VICIOUS CIRCLE
Persephone Alcmedi Series, Book 1
Linda Robertson

This book is dedicated to…

my parents, of course.

Mom, thanks for being an avid reader yourself, and for keeping imaginative little me supplied with books. More moms should be like you.

Dad, I know you’re proud of me.

And to my boys.

See? Dreams can come true with hard work and perseverance.

THANK YOUS:

Red-Caped Hero Thanks

to Mr. Thomas Grandy, my high school creative writing teacher. Because of you, I kept on believing in myself all these many long years.

and to Linda Partlow. Not all friends are created equal, but writing friends are the best kind. You not only read but offered support, critiques, sarcasm, witty ridicule (whether or not I deserved it), and the occasional “now-I-really-think-you’re-weird” shrugs. How cool is that?

Java-n-Chocolate Thanks

to my writing group, the Ohio Writers Network. Michelle, Laura, Melissa, Rachel, Emily, Faith, and Lisa. This bunch is so cool they even have a mascot….

Margarita Thanks

to my editor, Paula Guran.

Where’s my thimbleful? José!

Howling Thanks

to Jim Lewis. You love me exactly as I am. Wow.

Reverent Gratitude

to my Muse who has many names.

Chapter 1

Half past six A.M. A ruggedly handsome man…Arthur, yes, Arthur…held me in his strong arms, gazing into my eyes with sensitivity and understanding and desire, and he was about to kiss me, and—

The sound of the garage door opening ruined my perfectly romantic dream. Blissful slumber broken, I shot out of bed ready to defend my home.

With a baseball bat in my white-knuckled grip, I eased an erratic path—to avoid the squeaky spots—down the stairs. I crept toward the kitchen; the eastern windows were still dark. Ahead, a door on the right connected the house to the garage. I could hear someone starting up the steps out there.

Holding my breath, I hefted the bat.

The door opened.

“Damn wærewolves dumping Krispy Kreme boxes on the lawn.”

“Nana.” I sighed, relaxing and lowering the bat. I slipped it behind the door.

She didn’t even glance my way as she stepped in with the newspaper and a ragged-looking pastry box. Grass blades clung to her pink fuzzy slippers. The paperboy must have missed the driveway again.

She’d just moved in yesterday, so I wasn’t used to her being here yet. Clearly, an eighty-four-year-old woman didn’t need as much sleep as I expected.

With a Marlboro pinched in the corner of her mouth, she shuffled across the kitchen and asked, “So you get up early nowadays, Persephone?”

I snorted. “No. And I didn’t know that you stopped sleeping in.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, the crack of dawn is my new alarm clock.”

“You’re still early.”

“Blame the nurses,” Nana said. Then she muttered, “They act like it’s a boarding school. Get up. Take your medicine. Eat. Exercise. Play bingo. I’m paying for it, I should get to sleep and smoke whenever I want.” She grumbled all the way to the trash can, where she shook the doughnut box hard enough to make its cellophane top crackle. “This sat out there for at least two goddamned days, you know.” This time she spoke louder, so I knew she was talking to me.

“I’ve been busy,” I said, “moving your things from Woodhaven.” Mentioning the moving reminded me my muscles were sore. The rude awakening and my tense acts of stealth hadn’t helped.

She looked at me and frowned, but I wasn’t sure if her dour expression was due to my words or my choice of pajamas—lavender panties and a cutoff purple tank top with the words Round Table Groupie in ancient-style letters on a shield. It’s an accurate description. I’ve seen every movie and documentary ever made about Arthur Pendragon and amassed a collection of books and artwork based on Arthurian legends. No artist or actor has ever come close to capturing Arthur the way my dreams have, though. Funny that.

Nana tsk-tsked. “Where’s your nightgown?”

I had a flashback of the long flannel gowns she’d made me to sleep in as a child. They were straight out of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” I wondered if, in her youth, she’d won a lifetime membership to a secret club called Clothiers for the Frumpy Woman. “These are my pajamas.”

“That’s all you sleep in?”

“I lived alone until yesterday, Nana, so what I sleep in hasn’t been an issue.” Still, the cold October air swirling in made me wish I were wearing my robe. I shut the door she’d left open.

Nana shoved the pastry box into the trash. Little pieces of cut grass cascaded to the kitchen floor. “Damn filthy animals anyway.” As she shuffled back to me, her hand smoothed priggishly up and over her mound of white hair. I knew what was coming next. I would have mocked her as she said it, but she was looking right at me. “Witches and wolves aren’t meant to mingle.” Nana still held to the old adage from long before the public emergence of other-than-human communities.

