This Rough Magick

“Gideon tells me your private practice is going well.” Phoenix Trinidad’s smile was warm, her cinnamon cheeks glowing.

Ileana Tassiopulos felt a sudden warmth in her own cheeks. A large, retired army cop with medium brown skin, salt and pepper curls, and an easy manner that inspired confidence, Gideon Rimes had been hired a few years ago to locate a missing colleague of Ileana’s. She had found herself drawn to the detective, enthusiastically offering whatever help she could. After safely returning the colleague to her family and friends, Rimes brought Phoenix to her homecoming celebration. Seeing Rimes and Phoenix arm-in-arm, Ileana had choked back her fantasies of the detective. However long it had been since she’d been in a relationship, she could never do to another woman what her ex-fiancé’s secret girlfriend had done to her. “I’ve been here less than a year but I have a solid caseload,” Ileana simply replied.

Phoenix grinned. “And a five-star restaurant on the first floor when you’re working late. We’ve eaten at Galahad’s Table a couple times this year.”

Fingering the lapel of her own jacket, Ileana said, “So how is Gideon?”

“Fine. He’s in Puerto Rico, doing some work for my aunt and uncle.”

“Lucky him, away from the November chill.” Ileana flipped a switch under her desk. “From this point on, I’m recording what takes place here today and will record any future sessions involving Bonnie Callendar, who was arrested one week ago, or her attorney, Phoenix Trinidad, who is with me now.” She recited her own name and credentials, as well as her office address and the date. “Any recordings are electronic medical records, for my use alone, and are under a seal of confidentiality. Ms. Trinidad, do you have any objection to my recording our talk and my subsequent session with your client?”

“None,” Phoenix said.

“In your call you said the court determined Bonnie Callendar is competent to stand trial and appointed you to represent her.”

“I was supposed to be a placeholder, in the courthouse when she was arraigned. My senior partner suggested I not seek to withdraw. He told me everybody’s entitled to a defense. And some people…” She sighed. “What do you know of her case?”

“Only what I read in the paper and saw on television. And what you’ve already told me. She’s charged with arson and murder. I expect you’re here for an opinion on the viability of an insanity defense and maybe to recruit an expert witness.”

“Viability isn’t the issue,” Phoenix said. “She burned down the house next door, with two sleeping people inside. After several conversations with her, I am concerned she can’t assist me on her own behalf, which is required if she is to stand trial. A second professional opinion will help me form a defense. Then I may need an expert witness but I’m hoping to avoid trial altogether, with a plea or a reconsideration of her competence.” Phoenix hesitated. “I can’t say more at the moment without risking trying to influence you. Ms. Callendar is outside, under guard.”

“Then let’s get started.”

Phoenix stood and stepped into the outer office, then returned with a shackled, slightly overweight woman in an orange Erie County Holding Center jumpsuit. Bonnie Callendar had short brown hair with ample threads of gray and wore black-framed glasses on her freckled, upturned nose. The uniformed guard behind her urged her forward and into the armchair across from Ileana. He checked but did not remove the wrist and ankle restraints. Once Phoenix made introductions and explained to Bonnie her session was being recorded, the guard said, in a soft baritone, “I’ll be right outside the door.” Then he left, followed by the lawyer.

In the silence that followed the door’s closing, Bonnie looked about the office Ileana had taken great care to make neutral. A desktop that held only a calendar, a phone, a closed laptop, a pad and pen, and a tissue box. Pale yellow walls. Perpendicular recliners across the room. Large windows with curtains wide open. Books, but not enough crammed together on shelves to create an impassable wall. Full spectrum lighting. Potted plants. A few paintings.

“I like your office, Dr. Tassiopulos,” Bonnie said finally. Her voice was soft and sounded Robin’s egg brittle. “It feels very peaceful here.”

“I’m glad,” Ileana said. “I want you to feel comfortable.”

“And you’re very pretty, Dr. Tassiopulos. Am I saying it right? Is it Greek?”

“It is Greek, and thank you for your kind words. But please call me Ileana. May I call you Bonnie?”

“Yes…Ileana.” She lowered her eyes. “Miss Trinidad says you’re going to give me some tests. I’m not too good on tests.”

