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 4: Interrogation Tango
“Mr. Lormor, this is Lt. Jack Tassie. He’s a detective who handles capital crimes.”
Gordon and Tassie nodded at each other. Shaking hands seemed a little over the top. Tassie had a shaved head and the middle-aged belly pudge of a man who ate too much diner food. Gordon thought of Buddha.
“Mr. Lormor, we’re going to need to take a statement from you and get into some detailed questioning.”
“Of course, come on in. The furnishings are pretty sparse but, if you two sit on one cot and I sit on the other, we should be able to talk.”
The questioning launched on factoids — when Gordon had arrived, where he’d left from, when he’d left, when he’d found the body, what he’d done afterwards. Then the questions up-shifted into probes: how well he’d known Judy, when they had separated, why they’d separated, why she’d called him after three years.
The questions were intrusive, but Gordon knew that his exact answers didn’t matter as much as how they fit together. If the pieces didn’t gibe, he was probably lying and possibly guilty. If the pieces grooved nicely, he still had opportunity — after all, he had found the body — and motive; Judy was the ex who’d left him.
The questions were repeated, then reworded, dropped, and picked up again. Elegant variations on a theme, Gordon thought. Bach would have enjoyed hearing it phrased in German.
Tassie ran out of questions around noon. My turn, Gordon thought.
“Detective Tassie, there’s a couple of things I mentioned to Trooper Harrowgate yesterday that I’m hoping you’ll look into.”
“Oh?” Tassie gave Harrowgate a questioning glance. “Like what?”
“I’m not a detective or a doctor, but it looked to me like Judy had been cut with something fine-bladed — a scalpel, or a dagger maybe — and not a combat knife. Especially where her throat had been slit.”
“Judy was into magic, black magic. Maybe this was a ritual killing. There wasn’t any blood on the deck around the body, but there was a fresh coating of ice, like everything had been washed off. If I’m right, there was a design marked out on the deck that was washed off with the blood, but there still should be traces if you look closely—”
Harrowgate interrupted. “I didn’t want to bother you with this craziness, Jack. The last local witch got killed four hundred years ago.”
Tassie scowled. “Is this a red herring, Mr. Lormor? Wasting our time is a bad idea.”
“Ask the coroner, then check the dock.”
Tassie stared more intently at Gordon, who got the feeling that Tassie wanted to tell him something but that this wasn’t the right situation. “I’d caution you about leaving until after we get preliminary results, Mr. Lormor, but I expect you’ll be staying put... By the way, Ms. Bentley’s cabin is a crime scene and off limits.”
“Understood. Judy had no real family. When it’s time, I’d like to take care of the burial arrangements.”
Once the troopers left Gordon walked over to the store, where Wittson was leading a discussion group of locals. Gordon was pretty sure he was the topic.
“Mr. Wittson, when you have a chance I’d like to talk—”
“Sure. Sure. These folk were just leaving.”
Gordon smiled inwardly. And will be returning soon to hear chapter two, he thought.
As the citizenry filed out, Wittson spoke up. “Whyn’t you come back into my parlor? Won’t nobody else be coming in for a while.”
They walked through a bead curtain, past a thick cellar door and stacked cartons of food, and into Wittson’s living area. An emaciated dog lifted its head off the rug and glowered at Gordon before letting its head drop back onto the floor. The animal was so gaunt and scruffy that Gordon thought it qualified as hell hound for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In profile, Wittson looked equally stringy. His neck wattles had subsided into flabby skin that drooped over prominent tendons running straight from his chin to his chest. His jaw bone looked skeletal.
“No thanks. Mr. Wittson, I know the state police are conducting an investigation into Judy’s death, and I don’t want to interfere with them. But I do want to try and get to know what Judy was doing until she died... Who her friends were, where she worked, what she kept busy with. It’ll help me get some closure. Could you help me?”
“If I can.”
“She got her mail delivered here I guess. Was there a lot of personal correspondence? Boxes from UPS?”
“Nah. Nobody writes letters anymore. Everythin’ personal these days is messages and tweeting, whatever that is. No boxes, either. She got her bills and the usual junk; once in a while maybe a letter from New Jersey. Is that where she used to live?”
“Yeah. Do you know where she worked?”
“Down in Barre, I think. Lots of summer folk come here from Barre. I think maybe one of them put her onto a job. Working in a bookstore, I heard.”
“Did she have friends here on the lake? Probably would have been women. A reading or cooking group?”
Wittson’s cheery expression flicked off, leaving a shadowy suspicion, then snicked back on. “No groups I know about.”
“Friends, though? Who was she friendly with here at Big Eddy?” Gordon needed to insert a feeding tube into Wittson’s gossip placenta. “Judy was very good at making friends. If you don’t know I can start asking all your neighbors.”
“Well, I seen her talking with Sylvie LaGrande, and Helen Connelley. Don’t know how close they were, though.”
Like hell you don’t, Gordon thought. But now he had names. It was the same initial wedge used by counter-intelligence operatives for centuries. Ask for names, then interview those names and ask them for more names, then interview the next names, and the next, until the initial well-meaning misrepresentations cracked apart and the putrescent rumors and truths oozed out.
“Mr. Wittson, I’m guessing you’ve been here a long time—”
“’Bout twenty years.”
“Great. In all that time, have there been other murders like this, or disappearances?”
“Nah. This part of Vermont is boring. We get some cabins broken into over the winter, some fights and drunken disorderly, once in a while a nice juicy adultery, but it’s quiet.”
“I don’t think the cops want me to take off until they’ve checked things out. Could I rent the cabin for the coming week?”
“Found money, son, no problem at all.” But Wittson’s expression looked rueful, despite the extra cash.
Once Gordon got back to his cabin he called AJ.
“Damn but you heteros are pushy. Dave says no luck on the e-mails unless we can get her computer, but he gave me some other stuff a couple hours ago. Judy Bentley was Girl Scout prissy until her grad work at Yale; then she began occasionally showing up on the rap sheets. Trespass, killing an animal... witchcraft kind of stuff. No outstanding warrants, though. You said she was in the game?”
“Yeah. Any felony charges?”
“Nope. Not even a record of a live-in boyfriend after she left you. You must’ve been a bad influence.”
“More than you know. What about crimes in general around Big Eddy?”
“No pond scum in Big Eddy itself, but it’s the epicenter of infants gone missing in northeastern Vermont and New Hampshire. Once a year, a male infant or toddler comes up missing and stays lost — never local kids, some from a hundred-fifty miles away, for as far back as we traced. Usually they disappear from Barre or St. Johnsbury.”
“Around the winter solstice?”
“Uh-huh, it’s the 22nd this year.”
“Six days from now.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Amateurs focus on Samhain... Halloween. But the really dirty work gets done in the dead of winter. The babies are presumably being sacrificed to a demon in return for a major favor. The multi-state snatches made it harder for the cops to sense a pattern. It also means that I just got lied to by the village godfather. New subject. You need to check our records, and then call in some favors with Francisco Brothers and Spellcasters—”
“They’re our competition.”
“Duh. You’ve got my okay to trade whatever information is necessary. I get the idea that if there’s a coven here, it’ll be well camouflaged. They wouldn’t have had their supplies delivered to the local post office. Check on our deliveries to the entire northeastern quadrant of Vermont: which items, who paid, how they paid, where it was delivered. Then ask for the same information from Francisco and Spellcasters.... There’s somebody at the door, I’ll call you back.”
Gordon cracked open the door far enough for the cold to rush in and for him to see the two amigos — Harrowgate and Tassie — huddled outside. Pity that I’m all they’ve got, he thought.
Copyright © 2018 by Edward Ahern