The Witches’ Bane
by Edward Ahern
Gordon Lormor is a defrocked priest and con man. And something more. He walks a precarious path between light and dark magic. When a former lover calls him, pleading that he help free her from a coven, Gordon leaves his business behind and travels to upstate Vermont.
Death arrives before he does, and Gordon is thrown into a worsening spiral of assaults and murders and the threat of an infant sacrifice. He is joined by his assistant, AJ, and helped by a Catholic cardinal in chipping away at the wall around the witches’ conspiracy. He soon realizes he is teetering ever closer to his own spiritual and physical death.
Chapter 1: Playing the Mark
Lyle Harrington was standing inside the store entry, reading a framed certificate. Gordon held out his hand, and Harrington nested his pudgy fingers uneasily against Gordon’s calluses.
Harrington pointed to the ornate document. “So you’re a defrocked priest?”
Gordon pushed a smile across his face. “Yes. The certificate to the right is equally important. It’s my release from celibacy.”
Harrington smirked. “And that lets you have sex?”
“It legitimized it. I left the priesthood because I was a closet monogamist.”
“I was in a relationship with a woman.”
“From lechery to occultery?”
Gordon twisted his lips into another smile, this time letting Harrington see the effort involved. “Something like. I decided to put my training to an alternative use.”
“And opened up this shop.”
Gordon gestured at the rows of shelving spreading out from the entryway into the depths of the store. “Welcome to ‘Profane Possibilities’. The section we’re standing in contains the animal, vegetable, and mineral — snakeroot, mandrake, monkey paw, newt eyes, Argentium... all the fixings for a spell or a potion.”
“Why have it situated in the front? It’s not attractive.”
“The aromas hit the customers on entering and produce a mild euphoria. Makes for motivated buyers. The book and manuscript section is to the left. Not the original texts, of course; they’re locked away.”
“Not many books.”
“These days most of the purported mystical texts can be read for free on the Internet. There’s no real profit in the standard texts on magic. The staff sitting at the computer terminals are providing our search and mentoring service, for which we charge a reasonable fee.”
“Does the advice help them?”
“Not as often as you’d think. Most of our callers have the same chances of becoming an adept as their dog does. A magus develops through internal focus, not by leafing through bogus grimoires. Once we explain the trudge required, most of our clients decide to take up yoga.”
“And on the right?”
“Instruments, clothing, incense, candles, altar cloths — everything for the well equipped wizard or Wiccan.”
“Do you have corpse-fat candles?”
Harrington scowled, his jowls sagging even further. “You poke fun at the dark arts?”
Gordon shrugged. He’d forgotten how often aspirants to evil were pompous. The two men walked to the rear of the store. They were a mismatched pair. Harrington was well under six feet tall and Gordon three inches over it. Harrington moved with the bandy-legged waddle of an obese man trying to keep his fattened thighs from squeezing into each other and his testicles.
They went through a locked door at the base of a staircase, then another locked door at its top. The starkly bare room held only a table and two chairs. A photo album and a velvet-wrapped parcel lay on the table, and a cardboard box rested on the floor next to a table leg.
Harrington plopped into the nearest chair and began discreetly moving his hands and fingers. Sleazy little roach, Gordon thought, he’s trying to put a controlling spell on me. Gordon made his own hand gestures obvious.
Harrington realized his try had failed and spoke again. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of security.”
Gordon had quit bothering to smile. “Oh, we have the usual sensors and alarms, and retired cops who work as guards. But the best deterrent is the cheapest. Did you notice the hieroglyphs painted on the inside walls?
“I did. Ugly. They look like druggie graffiti.”
“They’re imprecations, warning that thieves will be accursed. The English translations are printed under the glyphs.”
“Didn’t work for the pharaohs’ tombs. Why would it work for you?”
“I had a few shoplifters busted on exiting the store and discretely infected them with a skin condition. Once their suffering set in, I offered to lift the curse in return for their broadcasting the story of their punishment. The ‘magic’ ointment they received worked wonders on their suppurating rash.”
