What’s gone before: Cora Coleman resides in a New England village with her family — six-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and husband, Brendan, away to sea aboard a whaling ship. Cora is a good wife — loyal, true — and a goodwife, trained in the use of herbs to address everything from headaches to love sickness; a skill passed along the line of women that stretches back to her ancestors in Ireland.
Trusted by her neighbors, she’s unprepared when the spurned advances of a young buck results in her being accused of witchcraft. Suddenly, it seems that the entire village has turned against her. And now, witch hunter Orias King, has arrived …
Rebecca comes in as he’s descending the ladder. Her eyes are red and swollen, her cheeks blotchy with tears. She pauses just inside the door, struck dumb by the presence of strangers, then runs to the security of my lap and buries her face against me.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I whisper, but she remains silent.
King introduces himself to John and they shake hands. He looks at me. “This is your daughter?”
I nod. “This is Rebecca,” I say proudly, keeping my voice light. She’ll take her cues from me, and I don’t want her to fear this man or any other. I set her on her feet, wipe her face with the edge of my apron, straighten her cap, and turn her to face him.
The witch hunter’s steps are startlingly quiet on the wooden floor, like the cushioned footfalls of a cat. He squats in order to look her straight in the eye. “Hello, Rebecca,” he says cordially. “My name is Mr. King.”
She makes a quick curtsy. Then, overcome with shyness, she looks at her feet.
“You’ve been weeping,” he observes.
She peeks at him. After a moment, she nods.
He takes a white handkerchief from his pocket and holds it out to her. “Here. Wipe your eyes.”
I want to fiercely point out to him that her eyes have already been wiped–that I have wiped them and I will take care of her because I’m her mother and he is nothing–but my voice lies in my chest like a dead thing.
She takes it from him and does as she’s told. When she goes to hand it back, the witch hunter shakes his head. “No, you keep it.” He smiles. “Consider it a little gift from me to you.”
Her own smile is brilliant, like the sun. I despise him for it. I wish Brendan were here to fling him into the street. Then again, none of this would be happening if Brendan were here.
“Did you fall and hurt yourself?” King asks. “Is that why you cried?”
Rebecca shakes her head. She glances at me, weighing my reaction to this man. I swallow my dislike for her sake. “What happened, love? What made you cry?”
“Mistress Sharp won’t let Fanny play with me.” Tears shiver across the surface of her eyes again, but do not fall. “She said,”–her breath hitches in her chest–“she said that Fanny isn’t allowed to play with witches.” She looks over her shoulder at me. “Are we witches, Mam?”
I could cheerfully slap Constance Sharp across her mean-spirited mouth. “No.” I meet King’s gaze over the top of her head. “No, we’re not witches.”
He shifts to sit cross-legged, like a tailor, like a child. “That wasn’t a very nice thing for her to say, Rebecca.” His voice is warm, inviting her confidence. I’d like nothing so much as to strike him. “Maybe you and I can play together instead.”
Fear grips my heart. I don’t want him anywhere near her, yet already she’s on the floor, mimicking his posture, a pair of old friends. The other adults in the room are silent, mesmerized, watching him charm my daughter.
“What’s your favorite game?” King asks. “Is it shuttlecock?”
She shakes her head.
“Knucklebones?” he says teasingly.
No, not that.
“Rolling the hoop?”
King throws his hands up and lets them fall. “I’m out of guesses. You’ll have to tell me.”
She grins openly, triumphant at having stumped him. “Dollies.”
His eyes brighten with delight. “Dollies!” he crows, as if he should have guessed it all along. “That’s a wonderful game! Could you show me your dolly?”
Rebecca scrambles to her feet and hurries over to her pallet. She returns with a rag doll half her size and offers it to King. He’s already seen it, having inspected her bed along with everything else in the house, but he takes the time to exclaim over its perfection before handing it back.
Delighted to have met someone who appreciates the toy as much as she does, Rebecca cuddles the doll to her chest and swings back and forth, every bit the mother soothing her fussy baby.
The witch hunter watches her sway, his eyes drawn to the bell-like motion of her apron. “What have you got in your pockets?”
One hand dips readily and brings out a large clam shell bleached white by the sun.
King nods. “That’s lovely. What else?”
She puts the shell on the floor and produces another, a razor clam, long and narrow, mottled white and brown.
Fletcher Ellison makes a noise of annoyance. “We’ve better things to do than–”
A flick of the witch hunter’s obsidian eyes is all it takes to silence him. “What else?”
Next is a damp gull feather with a broken shaft. After that, a periwinkle, followed by a piece of oddly shaped driftwood. King barely glances at any of it. “What else?” he repeats, his gaze never leaving my daughter’s pockets.
Rebecca shakes her head, suddenly shy again.
He smiles. “Come now,” he chides in a teasing tone. “I thought we were friends. I can see there’s more in there. What else have you got?”
She looks at me. Her expression is one with which every parent is familiar, but in this context it takes me by surprise. What could she possibly have to feel guilty about? “Mam will be mad,” she murmurs.
Something in King’s expression shifts, like the shimmer of oil on water. His eyes lift to meet mine. “Oh, I’m sure that’s not true,” he croons.
My throat is unaccountably dry. “Of course not,” I say, unable to quell the tremor in my guts. “Show us what you have.”
Rebecca’s hand disappears deep into her pocket. What she brings out stops the heart in my chest.
To find out what happens next, you can purchase a copy of THREE ON A MATCH: The Terror Project, Volume 2 on Amazon or order a signed copy from me via email. THREE ON A MATCH, a production of Books and Boos Press also includes stories by g. Elmer Munson and Kristi Petersen Schoonover.