by M.C. Tuggle
Guerilla dining. It sounded dangerous. And different. After six straight weeks of prepping clients for IRS audits, I needed both. So when Dee Landingham, a client of mine, invited me to one of her “secret suppers,” I accepted.
Dee and her staff at Savory Safari had set up their outlaw restaurant in an abandoned factory on Wrenn Street in downtown High Point, North Carolina. About 40 people, mostly artists and interior decorators connected with High Point’s furniture industry, chatted and sipped wine and wolfed down seared scallops and fried rabbit appetizers. It was a little after 9:00 PM on a Saturday in October, and the mood in the vast, antique building was mysterious and edgy. The light from the propane stoves and the drooping line of bare bulbs over the dining table cast long shadows on the rough timbers and high ceilings of what looked like a brick cave.
I squinted in the low light at someone I never would’ve imagined as a guest at a trendy event like this. High forehead, wispy brown hair that flowed over his ears, and a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand. It was Coot Pickard, all right. I chuckled at the thought that with his short-sleeve flannel shirt and shiny jeans — not to mention his authentic scruffiness — Coot fit in with this hipster crowd better than I did with my wire-rim glasses, khaki pants, and blue dress shirt. I’m sure Coot had no idea his PBR was now considered cool. Not that he would care.
Coot leaned against the brick wall, one leg bent up. The best I could tell, he was staring at a man on the opposite side of the long table that divided the factory floor. The man sat alone, and held a wine glass in his hand as he studied the guests. A briefcase lay open near the man’s feet.
I sidled up to my friend, who didn’t seem to notice me. “Hey, Coot,” I said. “What’re you doing here?”
Coot acted as if I’d shaken him awake. “Buddy Vuncannon.” He shook my hand, then nodded at the man at the table. “Hey — see that fella over there?”
“He’s an arsonist.”
“Dee told me she likes a diverse guest list.”
Coot didn’t laugh. He just kept staring. The man at the table looked our way, and Coot twisted toward me. Coot took another taste of PBR and said, “I think he’s the one that’s been setting fires at these suppers.”
I nodded, though I doubted that was the case. As Dee Landingham’s tax attorney, I’d just filed an IRS levy appeal for her business. Savory Safari was bleeding money, and Dee had told me about the two fires that put her in the red.
I hunched close to Coot. “Dee says they were accidents.”
Coot raised both eyebrows at me. He pointed toward one of the chefs in the corner, a big lady with black hair and a broad smile. She was chopping food at a table near a wooden staircase. “Remember her?”
I said, “Why, that’s Bessie Grey. She’s — grown.”
Coot nodded proudly. “Yep. My little kid cousin’s out of cookin’ school, and she got a job with Dee’s company a few weeks back.” He shuffled close, shot a conspiratorial glance over his shoulder, and said, “She’s gonna open her own catering service one a these days. But first, she’s gotta learn the business.”
“Sounds like a good plan.”
“Well, first she’s gotta stop whoever’s setting these fires. Bessie got me a pass for tonight so’s I could check things out. Something funny is going on, but when Bessie tried to tell Dee about her suspicions, she just shut her up. Didn’t want to talk about it.” He leaned his head to his left. “And that shifty fella sitting over there, gawking at everyone? Bessie says he was sneaking around at both suppers when fire broke out. And here he is tonight. What’s that tell you?”
I took a step closer, got a good look at the man’s face, and bent close to Coot. “You know who that is? He’s Thom Sholtz, the food writer for the High Point Enterprise. Bet he’s doing a review.”
Coot’s thin face scrunched up. He frowned at Sholtz, at me, then back at Sholtz. He scratched his head. “Dang.” Coot wheeled toward the corner and halted. Over his shoulder, he said, “‘Scuse me, Buddy. I need to tell Bessie about this.”
I watched him trudge toward the busy sous chefs, his head hung low. Just as I turned to refill my wine glass, Dee Landingham emerged from the crowd and marched toward me.
She put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Glad you could make it, Buddy.”
“Thanks for inviting me.”
Dee was about Coot’s height, the top of her blonde head barely reaching my chin. She cocked her head and fixed me with the pointed gaze of a bankruptcy judge, her square jaw clenched. “But where’s your plate? Have you tried the appetizers?”
“Yes, I did. The fried rabbit was delicious. Never had wine with rabbit before.”
