Chapter Nine Party Sheep
Saturday, 18 July 2020
Earth, Jupiter and Saturn 8* apart
Del slept till noon, then got to work. She was hauling yet another stack of paper from the hallway when the car pulled into the driveway.
Del thumped her armful of papers into the back of the SUV and walked closer. A woman. One of the harpies from the viewing.
Del eyed the understated elegance of the BMW as the door swung open and the woman emerged. The harpy eyed Del's no doubt filthy appearance, and cleared her throat.
"I'm Margarite Valaskovich."
Del nodded. "Yes, I remember seeing you at the viewing. So nice to know Aunt Sophia had concerned friends."
The woman blinked. "Er, we thought . . . That is, I'm having a party tomorrow afternoon, just a casual get together with the neighbors. We thought you and your sister might like to come, meet more people; there will be at least two realtors vying for your attention."
"How nice of you . . . " Del looked down at herself. "I really ought to meet the realtors, I'll be doing business with one of them soon enough."
"Excellent! Eight o'clock, then. We're just across Coyote Bar Road, the fourth house on the right." She slid gracefully back into the car and drove away.
"I can't believe I said that." Del muttered to herself. Then headed for the house for another stack of paper.
That will clear the other hallway, then I can start on Aunt Sophia's bedroom. Not that I'm going to move into her room.
But first she had to survive the party Margarite was giving.
When Prissy's parents' dropped her off, Del told them about the party. Her mother waffled a bit, then allowed as how it was early . . . they'd pick her up at ten.
The north end of Little Valley Road held large working ranches, mostly. Across Coyote Bar Road, the south part of Little Valley had been broken up into five acre plots and the smallest house was probably six thousand square feet. The Valaskovich's house was the fourth on the right, and it was definitely not one of the smallest. There was a fountain in front, circled by the driveway, and landscaping with that exact balance of size and color and shape of the plants that drew the eye and quieted the soul. Del studied it, and sighed. Some how she doubted she could do the same in Sophia’s front yard.
She and Prissy arrived on the doorstep at the same time as Cassandra Thornton and Francis Something-she-couldn't-remember. The man who let them in beamed indiscriminately around, and pointed them toward the punch bowl. Del spotted several other Harpies chatting in a clump across the room. She breathed a sigh of relief. She'd know enough people to survive the party.
Prissy blew out her breath. "No cute boys. Drat. But that beefcake stockbroker is here. You ought to grab him."
"You wouldn't say that if your mother was here."
"He's way too old for me. But you ought to at least talk to him."
Margarite Valaskovich seemed determined to make sure she met everyone else. "Oh, and you must meet Harry. He's the Chief of Police. Harold Vincent. Harry do you know Sophia Jeffries's niece? Delphi—pronounced like the Oracle—Hyde. And this is Mike, he's the principal of the new elementary. Let's see, I don't see the Sheriff, but Phillip Goldhammer is certainly worth meeting, and Hugh Barclay, he's with the town police again."
Del shook hands with the Chief, a middle aged, comfortable looking person, and the deputy, Phillip Goldhammer, tall and muscular, whose hair was trying to live up to his name. Hugh Barclay, her nemesis, was darker, shorter and smiled ruefully as he gave her a firm hand grip. "I'm afraid we've met."
Margarite tsked. "I've told you to stop ticketing the pretty girls. And Phillip's just as bad. It's no wonder you're both single."
Phillip cast a wounded look across the room. "Cassandra won't go out with me."
"And I'm a misanthrope in training, so I can't date." Barclay turned to Del. "Apart from me, are you enjoying Reilly Creek? I have a vague memory of Al's oldest granddaughter living there for awhile, but I don't think we ever actually spoke."
"We moved when I was ten. I'm afraid I don't remember anyone. You worked at the dairy?"
"Early and late milking. I was going to college part time in between. And then the Police Academy. I suppose you left shortly after I started."
Well, Officer Reflecting Sunglasses was nicer in a party setting than out on the street. But still hard to read. She couldn't tell if he was trotting out a well loved memory, or making empty small talk.
"There seems to be just one cow in the pasture. How do we go about selling it?"
