Mcfly Posted on 12:00 am

Emily’s Lair begins…

Cover provided by author

Prologue

Holland 1624

The witchfinder followed the Inquisitor down the long prison corridor to the heavy iron door in back. Once through, he pulled it shut with a dull thud that reverberated through the entire building. The steps were hewn from stone and there was the faint echo of their shoes as they descended the dark circular stairs to the murky light below. The smell that rose to greet them was unspeakable. At the bottom of the stairs was a cavernous cellar with brick walls and floor. A dim glow flickered from wall sconces and a deep fireplace. The witchfinder and the Inquisitor proceeded past the various crude instruments used for questioning prisoners to the far wall where the chief prosecutor waited for them. In an alcove behind him was a filthy pile of straw, on which lay the ruined figure of a woman.

Her head had been shaved of all its hair and there was a trace of faintly red stubble over the exposed scalp. She wore a filthy gray smock which barely covered her emaciated frame and there were bruises and welts on her arms and legs, as well as cuts still in the process of healing that oozed a slow trickle of blood. Iron manacles adorned her thin wrists. The pile of straw on which she lay served as both her bed and her privy, and the two men covered their noses at the stench, but the woman was far past the shame of such things. She stared straight ahead at the expensive shoes of her guests with the vacant expression of one who has already departed from the earthly realm.

“Up!” the Inquisitor snapped, giving her ankle a kick with the tip of his shoe. The prisoner’s eyes seemed to return from wherever she had been, and she looked up at her visitors.

The witchfinder bent and tugged hard at her wrist manacles, bringing a moan of pain and protest from the woman. The soles of her feet were burnt where they had roasted them, and she was too weak from her ordeal to rise of her own power. Cursing, the witchfinder moved behind her inert form, grabbing under her arms to pull her to her feet with less care than one would treat a family pet.

“They burn you tomorrow,” said the Inquisitor without rancor. “Won’t you save yourself the torment of the flames, child? Do you know how long it takes to die on the pyre? Tell us what we ask of you, and you shall be spared the agony of the stake.”

The woman seemed barely able to hear, and the witchfinder took a step forward and slapped her face. He was exhausted, having spent weeks amassing testimony against her in secret, delving into financial records, even staying late at the odd public house to keep an ear to the local gossip, buying rounds of drinks and bringing casual conversation around to the subject at hand. Once he was finally prepared, the accused had been arrested quickly and without warning. A pyre was already being built in the town square.

It was late at night, and the witchfinder was hungry and anxious to get home. He reminded himself of the struggle back in Utrecht, where he had been only Augustijn Holst, a clergyman at the Chapel of St Matthew. At a local inn one evening, he had struck up a conversation with a visiting Inquisitor who was investigating an accusation of witchcraft in a village near Zeist and asked if he wanted to accompany him—a clergyman, after all, was a handy person to have around at an inquiry. It had sounded like a splendid adventure. Holst had agreed without hesitation and after the Inquisitor bought him supper and ordered several more pitchers of fine golden beer, they retired for the night and set off the following morning, arriving in the village by dusk.

Witnesses were gathered and questioned over the following week. The accused was pricked and tortured, a confession extracted, and the sorceress put to the stake. Property was seized and sold to pay the Inquisitor, the witch pricker, and Holst, who went on to Gelderland with the Inquisitor. Holst had learned his craft with the passion of a convert as they travelled from village to village, city to city. There was good money to be made from ridding the country of witches; more than that, it was honorable and holy work.

Now Holst and his wife lived within the flourishing city of Leiden, in a richly furnished house with red and green wood shutters on the Oude Rhine. The walls boasted elegant papering, and fine rugs covered the floors. His children attended the best schools, wore clothes of silk and satin, and ate off exquisite china with sterling silverware. The days of hardship seemed like a different life now, one he hadn’t the time nor interest to recall. His responsibilities often kept him out until all hours as interrogations could run late, and Holst and the Inquisitor were sometimes obliged to socialize with lawyers and judges. Strong friendships helped to ensure cooperation, and the profits from seized property and other assets were split in private at late meetings in the libraries or in smoking rooms of the politically powerful. It was all part of the job.

“Why is it taking so long to condemn her?” asked Holst’s daughter, Charlotte, at the supper table the previous evening.

“It’s because she lives here in the city,” he told her. “A witch can work more easily in the country villages. She can keep to herself and take advantage of the simplicity of the commoners. She can cast spells to inundate the fields with rain and spoil crops, poison wells, and turn milk sour in the bellies of the young. She can even bring the Black Death and go undetected because she can work from her own land and not be seen. Here in the city, it’s harder for a witch to work undetected.”

“Darling, please,” the witchfinder’s wife implored. “This is hardly appropriate conversation for the table.”

“This woman was married to a rich man,” Holst continued, regardless of his wife’s entreaty. “He died young, probably a result of a spell she cast on him so that she could inherit his money.”

“And now she’s a complete scandal,” said Charlotte’s older brother, Arnaud. Just shy of his sixteenth birthday, Arnaud was used to being the man of the house with his father so frequently absent. His curly brown hair was almost down to his shoulders and he was more careful with his dress and manners than his sister. “She spurns the idea of remarrying and seduces the sons of prosperous citizens. Rumor has it that despite all her trysts, she never turns up in a family way.”

“Arnaud!” scolded his mother, aghast.

“There’s no one here,” Holst pointed out.

“The servants,” his wife reminded him.

“We’re just explaining to her so that she’ll understand,” said Holst, turning back to Charlotte. “Most witches prefer to practice their craft in the country, on their own land, where it’s harder to notice. They use rabbits or cats, or other animals as their familiars—the country is full of these animals, so it doesn’t look unusual for them to be around a witch’s house. They can even use larger animals like wolves to steal infants from their cribs. In the country witches can cast their spells from more of a distance, and this makes it harder to discover them.”

“Then why didn’t this witch live in the country?” asked Charlotte, fascinated now.

“Some witches find it easier to blend into the hustle and bustle of a city,” her father replied. “Leiden is full of people and shops and merchants. A witch with money can wear fine clothes and have servants to attend her. She can mix more easily with people, find out their secrets, and then use her power to manipulate or take advantage of them. She can wait until midnight, when everyone is asleep, and then steal up to her roof with a broomstick and fly over the city in the moonlight.”

Charlotte seemed to ponder this for a short time before asking, “Then how are they caught?”

Her brother smiled. “Because of people like Father and the Inquisitor. They know the signs of a witch, and they listen for news of strange happenings. They are trained to weed out witches and overpower them with the forces of good.”

“Then why is it taking so long to condemn this one?” Charlotte asked again.

“Because we haven’t been able to extract a confession from her yet,” Holst explained. “A confession is important. She must admit that she consorts with the Devil. This witch refused to do so in spite of every trial she was forced to suffer, a sure sign of her power. It did her no good, though. They’ll burn her tomorrow.”

For the sake of his family, Holst had sanitized his explanation of the delay in condemning the accused to the stake. The real impediment was money. They had succeeded in seizing the deed of the woman’s house, on the Oude Singel, but when taking possession of her bank account they discovered that her fortune, only one week before her arrest, had been withdrawn down to the last guilder. With hundreds of thousands at stake, they had intensified their attempts at torturing her, utilizing the instruments of their trade, but to no avail. Frustrated, the Inquisitor had even instructed the witch pricker to apply hot pokers to her skin, but she wouldn’t reveal where she had hidden her money.

Now, Holst struck the woman across the face again. “So vengeful,” said the Inquisitor. “To endure such unspeakable agony, and all for the sake of spite. This is your last chance. Tell us what we wish to know.”

The woman’s eyes were absent any sign of recognition or hope, and with a nod from the Inquisitor, Holst tore the filthy garment from her body, exposing skin ravaged by torture. “The stake awaits you tomorrow,” he said, lowering his trousers. “You’re as good as dead anyway. We might as well get some satisfaction from you.”

Chapter 1

The streets of downtown New Vernon were wet with morning drizzle, but Will never carried an umbrella. The old Yankees ball cap, a regular fixture on his head, had provoked more than one friendly argument back at the station, but it protected his eyes now from the light rain. The loyalties of Connecticut’s baseball fans were split almost evenly between the Mets, the Yankees, and the Red Sox, and as the only officer in his precinct who had worked for the New York City police force, Heller wore his cap like a badge of honor.

He could have parked anywhere he liked but pulled up toward the end of a residential side street because he enjoyed walking through the center of town. Having grown up in Union, New Jersey before moving to Manhattan to work first as a cop, then as a detective, Will had found New Vernon a welcome relief from the dirty, overcrowded streets of the big city. He loved that most of the brick buildings in the town square were over two hundred years old, with decorative facades that rose higher than their flat roofs. The wood trim around most of the storefront windows were dark green, the same color as the old-fashioned lampposts. The red brick library still had its original clock tower and spire on the roof, and the clock in the tower still worked; Will, who never wore a watch, noted that he was right on time as he passed it—two minutes after nine. Most of the businesses along Main Street would be open.

New Vernon was laid out like a bullseye, its residential section surrounding the center of town while rustic country made up its outermost layer, with a thin smattering of houses every quarter mile or so. Will’s mother, a registered nurse, had sold her home in Union and moved to Connecticut shortly after the death of Will’s father. She had intended to retire there once she was of age but died of a sudden stroke instead. Will had driven up to Connecticut to help his sister pack up their mother’s belongings, but fell in love with the little house, and with New Vernon, at first sight. It would make a nice place to retire, and, in the meantime, was a much nicer place to live. The town was charmingly quaint, and life there tended to move at a more relaxed pace.

The rain began falling harder, and Will held his soft leather briefcase over his head as he walked. The Main Street Diner, with its yellow brick and green awnings, had been open since six. So had Lonnie’s Café, just down the street; a bright yellow newspaper vending machine stood outside its entrance, with Lonnie’s ten-speed bike chained to the tree behind it. The barber shop was on the same block as the beauty parlor, with the laundromat across the street. The Corner Bar wouldn’t open until noon, but Will saw customers through the windows of Tillman Appliance. Sandwiched between the corner drug store and Millie’s Pie Shop was a bookstore named Emily’s Lair, its door wide open. The place looked inviting, and after stopping at Millie’s for a coffee, Will entered the shop quietly.

Like many businesses downtown, Emily’s Lair was bigger than it appeared from the street. The place was teeming, literally crammed with books. Shelves covered every wall from floor to ceiling and lined the front of the checkout counter near the door. Opposite the counter, free-standing octagonal shelves boasted the latest releases. Six-foot partitions divided the books on the left wall into four sections, the wall itself laid out with movable shelves that slid from side to side, revealing a deeper wall of books behind. About halfway down the length of the right side, a staircase led to an upper tier, which ran the breadth of the back wall and along the rear half of the store on both sides. Shelves attached to the balustrade of the stairs held still more books.

There was no one behind the counter; indeed, there seemed no one in the store at all. Will noticed that the white plaster ceiling was peeling in places. Chandelier-style fixtures supplied ample, but not overly bright light. From ceiling speakers, Borodin’s First Symphony caressed the cloudy morning.

In the left rear corner was a separate room of books. Because the shelves on the far wall of the store ran directly into the narrow entrance of the room in back, and because the far wall of the adjoining room was lined with books also, it was hard to distinguish the room from the main space of the store until you were almost upon it. The room tickled Will’s curiosity. He moved toward it, wondering whether it was simply a use of available space and thus an extension of the store proper, or a separate section for a special selection of books.

“Good morning!”

She had come upon him so suddenly that he started, his heels allowing a good half-inch of space over the red linoleum as he spun on his toes to face the light, musical voice.

Her eyes caught him first, the wide, saucer-like eyes of a doe, except that a doe’s eyes weren’t ice blue, and these caught the light in such a way as to appear that the source of light came from behind rather than in front of them. Her mouth seemed to start from the edges as thin, sharply defined creases before blossoming at the center into an archer’s bow on top and a plump, kissable lower lip. Will had to consciously restrain himself from staring. Her hair, brown with a reddish tint—or red with a brownish tint, he couldn’t tell—was tied back in a ponytail. It looked as if she spent a great deal of time brushing it night and day, yet Will had the idea that she didn’t waste her time on such things.

“Is there something I can help you find?” she asked.

“No, no, I was just looking about. I’m Will Heller.”

“Emily Kostova, proprietor” she said, taking his offered hand.

“It’s quite an interesting selection you have—old English and Scottish castles, histories of Egypt and Sumeria.”

