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Hole in Your Soul

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It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.  The weather was cool, the timing was right and there wasn’t that much stuff in the basement to haul out.

Illya paused to catch his breath and give his shoulders a break.  They were protesting such abuse and Illya didn‘t really blame them.  A night’s worth of work in the restaurant was nothing compared to trying to yank out century old nails. 

Still they were down to the last shelving unit and the concrete pourers were due in the morning.  Even with that in mind, Illya was reluctant to heft that crowbar again.

Hands were on his shoulders, massaging, and Illya groaned in mock pain and genuine pleasure.  He knew they weren’t Napoleon’s, but at this point he didn’t very much care.  He leaned into those skilled fingers.  “When did you learn such talents?” he asked between moans.

“Man does not live by restaurant serving alone,” Rocky answered back.  “I learned massage on the side.  It paid for two years of culinary classes after I jumped ship.”

“And you waited this long to display these skills?”

“Never seemed appropriate before.  Mr. S would knock my block off if he saw me touching you.”

“And what did you imagine my reaction would be to see my Cara with another man in his… hands…?”  Matt broke off to laugh.   “I should, perhaps, get a hose for you two…”  He waved his hand in front of him.  “For more than one reason…”

“Nothing wrong with the smell of good honest sweat, Matthew,” Illya said, then over his shoulder to Rocky.  “Thank you, you have given me the ability to go on.”  Illya mopped his brow with the back of a dirty work glove.

“But not too much longer, Cara, we will be setting up for service in a half an hour and it would not do to be carting such things as rotted timbers through the kitchen… or dining room.”

“We’ll be finished,” Rocky said, with more energy than Illya felt. 

Ah, youth, Illya thought as he tried to straighten up.

“So where did we lose Napoleon to?” 

“He just happened to have an out-of-town trip planned for this week.  The man has the timing of a Rolex.”  Illya flexed his shoulders and winced.

Rocky grabbed a broom and brushed years of cobwebs away from the shelf.  The door to the basement had been locked for as long as he could remember… as long as any of them could remember.  It hadn’t been until a leaky pipe forced them to cut the lock off that they’d ventured down here and discovered a full basement.

“How many more undiscovered rooms do you think we’ll find before the end?”  Matt asked Rocky’s question and he winked at his partner.

“No idea.  Every time I think we’ve gotten beyond surprises… surprise!”  Illya positioned the crowbar and strained against it, muscles bunching and cording as he applied pressure.  With a shriek, a rusted nail came out.  “One down, a hundred to go.”

Cara, I think I am cooking tonight, no?”

“I think you are cooking tonight, yes.”  Illya started on the next one.  “I’ll be lucky if I can make it up the stairs after today.  You may well have to carry me up.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.”  Matt disappeared before Illya could offer a comment.

                                                                                ****    

With one last moan, the shelf pulled free from the wall and Illya stood back as a couple of strong arms wrestled it around and up the narrow stairs.   Illya leaned against a wood piling and watched them.

“Hey, boss man?”  A strange note in his head waiter’s voice pulled Illya’s attention.

“Yes, Rocky?”

“Remember what you were saying half an hour ago about surprises?”

“Yes.”

Rocky pointed to a narrow door.  “Surprise.”

“This place never ceases to amaze me. “  Illya sighed and hefted up the crowbar yet again.  “Step aside and we’ll see what we have.”

After considering his options, Illya decided that the hinges looked the most rusted.  He worked the end of the crowbar in and pushed.  They broke after a brief struggle and Illya wrenched the door free and directed a flashlight beam into the darkness.

As Rocky came closer, Illya shook his head, and held up a hand.    “Rocky, get the sheriff and the coroner too, I think.”

“Why’s that, boss man?”

Through the doorway, the flashlight illuminated brown-stained bones.  “Apparently, we have a skeleton in our closet.”

 

                                                                                ****

 

Illya watched as the attendant carefully placed the last bone in the bag and zipped it shut.  The ME checked his paperwork and then handed a clipboard over to Illya.

“I can say this about you, Chef.”  Milt took the clipboard and ran his finger down the form.  “Things are never quiet with you in town.”

“I aim to please, Milt.  Any ideas as to who he is?”

“Nope, although it looks like he’s been here for awhile.”

“I should be able to tell you an approximate time in a few days… but I can tell you he was shot.”  The ME lifted his hand to his shoulder and tapped.  “There was a large, perfectly round hole in his scapula.”

“Caliber was .45?” 

“Or larger and he wasn’t dead when he was put in there.”

“How you reckon that, Doc?”

Illya had been studying the small room as the two talked and now he lifted a piece of rusted chain.

“And had been a severe thorn in someone’s side to get shackled up and then shot.”  The memory of how many times he been in a similar situation, his own hope of rescue a smart ass American with a ready smile and impeccable timing, made him grimace in sympathy.  He glanced at his watch and wondered when Napoleon would call.  “If you two will excuse me, I need to check in with my staff upstairs.”

“You need to keep people out of here until we get a determination one way or the other.” Milt watched the ME accompany the remains up the narrow staircase.

“I have concrete people coming in tomorrow.”

“Cancel them.  This is a murder investigation.”

“The man’s been dead for years,” Illya said, pointing out what to him seemed obvious.

“I just have your word for that.”  Milt hitched up his pants and grunted as he straightened up.  “I’d like to see that gun of yours.  When was it fired last?”

“A couple of weeks ago at the firing range.  You know I have to qualify on a regular basis to keep my license.  And for the record, it’s a .38.”

“All the same…”

“Let me assure you, Sheriff, if I was going to shoot someone, I would not be so stupid as to bury him in my cellar, nor would I be inclined to chain him up.  No matter what you might think of me and my past, I was a good guy.”

“That’s one side of the story.  Now, you cancel the cement guys or I declare this whole building a crime scene.”

“You wouldn’t – you have no grounds…” Illya protested.

“True, but think of the damage I’ll cause before that gets cleared up…”

                                                                                ****

Illya was still fuming as he climbed the stairs and walked into his bedroom.  It annoyed him that some backwater cop could best him that easily, but there was no way around it.  The sheriff had that right and it was bad enough that there had been an ME van parked in the lot for an hour.  It was certainly the talk of the dining room that evening.

Illya stripped off his pants and tee shirt and shivered as the cool air of the bedroom hit his skin.  The only thing that would really make him feel better right now would be to have Napoleon sprawled out on the bed, arms and heart open to him.  Instead, he’d had to settle for a quick phone call and some carefully chosen words – after he canceled the cement order.

The temptation for a hot shower was strong, but the lure of his very comfortable bed was even stronger.  It didn’t matter that he was dirty and sweaty; there was no one in bed to offend.  He’d stayed away from the kitchen and dining room.  He was too well known to go strolling out the front door in his present condition.   He tarried in the bathroom just long enough to brush his teeth and remove his contact lenses.  He slid in between the sheets, his mouth twisted into a smile of sheer bliss.  Some days it seemed like all he waited for was this moment, a moment of suddenly realized relaxation and a time to just stop. He settled back and reached for his reading glasses and his book.

                                                                                ****

He wasn’t sure what woke him.  He’d barely managed to get his glasses off and book set aside before succumbing to sleep.  Nothing short of World War III should have roused him.  That’s when he saw the man standing at the foot of his bed. 

His first thought was that Napoleon, somehow, had managed the drive from Napa back here in the span of a couple of  hours – not likely.  Another look proved the figure wasn’t Napoleon; this guy was thinner and taller and his clothes were… odd.

“What are you?”  Illya wasn’t exactly concerned, but he also wasn’t stupid.

Wordless, the figure stared at him, then turned and walked noiselessly from the room.  That’s when Illya startled.  With the number of creaking floorboards in their bedroom, it was impossible to cross the room without making a noise.  He climbed out of bed and grabbed his hastily discarded pants from the night before.  Bare foot and bare-chested, he followed.

As he exited the bedroom, he saw the man step through the banister and proceed to go down a flight of stairs that weren’t there.  At least not anymore, they’d moved the staircase from one wall to the other when they’d remodeled. 

