Witchfire

Chapter Onecanstockphoto29891331-2

When the veil parted between the worlds, Lyn’s cry for help was heard

Samhain (October 31, 1991)

The Dreams that were to change her life irrevocably and forever began on Halloween, when the first death threat appeared on her answering machine at home.

When Lyn St. John, M.D., still wearing her white clinic coat, flicked on her answering machine that October evening at six o’clock, danger was the last thing on her mind. Having put in a hard day’s work at her medical clinic, she now wanted nothing more than to catch up with the rest of her life. For Lyn, that meant her mail, her messages, her dinner, and the company of her daughter—and the only reason for putting her daughter last was that twelve-year-old Wendy was attending a Halloween party and would not be home until later.

After dumping handbag and tote bag on the floor beside the breakfast bar, Lyn began opening the pile of bills, circulars, and invitations with a paper knife as she listened to the answering machine.

At first there was nothing unusual about either the voices or the messages: the receptionist in her dentist’s office reminded Lyn she had an appointment at lunchtime the next day; Phoebe, one of her closest friends, invited her to dinner a week from Friday; one of Wendy’s classmates wanted to know the English assignment for tomorrow’s class.

It was the next message that made her look up sharply from slitting open the pile of envelopes in her lap.

The voice was one she didn’t know, a man’s voice, deliberate and deep.
“Babykiller,” said the voice. It was almost a snarl. “How many unborn children did you kill today? Start saying your prayers, doctor, because the day is coming when we’re going to kill you. We’re watching you—and your daughter too.” There was a pause, followed by the sound of machine-gun fire.

Lyn started up in alarm, sending the letters she was holding cascading to the floor. The hatred in the man’s voice, the threat against her life, the assertion that both she and Wendy were being “watched,” struck her with an almost physical force.

“That was your last message,” said the impersonal, answering machine-generated voice. “The time was four p.m. on October thirty-first.”

Lyn sank onto the high stool next to the breakfast bar, thinking, I certainly hope that wasn’t my last message, while another part of her mind screamed, Wendy! Where’s Wendy?

For a few seconds, shock prevented her from recalling that Wendy was at her friend Karen Sturmer’s house, and presumably safe. But she had to make sure. Agitation made her fingers stiff and clumsy as she punched the telephone number on the keypad.

But when the connection went through and Karen’s mother came on the line, she sounded reassuringly normal. “The girls? Oh, they’re downstairs getting things ready for the party. Do you want me to call Wendy up here?”

“No, thanks, I don’t need really to talk to her,” Lyn said. To her own ears she sounded out of breath, almost as if she had been running from the nameless person who had threatened her. “Do you want me to pick her up at nine, or—?”

“Not necessary,” Mrs. Sturmer said. “A couple of the other girls who are coming over tonight live in your neighborhood, so I’ll just drop Wendy off when I drive them home.”

Lyn thanked her and hung up the telephone. She took a deep breath: she was behaving like an idiot. Of course her daughter was safe. But what if Wendy had been in the house with her, just now, and heard the threat? A child should not be exposed to such hatred. In her own home a child should feel safe.

On the other hand, although Wendy might have been frightened by the message, her ruling characteristic was common sense. She would probably have urged her mother to call the police.

The day is coming when we’re going to kill you, the voice had warned.

Was the unknown caller serious about the death threat, or was it merely a piece of unpleasantness, like the everyday harassment she, her employees, and the patients endured at the clinic?

For the past three years, anti-choice protesters had picketed the clinic she owned, Old Dominion Women’s Medical Center in Falls Landing, Virginia, every weekend, and issued threats by telephone or letter almost every weekday. The staff had learned to screen the mail for suspicious-looking packages and envelopes as a matter of course, and faithfully carried out the security precautions the local police recommended. Lyn, in fact, was so used to calling the police that she and her staff were on first-name terms with them.

But this was the first time the unpleasantness had encroached on her private life. The threats she and her staff dealt with every day at the clinic so far had been mostly just that: threats. A prayer brigade showed up regularly on Saturday mornings, ostensibly to “counsel” the patients against getting abortions, but although they were annoying, they weren’t violent. Other protesters, who carried picket signs, marched up and down on the sidewalk in front of the clinic, avoiding the prayer group that gathered in a circle near the driveway, the better to accost patients entering in cars.

