The Witch Trail

In this speculative literary thriller, Mall, a single-mother and recently-promoted detective, investigates a string of deaths and disappearances in her hometown. Twelvelms is famous for its witchburnings, and the occult is deeply woven into the community, and, it seems, with these disappearances. Trying to reconcile similaritys between her current case and the one that led to her sister’s imprisonment years before, and the circumstances around the crimes become stranger and more maligned, