A caste, a clutch of crazies, a seer, & a coach n bower crisscross lines in Virginia hunt country to uncover truths many are dying to conceal…

One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others…one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in a room with windows open …” Rilke

Chapter 1: The Pledge 

She stared into the mirror’s blurred nothingness and willed converging tears to remain behind the rim of her kohl smudged eyes. She thought this won’t do at all. So she practiced a Tibetan breathing technique and imagined a pulsing blue aura surrounding and protecting her. After a few moments, her vision cleared and the room behind her revealed itself in the mirror. There was a sputtering gas fireplace, and polished mahogany tables for two or four at which couples and businessmen chattered and sipped expensive scotch, martinis, or red wine in tall stemmed glasses. Votive candles cast a soft, warm radiance. She caught glimpses of gleaming brass and hand rubbed copper, and the sparkle of diamond rings and gold cufflink in an infinity of mirror images.

She came here for dinner the third Thursday of every month. She preferred the bar to the formal dining room with its starched tablecloths and whispered, intimate vibe. It felt cozier here, though the bar counter was dark granite, and the blue velvet tufted bar stools were little more than cold metal and hardwood. The half full dirty gin martini was having its usual effect, concentrating emotions she needed to subdue and sedate. The bartender returned and described the night’s special. She nodded and replied she’d have her usual: ahi tuna, chopped salad, a medium rare filet with Béarnaise Sauce, steamed vegetables, and a basket of crusty bread. She asked him to bring the bread as soon as it was ready, but to delay putting in the order until she finished her drink. She also selected a bottle of French Rhone Valley wine, bottled in a village where she’d stayed nearly a decade ago.

The bartender left and the man who’d been sitting at one of the small tables behind her picked up his glass and sat two seats down from her at the nearly empty bar. She nodded to him and returned to mirror gazing. Here it comes she thought.

The man caught his reflection in the bar mirror—thinning hair, a shade darker than the amber liquor in his drink, a five o’clock shadow, and a pair of ears that stood at attention. He grinned and turned towards the woman. “I hope you don’t mind me saying you look rather pensive, too serious for such a beautiful night. You’re sitting here all alone; that’s a real shame. I’m not going to bend your ear; I just stopped in for a drink. I’m …” He extend his right arm in handshake.

She interrupted him, “I don’t mind what you said if you don’t mind me saying you’re doing the same thing. You’re sitting here all alone and looking—curiously contemplative. I cherish my alone time—do you?” She ignored his proffered handshake and fished in her glass for an olive.

He smiled, perhaps too broadly and rushed out the next string of words. “My friends call me Radar. I’m a life coach, so let me ask you a question. What would be your idea of a perfect day?” He picked up his drink with the arm he’d extended to her a second ago and took a deep swallow. He was a leftie.

She wasn’t sure if she was annoyed or amused. She chewed on the olive and took a micro sip of alcohol, noting the cool, sharp taste of juniper. “Radar, that’s interesting, so you’re a palindrome? What exactly is your version of a life coach?”

“I’m impressed. You know what a palindrome is. What’s your name darling?”

The server returned with her bottle of wine and she motioned for him to pour; she didn’t need to taste it. He spread a snowy white napkin on the bar to serve as a tablecloth and added silverware, a bread plate and butter knife, and a basket of warm, yeasty bread and herb butter. Then he left again.

“Radar, I’m called many things, but never darling. You can call me Eve—or Hannah.” She smiled and her eyes glanced at him like a pair of bright blue balls she’d walloped over a net.

“Eve or Hannah, that’s very clever. Madam in Eden, I’m Adam.”

“Ah, more palindromes. Damnit, I’m mad…can’t think of another one. Surely you have more fascinating things to tell me?” She sampled her wine and buttered a small wedge of bread. Under her breath she murmured wait for it, wait for it.

“OK, you asked me what a life coach is. I advise and mentor executives—like yourself—on how to reach maximum potential. You could say I’m a strategist and an optimizer. I challenge and empower you to achieve the best results possible using proven, proprietary methods. I can make you a more effective leader, give you clarity of purpose, and get rid of beliefs and habits holding you back.”

