At the kitchen faucet Aidan watched Kian turn on the water and wash her hands. It was like a ritual; he could see that.
Step one, adjust the water temperature. Step two, pump mounds of flowery scented soap into the right palm. Step three, rub hands briskly together, paying particular attention to the webbed spaces between fingers. Step four, work the suds up both arms. Kian hummed “Happy Birthday” as she worked. That was how nurses timed themselves, Aidan knew, but he was too fascinated by the popping soap bubbles on her freckled arms to see if she hummed it twice as the ritual demanded. Step five, Kian dipped her hands under the faucet again and; Step six, she lowered them, rinsing first one arm, then the other, then her wrists, her hands, and finally her fingers. Step seven, she shook the last droplets of water into the sink and; Step eight, she grabbed a paper towel to dry them.
Aidan had always been fascinated by rituals. Take SEAL training for instance. Step one, “Get wet and sandy,” his CO would shout at the trainees. With just the thought of it, Aidan again felt Step two, the pounding run. Step three, the leap into the cold Coronado surf, the icy chill as the breakers crashed over his body, and the sting of the sea water rushing up his nostrils. Step four, writhing around, grinding the sand and dirt into his fatigues, his forty pound pack, and his skin. It chafed. In order to avoid Step five, the drop-and-push-em-out command for arm punishing push-ups, the trainees had to perform Steps one through four with gusto.
Rituals were important for many reasons, Aidan mused. They calm the soul in many ways. They take one away from the mundane world to focus, to center, to enter a different frame of mind. Rituals help one enter a different consciousness and maybe even a different world.
Aidan brushed off his creased khakis, checked the tail of his crisp yellow polo shirt, and the perfect fit of his neat boat shoes just as the sound of thunder crashed outside. Dark clouds were rolling in. Then the rain started. Large drops plopped through the open window. He closed it against the mounting downpour.
Kian pointed to the knives sitting next to the dish drainer. “Can you peel potatoes?”
“Yes, I do peeling,” Aidan replied.
Kian took several potatoes from the refrigerator and put them in the chipped enamel sink before crossing to the cupboard over the stove where she reached up and removed an old iron pressure cooker. She deftly balanced the heavy cooker over her head without tipping the lid off, lowered it, and then placed it on one of the gas burners.
Aidan supposed he should wash his hands before attacking the potatoes. Internally he struggled with how he was going to tell her about her uncle’s murder. He knew it had been made to look like a ritual killing. How do you explain a thing like that?
Lightening caught his attention, then another clap of thunder. Outside torrents of rain swept through the trees, breaking off bits and pieces. He watched the leaves and twigs swirl around before finally being thrown to the ground.
“Earth to Mister FBI….”
“I’ve answered your questions, now its time to answer mine. Start with ‘Willing Sacrifice.’ What is that?”
Relieved to be able to start with a simpler topic, Aidan picked up the first potato, washed it off and began to peel. “When we think of sacrifices, we usually think of captives being taken for slaughter. And that did happen, especially in more violent cultures. But there is another tradition in which sacrifices are willing. It goes back so far, we probably don’t know its origin. Think of Jesus sacrificed on the cross, Osiris sacrificed at the hands of his brother Seth, even the Sumerian Tammuz. These were all ritual sacrifices, ritual killings. If done with intent, the sacrifice carries great energy and sanctifies and protects the land. It is followed by a rebirth of the King in the form of the new King, rebirth of the land and society, and a rebirth of hope for the people.”
“So you are telling me the King was willing to be sacrificed. I know about sacrifices, but it’s the ‘willing’ part that haunts me.”
“According to the old ways, yes, the sacrifice had to be a willing one. In fact, there is a long tradition in Britain. Katherine Kurtz talks about it in her book, Lammas Night. There is William Rufus in 1100 AD. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the hands of Reginald FitzUrse in 1170.”
“So you don’t have to be a King then?”
“No. Many times there is a substitute when the King cannot be spared or is unwilling.”
“Sure, lots. King John was poisoned in 1216. Then there was William Wallace. As the rightful King of Scotland, he was a willing sacrifice for the land. There was also George Plantagenet. He was the brother of King Edward IV. That was in the late 1400s.”
Aidan scrubbed another potato.
“So it doesn’t happen anymore, right?”
“That’s a complicated question. It may have happened as recently as World War II. William, Duke of Clarence, the younger brother of the King, died in a plane crash. Many say it was a Willing Sacrifice. Remember those were desperate times. England had suffered bombing after bombing. Little was left. The German invasion was about to begin. Everyone was sure of that. So everyone involved in the magical arts– Qabalists, witches, occultists, ritual magicians–they all gathered in their respective groups or covens and performed rituals that they believed would repel the Germans. Sir Francis Drake had done something similar four centuries earlier when he repelled the Spanish. So there was precedent in history for such an action.”
“Wait a minute!” She put down her carrot and turned to stare wide-eyed at Aidan. “Are you saying these rituals worked?”
“That is another tough question. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t,” he offered, not wanting to commit himself. “We do know the Spanish Armada was destroyed by a huge storm. And, Hitler got distracted and never invaded England.”