“It’s the only way to compete with the huge chains that claim to sell everything.” Will thought the cheer in Emily Kostova’s tone to be genuine, rather than the false animation of most salespeople. “I sell only books that I’m interested in, and I’m only interested in interesting books! I have books on history and exploration on the left wall, plus scientific study, art, and travel. Latest releases and bestselling authors are on the island shelves in center, while the wall on the right is dedicated in its entirety to classic literature.”

Will nodded. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”

“Well, yes, I have most of Hardy’s major titles, certainly.” The bow of her brows was so slight that they appeared almost straight. She reminded him of Ms. James, his seventh grade English teacher, elegant and sexy in the most innocently knowing way. He had harbored a such a mad crush on her that he’d almost failed English.

“Couldn’t stand it in high school. I never even finished it. Took an incomplete.”

“Really? You missed the best part, where she kills the man who ruined her life. Revenge can be so satisfying!”

“I didn’t start reading seriously until after I left school. I did come back to Hardy, though. Was between books, looking for something different in a bookstore one afternoon—I think I was maybe twenty-nine—and I bought Jude the Obscure on a whim.”

“And?”

“That fared much better. I think the themes in Tess are wonderful, particularly for the time, but for me, Jude is a more cohesive and realistic story.”

“Hardy is often difficult for kids to get into. You should give Tess another try. You’re much more well-read now than you were in school. Might be worth it.”

He tried to keep from sneaking looks at her body. Through the blouse of light blue linen, Will could just make out a black brassiere, possibly of lace, but he wasn’t certain and couldn’t risk more than a passing glance. Her ears protruded from the sides of her head in a manner most endearing, their pretty lobes graced with pearl earrings.

Will gestured with his chin, looking up toward the second floor. “What’s upstairs?”

She smiled. It was obvious how much she enjoyed talking about her store. “Ancient civilizations, collections of myths and legends, astronomy, religion, and very old books—one or two early versions of the Bible and such.”

“Collector’s items?” He couldn’t see her legs beneath the long black skirt, but her ankles were visible beneath her black lace socks. The flats she wore were good leather and looked comfortable enough to stand in all day.

“Yes, it’s the only section that’s under lock and key.”

Will sighed. “I’m sorry, but I love bookstores, especially those like yours—small, privately owned, and off the beaten path. I’m not a fan of the huge chains either.”

“I hear it all the time. People come in, not expecting this kind of selection but if you sell interesting books, people will become interested in them.”

“No—I mean yes, you’re right, but I’m trying to explain why I didn’t mention up front that—” He sighed again. “I’m afraid I should have introduced myself as Sgt. William Heller. I’m a detective.”

Emily Kostova opened her mouth as if to say “Ah,” and gave a slight nod. “A detective. I’m assuming, then, that you’re here to talk to me about George Abbot.”

“You’ve heard, then.”

“About his murder? Yes, I read about it in yesterday’s Press. Grisly affair, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was.”

“The body mutilated and disemboweled. Very much Jack the Ripper style, no?”

“I was about to say the very same thing.”

“Except, of course, that the victim was male and on the upper end of the economic spectrum.”

“Are you very familiar with Jack the Ripper?”

“I have a whole section on true crime accounts. There are several books on the Whitechapel murders.”

The pale skin of Emily Kostova’s wrist looked especially naked against the thin black leather watchband she wore, and again Will had to remind himself to keep his mind on his job. It wasn’t difficult, but that he had to consciously do so irked him. “Do you read every book you carry?”

“That would be impossible, but I’ve read a good many.”

“You dated Mr. Abbot.”

“Not for very long. We saw each other socially for less than two months.”

“And how did the two of you meet?”

“We worked at the same law firm.”

“And that would be Prescott and Sloan.”

“In Hartford, yes.”

Will took out his notepad and pen, beginning to jot down some of her answers. “May I know the reason you stopped dating?”

“We simply weren’t right for each other. Once two people realize that, it doesn’t take long for the physical attraction to fade. We just drifted apart.”

“So, your initial attraction was physical, then.”

The eyebrows rose slightly, the corners of the mouth just beginning to curl upward. “Isn’t it always, Sgt. Heller? Oh, we like to kid ourselves where that’s concerned, but we’re often much shallower than we like to pretend.”

“I expect that’s true. How long did you work for Prescott and Sloan?”

“About a year.”

“And you were interning there as a legal clerk, were you not?”

“While I was attending law school, yes.”