Once or twice a year a large action would take place in which the protesters would attempt to bar entry to the clinic, but so far their attempts had been unsuccessful.

The antis’ tactics frightened some of the patients and infuriated others, but all were insulated from the worst of the exhortations yelled at them because the clinic enjoyed a peculiar advantage. Every Saturday morning a detail of trained clinic escorts, volunteers all, showed up to guide the patients safely into the clinic building. And when rumors went around regarding a major action by the anti-choice side, the Defenders, the organization that trained the escorts, would send up to a dozen of their blue-jacketed members to watch for trouble. Equipped with cellular telephones, video cameras, and notebooks, the Defenders would carefully monitor the antis’ every move. They sent regular reports to the Falls Landing police, who had no great love for troublemakers who tied up police time and resources.

Thinking of this now, Lyn reflected that all this arose from one simple fact: one group of citizens wanted to prevent another group of citizens from exercising a constitutional right. And now the antis were threatening to kill her.

If she stopped providing abortions as part of the clinic’s services to women, all the harassment would stop, naturally. The antis had made that clear.

But how could she live with herself if she did? Lyn had been thirty-two in January 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled through Roe v. Wade that abortion was now legal in the United States. Both as intern and resident, she had seen enough damage caused by unsafe abortion that she was determined to do everything in her power to prevent it. She had seen women die from raging infections caused by introducing everything from knitting needles to coat hangers into the uterus; she’d seen horrifying internal burns from caustic substances that had resulted in death for the women who resorted to such methods; she had seen women with perforated uteri bleed to death because they had been brought into the emergency room too late for medical science to save them.

No, in all conscience she could not stop providing an operation that saved women’s lives. She would have provided the operation even if it had been illegal. Twenty years ago, in 1971, the government would have jailed her for that. Now the antis were threatening to kill her because the operation she was providing was legal. Shaking her head at the irony of it all, Lyn retrieved the rest of the mail from the floor and went on opening it.

But she stopped half-way through slitting an envelope open as a thought chilled her.

Her home telephone number was unlisted. She had given it only to the people she knew in her private life and to the clinic staff: anyone else who needed to telephone her in her off-duty hours called the business line that she had installed in the study upstairs. So how had the antis obtained it?

She had cautioned Wendy to use the business line number on her school documents, and to give the private line telephone number only to her closest friends. Could Wendy have given the number to someone untrustworthy, or careless? Someone who had been approached by the antis and tricked, perhaps, into revealing the number?

Lyn shivered. She felt violated. If the antis could obtain her unlisted telephone number, what else might they do? Unwillingly, she remembered the incidents cited by the National Abortion Federation in its reports: this clinic bombed, that clinic invaded and occupied, this doctor so harassed as to require twenty-four-hour-a-day protection, that doctor abducted, along with his wife, and held hostage for an entire weekend.

Something rubbed against her ankles, making her jump. “Oh, Snowflake!” Lyn bent down to stroke the cat, who looked up at her with an expression that meant, “It’s time for dinner, you realize.”

“Chow now?”

“Now,” Snowflake agreed. Pure white from tip to tail, with one blue eye and one green, she was beautiful and appeared to know it. Lyn filled her dish with cat food, set it down in front of her, and continued the conversation.

“What do you think, Snowflake? Should I call the police? Or would it be a waste of time?”

Snowflake stopped eating to throw Lyn a look that seemed to convey mild reproof.

“Well, all right,” said Lyn. “You think I ought to call the police, then. Okay.” She moved towards the telephone, but was struck still by a scuffling sound outside the front door. Thunderous banging followed.

Lyn jumped. Who was it? She wasn’t expecting visitors. Oh God, it couldn’t be the owner of the voice, could it? Had he come to her house to make good his threat?

The doorbell rang.

A murderer wouldn’t ring the doorbell. A murderer wouldn’t even knock. He would shoot through the window or enter the house late at night, when she could be presumed to be asleep.