What the hell?  Illya went down the real staircase rapidly and watched the figure head for the front door, passing through it without opening it.

Illya blinked and shook his head.  He must be either dreaming or seriously delusional.  That’s when he happened to glance through a window and gasped.  Taste was on fire.

He didn’t wait, just ran out the door and to the building.  The fact that he couldn’t smell or even hear the fire didn’t immediately register.  As he reached for the door knob, the fire vanished and Illya was suddenly aware of crickets and the wind… noises he hadn’t heard before.  It was as if the world had fallen silent and was just waking back up… like him.  He had the distinct feeling that he’d been asleep for the past few minutes.

What the hell is going on?  Illya also realized as he took a step that he’d run across the parking lot barefoot, not a smart thing to do on crushed rock.  The trip back to the house took much longer and was accompanied by very colorful language.

                                                                                ****

Illya woke and kept perfectly quiet for a moment.  Outside, Jackson had already begun its busy day.  Cars drove by, occasionally slowing as they went past the restaurant or tasting room.  He thought for a time, trying to remember what had happened.  Then he kicked his way free of the sheets and stood up.  Pain rocketed up his legs and he hastily sat back down.    He twisted first one foot and then the other up for inspection. How did he bruise his feet like this?  Then the night trickled back to him.

Setting his teeth, he stood up again and limped to the shower.  This had been a new experience for him.  He never remembered sleepwalking before….

Putting shoes on helped a little, but Illya was still hobbling when there came a fast knock to his kitchen door and Matt walked in.  He looked as tired as Illya felt.

“There’s coffee on the stove if you want it.”

“I am nuoto nel caffè.”

“Swimming in coffee, that’s a visual I can relate to.  You didn’t sleep well?”

“Rocky, he was up all night, pacing and muttering about things.  Yet when I talked with him, he didn’t remember.  E 'molto strano. "

“You are stiff from yesterday, Cara?  You are not the strapping lad you once were.”

“If I had the strength, I’d punch you.”  Illya instead stretched out his feet and propped them up on an empty chair and then took off a shoe and sock to display the bruised and cut sole of his foot.  “Apparently I went for a little walk last night… across the parking lot… barefoot.”

Matt sucked air in through his teeth.  “Cara, that’s stupid.”

“You’re telling me, but I thought Taste was on fire.”

“What?”  Matt’s reaction was immediate and frantic.    “It is all right?”

“It’s fine.  I must have been dreaming.”

“For Taste to have burned down, it would be more of a nightmare, Cara.”          

“I wouldn’t argue with that.”     

“So you have cancelled the cement people?”

“It was either that or Milt was closing down the restaurant.  Has he been in yet today?”

“Not that I have seen, but I came here first.  With Napoleon out of town, you become my responsabilità.  I promised Napoleon.”

“And might I point out that I’m a big boy and can look after myself?”

“But why would you, Cara, when you have so many friends eager to do it for you?”

Illya caught his hand and squeezed it gently.  “Thank you.”

Il mio piacere.”

“Pleasure indeed, you just love mother-henning me.”  Illya put his shoe back on, got back to his feet and walked to the door.  “Shall we see what the traffic will allow for tonight?”

                                                                                *****

He walked in through the kitchen door to Taste and flicked on the lights.  There was something unusually calming about this place for him.  Even though it frequently dropped him to his knees with exhaustion and frustration, he couldn’t think of any place he’d rather be.  This was his spot, where he belonged.  For a long time, he’d thought it had been UNCLE and he’d been content there; here he was more than content.  Here he felt right, but not today.  Today, there was something different, something slightly… off.

He started towards his office as Matt headed for the dining room.  He’d nearly reached the door when Matt’s voice stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Illya, you need to see this…”

Illya frowned, for there was something very wrong with Matt’s voice.  He hurried to the double doors and pushed his way through, nearly plowing into the redhead as he did so.

“What is it, Matt…?” he started, then stopped, stunned.  There was a huge tower of tables and chairs in the middle of the room, looking nothing so much as if the preparations for a bonfire had been interrupted.

“You were dreaming when you saw this fire, si?”

“I thought I was… I’m not…”  He glanced around the room and pointed.  “But not that…”

Every glass that the restaurant owned was stacked in a neat pyramid on the barroom floor, nearly reaching the ceiling.

“I think I need to sit down, Cara,” Matt murmured, even more pale than usual.

“Okay, I’ll get you back to the… What the hell?”

The restaurant stood as it usually did, the tables and chairs neatly arranged, awaiting the evening’s guests.

“Weren’t those just…?”

Si.”

A noise pulled Illya’s focus back to the bar to find all the glasses neatly stacked and put away as normal.

“We did both see what we saw, didn’t we?”

“I think so… I think I need something to drink, Cara.  Is it too early?”

“It’s five o’clock somewhere in the world.”

                                                                ****

They were sitting on the steps to the restaurant’s porch when a car pulled in and parked.  After a moment, the door opened and Illya grinned, standing.  He didn’t move, however. “What are you doing back so early?”  He wouldn’t risk giving Napoleon a kiss in the parking lot, but they did embrace when Napoleon got to them.

“I break all kinds of speed limits and that’s the welcome I get?”

“It’s the best I can do in public,” Illya admitted and gave his chin a gentle cuff.  Napoleon pulled free and opened his arms to Matt.  The redhead didn’t need a second invitation and tumbled into the embrace happily.

“Maybe you can figure out our grande mister.

“Grand mystery?  You have a grand mystery…. Wait, you didn’t let Illya near the checkbook again?”

Illya adopted a look of superiority.  “My checkbook always balances…”

“That’s because you call the bank and ask what your balance is and then write that figure in,” Napoleon said, releasing Matt and turning back to his lover.

“How did you…?”  Illya was dumbfounded.

“I used to do that same thing with my math until I figured out a better way,” Napoleon admitted with a smile.  “So why are you two slave drivers out here and not in the restaurant with your noses to the grindstone?”  Then he frowned.  “And drinking?  Illya, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve seen you drink before lunch.”

“There was just cause today.”  Illya resumed his seat on the stairs and offered the glass up to Napoleon.

“Just cause?”  Napoleon sipped the wine, nodded and handed him back the glass.

“Just cause we are un po 'di matto oggi.

“Matt, I can’t translate that… you’re crazy?”

“In spades,” Illya muttered.

“Want to talk about it?”

“Not particularly,” Illya murmured into the glass, then drained it and reached for the bottle, but Napoleon intercepted it.

“And I can’t believe I’m having to say this to you, but I think you’ve had enough, partner.”

“You have no idea how much is enough, Napoleon.”  He gestured over his shoulder.  “Go, look for yourself, but leave the bottle.”

“What?”  Napoleon passed the bottle back to Matt and walked into the restaurant.  His words were muffled by the partially closed door.  “What am I looking for?”

“You’ll know it when you see it.” Matt filled Illya’s glass and then his. “Wait for it...” 

“What in the name of God?”

“Maybe we should get a third glass.”  Matt raised his glass to Illya’s and sipped.

“And another bottle of wine,” Illya said, looking over his shoulder at the door.

Napoleon came to the door a moment later.  “How did you do that?”

“Not a clue.”

“But everything was fine and then the chairs… and the tables…”

“Ah, you missed the floorshow in the bar then.”  Illya sighed and rubbed his forehead.  “I need to eat if I’m going to drink anymore.”

“What are we going to do about… that?”  Matt waved his hand at the restaurant.

“No idea, but I suspect more alcohol will be involved.”  Illya stood as Napoleon stumbled out of the front door.  “Impressive, isn’t it?”

“But how?”

“No idea, but I’m willing to entertain any theories…”  Illya led the way back to their house.

“You should tell him what you found in the cellar.”  Matt scooped up Beurre Noir outside the door.  He started to walk into the door and the cat started to squirm and yowl.  Matt yelled as claws found flesh and he dropped her, shouting, “Che diavolo, è gatto pazzo! Se sei in possesso?”  (What the hell, you crazy cat!  Are you possessed?).

The cat raced away as if the devil was after her. 

