The kitchen table was cluttered with plant catalogs and the improved landscaping plans for a job I was hoping to get. The latest drawings were more professional looking than the previous versions and I decided that I wasn’t half-bad as an artist. My training as an archaeologist had given me some basic skills and the more plans I drew the better the results looked. I’d just learn as I went. That approach to life had worked pretty well, so far.
It was early and I had a few hours before Basir woke up so I went back to my colored pencils and my drawings. I was new to art and gardening, but that didn’t stop me from running a landscaping business. A girl has to earn a living.
A ladybug flew by me and I watched it land on the potted rose bush. Carefully, I stood up while keeping my eyes on the bright red insect as it crawled along the glossy leaves.
“Yes!” I whispered as I gave into the urge to fist-pump the air. The charm on the rosebush had worked! The tiny bug didn’t set off the zapper charm.
It had taken me weeks to tune the electric charge to only work on large bugs, like the dreaded Japanese beetle that was the bane of my existence as a landscaper. Using witchcraft to make my landscaping business more successful that the competition probably wasn’t ethical, but as long as my magic was subtle it would go undetected. Since my whole financial life depended on my new business, I was willing to use any advantage I had – including magic.
My latest anti-pest charm was only triggered by heavy bugs. Large insects that landed on the plant would be instantly stunned before they could inflict any damage, but smaller bugs would go unharmed. If a human touched the plant, the charge would be imperceptible. It was a delicate balance and I smiled with pride as the bright red bug continued exploring the buds of the rosebush.
I glanced at the small box of peat moss disks that I was using as the carrier for the charm. I had taken organic gardening to a whole new level by tapping my earth witch powers and I was pretty darned pleased with myself. I had developed a whole line of charms that could be activated with a subtle burst of earth energy. Nobody would notice me doing it. Working spells with verbal incantations or wild gestures in public would get me a one way ticket to the crazy hotel but a trunk load of charmed peat disks and a fist full of business cards would keep the mortgage paid.
I was turning into the best bug-proof landscaper in town. Instead of calling myself a “dark green witch” I used “organic gardener” and watched my little business grow. If things stayed on track, I’ might even need to hire someone to help me next year.
I flipped a page in the seed catalog and stared at the lovely little plants, trying to figure out a way of working some nice bright red bee balm into my current plan. My stomach growled and I looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost noon, so I opted for a light lunch and a peek at the news on my laptop. Sunday was made for loafing, and I’d done enough work for a while.
With a salad and a glass of iced tea, I sat at my computer and began surfing for the latest news on archaeological expeditions around the globe. I still missed my former career as a field archaeologist, but I realized that gardening had some similarities that I really enjoyed. I was still able to be outdoors, still digging in the dirt and feeling the energy of the earth flow through my magically tuned senses. All in all, I hadn’t made a bad second career choice – even if the term choice was a bit of a stretch.
Owning my own business meant I couldn’t get fired and I wouldn’t have to watch my reputation being torn to shreds by ignorant fools. Who ever heard of a blacklisted gardener? I flipped on my laptop and went to the science section of an international news organization. As I forked a bite of salad into my mouth I scanned the headlines.
Ancient Celtic Dig Begins at Sanderdowns Abbey in Abbotshire. Residents of the quaint English town of Abbotshire are hopeful that the latest archaeological excavation of the stately monastery ruins will shed some light on the area’s past. Dr. Stanley Ash, leader of the expedition…
The coughing fit that ripped through me after the cherry tomato became lodged in my throat had me doubled over at the kitchen table, gasping for air. A gut wrenching cough caused me to spit the tomato clear across the room and I sucked in a large breath of fresh air. When the coughing subsided, I reached for the glass of iced tea and gulped a large amount of it down, feeling the cold liquid burn as it ran through my still-spasming esophagus. Iced tea bubbled out of my nose and I tasted the faint hint of lemon all the way in my sinus cavity. My eyes watered as I hacked and gasped a few more times.
When my vision cleared I found Basir perched on top of the paper towels I kept next to the sink with his yellow eyes full of concern. I waved my hand to indicate my confidence that I would not need the Heimlich maneuver or 911 and I sniffled and mopped my face in the bottom of my black tee-shirt.
Basir flapped his wings and clicked his beak in what I thought might be agitation.
