Chapter XXVIII – The Knight of Pentacles
Thanks to Charmian, I knew where Zach Tobin lived. I parked on the street and saw him sitting on the steps, white earbuds suggesting he was listening to music. But he looked right at me as I parked, and when I stepped out of the car, he stood up, picking up a backpack that seemed to contain schoolbooks. I was carrying both Charmian’s book and the copy I had made, but he didn’t look at them. He looked at me.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
Charmian’s description of him was surprisingly accurate. Maybe when she’s not looking at herself (which is rare) she actually sees. I knew he was my age but he looked older, a big soft-faced guy hiding his head under a bandana. Not any scarf that could ever have belonged to Charmian, I was glad to see.
“I think so,” I said, my voice going all quavery at the thought of what these documents contained.
“Let me call my ride,” he said, texting rapidly with his phone.
“Am I interrupting something?” I asked, still feeling awkward because I knew so much about him that he didn’t know I knew. And he knew nothing about me.
“No,” he said. “I was waiting for a ride to the courthouse but I’m telling them I’ll find my own way there.”
“I can drive you,” I said. Thinking, that’s if you still want to go after reading this. A few more minutes and I might have missed him! I have to get this over with.
“OK.” He said. “Come on back.”
When he turned I had the nerve to study him. He wore a Bull Durham t-shirt and a pair of multi-patched jeans that had definitely seen better days – probably in someone else’s lifetime. Obviously if he was going to the courthouse, it was as a spectator.
He had big muscles. His “bruiser” physique” and his youth, and I guess their original connection must be what had turned my hard-ass stepmother into a “lovestruck girl.”
But there was also an aura about him I couldn’t put my finger on, an air of having come out of some other world. Some foreign place where things are different. That was what made Charmian see him as a knight.
He took me back to the shack she had written about – more of a shed, really. I knew it had no running water but it didn’t look so unrespectable. In the back yard, a pair of basket chairs looked out on an unkempt jungle of yard and a panorama of distant mountains. Native American blankets were thrown over the basket chairs. He picked up mine, shook it out and flipped it.
“My lady,” he said. On top of a rusty airconditioning unit was a miniature refrigerator. He took out a pitcher and two frosty glasses.
“Sweet tea?” he offered.
“Sure,” I said, still uncomfortable. The tea was full of mint. It was not too bad. I began to relax. When I sat down, so did he.
“I guess you’re not serving me with papers,” he commented, “Or you would have done it already.”
“So I look like a process server?” I was really upset.
“No,” he answered. “You look like a person in trouble.” And he reached out and touched my hand.
A galvanic thrill ran through me. I jumped.
“So you felt that?” he said. “Wow.”
“I did feel it. Are you – magic?”
“No,” he said. “I’m definitely not magic. But you are.”
I shook my head. “Can’t be,” I said. “Believe me.”
“So,” he offered, “Maybe we’re magic when we’re together. My spirit touching your spirit.”
Maybe so. I didn’t understand any of this. Did it make what I had to do harder or easier? I decided it made it easier. We seemed to need fewer words with this current of understanding that was passing between us.
“I’m here about my stepmother,” I started, gesturing with the book, hoping it would take it from me. It lay in my lap like a stone.
But he wasn’t looking at the book. He was looking at me with his deep, soft, liquid green eyes.
“Do I know her?” he asked.
“Unfortunately,” I admitted, “You do.”
There was silence between us for a moment. But it was different from any other silence I have ever experienced. It was weirdly, as if we knew each other already and were both trying to remember. I felt more like a person coming out of a coma, who looks around for clues, trying to figure out who she is.
I shook the book at him. “She wrote it down,” I said, “It’s all in here.”
Still he didn’t take the book. Had he figured out that I didn’t really want him to read it? He said instead, “Tell me about her.”
I looked out toward the mountains to break the connection between us, summoning up my nerve.
“She’s a juror on the Sivarro trial,” I told him. “Your father introduced you to her on your fifteenth birthday.”
His eyes widened, his faced reddened and he gasped. “What goes around comes around,” he said. “My father is a demon.”
“Well my stepmother is a demon and that’s for sure,” I agreed. “In this book she admits murdering three people. It’s a love letter to you.”
He looked at the book, appalled. I could see he really didn’t want to read it now.
I went on, “One of the people she killed was my father. I stole this book from her house. And now I don’t know what to do. It was all so long ago, I’m afraid the police won’t investigate. She’s a very powerful person.”
“A witch?” he asked me.
His language – a word that revealed his understanding – was making this easier. What I had instinctively known – that only he could understand –was coming true. “Well, yes. She believes in magic anyway. She calls herself the Queen of Swords.”
He nodded. “There’s only one way to defeat magic.”
“How?” I asked helplessly.
“You need bigger magic.”
I breathed a relieved sigh. “And you’ve got … that?”
He touched my hand again. “I’m sure I do.”
When he was touching me I couldn’t think of anything but his skin, his lips, his strong thighs. It was all I could do not to launch myself at him. I began to shiver, as if the hot day was freezing cold.
“So what do you want?” he asked me softly.
“I want to erase the past,” I spat, “Before my father had his stroke, before she came into our lives. She was supposed to take care of him, but she ruined him. First she made him get rid of me and then she destroyed him. She robbed me. She stole everything I have.”
