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Witches' Stitches by David Holland

© David Holland

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One




The last Tuesday evening in late October. Four days before Halloween. The town was already decorated with jack-o’-lanterns and plastic broomsticks and cardboard cut-outs of skeletons and ghosts. When Lex Dryden got home from the bookshop he found out that somebody who didn’t like him very much had nailed a dead cat to his front door. Then again, maybe they liked him fine and they were just not very fond of cats.

Either way, it was bad news for the cat. Somebody had left it hanging in the middle of his front door with a six-inch nail through its neck, and judging by the claw marks on the wood the cat had still been alive for at least part of the process. There was a crust of what looked like dried spittle or vomit around the cat’s mouth, with flecks of the same stuff sprayed against the door. A trail of congealed blood was smeared across the woodwork, ending in what looked like a handprint. Messy work.

It was a black cat. He supposed it had to be. A run-of-the-mill ginger moggie just wouldn’t have had the same sort of impact: that sense of slightly spooky Halloween weirdness that using a black cat gave to the scene. To add to the effect, whoever had killed the cat had drawn a crude pentagram around the animal’s body in its own blood, giving the whole thing the look of some sort of satanic ritual killing. And it looked like they’d left a note: he could make out a scrap of flimsy paper nailed to the door behind the cat. It looked like a cigarette paper. The nail went through the cat’s neck then through the piece of paper and into the door, and on the visible edge of the paper he could see some words scrawled in ragged handwriting in what looked like red felt-tip pen. The words said: Stay away from. It wasn’t exactly clear yet who he was supposed to stay away from, because the rest of the message was hidden behind the cat.

Even so, he was enough of a detective to recognise a warning when he saw one. Although it would have probably made a more effective warning if it had actually been his cat. He closed his eyes for a moment and said aloud, “The forces of evil are at work in Tene.” Then he glanced around in slight embarrassment as if there might have been somebody listening. Which there wasn’t. One disadvantage of living half a mile away from the nearest neighbours was that people could commit noisy moggie murders right outside his front door without anybody overhearing them. He supposed it was a small price to pay for the peace and quiet.

He unlocked the front door and edged himself into the house sideways, trying to stay clear of the clots and splatters of blood on the door frame. He didn’t want to jar the dead cat loose from its nail and have to watch the poor mangled thing sliding down to the ground leaving a trail of blood and cat shit behind it. What he did want was to see what the rest of the message on that scrap of paper said. Who was he supposed to stay away from? And why?

He made it inside without the cat going splat, but he threw up anyway, although at least he made it to the loo in time. He went into the kitchen and took out a bucket and a couple of rags and some mouldy-looking rubber gloves from the cupboard under the sink. Then he got a pair of pliers out of the junk drawer and went back to the front door, thinking that actually it was a good thing he’d thrown up already because the next bit was going to be messy. He wrenched the nail through the cat’s neck and out of the door with a feeling like his stomach was trying to turn itself inside out. The scrap of paper fluttered tantalisingly to the ground while he struggled to cram the poor mangled moggie into the bucket. It was starting to go stiff now, and he had to break some bones.

With the cat eventually all but folded in half inside the bucket, he was free to take his rubber gloves off and look at the rest of the message. The paper was flimsy; definitely a cigarette paper. The message said: Stay away from Cassandra Tate. That was all it said, so he put it back down again and put the rubber gloves back on and went to bury the cat behind the house. He put a couple of big stones over the grave to keep the foxes away. It took him five buckets of soapy water to get all the blood and guts and the ominous pentagram off the front door, and that was the cleaning done for the day. Housework had never really been his thing anyway. Afterwards he looked at the message again, and still all it said was: Stay away from Cassandra Tate. No politely-added Please or Thank you, no effort at explaining exactly why he was supposed to stay away from Cassandra Tate, whoever she was, and definitely no signature.