He made a faint choking noise. "It's a bull. Sophia was always complaining that she couldn't catch that bull. Not that I think she was trying very hard. One of her father's last milk cows apparently hid a calf in the brush. It grew up pretty feral. Dairy bulls are very dangerous. And it must be ten years old. I didn't see it when I shifted Missy. I thought she must have finally done something about it. Best bet is to find a butcher who will come out and shoot it, then . . . " He cut off at Prissy's horrified recoil.
Del rolled her eyes. "We'll try to sell it first."
Mike the school principal looked sympathetic. "I think there's an auction every week in Loomis. Of course, you've got to get him there."
One of the harpies towed her husband over for introductions, and she chatted with that crowd for a while.
Armand Navarr turned up at her elbow. Still mouth-wateringly handsome.
Prissy practically drooled.
"If you need any financial advice, please do call me." He smiled. "No telling what might turn up, in there."
Prissy nodded eagerly. "Del just wanted to throw everything out. I made her stop and look."
"But the newspapers have to go. And the magazines."
At ten, she steered Prissy toward the front door, and spotted her parent's car. Apparently picking daughters up from late parties was something they managed on time.
Unfortunately Margarite trotted out to greet them, and dragged Del back inside.
And introduced her to two realtors. They'd had a bit too much punch, and Del eased away.
Bev Granger was there. "Missy's doing fine, if you're staying for a while, why don't you keep her there?"
"All she needs is grazing and Senior Chow." Barclay joined in. Apparently he was one of the occasional mounted patrol.
“Officially, we mostly parade about on holidays. And although it’s technically not our jurisdiction, we exercise the horses on the river trails, just to show some presence out there.”
“It seems quite safe, but then I haven't ridden there in eighteen years.”
“It’s the campers, or at any rate the after sundown crowd that’s had problems, and really, not much then.” Barclay shrugged. “We just have this fantasy of no crime at all.”
Bev snorted. “And here I thought you were so hard headed and practical.”
"Speaking of practical, Aunt Sophia has a pickup truck in her garage. Where's a good place to take a truck that apparently hasn't been driven for a decade? It'll probably need every fluid in it changed, and everything lubed before I even try to start it."
Barclay's eyebrows rose. "Probably Ted's, up in Auburn."
"Ah, there you are, Del." Margarite popped up over Bev's shoulder. "I was afraid you'd duck out." She hauled her away from Bev and the policeman, but somehow Del didn't feel rescued. "Have you met the Barons? Zanadu, this is Del Williams."
The tall elegant woman eyed her. "Oh, I can feel that you have the touch of the Goddess inside you. I hope you haven't been trapped and stifled by some mainstream church." At Del's uncertain negative, she smiled. "We celebrate the wonders of the natural world. You must come! Just go halfway into the park, turn north and follow the music." Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. "The Full Moon is in two weeks; we'll dance all night."
Del smiled glassily. "Excuse me, I think I need another drink." She stepped away, and worked her way around to the bar. And tried to see if she could make a run for the door and slip off home. Drat, no. Margarite was standing there talking to a couple of men. Back to Plan A. More anesthesia.
She nodded politely to a rather snobby looking pair. Hadn't they been introduced? Westphalen? Devon and Georgia? Moved in a few months ago?
"Careful, I think they rather overloaded that punch."
"Yes. Georgia, right? Lawyer?"
"Yes. I work for a software firm in Roseville. Devon is with an Aerospace contractor."
"I am a financial systems programmer/analyst. I live in New York."
The noses rose a bit.
"Do you have children?" Del tried jumpstarting the dying exchange.
"One. Our son has started at the high school here, but I rather think we should find a better prep school. I'm not at all sure about how healthy the local influences are."
Del nodded sympathetically. "I've heard it's all these new people moving in. The kids are rather poorly disciplined, and the neighbors don't know who they are, to either feel free to speak to the child, or complain later to the parents."
Having thus insulted them, she filled her glass with the powerfully fortified 'punch' and sought the fresh air of the backyard deck. Unfortunately Zanadu and a small crowd had beat her out the door.