Kian turned back to scalping the carrot. “Sounds like coincidence to me. A lot of mumbo-jumbo. You don’t believe in this stuff, do you?”
“A lot of people believe it and that belief alone makes it worth considering. That’s my job, Kian, to investigate crimes where people act out on their occult beliefs.” Over the past few years he’d had enough spiritual experience to believe certain types of rituals were magical, even if Hollywood versions were truly bizarre. But Kian needed to see and decide that for herself, so he stayed silent.
Kian was silent for a few moments, and then took a deep breath. She picked up her peeled carrots and crossed over to the sink. “Uncle Jacob was strangled, his throat was cut and his face was in a bowl of water. Could it have been a Willing Sacrifice?”
Jacob’s face was beside the bowl, not in it. That was confirmed by the responding officer. So, why, Aidan wondered, had Kian said “in?” Did she know drowning was a part of the ritual? Jacob had not been willing. Was she trying to lead him down that path, make him believe it was willing? He was trained FBI. He had to consider these things, so he studied her, taking in her body language, looking for any sign that might betray her. Nothing caught him as suspicious. The next step was to keep her talking and watch her reaction.
“Kian, do you think it was willing?”
She hesitated at that question.
Still wondering why she asked about willing sacrifices, Aidan decided it was finally time to tell her the truth and see how she reacted. “The preliminary autopsy showed that his hands were bound, but the duct tape was removed after he died. You don’t need to tie someone who is willing.”
“Oh my God!” Kian trembled. Unable to continue, she choked and let out a sob as she broke down in tears and buried her face in her hands.
Aidan pulled her into his arms. He felt helpless in the face of her overwhelming grief and what he said was as much for himself as for her. “Listen to me. The death was instant. Whoever used the garrote knew what he was doing. Jacob’s neck broke instantly. I’m guessing he didn’t know they meant to kill him or he would have struggled. Kian, he did not feel or know anything after the garrote.” Kian looked up at Aidan, tears streaming down her face.
“The autopsy report confirms it, Kian. I swear.”
More lightening flashed, followed by more thunder, a low distant rumble this time. One that did not want to stop.
Kian buried herself into Aidan’s chest. Tears stained his shirt, but still she could not stop crying.
“I am sorry, Kian. I wish there had been another way to tell you.” Aidan wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by that. As he thought about it, it sounded trite. He had pushed her too far in testing her for her reaction. Now there was nothing he could say or do but just be there with her and let her sob.
Once Kian regained her composure, she slipped out of Aidan’s arms. Walking over to the stove, she found it comforting to focus on cooking even while all of this willing sacrifice stuff swirled around in her mind. She layered the cubed beef, carrots, and quartered onions over the potatoes in the pressure cooker. It was one her mother had used, not a modern digital one all pre-programmed for you. This one heated on the stove. It was faster and, if you knew what you were doing, the food came out perfectly, not over or underdone.
“Turn around,” she said to Aidan.
“This is an old family recipe and it’s secret. So turn around and don’t look.”
Kian took several bottles from the spice shelf. She remembered her mother’s instructions perfectly. “Marjoram goes in first, then some thyme. Add a little parsley, sprinkle on some salt…not too much, dear.” Kian took a half-used bottle of red wine from the refrigerator and put some in the pot along with bouillon cubes and a little water. She secured the lid on the cooker, turned on the flame and announced, “Now you can turn around.”
Feeling stronger, Kian decided she could handle more information. “Why use the garrote on him and why the bowl of water? I mean, why not just use a gun? Why not something simpler? You said one of the Kings was poisoned.”
“Well, I think his murder was made to look like a ritual sacrifice to throw us off. It is just like something called ‘the three-fold death.'”
“Three-fold death. Okay, now you have really lost me.”
“It’s described in a book called Life and Death of a Druid Prince. Someone found a body in a peat bog. You know that peat preserves bodies, right?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“It tans the skin almost like leather. Well, they found this preserved body in a peat bog and initially everyone thought he was some poor victim of an ancient highway robbery or something. But as the scientists looked closer, they found evidence of a ritual meal in his stomach, some kind of burnt cakes. There were other clues, too, like the way he died, that led them to believe it was a ritual sacrifice.”
Kian could feel Aidan watching her as he continued, “This man had been strangled, drowned, and had his throat cut—hence a three-fold death.” Kian did not react. She was numb as she stared at the floor. “The killer or killers may have read the book and copied the means of death to send us looking in the wrong direction.”
“Or they may have sacrificed him. Don’t lie to me Aidan, was this a sacrifice?”
“Honestly, Kian, I don’t know.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. It was time, Kian decided, to come clean and tell Aidan about that dream.
Willing Sacrifice is an ancient concept, mostly attributed to the Druids. The death described is taken from Life and Death of a Druid Prince: How the discovery of Lindow Man revealed the secrets of a lost civilization by Anne Ross and Don Robins. Their description of the archeological research done on a bog-body found in the English midlands is both vivid and compelling.
Aidan’s description of the history of Willing Sacrifice came originally from Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz. I verified this with a British occultist now in her 80s who well remembers her elders participating in a night of ritual to prevent Nazi forces from invading England.