“She said you’re too bossy. Cripples should be sweet, but you’re not. If you ask me--”
The slur did not phase Raven, but the power of the other insult staggered her. “Bossy?” Raven fumed not only at Kelsey’s words but at her unwanted presence in her life.
“She said you’re forever ordering her around and never listen to what she has to say. I told her you do it to everyone. You should thank me because she had felt victimized.”
The throbbing behind Raven’s left eye increased. A bullet had punched a hole in her brain, but it didn’t torture her half as much as the twit in front of her did.
“Millie said no such thing!” She looked around the modest office space painted institutional beige for something to throw. Using a long-handled grab stick, Raven picked up the wooden placard reading ‘Kelsey Butterman, Social Worker.’ She tested the weight of the object and dismissed it as non-lethal.
“If you weren’t so touchy, Millie would tell you to your face. I’m working with her to be more assertive in your relationship. The two of you will never have equal footing if--”
“She’s a dog!” Raven stammered in outrage. “My service dog, for Christ sakes. She adores me.” She pursed her lips; adamant Millie’s devotion doubled hers.
Raven had only loved one other being more than she did the golden lab, and that was Cole. It had been three hundred sixty-one days, three hours, and twelve minutes since she had killed him.
Kelsey tilted her head and shook it with what appeared to be profound sorrow. There was no empathy; the depth of the woman’s soul measured a half an inch at its
deepest point. “Impaired people can’t be allowed to care for animals if they don’t believe in their absolute sovereignty. That means-”
“I know what the heck it means!” The stress of the moment caused Raven’s words to trip over one another, increasing her annoyance at the conversation and the imbecile who involved her in it. The shooting that paralyzed Raven’s left side had also jumbled the speech center in her brain. Excitement, anger, or an urgent need to pee could make the syllables pile up like dust bunnies under the bed.
Raven looked out the window onto the parking lot of Georgetown, South Carolina’s City Administration building and yearned to be anywhere else. The idea that bureaucracy’s most incompetent nincompoop would threaten her relationship with Millie made homicidal fantasies rage through her head.
Kelsey had provided Millie a foster home when her original owner died. She had matched Raven with her furry lifeline and trained them to work together. None of those good deeds meant the schizoid with a screw loose could threaten to take Millie away from her now. Raven would sooner live with the dictator’s death on her conscious.
“Millie’s puppyhood left her vulnerable to bullying,” Kelsey said. “Her submissive sire buckled under a pushy Dane. It’s admirable that she wants to grow into her--”
A timid knock paused the tale of the canine’s formative years. Raven had fantasized about strangling Kelsey to obtain the same goal. Both women stared at the office door, but neither moved. Millie’s soft ears perked up, and she stood, ready to assist Raven if necessary.
“It’s open,” Kelsey’s volume spanned from boisterous to disorderly even in professional settings. The woman’s concept of inside voices involved the ones in her head telling her how great she was. Raven did not call out,
Mary Holt • 6
as her vocal range fell somewhere in between a dolphin speaking Mandarin and microphone feedback. Also, this was not her office.
They heard the squelching sound of rubber being pried loose from tile before the most unusual thing Raven had seen today walked into the small space. It was not a low bar, as she had spent the morning with Kelsey, whose fashion sense was as deficient as her common sense.
A pensioner with saturated clothing clinging to thin bones oozed in, trailing wet slime behind her. Aquatic grasses stuck to the woman’s wrinkled face and curly white hair. The smell of nameless decay entered with her.
Adrenaline spiked through Raven’s system, and the scared child hiding within her grown body demanded she ran away, now. Cheesy horror film creatures crawled out of putrid bogs, but they were never as ancient as this one. Hollywood preferred its monsters young and virile.
Kelsey -- as clueless as an armadillo on the interstate -- said, “I’m sorry, but we have strict rules about wearing footwear inside the building at all times. It’s a health and safety code, and I’m in charge of compliance. It’s an essential job--”
Raven looked, and sure enough, the visitor wore only one sodden deck shoe. She ignored the legalistic lunatic in charge and addressed the swamp thing, “Are you okay? Please sit down.” She grabbed Millie’s harness and stood to offer the drowning victim her chair. The dog braced Raven’s weak left leg as she had been taught to do, providing her vulnerable side much-needed stability.