“So nothing magical about it?”
“Didn’t matter, did it? Here’s what you asked us to get.”
Gordon unfolded the velvet and a musty odor roiled out. “It’s remarkably well preserved, given that it dates from the 1500’s. The robe Dr. Dee wore while he reputedly communicated with angels, with the cabalistic symbols largely intact. The ceremonial robe of one of England’s greatest sorcerer scientists. Please, open the photo album.”
Harrington had reached out to grasp the robe but pulled his hand back and flipped open the album. Picture after close-up picture, each date and time stamped, showed Dee’s gravesite, the removal of the tombstone, the opening of the casket, Dee’s clothed skeleton inside the casket, and close ups of the robe and its removal.
While Harrington turned the pages, Gordon glanced down at the ring on his right hand. “Bit gaudy isn’t it, for a man?”
“It’s a ruby. The stone is reputed to pale in the presence of poison, and darken when danger approaches. It was presented to me by a man I revered, so I always wear it.”
Gordon shrugged. “Back to business. We’ve provided the bones at no extra fee, in case you’d like to check them for age and DNA type.”
“I’ll do just that. You’re a tricky bastard; how do I know this isn’t a scam like those painted runes?”
“Mirabile dictu, you’ll find that the silk robe and the bones age-date correctly. The cabalistic symbols include details not found in the usual cookbooks for magic. And if you have the presence, you’ll sense the robe’s residual power. Touch it, please, and see what you think.”
Harrington hesitantly reached out and laid his hand on the robe. The hand trembled. He gently unfolded the robe onto the table top, then pulled a notepad from his suit jacket and began comparing the symbols on the robe with his notes. After fifteen minutes he shut the notepad and put it away.
“Humpf. I’ll pay you after I’ve had it tested.”
“No, you’ll pay me as agreed, $95,000 now and $95,000 in two weeks, after your tests are run. If you’re not convinced, return the robe and bones — we’ve marked them with invisible ink — and I’ll return the money. If you don’t return the robe or pay the second $95,000, I send out my collection agent. That’s unpleasant.”
Harrington glared at Gordon briefly, then reached into his jacket and pulled out a pre-written check. “By God, this had better be real or I’ll make some unpleasant arrangements of my own.”
“I doubt that God is involved in this transaction. The bones are in the cardboard box on the floor. I thought you might not trust us to carry the material out for you, so there’s a beach bag hanging on the wall behind you. Apologies for its garish nature.”
Harrington lumbered over and grabbed the bag, reading its slogan aloud as he came back to the table. “‘Life’s a Beach.’ It better not be.”
Gordon walked Harrington out to his chauffeured car, their breath frosting as they walked through the cold. Once Harrington had pulled out of the lot, Gordon went back in and up a second flight of stairs to his office.
“Here’s the check, cash it quick.” He dropped it onto AJ’s desk.
AJ ran a hand through her buzz cut and snorted. “How’d he get to be so rich when he’s so damned stupid?”
Gordon smiled at her, this time genuinely. AJ had been his major-domo for several years. She wore a heavy T-shirt that exposed deep black tattoos on her neck and arms. The shirt had front and back pictures of a motorcycle-riding dominatrix.
“Do you know why I’m so fond of you, AJ?”
“Because if I ever did wear a skirt, you wouldn’t bother to look up under it?”
“Something like that.”
She grinned back. “Distribute it as usual?”
“Almost. Tell Nathan he did a great job on the robe. Harrington picked up on the symbols. That and the long-dead dust Nathan uses are what pushed Harrington over the edge. Give him an extra two percent, from my share.”
“Got it. You done for the day?”
“Yeah. On the way out, I’ll check the call center and make sure we’re properly comforting the mystically forlorn.”
As he was walking down the stairs, Judy called on his private number.
Copyright © 2018 by Edward Ahern