As Snowflake left her dinner to step through the kitchen to the foyer, Lyn suddenly remembered that tonight was Halloween. Of course she was expecting visitors, little ones. What was the matter with her, forgetting something as simple as that? And more important, where was the candy she’d bought?

By the time she had found the big bowl of candy and opened the front door, the trick-or-treaters were disappearing down the driveway. “Here you are,” she called out into the darkness beyond her front porch. “I was at the back of the house. Sorry!”

Two of the bigger ones turned back to approach the doorstep. Lyn looked at them closely as they took a snack-size candy bar each. They appeared to be elementary school age, one dressed as a cowboy and one as a pirate.

She shut the door after them, sighing with relief. She should try to control her nervousness.

Philip, if only you were still alive.

In December, it would be two years since her husband had died in an accident on the Beltway that encircled Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. A late-autumn freezing rain falling on road surfaces that had been cold for weeks; a car, skidding on the Beltway in the darkness, sliding into the car in front of it…it had all been over in seconds. Philip had died at the scene.

“He wouldn’t have known anything, ma’am,” the state trooper said. She knew he wanted to be kind; wanted her to believe that Philip would not have realized what was happening, that the curtain would have fallen too swiftly over the last act of his life for him to fear death.

And there had been no time to tell him goodbye.

The worst of the pain was over by this time. She was now able to eat, sleep, enjoy the small pleasures of a life that still included her daughter, her work, her friends. At first only the knowledge that Wendy needed her had had the power to get Lyn out of bed in the morning. And then, as the desolate winter softened into spring, Lyn found solace in work. Hers were healing hands that eased the passage of babies into the world, comforted those with life-threatening illnesses, showed the uninformed how to take care of their sexual selves.

And because she provided abortions for those who needed them, she laid herself open to threats and harassment.

Suppose the anonymous caller and others of his ilk did succeed in killing her one day. What would happen to Wendy? Who would look after her?

Suddenly furious, Lyn marched back into the kitchen and dialed the telephone number of the Falls Landing police station. At this hour her usual contacts had left for the day and there was no one to listen to her report except a desk sergeant who, to judge from his impatient tone, thought himself overworked.

“An anonymous threat on your answering machine? It’s not against the law to leave a threat, even a death threat, on an answering machine.”

“Then it ought to be,” Lyn said, feeling even more furious.

“There’s really nothing we can do, Dr. St. John. Have you seen anything suspicious? A strange car in the neighborhood? Any signs of forced entry into the house?”

“No,” Lyn said. “I realize that there’s nothing for the police to go on, but surely there’s some action I could take?”

“Keep an eye out, doctor, that’s all I can advise. Report anything suspicious immediately. We’d rather come out to your house on a false alarm than the opposite.”

“Thank you, officer. Any other suggestions?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I know what I would do to protect my family. Good night, doctor.”

The doorbell rang again; Lyn dispensed more candy. Beyond the small figures dressed as ghosts she glimpsed a larger figure waiting beyond the driveway. A parent? She hoped so. Surely, a parent. Not the anonymous caller.

We’re watching you. Were there unseen watchers outside the house at this very moment? Watching…and waiting?

The house seemed disturbingly silent, so much so that the smallest creak made her look around in alarm. This was nonsense. She was not going to succumb to panic here in her own home. After all, she dealt with this kind of thing at the clinic every day. First she would call Juana, her employee, colleague, and friend, to rid herself of this oppressive sense of isolation; then she would check every single room in the house to make certain no one could get in.

“For God’s sake,” Juana said a few minutes later when she answered Lyn’s telephone call. “Do these people ever pay attention to their own utterances? The irony of it! They’re ‘pro-life,’ so they want to kill you.”

“Yes. Not very logical, is it? But then, I wouldn’t say logic is their strong point.”

“You troublemaker, you,” Juana said, sounding amused. “First you get in trouble with the Virginia Medical Association for attending home births and doing all the rest of us OBs out of our big fat fees for hospital births, and then you get in trouble for doing abortions. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Lyn laughed. Juana’s irreverent attitude always lifted her spirits. “I know. The officer I spoke to just now implied that I ought to get a gun. I wouldn’t even know how to fire one, though, and I’m not at all sure I want to learn.”

