thirty-one

I dreamed I was back in Tiffany’s bedroom reading that opened Bible. Or trying to. The words kept swimming out of focus. I got so frustrated that it woke me up.

The first thing I heard was Adam’s deep breathing. He was sound asleep, lying on his side facing me. He was a respectable distance away, but his fingers rested on my bent knee.

When I moved, he squeezed my knee. I smiled, closed my eyes, and fell back to sleep.

“EXODUS 22:18!” I blurted, bolting up in bed.

Adam’s eyes snapped open.

“Exodus 2.2.: 18,” I repeated.

He closed his eyes. “If you’re spouting biblical references, I’m definitely dreaming.”

I jumped out of bed and yanked my nightstand drawer so hard it flew out, thumping onto my foot—phone book and all. I swore and limped around to the other nightstand. I found the Bible in that drawer and pulled it out.

“You aren’t actually going to read that, are you?” Adam said, one eye open. “If it bursts into flames, it’s not my fault.”

“Tiffany’s Bible was open to Exodus 22. I just realized why that’s familiar. It’s the one Bible verse I know. Exodus 22: I8.” I pointed to the verse. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

“Shit.” Adam scrambled up. He read the verse, then swore again. “The Bible was open to that page?”

I nodded. “It can’t be a coincidence. Maybe it was suicide. She was up to something and was worried I was coming after her. That might have been her final message.”

“To who?”

“Me. She knew I was coming over.”

“And she knew no one else would hear the baby crying and get there first? She knew you’d break in if she missed her appointment? She knew you’d notice the Bible and realize which passage she meant?” He shook his head. “No, whoever killed her left that.”

“As a message?”

“Maybe.” He sat upright and pointed to the chair. “Hand me my laptop.”

I passed it over, then sat on the edge of the bed as he opened the database and started typing. When the chapter reference didn’t work, he tried the text itself.

“I’ve heard that verse,” he murmured as he kept looking.

“Yeah, it’s a famous one.”

“No, I mean—” He glanced up at me. “How do you know it? Your mother doesn’t strike me as the Bible study sort. Paige might respect all religious faiths, but that’s one passage she wouldn’t repeat. Was it the Coven? It sounds like something they’d use.”

“As a motto, no doubt. Proof that the world hates us and we have to hide. But I don’t remember hearing it there. I don’t remember where I heard it at all. But it stuck in the back of my mind.”

“Let me call my dad.” He grabbed his cell phone, then stopped. “No, last resort.”

His dad had a stroke a few months ago—Robert was in his seventies—and Adam hated bugging him with anything that wasn’t life or death.

“If it’s about witches, then Paige—” I glanced at the clock. Nearly six … and three hours earlier in Hawaii.

“Let’s hold on to the call a friend’ card for a minute. Tiffany dies with a Bible opened to averse about killing witches. Yesterday she said someone’s been spying on her. You said someone’s watched you a couple of times. What do you and Tiffany have in common?”

“We’re both young and hot. Well, in her case, less so on both counts, but close enough.” I caught his look. “Oh, you meant the witch part. Okay, so there’s a chance we have someone in town out to kill witches. Big surprise. Not like we haven’t been dealing with that for the last few centuries. Totally unfair, when there are much worse things running around out there. Mass murderers, serial rapists, half-demons …”

“Thanks.”

“I’m just saying, in general, one would think demon blood would inspire more persecution than being able to make healing potions. But if we do have a killer targeting witches, how does that tie into the other murders? Sure they’re young women, but they aren’t—” I stopped. “Or are they?”

Adam shook his head. “Ginny’s file shows she’s got an uncle in jail, and he’s her mom’s twin brother, which means Paula Thompson is no witch, ergo, neither is Ginny. We already know Claire had a brother, so no witch there either.”

“Michael was her half brother on their dad’s side. And if she was a practicing witch, that might explain why she investigated the commune. Her friend mentions something that sounds supernatural and she gets worried. Turns out to be Santeria, but by then, she’s already been targeted by the killer.”

“Okay, but Ginny … ?”

“There were two people killed that night—a fact we keep overlooking because Ginny comes with her own obvious suspect.”

“Brandi.” He nodded. “Brandi is a witch. The killer goes after her. Ginny and Brandi are inseparable so he takes Ginny out, too, then laughs as everyone zeroes in on the abusive boyfriend theory.”