He dumped about a third of a bottle of Chilean plonk into the biggest glass he could find and took it into the living room. He sat down wearily on the sofa and wondered who he might have annoyed enough lately to make them want to nail a dead cat to his front door. The list was longer than he could think about without starting to feel depressed. He might only be a small-town private detective, and only a part-time one at that because he had to run a second-hand bookshop as well to provide himself with any kind of a regular income, but even so he did seem to manage to accumulate more than his fair share of enemies. He stretched his feet out on the sofa and wondered whether the dead cat was the work of an old enemy come back to haunt him or a new enemy who he hadn’t even met yet. The only thing he knew for certain was what the words on the scrap of cigarette paper said, and they didn’t tell him much at all. Except to stay away from Cassandra Tate, which was a request that at the moment he was happy to comply with.

He ate some leftover chilli and watched some television, and finished off the bottle of wine and went to bed and tried to forget about it all: about the dead cat and the threatening message to stay away from the woman he’d never even heard of. He almost did manage to forget, apart from waking up at about two o’clock in the morning from a strange and vivid dream in which he was being chased around town by a forty-foot-tall cartoon cat with a nailgun. And the Freudian implications of that one were a subject he really didn’t want to have to think about.







Two




He woke up with the taste of last night’s wine still in his mouth, and with his brain maybe still slightly fuzzy too since he seemed to have convinced himself during the night that the thing with the dead cat really had been just a dream. He went outside and had a look at the nail hole in the front door and the specks of crusted feline blood that still marked the wood here and there, and that seemed to pretty much settle the matter. Not a dream.

He shrugged and went back inside to get ready for work. He put on jeans and a clean shirt and his trusty running shoes, operating pretty much on autopilot while the rest of his mind occupied itself with yet another rerun of the previous evening’s events. The running shoes were just in case a dangerous new private detective job came up during the day and he ended up having to chase a bad guy. You never knew: it could happen. He had the usual moment of dread when he turned the key in his ancient blue Ford Focus that all he was going to hear was the grinding cough of an old car about to die. But after a couple of seconds the engine fired, so it looked like he might just make it through another day without needing any major repairs. By nine o’clock he was at the bookshop.

Knott Just Books was about halfway up Tene High Street, on your right as you walked up the hill. It was a steep hill. The shop was in-between Brenda’s Bakery and Oxfam, which meant that if you were of a mind to you could pick up a loaf of bread and a pair of somebody else’s cast-off trousers and a couple of second-hand books in ten minutes flat. You could also hire a private detective: Alexander Dryden. Lex or Alex to friends, and never Al or Xander to anyone.

There wasn’t exactly a surplus of work in the private detective line in a quiet little town like Tene, which was why Lex usually only got to do it part-time. He also had a part stake in the bookshop as a way of trying to make ends meet when he wasn’t busy privately detecting. Which was most of the time.

The majority shareholder in the bookshop was Uncle Sid. Sidney Knott, Esq. Sid was Lex’s mother’s older brother and his only surviving close relative. He was a retired civil servant, although he tended to be slightly vague about exactly which part of the civil service it was that he was retired from. He had dark hair flecked with grey, and a hawk nose and a line in penetrating stares that could make you feel like the backs of your eyeballs had just been drilled by a laser. Somehow he didn’t seem like the sort of man you’d expect to find running a second hand bookshop in a place like Tene. Then again, Lex probably didn’t either.

By the time he got to the shop Uncle Sid had already opened up for business. Sid was sitting behind the counter in his antique mahogany swivel chair with its battle-scarred green leather upholstery. He had the chair tilted back and his feet up on the counter next to the cash register, with a copy of The Times folded over to the half-completed crossword in his lap. He glanced up and nodded when Lex walked in, then turned his attention back to the crossword. After a moment he frowned and looked at Lex again. “Morning, Lex. Is that blood on your shoes?”

Lex looked down and saw the crusting of dried blood around the edges of his soles for the first time. “Shit.”

“Looks more like blood to me.”

“Very funny.”

“Must have been an exciting evening.”

“Coffee first,” said Lex. “Then I’ll tell you about it.”