"Where did those things come from?" Margarite looked around for her husband. "Benny? Benny!"
Zanadu snickered and trotted down the steps into the back yard. Cassandra and Francis followed. Del stepped out to see what they were talking about. A dozen or so sheep were grazing their way down both sides of the swimming pool. They were patchy in color, some unusual breed, not the usual white. Two rams had impressive black horns curling around the side of their short haired faces.
"Sheep? Good grief!" Barclay strode out, the handsome Deputy Goldhammer on his heels. Zanadu was baby-talking to a sheep and trying to pet it. The ewe moved away and she pursued. Barclay walked around the animals and approached a figure, barely visible in the dark, a man with a staff. The man twirled it like an oversized cane, and stalked to meet him. The sheep shifted and one bumped Zanadu.
She tripped with a shriek, and everyone jumped to help her up.
Phillip and Armand were first in, but the rams were feeling protective and got in the way. There was a good deal of cursing as they wrestled the belligerent animals.
Even in the dark, Del could see something else happening. Zanadu staggered back, and made it to her feet, briefly. No, that wasn't . . . the thing that reared briefly was more shaggy than curly, putting hooves to a growing muzzle, before it staggered, collapsing by the other . . . things. Mike sat back with heavy black horns curling back over his head. Del stood frozen on the steps. I do not want to touch one of those sheep. I did not just see that.
And then the sheep were gone, and Mike was staggering to his feet and helping Zanadu up. Phillip offered a hand to Cassandra, and they all looked frightened, their clothing wrecked . . . Barclay stepped back into the light.
"Does anyone know what just happened?" He glanced down and frowned at his suit. A white streak, like a piece of cloth sewn on it, disintegrated at his touch.
Del swallowed. "Did you guys . . . merge . . . with sheep?"
They stared around at each other.
Zanadu smiled suddenly. "I have obviously had much too much to drink. Took a bit of a tumble, ouch. I'm going to have bruises tomorrow. I think perhaps . . . " she scanned the patio, empty but for the few of them, the interior nearly empty as well. "I think I will go home now."
Margarite bustled back and blinked at her empty backyard. She gave an audible sigh of relief and turned back to be the perfect hostess. "Thank you all for coming tonight. It's been so much fun."
Del was more than willing to be herded off. "Thank you for inviting me. I enjoyed it very much, so nice to meet everyone." That got her as far as the front door, and she bestowed a smile on the glassy-eyed Benny and headed for the street.
Armand followed her. "Did you walk, Delphi? Let me give you a ride back. The new moon leaves the night very dark." His voice was a soft purr . . .
Zanadu apparently didn't like the way Armand was drooling on Del. "Silly man, she's just about four houses away."
Phillip Goldhammer stepped up. "I can drop you on the way, no trouble." He winced and put a hand to his back.
Does merging with a sheep strain muscles? Or is it the bones that ache? Del shook her head. "No really, I think I need the fresh air. That last glass of punch had quite a kick." But not enough kick to get me into anyone's bed—or them into mine.
Armand scowled at Phillip, and Cassandra made a snide remark about a romance made over traffic tickets as Hugh Barclay seems to be hanging about as well. Actually it looked like his car was blocked in, so he didn't count.
Zanadu dropped her voice to a whisper. "Careful, Witch. You may be able to attract them, but obsessions can be unhealthy. And jealousy, worse." She hobbled to her car, a bit like an old witch herself.
I thought she was married? Del shook her head and walked away. She ignored the others as they started their cars and drove by. And she especially ignored the men who hung back until she was inside the old farm house. It was like me and that old woman. I wonder if they have memories of chewing their cuds?
She snickered. Then winced, realizing the insanity of that thought. "Either it's something in the water, or Sally mixes a mean punch. Half the cops in town were there, so it can't have been drugs."
She drained a glass of water and took herself off to her barren bedroom. It didn't happen. It was shadows and moonlight and too much alcohol. And my memories of the dance, and those costumes.
Because if I thought it was real, I'd have to find out. And I'd much rather go back to my . . . really boring life and not believe anything weird is going on. I don't want to look into this. I don't.