“I have never seen her do that before.”  Illya entered and went directly to the downstairs bathroom for towels and some peroxide.  “Here, Napoleon, I’m going upstairs to get some gauze.”  He paused and then pointed back at his ex-lover.  “Watch him.”

Napoleon led a pale Matt to the couch and settled him on it.  “Let’s get your shirt off and we’ll take a look at those arms.”

Matt clung protectively to his shirt.  “I’d rather…Cara, it’s not so pretty… what they did.”

“Matt, I sleep with the Scar King.  It will be easier to patch you up with your shirt off.”

Reluctantly, Matt untucked, unbuttoned, and then shrugged off his shirt.  Napoleon kept his face carefully neutral, not letting any of his anguish show in his face.  How someone could inflict such hatred upon another human being was beyond him.  He and Illya had gathered their scars slowly over years of abuse at the hands of their enemies.  Matt had garnered all his in one fell swoop.

Napoleon dabbed the peroxide on the scratches, then blew on them to take the sting out, determined to keep as much pain from the redhead as possible.  It still didn’t keep Matt from making little whimpering noises.

“Not so bad…”  Napoleon sat back and set the bottle on the coffee table.

“The blood, the blood…”

“What blood, Matt?”  Napoleon was immediately alert, searching the redhead’s arms for something that he had missed.

“The blood.”  Matt was keening and wiping madly at himself.  “What am I going to it… it’s …. blood, the blood.”

“ILLYA!”  Napoleon tried to grab Matt’s flailing arms.  “Matt, calm down…”

Illya appeared at the top of the stairs and paused for only a moment before racing down.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Matt, Matt.”  Illya evaded the waving arms, then stepped in, hugging him, pinning Matt’s arms to his sides.  “Matthew, calm down.”  He kept his voice even but firm.

“How can I be calm, Cara, when you are so very close?” Matt murmured back.

Illya slowly released him.  “Are you okay?”

Si , just a few scratches…. Why are you two looking at me like that?”  Matt suddenly snatched up his shirt and held it before him.  “I am not…. a pip show.”

“Peep show.  What was all that about the blood?” Napoleon asked him, never letting his eyes leave Matt’s face.

“I don’t… you were cleaning my scratches.  You have a very nice touch, by the way.  And then Chef was hugging me… did I pass out?  I do that sometimes.”

“No, you were babbling on and on about the blood.”

“I don’t…”  Matt slid back further on the couch and brought his legs up to clench them to his chest.  “Could you call Rocky, please?”

“Of course.”  Napoleon and Illya exchanged glances.  Something very odd was afoot.

                                                                                ****

Rocky stroked Matt’s head softly as he sat on the couch, cuddling the man.  “So you saw a guy walk from your bedroom downstairs and then out the door.”

“To the restaurant, which I thought was on fire,” Illya replied

“Was it a dream?” Rocky asked.  “Did you just dream this?”

“No, Cara, his feet are all bruises.”  Matt sipped carefully at the glass of water he was holding and tried to ignore the ripples in the surface that his trembling caused.

“What?”  Napoleon looked from Matt to Illya as he entered carrying a tray.

“I ran across the parking lot barefoot.  The argument for paving is getting stronger every day.”  Illya set down a cup of coffee in front of Napoleon.  Matt said you were having nightmares, Rocky?”

“It was especially vivid, which is weird because I don’t usually remember my dreams.  I was watching these two guys arguing about a girl, I think, and then one pulled a gun and started shooting.  Then there was blood everywhere and I was trying to help, but I didn’t know what to do…”

“That’s sounds like…”  Napoleon trailed off and frowned.

“Like what?”

“Like what Matt was saying.  He was talking about the blood, all the blood.  He didn’t know what to do.”

“Okay, I think I need to make a call.  Could I borrow your phone, boss man?”

“Who are you calling, Cara?”  Matt watched after him anxiously.

“My cousin, Madeline, she’s good with this sort of thing.”

“Your cousin Madeline is the caso il dado?

“The nut case?  That’s harsh, even for you, Mattie,” Illya settled himself in a chair and Moutard jumped up into his lap.

“Now wait, this cat is fine, but the other one…”

“Went crazy when Matt tried to bring her inside.”

Rocky shook his head and rapidly dialed a number.  He pushed the speaker phone button and waited.  After a couple of rings, the phone was picked up.  “Hi, Rocky, what’s going on cousin?”

“Del, how did you know it was me?”

“Easy, I’ve been thinking about you all morning.  There was a report on the news about finding a body in the basement of Taste and I figured it was just a matter of time before you came sniffing around my door.”

“Well what wasn’t on the news was the furniture and glassware being rearranged over and over and a cat attacking Matt and the nightmares.  And I think someone was trying to ride Matthew.  We‘ve never had ghosts in Taste before.  Everything was fine until we opened up that room.  Worse, it was Chef and me who did it and we’re both experiencing things.”  Rocky’s voice went low and a little pleading, “Del, you’ve gotta help us, the nightmare was horrible.  I… we need your help.”

“Ride Matt?  I thought that was Rocky’s job?” Napoleon whispered to Illya, who scowled and tried to repress his smirk.

“They could be speaking Greek… no, wait I understand that… this, I don’t understand at all.”

Rocky shushed them with his hand and the men fell silent.

“Besides you know as much as I do.”  The woman sounded uninterested.  “Maybe even more because of your connection.”

“Yes, but it’s better together, you and I.  And you know that you hear more than I do.”

“Hear what?” Matt mouthed and Napoleon shrugged his shoulders.

“Only if they are willing to talk.  And are you sure your employer is ready for the invasion of the spook squad?”  Rocky looked over at Illya, who was shaking his head slowly, and Napoleon who just looked perplexed by the whole thing.

“You have no idea.”

“Ok, look, I can come up this afternoon and I have tomorrow off.  Will they let me stay the night in the dining room?”

Rocky hit the mute button and looked over at Illya.  “Boss man?”

“As long as she doesn’t mind having the Leaning Tower of Chairs built on her, it’s no trouble.  We can’t open the restaurant as long as that’s going on.”

Rocky hit the mute button off.  “It’s okay with him, Del, but you’d do that?”

“You said that there was no haunting until the basement was disturbed and the closet opened.  I’ll be fine, and I won’t be sleeping.  Hopefully I will be cleansing the hell out of the place, inviting the unseen to move on, and not getting hit with any flying objects… this time.”

“We can hope and for the record, that book wasn’t my fault.”

“Well, yeah.  Have you told them anything about me?”

“No. What would I say?”

“That I’m the only person in your family weirder than you?”

“Very funny, Madeline and fairly impossible, not to put too fine a point on it.”

“Okay, I’ll see you in a bit.  Give that gorgeous redhead of yours a hug for me.  You sure he’s still gay?”

“Yes, Del, very sure.”  Rocky rolled his eyes.

“Cuz, I’d do him in a heartbeat… or that little blond bombshell of yours, too.”

Eyebrow cocked, Illya looked over at Rocky who smiled and hunched his shoulder.  Sorry, he mouthed.

“Okay, I’ll talk with you when you get here.  Thanks, Del.”  He hung up the phone and grinned.  “Okay, that’s all taken care of.”

“Blond bombshell?” Illya asked, his voice as dry as the Sahara Desert.

“She’s seen pictures.”

“Works for me,” Napoleon said, draining the rest of his coffee.  “I’d paint you on the side of my B-52.”

Matt choked on his water and Rocky pounded on his back, trying unsuccessfully to hide his grin.

                                                                                ****

Whatever the three other men were expecting, it probably wasn’t the girl who breezed in and hugged Rocky, then ran a practiced eye over the rest of them.  Rocky seemed relieved to see her though.  She seemed a perfectly normal young woman, about Rocky’s age; there was a little resemblance around the eyes and in their build.  She had a mass of chestnut colored hair piled on top of her head and she was dressed normally in jeans and a tee shirt that stated, ‘Yet, despite the look on my face, you’re still talking.’   Nothing seemed strange about her at all.  But Rocky swore she had the goods to help them get the restaurant back in business.

