Authors: Susan Lynn Solomon
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This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and events are the work of the author’s imagination.
Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental.
Solstice Publishing - www.solsticepublishing.com
Susan Lynn Solomon
The Magic of Murder
Susan Lynn Solomon
As a girl my cousin was my sister.
As she did then, she continues to bring joy to my life
and life to my joy.
hen my nerves finally settled to the point where I could write what I learned of Jimmy Osborn’s death, this is how I began:
March in Niagara Falls. Though the calendar declared winter had neared its end, the thermometer outside the Pine Avenue Bank of America branch read nine degrees. On this mid-March Wednesday night, a new Corvette turned into an alley north of Pine Avenue. Houses lining the alley were old structures in an older section of town. Most were
abandoned, boarded-up, and would never again be occupied.
Packed snow crunched under the tires as the Corvette skidded in and out of ruts at five miles an hour.
At the far end of the alley sat a dilapidated barn, the slats of its walls so shrunken with age streetlamps along the roads on either side shone through. Halfway to the barn, the driver pulled into a garage with a sagging roof. No birds chirped their night song at this time of year, so the only sound was a click when the car door opened. Seconds later, Jimmy Osborn emerged.
Osborn wore a brown leather coat over jeans and a blue and white sweater. His brown beard was neatly trimmed. The scent of his cologne almost covered the mildew stench of the garage’s soaked and rotting wood. In his gloved hand was a bottle of scotch in a brown paper bag. As his breath misted in the cold moonlight, he glanced quickly around before he trudged through snow drifts toward the rear door of a nearby house. The door was sealed by two loose one-by-six slats. Osborn shoved the bag into his coat pocket and pried the boards apart. There was a low, creaking groan when the nails gave. Then the alley was again silent.
As he began to slip between the boards, he stopped, listened. A crack of footfalls in the frozen snow came from the shadows to his left.
“That you?” he asked. There was no need to whisper. He’d chosen this place because it was deserted.
A figure an inch or two shorter than Osborn edged along the broken fence of the house next door. The figure wore a black ski jacket zipped over a black hooded sweatshirt. In the shadow cast by the hood, the figure seemed to have no face. If somebody had peeked through a window, this figure might look like a wraith—a dark spirit.
Osborn moved close, and peered into the hood. This wasn’t the person he expected to meet. “What the hell…?” he said.
The figure raised a Glock .45, and hissed words heard only by the howling wind.
Osborn’s breath escaped as a gasp when a shot caught him in the chest with such force it slammed him to the ground.
The pistol held in both hands, the figure stepped toward its prostrate victim and stood over him.
A dark stain spread on the snow under Osborn. He tried to raise his head. “Why?” His life tiptoeing away, he had no strength to say more.
A second shot split Osborn’s heart. Now the figure’s face relaxed and the fire dimmed in its eyes. With casual ease, the Glock pumped six more rounds into Osborn’s chest.
On its knees, the hooded figure dug into Osborn’s coat pocket, pulled out the liquor bottle and heaved it at the garage. The figure then slipped a hand deep into the pocket, and came out with the Corvette’s keys clutched in its fist.
Minutes later the car backed from the garage, retraced its tire-tracks to Pine Avenue, and drove twenty blocks to Flannery’s Bar. It was there Jimmy Osborn had started his night, bragging about the special liaison he had planned. It was there the Corvette was found the next morning.
Details of Jimmy Osborn’s murder didn’t appear in the
the next day. They weren’t in the
following editions, either. It was more than a week before I learned why he died. When I did, I felt as though I’d been struck in the chest by the bullet that took my friend Jimmy down.
As might be suspected, I’ve taken a few liberties in
describing what happened. Though the basic facts are
precisely as the killer subsequently related them to
Detective Roger Frey, I’ve dramatized them a bit. I won’t apologize for that. It’s what I do.
I’m Emlyn Goode, a writer—short stories mostly, with a few essays thrown in and an occasional poem when the muse elbows me in that direction. Emlyn is an old family name. The Goode part…as I learned several months before Jimmy died, the moniker doesn’t describe every leaf on my family tree.
So, a fallen leaf is what got me embroiled in the murder. And since a new friend, Rebecca Nurse, pulled me out of the hole into which I dug myself, I should begin by explaining why and how she and I met, and how I learned of the special…uh, talent running in my genes.
ate on an evening the December before Jimmy Osborn was killed, I sat hunched over my computer in a corner of the living room of my Niagara Falls home. I had the thermostat turned down to a chilly sixty-two degrees. The room was lit by a single low-wattage bulb, which caused shadows to crawl across the walls. I desired that
atmosphere. It matched the story I was working on
. Wrapped in a heavy sweater, I let my imagination wander though a dark landscape in which my heroine, beaten and beset by a man she’d been sold to, escapes into the mist of a New
England swamp. I typed:
Hands blistered from oars
twisting with each stroke, she rows her small boat beneath bent tree limbs. In the dark, glaring at her are the eyes of snakes, and—
Hmmm. What other creatures, slithering along the bank, cackling in lairs and behind trees would frighten Sarah (Sarah was my heroine’s name)? I made a note to research that and then turned my attention back to the computer screen.
