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Christmas, The Krewe and a Large White Rabbit (Krewe of Hunters) by Heather Graham (1)


 

 

Chapter 1

 

Large white rabbit wearing a gas mask and carrying a machete. All law enforcement under advisement. Last seen traveling west from the Richmond area. I repeat, large white rabbit, wearing a gas mask, carrying a machete.

Someone must have stopped the radio dispatcher with a correction because the voice came on again with slightly different terminology.

Man wearing a rabbit costume, gas mask, and carrying a machete. APB, military and law enforcement; citizens warned.

Brodie McFadden set down his axe and surveyed the freshly chopped pile of logs for the fire. It was all was getting there; it was going to be a beautiful, snow-white Christmas.

He’d helped his old friend Austin Newton set his rustic, charming old inn aglow with colorful Christmas lights. He’d helped Julia, Austin’s wife, decorate the massive pine they’d chopped down at the tree forest. Everything was shimmering and beautiful.

Out here, as he chopped logs for the Yule season, the entire world around Brodie seemed to smell subtly and sweetly of pine. It was going to be an amazing Christmas—and wedding.

Brodie winced, Great. A large white rabbit for Christmas.’

Of course, a smart man might have left the police-band radio the hell alone, but he’d always believed forewarned was forearmed. He just hadn’t been expecting there to be anything to be forewarned about today!

Brodie was looking forward to the holiday this year with sweet anticipation—not that he didn’t enjoy holidays in general…and time away. This time was simply different. He was about to begin his stint at the FBI academy, with his position as a special agent assigned to the unique Krewe of Hunters division waiting for him. Doing this was not just a job, it was a passion, and a vocation. He was ready to dig in like crazy, but he’d just come off a case as a “consultant” that involved a theater owned by Krewe founder Adam Harrison, and that had been right after another bizarre situation down in the Keys—where he’d met Kody McCoy.

He smiled just thinking about her. She’d be here soon, and he could imagine how she would love the place. Kody loved history. Right before they had met, she’d opened the Haunts and History Museum in her own home town, Key West, but Kody was always enthused to visit places new to her; Austin’s tavern here had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson’s niece. The famous president and statesman had been the one to order the place built for her, and it was certain he had enjoyed the giant fireside in the parlor or bar area. Back then, pocket doors had opened and closed to change the place to a working home by day—and a travelers’ tavern by night.

He could imagine Kody’s eyes, green and gold specks of hazel catching the sun as she surveyed it all with wonder at the start. She was accustomed to sandals and shorts, but she’d have a knit cap over her dark golden hair. She’d smile at him and rush into his arms and tell him it was spectacular, perfect for Christmas, and perfect for their wedding.

They’d only been apart a day and a half, but he was so ready for her to arrive!

He was just so ready. The moment Kody had come into his life, he’d fallen quickly…and he’d known that he wanted to wake beside her every day of his life, grow old with her...

Not too soon, of course. Time was the most valuable commodity in life; he meant to use his.

He’d been in the military; he’d worked as a private investigator. Eventually—along with his brothers, Bryan and Bruce—he had decided he would take his special talents to the Krewe of Hunters. He’d realized quickly that it was never easy and that when you worked with situations that were more than strange, murders past and present, and a great deal of man’s continuing inhumanity to man, special occasions became precious—and necessary.

After being haunted by his parents, in the true sense of the word, he and Kody had decided they wanted a small wedding surrounded by close family and friends. Then sometime in January—before he dug into the intense study of his months at the academy—they would have a large reception at Adam Harrison’s theater, making his mother and father happy.

His mother had wanted one of her sons to get married in the theater. Then again, she had wanted her sons to be actors. Not that she had minded they had all gone into the military, then into some form of law enforcement, and now into the FBI. It was just the way Maeve was. She wanted everything in life—and death—to be dramatic.

Thankfully though, despite the fact she remained in death as she had been in life—a force of nature—with her every movement Maeve supported her sons in their endeavors. Still, she had tried to convince each of her three sons a wedding in a theater with a full orchestra would be more than fantastic.

A wedding in the theater just hadn’t been what he wanted. His brothers, Bryan and Bruce, had escaped the entire possibility of the occasion becoming pure insanity by eloping. Bryan had done the somewhat customary—and taken off to Vegas. Bruce had gotten a little more creative—he’d escaped to a small church in Georgia.

It wasn’t that they didn’t love their parents, the late actors Maeve and Hamish McFadden renowned for their charitable endeavors as well as their stellar thespian careers. It was just in life, they had been a bit overbearing.