“Mmmm.”  Rocky held the packages close to his nose and inhaled.  “Punkin Orange Bread.  With?”

“Pecans, what do you take me for, a heathen?”

“Among other things, you bet.”

“Not when it comes to my breads.  Now, let’s get down to business.  I have my kit in the trunk; I should set up the tape recorder in the restaurant now, then you can tell me everything again, from the beginning.  You might start by introducing me to these handsome men you’ve been keeping all to yourself.  I’ve only seen photos.”  

Rocky grinned a little self-consciously.  “Madeline, this is Matthew.”

“With all that red hair, who else could he be?”  She turned to him and grinned.  “I haven’t had a chance to say this before, but welcome to the family.”

“Grazie, sei incantevole.” Matt hugged her.

“What?”  Madeline looked to Rocky.  “What did he say?”

“No idea and it’s better that way.”

“He said you are beautiful,” Napoleon said and smiled.

“You must be Napoleon.  Rocky warned me about you!”  She held out a hand to Napoleon and he shook it firmly.  “Then this has to be the…”

“The blond bombshell, in person.”  Illya bent forward in a short bow.

“You weren’t whistling Dixie, old son…”  She leaned close to Rocky.  “They’re all gorgeous!”

“You should give Rocky a raise,” Napoleon murmured to Illya, who worked to keep a smile from his face. Then louder, he said, “So you think you can help us out here?”

“I’m going to try.  Do you want to start at the restaurant or in the house?”

“The house, I think,” Rocky said.  “We need a safe haven and better here than the restaurant.  There’s more positive energy here.”

                                                                                ****

Del set up a candle in a dish out of her kit and then from a small box took something that looked like dried weeds.  She lit the tip of one leaf from the candle and then blew the smoke around, waving it in some arcane pattern with her hands.   Then as the leaf was about to burn her fingertips, she dropped it into the dish holding the candle.  The cats seemed fascinated with her and the proceedings, watching every move.  She took a handful of dark stones from her pocket and set them in front of the candle, then turned back to the men, her case closed beside her chair.  The cats wove their way around her feet and then settled near her, curled around each other.

“When did Beurre Noir come in?” Napoleon murmured to Illya.

“Followed her in like nothing had happened.  If it wasn’t for the scratches all over Matt, I’d be willing to laugh this away.”  Illya’s response was in the same quiet tone.

“You won’t bother me if you talk,” Madeline assured them.  “ Now, where were you… um… what do I call you?”

“Chef, Illya, Blondie, I answer to many.”

“Correction, you answer to one.”  Napoleon tapped his chest and Illya grinned.

“Only in your dreams, Solo.”

She smiled and laughed.  "Okay, awkward now…   So…, Illya, where did you see your apparition?”

“The bedroom, at the foot of the bed.”

“Show me?”

“Certainly.”  Illya led the way up to the bedroom.

“And you were with him?”

“No, I was in Napa when this happened.  I just got in.” Napoleon stood by the foot of the bed, a look of amusement on his face.  It was obvious that he was going along with this just as a way of not making waves.

“Okay, so then what?”

Illya thought for a moment. “His mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear anything…”

“You can’t hear me…” Napoleon said softly.

“Of course I can, you’re standing right there, Napoleon.”  Illya turned to Matt and the woman rested a hand on his arm and shook her head.

“Talk to us.”

“You can’t hear me.  I scream and I scream, but you can’t hear me.  No one can… No one will.”  It was Napoleon, but at the same time, not Napoleon.  “Comely… why, darling?  I thought you loved me…”

Illya started to get up from the bed as Napoleon took a step towards the door.

“Don’t!”  Madeline caught Illya’s arm.  “We need to follow him. Let him show us what we need to see.”

“Like hell we do.”  Illya tackled Napoleon to the ground before she could say another word.

Napoleon looked up at Illya from his spot on the bedroom floor and smiled hesitantly, looking past to their friends and Madeline.  “I know I’ve been gone a few days, Illya, but we do have guests…”

“Blockhead.”  Illya gathered him up and hugged him hard, glaring at the woman.

“He could have answered our questions,” Madeline argued.

“The ghost walked through the banister.”  Illya stood and confronted her.   “The stairs that were there are long gone. It wasn’t worth risking Napoleon to a broken neck!  To hell with whatever you’re doing.”

He returned to Napoleon and Rocky grabbed her arm, shaking his head.  “Let him cool down, Del.  Trust me on this one.”

                                                                                ****

They gathered again downstairs. Napoleon looking confused and Illya still looking defensive.

Not unexpected, Del thought to herself. She hadn't expected such clear receivers; how in the world they had not run into problems earlier in their lives was beyond her. She arranged slices of sweet, sticky dessert bread on a plate and took it over to the coffee table.

"Eat some. Food helps center you in your body, it anchors you in place. Besides, Rocky won't share if he doesn't have to."  She nudged the plate toward the men. Then she started removing her jewelry. There was a lot of it. She piled it beside the still lit candle.

"Del, what are you thinking?"  Rocky asked quietly, watching her carefully.

"Rocky, we have to do it this way. Your friends aren't trained and they don't want a crash course in expelling riders. I have the training and you get to do the fun part.  And I promise I won't make you spend the night in the dining room. You still remember the safe word?"

"I remember how to call you back, yes. But..."  Doubt was evident in his protest.

"Rocky, honey, I'll be fine. I'm a lot stronger now than I was when we were kids."

The cats made a reappearance, again weaving around her ankles so she sat on the floor and immediately had a lapful of purring feline worry.

"It's ok, sweets, I will keep that other one away from you. He's not angry, you know.  He's confused, that’s all," she murmured to the cats, who settled down.

She looked up to find three men staring at her with varying degrees of incredulity and amusement and her cousin, looking anxious. "Don't worry, Rocky, you just have to ask questions, take notes. That's all. Promise."  She continued to pet the purring cats, calm in the face of Rocky's unease.

“Comely, why is that name familiar, Cara?”  Matt found his voice finally.   “I have heard it before.”

“Um… the only Comely I know is Comely Collier…

“The one that Judge Smith subito la grande passione per?” 

“Yes, that would be her.” Rocky looked back over his shoulder to where Illya was sitting with Napoleon..  “Chef, the guy you saw, was he young or old?”

“Young to me, about 30 or so.  He was dressed in ill-fitting clothes, clean, but tattered.”

“Bearded or clean shaven?”

“Clean shaven, about  5’11” or so.  Blond, I think, it was hard to say.”

“You have good powers of observation,” Madeline ventured.

“Our lives depended upon it, once upon a time.” 

“Madeline, we need to wait a bit.”  Rocky headed for the door.  “I need to grab Steve before he leaves the museum…”  Another breath and he was gone.

Illya looked after him for a moment and then sighed, as he picked up a piece of bread.  “Ghost or not, Matt, we still have stuff to do.  I’ll eat a night of service, but I won’t lose a week’s worth of produce as well.”  He paused to take a bit of the bread and chew.   “This is very good. You made this?”

“Baking helps me think.  I think you should open for business as usual, Illya,” Madeline said.  “Ghosts are usually shy, just appearing to one or two people.  You probably won’t have any trouble.”

                                                                                                ****

“Chef, we have trouble,” Roxanne said, resting a hand on Illya’s arm.

Illya wiped the sweat from his face and draped the towel around his neck.   He’d been contending with a basement door that kept opening and closing, utensils that disappeared and then reappeared at other stations and the sensation of being watched all night.  “More good news. What’s wrong this time?”

“Woman saw a guy in the restroom.”

“That happens, especially if someone isn’t paying attention or has been over-served.”

“Well, apparently, this guy realized the error of his ways and walked through the wall.  She’s a little rattled.”

“And we will proclaim that it was not one of Taste’s usual patrons.  How many people are left in the dining room?”

“The couple you’re cooking the entrees for and about a half dozen lingering over coffee.  There are a few more in the bar.”

“Any more reservations coming in?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Turn the sign, Roxie; I’ve had enough for this evening.”  He grimaced and shifted.  “My feet are killing me.”

