Jim pulled Blair aside for a chat, while the others left them behind, apparently heading off to the main living area.
"Look, Chief," he said, "I don't care how it looks. We have a murder to investigate, and I don't buy that 'The Cook Did It' explanation any more than you do. But we've got to be realistic about it, and look for a poisoner, not a sorcerer. I don't buy the 'Evil Magician Kills Butler' answer either. Do you?"
Blair was being put on the spot, and he wasn't ready for it. He gazed at Jim with troubled eyes. "Jim, I honestly don't know if I do, but I'm leaning that way."
Jim groaned. "Now is not the time for abracadabra mumbo-jumbo, Sandburg. We have a real, live person who has access to poison, who killed a human being, and three others covering up for him or her. No one is safe on this island. Don't you get that?"
Blair gritted his teeth. "Sure, I get that, Jim. I saw the body too. I know we're stuck here with very dangerous people. Only, you don't seem to get that the playing field isn't level. Or maybe that they're playing war games with live ammo, while we're playing tiddly-winks. We have to be ready for a completely different kind of head-on attack, not someone with a gun or a knife. Do you get that?"
Jim rolled his eyes. "To be frank, Chief, no, I don't. What do you think they're gonna do? Spell us to death?" He threw his arms wide, exasperation spilling between them.
Blair stood firm. "Yeah, actually, these people might be able to spell someone to death. Don't you have any sense of the power they possess? What about Melusine?"
Jim frowned unhappily. "There's something a little – off about the place, and the people," he said with almost tangible reluctance, "but it's not like I suddenly see a totally new spectrum of colors or anything. With Melusine – yeah, there was a kind of change in the room's energy when she was trying to persuade Suki to admit to murder; I did catch that, and watched out for it later. Otherwise, it's more like the ozone smells a little different here. That's all, and the weather alone is enough to account for it. I don't want to go borrowing trouble, you know?"
"We don't have to borrow trouble, Jim. We're already in it, up to our necks and maybe beyond." Blair grasped his partner's shoulder and squeezed. "If you start seeing the jag, or any ghosts, or anything else 'weird', you have got to tell me. This place reeks of evil to me, and so do the people, and I don't know why they don't reek of evil to you."
"You're playing the shaman card?" Jim asked sarcastically.
Blair flushed, and removed his hand. "If that's what you want to call it," he shot back. "If I'm right about this, and we're up against real evil, people who worship Satan and are waiting for the Anti-Christ, when it just happens to be the dawn of a new millennium right now – God knows what they can do! Evil magic? Working spells? Maybe!"
Jim threw up his hands in rejection of the shaman's take on things.
Blair insisted, "We're gonna need more than good detective skills to get out of the trouble we're in. Do you understand what we're gonna need instead?" He searched his partner's face hungrily.
"What?" was the only answer.
"Faith," was the reply.
The two men stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Blair broke the silence.
"If they aren't just deluded bad guys, Jim -- and from what happened with that storm outside, plus what Melusine did to Suki, I think they're more than that -- then we haven't got the strength to face them down all by ourselves. We're gonna need help, and I mean big time spiritual help, angelic type help, or higher, the highest, Jim, because humans up against demons always ends badly for the humans."
"Now it's demons, is it?" Jim coughed hard. "We're in the Sandburg Zone for sure."
Blair had had enough of Jim's disbelief. "I'm not talking about you putting your faith in me, Jim Ellison. I can't do the job! I'm nowhere near powerful enough to stand against demons and devils, all by myself.
"If I'm right about the fact that we're up against Satanic forces and not just earthly ones, and that we're facing people who believe in the imminent arrival of the Anti-Christ, Ruler of Hell, the playing field isn't level," he repeated for emphasis. "It will take Christian faith to stop them.
"I'm a synchretist when it comes to religion; I believe in God, in karma, in spirit animals, in the power of love, too, but I'm a Jew, Jim. I was bar mitzvah'd. I know about the Revelation of St. John in the Christian testament, and what Six Hundred And Sixty And Six has called himself for, but it's not from my faith tradition. It's from yours, damn it.
"Jews don't have heaven and hell in our tradition. We die; we go to Sheol, a simple place of peace. And we await the coming of Messiah. We don't have the Revelation of St. John, with its apocalyptic vision of the coming of the Anti-Christ and the war against humans and heaven. That's in your bible, not the Hebrew Scriptures. Ritual has meaning. I'm not the one who's been baptized; you are!
