Authors: Leighann Dobbs
November 12, 1656
Mystic Notch, New Hampshire
heart pounded in her chest as she ran through the dark woods. The full moon cast flickers of light through bare tree limbs that poked up into the sky like the crooked fingers of a skeleton, but Hester didn't need the moonlight. She knew exactly where she was going.
Beneath her booted feet, newly fallen leaves crunched. Her breath came in quick puffs of condensation. Her black wool cloak flapped out behind her, allowing a gust of crisp, cold air to slap at her body. She grabbed at the edge of the cloak with her left hand, pulling it closed and wrapping the rough fabric tightly around her.
The silver box she clutched in her right hand weighed heavy with doubt and responsibility.
Was she doing the right thing?
Hester wondered how things had gotten so out of hand. She thought they’d successfully diverted all the suspicions of witchcraft to Salem, Massachusetts, strategically keeping attention away from Mystic Notch where magic was most powerful.
But somehow Miles Danforth and Nathaniel Phipps had taken up the charge here. She’d heard rumblings that she was next to be accused. And if that happened, she couldn’t let them take possession of what was in the box.
Her cat, Obsidian, ran silently beside her, his jet black fur nearly invisible in the dark night. She didn’t have time to go far. If what Goody St. Onge had told her was true, they could come for her tonight and she had to make sure the box was safe … if it fell into the wrong hands, there was no telling what evil deeds they would do with the contents.
The giant oak tree loomed up ahead of her and she turned to the east, judged a distance of thirty feet and then dropped to her knees.
She clawed at the dirt with her fingernails, releasing the moldy scent of wet earth and decaying leaves. Obsidian, ever the obedient companion, used his powerful claws to help.
The wind whistled in Hester’s ears as she dug. She no longer noticed the chill of the air, or the dampness of the ground seeping into her knees because her entire being was focused on the task at hand.
The box must be protected above all.
Hester knew the forest like the back of her hand. She spent a lot of time here, but usually during the day. Now, as her fingernails scratched into the earth, she noticed with a hollow sadness that the daytime sounds of the birdcalls she most enjoyed in the forest were absent. No mournful cry of the mourning dove, no twitter from the red-breasted robin and no chirping melodies of mockingbirds could be heard— just cold silence and the sound of her own ragged breath as she dug at a frantic pace.
She was glad her nighttime visit would soon be over and longed for it to be the next day when she could venture out in the golden sunshine and listen to those daytime birdcalls again.
When the hole was deep enough, she laid the silver box carefully inside. Her fingers traced its outline, lingering over the contours of the newt-shaped design embossed into the shiny, moon-lit surface.
Then she pushed the loose dirt back into the hole, listening to the dull thud as it hit the top of the box. She pressed the earth down, and covered it with leaves so as to obliterate any trace of the ground having been disturbed.
Obsidian’s golden eyes glowed brightly as he watched her. Something rustled behind them. Hester's stomach clenched as she whirled around, her breath whooshing out when she saw nothing but trees.
She knew she had to hurry back, but still took a moment to stroke Obsidian’s soft fur. She had no idea what the next few days would bring. Maybe nothing, but if the worst happened, she had to make sure the box was protected.
“If anything happens to me, you must guard this box.”
Obsidian’s golden eyes blinked at her with an intelligence that telegraphed the cat knew what she was requesting.
Hester was overcome with worry for the box
the cat. Miles Danforth’s hatred of cats was well known and he’d recently started a campaign to purge Mystic Notch of all felines, stating that they were the instruments of witches and carried disease and destruction. She knew Obsidian had ways of taking care of himself—she just hoped they were more powerful than Miles’ hatred.
But she didn’t have time to dwell on the cat’s safety or even her own. The most important thing was the box whose care had been entrusted to her family for generations. She was the last one left to protect it.
Was burying it here the right thing to do? She had no idea, but at twenty-one years of age and with no money to speak of, she didn’t have many options. She’d done the best thing she could think of. It would have to be good enough.
She spun around and hurried back toward her cabin. The lone light from the candle she’d left lit on the doorstep acted like a homing beacon. Its warm glow soothed her and beckoned her home.
She hoped she was just being paranoid and the whole witchcraft frenzy would blow over and she could dig up the box and go back to life as she knew it. Then she remembered how Miles’ accusing eyes were always watching her and icy fingers of premonition danced up her spine.
Relief washed over her as she reached her cabin. Her right foot flew onto the granite step and her hand reached out toward the iron latch of her door.
She was home. Safe.
But even as her pale hand curled around the latch, a large, calloused hand clamped around her wrist in a painful vise-grip, wrenching hers away from the door.
She whipped her head to the right and looked straight into the dark, blank eyes of Miles Danforth. He towered over her, his thin, shoulder-length black hair whipping in the wind. Her heart jerked in her chest at the look of triumph on his face.
She tried to pull her wrist away. Another hand clamped onto her other wrist. Nathaniel Phipps.
“I do not think you will be going in there.” Miles sneered at her as he yanked her away from the cabin. “Your sorcery will not help you now.”
“Let go of me!” She tried to pull her arms away from the men, but they were too strong. She twisted and kicked, but they easily dragged her away from her home.