“Yes, Chef.”

He reached for his tongs and they were missing.  He sighed and then, loudly, “Enough!”  The kitchen grew quiet as his staff turned to momentarily look questioningly at him and then return to their tasks.  When Illya looked down, his tongs were where he’d left them.  He turned back to his sauté pan, ignoring the face of the young man who stared back at him from it.  It had been a very long night.

Rocky had returned from the museum too late to say much.  He’d dashed home to dress and returned with just a few moments to spare.  Madeline had tried to talk to him, but he’d held firm.  This was not the time for such things.  They’d left her and the cats back in the house.  Unfortunately, the ghost chose to follow them to the restaurant instead, making his presence known in a dozen different ways.

                                                                                *****

Napoleon returned to the house he shared with Illya, and apparently something else, at least temporarily.  He opened the door to find that Madeline had opened her case again and had unpacked several items.  He stood inside the door and watched her trim wicks on candles with a little pair of silver scissors.  When she was done, she turned to him and smiled.

“Rocky said you would want this?”  He held up her tape recorder.

“Yes, thank you.”  She stood and walked over to him, still smiling.  “How are you feeling?  No dizziness or headache?”

“Illya didn’t tackle me that hard.”  The corners of Napoleon’s mouth played with a smile.

“No, but having an entity pushing its way in can be uncomfortable.  You, and apparently Matt as well, are susceptible.  Easily fixed.”

“You realize that I have no idea what you are talking about, right?”  The smile burst forth.

Del laughed, “I’m sorry, yes, I suppose Rocky wouldn’t have said much about our childhood adventures.”  She turned and took the recording device over to her case.  She picked up some items and began laying them out on the coffee table.  “I will tell you what I can, you are free to believe or not, as you like.  And Rocky can keep his secrets.  Poor darlin’.”

Napoleon joined her, seating himself and watching as she sorted stones into piles, poured salt into bowls and uncapped a bottle of water to pour into other bowls.  It all seemed orderly and utterly mundane, and yet she did this with a little bit of ceremony even as she talked to him, the cats once again close to her, leaning on her, and acting as if she was theirs.

“I’m going to cleanse your space here, then eventually the restaurant as well.  But first I hope I can help whoever is trapped there to move on.  We have free will even after we pass over, you see, and sometimes entities are trapped and sometimes they just don’t want to leave.  The trapped ones are usually happy to escape.  It’s not just a rewind though; that is certain.”

“What?” 

“Sorry, really.  I’m distracted.  Let me start over.”  She smiled and again Napoleon was struck by her resemblance to her cousin, which only showed itself in small details.

She set everything down and looked up at Napoleon, focusing on him while her hands petted and soothed the cats that had climbed into her lap again.  “I don’t have any scientific proof or anything to back this up, only my experience, so with that in mind, here goes.”  She took a breath, sighed it out, and started to speak again.  “There are different kinds of haunts, Napoleon; there are ones with some kind of purpose or active seeming intelligence behind them, ones that can communicate after a fashion, such as the one you have discovered here.  There are places where the energy of a thing is imprinted, like Civil War battlegrounds where the battles can be heard years later.  There is no intelligence behind that; it’s what I call a rewind.  The event or series of events has imprinted on the place, the emotion was so strongly attached to the thing that happened that it can be seen and felt and sometimes heard over and over, but there is nothing there directing that energy.” 

She reached out and picked up one of the stones.  “This is smoky quartz, I use it to help dispel negative energy.  It acts like a buffer.  I will set these out to mark a boundary; it marks where the outside influences cannot come in.”  She set the stone down and indicated the salt and water.  “Those will also mark that boundary, reinforcing the circle and setting the intention of protection.”  She picked up a dried pale green leaf.  “This is sage; I burn it to cleanse the space and energy of a place or person.”

Napoleon had been listening and felt he understood the gist, if not the entire explanation.  And it was obvious that she believed what she was talking about.  He also detected a bit of weariness, if not wariness.  She had given this lecture before and was used to disbelief.  He had seen enough strange things, experienced enough strange things in his life that he could give her the benefit of the doubt.  Who was he to point fingers, after all?  He wouldn’t be where he was if he questioned every strange occurrence in his life.

“Well, what can I do to help?”

“Seriously?”

Napoleon shrugged and smiled.  “I don’t have to believe in Buddha to know his followers are sincere, I don’t have to be a Christian to attend services with my neighbor and know that they gain comfort from them.  So if I don’t have the same experiences you have, I can still understand that this is something you find helpful and if you say it will work, I know it will.  If it looks like a spiritual practice and sounds like a spiritual practice, likely it is one.”  He raised a brow questioningly.

“Yes, this is part of my practice.  I don’t usually tell cli.., er, anyone that.”

“You get people needing ghost exterminators at a greenhouse?”

“No, I have been clearing spaces of entities for a lot longer than I have worked in the greenhouse.  People talk, I get calls, then I have clients.  Not that I charge, you understand.”

“You don’t get paid for making things that go bump in the night disappear?”

“No.  That smacks a bit too much of those con artists who rook little old ladies out of their retirement funds by telling them they have a curse and the only way to remove the curse is to pay them loads of cash.  Besides, in cases like this, I am really here to help whoever is trapped and they couldn’t pay me anyway.”

“But you could refuse to help them until whoever owned the house paid.”

“I don’t make a very good extortionist, Napoleon.  I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face while I did it.”  They both laughed; the cats, taking exception to the noise, moved off toward their food bowls.

“So, to return to the topic at hand, how can I help?”

“I could really use a large glass of water.  It’s going to be thirsty work; you have a lot of space.”

Napoleon looked around the cozy house and back to her with a questioning look.

“Not just inside, you have a patio out there, and I am going to ward the outside as well as the inside.  It will be a lot of walking and muttering.  Boring for you, though, really.”

“Are you sure you just want water?”

“Yes.  Water is hydrating and cleansing, helpful in lots of ways.  If we were doing a home blessing, then we’d go for wine, but that is more of a celebration and usually involves everyone who lives in the place, though a cleansing can be combined with the blessing.  But today, it’s just about the clearing out.”

Del had told him that he could go about his normal activities, but he found watching her interesting and so settled in to do so.  She first lit a circle of five candles around the main room of the house, then picked up a bowl of salt and a bowl of water and five of the stones and went outside, so he followed.  She started at the front door, setting the stones and bowls on the steps and then going back for the sage, a whole bundle of the dried leaves held together with twine. 

Napoleon sat at the picnic table on the patio and watched as she took the sage bundle and lit one end from a lighter in her pocket.  Then she took the stones and passed them in the smoke rising from the bundle and started to walk around the perimeter of the house; he saw her pause at each corner and bend down to push a stone into the dirt next to the foundation.  She continued along; when she came back into his sight she did the same and then at the front door she placed the last stone.  Then she took the sage and circled the patio and the garage, then did one more circuit of all the property, ending again at the door.  She picked up the salt next.  Napoleon cleared his throat.

Del glanced over her shoulder at him.

“Are you going to have to do that whole circuit again with salt and then water?”

“Around the house, yes.”

“Would it be appropriate to offer my help again?”

She smiled.  “If you want to be part of your home cleansing, that would be appropriate, yes.  You see it is a very repetitive thing, this.”

Napoleon stood and walked to the front door and joined her.  “So, what was it that you did so far?”

“I set the wards, the stones represent the boundary markers for the house, the sage is to clear the energy and now we will set the boundary with salt and water; I have included the rest of the space in the sage smudge to push out the larger space as cleared.  We will use the salt and water only on the house circle and then inside as well.  Salt is purifying, water cleanses.  These elements strengthen the main circle.  So if you would like to take that water, I will show you what to do.”

Napoleon followed at a distance, listening to the mantra that Madeline repeated.  ‘Only creatures of the Light may enter this space, Only creatures of the Light may dwell in this place.’  She had told him that he could repeat that phrase if he wanted, or instead, if it was more comfortable, he could remember all the good things that had happened in his home, reinforcing the thought that only good things belonged here. 