“Nothing we do here will be like school, and this is only our first meeting. Before we get to why you’re here, tell me a little about yourself.” Ileana glanced down at the handwritten notes she had made during Phoenix’s phone call. “From what I’ve heard, you sound like a very busy person. You own a house and have a garden and take the bus to work but ride your bike when weather permits.”

“Wow. You already know so much about me.” Bonnie leaned forward a bit, a visible tension behind her faint smile. “There’s also choir practice, teaching Sunday school, Saturday mornings working in the food pantry. Twice a month I visit shut-ins.”

And you killed two people, Ileana thought. Then she said, “That’s a lot. What do you do for yourself?”

“For myself?”

“Yes. What do you do to make Bonnie happy?”

The woman sat back and raised her eyes as if in thought. “I’m happy in my garden, if I can make things grow. I was happy at work because most days the Toy Castle is crawling with kids and I just love how innocent they are. But I’ll probably never go back there.”

Tenuous maybe but she does seem to have a grasp of reality, Ileana thought.

“I’m happy when I’m singing for the Lord,” Bonnie continued, “and when I’m helping people out. I try to be joyful in everything I do.”

Though she didn’t immediately understand why, Bonnie’s widening smile made Ileana shift in her seat. “Do you ever just put your feet up and rest?”

Bonnie shrugged. “I like to soak them. I’ve got this electric thingie that heats the water and massages the bottoms of my feet. It feels so good!”

“I bet it does.” Beginning to think the childlike demeanor was not an act, that the tension behind it might be a manifestation of fear, Ileana offered a smile of her own she hoped was reassuring. “So what do you do when you slow down enough to soak your feet? Do you watch TV?”

“A little.” The smile contracted into a sheepish grin. “Maybe more than a little.”

Ileana paused but Bonnie made no attempt to clarify what she’d said. “What do you watch?”

“The Christian Network. Cooking shows. Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! I used to watch Family Feud but I don’t care much for it anymore with the new host. Sometimes I watch documentaries, about ancient times and the Holy Land and different religions. Also space aliens or American history.” Her face brightened. “Once in a while I watch old movies, like I did with Mama. She used to make the best popcorn. I burn stovetop popcorn so I have to use the microwave kind.”

Ileana waited a few seconds before continuing. “Do you read the newspaper or watch any of the news shows? ABC? CNN? Fox?”

Bonnie shook her head, hard. “I look at the newspaper, especially on Sunday, ‘cause I clip coupons. I try not to watch TV news. It’s mostly bad. I prefer good news.”

“What do you read besides the newspaper?”

“My Bible.” Something about her tone seemed to chide Ileana for not knowing the Bible was on her reading list. “I look at magazines too, like women’s magazines with recipes and things to make the house nice.”

“Cooking shows and recipes in magazines. Do you enjoy cooking?

Bonnie’s chains rattled as she clasped her hands together. “Oh, I love to cook.” Excitement pushed her volume higher. “Do you like to cook, Dr. Tassiopulos?”

“Ileana.” She paused and for a moment felt lost in thought. “I used to cook a lot, before I got so busy with school and then work.” Before Logan left, she thought, chuckling bitterly. “Bonnie, I have way too many take-out meals but a few times a year I like to have a dinner party for my friends. Do you ever do that? Try a recipe you found and invite your friends over to share it?”

Bonnie gazed off to one side. “I take homemade cookies or salads from my garden to potlucks at church.”

“That’s very nice, but do you have friends who come to your house to eat, or even to have coffee?”

“I don’t drink coffee.”

Evasion, Ileana thought, meant she must be poking something worth discussing. “Do you have friends who visit? For herbal tea or juice or just to talk?”

“I have lots of friends. Lots, especially at my church.”

“Do you ever see any of them at your house?”

Bonnie was quiet for several seconds. When she spoke her volume was low again. “Pastor and Mrs. Ruckles came by to pray with me when Mama died. And a lot of my church family brought me casseroles and baked goods.”

“Your mother passed away about five years ago?”


“I’m so sorry. I know from personal experience losing a mother is about the hardest thing we can face.” She took a long breath. “Have any of your friends from church come to your house since then?”