He filled up the coffee machine in the office-cum-storeroom at the back of the shop. It looked like Sid had bought the expensive organic blend from Don’s Delicatessen again. When it was Lex’s turn to buy they usually ended up with the supermarket’s own brand, but if Sid wanted to fork out for the good stuff then that was his decision. Lex got two mugs out ready for the coffee and plugged the machine in and left it to do its thing, then he went back into the shop and said, “I had an interesting night last night.”

“Do you mean the sort of interesting night that involves an actual living and breathing and paying client, or was it just another of those evil criminals out to wreak havoc in your life kind of things?”

“Evil wreaking of havoc seems to pretty much cover it. Somebody nailed a dead cat to my front door.”

Sid grimaced. “Are you sure it was you they were trying to wreak havoc on and not just the cat?”

“It’s usually me.”

“True enough. And it’d be quite a coincidence, wouldn’t it, if some deranged cat murderer just happened to pick your front door at random when they had a dead moggie they wanted to dispose of somewhere?”

“Way too much of a coincidence,” said Lex. “Even for me.”

“Any idea whose cat it was?”

“Nope. But it was stuck in the middle of a pentagram painted in its own blood, and it sure as heck didn’t end up there all by itself.”

“Sounds like somebody was trying to send you a message.”

“They did send me a message. It was nailed to the door with the cat. Apparently somebody wants me to stay away from somebody called Cassandra Tate.”

“And she is?”

“I’ve got no idea.”

“The plot thickens,” said Sid.

Lex sighed. “The plot looks pretty much congealed from where I’m standing.”

He went to see if the coffee was ready. The machine was still chuffing away asthmatically, but it looked like there was just about enough strong black stuff gently bubbling in the bottom of the jug. He filled the mugs and added milk, plus the usual two spoonfuls of sugar for Uncle Sid. Lex had never quite seen the point of it himself: buying the most expensive coffee in town and then ruining it with sugar.

He took the steaming mugs back into the shop and handed Sid his drink. Sid took a sip and said, “Seems like jumping the gun a bit, don’t you think? Trying to warn you to stay away from someone you’ve never even heard of?”

“If I was in middle management I’d probably say they were being proactive.”

“If you were in middle management you’d need therapy.”

“At least people wouldn’t be nailing dead cats to my front door.”

“Shows how much you know about middle management.” Sid chuckled, slopping coffee dangerously near to the rim of his mug. “Whichever way you look at this thing, though, it looks like trouble.”

“Yes. But trouble, as I think somebody said in an old black-and-white movie once, is my business.”

“No,” said Sid. “Selling second-hand books is your business. Trouble is your hobby.” He idly picked a book up off the counter and glanced at the spine. It was a slightly tatty leather-bound volume. Lex couldn’t see the title. Sid put the book back down again and said quietly, “Of course, you could take the warning at face value and do what they say. You don’t always have to rise to the challenge, and that thing with the dead cat sounds pretty serious to me.”

Lex drank the last of his coffee. “Feels like I ought to do something though. Even if only because there’s a family out there somewhere this morning wondering what happened to their pet cat.”

“So put an advert in the lost and found.”

“Sid, you’re a saint.”

The little brass bell over the bookshop door played its tuneless song, and they both turned to watch a customer walk in: a girl of perhaps sixteen or seventeen, wearing a black dress with leggings beneath, with a silver pendant around her neck and a black handbag slung over her right shoulder. She had jet black hair almost down to her waist and skin so white that she looked like she might melt if you left her out in the sun too long. She reminded Lex of Waterhouse’s painting of The Lady of Shallot, except reworked into a gothic album cover.

The Lady of Shallot walked up to the counter, looking like she wanted to turn and run. “I’m looking for Alexander Dryden.”

“That’s me.”

The girl glanced at Sid for a moment, then back at Lex. “Is there somewhere private?”

Sid waved towards the back of the shop. “Go ahead, use the office. I’ll watch the shop.” He beamed at the girl. “Cassandra Tate, I assume?”

The girl said, “No.”











Three




“That’s a shame,” said Uncle Sid. “It would have been a dramatic entrance.”

The girl in the black dress said nothing. She just stood there looking alone and mysterious, and very young and perhaps slightly confused.