“Time to get to know a lot more about Brandi Degas.”

GREAT IDEA. BUT as soon as we started the research, I was reminded why we’d overlooked Brandi from the beginning. Because Mr. Mulligan had been right—she was little more than Ginny Thompson’s shadow. I hadn’t been able to form a single theory where the target was Brandi alone. But now I had one, and my bio check showed no brothers or uncles, which would have ruled out witch-hood.

We needed to chat with Brandi’s mom.

IT WAS STILL way too early for an interview.

“I’ll grab breakfast,” Adam said when I headed for the shower. “I’ll get it at that coffee shop so I can thank the server for running stuff over for me.”

“Good idea. Oh, wait. When you talk to her, you’re my boyfriend.”

“Huh?”

“She jumped to that conclusion and I figured she might not bring the food if she wasn’t aiding the cause of true love, so …”

“You lied to get room service. Well, considering I’m walking out of your room at seven in the morning, we’d better not straighten anyone out. If I grab your ass in public, then, I’m just playing my part.”

“And if you get your fingers broken for it, I’m just playing mine.”

He laughed and left.

THE JEEP WASN’T running well, but it was running. Good enough. Jesse was gone when we set out, so I texted him to say we’d catch up later. When we arrived at Carol Degas’s house, I double-checked the address. It was on the outskirts of town, and I expected to see a dump. The house was tiny, yes, and it showed its age, but it was as well kept and tidy as Paula’s mobile home, with fresh yellow paint, flowers in the tended garden, and a multicolored wooden Welcome! sign on the door.

“Carol must have moved out after Brandi died. Probably couldn’t afford the upkeep without her daughter’s rent money. Shit.”

“She might have left a forwarding address with these folks.” Adam rapped the door. “Wouldn’t want those welfare checks to get lost.”

I could hear gospel music playing inside. At least we weren’t waking up the new owners. Adam knocked again, and finally the door opened. There stood a tiny old woman, with a deeply lined face and hands that trembled as she clutched the door.

“We’re looking for Carol Degas,” I said. “She used to live here.”

“Still does,” the woman said in a reedy voice. “I’m her.”

According to the file, Carol was fifty-two. No matter how hard I looked at this woman, she didn’t appear a day under seventy.

“We’re in town investigating—”

“Brandi’s murder. I figured that was who you were. I’ve been wondering when you’d come see me.” She held open the screen and ushered us in.

We followed her into a hall lined with cheap religious prints. Gospel music boomed from deep in the house. I squinted at a needlepoint hanging on the wall. A Bible verse of some kind, but damned if I could read it—half the stitches were out of place.

“I’ve found Jesus,” Carol said, beaming.

“Huh,” I murmured under my breath. “I didn’t know he was lost.”

Adam gave me a look, his eyes telling me to watch it, his lips holding back a smile.

She waved us into what must have been the living room, but looked more like a Vegas chapel, every inch of space crammed with cheap china Madonnas and butt-ugly cherubs.

“Do you know Christ our Savior, child?” Carol said as we sat.

“Not personally.”

I got another look from Adam, who prodded me onto the loveseat, then sat beside me, close enough to elbow me if I got out of line.

I have nothing against organized religion. Well, not much. But if you’re going to have a religious conversion and clean up your life, then do it when your child is born, not after she dies.

“How about you, young man?” Carol said, turning to Adam. “Have you accepted Christ into your life?”

“I’m still …” Adam gave a sheepish shrug. “Looking, you know? Trying to find the right church. Which one do you belong to?”

“Our Holy Savior in Battle Ground. It’s a very old church. Small, but old.”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of it. Maybe I’ll check it out. How does it feel about … ?” He squirmed. “I’ve got this problem. More of a question, really, and I’m having a hard time finding the right answer from the churches I’ve tried.” He glanced sharply at me. “Don’t give me that look.”

I wasn’t giving him any look, but I rolled my eyes on cue, murmuring, “Not this again.”

“It’s bugging me, okay?” He turned back to Carol. “I’ve got this good friend who’s been dating this girl and she’s into … stuff. Occult stuff.”

“Occult?” Carol’s eyes widened.