“Fine!” I gasped trying to stop the coughing reflex. I had intended it to be reassurance for him but it only made him fly closer and peer into my face from the back of the empty chair.
When I could breathe, see, and was reasonably sure I wasn’t going to hack up a lung, I glanced at the owl. His beak was open wide and his black tongue was wagging back and forth. He tottered on the back of the chair and my hand shot out to catch him. The last thing I needed was my best friend and partner – a three and a half pound owl – needing a vet because he fell off the chair laughing at me.
“Nice. Me nearly choking to death amuses you.”
He blinked his eyes slowly and made the head movements he normally engaged in right before he hacked up an owl pellet.
“Oh, gross!” I moaned, making a face at him. He swiveled his brown head around and looked pointedly at the cherry tomato lying on the varnished wood floor.
“Give me a second to enjoy breathing and I’ll pick it up! Sheesh!” I groused before tossing the tomato into the trash.
“Ash-hole has nearly killed me a second time and all you’re worried about is the stupid tomato.”
“Who!” He hooted and flapped his wings.
“That son-of-a-motherless-whore Ash-hole!” I grumbled, leaning back so I could see my computer screen. “Look at this, Bah. He’s on some big dig funded by the Historical Society.”
Basir fluttered onto my shoulder and peered at the screen as I scrolled down, reading the article aloud to him.
…hopes to find some confirmation that Abbotshire had a central role in the development and prosperity of Southern England.
“The residents here have a rich history that just may prove that Abbotshire was a very important town from Roman times right through the dark ages. I’m confident I will discover some priceless evidence of this lovely town’s incredible history.” Dr. Ash stated at the press conference to mark the beginning of the excavation.
“I’m planning to use some of the locals to assist me on this exciting journey into the town’s past. The residents will be trained by my fine students so they can have the exciting task of screening soil and cataloging the finds. This is a great opportunity to get the young people of this area excited about archaeology.”
“And find a new crop of minions to hang on his every word…” I muttered before continuing with the article.
The dig is expected to last only six to eight weeks, unless something extraordinary is uncovered. When asked what he was hoping to find, Dr. Ash, a well respected academic in the United States as well as Europe, offered an enthusiastic response. “The excitement of archaeology lies in finding the unexpected. I have an uncanny ability to find exciting things in the most ordinary places. I’m sure Abbotshire and Sanderdowns Abbey will not disappoint.”
The article was accompanied with photos of Dr. Ash with the usual cadre of eager graduate students who flocked around the arrogant imbecile. The article mentioned his long and distinguished career as a preeminent archaeologist.
“Huh. A preeminent archaeologist, who doesn’t read the ancient languages, can’t do anything but give orders and wants to discover simpering graduate students who will hang on his every word. I guess they have a different definition of preeminent.” I said with more than a smidgen of bitterness.
Basir clicked his beak in irritated agreement and nuzzled the side of my head.
I reached a hand up and stroked his back. “I’m fine, Bah. It doesn’t matter anymore.” I lied. “We wouldn’t have this nice house and life if that idiot would have listened to me.”
Nope. If Stanley Ash-hole had listened to Dr. Arienne Cerasola, archaeologist, witch and druid, he would have watched as I released a nasty demon right into a bunch of graduate students. The ancient demon would have possessed one of the students just like it had possessed generations of monks and then driven him or her insane before moving on to the next victim.
If I had been given the leeway to explore the ancient writing on the pillars of the monastery, I would have added a little carnage to the disaster area. Generations of monks lived with the demonic entity at St. Cieran’s Monastery. Eventually, those monks managed to contain the demon and things would have been fine if I didn’t decide that the ancient writing in the ruins should be read. Aloud. By a witch. My bungling released the demon and then I had to fix my nearly fatal error – fast.
I managed to contain the entity – once I realized my mistake, but I had to collapse the sixteenth century monastery to do it. That disaster had lead to Stanley Ash firing me and smearing my name all over the halls of academia – there wasn’t a respectable archaeology department in the civilized world who would even let me handle a dustpan and whisk-broom. My arrogance led to a disaster and a whole new career, in gardening. It’s hard to get hired on an archaeological dig when you’re personally responsible for destroying a national treasure.