The tone of Kostova’s voice had not changed in any way, as far as Will could tell, since their exchange had turned from that of a store owner talking with a customer to a police detective questioning a person of interest. She was still friendly, her tone affable, her manner pleasantly buoyant, as though this were still a casual conversation. “Where did you attend?”

“University of Connecticut.”

“Ah, Hartford. Right across town from Prescott and Sloan.”

Emily nodded, glancing down toward his notepad. “You’re not married.”

“Divorced.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Thanks.” The question was a surprise and Will wondered whether it had been a deliberate attempt to throw him off track. “Kind of a sudden decision to drop out of school, quit your job at a respected law firm, where you were well-liked, and open a bookstore in New Vernon out of the blue.”

“I suppose it was. My husband died seven years ago. Since then I suppose I spent a good amount of time searching around, looking for a place to belong.”

“And do you feel you belong in New Vernon?”

“Yes, I like it here. I know it’s probably an illusion, but life seems to move a tad slower here, wouldn’t you say, Sgt. Heller?”

Will smiled but didn’t answer. The idea that he had been thinking the exact same thing earlier as he’d parked his car and walked through town made him alert, but he was an old hand at keeping a poker face. “And you’ve had the shop for three years now?”

“It’ll be three years in June.”

“Kind of a sleepy town for a bookstore.”

“On the contrary, the store is doing very well. Should be in the black by June, and that’s quite encouraging.”

“How is it that you’re managing to hold on until then?”

“I entertain men on the weekends.”

Will caught the tone and slight smile and didn’t miss a beat. “I see. Are you available this weekend?”

“Hmm, on a detective’s salary? I doubt you could afford me.”

“Ouch! Right in my ego.”

Kostova laughed. “My husband made sure that I’d be cared for.”

“I see. If you don’t mind my asking—”

“A plane crash took him from me.”

“Did he travel often?”

“Well, he flew often. He was a pilot.”

“Really? Our records list him as an oncologist.”

“Well, he was. Flying was his passion, not his job.”

“I see. Did you ever fly with him?”

“Many times. He was an extremely capable pilot. The accident was never explained. He was flying to New Jersey one evening and crashed over Long Island Sound.”

“May I ask where you were at the time?”

“In the hospital with pneumonia.”

“God, that’s rough. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.”

Will followed her to the counter in front, where Kostova began to busy herself straightening the small desk next to the two cash registers. “Ms. Kostova, did George Abbot have any enemies that you knew of?”

She looked up. “None that would have done that to him.” She sensed that her answer surprised him and was quick to add, “You have to understand that making enemies comes along with any good lawyer’s territory simply because you’re arguing for a living. Prescott and Sloan is a large firm as well, and the competition is fierce. What I meant to say is that I don’t believe there was anyone there who disliked Georgie to the point of wanting to do him harm. Do you think it could be like the Whitechapel murders—in other words, a serial killing?”

“At this point, I’m not ruling anything out. And you were living…” He flipped back through his notepad a few pages. “At 3634 Holtman Avenue at the time you were seeing Mr. Abbot.”

“Yes, I’d rented the house.”

“Did you have a key to Abbot’s apartment?”

“No, we dated but weren’t close enough to share keys.”

“I get you. Had the two of you kept in touch since you left the firm? Did he ever drop by the store, say?”

“No, we pretty much went our separate ways.”

“Have you any idea what he might have been doing in New Vernon Wednesday night?”

“I can’t imagine. He had no family here—none that I knew of, anyway.”

“No idea why he might have checked into the Westminster Hotel.”

“Well…” Here Kostova gave a knowing smile. “Georgie was a notorious ladies man. I met him at more than one hotel myself.”

“Ever meet him at the Westminster?”

“Once or twice, sure.”

Will let the pad drop to his side to make firm eye contact with Emily Kostova, and he spoke gently. “I have to ask you something very personal now: did either you or Mr. Abbot ever engage in any bondage play during sex?”

Will checked her reaction carefully. Her eyebrows rose in genuine surprise, and there was just a trace of amusement in her expression. “No, we had a reasonably normal sexual relationship.”

“Sorry, but I had to ask. Have you any idea of whom he might have been seeing recently?”

“Like I said, we didn’t keep in touch.”

“I’m sorry, but I have to ask you where you were on Wednesday night between seven and eight.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t much of an alibi, Sergeant Heller. I closed the store at seven, as I always do on weeknights, and then I went straight home.”

