Night of Nine Tails

night of nine tails

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chapter-1

drop-cap-reg climbed out of bed, the dread from her nightmare still squeezing her heart so tightly it hurt. It had been a long time since she had felt that anxious without knowing what it was she had to fear. She was keenly attuned to the possible dangers in her life, always staying one step ahead of the authorities or anyone who might have figured out her latest scam, but the heart-squeezing dread was different. It wasn’t connected to any specific risk she could identify.

She could write it off as the vestiges of her nightmare, but she didn’t want to ignore the warning. It could be something that her subconscious was trying to warn her about. If something was bothering her, she needed to know what it was to address it. If it was time to leave Black Sands… she didn’t want to, but if it were the only way to stay safe, then she would.

Starlight was sitting in the window looking out at the back garden. He looked over at Reg and let out a low, mournful howl. Reg went over to him and petted him and let her tuxedo cat rub the top of his head against her chin and neck.

“What’s the matter, Star? Did you have a nightmare too?”

He sat back and started to wash, giving her the cold shoulder. She felt his rebuff keenly. She knew very well that he wasn’t unhappy because he’d been having a nightmare. She was being silly, but in doing so, she had made light of his problem, which, as far as he was concerned, was far more important than her petty human problems.

“Okay, I’m sorry.” She stroked him again. “What is it?”

She peered out the window. She could see Sarah working in the garden, something that lifted her heart just a little. Not so long ago, she had been worried that she was going to lose Sarah for good. Suffering the effects of losing her powerful emerald amulet, Sarah had been on the brink of death. It had been a hard-won battle to bring her back. Seeing her puttering around in the garden was something that Reg had never expected to see again and it warmed her heart.

She kneaded the back of Starlight’s neck. “Are you looking for your friend?”

This time he didn’t rebuff her. She could feel the warmth of his confirmation, but also the emptiness and longing that the other cat had left behind.

Reg had only seen the black cat he watched for twice. Then, Reg’s mind had been on more important things; finding the emerald and proving that she wasn’t the one who had stolen it. It wasn’t easy for someone with a past like Reg’s to prove her innocence. While no one in Black Sands knew her full history, both Corvin and Detective Jessup had a pretty good idea that she had stolen and fenced jewelry and other valuable goods before.

“I’ll ask Sarah if she’s seen any sign of him,” Reg told Starlight, kissing his velvety black ears.

He stared at her reproachfully with his mismatched green and blue eyes. Reg coughed and corrected herself.

“I’ll ask Sarah if she’s seen her.”

She chuckled as she grabbed a housecoat to pull on over her shorts and t-shirt and walked out to the kitchen. Starlight remained in the window watching for any sign of the black cat rather than following Reg into the kitchen and demanding breakfast. He really was worried about the black cat.

Reg turned on the coffee machine. She looked at her phone for any new mail or messages while she waited for it to brew a pot of coffee, trying to immerse herself in something other than the tightness around her heart. If she just ignored the feeling, it would go away. If it was just general anxiety, then distracting herself with something else should help.

But even before she filled her first cup of coffee, she knew that it wasn’t going away. It wasn’t just the vestiges of a bad dream, brought on by imagination or watching TV too late into the night.

Something was really wrong.

She just didn’t know what it was.

Reg slipped on a pair of pink flip-flops and went around the cottage to the garden, where Sarah was standing, hands on well-padded hips, looking at the bent and broken plants, shaking her head. She glanced at Reg and shook her gray head.

“It looks like a hurricane was through here.”

Reg sipped her coffee, which was really still too hot to drink.

“I’m sorry,” she acknowledged. She wasn’t apologizing for something she had done wrong, just saying that she felt sorry for the state of things. She was sorry that Sarah was feeling bad.

It was, in fact, not Reg or a hurricane that was responsible for all of the beaten-down plants in the garden. The damage had been done by Sarah herself, in a demented frenzy as she had tried to chase off the black cat that Starlight was looking for as he sat in the window. Reg hadn’t seen it—hadn’t seen her—since.

“I half-remember doing it,” Sarah said, her forehead wrinkling into frown lines, “but it’s like it happened a long time ago to someone else. I know I was angry, uncontrollably angry, but I can’t remember feeling that way. Not… really.”

“You were not well. But now you’re feeling better… and I bet it won’t be long before you have everything whipped back into shape again.”

“I think it’s taken a bad enough beating already. I need to remove all of the detritus and tie up some of the plants until they are strong enough… a lot of them won’t bloom again this year. It’s such a meaningless loss. It didn’t have to happen at all…”

Reg tried another sip of coffee. “Do you want a cup?” she offered Sarah. “I just brewed a pot.”

“No, dear. I have found that since my… reanimation… caffeine just puts me over the top. I have more energy than I know what to do with.”

“I could make you some tea.”

“I’m fine. I’ve had my breakfast and I don’t need anything else. I just need to figure out how to get started here.” Sarah sighed. “You’re up early. Do you have an appointment?”

“No. I’m just having nightmares. I thought I might as well get up.”

Sarah nodded. “I could make you a potion to help with nightmares.”

Reg shook her head. She assumed that Sarah just meant some herbal remedy with valerian and whatever other brain-calming herbs she could think of, but Reg wasn’t about to swallow anything called a potion. She wasn’t that far gone yet.