"I can do white magic stuff that just copies theirs, in a small way, only for good, not evil. Even though there's a lot of Kabalistic Jewish information about stopping demons and using Solomon's seal, I'm not a Kabala scholar, and I don't have the knowledge or power to go up against them all by myself, alone. I need you with me on this, not pulling away, because you're the one with the right to call on heaven for help against Apocalyptic evil. And if you think that's playing the 'shaman card'...." He couldn't continue, and turned aside.
Jim was dumbstruck. He had never intended to start an argument with Blair at so critical a moment, and he knew, or thought he knew, the danger the inhabitants of Saint Germain Island posed. All he had wanted was to find the murderer, close the investigation, and get off the island as quickly as possible, no mystical magical mythical tour included. But what he had accomplished instead was to insult and annoy his best friend, who truly was his shaman. He couldn't let things stand like this.
"Chief." Blair still had his back to him. "Chief, please." Jim put out a hand and turned his partner around to face him. "I, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to deride your beliefs or question that you're a shaman. It's just that I'm not comfortable with the whole dark magic thing." He paused, pulling himself together to make the announcement he didn't want to share. "If there's anything to what you've been saying.... Believing in the Anti-Christ? I don't think it's in me, Blair. If everything rests on me, I don't know if I can do it, either. I don't know if I've got enough faith for this," Jim confessed
Blair drew in a deep breath. "You just need the faith of a mustard seed, right?" he asked firmly.
"Whatever that means," Jim replied bleakly.
"Start thinking like a mustard plant, then. We're gonna need your belief at its highest level. It's your religious tradition they're working in." Blair was nodding encouragement.
Jim sagged a little, and Blair popped him on the biceps.
"Don't be so downhearted. You brought me back from death, remember? That took a lot of faith, Jim. Believe in what you yourself know, have experienced, of the spiritual, first. Then we'll work together on it," the shaman of Cascade said.
"Yeah, together," the sentinel of Cascade echoed.
They gave each other a terse smile. 'Together' had always been enough before. It was all they had, on Saint Germain Island, at the dawn of the new millennium. At the coming of the apocalypse.
They found the deadly four in the immense, lavishly appointed living room, Basil's 'salon'. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six was playing Wagner on a grand piano with absolute perfection as to technique, and no emotion at all. Melusine was draped over a sapphire satin loveseat, her pretty head on her hand, pretending interest, but really watching The Pythoness, who was pouring herself a libation of rum from a luxurious bar cabinet at the end of the room. Basil stood staring out the window at the storm. It had not abated one whit.
Jim cleared his throat. "May I have your attention? We are still investigating the death of Zachary Groundwater. We will need to talk to each of you, one by one. Where may we speak privately?"
Six Hundred And Sixty And Six crashed his hands down on the keyboard, making a jarring cacophony. Melusine giggled girlishly, and The Pythoness gave a guttural 'Ha!' and downed her drink. Basil kept watching the storm.
Jim waited. And waited. And waited. "Where may I interview each of you about the death of Mr. Groundwater?" he tried again.
The Pythoness sent him a scathing look and refilled her glass. She plodded heavily out of the room, but with the elegance of an elephant, rather than the waddle of a goose. She pushed between Jim and Blair at the door on her way out, giving Blair a once-over as she went.
"Hey!" Jim protested indignantly, but the woman was off up the near staircase to her tower and remained silent.
He turned back to the others in the living room. "So, are the rest of you going to stomp out mad, too? Or is there anyone who intends to co-operate with this investigation? Because until we're satisfied we've got Groundwater's killer, we won't be leaving."
That drew everyone's attention to him. Basil's face was speculative, Melusine's innocent and wide-eyed, and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's was almost indifferent. They glanced at each other, and appeared to come to a group decision.
"The Pythoness did it," Basil announced.
"Yes, it's true," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six backed him up.
"I hate to believe it of someone I've known and trusted for so many years," Melusine said with sad insincerity, "but I must agree. The Pythoness poisoned Zachary Groundwater."
Jim and Blair shared a moment of sheer ire.
"The Pythoness did it," Jim repeated. "What exactly is her real name, by the way?"
"Oh, that is her real name," Melusine assured him. "She had it changed by law. Like The Artist Formerly Known As Prince."
"I, also, have had my name legally changed," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six informed the pair from Major Crime.
Melusine nodded enthusiastically, and Basil inclined his head, turning again to look out the window at the rain and lightning forks.
"All right, then," Jim went on. "Why do you think The Pythoness is the guilty party?"
They all rose to meet the challenge.
"Well, she's our alchemist, you know," Melusine answered chattily. "She's got all kinds of poisonous plants and distillates in her laboratory. She's the only one who would have access to cyanide." The men murmured affirmation.
"No one could have taken any from her stock, then?" Jim baited them, interested in the group storytelling. "It seems very possible to me."