“Might be a good idea. Did Philip have one?”

“He did, but I don’t even remember whether he kept it loaded or not. I suppose it’s still in his office. I haven’t touched anything in there, except the computer, since he died.”

“Well, go have a look. And then just do what the cop said, keep an eye out. And remember, no matter what that bastard said on the message, you’re a good doctor. Everyone respects you, and the patients like you so much they’re always leaving you those little offerings of flowers and chocolates, and things like that.”

“You’re right.”

Lyn hung up the telephone, feeling cheered. She would make her rounds now and then prepare for bed. Wendy would be home by then.

This was the first year since Wendy’s sixth birthday that she had not gone trick-or-treating with the neighborhood children. “Mom, I’ve matured so much in the past year that I can’t be seen doing babyish things like trick-or-treating on Halloween,” she’d told Lyn a week ago. “I’m going to a party at Karen’s house instead.”

Where had Wendy picked up that kind of psychobabble-jargon? Lyn didn’t know, but it sounded so incongruous, coming from a twelve-year-old, that it was all she could do to keep her face straight. Remembering it now, Lyn allowed herself the smile she had repressed at the time.

Still smiling, she began to move through the house. It was large, with three bedrooms and Philip’s study upstairs, five rooms downstairs. The basement held Philip’s pool table, the exercise equipment, and the laundry and storage rooms.
As Lyn switched on the light to check the living room, her eye fell on the portrait Philip had commissioned the year before his death. Wendy had been nine, then; the oil painting showed the three of them in a family group, with Philip in the middle, one arm around her and one around Wendy.

Lyn looked at the painting with affection. The artist had done a commendable job of capturing Philip’s habitual expression of mild cynicism. He had also, to Philip’s satisfaction, accurately rendered his smooth brush of hair, even to the dark auburn color, only just touched with gray at the temples. Philip’s handlebar moustache shadowed his thin but well-shaped mouth.

The artist had made Lyn look younger than the forty-seven she had been at the time of the painting; in fact, with her smooth, short cap of shining brown hair and wide gray eyes, she looked like the popular stereotype of an aerobics instructor. “You look so hearty, darling,” Philip always teased. “Just the way a doctor should.” Her painted likeness hinted at great energy, barely contained.

The artist had been least successful in portraying Wendy as she really was; in the painting, with her long auburn braids and freckles, she merely looked like a sweet child. He had not captured the passion that shone from Wendy’s eyes—the passion to save those smaller and weaker than herself from harm. She protected the neighborhood children from the bullies on the school bus, chased away the cats who stalked the birds that inhabited the neighborhood, and enlisted her classmates’ help in raising money to send to the County Humane Society.

Lyn checked the windows to make sure they were locked, then cast a final glance around the room. As she turned out the light to go up the stairs, she paused to listen to the night. Judging by the way the wind was gathering force, the trees would be bare some time tomorrow. The leaves would dance across the lawn in spirals of scarlet, orange, and gold, and she would begin to think of wood fires and winter clothes.

The people of bygone times called this night of the year Samhain. She knew that because one of her tasks of the past weekend had been helping Wendy research the history of Halloween for a school report. They’d gone to the library on Saturday, returning home with an armload of books to spend most of the afternoon reading about the legends associated with All Hallows’ Eve and the day after, All Saints Day. In medieval times people had believed that the souls of the dead returned on this one night of the year, and baked “soul cakes” — rich buns with currants — to give away when the neighborhood children went “a-souling.”

But that was the Christian version. Earlier still, the holiday had been Pagan: in the autumn darkness the Celts had lit beacon fires on the hilltops to herald what, in their eyes, was the beginning of the new year. Samhain was the time when ghosts walked, the Druids foretold the future, and the veil between the worlds parted so the dead could send messages to their loved ones.

Lyn shivered suddenly. She was not superstitious, so she could hardly tell herself that someone had just walked over her grave. But reading about the Druids and their perception of this time of year as solemn, even awful—using the word in its old sense of awe-inspiring, rather than unpleasant—seemed to have affected her imagination.