“I see. So you’re claiming omnipotence?” She tilted her head and slowly turned the gold ring on a finger of her right hand. “Or may I assume what you said was rhetorical and not directed at me specifically. Would that be a true statement?”

The man coughed. “Now Eve, or Hannah, we both know about using that word assume. Let’s just call it an educated guess. You’re smartly dressed. There’s not a single nick so you’ve just gotten a French Manicure, and either your hair is naturally the color of the whisky in my glass or you have a clever hairdresser—and you’ve just been somewhere hot and sunny.” His emptied his glass and signaled the bartender to bring another drink.

“And are you—educated,” she asked?

“Whoa, let’s back up there. I just want to help; I became a coach because at one point in time, things were pretty bleak—until someone helped me. Listen, remember the question I asked you earlier? Answer that and I’ll answer all your questions.”

“You asked what my idea of a perfect day was, right?”

“That’s right.” He leaned in and swirled the remaining chips of ice in his drink.

“I’m not sure you want to know.”

“Oh, I want to know, I really do.” he replied and thanked the waiter for the fresh drink.

“A perfect day for me would be bringing my father-in-law and fiancé back to life, and asking them who killed them, and why. Then, I’d like to spend the rest of the day saying goodbye, and, I don’t know, making a holograph or simulations I could play whenever I wanted to see their faces. I’d end the day by tracking down and killing the person or persons that killed them. That would be my perfect day. And for the record, I don’t want a new or an improved me. I don’t need to hone my social skills or prioritize my diet, exercise, or sleep habits, nor do I need more money. Oh, and I don’t dye my hair and I’m slightly sunburned because I’ve been working in my garden.” Her appetizer arrived and she excused herself.

The man started to open his mouth, but no words formed. He stared into the mirror.

The corners of her mouth turned up ever so slightly. She forked a slice of raw tuna and swept up dribbles of the sauce on her plate. She let the combo sit on her tongue for a few seconds—until she identified raw ginger, lemon grass, green onion, and salty soy. If he only knew what kind of coach they’ve called me.

Her silent conversation continued. The man was a rank amateur, whatever kind of coach he called himself. That ‘perfect day’ drill was one of many tricks in a poser’s arsenal to control the conversation. People usually gave an answer that involved money, luxury, travel, love, or fame. The coach would then say something like wonderful, now describe how that perfect day starts. Where are you? What do you smell? Are you with loved ones? The coach would try to convince his mark he could identify your weaknesses and help you develop new skills. It was just another form of programming. She knew too much about that subject.

Their deaths, nearly six months earlier, were still raw wounds showing no signs of healing. The memory of finding their brutalized bodies lodged between her ribs and behind her eyes like rusting pieces of shrapnel. Good grief—is there such a thing? Does it come only after certainty is achieved? She knew about sitting in the dark, probing for answers, for daylight, for an oracle, a map, a GPS tool to tell her what she must do—where she should look. What she didn’t know was how to let go. Mystery writers require a death to move their plot forward. She required exposure and punishment of their murderer before she could move forward. Sontag was right, death was ‘an obscene mystery.’

She thought about the private investigators she’d hired and dismissed. Friends and colleagues repeatedly told her to let the police deal with it. But the police weren’t doing anything. It was a locked room mystery and the answer was simple to them. The son of Wilson Robbins, Boone Robbins, violently attacked and killed his father and then shot himself. The police hinted her war hero fiancé suffered from late onset PTSD. Even Neera, his sister, said let it go; she would rather not know why they killed each other. But Neera had ulterior motives; she kept pushing her to sell the cabin and its 100s of acres of land to the family that owned adjoining property on the lake.

She and Boone had planned a quiet early May wedding. But April, as T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, proved to be the cruelest month. They were killed April 2nd. Boone was a Software Engineer; he developed and analyzed classified case management software for the Justice Department. Before they’d met, he’d been part of a U.S. Army Special Forces Unit. It was possible he’d made enemies in recent years, except that until his murder, he’d had no problems with former or present colleagues, received no threats, and was well liked by his community.