After what she feels are hours of rowing, Sarah comes upon a small island where she—
Stuck again. What would a woman alone on an island in a northern swamp do? What would she eat? How would she wreak vengeance on the fiend who’d maltreated her? Alone. In the winter. On an island in the—
Of course! Sarah would be a witch.
Quickly, I scrolled up the pages and deleted my story’s title. In its place I typed,
The Swamp Witch
. Then I stripped the heavy coat from Sarah’s frail body, and replaced it with
the thin rags my villain made her wear. I turned the thermostat up to seventy-three degrees. My story would
take place in the spring. Sarah would plant a garden filled with vegetables. Herbs, spices—she’d know how to mix them together while whispering an incantation. From her pot—a cast iron
cauldron—her spell would rise, float across the damp ground, and—
But what herbs would have to be mixed together?
What words would shoot her spell like arrows into the heart of her tormentor? For my story to ring true, I had to know these things. More than that, I had to touch them, smell them.
I swiveled in my chair to face the bookcases lining the wall next to my sofa. Hundreds of volumes, some reference works, some novels, were piled haphazardly on the shelves. None of them was a witchcraft instruction manual. At least, I didn’t think I’d ever bought such a book.
I stretched, rolled my neck to loosen muscles that were tight after hours of typing, and rose to inspect what was printed on the spines of my books. I was right: none of them would help.
I sighed, returned to my computer, and logged onto the internet. These days the knowledge of the world is stored at one website or another. Still, an hour of surfing produced little but advertisements by women with Eastern European names, who would read tarot cards or my palm for twenty dollars. Just when I was ready to give up and assign my heroine a less complicated role, my finger cramped on the mouse. The involuntary tic caused me to click on the site of a shop advertising it had what I needed in stock. It was fifty miles south of my home, an hour by car. Still, if fate suggested I travel there, who was I to argue?
I turned off my computer. Tomorrow I would make an excursion to an arcane bookstore down an alley off a side street in Ellicottville.
The shop was everything
promised it would be:
The Black Cat
in filigree gold letters on the window, double doors with weathered brown and black paint, and the head of a bat for a doorknob. As soon as I stepped through the door, my nose twitched from the sweet smell of incense. A glance to right showed me rows of shelves crammed with books titled
Hebalism for Life
Wicca for the Lone Practitioner
, and the like. On the wall to the left was a framed poster from the vintage film,
Bell, Book and Candle
. Next to the poster, I saw a row of jars labeled Frankincense, Sandalwood, Orris Root. Others had names I recognized: Clove, Cumin Seed, Cinnamon—I had those at home. In front of the shelves, glass display cases held glittering trinkets.
I pulled back my hair so it wouldn’t fall across my eyes when I bent to examine a jeweled spider. Not that I like spiders—at least not the live kind. But this was a pretty collar pin. I pictured myself wearing it when I went on a date, if I ever did again.
“That’s a nice piece,” the woman behind the counter said.
“Not too expensive.” She pulled the spider from the case, rubbed it on her sleeve, and laid it front of me on a velvet cloth.
While I examined the price tag, a cat, as round as a snowman’s head and just as white, paraded past. Before disappearing behind a bookcase, it stopped, turned its face, and stared at me. I stared back. The cat’s irises were pink, and so light they almost weren’t there. I’d never before seen an albino cat. After a minute, it snorted and raised its tail. It swayed its rear end and strutted off.
“Elvira likes you,” the woman said.
I glanced over to where the cat had been, then back at the woman. She was taller than I—about five feet ten or so—and her salt and pepper hair dropped to her waist in tight curls. She wore a long cotton vest over a ribbed turtleneck sweater. Smiling at her, I asked how she could tell.
“Most people who come in here,” she said, “Elvira sniffs at them once then doesn’t give them a second look.” She leaned past me to peer at the row of bookcases.
When I followed her eyes, I saw a white head peek around a corner. The pink eyes seemed to be focused on my chest. More, I felt as though the cat was able to see through my clothes, past my flesh, and into my soul. Goosebumps popped up on my arms. I shivered, and shifted my attention back to the woman.
“I…uh, I came in to find a book about…um…”
My face felt warm. Why was I embarrassed to tell the
woman I wanted to read about witchcraft? That’s what
“The Black Cat” was about. Why else would I have come to her shop? It’s not as though it were illegal.
The woman nodded at the cat, as if it had spoken to her. “You might be right,” she said.
“Sorry. I was thinking out loud. I do that, sometimes.”
Her smile didn’t at all look apologetic. “What’s your
name?” she asked, staring at me in the same way the cat had.
As if I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t, my face again got hot. “Does it matter?”
I took a step toward the door and pulled my car keys from my purse. Coming to this shop had been a bad idea. Maybe writing
The Swamp Witch
was a bad idea. I decided to delete it from my computer as soon as I got home.