As he dipped his fingers in the bowl of water and then flicked the water along the edge of the house where he followed along behind Del, he thought of all the love and joy he had experienced here.  He thought also of all the past he shared with his partner.

He remembered seeing Taste for the first time and wondering what he’d find and that first very exceptional night.  He remembered when Vinea was a nothing more than a concept and how he’d, no, they’d nurtured it into a thriving business, for Illya had been right behind him every step of the way, loving and supporting.  Every part of this house was now theirs, from the flowers and shrubs that surrounded the house to the neat patio lined with furniture and a fire pit for those cold winter nights.  He looked at the back porch, remembered the hot tub, a place of discovery, and in their case, the rebirth of their commitment to each other.  So many thoughts, so many memories attached itself to this place, but all of them fond because of their association with his partner.

He finally joined Del at the door again and she picked the sage bundle off the stoop where it had stopped smoldering.

“Would you like to continue with me inside?”

“I would, thank you.”

“It’s like a walking meditation, cleansing,” Madeline said as she opened the door and they stepped into the house.

At the coffee table she sat down the bowl and put the sage in an empty bowl.  Then she picked up the glass of water that Napoleon had put out for her, taking a long drink.

“Water, Napoleon, you need some.”  She smiled and he realized she was right; he was thirsty.  He brought a pitcher from the refrigerator and refilled her glass and poured one for himself.

Again he watched as she went around the interior with the sage bundle, starting at the front door and paying particular attention to doors, windows, vents, drains, mirrors, and corners and opening closet doors and cupboards; she was methodical and concentrated.   Now he knew what she was murmuring so he watched he continued to remember, his first sight of the inside of the house and of Illya taking him just inside the door, the trials of remodeling and of all the joyful homecomings.

He remembered the rush of peace he’d experienced when realizing for the first time this was home, that Illya wanted him here forever.  Their first night as a joined couple and the time at Christmas when he’d walked in and found the entire place decorated, so many moments of laughter and loving that they all blended into a blur.

Inevitably, he remembered difficulties as well, Velon, Illya’s accident, the fights, the moments when two Alpha males collided, but in overcoming them, he and Illya grew stronger in their relationship, and Napoleon found even those memories wove themselves into a strength that he valued.

When Del finished upstairs and came back down she rejoined Napoleon at the couch, putting the smoldering sage in its empty bowl and picking up the fresh bowls of salt and water, handing the water to Napoleon.  He followed her to the front door and they started again.  She was right; it was like meditation, and he was flooded with more memories, more of them happy than not.  He followed some distance behind and was surprised at how peaceful this felt.

When they finished again, they stood at the coffee table and she poured the salt into a jar she took from her case, the water into another.  She held them in her hands, eyes closed.  Softly she started to speak. “God, Goddess, All that Is, Lord and Lady of Light, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, Spirit Within and Without, we thank you for your protection, we thank you for your attendance, we thank you for your guidance.  Let this place be safe and secure and whole for those who dwell within, for those who visit, for those who are within the circle of the love here.  Blessed be.”  She stood quietly then.

Napoleon felt the need for an ‘amen’ there, so echoed her ‘blessed be’ and was rewarded with a soft smile from Del.

He offered her a refilled glass of water and she put down the jars to take a drink.  “You have the idea now, Napoleon.  Thank you.” She finished the water in one long swallow.  She gathered the jars and put them in a cloth bag, then wrapped the again-cold sage stick in some tissue from her case and added it to the bag, closing the drawstring.  She handed the bundle to Napoleon.  “Anytime you feel like you need some peace, you can renew the wards, just like we set them today.  You can also shove that in the back of the closet and forget about it.  Either way is fine with me.  But you are part of the energy here, so you can affect it when you need to, or if you just want to feel peaceful and relaxed.”

Napoleon set it aside and refilled her glass as they sat on the couch.  “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“Why was Rocky disturbed when you took off your jewelry?” It was still in a pile on the coffee table by the candle she had lit at the start.

“I use my rings and pendants and things to ground myself, to anchor me in myself.  When I take them off it means that I am going to let an entity ride me, and that makes Rocky nervous.”

“Ride?”

“I allow an entity to speak through me, to use my body as its vessel for a time.  Like the entity tried to do with you today, and I guess Matt as well from what Rocky said.”   Del sighed.  “Rocky has seen a lot of things I am sure he has never told anyone about, and Riders make him very unhappy.  But for everyone’s safety, it will be best if it is me that takes it on.  I know how to make them leave without too much damage.”

She leaned over to her case and took out the tape recorder, popped the back off and replaced the batteries, then hit the rewind button.

“You always change the batteries before playing a tape?”

“When they’re dead.”

“You said that you had fresh batteries.”

She reached in the case and handed Napoleon a battery tester and the batteries she had taken from the device.  He took them and fitted one battery in the test unit.  It registered No Charge.  He repeated the exercise with the other batteries and all of them were drained.  He handed the whole lot back to her and she shrugged, replacing them in her case.  The recorder finished rewinding.  Del hit play and after a moment her voice issued from the speaker, stating the date and time, location and then her name and that of the owners of the restaurant. 

There was a moment of silence and then her voice again, “I know you are here.  I want to listen.”  Then the sound of her sitting the recorder down and the sound of the front door closing.  There was a mild static of silence, and then the sound of scraping wood, the tables and chairs rearranging themselves, then the clink of glassware.  More static followed, and there seemed to be an increase in static, then more scraping and clinking.  This pattern repeated and repeated.  Del shut off the recorder and rewound the tape again.

“We may get something; at least the sound of the furniture is there.  I have a friend with some sensitive sound equipment and maybe he can analyze this for me later in the week.”

“What are you expecting?”

“Sometimes voices can be recorded, sometimes patterns in the static resolve into words.”

She took the rewound tape out and wrote the date and location on the cassette, replaced it in its case and tucked it into a pocket of the recorder case, replacing it with a fresh blank tape.

“May I interest you in some dinner?  I happen to know all the best places, and they know me there, we’ll have no problems getting a table.”  Napoleon was smiling as he winked at her.

“You are quite the charmer.  But I am not dressed for fine dining, you see.”

“I think they’ll make an exception, this once.” 

“I’d hate to get you in hot water with the management.”

“Quite the contrary, Illya does some of his best work in hot water.  And, if I’m lucky, he can always take it out of my hide later, if he likes.”

Del smirked and rose from the couch.  “Let me take care of some business then, and I will allow you to treat me to dinner.  Thank you, Napoleon.”

Napoleon stood and gave her a charming smile.  He watched as she checked the candles, all of them had gone out, melted away to nothing.  When she had gathered her things and returned them to her case, he showed her to the downstairs bath and he cleared the glasses and pitcher from the coffee table.

“Ready?” he asked as she emerged from the bathroom, face shiny pink from being freshly washed and her chestnut hair piled high on her head. 

“Almost; do you have a sweater I could borrow, I’m a little chilly.”

“Hmm, well, you are more Illya’s size than mine, but I think I can find something.”  He went up the stairs easily and returned a moment later with a soft blue pullover.

“Mmm, cashmere.”  She hugged it for a moment before pulling it on.  “How did you know I was so tactile?”

“Only the best for my guy. And I didn’t; it was just a lucky guess and I never get to see him wear it so someone should make use of it.”

“Doesn’t it fit?”

“He’s usually too hot to wear it.”

“Hot, I can so get that.  You’re a lucky man, Napoleon.”

Napoleon offered her his arm and he grinned.  “And don’t I know it?”

                                                                                ****

Roxanne looked up as they came through the door, about to tell them they were closed.  Instead she grinned. 

“Welcome back home, Napoleon!  I thought you were gone for a couple more days.”

“Wrapped up things early and hate to stay away too long, just in case you realize you don’t need me here.”

“Don’t need you?  You’re the only thing that keeps Chef from combusting most nights and tonight was like most nights.”

“It’s been bad in here?” Del asked her.

Roxanne looked at her politely.   "Business as usual,” she said, smiling and leading the way to a small corner table, Napoleon’s usual.

“Oh, Roxanne, my dear, this is Rocky’s cousin, Madeline.  She’s… family.”