She chanced one backward glance to see Obsidian pacing worriedly in front of the door. Their eyes locked in a knowing glance as Miles Danforth said, “Hester Warren, you are under arrest for the crime of witchcraft.”
Mystic Notch, New Hampshire
illa Chance looked
out with mixed feelings at the clearing slated to become the new home of the Mystic Notch Historical Society.
She loved the wooded area with its mature landscape and centuries-old trees, like the giant oak she now stood under. It seemed a shame to cut down those trees to erect a building, especially on a bright, sunny spring day where birds chirped and chipmunks rustled in the leaves. But there was no stopping it. Already a bulldozer sat at the edge of the property and several tarps covered various other types of equipment.
The aroma of honeysuckle brought a slow smile to her face and she tried to forget about the construction equipment while she tried to block out the droning voice of Rebecca Devon-Smyth, the mayor. Rebecca's speech about the new historical society building included a long-winded history of her ancestors’ important contributions to the town of Mystic Notch.
Willa preferred to listen to the birds—the mournful cry of the mourning dove, the twitter of the red-breasted robin and the chirping melodies of the mockingbirds.
Her heart squeezed as she realized some of the very trees these birds lived in would be sacrificed for the new building. How many nests with newly laid eggs waiting to hatch would be destroyed?
Yet, the area was perfect for the historical society which was currently crowded into a small room in the town hall. As a seller of antique and used books, Willa loved the idea of moving the historical society to a bigger space, especially since the bigger space would allow them to open a museum that would include antique books.
As a member of the historical society herself, Willa had a great respect for history, especially that of Mystic Notch, and she knew the historical society desperately needed to expand. The town had voted to put a new building right on this site, which was incredibly appropriate as it had been the home of one of Mystic Notch’s most infamous residents, Hester Warren.
According to the very sketchy town records, Hester had been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1656. Her land had been seized by the town and lain unused ever since. Some said the land was haunted by Hester, but Willa did not think that was true. If it
haunted, she probably would have seen Hester by now since ghosts had the annoying habit of manifesting themselves in front of her.
No one knew exactly where Hester’s house had stood. The records had been lost long ago. All they had was an old deed with the boundaries of the small property. So the town surveyor had chosen the best place to site the building and here Willa was at the ground-breaking ceremony along with the mayor, several members of the historical society and a variety of onlookers.
One of these was her sister, Augusta—or Gus as Willa called her—who was the current sheriff of Mystic Notch. Gus had her blonde hair pulled up into a severe bun, which Willa suspected Gus thought made her look more authoritative.
Beside Gus was Willa’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Eddie Striker, the sheriff of the neighboring County. He and Gus often helped each other out on investigations. Willa wasn't sure why he was here now, but his handsome, square-jawed face and deep gray eyes were welcome sights, no matter what the reason.
A handful of townspeople, none of whom seemed to be paying attention to Rebecca’s boring speech, stood in clusters around the clearing.
Willa’s eyes drifted around the small crowd as Rebecca droned on. Across from Willa, Gus and Striker looked official in their brown sheriff's uniforms, their feet shoulder-width apart arms clasped behind their backs. Striker was a full foot taller than Willa's petite sister and his broad shoulders made Gus look even more like a Barbie doll than usual.
Striker winked at her.
Gus scowled at both of them.
Rebecca finished her speech and there was a round of muted applause.
Elizabeth Post, an aging crone with wrinkly hands and a nest of hair died a bold, unnatural red, stood beside Rebecca. Elizabeth was the head of the historical society, and thus had possession of the groundbreaking shovel—a small, gold-colored tool which Willa thought was much too flimsy to dig a hole. Elizabeth handed the ineffective shovel to Rebecca, who accepted it with an exaggerated flourish.
A hush fell over the crowd. Rebecca poised the shovel in mid-air, pausing with a smile plastered on her face for pictures as the heels of her stilettos slowly sank into the soft ground.
Once the camera clicking stopped, Rebecca plunged the shovel into the ground.
Rebecca’s Botoxed brow tried to mash together as the shovel hit something halfway in.
“What was that?” Elizabeth asked.
Rebecca shrugged, scooped some dirt up with the shovel, tossed it beside the hole and plunged the shovel in again for another scoop of dirt. Then she paused, leaning forward to look into the hole.
Elizabeth bent her head over the hole as well.
“There’s something in here,” Rebecca said.
Willa had moved closer to the hole along with the rest of the crowd and she peered over someone’s shoulder at the corner of something shiny and silver that lay half-buried in the dirt.
Elizabeth grabbed the shovel from Rebecca and scraped more dirt from the hole. Then she squatted down, her knees cracking alarmingly. She reached a claw-like hand into the hole and pulled out an ornate, silver box, like an eagle plucking a salmon from a river.
“What the heck?” Cordelia Deering, one of Willa’s senior-citizen bookstore regulars who showed up promptly every morning with coffee and gossip, looked quizzically at the box. Beside her, her twin sister Hattie wore a matching lemon and lime polyester pantsuit and had an identical quizzical expression.