“And you’re currently residing at 38 Periwinkle Road.”

“That’s correct.”

“Anyone see you there?”

“I’m afraid not. I live alone except for Erno, my Doberman.”

Will unzipped his briefcase, withdrawing several eight-by-ten photographs, which he handed to her. “Ms. Kostova, this woman was with Mr. Abbot when he checked into the Westminster Hotel. I’d like you to take a good look at these and tell me if you’ve ever seen this woman before.”

Kostova studied the photographs for a moment. “I don’t know her, but she’s definitely his type. Leggy, nice clothes, ample on top.”

“Like you.”

“Yeees,” Kostova said with a grin, “Though that’s obviously not me.”

“Obviously,” he said, taking the photos back and putting them away.

“Ooh, look! It stopped raining.”

Will was racking his mind for anything he might have missed. It was an old habit to make sure his questioning was thorough. He had covered everything pertinent to Abbot’s murder and Kostova’s relationship with him, as well as what little personal history he needed. As he finished ticking off everything he had asked, he was horrified to discover that he was staring at Emily Kostova’s breasts. While he had been double-checking his line of questioning, he’d also been imagining her unbuttoning the sky-blue linen of her blouse and letting it drop to the floor. He pictured her removing the little black band that secured her hair, letting it cascade down over the black lace of her bra, still covering her pendulous breasts before she reached behind her back to unfasten the clasp and let the brassiere fall to the floor.

As he caught himself looking, Will fancied he could hear an audible snap as his eyes shot back up to Kostova’s. She was looking at him pointedly, fully aware that he had been staring at her chest, her expression suggesting that she knew exactly what he’d been envisioning in his dirty little mind. “Any other questions, Sergeant?” she asked, a mock smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

The quickness of Will’s mind was a blessing at times like this. “What’s in there?” he ventured, pointing to the little camouflaged room in back.

“That’s my pet creation, an exclusive section on the first settlers in Connecticut—the Dutch in Hartford, the Plymouth pilgrims settling in Windsor, and the English in New Haven. There are also volumes on the Pequot tribe of Native Americans, the original owners of the land. And the witch trials, of course.”

“In Connecticut?”

“Oh yes, almost half a century before the witch trials of Salem. Alse Young had no son, and as soon as they realized she would inherit her husband’s estate, they accused her of witchcraft and put her to the rope. Rebecca Greensmith was cast into the water with her hands and feet bound. If the Connecticut River flooded and ruined the crops or if there was an epidemic, or if the Pequot attacked, then the settlers needed someone to blame, someone to aim their frustration toward and, ultimately, their retribution. If a couple were unfortunate enough to lose a child to disease, well, these were Puritans; they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that their interpretation of God would permit such a thing to happen. It had to be the work of no one less than the Devil himself. But they couldn’t get their revenge on the Devil.”

“So, they’d pick a woman of low social standing, right?”

“Or an herbalist or healer. Or midwife. Or a woman who, for one reason or another, was far too independent for their liking. Women were supposed to be meek, with no voice of their own and certainly no means to support themselves without a man. And God absolutely forbid any woman express a hint of sexual freedom! Or, even worse, speak out for enlightenment from the religious persecution of the time or in defense of women’s rights, which were essentially non-existent at the time.”

“I’m sure that plain greed and jealousy played a large part as well,” Will offered.

“Oh, quite so.” Behind the counter, Emily plugged an electric tea kettle into a wall outlet. “You see, it began in Europe. Many women were accused of witchcraft by other women of lesser financial or social status, or by men who used the ignorance of the time for financial gain. The court could seize anything of value from a woman guilty of witchcraft, so when these men came upon a woman of independent means, they saw an opportunity. People made fortunes off women who, of course, couldn’t defend themselves. After all, if the local populace actually believed in witchcraft, how could you defend yourself? Would you like a cup of tea, Sergeant?”

“No, thank you. I’ve just finished a coffee.”

“And what they did to these poor women awaiting trial!” continued Kostova, gathering steam as she poured spring water from a plastic jug into the pot and turned it on. “Rape, torture, mutilation…these so-called pious men were in truth sick, perverted sadists. They’d strip the accused woman naked and ‘search’ for the witch’s mark—you know, a mole or birthmark through which the accused’s animal familiar supposedly suckled. Of course, that gave them an excuse to run their hands over every inch of the woman’s body. Maybe if their wives hadn’t been brought up to believe that sex was evil and to be used solely for procreation, things might have been different.