Basil laughed outright, a rich, rumbling laugh that chilled Jim to the bone, and set Blair to shivering at his side.
"No," he said. "No one pokes around in anyone else's rooms, or areas of expertise, either. When we do group things, we use the rooms on the second floor; that's what they're for. The Pythoness, our alchemist, as Melusine said, was perfectly safe in her suite. You may want to interview her there, and you'll see for yourself how secure she is in her fortress. But it's undoubtedly she who killed the butler."
"Why would The Pythoness want to kill your butler?" Jim asked snarkily. "Wasn't he giving good service?"
Melusine gurgled and Basil allowed a smile to turn up his lips. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six was the one to field that question.
"She wouldn't have been after him," the man in yellow said. "She was after another target, of course, and Groundwater simply died for his gluttony." He elevated a casual shoulder.
"I thought you were convinced that it was Suki Tang who killed the butler, Melusine," Blair put in, his voice harsh. "You almost had her believing it too. What changed your mind?"
"We talked about it," she explained, "Basil and Six and I. They showed me how wrong I was. I'm so sorry if I got her into any trouble." She made a pretty moue.
"You should probably go talk to The Pythoness now," Basil directed the investigation while still looking out the window. "Who knows what she's doing up in her laboratory, all alone?"
Having received their walking papers, Jim and Blair left with as much dignity as possible, off to beard the poisoner in her den.
Two steps up the staircase, Jim hushed Blair, and tapped his ear as a signal that he was listening in to the conversation they had left behind.
"Well, that got rid of them for a few minutes. They're like nasty little nippy dogs. I rather wish The Pythoness would poison them too." It was Melusine Julnar speaking.
"Which of us was she after?" Six Hundred And Sixty And Six asked, teasingly.
"Don't be so coy," Melusine responded. "We all know who she wanted dead -- first."
"The one of us who is her closest rival, of course," Basil tossed off. "Interesting method of outdoing an opponent. Nothing magical about it, so none of our wards could foil it. It might actually have worked." He sounded honestly surprised.
"Yes, I suppose it might have," Melusine said airily.
"There's nothing stupid about The Pythoness, Basil," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six commented. "How do you suppose she grew so ugly?"
"I know exactly how she grew so ugly, Six," Basil said coldly. "She's a second Dorian Grey. Every one of her sins and perversions, her tortures and killings, show in her face. After all, it's what she's got to compete with. We all know each other very, very well, as competitors."
The room fell silent, so Jim motioned for Blair to continue upstairs, and they crept along, careful not to allow the people below to know they had been listening in. On the landing, Jim filled Blair in on the conversation.
"Competition? What competition?" Blair asked.
"I don't know. They didn't say," Jim told him. "Let's go ask The Pythoness some questions, and maybe she'll let something drop." He rubbed at his temples.
"You need to dial down something?"
"I don't know. I think this case is just getting to me. I don't like it that they picked on Suki for their sacrificial lamb, Chief. Sally was frantic about her."
"Yeah, when there's something personal in a case, it makes it that much harder till it's solved." Blair patted his friend on the back.
"S'okay, Chief. Let's go talk to the poisoner. If she is one, and not just the sacrificial lamb number two."
They found their way up to the suite housed in the front right tower of the mansion. It was locked, with a huge iron keyhole, and barred with heavy wooden slats and huge iron strapping. Altogether, it looked impregnable. They knocked.
A moment later, without a word, The Pythoness swung the door open and scowled at the detective team.
"We need to talk to you about the death of Zachary Groundwater," Jim said, unfazed by her animosity.
"All of your friends fingered you as the killer," Jim told her provocatively.
Amazing! She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, braying, and led the way into the anteroom of her chambers.
"Well, of course they fingered me," The Pythoness gasped out between guffaws, staggering about in her hilarity, reaching with a hand to find stability. There wasn't much to hang onto. Huge, with walls of gray granite, the antechamber was the most unwelcoming place in a home that either man could imagine. There was only an occasional chair of great girth to accommodate her size, beside a large table holding a lamp, a vase of monkshood, jimsonweed and hemlock flowers, and a few cookery magazines. Everything else was bare rock. The chair was apparently one The Pythoness used often; its cushions were molded to her form. She found it, and sank down, still chuckling hard.
"Why 'of course'?" Blair asked.
The Pythoness shook a finger at him. "Because I did it, of course." She began laughing again.
Jim looked at Blair with exasperation, and found its match in Blair's face.