Lex showed her the way to the office at the back of the shop. It was actually half office and half storeroom and half kitchen, which admittedly made three halves but he was too preoccupied to count. There was a battered desk in the corner, plus a couple of wooden chairs that were usually piled high with books and magazines that Sid and Lex couldn’t find room for anywhere else. He cleared a stack of garishly-covered science fiction novels off the customer chair so the girl could sit down.

Lex took his own seat behind the desk and reached for a pen and notepad. “What can I do for you?”

The girl looked at him sceptically: a look which suggested that she didn’t think there was much he could do for her at all. She took one of his business cards out of her handbag and showed it to him. “Tene Valley Investigations?”

He gave the card back to her. It wasn’t like he needed it: he had a whole box of them on the shelf behind him. He said, “That’s me.”

She folded her arms and gave him a look that seemed to say: You’ve got to be kidding.

Looking around at the state of the place, he could see what she meant. He said, “The office might not look like much, but we always get our man.”

“I thought that was the Mounties.”

“Yes, but they haven’t got an office in Tene.”

The girl smiled in spite of herself, but she still didn’t seem inclined to start talking. She picked up one of the science fiction novels off the floor and glanced at the cover.

Lex said, “Anything you say in here is completely confidential.”

The girl said nothing.

He tried again. “You made the effort of coming this far. You might as well give it a try.”

The girl stared at him for a long silent moment. Then she seemed to make up her mind. “My name is Isobel Tate.”

She paused. He said nothing.

“Cassandra Tate is my mother.”

“Ah.”

She gave him her sceptical look again. “Ah?”

He nodded. “That’s what us private detectives say when there’s a possible breakthrough in a case: Ah. Or sometimes Ahah! But only if it’s a really big breakthrough.” He wrote the names down on his notepad. “What can I do for you, Miss Tate?”

“Isobel.”

“Okay: Isobel.”

The girl fidgeted slightly in her chair. “Why did the other man out in the shop ask me if I was my mother?”

“Uncle Sid’s just got a taste for the big dramatic moment.”

“Yes, but why was he expecting me to be my mother?” Her tone was understandably suspicious.

Lex considered how much to tell her, and decided that if he was going to expect her to play a fair game with him then he would have to play a fair game with her too. He said, “We were talking about your mother just before you arrived.”

“Why?”

“Because last night somebody nailed a dead cat to my front door.”

She made the sort of Yeeuck face that only teenagers can make without looking hopelessly uncool. “That’s sick.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Isobel Tate was thinking it through. “So what’s that got to do with my mother?”

“The person who killed the cat left a note telling me to stay away from your mother. It was the first time I’d ever heard her name.”

Isobel Tate said, “Shit.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Serious shit.”

She seemed genuinely surprised to hear about the dead cat. But it was always possible that she was just an excellent liar. He said as gently as possible, “Do you or your mother own a black cat?”

She blinked. “Yes. He’s called Smudge.”

“Has Smudge gone missing recently?”

“He was fine when I fed him this morning.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“You don’t think somebody might try to do something to Smudge, do you? Like they did to your cat?”

He didn’t mention that it actually hadn’t been his cat. He said, “I don’t know. I hope not.”

She hugged her arms around herself. “This is creepy.”

“Very. Somebody seemed to know that either you or your mother was going to come to see me today, and they don’t seem to have been very happy with the idea.”

She didn’t reply.

He said, “Do you have any idea who that might be? Or why they tried to warn me off?”

She stared down at the floor for a long moment, almost as if pausing for breath before she took the final plunge. Then she said, “Somebody has been making threats against my mother.”

Which was pretty much the sort of thing he’d been expecting her to say. What with him being a private detective and everything. He tried to keep his tone of voice reassuring. “What kind of threats?”

“Death threats.”

“That’s a scary thing to have to deal with.”

She replied simply, “Yes.”

He looked down at his notepad. All he had written down on it so far were two names: Cassandra Tate and Isobel Tate. It wasn’t a lot to go on. He said, “How old are you, Isobel?”

