The Wrong Note

byMagicaPractica©

As she settled back down, Rita heard the crackle and pop of fire and shot upright in bed. That had sounded way too close to be in a neighbor's backyard.

She grabbed her robe and pulled it on as she stepped over to the window then pushed back the curtain to look out. The smell of smoke was stronger but she still couldn't see anything.

Rita jammed her feet into shoes and stopped to put her hand on the center of the bedroom door. Still cool. She opened it and was relieved that she couldn't smell the smoke in the hallway. She trotted down the stairs and went to the front door. The smell of smoke made her start coughing as she got to the door. She twitched back the curtain on the door and instinctively pulled back as flames leapt in front of her face on the other side of the glass.

Rita grabbed the cordless phone as she dashed back through the house to the back door, and punched in 911.

"This is 911. What is the nature of your emergency?"

"My porch is on fire," Rita said tersely as she debated grabbing the garden hose. Shit, I already bled it out for the winter.

"Is your address 1343 Larkspur Lane?"

"Yes."

"I'm dispatching fire now. Are you safely away from the fire?"

"Yes, I'm outside."

"Good. Is anyone inside?"

"No," Rita said impatiently. She wanted to see the fire, see if there was anything she could do, but the phone was already crackling with disconnect being just outside the kitchen door.

"Okay. Fire crew is en route and should be with you shortly. Please stay . . ."

Rita hit end on the phone and ran around the house to see if she could tell what had started the fire. There was a lump on the front porch and fire was eating at the boards, working its way up the cedar shingles. The motion detectors had turned on the porch light. She wasn't sure what the lump was but it seemed to be the source of the fire. If she could get it off the porch, maybe it would slow the fire down.

Rita ran back out to the shed and grabbed a metal rake then ran back to the front porch. She edged up the steps toward the fire, but the heat was already blistering. She hooked the lump with the rake and pulled but it just seemed to break apart.

At that moment, a car sped up the road and skidded to a stop in her yard. Rita turned to see Teo stepping out. "Rita!"

Rita gave up and dropped the rake at the end of the porch, out of the way. She could hear the fire truck coming up the hill now too. Unfortunately, all the neighbors could as well, and lights came on down the road as the fire engine pulled up to her house.

Rita wrapped her arms around herself and watched the firefighters quickly unravel a hose. Teo stood next to her, one hand holding her elbow protectively, as if he might need to pull her out of harm's way. "Are you okay? What happened?"

Rita shook her head. "I don't know. I woke up to smoke and found that lump on the porch. I couldn't pull it away though, it broke up. I thought I smelled horse manure. Another prank gone wrong?" She focused on him finally. "How did you get here so fast?"

"I was headed home and heard the tones for the fire squad."

A firefighter joined them. "This is pretty small, we'll have it out in minutes, it didn't get far. You're lucky you woke up when you did. I almost hate to have the boys use the big hose on it but better safe than sorry. You'll have some fire damage and water damage but I don't think you'll have any actual holes in the wall."

As he had estimated, the fire was out quickly and the men checked things over to make sure there were no hotspots.

"The fire inspector will be out in the morning to take pictures."

Rita thanked the men and they left, sans lights this time, and she went inside with Teo.

"I'm staying the rest of the night," Teo said flatly.

Rita looked over at him, leaning against the kitchen counter with his own arms crossed now. Her eyes widened.

He shook his head resolutely. "I'll sleep on the couch. I'm not leaving you here alone."

Rita looked at him for a minute. "I'll get you a blanket and pillow," she said quietly.

Rita imagined it would take her forever to get back to sleep after everything but the adrenaline had worn off, leaving her more exhausted than ever. With Teo downstairs guarding her, the pillow hit her head, or vice versa, and she was out.

#


Rita woke in the morning to the dim light of an overcast day. She glanced over at the clock. Eight am! She never slept that late. Guess I needed it after yesterday . . . and last night.

A slow smile crept over her face as she remembered that Teo was downstairs, but she shut it down quickly. She was getting to rely on him too much. They'd been friends for almost two years. One of these days he was going to meet someone who realized what a wonderful man he was and he wasn't going to have time for her anymore. Oh, maybe the girlfriend would be okay with him having a female friend, but she would demand his time and be his priority. When he got married and started a family . . .