Bonnie bit her lip and shrugged again. “Once or twice when I was sick, but we prefer to see each other in His house.” The second half of the sentence was rushed, as if speed were supposed to convince the listener of something.

“Whose house?”

“God’s house,” Bonnie said, an of course lingering unsaid in the air as she closed her eyes. “Matthew 18:20 states, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ We do most of our socializing at church because it’s an invitation to God, to the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and heal them from the inside out.”

Ileana said nothing until Bonnie opened her eyes again. “Do you have friends outside your church? Maybe at work. Who are your closest friends there?”

“Lucille, maybe, and Frannie.”

“Do they ever visit you at home, or do you ever go to their homes?”


“What about lunch? Do you ever go out to lunch with them?”

“I bring my lunch. It’s cheaper.”

“Do they ever invite you to go out with them after work?”

“They do.”

“Do you go?”

“No, ma’am. They like to go to places that serve…liquor.”

“Because a restaurant serves it doesn’t mean you have to drink it.”

“Since I got saved I can’t be around it.”

Ileana hesitated, wondering if Bonnie Callendar was in recovery from alcohol abuse or if someone in her family had been an alcoholic. “Do you do anything else with Lucille and Frannie besides work in the same store?”

“Not really. You see, Lucille is…Catholic, and Frannie’s Jewish.”

Not entirely surprised by the drop in the woman’s voice, Ileana folded her hands atop her desk. “Tell me about your church, Bonnie. What denomination is it?


“No, I mean Baptist or Methodist or United Church of Christ, a denomination like that.”

“Just Christian. All those other names don’t mean a thing to God.”

A wise idea but somehow disturbing, Ileana thought.

“The Fellowship is just Christians who believe and practice the Revealed Word of God,” Bonnie continued. “You’re Christian, right?”

“I was raised in the Greek Orthodox church, the one on Delaware. But my faith isn’t the issue. I need to know more about you. How long have you belonged to the Fellowship?”

“Since I was ten. Mama was brought up Lutheran but joined the Fellowship after my daddy got killed at work. Pastor Meacham was in charge then and Pastor Ruckles was his assistant.”

“A new church must have been a comfort to you both after such a loss.”

“Yes, ma’am, it was. I had never seen Mama so happy, so at peace. I mean, part of it had to be that Daddy wasn’t there drinking on weekends and hitting her when he took a notion.”

Ah, Ileana thought, leaning back. “Did your father hit your mother regularly?”

“No, only when she yelled at him about his drinking. She learned that if she left him alone, he’d leave her alone.” A smile flickered across her face and was gone.

“Did your father ever hit you?”

“Nothing more than a couple spankings when I did something wrong and…Now don’t get the wrong idea. Daddy was a quiet man and stern, but he didn’t go around beating on everybody in the house and kicking the dog, when we had one.” Bonnie punctuated her assertion with a single sharp nod. “Mama and Daddy loved each other and loved me. When he died, she sank about as low as a woman can go. She cried every day for months and never stopped saying how much she missed him. I cried too. It was tough for both of us. Real tough. Then one of Mama’s friends took us to Pastor Meacham and the Fellowship.”

“And there you both found peace.”

“We found more than peace. We found hope. Pastor told us both we’d see Daddy again—in a state of grace, different and loving, not the hard man we remembered. All we had to do was accept Christ and follow the Word. I know Mama’s there with him now, and one day I’ll be there too. I’ll lay down my burden and there’ll be no more pain or sorrow.”

There had been no mention of Bonnie being under suicide watch but Ileana still asked, “Are you eager to reach your state of grace soon?”

“Oh, no, ma’am.” She shook her head, vigorously. “That’s not my decision. That’s up to the Lord.”

“Did anyone else ever come to your house? Like your next door neighbor, Sunita?”


“Yes, Sunny. Tell me about her.”

Bonnie’s eyes momentarily widened, looked wistful. “Not much to tell, except she was real pretty, about the prettiest woman I ever saw. A tiny thing with long black hair down to her waist. Real pale, with tattoos on her arms and big green eyes and lips so red you’d think she was wearing lipstick when she wasn’t.”

“Did Sunny ever visit you at home?”

