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A coven of modern-day witches. A magical heist-gone-wrong. A looming threat.
Saturday, October 23rd
Half an hour before the alarm will be sounded for the first time in decades—drawing four frantic old women and geriatric crow from all corners of the sprawling manor—Ursula is awoken by insistent knocking, like giant knuckles rapping against glass. It’s an ominous sign, to be sure. The first of many.
Trying to rid herself of the sticky cobwebs of sleep, Ursula throws back the covers, groaning as her joints loudly voice their displeasure. She’s slept in the buff, as is her usual habit, and as she pads across the room, she’s more naked than the day she was born (being, as she is, one of those rare babies who came into the world fully encased in a caul).
Upon reaching the window, the cause of the ruckus is immediately obvious to Ursula; one of the Angel Oak’s sturdy branches is thumping against her third-floor window. Strong winds whip through the tree, making it shimmy and shake, giving the impression that it’s espousing the old adage to dance like no one’s watching, a quality that rather has to be admired in a tree. Either that, or it’s trembling uncontrollably with fear.
The forest, encroaching at the garden’s boundary, looks disquieted. It hangs its head low, bowing to a master who’s ordered it to bend the knee. As the charcoal sky churns, not a bird to be seen, the trees in the wood whisper incessantly. Whether they’re secrets or warnings, Ursula can’t tell, which only unsettles her further.
That infernal billboard that the city recently erected across from the manor property—with its aggressive gigantic lettering shouting, ‘Critchley Hackle Mega Complex Coming Soon!’—snaps in the wind, issuing small cracks of thunder. A storm is on its way, that much is clear. You don’t need to have Ivy’s particular powers to know as much.
Turning her back on the ominous view, Ursula heads for the calendar to mark off another mostly sleepless night. It seems impossible that after so many of them—night upon night, strung up after each other seemingly endlessly—only two remain until Ruby’s return, upon which Ursula will discover her fate.
Either Ruby knows or she doesn’t.
And if she does know, there’s the chance that she’ll want nothing more to do with Ursula. The thought makes her breath hitch, the accompanying stab of pain almost too much to bear. The best she can hope for under the circumstances is that Ruby will forgive her, releasing Ursula from the invisible prison her guilt has sentenced her to.
Too preoccupied with thoughts of Ruby to remember donning her robe, Ursula takes a seat at her mahogany escritoire. She lights a cone of mugwort and sweet laurel incense, watching as the tendril of smoke unfurls, inscribing itself upon the air. Inhaling the sweet scent, she picks up a purple silk pouch and unties it, spilling the contents onto her palm.
The tarot cards are all frayed around the edges, worn down from countless hours spent jostling through Ursula’s hands. Despite their shabbiness, they crackle with electricity, sparks flying as she shuffles them. After cutting the deck in three, Ursula begins laying the cards down, one after the other, on top of the heptagram she carved into the writing desk’s surface almost eighty years ago.
The first card, placed in the center, is The Tower. Unfortunate souls tumble from the top of a fortress that’s been struck by lightning, flames engulfing it. Ursula experiences a jolt of alarm at the sight of it for The Tower has to signify the manor; and anything threatening their home, threatens them all.
The second card, placed above the first at the one o’clock position, can only represent Tabitha. It’s the Ten of Swords, depicting a person lying face down with ten swords buried in their back. The last time Ursula saw the card, she’d made a mental note to make an appointment with her acupuncturist, but now, following so soon after The Tower, it makes her shift nervously.
The third, fourth and fifth cards, placed at the three o’clock, four-thirty and six o’clock positions, depict a person (who must be Queenie) struggling under too heavy a load; a heart pierced by swords (signifying Ursula); and a horned beast towering above a man and woman who are shackled together (obviously Jezebel). Ursula whimpers to see so many dreaded cards clustered together.
Moving faster now, she lays out the sixth, seventh and eighth cards at the seven-thirty, nine and eleven o’ clock positions. Ursula gasps as she studies the man crying in his bed, nine swords hovering above him (which can only denote Ursula’s guilt as it pertains to Ruby); the armored skeleton on horseback (representing the town of Critchley Hackle); and the two bedraggled souls trudging barefoot through the snow (definitely Ivy). Taking in all eight sinister cards makes Ursula tremble much like the Angel Oak.