Boggy Betty smiled at Raven and accepted the seat. “I need help,” she said with less theatrics than her disheveled condition demanded. Not a true Southerner, Raven thought. Customary greetings of the Dixie-born consumed ten minutes and a pitcher of sweet tea. Her mind often checked out while the locals updated one another on the state of their mothers’ magnolias.
• Cotton Candy Killer
“You’re in luck,” said Kelsey. “I’m an excellent social worker and a better pet psychic. If you have trouble with…” Kelsey assessed the woman’s appearance and said, “the aggressive koi in your fishpond, I can help!”
A goofy grin that even Raven had trouble resisting lit the fruitcake’s well-meaning face. “This is one of my clients, Raven.” Kelsey nodded in her direction. “She’s a mess too, but I’ve helped her so much. You should have seen her before--”
“I’m NOT one of your clients!” They had fought over the subject many times, and Raven could not believe the ninny had the nerve to bring it up yet again, and in front of a soggy stranger.
She did not need Kelsey’s assistance and had not come to her office under court mandate. Given the alternative by a judge, Raven believed she would have chosen jail. Relentless guilt compelled her contact with Kelsey; nothing else was strong enough.
“What happened to you?” Raven pulled a knitted blanket from the closet and wrapped it around the shivering survivor. South Carolinians treasured muggy nights and refrigerated days.
The visitor hesitated before she said, “My life is in danger.”
The contents of Raven’s stomach sloshed to one side as if someone had tilted a half-empty lemonade pitcher while standing on a rocking rowboat. The woman’s words brought on a chill not caused by central air.
“I can call the police for you.” She took a step toward Kelsey’s desk, and Millie matched her stride without a command. Raven did not need to boss Millie around; she worked as much from intuition as instruction.
“NO.” The visitor went rigid in her chair until Raven stopped walking, and then she relaxed. “Please, don’t.” The wet, weary woman closed her eyes for a second and let out a sigh.
Mary Holt • 8
Raven studied their guest for signs of instability. She did not appear intoxicated. Her blue eyes did not wander, but she had turned up here instead of her own shower. Maybe the woman did not have one. “Are you homeless?” She kept her tone as neutral as someone who sounded like they gargled goldfish could do.
“We don’t say that,” Kelsey interrupted. “The proper word is displaced. It confers no blame onto the individual that’s messed up their life so badly that they’ve no choice but to beg on the streets.”
“I’m not homeless.” She said to Raven, then looked at Kelsey. “Or displaced. My name is Eileen.”
Raven inspected the drenched woman’s clothing for the first time, and although muddied beyond what she could ask of any reputable dry cleaner, its quality was evident. Dirt and a portion of an earthworm had caked under tapered fingernails, reminding Raven of a B-movie corpse fresh from its grave.
Her eyes returned to Eileen’s, but she worried about Cole. She told herself there was no way her husband could claw his way out of the casket as this woman had. Raven had cremated his remains and disposed of the ashes.
“Why are you wet?” She asked with a northerner’s abruptness. She had grown up in Florida, and the only thing southern about the Sunshine State was its whereabouts on the map. Culture-wise, it was a New York borough filled with people eating deli and kibitzing about the weather and the grandchildren who never phoned.
“Someone pushed me off the ferry.” Eileen did not meet her eyes, which made Raven doubt the truth of her statement. Bad guys might snatch feeble old ladies’ purses, but they did not bother to toss them overboard.
“Are you sure?” The woman had more years on her than the office’s post-war furniture. Maybe she had lost her balance when a wave jostled the boat. The current flowed strong this time of the year. Raven would never attempt to
9 • Cotton Candy Killer
swim it, but then again, she only had the use of one arm, which made putting on flippers difficult.
“That railing’s waist-high. I didn’t hurdle it.” Eileen gave her a withering look in thanks for her skepticism, and Raven felt ashamed. A person’s age did not indicate mental instability any more than her physical limitations did.
“You silly,” Kelsey said as if Raven were a beloved pooch who had piddled on the rug. “I told you my friend has issues,” she said in a tone of apology to Eileen. “She’s disabled and forgets things, but I’ve been trained to handle all emergencies. If there’s a fire, earthquake, flood, or an active shooter, you couldn’t be any safer than you are with me. I--”
“Yes, but did any of the classes teach you how to outrun a murderer?”
Raven’s gut lurched, and her head spun. She had run, but Cole followed.
The visitor looked at her filthy hands, and Kelsey said, “Of course! I have the forms for everything.” Raven laughed as she imagined the state’s star employee submitting multiple requisitions for Eileen to enjoy additional years on Earth.