Rita flipped back the covers with a sigh. I think that's enough depressing myself before I've even gotten out of bed.

Rita dressed quickly and ran a brush through her long black hair then went downstairs. She couldn't help the small smile at the thought of Teo asleep on her couch, under one of her blankets.

But when she rounded the corner into the front room, the blanket was neatly folded on the couch and the throw pillows were back in their place.

She walked into the kitchen and the smell of coffee lingered. He was probably up and gone hours ago. There was coffee in the pot and she placed a hand on it. It was barely warm. There was a note on the kitchen table, half under the salt cellar. She walked over and tugged it out from under the weight.

Good morning, Chiquita! Sorry I had to leave before you were up, I waited as long as I could. It's my weekend to cover at the station. Call me if you need me.

Rita found herself smiling again and sighed. She carefully tucked the note back under the salt cellar and went to fix a mug of coffee. She really needed to run out to the grocery store and she had an appointment at ten-thirty.

#


Twenty minutes later, Rita parked and ran into the little neighborhood grocery store on the south side of the small city. She grabbed one of the more maneuverable double-decker half carts. They always made her think of the red double-decker buses she'd seen in Britcoms on PBS. As she headed for the fruits and vegetables, she passed by the registers. A woman laughing in the checkout lane caught her attention. It was Marian Steingold and she was with her husband, his brown curls bouncing as he smiled merrily. They seemed so happy; the early morning light from the front windows glinted off them. It was magical in the best possible way.

Marian caught sight of Rita and waved. "Rita!"

Rita changed course and approached, but not without some trepidation. The last time she had seen him, Harold had been screaming in her face. She snuck a glance at him and he had definitely sobered from his laughter a moment ago. Rita steeled herself for what might be about to come.

"Hello. How are you?" she asked softly.

Marian glanced over at her husband and smiled affectionately. "We're good."

Rita glanced at Harold, who looked abashed, but smiled warmly back at Marian. He looked over at Rita. He opened his mouth and then paused and took a step toward Rita, who turned to face him squarely, uncertain of his intent.

"Rita," he began then stopped again.

Rita raised her eyebrows and tilted her head, offering her willingness to listen.

"I need to apologize," he finally continued. "The last time I spoke to you, I behaved very badly. You were trying to help us and I . . . felt so . . . guilty over what had happened to our daughter, that I was . . . ." He shook his head.

Rita put out her hand and took his. "I understand. I'm just so glad to see the two of you together and looking so happy."

Harold looked over at Marian and they smiled. "We are," he said. "Nothing gets better without being brought into the light, right?"

Rita nodded in agreement.

The Steingolds left and Rita headed for the produce department. She pulled her cell phone out and called Teo as she put a head of lettuce and some apples into her cart.

"Everything okay?" he said without even saying hello.

Rita smiled. "Everything's fine," she assured him. "I'm at the grocery store. In fact, I think you can cross Harold Steingold off your list."

"Oh?"

"Yes, I just ran into Harold and Marian at the grocery store and they spoke to me. They seem better than ever. Harold actually apologized for how he behaved the last time I saw him."

"Okay, I might check his movements out, just to be sure."

Rita shrugged. "Okay, but he seemed very relaxed and open. I'm comfortable that he has moved on."

"Listen, Rita, the bird . . . "

Rita could hear his hesitancy and she gripped the cart handle with her free hand.

"It was definitely killed on purpose." Teo's voice was devoid of inflection.

"How could they tell?"

"The abdomen was cut open and a medicine pouch of sorts was put in then it was sewn shut with black thread."

Rita inhaled sharply. "What was in the pouch?"

"It was a collection of herbs, stones and wax."

"Specifically . . . what herbs and stones?" Rita asked sharply.

"The ME wasn't specific when I spoke to him. Does it matter?"

Hell, yeah, it mattered. "Well, it sounds like a spell of some kind and whether or not anyone believes, I'd like to know what the person intended."

"Okay. I'll check on it and let you know."

"Thanks, Teo."

"Talk to you in a bit."

They said good-bye and Rita finished her shopping. Whether Teo accepted it or not, that knocked one person off the list of suspects but it didn't bring her much closer to finding out who had left the dead bird . . . or why, yet.