“Stop it,” I said. “They’re my friends.”

She took the cigarette from her lips and blew smoke up at the ceiling, then pointed the ash-end at the box in the trash can. “Some friends.”

I gave her an apathetic look and put my hands on my hips. I had started this day ready for a fight.

“They obviously don’t think much of you,” Nana added. She turned down the hallway.

That wasn’t true. “I can’t help that you don’t like wæres. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but don’t expect me to feel the same way.”

She snorted.

I suddenly realized that I had picked up that rude response from her.

Nana shuffled from the kitchen into the dining room, then into the living room, newspaper still folded under her arm. “To them, you’re just some weirdo version of a confessional priest.”

Despite being fully aware I was being baited, I followed her. Not because I wanted a fight; I really didn’t. But I also didn’t back down when someone picked a fight with me. I felt compelled to stop this now, before it became a routine. I’d been forced to listen to her spout her anti-wære opinion repeatedly during my years growing up in her house. Now, well, this was my house.

I stopped in the doorway. My old saltbox farmhouse was decorated in an eclectic attempt at Victorian. The living room—with its deep-red walls, stone hearth, and bookshelves filled with everything I own on Arthur—was my sanctuary. Posters of Camelot-themed paintings by John William Waterhouse, Sir Frank Dicksee, and other artists hung in big black-and-gold frames. This was usually a soothing room for me, but not this morning. “Confessional priest? What’s that supposed to mean?”

She waved me off, then answered anyway. “You kennel them, alleviating their consciences so they can ‘go on.’” Despite the pseudo-drama she added to the last two words, she might have sounded somewhat sage-like but for her verbal stumbling over the word “consciences”—adding a few more syllables than needed. In an attempt to recover, she quickly added, “Besides, friends don’t leave garbage on your lawn. Real friends are more respectful than that.”

Nana’s slippers had tracked cut grass through my house. Sore muscles made me cranky. I snarled, “I’d have thought that family, more so than friends, should be respectful.”

“They should.”

“You’re not.”

She turned. “What?”

I pointed at the floor. “You’re dropping grass garbage all over my house.”

“Where?” she demanded again, squinting at the floor.

There was nothing wrong with her eyes, but she wasn’t above feigning elderly ailments when it benefited her.

I strode back to the kitchen and fetched the little broom and dustpan, thinking that at least I’d only have to mow for a few more weeks. Of course, I’d be spending the next few months mopping up melted-snow tracks instead.

After I dumped the debris in the trash can, I shot a glare through the dining room and into the living room where Nana sat. Nana was safe from my glare, hidden behind the newspaper. She had parked herself in my cozy chair. It didn’t help my mood to realize that it would now be her cozy chair.

“You have a valid point,” I said, returning to the living room, “but I don’t mind if my friends are negligent with a doughnut box. They’re responsible enough to kennel themselves on full moons. That matters more to me, and it should count for something to you.”

“Right. It counts for something. It counts for them being stupid. Wolves change on full moons; witches raise energies and cast spells on full moons. Why they would want to be anywhere near you during a full moon is beyond comprehension.”

“That’s the only time it’s safe! They’re already going to change!”

The phone rang. I jumped, then hurried to the kitchen to answer it. A glance at the clock above the old olive-colored stove told me it wasn’t even seven yet. Calls this early usually weren’t good news. “Hello?”

A formal female voice said, “Persephone Alcmedi, please.”

I was immediately worried: the caller pronounced both of my names right the first time. A rare thing. I hoped it wasn’t the administrator from the nursing home. They had told me to expect a delay and several headaches getting Nana’s Social Security routed back to her and, before coffee, I just wasn’t ready to think as hard as the admin was going to want me to. “Who, may I ask, is calling me at six-forty-three in the morning?”

“Vivian Diamond.”

I knew of her—definitely not someone affiliated with the nursing home. She was the high priestess of the only Cleveland coven officially endorsed by the Witch Elders Council, or WEC. Vivian’s name-dropping social style didn’t impress me, and her manner of leadership tended to snub true practitioners in favor of schmoozing the deep-pocketed wannabes. Consequently, I didn’t attend the meet-ups or open rituals she held. I did just fine out here in Ohio’s farmlands as a solitary.

“I apologize for calling so early,” she said, her voice just a bit nasal, “but I need your help. Your name was recommended.”

“Recommended by whom?”

She paused. “Lorrie Kordell.”