“There are all kinds of programs. We can enroll you in senior swim class!” Raven groaned, and Eileen passed on the idea.
“Maybe a permit for a greenhouse. You could plant organic vegetables in the dirt and stay off the water!” Kelsey’s special smile made her look younger. “Or you can train homing pigeons. They’re so interesting; they never get lost. I always get turned around. Once I--”
“Kelsey,” Raven said. The fool would wander the fields for days, and Eileen would die of old age before Kelsey found a way to assist her.
“Oh, I’ve got it! A restraining order--” Raven thought that idea was getting closer to where they needed to
Mary Holt • 10
be, though she had her doubts about their usefulness. Pieces of paper provided scant protection against bullets.
“No, we can’t,” Eileen spoke as if the words had physical weight and lifting them exhausted her. “We don’t know who to name on the complaint. I didn’t see the person who shoved me.”
Raven recognized the woman’s tone of weariness. She had battled the same fatalistic fatigue when Cole sought to enforce the ‘til death we do part’ clause of their marriage contract. His ending had not turned out at all well. Eileen was old and deserved to rest. Raven patted Millie’s soft head to soothe herself, and the dog rewarded her with a loving nuzzle and a plea for more.
“What’s your full name?” Kelsey asked, her pen poised over the official paperwork she had pulled from a multi-tiered plastic rack. The clock just above her read 12:30 pm.
Raven wanted to buy lunch and take Millie to the park before heading in to work. Helping desperate people flung into the muck fell under Kelsey’s job description, not hers, and if there was a chance the police could become involved, she needed to steer clear. Detective Teague still loitered around Raven like a vagrant, hoping to charge her with a felony and justify his un-earned paycheck.
Raven did not recognize the name, but Kelsey stopped writing and looked up from her questionnaire in surprise. “As in Judge Edgewater?”
The water-logged woman nodded in the affirmative. “She’s my daughter.” Raven had lived in Georgetown for less than two years, and the surname meant nothing to her.
“Is she in with the mob?” Kelsey asked in excitement. “Are they threatening you to make her set dangerous criminals free?” The crazed social worker vibrated with the endless possibilities of vice running rampant in the small town. “Does she run a prostitution
11 • Cotton Candy Killer
ring from the courthouse, and you found out about it?” Raven closed her eyes, seeking relief from the barrage of nonsense filling the room. “Did she send someone to the slammer and their associates came after you?”
Kelsey’s imagination took control of her entire body and turned her into a cartoon journalist tracking the scoop of the year. If she had held a pencil, Raven believed she would have licked it and called for them to hold the presses. The sheer spectacle kept Raven from excusing herself.
“Kelsey. Stop.” Raven looked at Eileen and said, “Why don’t you go to your daughter and tell her what happened to you?” No one would seek help from a ditz like Kelsey if they had other options. This office catered only to those without any viable alternatives.
Conflicting emotions of love, fear, and shame crossed Eileen’s face. Raven recognized each without the slightest bit of trouble. The same potent brew coursed through her bloodstream.
“Because she may be in on it.” Pain, fresh and raw, tinged Eileen’s words with red from the blood they had drawn.
Raven’s chin tilted to the right, and her eyes narrowed. She wondered if the woman suffered from dementia, or if Eileen had hit her head when she tumbled from the boat. Mothers and fathers killed their sleep-and-sanity stealing children due to long-established property rights, but kids seldom murdered even abusive parents. Ordinary people found a lifetime of patriarchal dominance hard to buck.
A total stranger with an evil agenda had caused Kelsey’s injuries, but few people were born that lucky. Raven had hand-selected the man who destroyed her health and future. Grasping her life back had required ending his. She prayed Eileen would find a less messy solution to her problems.
Mary Holt • 12
“There’s another judge,” Kelsey said with as much triumph as if she had just outlawed world hunger. “I’ll file the petition in his courtroom.” Well-pleased with herself, she leaned back against her mobility scooter’s cushioned seat and crossed her arms. Problem solved. Raven was certain she imagined another gold star shining out from her permanent file.
Eileen shook her head as if she had already considered and discarded the idea. “Not in the summer. Angela gives him time off to be with his kids.”
“Are you accusing your daughter - a judge - of plotting to kill you?” Raven asked. The idea felt perverse and ungrateful. What unholy thing had Eileen Edgewater done that her grown child wished her dead? Murdering her neglectful parents had never crossed Raven’s mind.
