Detective Blackhorse awoke determined to go and lay eyes on the woman whose name kept coming up in interviews with the townspeople. He wanted to see for himself if there was anything to their suspicions. Normally, he took accusations of witchcraft made against misfits and outsiders with a grain of salt. More often than not, they were baseless and born of bigoted thinking. People always feared and despised people they did not understand, who didn’t fit in. However, Detective Blackhorse wasn’t entirely sure that was the case this time. The memory of that ring of power surrounding Dakota Field’s house was still fresh.
He couldn’t be sure whether or not exhaustion had played a part in the growing sense of foreboding, which came over him, as he approached the deceptively cheerful looking house that night. The very trees around it seemed to radiate dark energy. Of course, Officer Schneider’s outlandish tales about evil spirits inhabiting trees might have been partially to blame for that impression. Detective Blackhorse wanted to visit again, in the light of day after a good night’s sleep and meet the mysterious woman whose name seemed to be on everyone’s lips. That way, he could draw his own conclusions.
Blackhorse parked in the same spot, he had chosen on his first visit to the forest. Leaving his jacket in the car, he set off on foot, wanting to enjoy a few moments of peace and collect his thoughts. In the full light of a sunlit summer day, the forest seemed harmless. The gnarled trees took on a folksy, whimsical look. He half expected to see fairies flitting around. As Blackhorse approached the trees around Dakota’s homestead, he gradually became aware of a creepy sense of uneasiness. Was someone watching him? He paused and glanced around, straining his ears, but did not see or hear anyone. A rustling of leaves made him turn quickly, in time to see a squirrel scuttle away. He chuckled, silently chastising himself for being jumpy.
The trees nearing the clearing were progressively large and old, emanating energy from which he felt slight vibrations tickle the soles of his feet. He imagined their massive roots had been burrowing into the soil for centuries, gradually reaching deep into the earth’s crust and drawing on power emanating from the core. Standing at the edge of the clearing, Blackhorse looked up and saw that the trees around it formed a canopy over the home of Dakota Field, effectively filtering the cheerful sunlight which bathed the rest of the forest. The dappled shade turned windows into black holes and gave the weathered wooden house a cold harsh appearance. The garden to the left of her home was planted up with various herbs. Blackshear realized that he was looking at the home of a hedge witch and her guardian spirits resided in the towering trees.
Blackhorse was startled out of these musings by a growl quickly followed by a volley of threatening barks. The large Rottweiler previously corralled in the house came bounding out from behind it. Blackhorse resisted the urge to turn and run, knowing instinctively that as long as he didn’t step inside the ring of power and approach the house, he was safe. The creature would not cross the line still furrowing the dirt. As he stood watching the beast’s frenzied barking, Dakota seemed to materialize in front him.
Where had she come from? Blackhorse stood his ground, ignoring the dog lunging ever closer to his thighs baring its sharp fangs. Instead, he took in Dakota’s long black untamed mane, framing a surprisingly youthful face in soft waves. His gaze drifted down along her generous curves, over to the mocha skin of her arms, took in the tribal tattoos peeking out from short sleeves and through the summer weight crocheted shawl draped over them. Seeing that Blackhorse was unfazed by the dog, Dakota silenced it with the snap of her slender fingers.
“What can I do for you Detective Blackhorse?”
“You know who I am?”
“Word is out all over town. Everyone is talking about the Indian detective called in to investigate the slayings. The bodies were found in the woods, so I knew it was just a matter of time before you paid me a visit. No doubt, more than a few townies volunteered me as a suspect. Of course, I know nothing about it. I’m afraid you’ve wasted a trip.”
“Speaking of the word around town, folks are saying the victims were put to death because they owed you a debt which they refused to repay.”
Dakota laughed bitterly, “think about what you just said. If I went around killing people who owed a debt to me, then I wouldn’t be in business very long. Dead men can’t pay bills.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“You tell me. I’m sure people have already filled you in.”
“So, you are a hedge witch.”
“If that’s what you choose to call it.”
“What would you call it?”
“I’m a herbalist. I make tinctures, poultices, medicated syrups and herbal teas. A lot of people in town can’t afford health insurance or expensive doctor visits. So, they come to me. Some of the same people who call me a witch and imply that I’m evil are actually patients of mine. Granted, many of them only come around when they’re in a bad way. Their eagerness to throw me under the bus just goes to show you that my…otherness will always make me a convenient scapegoat.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You stand there in your brown skin and you have to ask why? You might have a badge, but you’ll never be one of them. No matter how good you are at your job.”
“One of them?”
Dakota gave him a patronizing look, “We’ll always be savages to them. Nothing more than convenient scapegoats.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’ll answer a question with a question: how many of my accusers told you that they knew one of the murder victims?”
“I was already aware that they had a problems with all four of them. I’ve been interviewing people who called in complaints about them.”
“That’s not what I mean. They knew one of them on a personal level. Bet they failed to mention that, because once you find out they had an axe to grind, then they become suspects.”
“Are you saying that some people had a personal relationship with one of the vicitims?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Herbert Simmons went to school in town for about three years, before his dad got a job a couple of towns over and they moved.”
“Now, how would you know that he was one of the victims, unless you were at the crime scene?”
“Nice try detective. I was nowhere near that crime scene. Didn’t have to go near it. The town grapevine is a powerful thing. Everybody knows Herbert was one of the victims.”
“The only way they would know that is…”
“If there was a leak down at the precinct. Yeah, you best get used to that detective. Everybody in town knows what the cops know. Hell, I’m sure half the town is already speculating about your little trip out here.”
“Is there anyone in particular who you know of that might have had a personal grudge against Herbert?”
“If I was to start calling off the names of everybody who loathed that man, then we’d be here all day. Not gonna lie; Herbert was a nasty piece of work. I know for a fact that Alice Barnhill had a grudge against him. She was a teacher, until Herbert got her fired. I’m on her shit list, because I refuse to enable her addictions. Let’s see, I know you questioned Helen Brown. There’s no love lost between the two of us either. Let’s just say, she was infatuated with someone who liked me better. As a teenager, she had an…intimate relationship with Herbert. This was long before he fell in with the wrong crowd and his life went off the rails. Still, he managed to get her knocked up, right before his folks pulled up stakes and moved away. Left her high and dry to cope with her shame and raise their child alone. Of course, that’s supposed to be a secret. So, you didn’t hear that from me. The official word is that the fool she duped into marrying her is actually the father of her child.”
The sound of approaching footsteps interrupted the interview. They turned and a squat, barrel-chested man waddled into the clearing, mopping his florid face with a white handkerchief. He began coughing forcefully, using the square of cloth to cover his mouth, before stuffing it into the right pocket of his overalls. Dakota turned and gave the man a sympathetic smile.
“Oh, good morning Ted. How have you been? I see your cough has returned. Let me whip up a little something for that.”
Blackhorse took the sudden appearance of a customer his cue to leave. He brought the interview to a hasty close and took his leave of them, relieved to escape the chilly shade and emerge back into the warm sunlight. He was eager to look into Dakota’s allegations.