The woman reached across the counter and touched my arm—a gentle touch, yet it held me in place. “No, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s just that sometimes a name gives me an idea of the best book to recommend.” She looked at the cat, as if seeking its approval.
The woman, the cat: the relationship was positively weird. I don’t know why I didn’t leave right then. The only reason I can think of is that the two of them froze me with their eyes. Well, that’s how I felt, and it left me unable to move. “Uh, Emlyn,” I said, sounding as though I were not at all certain that’s who I was. “My name’s Emlyn.”
I forced a smile. “Emlyn Goode—I’m a writer. Maybe you’ve heard of me?” I rushed on, “I’m researching a story. About―” This was getting way out-of-hand. I actually whispered, “—a witch.”
She didn’t seem to hear. She glanced down at the cat that now squatted beside me and rubbed its head against my leg. “Goode?” the woman said. “Emlyn…”
I stiffened, resisting an impulse to brush at the white hairs I was certain had clung to my black wool slacks.
The shopkeeper peered down an aisle between two bookcases. After a minute, she stuck out her hand. “I’m Rebecca Nurse.”
She leaned back against the wall, head tilted as if she expected me to recognize the name.
I pulled up the sleeve of my jacket, checked my watch. “Oh, my, it’s so late,” I said. “Sorry to have taken your time. I’ll have to come back another―”
“Wait, don’t leave just yet,” Ms. Nurse said. “I believe I have what you’re looking for.”
She took my arm. Followed by the cat, she led me down a narrow aisle. At the end, in the very back of the shop, she brushed aside sprigs of dried herbs hung from the hammered tin ceiling. She ran her hand across several volumes on the highest shelf. When she touched the spine of one lying flat on top of the bookcase, she said, “Ah, yes,” and rose to her toes to take it down.
Not thick, the book appeared to be rather old. Hidden behind the sprigs of herbs, I thought it might have been forgotten by everyone but the shopkeeper. With both hands, she held out the book.
The dust jacket was so faded I could hardly make out the title. I opened the book to the first page.
Salem 1692—The Witch Trials
was printed in thick block letters.
Her head cocked, with the slightest smile on her full lips, Rebecca Nurse said. “This is the very thing you need, I think.”
Leaning against my leg, Elvira looked up at me and rubbed a paw across her eyes. It seemed as though the cat also couldn’t believe I’d be interested in that book. I nearly laughed at the thought—if I wasn’t careful, I might wind up talking to this animal the way the shopkeeper did.
I tried to hand the book back. “I don’t think so. I’m looking for―”
“Take it,” Ms. Nurse said. “You’ll find something in there you need to know.” With a flip of her long graying hair, she turned from me and headed to another counter at the front of the shop.
“Thank you, but I really don’t want this,” I said, trying again to hand her the book when I caught up. “What I want is―”
“Yes, I understand,” she said. As if she’d been waiting for me and had them ready, she lifted a pair of soft-covered
books from beneath the counter. “These have the
information you came in for.” She laid them side-by-side.
On a shelf behind her was a row of knives with runes etched into their blades. Next to those was a glass jar filled with clear liquid in which something that looked like a dead bat floated.
I cringed, forced my eyes from the jar, and focused on
the covers of the books:
Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic
. Both were by
somebody named Scott Cunningham. This was better. I reached in my purse for my wallet. “I’ll take these.”
She pulled a plain brown shopping bag from beneath the counter and dropped the books into it. On top of those
she placed her business card and a handful of advertisements for local restaurants and the Ellicottville
Jazz Festival. Because I was warily watching the bat float in the jar, and wondering what on earth someone might use it for, it wasn’t until I arrived home that I realized the book about the Salem witches was also in the bag.
Rebecca Nurse had made a mistake, I decided. I gathered up her card so I could call and tell her I had her book. When I turned the card over, I saw a note written in a sprawled script.
Elvira wants you to have this,
I live in the roomy two-story cottage my father bought when he married Mom. That is, the house was a cottage until Dad, a carpenter by trade, knocked out walls, expanded the kitchen, and added a room or two. The ground floor living room in which I do my work, and most everything else, is one of those add-ons. It has French doors which open on the field out back that runs to a line of beech, maple, and birch trees. Beyond the trees is the Niagara River. My living room is a marvelous place from which to watch the seasons change and is a comfortable place to read. I’ve arranged the room so my favorite chair, plush and oversized, sits next to my book cases and faces the field. A week after my trip to Ellicottville, I was settled in my chair with the book about herbalism on my lap along with a yellow pad on which I’d made several bulleted notes. The other two volumes were stacked on the lamp table beside me. I reread what I’d written:
Sarah needs protection against the evil chasing her.
An amulet. White cotton, 7” square, tied by red silk thread.
Basil, dill, fennel, rosemary, tarragon.
I knew those herbs, had each of them in my spice
Wonder what would happen if I try out this
I thought, and laughed at the idea.
As evening approached, a stiff wind, harbinger of a lake-effect snowfall, rustled the tree branches in my yard and the azalea bushes on either side of the terrace. I switched on the light, made another note on the pad, then settled back to watch the sun disappear behind the trees.