“I’m not positive I’ll need to die.” Eileen looked up, and her voice sounded reasonable. “Maybe I can just hand over my assets and behave as if I did.” The eager crinkle of her eyes caused Raven’s stomach to plummet. An exploited woman’s ability to find hope made optimists appear suicidal in comparison. Love and money presented more danger to most than dynamite, bombs, and religious zealots combined.
Growing up in poverty, Raven had watched people walk by a dealer’s stash without the slightest temptation, and witnessed others go into a blind rage over a dollar. Cole had known money all his life, yet it hadn’t bought him sanity.
“I’m not afraid,” Kelsey assured Eileen. “The governor once promised me a letter of commendation for all the good work I do. I never actually got it, and his assistant stopped taking my calls and sent some guys in uniforms, but--”
Raven pulled her sunglasses off in a quick motion, allowing Eileen to see dangling skin slide down her face and pool at her jawline. She stared at the older woman full-
13 • Cotton Candy Killer
on and asked, “What is it you want to do? Give her the money? Run? Or kill her before she takes you out?” It was cruel, but Raven had played this game. Admitting one’s place on the board saved time and unnecessary moves.
Eileen stammered. “None of those! That’s why I’m here.” An enthusiastic gaze met hers without flinching. “I need you to tell me what to do.” The woman picked drying mud from her hands and let it fall to the floor where it joined the seaweed and dark water.
Kelsey asserted herself once more. “I have the resources of the entire state of South Carolina available to me. There’s nothing I can’t do--”
“Not you,” said Eileen. “Her.” She pointed at Raven, who shrunk from the finger.
No way, she thought. This is not my problem. “You have no idea who I am. I can’t even care for myself.” She gave a raw chuckle that burned her throat. “Just ask Kelsey.” She touched the top of Millie’s head to indicate they were leaving. She need not have bothered. The animal’s reflexes reacted much faster than her own.
Kelsey’s head nodded as fast as a bobblehead. “It’s true. She makes terrible decisions. Millie told me--”
“I don’t care. She’s who I want.” Eileen sounded uncompromising, but the decision was not hers. Raven was not a lobster to be chosen from the tank at Legal Seafood.
She shook her head. “I don’t work here. But I’ll give you some free advice. No one else can save you. You’ll have to do it yourself.” A woman had to pull up her tights and fashion a cape from the drapes because heroes never materialized when needed.
As Raven walked to the door, Kelsey said, “Don’t listen to her. She has no training whatsoever. I have a degree in social work from State College, and the Georgetown Center for Exceptional Beings certified me as an animal communicator.”
Mary Holt • 14
“It’s the Princeton of Pet Psychic Preparation. Or at least the brochure says so,” Raven said. She turned the door handle and left the other two alone. Eileen needed help, but Raven was useless. Everyone, including a boob like Kelsey, knew that.
Raven headed for the Georgetown Information Center, a modern building on the waterfront filled with color pamphlets extolling the wonders found in the area. The Gullah Museum drew interest, as did the local history of rice cultivation. She spoke to visitors about the Kaminski House, an Antebellum home, and The South Carolina Maritime Museum with as much enthusiasm she could muster each day.
This building had been her first stop when she got off the Greyhound bus taking her as far from Cole as she could afford to go. The kind woman behind the desk had let Raven charge her disposable cell phone and directed her to the public pool for a shower. The basic kindness and hospitality had meant a lot to her, and she hoped to pay it forward.
Most days, she had long periods where no one asked about the tram around town or the best places to eat seafood. Today was different, as the center had planned a kick-off the summer festival starting tomorrow and lasting through the weekend. Several local organizations would provide booths and volunteers to run them.
Raven had invested copious amounts of time organizing the event and found she looked forward to it. As a kid, she had loved the sounds, smells, and colors of a midway. The decadence of play, food, and fun thrilled the young girl who lived in a single-wide trailer with a broken screen door.
As she and Millie approached the grounds, Raven watched teams erect stalls for the caramel apples and corn
15 • Cotton Candy Killer
dogs on a stick. Families would spend time and money at wholesome games of chance where they could win goldfish prizes. She spent a busy afternoon and evening inflating balloons, stringing white lights, and locating the gunny sacks for races. It was after nine pm when Raven left, tired and ready for bed. The morning would be hectic.