Really, Stanley Ash was jerk, but it was my own incompetence and impatience that ruined my career. No matter how many times I blamed him, I couldn’t escape the facts. Yet reading about his important dig in the United Kingdom made me burn with resentment and more than a smidgen of jealousy.
I returned to reading the article aloud to my faithful companion, but deep inside a thought began to nag at the back of my brain.
“Do you get the impression he’s looking for something specific, Basir?” I turned my eyes toward him and he blinked slowly at me. His feathered facial disks of deep sable brown made his large yellow eyes more expressive. I continued talking, encouraged by Basir’s response. “So then it’s not just my imagination that he has an agenda of some sort.” Basir blinked twice and lowered his eyelids to tiny slits.
Call me suspicious, but Stanley Ash never did anything without expecting a good deal of glory to follow. The Abbotshire dig wasn’t any different.
I scrolled down the page and found a video clip with Ash-hole’s smug face staring out at me. I clicked on the play icon and listened to the announcer interview the man who had helped end my career.
I snorted and made random sarcastic comments during Dr. Ash’s portion of the clip and paid closer attention when the announcer trudged around the site, pointing out the areas where the dig would begin. The camera panned around to show the early stages of the excavation, complete with grad students and field archaeologists swarming the site and setting up the standard grids.
“Who!” Basir vocalized from my shoulder as he pointed a wing tip at the screen. We had seen it at the same time and I hit the pause button and zoomed in on the image to take a closer look.
“What in Heaven’s name is he doing there?” I asked, feeling a knot form in my stomach.
The image of Raymond Swift Fox, Shaman, Liar and Thief was frozen on my screen.
“It can’t be.” I said, shaking my head from side to side as if that would make Ray’s image disappear.
We watched the rest of the video, looking for another glimpse of Ray, but we were disappointed. With trembling fingers, I zoomed in on every still photo in the article, but only turned up that one glimpse of Ray. I managed to screen shot his face and I stared hard at the image. I was certain it was him.
Basir’s talons dug into my shoulder as I opened a search engine and began looking for more articles on the Abbotshire dig. He was obviously as tense as I was. I found a few small articles on the dig but I hit pay dirt when I found the town’s website.
There was a page devoted entirely to the project, and I looked at every photo until I found one with a clear image of Ray speaking with Ash. I zoomed in and focused on the expression on Ray’s face.
He looked somehow furtive and irritated at the same time. I could almost picture his raised eyebrows and a sarcastic smile settling on his face. Whatever he was discussing with the lead archaeologist wasn’t making him happy. Serves you right! I thought to myself.
“What would that thief be doing on a dig?” I wondered aloud, tapping my fingers on the table. Basir clicked his beak thoughtfully.
“Let’s see what else we can find.” I said, clicking around the page for more information. There were a few preliminary maps detailing where the team would begin to dig. The site map looked more like they were sampling the area than they had a clear plan for the dig. I would have expected a much more organized grid plan if they were excavating with a real purpose.
A nice graphic overlaid an aerial map of the town. A few dig sites were marked, most were centered around a building that was identified as a twelfth century monastery.
“Great. More dead monks. That is Dr. Ash’s specialty.” I said, zooming in and looking at more detailed maps.
“Whooo.” Basir hooted softly.
“You think there’s something to that?” I asked, turning toward him.
He blinked slowly one time, but the single raised ear tuft made his affirmative answer somewhat questionable.
“Maybe.” I agreed, opening the link for Sanderdowns Abbey in the Abbotshire History section. I read the history aloud to Basir, finding nothing useful. “What’s he looking for?” I asked, feeling a growing certainty that not only was Dr. Ash digging for a particular relic, he was digging for something no respectable archaeologist would look for. Scientists certainly didn’t believe in magic.
I stood up and paced to the fridge, and filled a glass with ice water. I dumped part of it into a small ceramic bowl I kept on the counter for Basir. He hopped down and flicked his black tongue into the dish. I paced a little and leaned against the granite-topped island, alternating between staring at the computer screen and out the kitchen window.
I sighed and stalked back over to the computer. “Let’s see what else is going on around Abbotshire.” I said, searching for a local paper that was available on the web.