She clasped her hands together. “See? I knew you’d love it.” She pointed to my right and said, “Just wait until you try the main course.”
I turned toward an open wood fire where two cooks stirred crackling coals and jostled racks of meat. The smoke floated up and out through a row of open skylights high above, leaving the old factory with a sweet, earthy aroma. “It smells wonderful. What is it?”
“Wild quail roasted over pecan wood. We’ll serve it with creamed collards and pan-fried peppers.”
“Can’t wait. Of course, my idea of fine dining is a craft beer with a cheeseburger.”
Dee smiled. “When I arrived here two years ago, I promised myself I was going to change the way people eat in this city.” The smile vanished. “That is, if I can get past these tax problems …” Dee shook her head, a gleam in her eye. “What are our chances with the IRS?”
“Good. I know the local appeals officer. My guess is she’ll agree to put a hold on collection if we offer to restructure … Dee?”
Dee stared past my right shoulder with a look of deepening concern. Before I could ask what was wrong, she yelled, “Stop her! Someone stop her!”
I heard a soft whomp behind me, like someone beating a rug, and I whirled around. An enormous blue-and-yellow blaze quivered over the deep fryer. Tongues of bright flame darted into the air scant inches from a wooden staircase. “Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” and a few gasps filled the room, but no one moved.
Except for one man.
Coot Pickard, gripping a steel pot the size of a footstool, plodded directly toward the fire. He groaned loud enough for the whole room to hear him as he heaved the pot onto his shoulder.
I yelled, “Coot! Don’t!”
Coot froze and looked at me with wide, uncomprehending eyes as the wobbling pot sloshed out some of its contents. The hot fryer roared, and Coot crashed backward onto a table.
A glowing white cloud flared out from the fryer and towered over the gasping crowd, followed by a spiraling fireball of yellow and black that blossomed across the ceiling and radiated smothering heat. Screams and the metallic clatter of serving pans striking the wood floor filled the air as people scampered toward the exits, toward the windows, toward each other.
Three men in blind panic charged toward us. Dee and I scampered behind a masonry column. We huddled there as people stampeded past us.
Long moments crept by. A single utensil tinkled onto the floor. It took a while for me to realize the only other sounds were the clipped shouts and moans of the crowd outside. Dee and I glanced at each other and peeked out from opposite sides of the column at plates, chairs, and mounds of spilled food spread before us.
Coot Pickard raised a bottle in his bandaged hand and took a long, thoughtful sip of Pabst. The two of us sat in the front seats of my ’68 Mustang in the weed-filled parking lot facing the factory. Minutes earlier, the last police car had rolled out of the lot with Coot’s cousin Bessie handcuffed in the back seat. It was 12:30 AM, and the October night had turned cool and dry. A city bus huffed and groaned past us on Wrenn Street.
“All right, Coot.” I let my left arm dangle out the Mustang’s open window. “Tell me what Bessie said to you before the police arrived. You said it was real important.”
“Yeah. And it’s kinda crazy.”
“Compared to what just happened?”
“Before we get into that, can you tell me what’s gonna happen to Bessie? She’s one of the few kin I got with any kind of future.”
“I advised her of her rights, The cops who arrested her are okay, so they’ll treat her right. But Dee Landingham and one of the other cooks told the officer in charge they saw Bessie bend down behind a table and drop what looked like a lighted cloth into the fryer.” I shifted in my seat and faced Coot. “It looks bad. Employee revenge arson is fairly common in the culinary business. And Bessie was working the nights of the other fires.”
“But Bessie tried to warn Dee weeks ago.”
“Yeah. That’s bad too. Makes her look like she was trying to deflect attention from herself.”
“When can we get her out?”
“Well, she’s been arrested on the charge of first degree arson of an occupied building. That’s a felony, so the police will hold her for booking. In the next couple of days, we’ll try for bail, which I think we’ll get, seeing as how she has a clean record.”
Coot nodded and looked me in the eye. “I swear I didn’t know you shouldn’t put water on an oil fire.”
“Yeah, the cops and the fire investigator figured you were trying to help. Dee had extinguishers for oil fires, but everyone just froze up.” I shook my head. “Except you. And heck, I thought water would make the oil spill out and spread the fire onto the table. I didn’t know it would make a fireball.”
“You’d a thought I poured gasoline on it.”
