Excerpt: Whiskey Witches
2023 Author's Edition
Hard-packed dirt floor.
Symbols painted on the old wood wall of the restored slave cabin at the victim’s feet. More were carved on the east wall.
A protection mandala chiseled into the wall at the victim’s head just under the single window.
Nothing here screamed occult. These were just symbols and were all rather random. There wasn’t a cohesive placement. The rune for great energy, for example, was next to the rune for death spliced with prosperity which was thrown in next to a symbol that meant absolutely nothing but could be found on fan art from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What exactly was this guy’s message?
He wanted attention. That’s what the message was. “I hate it to say it, Chief, but I think this guy is out for kicks.” But even morons could get something right sometimes.
“This seems pretty extreme for kicks,” Chief Brian White said crisply.
He’d reached out to her asking for help on this case because the killer had left what could be occult symbols at the two previous murder sites. After the Pilmner case in Texas over five years ago, she’d become rather famous. She could track down serial killers who sacrificed people to raise demons.
However, that case had fallen into a weird gap of missing memories, and she couldn’t actually recall what she’d been tracking or why. She’d read the case file. Of course she had. She’d read her notes, but nothing in there had given her any clues on how she’d finally caught him.
She’d looked at the pictures Chief White had sent to her and had initially said no. She wasn’t interested in digging into a case outside her jurisdiction—St. Francisville, Louisiana was far from Denver, Colorado—but her boss had told her to take a vacation. He wasn’t her biggest fan.
Since she was here anyway, she could at least do her job and assist. The victim was male, early to mid-thirties, Hispanic, naked except for a pair of boxers. His body had been carved on. She slipped on one of her powdered gloves in the Louisiana heat and knelt beside the victim’s head. “What do we know about him?”
“Eddie Lopez,” the chief said, kneeling on the other side of the victim near his shoulder. “Good guy. Owned the lumber store. Wife. Two kids.”
“Picket fence too?” She needed to get a sense of his place in their community.
“You laugh, but yeah.”
Eddie’s was the sort of bad luck that had led her to looking into the existence of a nearby coven. They weren’t all bad, but she could tell when a group of “witches” gathered to better their luck because others would lose theirs. There were ways to keep that from happening, but they usually involved a lot of work, which most newbie covens didn’t know.
Paige had found what she thought was a coven, though it was hard to tell from Denver. The internet was a powerful tool, but it still only told so much. From what she could tell, there were about four witches in the circle? Maybe? But she also suspected they were the targeted victims.
Eddie Lopez hadn’t been on the list of potential witches, so how had he caught the killer’s eye?
“The store hasn’t been doing so great lately. Not a lot of people renovating their houses, I guess. But it was still doing good enough. His daughter’s in soccer.”
Her heart twisted with pain and grief the way it always did when someone mentioned children. She pushed that aside and focused. She didn’t have kids and probably never would. She didn’t want to see the type of mother she’d be. She preferred to focus on work.
An X had been carved over each of the victim’s eyes. Bruising around the point of incision and the trails of dried blood indicated the man’s heart had still been beating.
Well, whoever the killer was, he didn’t mind watching his victims suffer.
Eddie’s wrists were clean, with no ligature marks. He hadn’t been bound. Or at least, he hadn’t struggled. Did that mean he’d been drugged? He’d allowed this to happen or passed out?
The toxicology report would tell them what was in his system, but she was willing to bet there’d be nothing there, same as the first two.
“This is new.” Paige stared at the victim’s chest, careful not to touch it. “Did he carve symbols on the other victims?”
“Not like this. Does it mean anything?”
Only if the killer knew what he was doing or thought he did. “I don’t know. They’re runes.”
“I couldn’t make any of them out,” Chief White said. “My mam had a book, so I looked.”
“You had time for that?”
He looked at her and tipped his black, bald head to the side with a frank look. “I brought all her old books to my office. When Marge sent me the picture, I looked while I had time.”
Which meant he wasn’t afraid of where this investigation might go. That was good, but it also meant that he might invite it to go where it didn’t make sense. “Well, these are spliced together, which could mean he meant to give them more power.”
“Okay.” The chief frowned. “What kind of power?”
“This one,” Paige said, pointing to one like a diamond cut in half and then offset, “is Jera, the rune for rewards arriving at their rightful time. This one,” she said, pointing to one that looked like the Jesus fish, only standing up, “Is Opala. It means heritage.”
“What could that mean?”
She wasn’t done. “There’s more. This is Fehu.” The two-branched, lopsided tree was separated from the rest and lower on the chest. “It means wealth and new beginnings.” She shifted, trying out to make out others. “Jera shares a line with Lagaz. It means intuition, which is spliced together with Ehwaz, which represents abrupt change.
“What does Jera mean?”
“Harvest.” More sprang out. “This one’s victory in battle. This one’s time of change.”
“That… means something.”
“Are you hoping or are you telling me?”
He pulled the corners of his lips down as if to remind her nonverbally that he was still the chief of police. “He’s a serial killer. He has a reason. Something in here has to tell us what the reason is.”