It was more likely Wilson Robbins had made an enemy. He was the owner of multiple high tech patents and a few of his inventions had been challenged by right or alt wing and environmental groups. He’d been pensive lately, but she and Boone assumed it was because Neera might be using again. She’d been in drug rehab twice already: Wilson told her if she lapsed again, he would disown her.

Business was picking up in the restaurant; the waiter cleared her plate, added two inches of wine to her glass, and scurried over to wait on newly arrived customers. She’d also talked to two clairvoyants. One had nothing to offer, but knew better than to suggest another reading or more money. The other woman, a friend of a friend from college days, provided her first real lead. She wouldn’t accept any money and apologized for her inability to provide the name or face of the killer(s), explaining that’s not how her mystical divination skills worked. She understood completely; she had similar encounters involving extrasensory experiences.  

What the woman did provide were several sheets of yellow lined paper with a jumble of images and words. It was a form of automatic writing. Some words leaped out at her—door not door, firebird, and a name she’d once been called by her sister, who’d died at age five despite heroic efforts to save her after she was stung by jellyfish near Nag’s Head. Her sister called her ‘Ra,’ short for Aurora, though everyone else called her Roary. There were also images of a bottle (perhaps a prescription pill bottle), an object that could be a lyre, a car with an exaggerated hood inside a rectangle, over a dozen jagged bolts of lightning, sunbursts and an ink blackened circle, and choppy lines that could mean sea or ocean, preceded by the letters C, N and a tall, skinny triangle missing the bottom line.

Roary was seven when her sister died. The hits kept on coming after that. A classmate, a young lad that loved silly rhymes and stories—Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash, Shel Silverstein, and James Thurber—died of leukemia. Both sets of grandparents were dead by the time she was nine. A cousin committed suicide, and a high school boyfriend was killed in a hunting accident. Her mother died when she was 22—of a heart embolism immediately following cosmetic surgery. She didn’t shed many tears and was surprised to learn her mother actually had a heart. When she was 25, her best friend Cleo was killed by a hit and run driver. Cleo’s parents threw a New Orleans style funeral party. Balloons were released, a 15 piece brass band played both somber and raucous music, and a popular wedding destination mansion was rented for a catered meal and open bar. Roary stopped attending funerals after that.

When her father died the following year, he left her everything—including wisely invested proceeds awarded from a three million dollar settlement resulting from her mother’s botched plastic surgery. As an only child, she also inherited a 3500 square foot house in an upscale neighborhood; an antique collection of Meerschaum pipes and ceremonial daggers; and a family surname that might just end with her.

Her main course arrived. The coach was still staring, though his gaze had shifted from the mirror to the ice in his melting drink. She’d bested him after he’d kicked off the con(versation) by asking for a favor in the form of an answer to his question. She’d played his game by telling him something unique. The palindrome banter made them seem equally credible. She’d ignored his off handed compliment and extended hand, and provided an unexpected answer to his lead in question. He must be debating whether he should leave or wait for a better mark to appear.

He was part of an industry of more than 50,000 practitioners, earning a billion dollars in revenue. Life coaches aren’t required to undergo psychological training, possess a specialized degree, or be licensed to practice whatever it was they thought they were doing—maximizing potential, relationships, or opportunities to improve confidence…

As her mini Bowie knife sliced into the steak, dark juices stained the white porcelain plate. Did anyone mourn the sacrifice this animal made? Was she absorbing its life force or simply ingesting protein? We consider it moral to kill an animal and eat its flesh. To Hindus and Buddhists, eating flesh is an immoral act when grains and fruits are plentiful and filling. Did murder ever fulfill a moral need? Or was it just called something else—a righteous kill, mercy, revenge, atonement?