Lorrie used to kennel here on full moons, but had moved closer to Cleveland for work. She was raising her daughter, Beverley, single-handed and single-incomed. I wondered how they were doing. Since Lorrie had found a place in the city to kennel, I missed the popcorn and Disney nights with Beverley. (Crunchy food and musical comedies covered up the sounds of the kenneled wæres nicely.) “How are you acquainted with Lorrie?”

“Who is it, Seph?” Nana called.

I hit the mute button and yelled back, “It’s for me, Nana!” Was she going to pry into everything?

“She recently joined my coven,” Vivian said.

Shocked, I didn’t answer. This was what Nana had meant. Wærewolves avoided magic rituals at all costs. The energies raised could cause partial body-shifts—usually of the head and arms—but the mind suffered more than the body. During a partial shift, the wære-mind could devour the human-mind, leaving only a maddened, murderous beast. By law, police could kill on sight any wære in a non-full moon partial transformation.

“Miss Alcmedi?”

“I’m here.”

“Miss Alcmedi?”

I undid the mute. “I’m here.”

“I’d like to meet with you. Today. Early, if possible.”

“Let me check my calendar.” Pulling my John William Waterhouse day planner from my purse under the phone stand, I flipped through the pages. It took effort not to fall into daydreaming over the artwork, but I dutifully scanned the appointment lines. The only notation was column due 3 P.M. on yesterday’s date. I’d met the deadline a day early. A few Tarot readings for regular customers were penciled in for later in the week, but no appointments had been formalized, so my schedule was clear. Reading a high priestess’s cards could lead to a larger Tarot clientele. The extra money would help me offset the cost of a live-in Nana.

“What would be a good time and place for you?” I asked. Keeping Nana from crossing paths with clients would be better for all concerned.

“The coffee shop on East Ninth, about four blocks from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Say, one hour?”

Damn. She was seriously urgent. “I can just make it, unless traffic turns into a nightmare.” I knew of her, but not what she looked like. “How will I know you?”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll know you.” She hung up.

I hated it when people didn’t say a closing before hanging up. And she’d know me? How? I returned the phone to the cradle charger. When I turned, Nana stood in the wide doorway staring at me.

Her wrinkled face was expressionless. If I hadn’t known she’d always been that way, I might have thought all the wrinkles were hiding a reaction. “Who’s dead?” she asked.

“Nobody’s dead.”

“People don’t call this early unless someone died in the night.” She paused. “Or do your ‘friends’ do that crap too?”

“The phone rings, Nana, and I answer it. Sometimes it’s my friends and sometimes—”

“Fine.”

Having her here was going to be like raising a spoiled teenager. She was going to roll her eyes, cut me off, and act like I was inferior.

She shoved a folded section of newspaper at me. “I’m done with this part.” She turned and shuffled past the big oak dining table, pudgy hands rising to smooth over her dome of white hair.

The gesture reminded me I hadn’t written her weekly hair appointment in my datebook. She insisted on keeping her hair in a beehive style, so it was more like maintenance than hairdressing. (For a good portion of my childhood I thought her head was shaped funny. When I eventually realized it was all done with curlers and hairspray, it diminished her scariness.) I put the newspaper down, grabbed a pen, and jotted the appointment in.

As I finished writing, the paper’s front-page headline jumped out at me: Woman Found Dead. Underneath, in smaller letters: Authorities suspect cult involvement. Scanning the picture, I recognized the face of a crying young girl being restrained by medics, hands reaching toward the sheet-covered body on a stretcher. The girl was Beverley Kordell, Lorrie’s daughter.

Chapter 2

Vivian was late.

I’d opted to keep myself from crying by being angry. Transforming any other emotion quickly into anger might not be my best quality, but it could be useful. The nervous energy it stirred up, however, had to be expended somehow. So, as I sat in the coffee shop waiting, my knees took turns bouncing in irritation and impatience. The soles of my burgundy suede flats were getting quite a workout.

Wearing blue jeans, a maroon blazer, and a black tank top, with my dark hair secured in a loose braid, I’d somehow managed a business-casual look, though my mind was reeling as I dressed. I didn’t care if Vivian thought I appeared professional or not.

Hunched over the article about Lorrie’s murder, I reread it for the fifth time, wishing the news were anything but this. Lorrie had been found in the bedroom of her apartment by the police acting on an anonymous tip. Beverley had been asleep in her own room when the police arrived. The article said nothing about the cause of death, only that Lorrie’s body had been “allegedly arranged in a ritualistic manner” and that “symbols were drawn on the walls with what authorities believed was her blood.”