“Captain Grissom told me the water sinks to the bottom of the fryer, where it’s hottest, and turns to steam. The steam blows out, spraying the burning oil. Luckily, you slipped and only poured a little water. And the room was big enough so the fireball went up, rather than out.”
Coot had a faraway look on his face.
I said, “You were lucky you only got a second-degree burn on your hand. And no one else was really hurt. Just a few scrapes and bruises and a couple of dislocations.”
Coot nodded without looking at me.
“Tell me what Bessie said.”
“Buddy,” said Coot, “you’re gonna think this is weird.”
Coot emptied his beer and turned toward me. “Bessie said she looked down while she was working and noticed a tiny glow in the iron grate under the table. The glow got bigger, and she bent down for a closer look. A little fat man made of yellow sparks squeezed out of the grate, took one look at her, and flew up toward the hot oil. She tried to swat him away with a knife, but he was too fast.”
I nodded and reached into the back seat for another of the PBRs we’d salvaged. As I turned I peered into the dark alley near the entrance to be sure we were alone. Nothing stirred, and I popped open my beer.
Coot was a childhood friend who went his own way after high school and got hooked on a dazzling array of street drugs. He’d been clean for five years, but sometimes I wondered about the long-term repercussions. “Did you see Bessie put a flaming cloth into the fryer?”
Coot shook his head, but the way his eyes gleamed, I could tell he had more to say.
“What did you see?”
“I saw Bessie swatting at this bubble of sparks and flame that zipped around her head. She missed it, and it shot into the oil and set it on fire. It was like the thing knew what it was doing. That’s when I ran for the water.”
“I can see why Bessie didn’t want to tell me this story with the police listening.” I took a sip of beer. “Are you sure it wasn’t a piece of paper or something that ignited and drifted toward her?”
“I know what I saw. Bessie saw it too. We both got a good pair of —” Coot spun around in his seat and stared out his open window.
I looked over his shoulder at long shadows stretching over the parking lot. Nothing moved.
Coot looked at me and said, “Thought I heard something.”
“You’re probably still shaken from the fire.”
“Ain’t no probably about it.” Coot glanced out the car window, then looked back at me. “But as I was sayin’, I know what I saw, and so does Bessie. There’s only one thing this could be.”
I didn’t like the way this was headed, but just denying it couldn’t change a thing.
“It’s some kind a curse. Or a spell.”
As crazy as it might sound, Coot’s explanation was the only thing that made any sense. Bessie was not one to make up wild tales, and I knew Coot was as sharp-eyed as he was honest. Coot and I had seen many strange and frightening things over the years, but this was the worst yet. My chest grew tight at the thought.
Coot glanced out the car window before turning to me. “Someone’s using magic to start these fires. You know who we need to talk to?”
I gritted my teeth and puzzled over that a moment. “Who?”
“You know her. Misses Causey. You ain’t seen her a long time, but I see her regular. She can tell us what we’re dealing with.”
An image from many years back popped into my head. Even though the face I recalled in vivid detail was benevolent and reassuring, my left arm twitched from pain I’d felt almost three decades earlier. I took a deep breath, and the pain ebbed away. I looked at Coot and said, “The granny witch.”
I said, “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 6:30.”
We arrived just as the sun started to set. Misses Causey’s home in the woods was a menagerie of aged but solid wooden buildings, rock walls, sheds, a bamboo grove, an herb and vegetable garden, and a wooden pier by the creek, all linked by stone paths that rambled and criss-crossed over oak-shaded, moss-covered land. Three white goats stared at us as we treaded around to the back door, as most folks in the country do, since only strangers show up at front doors.
Coot knocked, and seconds later, Misses Causey came out and opened the door. Coot hopped up the steps onto the porch and Misses Causey wrapped him in a muscular hug. She turned toward me, put one hand on my shoulder, and said, “Buddy Vuncannon. It’s good to see how you’ve grown up. Coot visits now and then, but you never come around anymore.”
I felt my forehead and cheeks glow as I slinked through the door to her back porch. “Guess I’ve been pretty busy.”
She shook her head. “Everybody’s busy these days. Come inside.” In nearly 30 years, Misses Causey had barely changed. She still carried herself with unhurried energy. Silver streaks brightened her flaming red hair, but her eyes were still crystal green and as calm as a statue.