“Unless he’s playing with us.” There was a very high likelihood that was the case. If she believed the killer wasn’t stupid, she’d say he was killing these people to inherit their rewards quickly in order to bring about new wealth. Further, she’d also conclude that he’d chosen to carve these symbols into Eddie while the man was still alive to provide more power to the runes. Fear and pain held a lot of energy.
“Do you think he is?”
Paige twisted on the balls of her feet and surveyed the walls again with a new perspective. What if someone threw up the stupid symbols to mask their actual knowledge of what they were doing? Slide stepping closer to the wall at the victim’s head, she traced a few lines of the mandala, then a few of the of the other runes carved into the walls.
“You find something?” the chief asked.
“No. There are simply too many bad symbols thrown in with real ones. This is from Supernatural. I mean, come on. That’s just pop culture.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
Turning in a slow circle, she shook her head. “I think we’ve got someone trying to be cool and thinking he’s summoning something.”
“Like a demon?”
She bounced her head from side-to-side, trying to figure out what she really thought. “That’s typically what we think of when we say summoning.”
“You think it’s a man?” Chief White asked, his voice lower.
“Probably. Statistics say it’s more than likely. Also, each person was killed separately. If the killer is summoning, that could replace the sexual drive most serial killers have in common.”
“Paige,” a deep, thickly accented voice said.
She looked over at the chief. “What?”
His eyebrows rose. “What?”
“You said my name.”
“I didn’t.” He looked around, narrowing his brown eyes.
She cocked her head to the side and listened. Someone outside? The officer she saw through the door shifted his weight from one foot to the other. She only saw the elbow of the other officer.
“Did you hear something?” the chief asked.
He shook his head.
Licking her lips, her heart picked up a beat. “Probably just the heat. It was a long drive.” But what if it wasn’t?
What if something else had tried calling her?
She chased that thought away quickly. Her family were witches, but she wasn’t. She didn’t hear voices or have magick. She followed clues like the mandala. They could be used in spells. Each symbol added to the series of circles could bring new meaning to it. It was complicated spell work, rarely used, especially if someone had limited time. And they were fairly weak, as far as spells went. A lot of work for little pay, which was another reason they were typically only used for protection.
Could it be used to protect a summoner against a demon, though? Maybe?
She scooted her foot forward for a better look but tripped, catching herself against the wall with her non-gloved hand.
The world rotated with a slow-churning lurch. The dust-ridden sunlight streaming through the slats in the window above her head dissolved into nothingness. Brutal heat transformed to bone-setting chill.
Everything disappeared. Something slammed into her skull from the side. Pressure built inside her head until she thought her eyes would pop out.
The moon hid behind a thick blanket of clouds. Fog rolled in and gently away only to fold itself around her again. Trees rose from the earth like prickly fingers. The ground lay dormant beneath her bare feet.
She pulled her black cloak tighter around her. Her earthbound form did not feel chill or heat, was unfazed by a strong wind. She felt the energy, the tug towards darkness. Her demon heart froze in fear.
No. She wasn’t a demon. She was Paige Whiskey.
The fog lifted barely enough to allow her sense of self to realize she wasn’t the demon. It felt like it, though. The sights. The smells. She saw them. She smelled them.
A pentacle had been drawn in salt in the short, springy grass nearby. Candles lit each point of the star. A small cauldron reigned in the center.
“Witch,” the male voice from earlier said.
Fear overtook her. She turned to run, to flee.
Soul-fire burned the side of her face.
She staggered backward. A magickal ward glistened in the air directly in front of her. The witch.
Wait. What witch?
Trapped by what? And why?
Something gleamed in the grass. An old and twisted knot-work of metal lay on the ground. Weak energy shot out like the light of a distant star. The key.
The key. The thought took hold of her mind like claws and gripped her tight. The key. Protect the key!
Hands grabbed her. Warm. Soft.
She was stuck in a memory. A demon tied to the earth. She couldn’t move. This wasn’t her world. This wasn’t her dimension. She belonged somewhere else, not here. The witch and the angel had chained her to this spot, helpless to keep the Gates closed. She had to find a way out, had to get away. She had—
Wait. She had to know. She let the memory reel through again.
Fleeting images of white wings. Wings so white they almost glowed in the darkness of the night. Fingers. Fingers blackened from sacrificing others for gain. Light and dark mixing, co-existing, making a cage, a tether. Symbols of earth, air, fire, water, life and death linked together. “You must protect the key. You shall be the lock. Stand here for—
A slap across the face brought her back to reality.
Paige sat sideways in the passenger seat of Chief White’s unmarked car. The door was open and he knelt beside her in the dirt, a hand on her arm, supporting her. He stared up at her with concern.
Bile rose in her mouth. She shoved him out of the way, collapsing on her hands and knees, retching. She heaved until nothing was left. Smoke rose from the spilled contents of her stomach and the stagnant smell of sulfur penetrated her nostrils.
She wiped her mouth with a shaking hand. What the fuck just happened?