Maybe she should take another run at Mr. Comacho, there had to be a way to convince him that she didn't mean him any harm. Perhaps Tia Selena could help her with that, as well as the bird. She had lectured at the University and was an expert in world religions, rituals, and the occult. Rita would go see her that afternoon. But right now she needed to get the groceries home and put away. She had an appointment at 10:30 even though it was a Saturday. She was working with a teenage girl who didn't want her schoolmates to know she was going for therapy for her stutter so this was simply "singing lessons." Rita understood the hell other teens could drag you down into and had no problem with that.

#


After lunch, Rita went out to inspect the porch, wondering if she could do something cosmetic to fix it or if she would need to replace boards?

She turned as feet crunched on the gravel of her walkway. Brent was walking up the path, golden hair shining in the late morning sun.

"Hey, Rita. Wow, that's nasty." Brent waved a hand at the damage. "What happened?"

"Just a prank that got out of hand." Rita folded her arms. "What can I do for you, Brent? We didn't have a session scheduled."

Brent pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket. "Oh, I listened to that music and wrote down the words, like you asked." He held it out.

Rita smiled. "Why don't you just hold on to it, until your next session?"

He hesitated. Rita got the feeling that he wanted something, to go inside or to talk, but she felt like she had to set some boundaries. He was so sweet, it would be easy to give in and let those boundaries get pushed aside. She was trying to think of a graceful way to maintain them while being supportive when Teo's car pulled up the street and parked. He got out, wearing his work suit and tie with mirrored sunglasses in place.

"Um, okay, bye." Brent turned on his heel and went back down the sidewalk.

Rita watched him go, mildly puzzled. Poor kid was probably lonely for someone he could really talk to about the situation and didn't want to bring it up with his friends.

Teo walked up the sidewalk then turned when he reached her and watched Brent for a moment too. "How long have you been working with him?"

"Do you know him?" Rita countered.

"Yeah, he's one of the kids whose friends have disappeared at the college."

Something in Teo's voice made her pause. "Is he a suspect?"

Teo flashed her a smile. "Everyone is."

Rita just shook her head and turned to walk into the house.

"Iced tea?"

"I can't stay, have to get back to work."

Rita stopped on the porch and turned. "Then what's up?"

"I found out from the ME about the contents of the pouch." He pulled a folded paper out of his pocket. "There was a black string with three knots wrapped around an assortment of herbs including several that would be poisonous to humans, and a black stone, hematite."

He looked up at Rita from the bottom of the stairs. "Mean anything to you?"

Rita shook her head, but she knew exactly who to call. So did Teo, if he thought about it. Tia Selena was an expert in world religions and the occult, including nearly every version of Wicca, Santeria, or any other left, or right, of center religion. She had lectured at the local university before retiring. When Teo left, Rita dialed Tia Selena, who said she was welcome to come right over.

Tia Selena's house was on a typically crowded city street in a residential section. Rita couldn't imagine living somewhere that the houses were packed so close together again. Selena had the first floor of a little house and rented out the second floor as an apartment to a grad student from the University. The front porch was packed with Halloween decorations for the trick-or-treaters that night -- pumpkins, corn stalks, and black cats. Rita grinned, imagining Teo putting things in place for Selena, moving it here and there, at her direction. She knew Teo helped his aunt out whenever she needed it. Tia Selena had passed ninety and didn't walk very steadily anymore but she was excellent at giving instructions, perched regally on a chair. Rita rang the doorbell and waited.

Finally the door opened. "Ah, Rita my friend, come in! Come in." The little woman waved her in with one pointed red-nail-tipped hand. "To what do I owe this pleasure? Are you finally going to make an honest man of my nephew?"

Rita laughed in shock. When Selena didn't return her laugh, but just raised her penciled in eyebrows, Rita sobered. "We're just friends, Selena. He goes out with other girls. We're just . . . buddies."

Selena finally gave a bark of laughter and turned to walk slowly, aided by a cane, into the kitchen. "Only because he's waiting on you."

Rita followed the slow moving little woman toward her small kitchen, pausing to close the front door behind her then hurrying through the elegant little dining room where Selena generally took all her meals in high fashion. "I think you're mistaken, Selena."