“I’m eighteen.” She held her chin up with a hint of defiance as she said it.

He didn’t believe her, but he let it pass for the moment. “Does your mother know about you coming here to see me?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t she come herself?”

“She thought it was a waste of time.”

“But she let you come anyway?”

The girl chewed on her bottom lip for a moment. “I didn’t give her much choice.”

“How so?”

“I told her it was either this or I’d go to the police.”

“And she didn’t want you to go to the police?”

“She didn’t want me to come here either.”

“So she chose the lesser of the two evils?”

“Something like that.” She took another half-contemptuous look around at the office.

Lex said, “Does your father have any part to play in this?”

“My father died before I was born.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s not like I ever met him.” She didn’t look particularly upset by the loss.

“Tell me about these threats against your mother.”

Isobel Tate went quiet. Her shoulders hunched slightly. She stared at the floor again.

Lex said, “If I’m going to be able to help you, you’re going to have to tell me everything you know.”

Without looking up, she said, “You need to talk to her about it.”

“Do you think she’ll be willing to talk to me?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you want me to try to help anyway?”

“Yes.”

“Even though your mother might not want me to?”

“Yes.”

“Some people find it hard to ask for help.”

“I’m asking you now.”

He nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

Isobel Tate glanced towards the office door. Lex wasn’t sure if she was getting ready to leave or if she was checking to make sure that nobody could overhear them. When she spoke again it was in a voice that seemed partly proud and partly defensive, as if she was suddenly more uncertain how he would react. She said, “There’s something else you need to know.”

“About you?”

“About my mother.”

“Like I told you: everything you say in here is confidential.”

Isobel Tate took a deep breath and looked him directly in the eyes. There was something of a challenge in the look.

She said, “My mother is a witch.”































Four




Did she just say her mother was a witch?

The statement hung there in the air for a moment. Actually, it was quite a long moment. Lex could have probably got up and made coffee in the time it took to work out where to go with the conversation after that revelation. Eventually he said, “I expect everyone feels that way about their mothers sometimes.”

Isobel Tate gave him a look of adolescent contempt so perfect that he wondered if maybe she practised it in front of a mirror. The kind of look that seemed to register an absolute assurance in the impossibility of meaningful communication with anyone born more than two decades ago. He absorbed the look. After all, he was supposed to be a tough guy private detective—able to stand up even to withering looks from teenage girls.

He cleared his throat with an awkward cough. “You meant that literally, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Your mother is a witch.”

“My mother is a witch.” He could see that she was watching his reaction carefully: primed with another contemptuous defensive glare, or perhaps this time to just get up and walk out.

With his voice carefully neutral he said, “And you?”

“It’s sort of the family business.” She looked him challengingly in the eye, suddenly full of bravado. “Scared yet?”

“I’ll be fine as long as you don’t try to turn me into a frog.”

She shook her head. “We don’t actually do things like that. This is reality, Alexander.”

“I was starting to wonder. And you can call me Lex.”

“You mean like Lex Luthor?”

He nodded. “But not quite so evil.”

The girl shrugged. “Real witches are healers,” she said. “Not devil-worshipping old hags.”

“The person who nailed that dead cat to my front door didn’t seem to think so. Although at least it makes the pentagram of blood that they drew around it make a bit more sense.”

“You didn’t say anything about any pentagrams of blood.”

“I didn’t think it had any particular significance.”

She sighed at his apparent ignorance. Nobody does an exasperated sigh better than a teenage girl. “It’s significant. You’re talking about a sort of five-pointed star, right?” She traced a symbol in the air with one finger.

“Yes.”

“It’s called a pentacle, not a pentagram. It represents the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Plus the fifth element of spirit, which balances and controls the others. It’s a powerful magical symbol.”

He was fairly certain she hadn’t learnt that one in A-Level chemistry. “You mean somebody was trying to cast a spell on me?”

She looked at him like he was a thick kid from school who needed help with his homework. “Lex, you found a dead cat nailed to your front door with a pentacle drawn around it in its own blood and a message to stay away from my mother. What do you think?”

