We pulled to a stop on the dirt road outside the Tudor-style cottage with the steeply pitched roof and dark-brown half-timber trim. Everything about the property was perfect, from the scrubbed front porch to the potted plants lining the steps to the precisely manicured seven-foot-tall hedge. That’s where Ruby McLaughlin and I stood straddling our bicycles. Next to that hedge a few feet away from the garden gate where we were out of the owner’s view.
“Are you sure about this, Reeva?” she whispered.
No. I pushed my shoulders back. “Yes. It’s part of my role as high priestess to check in on a coven member when they’re in need.”
Ruby leaned close, her crystal-encrusted bike helmet bumping against my plain white one. “But this is Brigitte Maxwell.”
“Who is a coven member last I checked.” I removed my helmet and dropped it into the basket tied to my handlebars.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
I stared at my dearest friend until she looked up and met my eyes. “You can come ifyou stay quiet.” Her mouth dropped open, and before she could object, I added, “You know how you get.”
With a huff, she clamped her mouth shut again.
A pine arbor that arched high above a picket gate had been wedged into an opening cut into the hedge. Or the hedge had grown thick and tall on either side of the arbor. Most likely the second option, not that it mattered one way or the other. I stood beneath the arbor and peered in at the garden which was . . . not what I’d expected.
“Wow,” Ruby whispered from behind me, hands on my shoulders and pulling me down a bit so she could get a better look. “It’s a smaller version of the Barlow garden.”
“Can I help you two with something?”
Tall, blond Brigitte Maxwell appeared on our right. She had a trowel in one garden-gloved hand, a three-pronged hand rake in the other, and had clearly heard everything we’d said. Ruby blushed as bright as her name.
“I heard you had some trouble,” I explained, “and thought I’d stop by to see how you were doing and if there’s anything I could do to help.”
Brigitte pursed her lips. She always reminded me of a high society lady with her hair twisted into a neat chignon even when gardening. At the moment, her elegant appearance was tarnished the tiniest bit by a smudge of soil on the tip of her long, narrow nose.
“Why would I want help from you?” She raised her perfectly plucked eyebrows in challenge.
Brigitte barely knew me and still hated me.
“As I’m sure you heard me say,” I began, “I see it as my duty to help a coven member in need.”
Brigitte scowled and released an annoyed sigh. “You’re concerned about my broken statue?”
“Everyone knows how important that statue is . . . was to you,” I offered with empathy.
While I’d never seen it, I’d heard that the full-sized, pagan sculpture was the cherry at the top of the sundae that was her garden.
She blinked, her eyes reddening as she tucked her tools into her multi-pocketed apron and pulled off her gardening gloves—hot pink with smiling potted plants. Then she fiddled with something on the gate and held it open for us. “Come on in.”
“Cute gloves,” I commented.
“Cordelia gave them to me for my birthday.”
Not at all something I’d picture Brigitte wearing, but when your four-year-old granddaughter gives you a gift, you cherish it. At least, I would had I ever been blessed with a grandchild.
As she pushed the gate securely shut again, I noted a heavy padlock. The village gardens might have gates for either aesthetic appearance or keeping out critters, but I didn’t realize folks locked them. Then again, it was the tourist season, and the visitors to our little hamlet weren’t as respectful of property as we were of each other’s. Maybe it was one of them who got into Brigitte’s garden.
Ruby and I followed the elegant woman along a winding pea gravel pathway to the center of the garden. Now that we were inside, it was obvious the Maxwells had indeed created a smaller version of the Barlow garden. Although, not that surprising considering that both Brigitte and her daughter, Lorena, were practically toxic with envy over everything and anything related to the village’s most skilled green witches.
From a wisteria-covered arch to the lush, tightly spaced plants to the pea gravel pathways throughout, the layout of this garden was too similar to be a coincidence. Then again, not being a gardener, I didn’t understand the system, so it could simply be this was how a garden was done. At only one acre, however, three of Brigitte’s gardens could fit inside the hedge surrounding Briar’s backyard.
“I found her this way.” Brigitte’s voice broke and tears filled her eyes as she pulled a tarp off the chunks of what had been a stunning spiral goddess statue. Reportedly, she had commissioned an award-winning sculptor to create the work from marble specifically for her garden.
I’d heard about the statue, we all had, and immediately thought it was perfect for a Wiccan’s garden. The goddess with full hips and breasts was surrounded by a ring of marble that represented the full moon. Crescent moons on either side of the circle completed the triple moon goddess symbol. Her arms were held high over her head in either celebration of nature or surrender to it, depending on the viewer’s perspective.
The spiral on her belly could also be interpreted differently. It could mean coming to a dead end if one saw the curving line as flowing from the outside in. Or limitless expansion if from the inside out. That same outward direction, however, could also be seen as spiraling out of control. It all depended on the perception and perhaps what was going on in the viewer’s life at the time. Despite Brigitte’s way of rubbing people the wrong way, I agreed with her choice of powerful imagery.
That same going against the grain tendency was one of the reasons she had not been named high priestess when Morgan Barlow stepped down. My being chosen was why both she and her daughter disliked me so intensely.
“Oh, Brigitte.” I exhaled sadly at the sight before us. “What a loss.”
It would have taken tornado-force winds to blow it over, so someone had either pushed or pulled the statue to the ground. The moons and her arms were in pieces. Her head had broken off. Her torso had come free of her lower half at her narrow waist. There was no way for this to be restored.