“Anyway, once the men got their jollies, then the accused was in real danger. They would prick her all over her body with needles because a witch isn’t supposed to feel pain, and then perhaps put her on the rack. They might rip a woman’s breasts off with iron hooks, use various types of water torture—you know, really sick and evil shit.”

“Isn’t that how witch hunting came to America? They came from Europe, didn’t they, the first settlers in Connecticut?”

“Holland,” said Kostova, nodding. “Witch hunting had been rampant throughout all of Europe. The accusers became rich on the blood of innocent women. Well, some women fought back.”

“How so?” Will kept his eyes riveted to Kostova. The fervor with which she spoke was most likely the passion of any scholar or enthusiast toward their area of expertise, but she struck him as outraged by the gall and avarice of the witch hunters and seemed to take it personally.

“Enlightened women turned people’s own superstitions and agendas against them. They took advantage of their accusers’ ignorance and used it to manipulate them. If you dig deep enough, there is even conjecture that some women actually learned the dark arts and how to use them for protection.”

“Are you serious? You really believe that women became witches to get revenge on their accusers?”

From a drawer in the desk behind the counter, Kostova took a box of teabags and a mug that proclaimed, I’m in charge! “I’m not saying I believe anything. I’m just saying that there are some interesting stories. A Scottish woman named Rhona Galbraith was accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century and found guilty. They put a noose around her neck and threw her from a high bridge overlooking a shallow brook that had run dry, but the rope broke. The fall should have killed her, but they never found a body. Several of her accusers died within a month of the execution, though. Gerdie Muller was chained to the wall of a locked prison cell, awaiting trial. In the morning, the cell was found empty, and every one of her accusers soon met with some type of accident—kicked to death by a horse, struck by lightning, discovered at the bottom of a well. But the most infamous account was of a Dutch woman named Liesbeth Janssen.”

“God, you’re really an expert. Let me guess, that section in back is one in which you haveread everything.”

“Just about,” said Kostova with a smile.

“So, you were saying, Liesbeth Janssen.”

At that moment, a boy of, Will guessed, fifteen or so rushed into the shop, wearing a worried expression. “Do you have The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck?” he asked in a manner akin to pleading.

“I do. Right this way, young man,” Kostova replied cheerily, leading him about halfway down the wall. “For school?”

“Uh-huh,” the kid mumbled, looking down.

“Let me guess. You should have read it by now.”

“Report’s due Monday and the library’s out.”

“Ah, someone from class must have beaten you to it. Here we go. Paperback—nice and cheap. It’s easy reading, so you should be able to kill it between tonight and tomorrow.”

“Thanks.”

Two more people entered as Emily led the boy to the counter—a middle-aged man in business attire and raincoat, and a young woman in damp jogging gear. “Eight forty-nine, please,” said Kostova, ringing the book up. The boy thanked her again, shy enough to where his infatuation with her was far more obvious than he would have liked. Will smiled to himself.

“I think he likes me,” Kostova said after the kid had left. “He’ll be a repeat customer.”

“Hell, the way he was looking at you, you’ll be in the black by the end of the month.” Kostova smiled, and again Will had to bear in mind that he was not the boy’s age.

The water in the electric kettle was now boiling. Kostova turned the kettle off and poured the water over the teabag in her cup.

“So, what about Liesbeth Janssen?”

Another potential customer entered, this time a handsome elderly woman, elegant in a black and white dress with a rose-colored silk scarf. She carried asmall collapsible umbrella between the handles of her purse.

Kostova looked at Will with regret. “The story of Liesbeth Janssen is a bit longer, I’m afraid,” she said.

“Let me get out of your hair. Thank you for your time.”

“Hang on a second.” Kostova dashed over to the wall, returning with a copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. “On the house. Try it as an adult.” She handed him the book.

“Are you serious? Hey, thanks! What did I do to deserve this?”

“Maybe I feel bad because I wasn’t entirely truthful.”

“How so?”

Emily Kostova looked down at the floor, much as had the boy smitten with her and smiled. “Maybe I’m not so sorry you’re divorced.”

With that, she turned and went to attend her customers.

Emily’s Lair by Cary Grossman

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