He gave in. “I think somebody was trying to cast a spell on me.”

Her expression seemed slightly less wary of him now. Maybe she was starting to believe that he really was on her side. Perhaps by trying to take all this talk of magic and witchcraft seriously he’d passed some sort of toleration-of-alternative-belief-systems test.

Lex said, “So these threats against your mother are related to the fact that she’s a witch?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“How so?”

“Well, for one thing somebody left a dozen flaming crosses on our garden path with a note saying Burn Witch Burn.” She said it almost matter-of-factly.

“I’m surprised that one didn’t make the papers.”

“They were very small crosses.” She held a hand out with her thumb and index finger spread about four inches apart. “Like the ones you get for poppy day.”

And here was he with visions of eight-foot-tall crucifixes blazing in the night. Peasants with flaming torches. Oh, well: back to reality. “Even so, it must have been a shock.”

She shrugged. “It wasn’t like it was something with any real power in it. I mean, burning crosses, isn’t that some sort of a Christian thing?” She said the word Christian with a hint of contempt. “It’s the other threats that came afterwards that were the really scary ones: the ones that seemed to have some actual knowledge of the craft.”

“Things like the dead cat?” he prompted.

“Worse than that.”

“Worse than a dead cat nailed to your front door?”

She gave him a solemn nod of confirmation, but she offered no more details. “Can you help us?”

“I can do what I do, which is to blunder around asking lots of questions and generally pissing people off.”

“I bet you’re good at that.”

“The best.”

“So you’ll go and talk to my mother?”

“I’ll go and talk to her.”

“Tonight?”

“Tonight’s fine by me.”

She shifted in her chair slightly, as if she wanted to get up and leave but there was something holding her back. She said, “There’s something else I need to tell you.”

“The more the better.”

She carefully arranged her features into a look of almost perfect innocence: eyes wide, head tilted slightly downwards to look up at him through her eyelashes, hands folded demurely in her lap. Beautifully done. She stage-whispered, “I haven’t been completely honest.”

“Nobody ever is.”

She turned up the voltage on the look of innocence, as if she was unsure if it was working. “I’m not eighteen. I’m sixteen.”

“I’d sort of guessed that.”

“Is it a problem?”

“No.” It wasn’t a problem professionally, since she wasn’t trying to hire him on her own behalf. She was just asking him to go to talk to her mother. And it wasn’t a personal problem either. He was forty years old, for god’s sake. But as for her mother: this mysterious witch called Cassandra Tate that somebody was so desperate to warn him away from. How old might she be? In her mid-to-late thirties if she’d been a teenager herself when she’d had Isobel? It offered some interesting possibilities, if you chose to overlook the fact that she was a witch.

He told Isobel, “If your mother decides she wants my help then I’ll be working for her. Your age doesn’t matter.”

The little-miss-innocent look faded and was replaced by something that seemed closer to a smile of satisfaction. She said quietly, “Good.”

And that was that. Except that actually Isobel’s little white lie about her age had bothered him more than he wanted to let her know. Clients always lied: it was one of the first things they taught you in private detective school. Usually it was just to try to hide some deeply embarrassing secret that they didn’t want you to find out about. But Isobel’s lie about her age was making him wonder: if she was so casually willing to mislead him about that one almost insignificant fact, how much of the rest of her story would turn out to be a fabrication too?

It turned out that pretty much all of it was.






Five




Uncle Sid watched as Lex showed Isobel Tate out of the shop. He had been working on his crossword while they were in the office and now it lay completed on the counter beside him. The radio was playing quietly while Sid leafed through a pile of green paperback Maigrets, checking that all the pages were intact before pencilling prices inside their front covers ready to be shelved. He said, “Did you get the job?”

Lex stretched his arms out to relieve the tension of the interview in his shoulders. “Looks like it: that girl was Isobel Tate.”

“Really?” Sid swivelled round in his chair and switched off the radio. “Any relation?”

“Cassandra Tate’s daughter.”

Sid turned back to him with a self-satisfied smile. “So my guess about the mystery customer’s identity wasn’t too far wrong?”