"Rita! I didn't bring that boy to you because he had a bad dream, you know!" She sat down at the kitchen table and plucked a pistachio out of a bowl. "What's wrong? You don't like a handsome young man like my Matteo? Do you prefer the girls then?"

Rita shook her head, taken aback. "No, Selena, I . . . ." This was getting very personal.

"I didn't think so," the old woman said. "Then what is it? I know you like Matteo, he is a very nice boy and the two of you already spend a great deal of time together, no?"

"Yes," Rita conceded. "I have . . . scars."

Selena scoffed. "Kiddo, we all have scars, whether they're physical or mental."

Rita shook her head.

Selena sighed. "Just think about it, I'm not getting any younger and I'd like to see you two settled." She popped the nut in her mouth and put the empty shells back in the little dish then brushed her hands off. "Now, why are you really here?"

Rita refocused and gave herself a mental shake. "Has Teo told you about the dead bird that was left on my porch?"

The small woman scowled and every curve of her face pulled down into a mask of displeasure. "What's this? He did not mention it. Was there anything . . . peculiar about the bird?"

Rita's lips flickered into a smile. "Well, for one thing, it was wrapped up as a present, in a child's shoebox, wrapped in silver paper with a red ribbon around the box and tied in a bow on top."

"And the bird itself?" Selena asked, her gaze piercing.

Rita nodded. "It was a fresh bird, not preserved or decayed. It had been cut open and gutted then a medicine pouch put inside." She pulled out the list of contents for Tia Selena to see. "Do you recognize this list of things as being from a particular ritual?"

"Hmm," Selena murmured as she pondered the list. Then she got up and shuffled into the living room to her bookshelf. "It's more like a bastardization of a few different rituals."

Rita followed Tia Selena, who was pulling on a particularly thick book over her head to get it off the built in bookshelf. Rita hurried over. "Let me help, Selena," she said, reaching up to grip the book. It was, not surprisingly, extremely heavy. It had to be a good five inches thick and Rita used both hands. The cover said Dictionary of World Religions.

"Let's take it in to the dining room table." Tia Selena gestured with a hand toward the room they'd just walked through.

Rita took the book in and set it down on the table then they both sat and Selena opened the book to an entry on crows. Rita shook her head. "It was a dove, Tia Selena."

The old woman looked surprised. "Ah, I did not ask, did I? An important point, possibly." The old woman began flipping the pages and stopped. "Although, he could have just used a dove because he found one already dead."

Rita shook her head. "Teo said the neck was clearly wrung." She grimaced.

"Hmph, still could be a matter of opportunity, doves being somehow easy for him to get at."

Rita thought about that. Did she know anyone who had doves? Or an aviary even? "Where could someone have gotten easy access to a live dove? If it were wild, wouldn't it fly away if approached?"

"If he knew where there was a nest, he could have approached the bird at night, snuck up on it while it was sleeping, then kept it in a cage until he was ready to use it."

Rita was struck by Selena's use of the male pronoun. "Why do you assume it was a man? Because it's so gruesome?"

Tia Selena gave a bark of laughter. "No, my dear. We both know women are not the more delicate gender, when it comes to all that. Women can be every bit as bloody-minded as men. No, but a woman would be more careful about making sure all the elements of her ritual lined up. She would be more patient and exacting than a man. Of course, there are always exceptions and you're right, I shouldn't make assumptions. But it's just easier for an old woman to use the male pronoun than to say "he, she or it" all the time. I don't have enough breath left in me for that."

Rita smiled. The little woman had more energy and breath than Rita most of the time but that was a matter of nature rather than kinetic energy. It was packed into the feisty little woman while Rita's energy was more languid and calming.

Tia Selena had Rita fetch some paper then the two women poured over the book, making a list of all the rituals that seemed to use the items that had been included in the bird and even the position in which the bird had been placed, and where it all intersected.

"I don't think there is an entry on children's shoe boxes," Tia Selena finally said with a laugh.

"I wouldn't think so, no." Rita smiled. Somehow, the woman's anthropological outlook on the whole thing made her less agitated.

"I don't think whoever did this really knew what they were doing and they certainly didn't do what would be necessary to make it useful, if you even believe in that sort of thing." Tia Selena shrugged.

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