Twice the doorbell interrupted her tour of the upstairs rooms. Again, she handed out candy and looked out into the darkness. The wind carried the scent of impending rain, damp earth, and leaf mold; Lyn sniffed in appreciation. But the air was too cold to linger in the doorway, and besides—what if someone were out there, watching?

When the doorbell rang again, at ten minutes past nine, Lyn opened the door thankfully, relieved that her daughter was home on time.

“Mom, why did you lock the door?” Wendy asked. She turned to wave goodbye to the car that was backing out of the driveway, headlights turned low, then turned back to Lyn. “I was just about to use my key.”

Lyn hesitated. Should she explain to Wendy why she had thought it necessary to lock the front door? Would Wendy be too disturbed to go to sleep if she knew about the threat? But she had always treated her daughter as equal in intelligence and dignity. It would be better to tell her what had transpired than to keep her in ignorance—then, if Wendy saw or heard something suspicious, she would tell her about it.

“There was a threat on the answering machine when I got home,” she said, trying to sound as if the matter were of no great concern. “The police said to take a few routine precautions. Was it a good party?”

“It was fantastic! The only embarrassing thing was that I kept winning all the games that called for being good at math. In the end we started telling ghost stories, so that was okay.”

“Good for you, sweetheart. Do you have any homework?”

“It’s all done. I’m going to bed. Are you coming in to say goodnight?”

“Yes. Wendy…do you remember the jack-o-lanterns that Daddy used to make?”

“Yes.” Wendy turned away to go up the stairs. Her voice sounded muffled. “No one could carve them like Daddy.”

Philip had carved the pumpkins with skill and enthusiasm. His jack-o-lanterns, wearing malevolent grins lit by yellow candle flame, seemed so lifelike that Lyn had always felt faintly uneasy at the sight of them.

“I’ll be up in a few minutes,” Lyn said. “Get into bed, sweetie, after you’ve picked out your clothes for tomorrow. Don’t start playing with the computer.”

“I won’t. I’m too tired, anyway.”

Later, tucking Wendy into bed, Lyn reflected that soon—weeks? months?—she would not be permitted to do this for her. She wouldn’t be able to press her lips against Wendy’s smooth, firm cheek, smell the delicate perfume of her hair, the fastidiously clean hair of the almost-teenaged girl. Soon she wouldn’t be able to give her a goodnight hug, feeling the sweetly formed shoulders through the thin dimity nightgown, because the day was coming when Wendy would announce that she was too old for such things. Considering that she was now too “mature” for trick-or-treating, it was surprising that she hadn’t dropped the bedtime ritual already.

Lyn considered her daughter, now sinking back on to her pillows. Wendy’s eyes were gray, like her own, fringed with dark lashes. Despite the freckles and the unruly auburn hair that daily elicited moans of hatred from its owner, she would one day be very pretty. And that would bring its own set of problems, Lyn thought, with a contraction of the heart. Once she too had been considered pretty, and it had led to problems, long ago.

“Good night, Mom.”

“Good night, sweetheart.” As Lyn bent to kiss her daughter’s forehead, Wendy’s eyes opened again.

“Mom? Do you miss Daddy still?”

“Every day. Every, every day for the rest of my life, sweetheart. Now go to sleep.”

Lyn could feel tears pricking at her eyes. She did not want to cry at this moment. If it set Wendy off, the child wouldn’t go to sleep on time, and she’d be impossible to get up in the morning.

Minutes later Lyn was relaxing in a bath thick with lilac-scented bubbles. This was the best time of the whole day, when she could cease to think, and simply be. And as always, by the time she slipped into tee-shirt and briefs before climbing into bed, the bath had worked its magic on her and she felt thoroughly relaxed.

How good it felt to sink into her comfortable bed. She realized that the fear engendered by the death threat had exhausted her. And here was Snowflake, who had been waiting outside in the hall for this moment, leaping lightly onto the big, lonely bed Lyn had once shared with her husband. Snuggled against Lyn’s side, she made a warm, comforting spot.