Humiliatingly, I started to cry. Did I know he would hug me? Was I trying to force his hand? Over-thinking things again! I despised myself. It’s my usual feeling.
He took me into his arms. His sweat smelled like a field of thyme. I sighed blissfully, feeling I could be safe there forever.
“You want your father back before he began to suffer,” he said. “It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
“She corrupted him,” I insisted, but feeling that I was lying. My father wanted to be corrupted. Still, it wasn’t fair.”
“You know, your father’s perfect spirit still exists,” said Zach Tobin, holding me on his lap and rocking me – hideously huge old me, like I was a baby! He could lift me up as if I was a feather. “Concentrate on that. His spirit is bigger than his life.”
I struggled with the concept, summoning up everything I’d learned at the prep academy, and at college.
“Our spirit is bigger than our choices,” said Zach. “Our spirit weeps when we choose the wrong thing.”
I wanted to have sex with him right there in that basket chair. Was that the wrong thing to want? But I didn’t feel confused. I was beginning to see that clarity was possible.
“I stole this book out of her house,” I said. “I made one copy, but I’m afraid a copy has no value. It’s almost too crazy a story for anyone to believe. She’s stuck at the courtroom now – I looked at my watch – but when she comes home tonight she’ll see it’s missing and she’ll do something. Something awful.”
“We won’t let that happen,” said Zach.
“But you don’t know her. She’s powerful. She feels things. She’s fixated on you. She’s going to know that I interfered and drop everything to come after us!” My teeth chattered.
“Stop being afraid of her,” he said. “It gives her power. Repeat after me, the trees are not afraid.”
My teeth were still chattering. “They’re not?”
“Repeat after me. I am not lost. The trees know where they are.”
I repeated it. “I am not lost, the trees know where they are.”
“The trees are not afraid.”
“The trees are not afraid.” I did feel better. Imagine if I was a tree! What could Charmian do to me? It would take her a long time to cut me down. She probably couldn’t do it! She’d get blisters on her hands.
“So,” I asked him, “No police?”
“We need bigger magic than the police,” said Zach. “We’re going to get Mr. Wilmot, and Mr. Wilmot’s going to get the police. But first, we have to have a sacred ceremony.”
“A sacred ceremony?” I repeated hopefully. A sacred ceremony! You bet that was just what we needed. Plus the police, and the prosecutor. Then we’d have everything covered. I liked this magic. Charmian could never be ready for this. Firepower.
“And she will be destroyed?”
“If she’s a demon,” he said,“She will be destroyed. Put your number in my phone. Your name is –“
I flushed, painfully. Talk about not taking care of business!
“I’m Whitney Quantreau,” I told him, taking his phone. And you’re … Zach Tobin?” I still knew too much about him.
“My legal name is Zach Zanelli,” he said. “Because those people lost a son. Whatever can be repaired is repaired. Whatever can be made whole is made whole, even though the river rushes on. My friends call me Eight.”
“Eight…” I breathed. I felt better that he had a magic name. Two names that Charmian didn’t know. “Why Eight?”
“Because I was so happy when I was eight years old.” He smiled, and when he smiled he looked like an eight year old. “Until now.”
“I need a magic name,” I said.
“We’ll get you one,” said Eight.
“She calls me the Princess of Wands. I don’t want to be the Princess of Wands.”
“Well, she’d wrong right there,” said Eight. “You’re not the princess of anything. You’d be the Queen.”
“Look at your strength, going up against her. Hell, yeah!”
“You’ve got better magic, right?” I stood up uncertainly. “I mean, you’ve got the trees. But –“
“And I’ve got the mountains,” said Eight.
“You’ve got the mountains?”
“The mountains aren’t afraid. And I’ve got all the animals.”
The tears came back in my eyes. “That is a lot,” I agreed. “She’d nothing but a pack of cards.”
He pried the book from my hands.
“You’re going to the courthouse,” he said. “Make certain she’s still there.”
I didn’t want to tell him I was afraid after he’d worked so hard to build me up. But what can I say? I was scared. “Without you?”
“I have something else to do. I’ll text you where to go. And when.”
One look at my face and he repeated, “She cant touch you. I’ll tell Wilmot to keep her there.”
He’ll tell…the prosecutor! This kid! This kid who had seen his father murder a man. Whose father tries to tell everyone who will listen that his son is the murderer!
“We have right on our side,” said Eight.
Hmm. True. Plus the trees and the mountains. And the animals. But in the courtroom…she will look at me.
“It’s important to let her see you,” he said. “It will help the ceremony. If she’s shaken just a little bit.”
It would surprise her.
“It’s important to do what you fear,” he encouraged. “Face her. We’re going to take her down.”
I shook my head a little. I’m not a knight. I’m not a queen.
“If it’s any comfort to you,” he continued, “She can’t really see you. Because she is blind. If she’s made herself into a demon, the spiritual world is closed to her.”
That did help.
“Mr. Wilmot says this afternoon are closing arguments. Then the jury usually wants to start deliberating right away, and they have dinner sent in, because they don’t want their dinner ruined. Trust me. We’ll get her.”
And he kissed me. That was where I received all my courage.