“Well, Rufus Albrecht is still missing. Don’t know who Rufus is, but it seems he was a local historian in Colton. Colton’s right next door to Abbotshire.” I shrugged and Basir raised his wings and settled them higher on his back. “You’re right, it’s probably not connected. Still, we’ll make a note of it.” I pulled a sheet of grid paper from my landscaping notebook and wrote down the name and date. Poor Rufus had been missing for nearly six weeks.
I made a few other notes about things I doubted had any connection to the Abbotshire dig, but I felt a growing need to discover everything I could about Dr. Stanley Ash and Raymond Swift Fox’s activities in the United Kingdom before I decided if I was going to do anything except stew about it.
Afternoon slipped into evening as I searched for everything that could be remotely connected to shady excavations and nefarious motives. I ate dinner while watching an online news clip about the sleepy little corner of England where the dig was beginning.
By the time Basir flew out of his doggy door in the high peak of the barn roof, I had filled four sheets of paper with random bits of information and my irritation was growing. They were definitely up to something; and I was frustrated as hell that I couldn’t figure out what.
I glanced at the doggy door and smiled. I had installed that door myself because it was hard to explain to a carpenter that I needed a special exit for my pet owl. I did a lot of the work around the house myself because of my unusual roommates. While the old barn wasn’t completely finished, it was warm and cozy with plenty of room for me and my magical companions.
We had managed to carve out a pretty nice life in western Massachusetts, but I still missed our nomadic life style. When I worked as a field archaeologist, Basir and I had traveled the world looking for adventure and ancient cultures, but we’d never had a home of our own.
I turned my attention back to my computer. I was maybe a teensy bit jealous over the Abbotshire dig, but the curiosity about the possible connection between Ray and Ash-hole was killing me.
There were people I could ask, but I didn’t want to sound like a paranoid stalker and there was no way I could call Ray’s cousin and ask him what Ray was up to without giving exactly that impression. Besides, I was through with magic – except to further my landscaping business.
I pushed myself away from the computer and headed into the bathroom. Maybe a nice hot shower and a few hours in front of the television would give me some distance from the mystery. Maybe I just needed to let it all go and get on with my life.
Ka’Tehm, the magical blue beaver who was my other housemate floated in lazy circles in the kiddie pool that I kept in the downstairs bathroom for his comfort. He blinked luminous silver eyes at me at I turned on the faucet to let the water warm up and I pulled towels and a soothing herbal charm from the linen closet.
“You don’t know what Ray’s doing in Abbotshire, do you?” I asked the beaver. He blinked twice at me and shook cool water droplets from his spectral fur. Ka’Tehm appears to be made mostly of water held together by some ancient magic that I don’t understand, and he’s not much on conversation.
There was a lot of that in my life, if I were being honest. There are no internet dating sites where I could put my ad: “Petite but curvy red-haired witch in hiding from the United Coven and Alliance seeks male companion with good job and no connections to the magic police for quiet dinners and conversation about past mistakes and wasted Ph.D.s. Must like owls and beavers.”
Witchcraft wasn’t exactly a quality most people looked for or even believed in. After my genetic ability nearly destroyed my life, it had offered salvation and stability, and I had come to terms with its practical and prudent uses – while still resenting the hell out of my lack of control over it. Magic and I had the ultimate love/hate relationship and it was growing more complicated every day.
I motioned for Ka’Tehm to turn around as I stripped and stepped into the claw foot tub I had rescued from the tractor bay downstairs. I dropped the herbal charm into the water and pulled the curtain closed, letting the hot steam carry the scent of honeysuckle and sage into my sore throat.
After I mentally rehashed the internet article for the third time, I felt like an obsessed fool. Raymond Swift Fox was on a magical adventure with Dr. Stanley Ash. They were two of the biggest frauds I knew and yet I wanted nothing more than to find out what they were up to. There was no way to convince me it wasn’t something bad, and no way to convince me to ignore it. I hauled myself out of the tub and wrapped the towel around me. Instead of being relaxed and ready for bed, I was more determined than ever to discover what was going on in Abbotshire.
Ka’Tehm swam around the pool and rearranged his collection of driftwood into yet another elaborate structure. He glanced at me and I swore I saw a faint smile on his furry face. I couldn’t get my mind to stop turning over the possible reasons Ray could be involved in an archaeological dig with Ash-hole. I didn’t feel good about any of the possible explanations.