“It was insured, and I’ve filed a claim. Not that money could ever make this okay.” Brigitte blinked, pulled the tarp over it again like a dead body at a crime scene, and turned away from the remains. She dabbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt. “It’s silly to get this emotional, but I prayed to her and had become connected to this statue.”
“I don’t think it’s silly,” I offered. “No sillier than people praying to statues in churches. Do you have any idea who might have done this?”
“Anyone upset with you?” Ruby added. “Anyone have a beef big enough to attack your prized possession?”
I glared at Ruby. This was exactly what I’d been afraid of. She had recently decided that she and I were private detectives, here to help my nephew, Sheriff Martin Reed, with any case he didn’t have the resources to investigate. Ruby’s favored role, unsurprisingly, was that of confrontational bad cop.
Brigitte shook her head and sniffed, ignoring Ruby’s tone. “None whatsoever. Sheriff Reed stopped by this morning. He took pictures, looked around, and asked the standard questions.”
Nice catch. I glanced up and couldn’t help but notice how filthy the dome was.
“He did,” Brigitte began, “because I pointed it out to him. I emailed him the footage. He said he’ll review it and investigate the crime. Honestly, I hold little hope. I saw nothing. Not with my own eyes and not on that video. Whoever did this blocked the camera. There was a foam of some kind on it that obscured the recording. It seems this was a planned attack.”
A planned attack? Three of the pots on my patio had been broken not even two weeks ago. I thought they were just targeting me, but now Brigitte had been vandalized too. Why? Other than both of us being in our fifties and members of the same coven, we weren’t connected in any way.
“I have no lights in my garden,” Brigitte continued, “but the camera is infrared. It works very well, but it can’t see through foam or whatever it was that they smeared on the glass. The people who did this appeared to know that.”
“People?” Ruby repeated. “There was more than one of them?”
“What I could see on the video showed two figures moving around. It was so smudged, however, that I couldn’t even tell you if they were men or women.”
I understood how she must feel. Along with the pots, the vandal knocked over my firewood stack and spraypainted sigils all over my shed. The sense of violation and not being safe in my home was awful. Fortunately, Brigitte’s daughter lived with her, so she wasn’t alone. Still, I was not okay with one of my witches being attacked this way.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
“I can’t think of anything, but it’s kind of you to offer.” Brigitte checked the time on her watch. “Thank you for stopping by. I have a phone call to make. Since the statue was insured, I want to speak with the artist about making another.”
As we returned to the gate, a giggle sounded from somewhere in a cluster of what looked like herbs. Brigitte’s demeanor changed immediately.
“That sounds like my Cordelia,” she said and strode over to a little blond head poking just above a bunch of lavender. She snatched up the squealing little girl and placed kisses all over her neck. “Caught you! Go hide again but remember not to step on any plants or flowers.”
“I know, Gammy,” she sang out and skipped off.
So cute. So innocent. How long would she stay that way?
At the gate, I asked, “You’ll still be taking part in the tour, won’t you?”
The annual Whispering Pines Tour of Gardens was this week. Green witches across the village entered their gardens, villagers voted, and the top four earned spots. Starting tomorrow, green witches not on the tour would lead small groups from garden to garden. At the end, the tourists could vote for their favorite. The winner received bragging rights and a small stepping stone made by one of the crafty witches. Ruby made last year’s.
“I’ve been debating about that,” Brigitte confessed. “I worked so hard for that entry. I’m just devastated that my garden is now tainted.”
Ruby stepped forward, shaking her head. “Even without the statue, your garden is beautiful.”
“It is,” I agreed. “Can Mr. Powell send over a crew to clean up the pieces?”
“Not until the insurance adjustor views the damage. That won’t be for a few days.” She let out a little groan. “That means she’ll be like that for a while.”
“You should still take part,” Ruby encouraged. “People can look past damage. The rest is still perfect.”
Brigitte stood a little taller at the compliment.
On the other side of the gate, I offered, “Would you like the coven to come over and bless your garden? Once the tour is done and the statue is cleaned up, of course.”
This left Brigitte momentarily speechless. “How thoughtful, Reeva. Yes, I think I would like that.”
I held her gaze and thought I saw the tiniest of smiles turn her mouth. Notable, because the only time Brigitte smiled was when Cordelia or her daughter were around.
Ruby was bursting at the seams to comment—I could tell from the way she clamped her lips between her teeth—but waited until we’d walked our bikes a few cottages away to say, “Look at you, being the bigger witch.”
I pushed my shoulders back. “I was named high priestess for a reason, you know.”
“Yeah, you were. I’m proud of you.” She threw a leg over her bike, but instead of heading to her cottage at the far end of the village, she stood there.
“What are you thinking about?”
“The padlock on the gate. How did the vandal get in?”
“I noticed it too. A lock might deter some, but if someone really wanted to, they could get in. That hedge is thick, but there’s sure to be a gap to squeeze through somewhere.”
“That must be what happened. What a pesky thing for Martin to have to investigate in the midst of tourist season.” Ruby snapped her chin strap into place. “My question is, who would dare mess with the Maxwells? Also, breakfast tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I replied, taking my helmet from my basket.
“Great. See you in the morning.”
As I made the short ride to my cottage, Ruby’s first question and others played over in my mind. Who would mess with the Maxwells? Upsetting as it was for Brigitte, Ruby was right. A broken statue was a pesky crime that likely wouldn’t be high on Martin’s priority list when he had a village full of tourists to deal with. My gut told me that the damage to my garden and Brigitte’s were connected somehow. Which meant Long & McLaughlin might have another case to investigate.