“You missed a generation, but other than that you were bang on the nose.”

“Now how about that.” Sid leaned back in his chair smugly. “So who’s the daddy now, eh?”

“Who’s the daddy?”

“Isn’t that what they say these days?”

“Only on TV. Not in Tene.”

“Oh.” Sid tossed another Maigret onto his finished pile with a look of disappointment. “I don’t know what’s wrong with this town lately. The place seems to be stuck in some sort of a time warp.”

“This from a man who drives a 1969 Jaguar E-Type? Sometimes while wearing a cravat?”

“It’s a classic look.” Sid looked slightly hurt. “Timeless sophistication.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard some of the local kids shouting when you drive past.”

“At least I get noticed, mister nondescript Ford Focus.”

“I’m a detective,” Lex pointed out. “I need an anonymous car for surveillance jobs.”

“In that case you should probably think about getting your exhaust fixed. You might draw less attention to yourself.”

Sid actually had a point there, so Lex couldn’t argue.

Sid’s mind was still on the subject of Isobel Tate. “Did the mysterious young client have any idea who your friendly neighbourhood cat murderer might have been?”

Lex shook his head. “Not a clue. But looking on the bright side, at least after today’s little visit I’ll probably be hearing from the cat killer again fairly soon. Since it looks like I’ve already managed to do exactly what the note told me not to do and get involved with Cassandra Tate.”

Uncle Sid smiled. “That’s always been your problem, Lex: you never would do what you were told.”

“I just don’t respond well to threats.” Beautiful girls with witches for mothers, that’s what he respond to.

Sid said, “Why did this Tate woman send her daughter to see you instead of coming in person?”

“It looks like Isobel made that decision on her own.”

“Determined kid.” Sid sounded impressed.

“Very. She told me that she had to threaten to go to the police to force her mother into letting her come here for help.”

“So her mother isn’t keen on getting the local constabulary involved?”

“It doesn’t look like she’s massively keen on getting me involved either.”

“Did you find out if there’s a Mr Tate involved in all of this?”

“He died before Isobel was born.”

Sid made a face like he didn’t like the taste of any of it. “What does this mysterious Cassandra Tate do for a living?”

“According to Isobel, she’s a witch.”

Sid hardly batted an eyelid. “Are you sure she didn’t say bitch and you just misheard?”

“She definitely said witch,” Lex told him. “Somebody seems to object to the idea of there being a real-life witch in town, and it looks like they’re willing to go to some extreme lengths to do something about it. Which does seem to tie in quite neatly with the cat killer telling me not to get involved.”

“Or whoever is paying the cat killer.”

“Exactly.” Lex tapped out a thoughtful rhythm on the counter top with his fingers.

“The timing’s not quite right though, is it?” said Sid.

“It’s completely back to front. If Isobel Tate had come to see me this morning, and then I’d gone home tonight and found a dead cat nailed my front door, things would make a bit more sense. That way I could just assume that somebody was following the girl and saw her coming to see me, and then decided to warn me off from getting involved.”

“Which is the kind of thing that happens to you all the time,” Sid observed dryly.

“It does seem to.”

“But how on earth did the cat killer know enough to warn you against getting involved with Cassandra Tate before you’d ever even heard her name?”

“And how did he know that Isobel was coming here to see me today?”

“You’re thinking that somebody’s got some inside information?”

“I’m trying to keep an open mind. And I’m just hoping that things will start to make a bit more sense after I talk to Cassandra herself.”

“Be careful not to fall under her spell too quickly,” said Sid. “Remember there was a time in this town when they used to execute witches on the grounds of any old ridiculous accusation.”

“Not in my lifetime. And I’m not sure even you’re old enough to remember those days first hand.”

“Very funny.”

“Anyway, what’s all the worry? I’ll make sure I take along a crucifix.”

“That’s for vampires.”

“Silver bullet?”

“Werewolves.”

“Okay,” said Lex. “So what’s the best defence against witches?”

“Traditionally,” said Sid, “they respond well to being burnt at the stake.”


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