In death they were... still a bit overbearing.

As the last of his parents’ three sons, he’d figured at least he and Kody could provide something resembling a traditional ceremony—to which his parents would naturally be invited since those in attendance would be Krewe members, or people who knew what made the Krewe members special.

He knew that he and Kody were rushing things a bit. They’d only been together a few months, but they knew what they wanted.

Their wedding could be followed by the more public celebration party down the road. One that could be for his brothers and their new wives as well.

Of course, the point of all this was the holiday was coming, an important holiday for him and Kody and their families, and he didn’t really want to be on the lookout for a ‘large white rabbit in a gas mask carrying a machete’.

He shook his head.

Crazy.

Kody would be here soon. She would arrive within an hour or so, five-feet-nine inches of beauty and enthusiasm soon to be his wife.

His brothers and their wives would be there the next day, and many more of their guests would arrive Friday night. Between family, friends, and the Krewe members who could make it, their wedding day would segue into Christmas Eve and then Christmas with everyone invited to stay on at Austin’s Christmas-beautiful inn.

Since the inn was in the middle of the wilderness that ranged around the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, it was equipped with several generators. Austin had been adding on and restoring what had once been an historic tavern and inn. It now offered twenty-plus bedrooms; plus, three of the old outbuildings—smokehouse, kitchen, and stables—were refurbished to add three special “suites” for guests, one of those being the “bridal” suite. 

The redo was why it made such a perfect spot for a wedding and holiday venue for their families and extended families. Austin wasn’t going to re-open to the public until mid-January. Austin knew the location could be considered remote. So, he and Brodie had carefully seen to it the house was fully stocked, and the generators were ready to be up and running should the need arise.

What could be more beautiful than a white wedding and a white Christmas with the ice-and-crystal-covered mountain looking over the windows of the inn’s charming parlor?

What indeed?

Crystal white wedding, crystal white Christmas—and now a large white rabbit!

His cell phone rang, and he answered it quickly. Kody, as he had expected.

“Almost there!” she told him. “The drive out of the D.C. area was torture. Well, you know the beltway better than I do. But I’m heading west out of Richmond now, so won’t be long! Everything okay?” she asked.

“Just cut the last of the wood; we should have plenty. Of course, we have electric heat, but you know, the fireplaces here are great, and there’s nothing like a fire.”

“Perfect!” Kody said, immediately reminding him of just one of the things he loved about Kody. Women were supposed to go insane about weddings. Not Kody. Her home was Key West. It was great with her they have a party in Key West somewhere along the line. Not necessary that they get married there. Their lives were too hectic, there was always something going on, and she was game for any venue. It was the end game that mattered, she’d told him. And they’d made their move to the D.C. area. It was fine to have a wedding in his home state of Virginia. Especially since he had a friend offering up such a fantastic place!

Made sense. He was part of the Krewe, consultant-turning-agent; and she had quickly found herself involved with the theater...

The Krewe was becoming family, and this was an easily accessible venue for so many of their friends even if they didn’t know who might be called away at any moment. They’d both agreed it was a great idea.

Now and then, it occurred to him Bryan’s route—escaping to Vegas—might have been far easier. But Brodie loved the holidays. “Christmas-Over” as they sometimes called the season since many of their friends were of different faiths, and while that title couldn’t encompass all, it allowed for celebration of whatever higher power a man or woman might embrace.

White wedding. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

He didn’t actually like chestnuts. That was okay. They still smelled great roasting over a fire.

They could honeymoon where it was warm. Where there was a beach. Ooh...where there were private little tiki huts on a beach...

A crystal white wedding was fine.

She’d been talking, he realized. He hadn’t been listening.

“Is everything all right?” she asked him.

“Yes, fine. I’m—I’m excited. My brothers are arriving tomorrow, then your mom, and well...God alone knows when my folks will show up…”

“They’ll show up,” Kody said softly. “Wish my dad could!”

Kody’s father had been a bona-fide rock star. Kody and her mother had become his life, but years of rough living had taken their toll, and she’d lost him several years ago. Her mother was remarried to a great guy, but Kody had to miss having her dad there. While a murdered friend had appeared to her, her father had never done so.

“I know. I’m sorry,” he said.

“Hey, I know him. He’d be here if he could. So, it’s cool to know that...he’s somewhere, and I like to think he can watch. At good times, of course. So again—all is well?”

There was no way he was going to tell her about the APB.