Elizabeth turned the box to study every side. Willa could see it was in good shape. She couldn’t tell how long it had been buried there, but it looked old. The edges were fancy and on the top was some sort of embossed reptile.
“What’s in it?” Oscar Danforth asked in a breathless voice.
Elizabeth slowly opened the lid.
Willa craned to see what was inside.
Oscar reached his pale hand out toward the box. Before he could get it inside, Rebecca grabbed the box out of Elizabeth’s hand and snapped the lid shut. “Not so fast. This is town property, Danforth.”
Oscar snatched his hand back and frowned at her.
“It should go in the museum,” Elizabeth objected.
“I wonder if it belonged to Hester Warren?” Hattie asked.
“If it did, then by rights it's town property,” Rebecca said. “Her home and property were taken to pay for the trial as she had no money.”
“But there’s no way to know if it was hers,” Willa pointed out.
“But what do you think it’s
?” Cordelia asked.
“Some kind of magic, maybe? She
a witch.” Hattie’s cornflower-blue eyes twinkled with mischief as the crowd tittered with nervous laughter.
Bing Thorndike, an aging magician who was like an uncle to Willa and another one of her bookstore regulars, cleared his throat. “No matter whose it is, it could be a valuable part of Mystic Notch history. We should make sure it's put somewhere for safekeeping.”
“Yeah, like the police station.” Gus held out her hand for the box. “We’ll keep it there until the thirty days is up.”
Bing furrowed his white brow in Gus’ direction “Thirty days?”
“Yes. That’s the law. When property is found and turned in to the police, a public notice goes out in the paper and the owner has thirty days to claim it. If it’s not claimed, the finder gets to keep it.”
“Wait a minute, I don’t think this qualifies as
,” Oscar said.
“Why not?” Gus asked. “We
it right here in the ground. We don’t know how long it’s been here. Someone could have stolen it last week and buried it here.”
“That’s right,” Striker added. “We’ll look through the listings of stolen goods to see if it’s on there, then after that we need to give the rightful owner a chance to claim it.”
“If no one claims it, then I’ll be happy to turn it over to the finder after that,” Gus said.
Elizabeth fisted her hands on her hips. “And just who is the
in this case.”
Gus tilted her head to consider the question. “Well, we
here for the official groundbreaking of the historical society building and museum. So I say it would probably go to the museum.”
“I don’t know about that,” Danforth cut in. “This looks suspiciously like something I’ve seen in my ancestors’ papers. I think this might belong my family.”
“Not so fast.” Elizabeth held up a gnarled hand. “You have to prove that fair and square. Until then, I think it should go on display at the society.” She reached out to take the box from Gus, but Gus pulled it back, cradling it under her arm like a football.
“Oh no. It’s going to the police station. You each have thirty days to bring your proof that you're the rightful owner.”
Striker had gravitated over to Willa’s side. They were in an ‘on-again’ phase of their relationship, which suited Willa just fine especially since the mere presence of him made her body temperature rise a few degrees. Or maybe it was just the hot flashes that had plagued her once she turned fifty. Either way, she liked having him next to her.
She glanced back down at the hole the box had been in and something caught her eye. Her heart kicked. The bleached-out white object was something that shouldn’t be there—a bone.
“What’s that?” Striker asked, following her gaze.
“Looks like a bone.”
They bent down, the silver box forgotten. With relief, Willa noticed the bones were too small to be human.
“These are tiny.” Striker gently pushed away the dirt to reveal a small skull and thin rib bones. “Cat bones.”
Willa’s heart tugged. “What would cat bones be doing out here?”
“Probably an animal got it. Mountain lion or coyote,” Striker said.
“It must have been one of the feral cats.”
Mystic Notch was home to a large population of feral cats who several town members, including Willa, volunteered to keep fed and sheltered. Unfortunately, there were many town members who wanted to hurt those cats. They saw them as wild animals and a nuisance. For this reason, the location of the various shelters that Willa and the others used for the cats was kept a closely guarded secret.
This month the cats were being sheltered in an old building behind the church that was down the street from Willa's shop on Maine Street. They took turns feeding the cats, getting them spayed and neutered and trying to socialize them so that they could be adopted out to forever homes.
Willa knew the life of a feral cat was fraught with danger. Any number of animals, including humans, could inflict harm on them. When she visited the feral cat shelter, she always had an eye out to see if all the known ferals were accounted for. She grieved when one turned up missing and hated to think the bones might belong to one of those cats.
“Maybe,” Striker said. “But not recently. It looks like they’ve been here for a while. They're picked clean.”
Striker got a small tarp from the construction area and Willa’s heart melted at how gently he removed the bones from the dirt and placed them on the tarp.
“We’ll give it a proper burial.” Striker folded the tarp neatly.
“Well, this is certainly the most interesting ground-breaking ceremony to hit Mystic Notch,” Hattie said over Striker’s shoulder as she watched him.
Striker seemed distracted. Willa noticed him looking into the woods as if something was there, but when Willa followed his gaze, she saw nothing. He looked up at Hattie, then down at the small tarp, his mouth set in a grim line. “Somehow, I have a feeling things are about to get much more interesting.”