"I'm just going to go poke around a little," Blair decided, as The Pythoness flicked a hand his way. He began checking out the other rooms. In only seconds he was back. "The first room is her bedroom, looking out over the front of the mansion. The second's her bathroom. But in the third room, there's a big lab with retorts and stuff, Jim. One of the test tubes reads 'Hydrocyanic acid." He cast an uneasy look at The Pythoness, and mumbled, "Handling all that poison -- she must be Rappaccini's daughter, Jim."
"Cyanide," The Pythoness said with relish. "I think I like it better than curare, and curare's always a favorite. And the metals. Lead, arsenic, thallium. I like thallium. Oh, and the radioactives, too! Radiation poisoning. Lovely, lovely, lovely. The earth is so full of such wonderful things...." She smiled secretively and the rhyme was left unfinished.
"You admit you killed Zachary Groundwater?" Jim asked, to be sure.
"Yes, certainly, I do." She gulped down air and managed to cease laughing. "He was, what do you call it? Collateral damage. I wasn't aiming for him. I had no idea the butler liked Christmas cake. I mean, how many people do?"
Jim took control again. "So who were you aiming for, then?"
"Basil, of course," she said coolly. "He's the only other one with real power, and he loves almonds; if the fruitcake was full of almonds and smelled delicious, he'd have taken a piece or two. Such a neat and tidy murder, nothing at all magical about it. He'd never have expected that kind of attack. I'll have to think of another way to get him now.
"As for the others, Six is thoroughly self-deluded about who and what he is. He's just a mathematician who knows the Kabala, numerology and astrology too well for his own good. Or his own evil." She barked another laugh. "And Melusine's ambition is ludicrous," The Pythoness denounced the beautiful woman pitilessly. "Consort to the Ruler of Hell? Hah! She cannot come to power, no matter how she looks."
Blair couldn't help himself. "Why do you people live together? You hate each other!"
The Pythoness jiggled with laughter. "You know your Machiavelli, don't you?
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," she paraphrased. "Besides, we
have certain – interests in common, and when we work together, we access power
you could never dream of."
Blair had to ask. "You're in competition. For what?"
"Oh, you already know the answer to that question, Shaman. The time is only a few hours away. Then one of us will know the ultimate Power, will wield it as we wish. Shudder, Shaman. You are an enemy, and you will not go scatheless when that hour comes." Her words were cold adamant.
Then, the ugliest woman Jim had ever seen raised an inquiring eyebrow at him. "So what are you going to do about all this, Sunny Jim?"
Jim had had enough. Ignoring Blair, who was trying to get his attention, he drew his handcuffs out, hauled the huge alchemist out of her chair, and told her he was arresting her for the murder of Zachary Groundwater. Blair started reading the Miranda Rights list once Jim had fastened the cuffs around the fat wrists of the poisoner. She was jiggling like jelly with suppressed mirth.
"You two are so pitiful," she said at last. "You think these can hold me?"
Still with her back to them, The Pythoness said one word. "Conciderite."
The handcuffs crumbled into dust.
Jim would not believe it. "Metal fatigue," he muttered to himself, reaching for a pair of plastic cuffs in his pocket. "Try these."
No sooner were the plastic cuffs in place than The Pythoness said, "Conciderite" again, and they fell to pieces.
Blair closed his eyes, weary.
She finally turned around and faced them, arms akimbo. "You don't get it, do you?" she sneered. "You can't take me in. You can't cuff me, and you can't shoot me. I am The Pythoness, Alchemist Supreme, and I have the power of transmutation, the emerald from the toad's head, the one true Philosopher's Stone, at my fingertips. Anything that comes out of the earth, I have sway over. The earth is my element, and all the things it contains and all the things that grow out of it. I raised this mansion myself, the entirety of it, calling the rock to rise out of the water, cutting it like butter with my words, and it took but a few minutes to accomplish my task. It was the calling of the rock that caused the isthmus to be flooded. That too was part of my task. I created the island of Saint Germain. The others may play with it, but they can't threaten it. No waves or wind or lightning will harm Saint Germain Island as long as I'm here; it belongs to me." She rested back on her heels.
"Geez, how old are you?" Blair blurted out.
"Older than sin, baby shaman. As old as evil. The natural inheritor of the throne of Hell, deep in the bowels of my earth." The Pythoness stared at him levelly.
"Why are you telling us all this?"
"In a very few hours, you will be rendered inactive, nonexistent, irrelevant, to the universe." She curled a lip. "You haven't got a chance in Hell, little boy."
"Is that prophecy?" Blair challenged her, up in her face, fear put aside, to Jim's delight.