Based on the spread, Ursula absolutely should sound the alarm immediately, but she’s made mistakes in the past—lapses in judgment that resulted in terrible consequences—and so she wants to be a hundred percent certain first.
She shuffles the cards again, laying them down more deliberately this time, only to see the exact same shocking formation, the impending threat even more vivid than before. It couldn’t be any clearer if the Goddess herself had sent a homing pigeon with a memo bearing the message: Calamity is on its way! It’s knocking at the window, just waiting to be let in!
And yet, Ursula still doesn’t sound the alarm, because that’s what doubt does; it slips through the chinks in our defenses, eroding all sense of self until the only voice that should matter becomes the one that we don’t recognize anymore, the one we trust the least.
As a result of this estrangement from herself, Ursula has developed something of a compulsion, needing to triple check the signs before she calls attention to them, and so she stands and grabs her wand. She makes her way down the hallway past Ruby’s and Jezebel’s bedrooms at a bit of a clip before descending the west wing stairs.
It’s just before she reaches Ivy’s glass conservatory that Ursula breaks out into a panicked run.
Saturday, October 23rd
Ten minutes before Jezebel experiences the alarm, she’s lying in bed, her black hair fanned over the silk pillow, and her heavy-lidded brown eyes just opening. Her mouth feels cottony, and a hangover headache blankets her temples.
It’s Jezebel’s turn to make brunch, and she’s looking forward to surprising the women with a pancake picnic. It will have to be in Ivy’s conservatory, of course, since the October chill will make an outside gathering unpleasant and automatically preclude Tabitha from attending due to her debilitating agoraphobia.
This will be one of their last meals without Ruby, and Jezebel, for one, can’t wait for her old co-conspirator to return to their inner sanctum. It’s bewildering how, in Ruby’s absence, the sisterhood have gone from being bad-ass witches, who pulled off one of the greatest magical heists of all time, to becoming respectable outcasts whose days are now all carbon copies of each other.
Mornings begin with the downing of a dozen elixirs, tonics and smoothies (which Ivy still refuses to serve in shot glasses despite Jezebel’s constant entreaties to do so), followed by a series of stretches to prevent sex injuries (Jezebel), or breaking a hip while putting on their compression socks (everyone except Tabby who won’t be seen dead in them).
There are regimented mealtimes with everyone taking turns to cook (everyone except Queenie, of course, who burns everything she touches), followed by whatever work needs to be done in the distillery. After which there are planned group activities like bridge or bingo.
How did this happen? Jezebel wonders. When did I become so old? There was a time that the only group activity I would ever consent to was orgies. The wilder, the better.
Ruby will set them straight, resuscitating and reviving the dead-on-arrival mess they’ve become. Assuming Ruby is prepared to come home. Assuming she’ll start speaking to them all again.
A loud snork interrupts Jezebel’s thoughts and she rolls over, groaning to find a naked man sleeping next to her.
“Ken?” she says in an exaggerated whisper, poking his bare shoulder. “Ken, you need to go before my sisters wake up.” He harrumphs in reply, mumbling something Jezebel can’t make out because he’s lying face down. “What was that?”
He lifts his head. “I said my name’s not Ken.”
That’s unfortunate but not the first time she’s made that mistake. His name definitely rhymes with Ken; of that Jezebel is certain. “Ben?” she chances.
“No.” He slumps back down again.
She hazards another guess, quickly running out of options. “Glen?”
“For god’s sake, it’s Nigel,” he snaps, rolling over to lay on his back.
So much for that, Jezebel thinks. “Well, be that as it may, Nigel, you need to go.”
He props himself up on his elbows. “You live with your family?” The question is a delayed reaction to her earlier statement.
Jezebel could answer yes, she lives with her family—well, at least, what remains of it—but she knows Nigel doesn’t mean it in that way. She could explain it to him but what’s the point? He won’t remember, and every extra minute that he stays in her bed is another minute that she risks Queenie running into him on his way out.
Not in the mood for another one of Queenie’s lectures about the sisterhood’s safety after the last two break-ins, Jezebel just says, “Yes, and they won’t approve of your being here, I’m afraid, so you’ll need to leave.”
“I thought we might have another tumble in the old haystack.” Nigel’s gaze drops to Jezebel’s black satin negligee, its bodice pulled tight to display the breasts that have been the downfall of innumerable men and almost as many women. He wiggles his bushy eyebrows suggestively, looking down at his flaccid penis, clearly hoping it will show the same kind of fortitude as it did last night.
