When you’ve been working with a manuscript on and off for years, you develop quite a collection of files. The folder for Mallory Mors, a death witch who works for the Baton Rouge Police Department, and her partner, Detective Danny Gallagher, has grown to include dozens of short stories. These little side plots were meant to move things along while Mallory waited for evidence to be processed. Instead I’m going to share a few with you while I work on getting Mallory’s (and my) first novel, Under a Blood Moon, ready for the editor.
Monday morning started with a banana. Sure, I wouldn’t have bought it on my own but when fruit was in front of me I liked it. I ate on my way to the train thinking about how good my weekend had been. It lightened my step and made me think everything in life would go my way. I took that confidence right to my desk and started to sit down.
“No so fast, we’ve got a vandalism that might be connected to a hex,” Danny began without even saying good morning.
“Seriously?” I groaned, my eyes turned toward the coffee pot.
“A murder doesn’t mean we stop getting other cases, Mal, you know that.”
“Okay, fine, no lectures, just let me get some coffee before we go.”
By ten o’clock we stood outside the Way of the Ancient Ones shop. Inside the display windows artfully arranged crystals, geodes, various rocks and jewelry promised to heal, help, and keep safe from harm. I thought the alliteration was a bit much, but I liked the way the purple quartz crystals looked. On the drive over I’d talked about Jakob. Like a good partner, Danny hadn’t told me how annoying it was. Now that we were here I realized I knew nothing about the case.
“Uh, so what’s the deal?” I stepped out of the car. The strip mall that held the shop was anchored by a 7-11 on one end and a liquor store on the other. I wasn’t too impressed.
“Problems started a couple of weeks back. The owner would drive by and see the lights on. He’d park, get out of the car, get to the door and the lights would go off.”
“Yeah, but not a real problem. The real problem was when they found the snake outside of its tank in the morning or the-”
“Wait a minute, the snake?”
“The shop appeals to various faiths, some of them claim snakes can speak truths. Hence, the store keeps a snake.”
“Okay, sorry to interrupt go on.”
“The snake out of its tank, displays knocked over, the cash drawer open but nothing taken, that’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with.”
“No one’s caught the pranksters?”
Danny leaned over the car and looked at me. “No pranksters. They installed motion detectors and an antitheft system. There are no people inside, things just fall over or fly around.”
“Someone with telekinesis?”
“Maybe, or maybe a hex, let’s go see.”
He gestured toward the door where a sleepy employee was just opening up. The kid looked about nineteen and I wondered why the owner hadn’t come himself.
“Hey,” he called to us. His braces made his mouth move funny, I tried my best not to stare. “Doug’ll be here, like really soon, until then you can look around.”
We nodded and headed inside. The store was narrow and long, neatly made wooden shelves held books in one aisle, herbs in another, farther back a curtained off room held secrets. I wandered through the shelves, hearing a whispering noise, something quiet. I glanced back at Danny but if he heard it he didn’t give any sign.
“The shop sells mostly mass produced stuff?” Danny asked the kid.
“Well yeah, I guess, the herbs come from a local woman, but the rest of it comes in via UPS.”
“What’s behind the curtain?” I asked as I walked toward it. The whispering got louder with every step. In a horror movie I’d draw back that curtain and find someone with a large knife ready to spring at me. I felt along my hip for my service weapon, just in case.
“Oh, that’s the occult stuff.”
“The really dark magic stuff,” the kid answered before he went back to opening the cash drawer for the night. Danny glanced at me and I pulled back the curtain. The display sat on a low wooden hutch, scared wood with mismatched door pulls on six drawers.
“Can I go through this?” I called back up to the front.
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” the reply came back to me like I’d stepped into another building, not another room. When I put my hands on the wood, the whispering got louder. The dead whisper to us, but I didn’t expect to find them in a cabinet. I was wrong.
The top of the hutch held feathers and beads, little statues I didn’t recognize. Inside the drawers were skulls, lots of skulls. A wide bottom drawer held a steer, its long horns gracefully curved up. A smaller side drawer contained at least five tiny skulls, maybe they were birds. None of those whispered at me.
I swung the middle doors open to reveal not drawers but a shelf. In the center a perfect human skull grinned at me. I wanted to touch it, but I knew I shouldn’t.
“Hey Danny,” I called, knowing it needed to be tagged for evidence. Then somehow, without even thinking, I held the fragile bone in my hands, surprised by the weight of it. The round cap filled my palm and then some, the jaw hinge worked with an empty mechanical creak. Touching it made the whisper turn into a wind, the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, a thousand bad sounds all at once. The room swirled a little around me, but I couldn’t put it down. The skull wanted me to know something.
Danny said something to the clerk, but I couldn’t hear him. I was someplace else, someplace where there were only two of us, the skull and me.
The wide open eye sockets looked up at me, and I focused all my concentration on the face that had once been there. For a minute nothing changed and then I started to see it, hair, spilling over my hand, curling around my fingers. Deep brown hair, and when I looked back there were eyes looking at me in the same shade of brown. I froze with terror, watching as more of the face came into view. Full red lips and high cheekbones, she looked at me and I didn’t know what to say.
“Hey, you the cops?” I jumped. A guy with long hair and an scraggly beard appeared in the back doorway. When I looked away from him the face had turned back into a skull again. “I’m Doug.”
I heard Danny and the kid walking toward us, but I didn’t say anything. I don’t know what I was waiting for, the skull to grow her face back again, or maybe to speak to me? Nothing happened. In another second I found my voice, and then without putting the skull down I confronted the man.
“Where do you get these skulls?”
“Most of them come from hunters or hikers. I buy them off people.” He gave me the brush off. “The rest are fake. That one’s from a medical catalog.”
“No, it’s not. It’s real,” I insisted.
“No way, completely fake,” the owner denied it again.
I turned to the kid, ignoring his boss. “Did he lose someone in his life, lately? Have someone die or leave him?”
The teenager swallowed hard and bobbed his head.
“Tell me who she was.”
“His girlfriend, Jessie, she left for some guy in Texas.” The kid looked guiltily at his employer.
“Exactly she left. Check my place, all of her stuff is gone, her car, she’s gone.” Doug jumped into the conversation. “The skull is a fake.”
“Then why does it have filings?” Danny asked.
We were joined at the scene by a forensics crew, then a group of uniformed cops. Eventually the whole shop was filled with people and I waited on a ratty love seat in the back holding on to Jessie’s skull. Someone in a white lab coat asked me for it, for her or what was left of her. I didn’t want to let her go, but I knew it was the right thing.
“Be careful with that.” Danny instructed them. “It’s got a pretty angry ghost attached to it.”
“She’ll be okay now,” I said, without realizing it.
“How’d you know it was a woman?”
I shrugged, there was no easy way to explain being a death witch.
He nodded. “I thought maybe a child with how small it was, but the kid up front says the missing girlfriend was small.”
“What’ll happen next?”
“Someone else will build a case, see if there are other fake things that aren’t, that sort of thing.” He shook his head as he watched the skull disappear into an evidence bag. “And we’ll do paperwork.”