We followed her into a small den. It was a plain room, with only a short bookcase, a couple of antique tables, a recliner, and a loveseat jammed in close. The only unusual feature was a dark cabinet overflowing with old candles and colored glass bottles. The room smelled like my mother’s kitchen when she baked for Christmas, alive with sweet spices.
Misses Causey and Coot settled onto the love seat, and I took the recliner.
“Coot told me on the phone what he saw last night,” said Misses Causey. She gazed at me a moment, then at Coot. “And I believe him. I am aware of the … creature he saw. Also, I know all the granny witches around here. Not one of them has the power to summon creatures from the Other Side.”
Coot gulped. “‘Other Side’ of what?”
Misses Causey swept her open hand before her. “Of everything you know.”
She turned to me and said, “We call him the Round Man. He is not easily controlled. Either a powerful witch has moved here, unknown to me or worse, someone has gotten their hands on a book of spells.”
When Misses Causey spoke the words “book of spells,” her voice trembled, and a cold shiver ran down my back.
A long moment of silence passed before I could say, “And that’s worse than a powerful witch?”
Coot turned wide eyes at me, then at Misses Causey. “Why is that?”
Misses Causey turned toward me. “Buddy, do you remember the time you and Coot were playing with gunpowder in the woods back of here and you burned your arm?”
Did I ever. I nodded.
“I was able to talk out the fire because I knew you and your people. That was no spell, no formula. We granny witches have served the Scots-Irish for centuries. We’ve acquired quite a bit of lore over time. But this—” Misses Causey stared out the window a moment before turning back to me. “This would be some book … a book I would like to see.”
A knowing smile flickered on her face. “Round Man, like all the creatures from the Other Side, can only be controlled through spells. I know a few for keeping him away, but nothing for actually summoning him. Since I would be aware of another witch in the area, it would appear someone has gotten their hands on a book of spells — a grimoire.”
In a low voice, she said, “I believe this was not the work of cunning folk, but of someone relying solely on the power of the spells. Someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. That’s the danger.” She gazed at Coot, who stared back open mouthed.
Misses Causey said to him, “You may have seen this person. Because they have no power of their own, they had to be nearby when they cast the spell. And”—she leaned close to Coot—“they had to have a focal point for the spell to work. A lit candle, most likely. Coot, you have a keen eye. Did you see anyone hovering in the shadows before the fire? Maybe shielding a candle and an old book?”
Coot had shrunk into his seat as far as he could. “No.” His voice was dry and weak. “But I thought I heard someone creeping around the car where we were sitting after the fire.”
I thought a moment. “You know, there were candles on the prep table. And the bar.”
Misses Causey nodded and touched her chin with her finger. “Hmm. There is one thing I can do for you.” She popped up from her seat and marched to the dark cabinet. From the bottom shelf she took a small object. Turning to me, she said, “Buddy, you may use this. Examine it and touch it.”
I took the object. It was a crystal of clear quartz. It had a perfect point on one end, but the other was broken, leaving six sharp edges. I looked up at Misses Causey.
She said, “Carry this with you at the next supper.”
“What’s it do?”
“It will glow in the presence of a grimoire.”
I made a face. “That’s it?”
“Yes. And it’s especially sensitive while someone is reading a spell.”
“No lightning bolts to stop whoever’s starting the fires?”
Causey frowned at me. “I’m trusting you with one of my most valued tools. Besides, I warned you this involves powers far beyond mine.”
Once again, I felt my face turn warm. But my embarrassment at seeming ungrateful was quickly overcome by desperation. And fear. I had the sweaty palms to prove it. “So what do I do when I find this person?”
Misses Causey shrugged. “Coot tells me you’re pretty clever. You’ll think of something.” She bent closer. “For starters, try taking away their book. They have to read directly from it to make the spells work. And you might want to put out their candle.”
She didn’t say anything else, just stood there. I took the hint and got up from my seat. When Coot stood, his stubby legs appeared to buckle a little. His face had lost all color.
I placed the quartz crystal in my shirt pocket and buttoned it. “Thank you, Misses Causey. Dee plans to hold another of her secret suppers next week. I’ll be ready. But for now, I have to get back and prepare for a bond hearing tomorrow.”
Misses Causey walked us to the back door. “Good luck to you both.”
