“It's about Keith, Nicola,” the smooth, bedroom voice said.
“Seriously, Joseph?” I did not want to hear about the ex, certainly not at 10 o’clock at night on a weeknight. I wanted him left in the past, six years past, where he'd put himself by denying his child. “What about him? Does this have something to do with Ella?”
“Just answer the door.”
I stalked to the door, still talking into the phone. “It would be exactly what you deserve if I was naked right now.” I flung open the door to find Joseph grinning at me. We both put our cell phones away and stepped into each other’s arms for a hug.
Joseph held me at arm’s length and raked my body with his eyes. “Not naked.”
I craned my neck to look up into his face, more than six inches above mine, and saw the fatigue in the tension around his blue eyes; that worried me. I forced a grin and rolled my eyes. “Like you'd even appreciate my naked awesomeness, gay man.”
I stepped back and lead him into the house. “Come on. You want something to drink? Water? Red wine? Hard black cherry lemonade?”
Joseph gazed around, taking in the practical arrangement of furniture and portraits of my daughter covering most of the wall behind the sofa and in the hallway. I couldn't blame him for being a little nosey; he had never visited me at home before. Living so far away from each other made that nearly impossible.
“Red is fine.” He nodded to the most recent picture on the wall, Ella's dark brown hair framing her tan, heart-shaped face with honey-colored eyes sparkling. “She looks good. Happy.”
My eyes narrowed as I poured a glass of red wine for him. “She is. Happy.” I was always sensitive to comments like that. Being a single mom was filled with little digs and insults, even though most of them weren't intentional.
I grabbed a hard lemonade for myself and gestured for him to go through the sliding door onto the patio. We sat in the overstuffed patio chairs and I dropped the drinks on the low table between us. “You gonna tell me what this visit is really all about? It must be good for you to leave the city.”
Joseph sighed and rubbed his face with his hand before reaching for the wine and taking a long drink. He'd never been a heavy drinker, so I took that as a bad sign. “I'm not really sure. I wish I knew what was going on, but this... It just doesn't make any sense.”
I took a sip and a deep breath. “Well, tell me what you've got.”
Joseph sipped his wine again. “A couple weeks ago, I heard a rumor about Keith.”
I nodded. Joseph was a kind of neutral entity in the Indianapolis Pagan Community. He kept his nose out of drama and his ears open, so most of the stuff that went on came to his attention quickly.
“I blew it off at first, ‘cause it was so… out there. But people kept talking. I figured there might really be something to it, but I never thought it could be what I'd heard.” He looked at me. “They were saying he was invincible. And that he could show people, prove it. They said he could stand in a fire and come out with no burns. He could be sliced with a knife and not bleed. They said he couldn't be killed.”
I cocked my head to the side, considering this. If Joseph was telling me these rumors, there was some truth to them. Neither one of us was the type to believe in stuff like that without proof, Pagan or no. We didn't just buy into the whole fireball-and-lightning kind of thing. “So, you checked it out?”
Joseph gulped down the rest of his wine. “Yeah, I did.”
Joseph stared at his glass for a long moment, then he reached into his pocket. “I got vanillas.” He waved a pack of cigarettes in my face. “You want one?”
I raised an eyebrow. I'd quit smoking nearly a decade ago, though vanillas were the one exception to that. “I don't know how you get that kind of contraband snuck into this country, and I don't want to know.” I reached for the smoke and grabbed his Zippo lighter, too. “Why are you avoiding telling me what happened?”
Joseph sighed and lit his own cigarette when I returned his lighter. “Because it's one of those things that makes you wish you were a normal, mainstream, Sunday-Christian, non-magic using, non-magic knowing human.”
Both my eyebrows went up this time. “That bad, huh?”
Joseph nodded. “I crashed one of his events. I slipped in with a group of initiates from the Golden Cauldron and hung out in the back. I don’t think Keith saw me, but I caught most of what he did.”
I shifted in my chair, waiting for Joseph to drop the bombshell. With as much as he was avoiding saying what happened, it had to be pretty serious.
“I swear on Hecate, I saw them cut him. They took a big machete or something and cut through a watermelon – to show how sharp it was – then they hacked at his arm. And nothing happened.” Joseph rubbed at his face again. “There was no bruising, no blood, no scrapes, nothing.”
I chewed on my lower lip as I considered this.
“And before you start picking it apart, Nicola, that's not all,” Joseph interrupted my thoughts. “They set up a big fire, about 5 feet across. The flames were going at least 3 feet high. He stepped right into it.”
Joseph leaned forward, his gaze boring into me. I could feel his need for me to believe him. “I saw the coals in the center break under his feet. You could walk around the whole thing and see him surrounded by flames. In a sleeveless shirt and shorts.” Joseph swung his face away from me, like he couldn’t stand to watch my reaction, and stared into the stars overhead.
I finished the cigarette in my hand and tossed the butt into my cold, freestanding fire pit. We sat silently for several minutes, sipping our drinks. I went through every possibility, but I couldn't think of one that either Joseph would not also consider or that he hadn't discounted with the details of his story.
Finally, Joseph took a deep breath and sat up. He looked at the dead cigarette in his hand and tossed the butt at the fire pit. He pulled out another smoke and lit it, dragging deeply a few times.
I shifted in my seat. “Okay, so Keith gets to be superman, or whatever. Even if that's the case, so what? Why do I need to know this? People get to show off their special skills all the time. That's why there's so many Tarot readers, healers and such at the fests.”
Joseph rolled his shoulders as if to relieve tension. I remembered it as a sign that he was about to drop a surprise in my lap. “He says he's starting an army of magic-users. He's recruiting for a battle.”
“A battle? Against who? Al Qaeda?”
Joseph glanced over. “He says it's for Ragnarok.”