“It’s okay. I’m sure they’ll pass in a few days.”

“You need to make sure you get a good sleep. It can affect your productivity. Especially your psychic abilities.”

Uncomfortable, Reg changed the subject. “So, I was wondering if you saw that cat around here again.”

“Which cat?” Sarah frowned and motioned to her wrecked garden. “The one that caused all of this?”

It certainly hadn’t been the cat’s fault that Sarah had freaked out, trying to beat it with a broom and flattening most of the garden.

“Uh, yes. The black cat.”

“It’s a stray,” Sarah said dismissively. “It will be in someone else’s yard.”

“Well, probably,” Reg agreed. “I’m just looking for it… Starlight is looking for it. Her.” She looked at the cottage window. “He’s sitting there watching for her. But I haven’t seen her since that day.”

“I don’t want another cat wandering around here. Starlight is inside, and that’s fine; I don’t want a cat out in the garden chasing away my birds.”

“I know. But Starlight is very… convincing. He really wants me to look for her.”

“You’re not going to become the neighborhood cat lady, taking in all of the strays in the neighborhood. Not while you’re living in my guest cottage.”

“I don’t want more than one cat.”

“Then what are you going to do when you find it?”

“I don’t know.” Reg just knew that Starlight wanted her to look for his new amour. “I guess… maybe I would find a good home for her, and I could take Starlight there sometime to visit with her?” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t really know anything about cat relationships. Do you?”

“No. Nor do I want to.”

“So, you haven’t seen her around anywhere?”

“No, I haven’t. And if I do, I’ll chase her away again.”

Reg nodded. When Sarah said that she didn’t like cats, she had meant it. Even though she was polite to Starlight and would even feed him when she came to see Reg, she was still not a cat person and didn’t want them anywhere near her birds.

There was a loud crash, and Reg whirled around, putting her hands up, ready to defend herself. But there was no imminent attack. Just the rattle of a truck as it continued to drive down the street in front of Sarah’s house. It had hit a bump or a pothole along the way, that was all. Sarah raised her brows at Reg, amused.

“A little jumpy today?”

“I just thought…” Reg trailed off. “Yeah, I guess I’m a little jumpy today. I don’t know what is going on with me… I’m feeling anxious all the time… like something is going to happen. Something is wrong.”

Sarah picked up a ball of twine, finally deciding where to start on her garden refurbishment.

“Well, you could help me with the garden. It’s a very relaxing hobby.”

“I’m not really looking for a hobby. I need to stay focused on my business if I’m going to support myself.”

“Are you worried about failing? I thought that your psychic services business had been going quite well.”

“It is. I can’t complain about that. You’ve been a real help to me with all of your contacts and I’m always getting new clients. It’s just that… I don’t think this anxiety is related to my business; it’s something else.”

“But you don’t know what it is?”

“No.”

Reg watched Sarah as she approached a droopy, bent-over plant and lifted its branches tentatively as if trying to gauge whether it were still alive or beyond repair. She started to tie it to a nearby stake.

“Maybe you’re picking up someone else’s anxiety, then. Maybe it’s not even your own.”

Reg still had a hard time believing she actually had a psychic gift. She was good at reading people, that much was certain, but all of the other odd things that had happened since she had moved to Black Sands seemed like magic tricks. Someone using sleight of hand to gaslight her into thinking that she really did have unexplained powers. But she couldn’t think of a way to explain everything that had happened using science or illusion.

She couldn’t deny that she was often influenced by others’ moods, though. Maybe that’s all that Sarah was saying. She had recently met with someone or been around someone who had been very anxious, and she had just taken on those emotions herself without realizing it.

“Yeah. Maybe that’s it.”

“Have you had a client recently who was worried about the future?” Sarah suggested. “I imagine that a lot of the people who hire you are concerned about the future. That’s what tends to worry humans the most. Not knowing where they are going.”

“I can’t think of anyone offhand, but there must have been. That must be what I’m doing. I’m just… empathetic.”

“Exactly,” Sarah agreed. “Maybe have a nice, calming cup of tea instead of caffeine in the morning, take some time to meditate and center yourself. I’m sure it will help to smooth away your anxiety. And if not… I do know some recipes. Or I could help you to find a healer who could help you if you don’t trust my skills.”

“Oh, it isn’t that. I’m just not used to… magical solutions.” Reg tried to explain it in a way that wouldn’t offend Sarah. “I’m sure that your potions are just as good as the other charms and protection spells around the property. You’re very good at what you do.”

Sarah sighed, tying up another branch. “I think I’m going to have to find someone who can fix gardens. It’s going to take forever to repair one plant at a time, and then to wait to see how they respond. I need a spellcaster who is good with flora.”

Reg couldn’t offer much help in that direction. “Maybe… Letticia would know someone.”

“I’m sure I have a name in my Rolodex. I’ll just have to take a look. It’s been a long time since I needed to hire someone to do this.” She put her hands on her hips again, surveying the minuscule amount of work she had done. “I really don’t want to be tied to my garden all day. I want to be out, having a good time.”

For a woman who, according to Jessup, was several centuries old, Sarah had a remarkable level of vigor, which had grown with her recent healing.

If Reg hadn’t known that taking the emerald away would kill Sarah in short order, she might have been tempted to have it for her own.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Night of Nine Tails

By P.D. Workman

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