Roary mused about the limitations of vocabulary to adequately express death and grief. We talk around it, using words like passed on, finished, fatal, cessation of life, and annihilation of being. Grief is translated as sadness, anguish, lament, desolation, constant distress. We create euphemisms—trip the trigger, permanent dirt nap, slip the mortal coil, bit the dust, forever fired or pushing up daisies… When people die after an illness, we aren’t kind either—we say they’ve lost the battle, died with a whimper, not a bang… Were words ever meant to express truths, or were words simply what one uttered—incantated—to make desires real?

Can death ever be a relief or reward, an act of elegance or achievement? It’s one of the few things that can rob us of speech. It reduces us to two dates on the calendar—the date of our birth and of our death; it kills all senses but memory as we wail, flail, and fail. She stabbed and chewed another piece of steak. There are even death and afterlife coaches now.  Imagine that—midwives of death—someone to help you greet the closure fairy, to show you where to buy your ticket on the good ship River Styx. Long ago, these death coaches were called psychopomps. Long ago, my ancestors drove death coaches. They called us Dullahans and the name stuck.

Roary Dullahan noticed the life coach had finished his drink and was chatting up a couple seated next to him at the bar. Under her breath, she whispered “Where do you think we’re driven to after death? Where did they go coach?” The bartender asked if she was enjoying her food. She nodded.

The life coach would not find a mark tonight, but he would on Saturday, at a party he would crash after eavesdropping on a private conversation at another bar. The life coach would pocket $7,500 for presumably showing recent lottery winners Essa and Avery Shoemaker how to walk, dress, and talk like they were born rich. He set them up with their own personal shopper, voice coach, realtor, art gallery connections, and a fitness trainer, and pocketed another $2200 from the folks he told the Shoemakers they must hire. Alas, the only people the Shoemaker’s impressed were people that would fawn all over them—for a fee—until the money ran out.

Death had left a calling card for Roary Dullahan when she was 12 years old. She’d been riding with her friend Amy, whose family owned a farm with over 50 acres of pastureland and wooded groves. Something poked out between the tall grass; it was rounded and beige. She dismounted to have a closer look and poked the object with the pointy toe of her boot. It was an old cattle skull. Unfortunately, hornets had built a honeycombed nest in the skull and she’d disturbed them. They buzzed angrily from the skull. Roary stepped back and tried to grab her agitated horse. But the horse was stung several times and in distress, it bucked and reared up.

One of the horses’ unshod hoofs whacked Roary on the right side of her head before galloping away. Her friend Amy raced her horse back to the barn and alerted her father. They jumped into an old pickup truck and Amy’s father drove recklessly over the hilly terrain. They found Roary unconscious on the ground with a reddening egg size knot blooming around her hairline. She’d been stung several times as well. Amy’s father carried her to the truck and scrapped off the stingers with a plastic credit card he pulled from his wallet. Amy rode in the back of the truck, cradling her friend’s head. Back at the barn, her father applied a paste of baking soda and apple cider vinegar to the stings and an ice pack to her head.

When Roary didn’t respond to their pleading to wake up, they drove to her parents. Only her father was home. After thanking Amy and her father for their quick thinking, he transferred her to the back seat of his car and drove her to the emergency room. An MRI and a thorough exam revealed she had a concussion but no other serious injuries. The doctor said she was most fortunate. A week earlier, a man had been admitted after being kicked in the head by a two year old filly he was breaking. Despite surgery to stop the swelling, the man died less than 24 hours later. He told her father a nurse would swab the sting sites and apply hydrocortisone cream. He could take her home after that but should watch for any signs that might indicate a brain bleed.  

Once home again, her father made her a cup of ginger tea. The first words she said were phone’s ringing. It wasn’t but it did a few seconds later. She missed a day of school and was allowed to watch all her favorite TV shows and eat what she liked. But all she wanted was chicken broth, bread smeared with honey and butter, and fruit. Strange dreams woke her several times a week. She began jotting down a few of the most vivid dream, which always involved the image of a horse somewhere in the dream. She borrowed a few books from the library and learned she was experiencing precognition, not premonitions because the dream, so far, always came true. She was both alarmed and intrigued. What she wanted most was to be able to see her future. But the dreams were never about her directly.