“Only on my porch or in the yard. She’d come over and we’d talk about gardening. She had a garden, a big garden, but the flowers and herbs she grew were strange, like nothing I ever saw. Once in a while she came with her boyfriend Jordan. One time they brought me brownies.” Bonnie laughed. “She said they were edible. I said, ‘Of course brownies are edible.’ We sat on the steps and I ate two and soon got real sleepy.”

Ileana bit back a smile. “Did you ever invite her into your house?”

No.” Bonnie shifted in her seat, her chains rattling a couple seconds. 

“Why not? It sounds like she was nice to you.”

“She was very nice. But I knew from the start there was something wrong with her.”

“What was wrong?”

“Well, tattoos. Signs and symbols I didn’t know. And the friends she had over.”

“What about them?”

“Women in long dresses and different colored shawls. Big earrings, black nail polish, even rings in their noses.” Bonnie’s face was scrunched in evident disgust. “Some of the men had hair long as the women. A lot of them had tattoos. They’d sit in the yard late at night, smoking and laughing while candles burned on the patio table.”

“What makes any of that wrong?”

Bonnie continued as if she hadn’t heard the question. “And the things they did when nobody was there. Sunny and Jordan.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Sometimes I would go upstairs to Mama’s room to sit in her rocker. Sunny’s house had this big window with no curtains, so I could look right down into her living room. I would see them on a rug, naked, with flowers everywhere.” She shuddered. “The things they did as I rocked in that chair!”

“So you didn’t look away.” Ileana took a deep breath. “Would you like to talk about what they did?”

“No! It’s…First Corinthians says your body is not yours but a temple of the Holy Spirit. What I saw wouldn’t have been holy even if they were married.”

“Did you see them just once or more than once?”

“More than once, to my everlasting shame.” She lowered her eyes. “But I did try to get them to go to church with me. I thought if I could get them inside the house of the Lord…but they laughed at me.” Her face tightened into a mask of anguish. “They laughed, though Pastor Ruckles says I shouldn’t talk about any of this.”

Ileana pressed ahead. “Bonnie, do you understand why you’re here today?”

“You’re trying to figure out if I’m crazy. Well, I’m not crazy.”

“Do you understand why that’s even a question?”

“Because I soaked Sunny’s front porch and back deck with gasoline and lit a match. I burned the house down with Sunny and Jordan inside. Asleep.”

“Do you understand the charges that have been filed against you? Arson and murder?”

“Yes, Ileana, I do.”

“Then you know if you go to trial you may spend the rest of your life in prison.”

“That’s what Miss Trinidad says. She’s nice for a colored lady. But Pastor Ruckles is trying to find me a good Christian lawyer to handle my case the right way so I’ll put my faith in God, like Joan of Arc before the Catholic Church turned bad.”

Ileana’s breath caught. Bonnie couldn’t even see the irony of Joan of Arc’s having been burned at the stake. “The fire you set killed two people. Isn’t murder a sin?”

“Of course it is, but I had to do it. I had no choice.”

“I don’t understand.”

“She decorated the front of her house for Halloween!” Bonnie’s face was a mixture of exasperation and the need to explain. “Not with pumpkins or ghosts, which would’ve been bad enough for Satan’s holiday. Not even with Frankensteins or movie monsters. She had flowers and candles and wreaths with big stars in the middle. I knew about those stars because I saw a documentary a couple weeks earlier about a pagan religion that uses stars called pentacles and worships goddesses.”

“You mean Wicca? Wiccans?”

Bonnie’s face seemed to say, Finally! “Yes! That was it. Witches. Sunny and Jordan were witches, and that’s why I had to do what I did. It wasn’t murder. The Book of Exodus, the same book that says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ also says, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ How can they find me guilty for the joy I felt following the will of God?”



Edgar Award-winning playwright, novelist, and essayist Gary Earl Ross is a retired University at Buffalo professor. His staged plays include The Scavenger’s Daughter, The Mark of Cain, The Guns of Christmas, The Trial of Trayvon Martin, and Matter of Intent. His books include the story collections Wheel of Desire, Shimmerville, and Beneath the Ice, the novel Blackbird Rising and the Nickel City mysteries with PI Gideon Rimes. Ross lives in Buffalo, called the Nickel City after the buffalo head nickel. 


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, July 3, 2023 - 20:00