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 2: Judy Calls
“Hello, Gordon? It’s Judy.”
He didn’t need to be told; the sound of her voice was imprinted in him. “Hello, Judy. Considering what you said to me at the end, I’m guessing this isn’t a try for reconciliation.”
“No, you’re still anathema. But I’m hoping to hold you to what you promised. I’m in trouble, Gordie, bad-assed trouble.”
“Money? The law? A boyfriend? What?”
“I went further down the path you told me to stay off of. Partly curiosity, partly because you tried to steer me away from it. I’m being forced to participate in something despicable.”
Gordon stayed silent. There was no point in reminding Judy that he’d told her so. Judy understood his silence. “I know, Gordie, I know.”
Sense memories welled up in him — the sandalwood smell of her hair and skin, the lightness of her touch. “What do you need, Judy?”
“I’m afraid to get into it over the phone. I need you to come to Deep Eddy, Vermont and help me try and get out of this.”
“Near St. Johnsbury.”
“That’s six or seven hours away, and I’m locked in until tomorrow. Look, just cut and run. I’ll send you some money if you need it. Go to New York City and I’ll meet you there.”
“I can’t leave. You know the kind of oaths I had to take. I really didn’t want to call you, Gordie, but nobody else can help me.” Emotion made her voice shrill.
Gordon thought for a second. The options were equally painful, but if he went, he’d see her again. “All right, I can leave tomorrow. We should be able to get together for dinner up there.”
“There’s no motel or inn. You can stay at my place. It’s a pond-side cottage. Gordie... thank you. I was afraid to hope that you’d do this for me.”
“How badly are you sunk?”
“I’m damned, Gordie, unless you can figure a way out.”
Gordon asked for directions, hung up, and walked back up the stairs. “AJ, don’t ask, but I’ve got to take off tomorrow. I’ll probably be gone a few days.”
“There’s going to be some annoyed clients. They’re not used to being dicked around.”
“Tell them I’m developing an unusually potent spell. That’ll keep them curious until I get back.”
“They’ll still be pissed. Those wand-wavers have no sense of humor.” AJ looked at Gordon more closely. “You only get that tone over a woman. Don’t do anything stupid, and make sure you call me every day.”
“Are you taking the cane?”
* * *
Gordon drove across town for dinner with a prospect, then to his apartment. He was between girlfriends, and the rooms had that echo-empty feeling. He packed for a three-day trip, then pulled a .38 special out of his sock drawer and tossed it onto the bed next to his bag. Twenty minutes later he grabbed the gun again and stuck it back in the drawer; bringing a gun to a meeting with an ex-girlfriend was hinky. The gun had provenance — it had once belonged to a Secret Service agent who’d never had to fire it outside a range — and Gordon faintly hoped that the revolver had protective powers.
The next morning, Gordon was almost out the door when he stopped, bag in hand. He’d heard a faint inner alarm bell, a premonition, and he knew to trust it. Gordon double-stepped back upstairs, took out the .38 and a box of hollow-point rounds, and stuck them into his bag. After all, he argued to himself, she’s not going to change her opinion of me regardless of what I pack, and I do want to get out of this intact.
The Xterra had been stabled for two weeks, but it fired up immediately. It was his version of the Batmobile: equipped and rigged for every contingency he could think of. It had high and low four-wheel gearing, a big engine, outsized off-road tires, heavy-duty shocks, extra lights, skid plates, winch, and collision-resistant bumpers. He could prowl through snow-clogged logging trails with confidence, and it was just long enough for him to sleep in the back. It didn’t much like highways though; it binge-drank gas, and the off-road tires had to be replaced every 30,000 miles.
Last week’s snow lay in dirty mounds alongside the Connecticut and Massachusetts highways. When he launched, he left the sound system off and replayed Judy memories. She’d been the exception to his rule: the one woman he’d allowed into his life who practiced magic.
Her features had gamin-like irregularities that kept her from modeling, but made her addictively cute. Her package was trim, with dancer-fluid gestures and thighs that back-curved sweetly into her pelvis. Gordon smiled to himself, also remembering her flat feet and often dirty fingernails. And she was fiendishly witty.
“Gordie, should I go to confession for making love with an ex-priest, or is this an eighth sacrament?”
“Neither. You’re just the sex object of a religious reject.”
She’d pinched him. “Remember you’re dealing with a witch. I’d turn you into a toad, but then who’d take me to dinner?” She’d begun stroking him with those long fingers. “I can’t yet tell, Gordie, if you’re just a con man who preys on people like me or if you’re so adept you’re laughing at my bumbling efforts.”
Gordon shrugged, letting her memories cascade down out of his mind. Time for a little conditioning. He turned himself inward, spiraling through a chambered nautilus of goetic associations. Colors changed, and some shapes blurred, while others sharpened. His frames of reference disassembled and reformed into contorted but familiar structures. Fear welled up, not of what lay outside him, but of what he himself might do. He had achieved the chamber where wizardry was possible.
After years of increasingly severe training, Gordon could perform spells without the props and overt incantations and gestures of lesser magi. He spoke the words in barely perceptible strainings of his voice box and larynx, and his arm gestures’ isometric muscle strains were sensed only by himself.
Practice time. Casting spells at 65 miles per hour was akin to trying to shoot down a jet plane with a deer rifle. Gordon tried to create a blackened crop circle and left a streak of raggedly charred plants. Again, he thought, and better. His next effort left a decent circle of charred corn and earth. After he’d gently reached out and tipped a cow, he stopped and retreated back into the mundane. Not too rusty, he thought.
* * *
Gordon called Judy when he entered Vermont but got no answer. He headed west from St. Johnsbury into the late afternoon sun, the back-lit signs blurred until he was almost on top of them. He blew a quarter mile past Deep Eddy before realizing his mistake and turning around.
The setting sun spotlighted the road signs on his return, and he easily found the side roads and then the dirt lane leading to the pond-side cottages. The twin ruts wandered along the edge of a steep embankment. Gordon found Judy’s cottage number staked on the side of the road next to a wooden stairway snaking downhill through the overgrowth.
He pulled out his cell and redialed Judy, but had no reception. A car with Vermont plates was parked in the one available space. He threw the Xterra into four-wheel and plowed back and forth through the hillside brush until he’d created a car-womb just off the trail.
The stairs were rickety but not rotted, bearing his 185 pounds downward with occasional squeals. The embankment dropped without pause into the water, and the cottage had been stuffed back into the hillside just above the shore. Gordon knocked twice and when there was no answer, tried the door handle. It was unlocked.
The little cottage had the pervasive, faint stink of a failing septic system. 1980’s furniture and bric-a-brac crammed the rooms. She’d probably rented the place furnished.
“Hello, Judy? JUDY?”
Gordon paced through the open ground floor in seconds. A narrow, unbannistered stairway clambered up to the second floor, so steep that Gordon guessed that tipsy climbers went up on all fours. He deferred the ascent and went out the pond-side front porch door and down another set of wood stairs to the deck and the frozen-over pond.
And found Judy.
Copyright © 2018 by Edward Ahern