"Nah. It's simply logic. The way I'd bet, if I needed to bet. But having the Philosopher's Stone means never having to want for money." She reached out to touch the occasional chair and ran her finger along the back. Everywhere it traced turned to gold. "Back off, you silly, foolish men; I haven't time for you. Basil is still in my way and the hour is closing fast. Go, before I turn you to gold, too." She held out her hands and waggled her fingers at them.
Jim dragged Blair from her chambers, and slammed the door shut. They heard the huge iron lock snick heavily behind them. The Pythoness was alone in her den.
"I was so not expecting that," Blair mumbled, pacing with nervous energy outside the suite belonging to the murderess.
"Like I was?" Jim smiled without humor. "What did she do with the cuffs? I mean, what did she do? How did she do it?"
Blair stopped on a dime, swiveled and grabbed his partner by the shoulders. "She did magic, Jim. Real magic. She changed the cuffs into dust. Just like she made that upholstery become real gold. She's a sorceress, and she's into the dark arts, the left-hand path, Satanic beliefs, all of it. You saw it for yourself. Don't you believe what your own eyes tell you?"
Jim stood still, his partner's hands on his shoulders, his partner's steady gaze riveted on him. "I don't know, Chief. I just don't know. This is, this is so surreal. I can't begin to think about it. She raised the mansion out of sheer rock in a few minutes? What's with that?"
Blair sighed tiredly. "Geez, Jim, I don't know, but Merlin was supposed to have raised Stonehenge by magic, too. It's legend, of course, but some kind of precedent, maybe. That woman, that woman – she's totally scary, and I think she probably could have turned us to gold if she'd wanted to."
Jim's face writhed sickly. "Yeah," he whispered at last. "Yeah, I think she could have, too."
"The start to believing," Blair clapped his best friend's arms. "Keep on thinking about this lot in spiritual terms, and we've got a real chance. We're in this together, Jim, right?"
"So what do we do now?"
The detective recalled his duty. "We call home." He took out his cell phone. It didn't work; the storm was blocking all communication with the mainland. He folded the phone over and put it away. "We can't call out for help, Chief. So I guess we stand guard over The Pythoness so none of the others kills her, and she doesn't kill any of them; and wait until the weather's calmer and we can call out."
"Yeah," Blair confirmed. "Whatever happens, the two of us together, doing our jobs – I think it's the best thing we could ever do."
Jim smiled at him, a real smile, full of affection. "The very best," he said.
They sat down to wait for whatever came next. It didn't take long in coming.
A gut-wrenching scream rent the world. It had come from The Pythoness's rooms.
Jim and Blair scrambled to their feet.
"What was that?" each man asked the other.
Jim pounded on the door, yelling at the woman inside. Blair tried to pry at the hinges. Up the staircase, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six, Melusine and Basil came running.
"What's wrong? What's happened?" they all asked.
"We don't know," Jim said tautly, "but we're going to find out. Does anyone have a key to the door?"
No one admitted to it.
"Chief, give me your knife."
Blair handed it over wordlessly, his glasses too fine to make a picklock for the ironbound door, and then backed everyone away from the entrance to The Pythoness's rooms, to give Jim free play.
The sentinel was using his hyper-acute senses of touch and hearing to pick the lock. It was a tough one, especially made by the mistress of metal to keep people out of her suite, but he managed it at last. The door swung open.
Within was a scene straight from hell. There wasn't a body, as such. There was the occasional chair's frame, with the seat and back burned through, and a great volume of ashes on the floor beneath. At the sides of the chair, two green shoes with emerald buckles were untouched, and there was a foot still in each. A plume of smoke had spread out black, greasy soot, which covered the walls down to about a yard from the floor. There were splashes of water here and there around the room. Nothing else was affected, not the table, not the magazines, not the flowers. Only the center of the chair, and whatever had been in it, had been consumed to fine ash.
"Pythoness?" Blair tried to call, but the word came out as a croak.
Jim's voice was stronger. "Pythoness? Pythoness!"
Melusine was bending forward, one arm across her stomach, her other hand at her mouth. "What's wrong with you? Why can't you see it?"
Jim whirled on her. "What do you mean? What am I supposed to see here?"
Melusine trembled, pointing at the heap of charred matter. "There! Don't you see?"
Everyone looked at the chair again.
"That's The P-Pythoness," Melusine stuttered hysterically. "That's her! Those are her feet. That's all that's left of her now. She's been burned to death, burned alive!"
She had turned completely white, but no one flew to her aid. They were all too caught up in the mystery of the death of The Pythoness.
"We heard her scream," Blair said slowly.
"She must have died almost immediately," Jim completed the thought.
"How unusual. Spontaneous human combustion," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six conjectured academically.
"Well, I'll be damned," said Basil.
Continue on to Act 3