She dreamed a week in advance about a fire drill that turned out to be the real thing when drying towels on a hook above the school cafeteria’s grill vent fell onto the grill and caught fire. Bits of the burnt towel ignited a newspaper lying on the butcher block next to the grill and a can of grease, which caught fire and exploded. In her dream, a black horse raced through the school’s halls warning everyone. In another dream, a dappled horse tried to get between two men driving golf carts. Over breakfast a few days later, Roary learned an old man in the neighborhood shot and killed another man because the man kept cutting through his property in his golf cart despite receiving many warnings.

Her mother wanted her to see a psychologist and stop talking about the horrid dreams. Her father had other concerns because what she dreamed invariably came true, though she had no ability to control or direct these dreams. He worried someone would try to exploit his daughter. She took her mother’s advice and stopped talking about what she recalled she’d dreamed about. Her parents assumed the dreams had stopped.

 When she was fifteen, Roary began having waking dreams. These were more difficult to hide. She might stop talking in mid-sentence or gaze unseeing while someone else was talking and have to ask that person to repeat what they’d said. Sometimes the vision was as simple as knowing what someone would say in five minutes time; sometimes the foreknowledge brought emotional pain. Like when she knew days in advance her friend’s boyfriend would break her heart while they rode the ferris wheel, or that it would storm tomorrow despite the weather forecast for clear skies, and the picnic would be cancelled. She sensed that if she tried to interfere, the result would be worse. All she could do was anticipate the outcome and supply needed support.

Roary kept reading esoteric tomes describing how to control precognition or premonitions but none so far were helpful. She became determined to find a book, a person, or a method that gave her some level of control over what she saw and when she saw it. She attended Yoga classes, joined fringe esoteric groups, and in college, aced Anthropology, Folklore, and Metaphysical studies classes. She obtained a doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology, though the answers she sought continued to elude her. Now more than ever she must learn how to channel her dreams and find a killer. One person finally agreed to help her, her neighbor, Hiram Danes. He knew she would never stop investigating until their killer was brought to justice.

Roary had to be in the office early tomorrow. There were five complicated clients scheduled for one hour sessions, the first arriving at 8:30 am. She had a journal article due the following Tuesday, reports to write, and behavioral articles to read. She had cleared tomorrow’s evening calendar so she could have dinner with Hiram. In addition to providing esoteric training, he was a great sounding board for the jumble of evidence and questions she’d assembled. She paid her bill, left a generous tip, and grabbed the sturdy handle of the large black and gold gilt paper bag the bartender placed on the counter. Her neighbor loved several of the restaurant’s specialties and she’d bought all his favorites.

Hiram was an extraordinary person. He was a retired Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) trusted advisor to the Office of Science and Technology. He had master level degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and Linguistics, and a bachelor’s degree in equine studies. He was also a skilled grill master and adept in fencing, Oenology, and astronomy—fluent in five languages and conversant in eight. He had a keen, analytical mind, and was surprisingly spry for a man in his mid to late 70’s.

She wondered what he would make of the shards of white porcelain she’d discovered inside a hollowed out, oversized book on Muscle Cars of the 1960s. After the police released the Boone’s master crafted two story, four bedroom cabin from crime scene status, Roary sat behind the beautifully carved desk in the study/library father and son once shared and stared at the cold fireplace. The view was so painful, a reminder of the many nights they shared nightcaps and engaged in lively discussions late into the night. The fire was always cheery; the moon was always full, always nodding its approval.

She stood, stretched, and ran her hand along a shelf of books. The spine of an oversized book on muscle cars caught her attention. There was a partial picture of a car inside a box inside a triangle. She removed the book and gazed at a racing stripe embellished hood on the front cover. It reminded her of one of the pictures the clairvoyant had drawn. Something rattled. She flipped through the first 100 pages and discovered the middle had been hollowed out. It was filled with broken pieces of white porcelain wrapped in tissue paper. The shards seemed ordinary, however, the stamp on the underside indicated the porcelain was made in Deutschland (Germany), in 1943 or 44. Her neighbor spoke German. He would know what the words said.