For a witch, Chai Fox looked 95% normal when she opened the door. Long colorful print dress set off by a huge pewter and crystal amulet and another couple of coral and turquoise bead necklaces. Long straight dark hair held back with an ornate hair pin that if it wasn’t ivory was a damned good plastic imitation. A single piercing in her nose with a plain emerald or another good imitation; a gold ring in the corner of her right eyebrow. Large earrings sporting real feathers. Tattoo on the inside of the ankle but none visible above that. Chai might have been slightly on the wrong side of forty, but the wild get-up made her look young rather than silly.
“Ah, Rick.” She took my hand in both of hers, much more of a caress than a shake. “Tatum told me that you had an open mind and a first class wit, but she didn’t mention the word, ‘hunk.’ Guess I’ll have to get on her about that.”
Up close the distinct smell of patchouli with a gentle hint of orange teased my smell buds. Chai had a spray of freckles across her nose that added a touch of innocence at odds with the rest of an impression that screamed, “No innocence here.”
While Chai fetched a wrap I made the acquaintance of her Shih Tzu, Valentino—a prissy, silken prima donna who demanded adoration. When she returned to find me cross-legged on the floor, Valentino sprawled across my lap, she noted, “Why, he’s never like this around men. You must have an old soul.”
I peered down at the bottom of my shoe before replying. “No, he must be mistaken. I got these shoes less than a year ago.”
Chai rolled her eyes. “Oh, you. Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. About the wit, at least.”
When she saw my car she positively gushed. “Oh, my. A vintage Mustang. I haven’t been in one of those since I was a girl.” She ran her hand lightly over the dashboard before fondling the stick shift. “I do so appreciate original equipment.” Fortunately, Jay-Lo’s original equipment included bucket seats so my date wasn’t tempted to scoot over next to me this early into our relationship.
Chai chatted easily and effortlessly about nothing while we made the ten minute drive to a seafood restaurant on Bay Street. The place was filling up rapidly, but Chai managed to score us a table with a view of the water.
“I’ll have a martini, dear,” she told the waitress, who was young but not young enough to qualify as “dear” to most 40-year-olds. “Bombay Sapphire if you have it. Dry but not bone dry. Please tell me it’s after noon.”
“Make that two.”
“And a martini drinker as well. What was that I said yesterday about destiny?”
“I believe it was, ‘The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.’ Or wait, maybe that was Winston Churchill.”
Chai shook her head. “I don’t know who said that, but it definitely wasn’t me. I would have said something like, ‘You can make your own bed, or you can make your own destiny, but only the truly great can make their own destiny in bed.’”
“Bravo.” I clapped in appreciation.
Chai studied the menu for about a minute before closing it. “Tatum is always badgering me about becoming a vegan, but I swear I don’t see the point. Surely the goddess would not have put prime aged beef on earth if she had not intended for her devotees to savor it.”
“Nor would Prometheus have bothered bringing mankind fire if he knew we were only going to use it to boil water for tea.”
“Well, maybe Chai tea. Chai is a taste that everyone of taste loves to taste.”
I surreptitiously checked under the table to make sure my equipment was still original.
She ordered the surf and turf, a filet mignon and three grilled shrimp. I settled for crab au gratin.
“We could order wine, but I’m not having red wine with my crab.”
“Martinis work for me, dear. Work on me, too. Why don’t you order us another?”
Where Sabrina’s word play carried the subliminal message of “I’m not available,” I was getting a different message loud and clear from Chai. I attempted to tone down the sexual overtones while we accomplished our business. “So, let me tell you about why I need your guidance,” I started in as soon as we had ordered.
I launched into what I’d run across in White Sands, and Chai’s interest in the physical aspects of the investigator were quickly replaced by her interest in the metaphysical aspects of my investigation. And there were quite a few. Not only the mysterious island that George had christened Avalon, with its fire that glowed on Halloween, but also Lucas’ curious reaction to it that I hadn’t felt. Plus the sacred wheel, the golden-haired woman with the many names, the collection of Arthur books and the New Age library.
But of all of the mysteries, curiously it was the brooch that piqued her interest the most. “What you are describing is Celtic in design, and very authentic. As you noted, modern pins always include some way to protect the wearer from the pin. A replica that authentic must have been expensive.”
“$6,000 worth of expensive? I found a credit card receipt from a jewelry store for that amount.”
“No, not that expensive if it is bronze or brass. You’ll have to let me see it.”
Our meals came about that time and Chai demonstrated with relish on a chunk of very rare steak how truly vegetarian she wasn’t.
“That was outstanding. I do my best work with a bit of prime beef, and you’ve definitely earned my best analysis with that filet. So let me speculate a bit on the Halloween fire.” She caught our waitresses’ eye and signaled for another round of martinis.