“Thanks,” I said, and pushed open the screen door. The sun had gone down behind the oaks surrounding the house, and a light breeze stirred the twilight air. A dim crescent moon hung just over the tree line. Coot and I climbed into my Mustang. When I started her up, I noticed Coot still looked shaken.
I pulled out of the driveway and onto Groometown Road. It was just dark enough for me to switch on the headlights. Coot stared silently out the windshield. We’d travelled about a mile when Coot looked at me and said, “This whole thing don’t look good. If it wasn’t Bessie in trouble, I’d walk away from it.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“You heard Misses Causey say we’re dealing with powers that’re beyond her. What about us? We don’t have any powers.”
“The next supper isn’t until next week. That gives me time to think of something. Right now, I’m just going to focus on Bessie’s bond hearing. Judge Albright’s tough. Bessie has two credible witnesses against her, and that fire could’ve killed people. He might not grant bail.”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“There’s an old legal maxim that says, ‘When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When they’re not, you pound the table.’”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means you put on a show, fake ‘em out. You try to get the judge or jury to feel—”
I glanced toward Coot. He pointed at my chest. When I looked down, I saw a blue glow in my shirt pocket.
“Buddy! Look out!”
I snapped my eyes up in time to see two deer in the middle of the road. Instinct kicked in, and I slammed the brakes. The Mustang went into a skid, but I steered into it. Tires screamed, rubber burned, we both yelled, and I gripped the wheel up to the moment we dropped into the side ditch with an ear-splitting thud.
It took me a moment or so to figure out where I was and what had just happened. I killed the engine and turned toward Coot, who moaned and wiped blood off his nose.
“You all right?”
Coot unfastened his seat belt, arched up, and pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket. “Yeah,” he said. “It don’t take much to make my nose bleed.”
I opened the car door and stumbled out. The two deer had not budged, despite the noise and commotion. Both had large white patches on their brown coats. Piebald deer — not something you see every day. One cocked its head at me.
“I got my cell phone,” said Coot, still in the car. “Jerry Smith can send a tow truck—”
“Hold on, Coot.” I pulled the crystal out of my shirt pocket. It pulsed blue light. When I looked up, the two deer turned and vanished into the woods. I scooted to the rear of the car and dropped to one knee. “Coot, can you get out?”
“Don’t call Jerry. Not yet. Come back this way, but keep low.” I peered into the woods. Beyond the brush and trees, a weedy, old tobacco field stretched toward the horizon.
Coot hunched around to the back of the car and knelt beside me. “What’re you doing?”
“That’s it,” I said.
Coot narrowed his eyes. “That’s what?”
“See that old tobacco barn? The rear wall faces the road.”
“That’s on the old Kearns property. Hasn’t been used in years.”
“It’s being used right now. That’s where our wannabe witch is. I bet someone cast a spell to make those deer run in front of us. They didn’t act right.”
“How do you—”
“Look.” I opened my hand, and Coot stared at the quartz, which cast a dull blue light against my palm. “Misses Causey said the person behind this had to be close to make the spell work. And a candle would have to be sheltered from the wind. C’mon.”
Coot and I crouched down the road several yards. Once we got behind enough thick brush to hide our movements, we half-slid into the ditch, clambered out as quietly as we could, and pushed through knee-high weeds and briars to circle around to the front of the log barn. We studied it for a moment.
In a low voice, I said, “Stay here. I’m going in.”
“Don’t, Buddy.” Coot stared at the old barn door and took quick, short breaths. “There’s no telling what’s in there.”
He was right. The reality of what I was about to do hit me, and my gut tightened. When I looked at Coot, he’d managed to turn even whiter, and his nose trickled blood.
“This might be our only chance. I’ll yell for you if I need help.”
Coot looked at the barn, then at me. “If my legs’ll move when I tell ‘em.”
“Remember, this is for Bessie. We’re all she’s got.”
Coot nodded, sending a string of blood onto the ground.
I turned away and faced the door. Just as I was about to take my first step, something caught my eye. Despite my tight grip on the quartz crystal, its blue light seeped through the spaces between my fingers. The grimoire had to be in the old tobacco barn.
The only thing to do now was to go inside and see what was waiting. I strode up to the door. It was slightly ajar. Almost inviting. After taking a deep breath, I paused just a moment to tell myself I couldn’t stop now. I pulled the door open and immediately felt the strangely cooled air pour over me.