“It’s not occult,” I said. “I keep telling you it’s—”

“Witchcraft, I know. She says she’s a witch.”

Carol frowned. “Wiccan?”

“No, this one says she’s a real witch.”

Carol looked genuinely confused. “You don’t mean devil worship, do you?”

“It is Wiccan,” I said. “A branch of it anyway. And I keep telling him it’s not occult; it’s an earth-based religion.”

“I don’t think I’d call it a religion myself,” Carol said slowly. “But if they do, then maybe …”

“What does your church say about stuff like that?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know. I’d have to ask. Personally, I don’t agree with it.”

“See?” Adam said to me.

“She said she doesn’t agree with it. She didn’t say she thinks ‘something should be done about those people.’”

“I was kidding.”

“No, you weren’t.”

“I’d had a few beers.”

“So which was it? You were drunk or you were kidding?”

As we faced off, Carol said timidly, “I might not agree with it, but the Bible teaches us to respect the customs of others.”

“No, the Bible says ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’” Adam said. “It’s right there in black and white.”

“I can’t believe the Bible would say …” She stopped herself and nodded. “No, our pastor does teach us that the Bible includes passages that have been misinterpreted. The teachings of Christ are clear. We must respect others, even if we disagree with them. That’s what my pastor said about homosexuals. I might not agree with their choices, but Christ would want me to treat them the way I want to be treated. I think he’d say the same about witches.”

“We’d like to ask you a few questions about Brandi,” I said.

If there was one word to describe Carol Degas, it was vague. Not evasive, just, well, not entirely present. It was as if all those bottles of whiskey had washed away both her personality and her memory, and she was just struggling to hold on, clinging to her new religion with a death grip.

She could talk about Christ, and that’s really all she could talk about. Seemed to know him better than the daughter she’d lived with for twenty-five years.

“I wasn’t a good mother,” she said, finally. “I know that and I accept my share of the blame, but it’s like Pastor Williams says—no one is entirely responsible for another person, even a child. They grow as they will. Look at Ginny Thompson. Paula is a fine woman. She might not be a churchgoing Christian, but she’s a Christian at heart. Look at how her daughter turned out, in spite of that. I do feel guilty about Brandi, though. The dreams prove that, Pastor Williams says.”

“Okay, so about that night—”

“The dreams prove that,” she continued, as if I hadn’t spoken.

Personally, I had no interest in Carol Degas’s dream life, but obviously she wanted to tell me.

“I dreamed that the little girl died,” she said.

“Little girl?”

“Ginny’s daughter. I dreamed that I heard Ginny and Brandi planning to kill Kayla, so Cody would take Ginny back. They were right in this house, in the basement, gathering up supplies. I heard them, and they then left and I knew I had to do something. So I tried calling Paula. She always knows what to do. Only I couldn’t finish dialing the number. I kept trying and trying, but I couldn’t do it, and then I passed out and when I came to the little girl was dead and I cried and cried, because it was all my fault.”

She looked at me expectantly.

“Okay…” I said.

“The little girl was Brandi,” Adam said.

I turned to him. “What?”

“Subconsciously, it was Brandi. Her little girl.”

Carol nodded emphatically. “That’s exactly what Pastor Williams said. When we dream, things aren’t always as they seem. Kayla was Brandi. Brandi and Ginny represented evil in the world. They conspired to kill my little girl and I didn’t do anything to stop them. I wanted to, but I was too drunk, too …” She searched for aword. “Ineffectual. That’s what the pastor says. It proves that I felt guilty.”

“Okay …” I said.

“I even dreamed they were going to kill her in the same place where they died,” Carol leaned forward. “They were going to drug her and take her there and make it look like a pervert did it. And that’s exactly what happened to my baby, isn’t it?”

“Except for the pervert part,” I said. “There was no sign of—”

Adam nudged me to shut up, then said to Carol, “Your pastor is right. It’s your subconscious speaking. You feel guilty, but you’ve used it to turn your life around, and that’s the important thing.”

She nodded, satisfied.

I wasn’t.

Maybe that was the humane thing to do—give the old woman some peace. But I couldn’t cut her any slack. If she’d cared, she should have done something before her daughter died. If she felt guilty now, she should be out volunteering at a day care or soup kitchen, not sitting around listening to gospel music and moaning about how guilty she felt.

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