought this dinner date might be setting a very bad precedent. How long would he be able to stand drinking tomato juice? And what disgusting concoctions would she have him consuming next?

“We’d like to share a plate of the grilled calamari as well as two shrimp cocktails for starters,” Angelica added.

"Excellent choices," their waiter told her. "I'll be right back with your drinks."

“Not the deep-fried calamari? With the crispy batter?” Ian wondered aloud as the waiter drifted over to the next table.

Angelica made a face. “That junk won’t make you stronger. It’ll rip a hole in your digestive tract.”

Ian was pretty sure only a gunshot or a stab wound could exact such damage, but he decided to keep his mouth shut. He had invited her out on this date/surveillance mission, and he had agreed to take her advice. “Will you excuse me for a moment?”

Angelica narrowed her eyes suspiciously, but nodded her head.

He sauntered over to the bar. This was where Janice would have spent her evenings, not dining on traditional Italian-American cuisine, but downing cheap Chablis. By the bucketful. And baring her wounded soul to the nearest willing ear.

And she did have wounds. He had to admit that. Four years ago, their baby had been stillborn, that brand new life snuffed out before it had a chance to begin. But their son’s life was not the only one that effectively ended that day. Janice had been committing suicide ever since. Slowly. One drink at a time.

“Hey,” Ian said to the bartender.

“What can I get you?” The guy was pushing sixty, at the very least, and as skinny as a picked over skeleton. Just looking at him made Ian hungrier.

He considered ordering a Diet Coke. Would Angelica come over and snatch it away from him? “Nothing at the moment. I’m having dinner soon, but I was wondering if you know Janice McDaniel? She's a regular here.”

“Who wants to know?” The bartender peered at him through thick glasses. His watery blue eyes were shrewd.

“Ian McDaniel. I’m Janice’s husband.”

“Huh. So who’s the broad at your table? Your sister?” He made the word “sister” sound like “prostitute.”

Ian felt his eye twitch. He’d love to whip out his badge, or maybe his gun, and demand a little cooperation, but he had neither on him. He was going to have to finesse the situation.

“Yes. My sister and I are having dinner. But I’m searching for my wife. She’s been missing for almost a month. You must remember her.” The guy looked like he’d been a fixture here since one of the world wars.

“Sure, I know her. But I ain’t seen her in weeks.” He pulled a towel out of his apron and started buffing the bar, avoiding eye contact.

“You ever notice anyone getting friendly with her? Maybe an older guy?”

The last time Ian saw his wife, she had been entering their apartment building with a middle-aged man. Ian hadn’t recognized him, but they had appeared quite friendly. Arm in arm, anyway.

“They don’t pay me to notice stuff.” The old man kept his head down and kept buffing.

Was that a hint? Did he want a handout for his information? Ian pulled out his wallet. “Will a twenty unlock those lips?”

“Don’t be a dunce.” The bartender lowered his voice and tilted his head toward the restrooms. “I can’t take your cash here. Meet me in the men’s. After your appetizers.”

Ian returned to his table to find Angelica already digging into her shrimp cocktail. He was glad to see she was going slowly with the Chianti. One alcoholic in his life was more than enough.

“How is it?” he asked, pulling a napkin into his lap.

“Very fresh. I wasn’t expecting much, but so far I’m pretty happy. A little lonely, though.” She sucked the meat out of a shrimp tail, holding his gaze.

Ian felt certain carnal stirrings that he should not experience while dining with his sister. “What are we having for our entrees? And did you already put the orders in?” He tore his eyes away from her lips and addressed his own shrimp.

“Yup. Bacon-wrapped filets with loaded baked potatoes.” She finished her last shrimp. “Can’t go wrong with bacon, that’s what I always say.”

The bartender shuffled past their table, clearing his throat to make his presence known. Ian looked sadly at his unfinished shrimp, then rose once more, apologizing, and followed the old man into the men’s room.

No one was at the urinals, and the single stall was also empty.

The bartender walked up to the sink, turned on the tap, and lathered up his hands. Ian guessed his actions were just for show, in case someone walked in on them. That, or the guy was one of those obsessive clean freaks.

“So what can you tell me?” Ian leaned back against the wall opposite from the sink, trying to catch the bartender’s eye in the mirror.

“I can’t remember. I think it was something about Andrew Jackson.”

“Gotcha.” Ian pulled a twenty out of his wallet. “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Bert. Some people call me Bertie. Herbert for short.” Clearly Herbert was a comedian.

“Whatcha got for me, Herbert?” Ian continued to hold the twenty while Bert scrubbed his hands some more.

“I know your wife. I musta served her a thousand glasses of wine, at least, over the years. That woman can put the stuff away.”

“Yeah.” This was not news. There had better be more. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I seen her getting cozy with some guy. Older than you, but not that old compared to me. Maybe he was late forties, early fifties.”

“What else? What’d he look like?” Ian pushed off the wall and bounced on the balls of his feet. Finally he was getting somewhere. “Height? Weight?”

Bert turned off the tap and stared at him. “You sound like that cop that was in here last week.”