Poor fool isn’t to know that his raging erection was entirely Jezebel’s work, and that she regretted the help almost instantly. Certain men, when gifted a reliably rock-hard member, became like little boys with sticks. Nigel, unfortunately, turned out to be one of them. He was all poke and no stroke, his own pleasure being the entire point of his pointy end. Which had left Jezebel most unfulfilled.
If Nigel were a better lover, like the younger one from last week, Jezebel might be tempted to let him stay. “There won’t be any more tumbling,” she says, wistfully imagining Nigel taking a tumble down the stairs. “You really need to go.” Her thoughts are already on how the inclement weather ritual room might be the perfect picnic spot, less chance of Ursula’s allergies acting up in there than in the conservatory.
But, instead of skedaddling, Nigel lays back down again. “Rustle me up some coffee first like a good girl.”
“What did you just say?” Jezebel’s voice is pitched low, deceptively calm, like the air holding its breath before a hurricane.
“Some breakfast would be nice too,” Nigel says by way of response. “I like my eggs sunny side up.”
Jezebel leaps up, sending the suspended bed swaying back and forth. She lands next to it, hands on her hips, nostrils flaring.
Nigel has clearly never seen a woman move that fast and with such fluidity. It’s to his detriment that he notes as much. “Wow, you can really motor for an old girl.”
Jezebel’s eyes flash with rage, steely blue sparks flying from them so that they resemble one of Queenie’s welding rods. Nigel jolts like he’s been shocked with a Taser.
Fury builds inside Jezebel, escaping through her mouth. “Get. Out,” she shrieks.
Nigel doesn’t move, though whether it’s out of obstinacy or shock, it’s difficult to tell. Jezebel raises her hand, pointing her index finger just beyond where Nigel sits gaping. His clothes, discarded on the floor last night, begin rising, seemingly of their own volition.
First the shirt, then his trousers. And then his tie, belt, underpants, shoes and socks. As Nigel watches, open-mouthed, the loose items of clothing suddenly fuse together as though in the grip of an invisible giant’s hand. While keeping her finger trained on the bundle, Jezebel raises her other hand and makes a flicking motion at the bay window. which flings open with a whooshing noise.
It flings open with a whooshing sound and the wind, now unleashed inside, sends the draperies billowing and animates Jezebel’s hair. If Nigel were better read, Medusa might spring to mind. With another flick, Jezebel sends the cannon ball of clothing rocketing across the room and out the window.
“Hey!” Nigel objects, bolting upright. “What the hell—”
“Be a good boy and run along now,” Jezebel commands.
Nigel jumps up and starts backing away from her. “You’re a crazy bitch, do you know that? What are you getting all hysterical for?”
Well. That. Is. It.
The sparks flying from Jezebel’s eyes ratchet up to a pyrotechnic display. Bringing her hands together in a circle, she conjures what looks like a ball of turquoise fire. It crackles ecstatically between her fingers before she draws her hand back and throws it at Nigel with her pitching arm.
He squeals as it strikes him in the chest. A poof of smoke goes up and then Nigel is gone. In his place, stands a little black, pot-bellied pig.
“You’ll find your clothes around the back on the lawn. Just don’t go wandering off into the forest. I’m not coming to save you.” Jezebel touches her middle and index fingers to her lips, blowing the pig a kiss. When it finds its target, the pig’s eyes glaze over and it smiles stupidly.
Having issued her instructions, Jezebel shuts the door firmly behind Nigel, returning to bed with a sigh. She splays herself across the silken sheets, closing her eyes as she tries to calm the fire in her blood. Losing her temper is never a good thing. It’s best to distract herself so that the mood can’t ripen into something truly dangerous.
Jezebel conjures up the memory of a particularly languorous threesome she enjoyed on a sultry Saturday afternoon in Tuscany when she visited Italy in her fifties. She slips her hand beneath her satin panties, thinking that sometimes the best way to get something done is to do it yourself.
Jezebel doesn’t yet know that despite her best efforts, she won’t reach climax because the alarm will sound in less than five minutes. It’s one that’s only ever used when the coven is in peril, and the lifelong companions are threatened with being separated. The last time they heard it, thirty-three years ago, they lost two of their sisters.