“In that case, Chef’s been struggling.”  She handed over menus.  “And Rocky hasn’t been having a good night either.  I’ve never seen him spill anything before.”

“They’re ignoring the ghost and he’s been escalating.”  Del scanned the menu.  “I don’t… I just want a salad.”

“Well, you won’t ‘just’ get a salad, not here.  Roxie, my love, let Illya know it’s us and that the lady wants a salad.”

“You got it.  Something to drink?”

“Water and I’d like a bottle of Soave, Chardonnay tonight.”

“You got it!”

She hurried away and Madeline watched after her.  “She’s got a nice aura.”

“I think it’s new.”  Napoleon stopped and then smiled.  “Aura’s a perfume, right?”

“Not exactly.”  She giggled and took his hand.  “My cousin is lucky to have friends like you.  His childhood wasn’t a good one.  He’s always been… different. “

“Gay.”

“No, sensitive to other dimensions and to other experiences.  Both of us have, really.  My dad thought it was his ticket to Easy Street and tried to turn us into some dog and pony show.  He got the local cops involved once on a murder case.  He said we could solve it, brought in the media and when the murderer realized I was going to spill his guts, as it were, he attacked me.  Rocky got in the middle of it and stopped him, but it wasn’t pretty.  We were pretty shaken up afterwards and promised each other that we would stop then and there.  He did, I… didn’t.  There are just so many poor souls who need help.”

“You two, you’re one of a kind, wanting to help and serve. I can see where he get its now.”

“For the record, you’ve got your early comment turned around.  Illya’s lucky to have you.”

“And I would agree with that.”  Illya set down a plate in front of her and another in front of Napoleon.

Madeline stared at her plate.  “I wanted a salad.”

“Yes?”  Illya grabbed a chair from a nearby table and spun it around to be able to straddle it and rest his arms on the back of it.

“This is a masterpiece; I can’t eat this.”

“Then I have succeeded as an artist, but failed as a chef.  What good is my food if you won’t eat it?”

“I, on the other hand, don’t have that problem.”  Napoleon reached out a fork and speared one of the white asparagus tips from her plate.   “There, it’s ruined now – you might as well eat it.”  Rocky chuckled as he arrived with the water and the wine.  With practiced ease, Rocky uncorked the bottle, pausing to smell the cork.

“Animal!” Madeline protested with a laugh.

“Only to my closest friends.”  Napoleon tasted the wine and nodded.  Rocky filled his glass and then a second one that he handed to Illya.  His cousin was served only water.

She laughed.  “What do you have?”

“No idea.  Partner?”

“Pork Loin Calvados, accompanied by baked apples, duchess potatoes rolled in slivered almonds, and baby carrots.”

“And one exhausted chef.”  Napoleon reached out to touch Illya’s cheek and Illya smiled sleepily.

“I won’t say the thought of bed tonight isn’t mighty appealing.”  Illya sipped and then took a deeper swallow.

“Sorry, guys, we got stuff to do before then.”  Madeline looked up from her plate.  “This is really good.”

“Speaking of such, what do you do now?”

“I’d like all non-essential folks to depart.  The fewer the people, the easier the process.”

“I can do that.”  Illya stood and stretched.  “Give me about five minutes.  It will give you time to eat.”

“That way we don’t become the floor show.” Rocky’s voice was a fierce whisper.

“Not anymore, at any rate.”  Del’s voice had taken on the disinterested tone again.

“I will not see you hurt.”

“Rocky, you don’t have to, okay?”  Del put a hand on her cousin’s arm.  “Anyone can record, take notes, or ask questions.  You can wait in the house if you’d prefer.  It’s cleared.  Okay?”

“No, it’s my job, my responsibility to keep you safe.”

“Rocky, honey, no, it hasn’t been, not for a long time.  You know I love you, and I don’t want to cause you trouble or pain.”  She put her other hand on his cheek, asking with her touch that he look at her. 

Rocky looked up and saw her care.  “No, Del, I will do this.  This is my place too.  It’s all ours, we all sweat and bleed for this place.  I will do this.”

“I don’t care if they want to watch.  As long as none of them are mass murderers that might have victims come calling.”  She smiled and then sobered as she saw Rocky go pale.  “Rocky, I’m sorry, that was a joke.  I think our spirit from the closet is long enough dead that none of these people had anything to do with putting it there.”

“I am sure they didn’t, and nobody will attack you for finding out what happened.”

They watched as Taste quieted, the last few customers left and the crew departed for the night.  Illya locked up behind them and returned to the dining room.  Rocky had cleared the emptied plates away and Napoleon was savoring a second glass of wine.

Madeline looked from them to Rocky and then Matt as the redhead dragged up a chair to join them.

“Well then, let’s get a move on, right?  I want to get this out of the way so I can spend some time cleansing the place.”

“Should we hold hands?”

“If you want to, but I don’t need it.  Ready when you are, Rocky.”

Rocky started the tape recorder, then stated the date and time, location and witnesses present before setting it out of the way against the wall. 

Del moved to the middle of the floor, waiting.  Rocky turned to her, she nodded and then closed her eyes.  Rocky watched her face and when he saw the change and felt the difference in her energy, he started to speak.  “Can you tell us your name?”

The voice that came out of Del’s mouth was hers, and not hers.  The rhythm of her speech was different, as was the pitch, vocabulary, even the expression on her face.  When she opened her eyes they were dilated, pupils huge and drowning the color of her eyes in dark.

“Nate… Nathan Cook…”

“Can you tell us what year this is, Nate?”

“The year of our Lord, 1862.”

“Good, Nate.”  Rocky looked over at Matt and gave him a reassuring smile.  “Can you tell us what happened?”

“Comely, why did you do it?”

“What did she do, Nate?”

“She plumb shot me!”

“I didn’t mean to!”

The second voice surprised all of them, none so much as Illya for it was Napoleon who spoke, but it wasn’t Napoleon.  Illya reached for him and Rocky caught his hand.  “Don’t touch him, Illya.  You could kill him.”

“But…”  Illya was obviously torn.  “Napoleon.”

“Napoleon’s okay.  He’s just got someone riding along with him.”

Napoleon had risen, walking with a decidedly feminine gait to Madeline.  “I got tired of you sniffin’ ‘round.”

“That ain’t fair!  I was good enuf for you when you were poor!  Then that judge fella came and suddenly you were too good for the likes of me.”  Madeline came to stand before Napoleon.  “But I still loved you.  I’ll love you forever, Comely.”

“I know that; that’s why I refused the Judge.  He even shot my Daddy, I didn’t budge.”

“Till Ben Calhoun come around.”

“I had to, Nate,” Napoleon/Comley protested.   “I was an old woman of thirty by then, nobody wanted me… well, nobody who counted fer much.”

“How did you die, Nate?” Rocky asked gently.

“I shot ‘em, but I didn’t mean to…” Napoleon’s voice was so sad.  “The Judge came and he said he was tired of Nate botherin’ me, so he told everyone that Nate had been trying to take advantage of me and I shot ‘em in self defense.”

“So what happened, Nate?”

“They took me downstairs – it was the prison then.”  The laugh was bitter.  “They fixed me up so I’d live so they could hang me.  Threw me in chains, like I was an animal or something,’ but no one would believe me.”  A deep sigh.  “That’s when the fire came.  They all ran for it and left me there.  I died saying your name, darlin’.”

“That’s why I’m here, Nate.  Come with me now; there ain’t nothing for you here.”  Napoleon held out his hand.  “It’s time, my darling.”

“I’m scared…”  Madeline took his hand and drew Napoleon into her arms.

“Don’t be.”   They kissed and Illya averted his gaze as if witnessing something too personal to be shared, then Rocky yelled -

“Grab them!” as both man and woman crumpled to the floor.  Rocky went for Madeline and Illya Napoleon.  Rocky drew Madeline up into his lap and began to rock back and forth, whispering something over and over again.

Illya couldn’t hear what was being said, but it didn’t matter.  He murmured the one thing certain to bring a response.  “Napoleon, I need you.  C’mon, partner.”