“Well, that’s because I am a cop. So spit it out, Herbert.” Ian was losing patience quickly. Angelica was probably finished with her steak and ready to stab him with her steak knife by now.

“You didn’t tell me you was no cop.” Bert seemed to be hedging his bets. “Where’s your badge then, copper?”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Ian seriously considered slamming the guy’s head into the mirror. “I shot a serial killer so I’m on leave. No badge, okay?”

“You gotta be kidding me. You’re the superhero what shot that psycho woman? You saved that little girl?” Bert’s squinty eyes went shiny with tears behind the coke-bottle lenses.

Ian breathed a sigh. They were drifting further off course by the second. “Sort of. A buddy of mine, Bear Donovan, pulled the little girl out. That wasn’t me.”

“I saw your picture in the paper.” Bert turned away from the sink and waved off the twenty. “Put your money away. No charge for you, detective. I should be paying you for the privilege.”

Ian wasn’t sure if the bartender was referring to the privilege of hanging out in the men’s room together or what. But he slipped the twenty back into his wallet. “I appreciate this, Bert, but my sister is waiting out there. Can you give me some details?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure. The guy I seen with your wife was not too tall, maybe average height, slightly shorter. A stocky type. Not like us.” Herbert winked. “Had a beer belly on him. Dark hair going gray, but not that much of it. And he wore a long coat. A tan-colored woolen-type coat.”

“Maybe a camel hair?” Ian asked, wishing he had a pad and paper. This was a lot for him to remember, especially with the Vicodin still in his system.

“I wouldn’t know nothing about camel’s hair. Coulda been llama for alls I know.” Bert finished drying his hands on some paper towels. “I gotta get back to the bar. Been a pleasure meeting you.”

“Thanks for your help. If you think of anything else, can you give me a call?” Ian produced one of his cards from his wallet. Luckily, he still had those.

“Yeah. Definitely. And enjoy your dinner with your sister.” Bert waggled his white eyebrows knowingly.

Ian slid his hand under Angelica’s poncho and cupped her shoulder blade as they walked down Main Street.

It was late. The streetlights were lit up as well as the sparkling Christmas decorations. Not even Thanksgiving yet, but that didn’t seem to matter anymore. The silver bells and snowflakes went up as soon as Halloween was over.

“Sorry I had to mix work with pleasure tonight.”

“No need to apologize. I want Janice found as much as you do.” She wrapped an arm around his waist and gave him a squeeze.

“I appreciate the support. You were a big help tonight.” He was referring to the notepad she had pulled from her enormous, hobo-style pocketbook when he returned from the men’s room. She had taken notes for him while he dictated aloud and munched his lukewarm steak and potatoes. Angelica had already downed most of her dinner while he was in the john.

“You’re talking about the food and drink suggestions, right?” she joked.


“Do you have anything to eat at your place?”

Uh oh. She was probably planning to stock his fridge with bottles of green juice and ground bison thighs. “Don’t worry about that. I eat out most of the time.”

“I’ll make you some stuff.” She hugged him closer. “You need to be drinking some strengthening teas. Can you come over in the morning for breakfast?”

Ian had tasted her herbal concoctions before. They were not exactly his cup of tea, so to speak. “I’m sure you have enough to take care of without adding me to the list.”

Angelica jerked to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk and made eye contact. “There is nothing on my list more important than you.”

Her words hit him hard. Dealing with his missing wife, the sleazy detective, and the pain in his rib cage had pushed everything else onto the back burner. Including his feelings for her.

He wrapped his arms around her.

They shouldn’t be seen like this in public, not with an ongoing investigation into the disappearance of his wife. He was already a suspect. And for good reason. If he were the detective looking into this case, he would certainly find his own behavior highly suspicious.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered into her hair. “I’ve been so self-absorbed. And you’ve been so great.”

“Nice of you to notice. So, will you have breakfast with me?”

The woman never let up.

Minutes later, Ian hurried Angelica through the front door of her home, trying to avoid any further public displays of affection. As they were walking down Main Street, he had spied a maroon Oldsmobile cruising past them at an excessively slow speed. Must have been that sleazebag NYPD detective keeping an eye on him.

“I’ll be back around eight in the morning. Is that okay?”

She hung her poncho on the coat rack and turned to face him. “Perfect.”

He slipped his arms around her once more. “Sleep well, Angel.”

She tilted her face up and he met her lips. He couldn’t let things heat up too much, so he kept the kiss brief. When he pulled away, her eyes told him she wanted more. A stab of guilt accompanied the ache in his ribs and the growing warmth in his pants.

On the one hand, he was cheating on his missing wife. But he was also denying Angelica the complete relationship she needed from him. He was caught between a rock and a mighty hard place. Pun intended, he smiled to himself.

When he stepped out onto the front porch, Ian spotted the maroon Olds again, parked about a half block from his apartment building. While he stared, a dark shape in the driver’s seat sank low behind the steering wheel. Real slick.

Ian crossed the street, passing directly in front of the maroon car with its hidden driver. He lifted his middle finger as he passed. Take that, Detective Longuria!

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