Sticking my nose inside, I peered into the darkness. Nothing moved. The first thing I noticed was that the chinking between the logs of the rear wall had been chipped out, allowing the fading light of sunset into the barn, as well as providing a good view of traffic on Groometown Road. In the right corner, perched on one of the rusty oil-fired burners, was a tiny candle, its golden flame tear-shaped and faint.
With my first step into the barn, I stumbled over the log threshold and scuffed the dirt floor. A figure in the corner wheeled and lurched forward. It slinked back into the corner, grew darker. The dim light breaking through the damaged roof and chinking revealed a shadowy, silent, and unmoving figure. Staring at it, I felt a cold prickle run down my neck. I drew a deep breath. It knew I could see it, and I knew it saw me, creating tension that clung to the cool air.
I held the glowing quartz over my head and used my courtroom voice. “I’ve found you.”
The crystal now cast a faint glow into the corner, just enough to let me see an open book in the figure’s hands. I saw the book rise closer to the silhouette’s face, and then I heard a feminine voice whispering words I did not recognize. There was no telling what the woman was conjuring, and I didn’t want to find out. Time to go for broke and dish out the hooey.
In my best Charlton Heston imitation, I boomed, “This is the Crystal of Ahriman! It has led me to you.” I let that sink in.
The whispering stopped.
Good. I got her attention. I said, “And now the crystal will strike you down for what you have done.”
I heard a footstep behind me. Turning, I saw a faint shadow on the dirt floor. Someone had followed me into the barn. When I squinted, I realized it was Coot. He must’ve thought I’d called him when I yelled at the woman.
The woman slammed the book shut and drew back into the dark corner. “He – he looks dead.”
I looked back at Coot. The woman had a point. Coot’s pale and bloodied face looked even worse in the scant light streaming in. He shuffled toward me on wobbly legs, which added nicely to the effect.
She didn’t have to know Coot was more afraid of her than she was of him. Or that he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances. Still holding the glowing “Crystal of Ahriman” over my head, I replied, “Yes, he was in my car when you caused us to wreck. He was unfortunate. But with the power of the crystal, he still hears and obeys me.”
From the dark corner where the woman cowered came a noise that could’ve been a whimper or a squeak.
I said, “Servant — take the book from her.”
“No.” The woman plopped the closed book onto the metal flue. “Keep him away.”
She shrank into the corner. This was my chance. I stepped forward and pinched the candle wick to extinguish the tiny flame. Then I snatched up the book. Misses Causey’s crystal looked like it was about to go supernova. I stuck it in my pants pocket. The book went under my arm.
I peered into the corner. “You have a lot to answer for.”
The woman sobbed. “What?”
“What? For starters, why’d you try to make us wreck?”
“No,” she said. “I just meant to scare you away.”
I shook my head. “Right. Let’s step outside.”
She pointed a trembling finger. “Make — him — go away.”
“He’s not going to hurt you. C’mon.”
As I stepped past him, Coot whispered, “Servant?”
I held my finger to my mouth and nudged Coot out the door. I stepped over the threshold and held my hand out for our would-be witch. She took my hand and blinked in the twilight.
I said, “Who are you?”
After shooting another glance at Coot, she hung her head low. “My name is Miriam Hayes.”
“Where do you live?”
No response. I pulled the glowing quartz out of my pocket and thrust it at her. “Tell me where you live. And don’t lie.”
Her dark eyes widened. “I — I’m in 4-C at the Brentwood Apartments.”
The pleasant voice matched her appearance. Slender, with auburn hair. I put her at about 40.
I put the quartz back in my pocket and tapped the grimoire. “Where’d you get this?”
She leaned her head back a moment and sighed. “I collect old cookbooks. Found this at an estate sale, and I realized it had spells mixed in with the recipes.”
“I suppose one of the recipes was for broiled hipsters.”
“No.” Miriam shook her head. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I only set little fires to ruin Dee Landingham’s dinners.”
Whoa. The way she spoke Dee’s name through clenched teeth made me shiver.
She pointed at Coot. “He’s the one who spread the fire.”
“He was trying to put out the fire you started.” I stepped closer. “Why’d you come here?”
Miriam winced. “I heard what you two said in your car after the fire, so I’ve been following you.”
“And then you made us wreck.”
Her only response was to hang her head.