“Where are we going?”  The voice was tired sounding and Napoleon blinked sleepily at him.  “Should I even ask why we are on the floor again?”  Whatever he might have said after that was stymied by a kiss.

                                                                                                ****

Madeline breathed in the steam from the tea and rubbed her forehead.

“You can leave whatever you need to do until tomorrow,” Illya suggested.

“Not if I’m going to sleep in here.  There’s still a lot of energy floating around that needs to be redirected.”

“We have a guest room…” Illya started, then Napoleon pulled him close to whisper.

“Not likely she’ll get much sleep with all the screaming you’ll be doing.” 

Matt leaned over to Madeline.  “I don’t know what he said, but when Chef gets that look in his eye, it’s usually wiser to stay with us.”

“All of you are sweet, but I need to do this.”

“What if we all help?” Napoleon asked.

“That would be fine with me, but I’m not sure a couple of you are up for it.”

“Never count the Russian out,” Napoleon advised.  “Many have tried and they all saw the error of their ways.”

                                                                                ****    

While Del was outside with a sage smudge and stones, circling the restaurant in the dark, the four men sat at a table and drank the rest of the wine Napoleon had ordered with dinner.  They were, for the most part, quiet, except they all maintained physical contact with their partners, as if afraid that the other would be spirited off.

“I don’t like the idea of her all alone in here tonight,” Illya set his empty glass aside and ran a hand through his hair.

"Chef, the entities are gone.  She’ll insist on it, and she is stubborn.”   Rocky was stroking the back of one of Matt’s hands with long fingers.

“I am fairly certain I can out-stubborn her.  We have a perfectly good guest room --”

“Winston’s apartment above Vinea is still empty, clean and furnished,” Napoleon interrupted.  “And it’s just sitting there, waiting for him to come back from school…”

“Good.  Rocky, you will help us convince your cugino testardo to stay in a nice bed, no?”

“We’ll see who the stubborn cousin is in all of this,” Illya murmured and Napoleon chuckled.

“Now, if I was a betting man, I’d put five on the cugino testardo, but ten on the Russian.”

“I can’t wait to see this,” Rocky said to his partner.

Del returned and found the men with satisfied, if sleepy, looks.  She suspected something, but let it slide.  “Gentlemen, are you ready?”

The four stood then, and awaited instruction.

She handed Napoleon the bowl of water, Illya a bowl of salt, to Matthew she gave an incense censer hanging from a chain, already emitting a spicy warm smoke, and finally to Rocky she gave a candle.  Rocky reached over and lit it from the candle she had lit in a container, then fit the lit candle into its holder.

“These represent the four elements, the salt is for earth and stability, the water for emotional balance.  The candle for fire and the passion you put into your lives and work, and the incense is for air, clarity and right thinking.  The frankincense and myrrh incense purifies and protects.  Together, you all add your spirit into the mix, your love and friendship, your willingness to dare and dream together, your spirits agreeing to this journey to grow and share with each other.  We are going to circle the outside of Taste, and then come in and create the circle in here, a circle of protected space, a place to thrive.  You don’t have to do anything but think about all the good things you have seen and done and experienced here, and all the good things you want for the future here.  I’ve already warded the circle outside, now we are reinforcing that protection.”

Napoleon had told Illya and Matt about his experience at the house, so they were prepared.  All the men nodded and followed her outside.  Del led the way with the sage, murmuring her mantra.  Napoleon started, followed by Illya using his fingers to sprinkle pinches of salt along the foundation, then Matthew with his incense and Rocky shielding the candle from the breeze.  It was a clear night and the moon was nearly full, adding its light to the streetlights, so it was easy to see.  Once they were inside again, Napoleon hung back at the door, allowing Del some time to make her way.  Illya touched his arm and looked a question at his lover.  Napoleon leaned close to him, cupping his face gently.

 “She’ll be a while, take my word.  She’s thorough.  We’ll lag behind a bit and then follow her.” 

When she had gotten to the kitchen door, Napoleon started to follow, and the others continued behind him.  She was still opening cupboards when the men came as far as the kitchen, again they watched as she waved the fragrant smoke around openings and windows and doors and drains. 

When she was done she opened the basement door and started down.  The rest followed when they reached the door.  They circled around the basement behind Del, Rocky had picked up the chant and their voices blended into a soothing sing song, ‘only creatures of the Light’.  It was comforting, and the rest of the circuit of the restaurant seemed to take only moments.

Upstairs again, Del gathered the candles and items she had put out, taking the same care as she had in the house.  As she did this, Rocky brought out water and poured for them all, and Del smiled her thanks.

“I must have gotten a second wind, because I feel energized.” Matt drained his glass and stretched happily.

“It’s not unusual to feel like that after, Matthew.  It’s because we all contribute to the process,” Rocky told him. 

“Have the energies been properly redistributed?”  Illya asked after he finished his glass of water in one long swallow.

“You tell me, how does the place feel?  Don’t edit with your logical mind, just let yourself feel the energy of the place,” Del answered.

Illya took a moment, closing his eyes and relaxing.  He remembered the feeling of rightness he had here, of how his place in the world felt and realized that it did indeed feel right again, no oddness or uneasiness.  He opened his eyes and nodded. 

Del reached out and laid a hand on Napoleon’s arm, and the other on Matthew’s.  “You two are wide open, you got targeted by the entities that were here because you were the most receptive.  Remember that phrase I was saying, repeat it if you ever feel like something is trying to get in that you don’t want in.  Think of this place and the peace you feel right now, let this be your shield against that invasion.  And of course, getting tackled by Illya will probably do the trick, too.”  She grinned at them when she said it.

“So you don’t need to stay the night here.”  Rocky made it a statement, making it equally clear that he would accept no argument from his cousin.

“I hate to admit it, but you might be right.  I feel sure that the place is buttoned up tight now, but I still want...”  Her jaw-cracking yawn interrupted whatever she might have said next.

“We have a guest room,” Illya started.

“You can stay with us…” Matt began at the same time and then stopped.  “You first, Cara, I have no fight left in me.”  

“I’m only guessing, by the looks of your auras,” Del replied with a smile, “there isn’t going to be much sleeping in either of your houses tonight.  Hope you’ve caught your second wind, Illya.  You’re going to need it.”

“There’s an apartment over Vinea that you are welcome to.  It’s a little dusty, but it’s quiet.”

“That sounds great!  I could probably drive home just as well…”  She yawned again. “… as wrapping myself around a tree in the process.  I accept your offer, Mr. Solo.”

“See, I told you, even now I can still get girls into bed.”

“Oh, Napoleon… I can’t believe you said…”

“Good God, Mr. S!”

“You sure you’re not Italian. Cara?”

For her part, Madeline just shook her head and laughed.

                                                                                ****

They had just settled into bed, arms around each other, when Napoleon’s head came up.

“What?”

“Did you hear something?”

“No… wait, yes, there’s someone knocking…”

“At this hour?”   Napoleon sat up and reached for his robe just as Illya was getting ready to stand.  “You stay here, I’ll be right back.  Anything you want from the kitchen?”

“Just you on a platter.”

“Hold that thought, I’ll be right back.”  Napoleon blew him a kiss and hurried away.

Napoleon hurried down the stairs and to the front door.  After checking the identity of the guest, he unlocked and opened the door.  “Madeline, what’s wrong, did you forget something?”

A very disheveled woman looked at him with wide eyes.  “Napoleon, we have a problem…”

 

And in case anyone is interested:  GeorgiaMagnolia’s most excellent punkin bread

 

Punkin-Orange Bread

1 1/2 Cups sugar
1/2 Cup shortening
2 eggs
1 Cup pumpkin
1/2 Cup undiluted orange juice concentrate, halved
1 2/3 Cups flour
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 Cup nuts

Use only half of the orange juice in the batter for the bread.  Bake at 350 degrees for an hour or until toothpick comes out clean.  Let cool for 5 minutes and then remove from pan.  Use a toothpick to make holes in the top of the loaf and pour remaining juice over top a little at a time and let absorb into bread.