“Thousands of years before the Christians stole our pagan holidays, the day that you call Halloween was the feast of Samhain.” She showed me how it was spelled, nothing like she the way she pronounced it, Sow′—in. “One of the four great feasts in the wheel of the year, all of which were celebrated by the lighting of bonfires.”
A shiver ran up my back at the mention of the word bonfire, like somebody had walked on my grave. Chai noticed and touched my arm. “There’s more. At Samhain, the boundary between our world and the Otherworld becomes weak and ill defined. Druids and priestesses would open doors between worlds and invite the souls of the dead, or sometimes even other powerful beings who lived in the Otherworld, to cross over into our material reality. Food and drink were laid out for them, and their powers invoked on behalf of the living.”
“So you think there’s a pagan cult that celebrates Samhain out on the island every year? Makes sense, except we searched everywhere for boats and found nothing. I guess someone could have dropped them off, but why wouldn’t they just leave their boats?”
“That’s certainly the easiest explanation. But here’s another.” Chai’s eyes were blazing. “Suppose the island is at a convergence where our world and the Otherworld are very close. There are a number of those in the British Isles, although I’ve never heard of one here. And so on Samhain, you can actually look across the boundary into the Otherworld, at least enough to see the bonfire.”
“I guess I’m gonna have to have that proved to me before I buy it as an explanation.”
Chai shook her finger at me. “Open-minded, remember? That’s what Tatum promised, and the only reason I agreed to get involved.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “OK, open minded. I promise. Although peering across a boundary into another dimension is pretty far ‘out there,’ if you know what I mean.”
“And yet physicists generally agree that other dimensions are ‘out there,’ as you say. Under normal circumstances, light can’t cross between dimensions. But who’s to say what normal circumstances really are? There could be a perfectly quote rational,” Chai made quote marks in the air with her fingers, “explanation. It doesn’t even have to be New Age Woo-woo.” She winked. “Although it probably is.”
“I agree that an irrational explanation is more likely than a rational one. Would you like dessert? Or coffee?”
“Chai tea, of course. After all, I have a reputation to live up to.”
“That must be a full-time job.”
Chai shook her head. “You, sir, are a hard man to stay ahead of.”
We ended up splitting a trifle with my coffee and her tea. They didn’t have chai tea, but of course she’d brought an emergency back-up tea bag; there was plenty of room in her big, brightly-colored, woven bag.
“There’s something else I just thought of, if you like evidence,” she added as she toyed with her steeping tea, gauging the water temperature with a fingertip before a teaspoon of water from her glass. “Lucas’ reaction to the island. He’s probably sensitive to the presence of ghosts, most likely from his Vietnam War experiences. He would have felt their presence and wanted nothing to do with the island. You, on the other hand,” she patted my hand, “being an unenlightened Norman—although open-minded, I must admit—didn’t feel a thing.”
I hated to admit that made sense, but couldn’t find any fault with the argument.
“What exactly is a Norman?”
Chai laughed. “It’s a word we use to mean, like a barbarian. The Normans under William the Conqueror brought all their fancy French words and governing practices and Papal bulls to Britain, but they hadn’t a drop of respect for the old ways. Considered them demonic.” She added milk to her cup, plus the tip-of-a-teaspoon of sugar. “Of course, the druids had long since disappeared from England by 1066. But there were still a few surviving out in the wilds of Wales. However, the Normans were nothing if they weren’t thorough. Thoroughly Norman, in a word. By the turn of the century, the old religion was totally dead.”
“Until revived by you and yours in the 20th Century.”
Chai made a small bow. “New Agers at your service, world.”
“Well, I’m going over to the island next week, as soon as I get a boat. But what you’re telling me is, we’ll have to wait until Samhain comes around again to see the fires?”
She stared down into her cup before answering as if reading the leaves, although I knew there weren’t since she’d made her tea from a bag. I might be open-minded, but I wasn’t a total rube. “The next high feast is Imbolc, which happens on February 2nd. It is a fire feast, so maybe. But the boundary is weak at Beltane as well as Samhain. Beltane happens on May 1st next year.”
“Well, here’s hoping for Imbolc. My contract runs out before Beltane.”
“Pity. Beltane’s a much, um, earthier occasion.”
On the ride back to her place we made loose arrangements to get together the next weekend if my trip to the island turned up anything interesting. Then, as I turned the ignition switch off at her place, it hit me.
“Wait a minute. George Foster disappeared right around May 1st.” Chai nodded as if to say, I told you so.
At the door she brushed her lips over mine without making a big production of it. “I was going to invite you in rather than risk letting you get away. But I see that destiny has us firmly in her grasp. So I think I’ll just let you fantasize about me until next weekend.”