“Tell me why you wanted to sabotage Dee.”
“Because she ruined me. I was the one who brought secret suppers to High Point. Then she came along and ruined everything.”
I shrugged. “Hey, that’s just business.”
Miriam wiped one eye. “No. She stole guest lists from my Twitter account, got the Health Department to hassle me, recruited my cooks. And it’s more than just a business. Secret suppers are an old tradition from Charleston. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about community — making new friends.” She stared at the ground and sniffled. “And she took that from me.”
I looked at Coot. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head.
I said, “Okay, for starters, I want you to face the fact that what you did was wrong.”
Still staring at the ground, Miriam sighed. “I know. I made a big mess of everything. And people could’ve been hurt. I feel awful.”
I nodded. “How’d you get here?”
Miriam looked up. “My car’s parked at an old abandoned farm across the road.”
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m keeping your book. You’re going to drive home. I’m coming to your place tomorrow after I get out of court, and we’re going to have a long talk. Understand?”
“All right,” I said.
Coot and I followed her across the road and down a short dirt driveway to the remains of a frame farmhouse. Its roof looked as if a giant had crushed it in the middle. Miriam’s car, an old green Toyota, sat in the circle drive.
Miriam slid into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window. “What are you going to do to me?”
I bent forward. “I’m going to try to work out a deal to keep you out of jail. Like I said, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She nodded and cranked the engine. “Do you need a ride?”
“No, thanks,” I said. “We have a tow truck on the way.”
Miriam’s Toyota rumbled down the driveway and onto Groometown Road.
“Okay, Coot. We have only one more miracle to pull off tonight.”
Coot eyed the book under my arm, then me. “You’re not thinking of—”
“Yes, I am.”
It took two hours and fifteen minutes. But shortly after the old clock in her den struck 10:00 PM, Misses Causey strode in from her bedroom and said, “It worked.” She tapped a page on the open book of spells. “This is marvelous.” With an emerald gleam in her eye, she cocked her head at me. “And you’ll let me keep it?”
“That’s the deal.”
Misses Causey cradled the old book, a standard size volume bound in battered green leather, as if it were a newborn. As her fingers pressed it shut, she breathed out an almost imperceptible “Ah!”
“So,” I said. “Your spell will make Dee and the other cook forget about the fire?”
Causey’s eyes lingered on the dark green book a moment before she gazed up at me. “Not exactly.” She stepped toward her cabinet of old candles and colored bottles, started to shelve the book, then stopped. “But when they awaken tomorrow, their memories — their false memories — of Bessie deliberately setting the fire will be purged. The spell will clarify their memories so they’ll only recall that Bessie was swinging her knife at a burning object heading toward the fryer.”
I whistled. “That’s one useful book.”
“Indeed.” She stooped over and slid the grimoire into a short row of books on the bottom shelf.
“Tomorrow at Bessie’s arraignment, I’ll file a motion to dismiss charges. I can’t wait to see the look in the assistant DA’s face when she hears both of the prosecution’s witnesses have changed their stories. And I’ll argue that Bessie was swatting at a piece of trash that ignited and fell into the oil.”
Coot nodded. “That’s good. But whatcha gonna do about Miriam? I feel kinda sorry for her.”
“Coot, I’m going to make her an offer she can’t refuse. Doesn’t your cousin Bessie want to open her own catering firm?”
“Yeah, someday, when she gets enough money.”
“Give Bessie a few more months to learn the ropes, then she and Miriam can start their own restaurant. Or another secret supper club. I’d invest in that.”
Misses Causey raised both eyebrows. “Buddy, that’s very generous of you, but you’re assuming she’ll act rationally. She hungers for revenge. I’m sensing a lot of anger in this woman.”
“Me, too. So I’ll tell her the way to really hurt Dee Landingham is to steal her best sous chef.”
Coot slapped his hands together. “What’d I tell you? He’s a lawyer. He fakes people out. Who else could make someone with a spell book give up by waving a glowing rock?”
Misses Causey smiled. “And people think I work magic.”
I think I earned that one.
M. C. Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. His fantasy, sci-fi, and literary stories have been featured in Silver Blade, The Flash Fiction Press, Space Squid, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mystic Signals, Fabula Argentea, and Fiction 365. The Novel Fox released the paperback version of his novella Aztec Midnight in March, 2016. His writing blog is mctuggle.com.