“The stockings are hung. Well, I did them, so it’s not so much with care, but you can adjust all the artistic stuff. Seriously, refrigerator stocked. Blankets galore. Electric bill paid. Austin assured me we were good. Generators, ready. All is really well, all except—”

He broke off as over the phone line, Kody let out a scream; and he heard all kinds of muffled noises.

He didn’t panic easily, but a chill far deeper than the fresh snow settled over him, and he cried out quickly in fear.

“Kody! Kody, are you all right?”

For a second, nothing.

“Kody, what the hell is it?”

Finally, she answered.

“Uh... um...a large white rabbit. In a gas mask. And, um, carrying a...machete.”

***

There were, of course, many thoughts and emotions that went through one’s head when coming across a large white rabbit in the middle of a country road.

First, large white rabbits standing on two feet didn’t exist.

Therefore, a man wearing a large white rabbit costume was standing in the middle of the street. Kody hadn’t been sure it was a rabbit—or rabbit costume—because the man was wearing something over the rabbit head—a gas mask.

Seeing such a sight could distract a driver. She might have hit him. But she was accustomed to traveling up and down the Florida Keys and always being on the lookout for Key deer, and therefore, she was always ready to stop. Key deer were precious.

So was human life.

But this...

She had been going at a decent clip for a country road, but she managed to stop, just skidding slightly off the road, though the veering sent the boxes and bags she had on the seats flying to the sides and back and tumbling down to the floor of the car.

She stared for a minute. The rabbit hadn’t moved.

She almost forgot Brodie was still on the phone.

“Kody!” she heard him calling her. She’d had the phone on speaker; but it hadn’t been connected to the Nissan’s audio, it had just been lying on the seat.

Now, it was on the floor under something.

“I’m all right! I’m all right!” she shouted loudly.

And that was good, because then she heard the three beeps that signaled a lost call. She never knew why cell phones worked the way they did—turning off or hanging up on someone just because they felt like it. But she had managed to say she was fine.

She’d also said she’d encountered a large white rabbit in a gas mask with a machete. He might think she was having hallucinations brought on by snow blindness.

Kody paused; watching the unmoving giant rabbit. He was, after all, carrying a machete.

He was also dead center in the road—not easy to get around.

She didn’t want to run over a rabbit, be it a real rabbit or a man in a rabbit costume. The latter seemed the worse, but...

Machete.

She’d been around the FBI agents belonging to the “Krewe of Hunters” division long enough to know she needed to be careful.

Crazy people wore crazy masks and crazy costumes.

They did crazy things.

Certainly, one had to be rather crazy to be wearing a giant rabbit costume—and a gas mask—even if it was winter and snow abounded in rural Virginia.

Then there was the machete. It wasn’t dripping blood, or anything. She’d met tourists down in her area of the Keys who panicked at the sight of a man with a machete—something that didn’t give her as much pause. Storms brought down trees, bracken, and brush. Flora, the Keys had in plenty. Machetes were great for chopping your way through downed foliage.

There was no downed foliage here. The landscape was beautifully white—just crystal! The new-fallen snow had melted a tad in the sunlight, and now everything looked as if it were part of a fairy-tale movie, almost as if the earth and trees were studded with diamonds.

That sunlight caught on the blade of the machete, too.  The blade glistened brilliantly.

She looked at the rabbit.

She was pretty sure the rabbit was looking at her.

It didn’t move.

Maybe she should beep?

What then? Would the rabbit move. And if it did...

Should I move on?

What the hell kind of question was that? Of course, she should move on!

Yes. Common sense said she should drive by. While he might mean nothing with the machete, he could be a cold-blooded and brutal killer waiting to turn his shimmering blade red with a victim’s blood.

But...

A gas-mask? Was this rabbit a survivalist expecting the arrival of a Christmas Armageddon?

Or more to the point—was this person in trouble, or mentally deranged and harmless and in danger of death out here, alone, in the wilderness?

The rabbit remained a good ten feet in front of her little Nissan SUV.

White rabbit—great. Too bad I don’t have my cat, Godzilla, with me—Cheshire Cat. They’d be halfway on the road to a Lewis G. Carroll novel!

This isn’t Alice in Wonderland.

It was Christmas time, holiday time!

Not that a holiday had stopped many an evil killer.

But…

Crazy, crazy, crazy...maybe I’m the one being crazy, but…

She rolled down her window. “Hey!” she called to the rabbit.

For a moment, she thought the rabbit still wouldn’t move or respond. But after a few beats, he did so.

“Hey!” the rabbit said.

Where to go from there?

“What are you doing?” Kody asked.