Lyn set the alarm for six-thirty in the morning, then reached for a book. But she couldn’t concentrate tonight: for some reason, she could not stop thinking of Philip. Why this night, particularly? Was it because Halloween reminded her of his jack-o-lanterns?

She had not even tried to carve them herself since his death. She simply hadn’t had the heart to attempt something he had done so well, and Wendy had not mentioned it.

No, it couldn’t be because of the jack-o-lanterns.

Was it because earlier this evening she had felt frightened and lonely, and wished he were still alive to protect her and Wendy?

Perhaps. But then again, perhaps researching all that folklore had made her conscious that tonight the veil between the worlds was supposed to be very thin: extraordinary events had been known to occur at Samhain. Lyn caught herself: what was the matter with her? It was silly to attach any credence to old legends, especially since she had always considered herself a freethinker.Why, then, did she feel Philip’s presence in the house so acutely tonight?

Philip, come back, I need you!

She missed her husband, both the things about him that drove her crazy, like his pedantic legal mind, and the things that made her laugh. If he had had the lawyer’s tendency to take himself a little too seriously at times, he’d had, equally, enough eccentricities to amuse her for all the fourteen years of their marriage. She remembered his stalking into the house occasionally in the mornings, tight-lipped with annoyance because he’d forgotten to put his false teeth in before leaving home and now, having had to return for them, would arrive late at his law office.

This was useless. Lyn reached over, snapped out the light on her nightstand, and lay on her back, staring into the darkness. Now she could hear the night noises outside: the rattle of leaves as the wind dashed them against the side of the house, the spatter of rain against the windowpanes, the faint wail of sirens from a distant main road.

This was not a night for anyone to be out, even if they were intent on doing her harm.

The wind rose outside, driving the rain harder against the windowpanes, and Lyn’s unease returned. Again her mind raised the question: if the people who hated her enough to threaten to kill her succeeded in carrying out that threat, what would become of Wendy?

Lyn’s parents would have to take her. But Ronald and Olivia Hargreaves were now in late middle age; they might die before Wendy grew up. Her brother Neil? But Neil was so restless, a computer gypsy; he would work a year or two at a project that interested him, then take a job on the opposite coast when he grew bored with his current employer. Neil and his wife seemed to like the way they lived, but Lyn did not want that kind of life for Wendy, so nearly a teenager.

The rain rattled louder against the house. Lyn turned restlessly onto her side, sending Snowflake almost flying. With a squawk of displeasure, the cat stepped lightly over the mountain of Lyn lying on her side, settling at last near the foot of the bed.

When Philip was alive, he had never allowed Snowflake to sleep with them. It had been just the two of them in the queen-size bed, and Lyn used to take particular pleasure in snuggling up to Philip’s long, thin back on cold winter nights. Philip was always amazingly warm, an agreeable contrast to her own cold hands and feet.

But after Philip’s death, Snowflake had started coming in at night to keep Lyn company, and Lyn let her stay. After all, the cat kept herself spotless; it wasn’t as if she had fleas. And anyway, Lyn thought a bed looked better with a white silken cat curled up on it, smack in the middle of the puffy, flower-patterned eiderdown.

Damn it, she needed her sleep, she had to get some sleep, but fear was keeping her awake. Common sense told her that on a night like this even terrorists would prefer to be at home, but the kind of fanatics who made threats like that weren’t normal. Surely the owner of the voice that had left the message on her answering machine would not be standing outside her house in the beating rain, watching as the lights went out upstairs.

Would she have to be eternally vigilant from now on, never letting down her guard for an instant? Would she have to curtail Wendy’s privileges to keep her safe? But Wendy, now almost a teenager, would bitterly resent not having the same freedom as her friends.

Turning over once more in bed, desperate for the sleep that eluded her, Lyn knew she had to do whatever it took to stay alive. She had a daughter to see safely over the threshold of childhood into womanhood and no one else could perform the task as well as she. But it would have been so much easier if her husband were still here to protect her and Wendy against the kind of threat that had arisen today.

Help me!

It was a soul-cry of anguish, a cry that ripped through the veil between the worlds. Philip, wherever you are, come back! I need you!

(To be continued)

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