“Protecting the realm!” the rabbit said proudly.

“Ah-ha,” Kody murmured. The air was crisp and cool outside. It felt good to have the window down for a minute.

Soon enough the pleasant chill, with its scent of pine and fresh-fallen snow, would start to sink in and become bitter cold. While the sun was shining high, the temperature was still resting in the low twenties.

“Protecting the realm...from what?”

She could see the rabbit’s eyes; he was wearing his rabbit head and the gas mask. But she knew he was looking at her very seriously.

“The dragon slayers!” he said.

She lowered her head, wishing she was filled with nothing but common sense. Common sense decreed she get around the rabbit as quickly as possible and get to Brodie. Then Brodie could come back and try to find the rabbit.

But there was something about this rabbit...man. She just didn’t believe he meant to offer her any harm.

“Okay, I’m on my way to meet my fiancé,” she said. “His family has a great cabin out here a little bit closer to the mountains. Why don’t you come with me? We’ll find him, and you two can discuss the best way to watch out for the...dragon slayers.”

“No, no, you must stop! You can’t go forward!” he told her. “There are traps...the traps are set, just ahead in the road.”

“Yes, traps…” Kody said. For some reason she found herself thinking about the last class in improv Marnie Davante McFadden—her almost-sister-in-law—had given at the theater.

“We never oppose the last ensemble member!” Marnie had said, always a bright light in her eyes when she taught, never gainsaying anyone’s effort herself. “We never say, ‘No, that didn’t happen.’ Instead, follow the second rule of Improv, ‘Yes, and” No matter what someone says to you, your response is, Yes, and did you see, or did you hear, or...look!’ Thing is, we can use what is given, but also take it all in a different direction if we feel we have a great idea.”

Improv.

What else did one do with a giant white rabbit in a gas mask holding a machete in the middle of the road?  

“If we can get to Brodie, he’ll be able to take care of the traps,” Kody said.

The rabbit shook its head with purpose. “You don’t understand. These dragon slayers are here—out here in the woods. They think it’s a fine time to prey upon the unwary, and they’re looking for the great golden dragon. They feel they have to stop him. They have the road booby-trapped; if you try to drive, you’ll sink into one of their pits. You can’t go forward.”

“But you see, if we can just get to my fiancé, he’ll stop them right in their tracks. If you get in the car with me, we’ll go quickly. You’re a rabbit; we’ll hop over all the pitfalls on the way,” she said.

If a man in a rabbit suit and gas mask was capable of looking at someone as if they had surely lost their mind, that’s how the rabbit looked at her.

“Sorry, lady. You’re in a car, I’d be in a car, and cars don’t jump over pitfalls,” the rabbit assured her.

All right.

She’d learned ghosts could—and did—exist. Some too lost or too hurt to go on; and others, like Brodie’s mom and dad, just determined to hang around so they could make everything go right. If their sons were going to be law enforcement, they had to be advised when there was a problem that needed to be solved. And, of course, they could chip in when a ghost could be of assistance.

Yes, she’d dealt with all this, as well as her own ghosts and horrible situations, but...

She knew nothing about strange white rabbits who were surely off—and seemingly worried about her mental capabilities!

She needed to find her phone and get a call through to Brodie. She’d let him know she was all right, but he was certainly worried by now.

Maybe on his way...

Maybe not.

“Okay,” she told the rabbit. It might be best to placate a man in a rabbit suit and gas mask when he was carrying a machete. “I’ve just got to dig around and find my phone. I’ll call Brodie, and we’ll get him out here and see what he can do to help us both.”

The rabbit did not protest.

“Sure, Brodie, huh? Not a dragon slayer, right? I’ll see right through him, if he is.”

“Not a dragon slayer, I swear it. Brodie is one of the good guys.”

The rabbit nodded. “A protector of dragons!” he said.

She smiled weakly. “A protector of dragons,” she agreed.

She bent over and ducked low, dragging boxes and bags up onto the passenger’s seat and delving for her phone. She almost crawled onto the floor of the car to find her phone which had wedged under the front row passenger’s seat when she heard it.

An explosion...

A boom that was staggeringly loud and seemed to shake the earth.

She jerked back to a sitting position. Staring ahead, she could see flames shooting into the sky. The ground beneath her was trembling.

The rabbit was watching as well.

He turned to her.

“Best come with me. I’m afraid they’ve already taken another dragon.”

She stared at him, gaping.

If she had kept on driving...

She might well have been at the exact spot where the explosion had sounded, where the flames had begun to burst into the sky. 

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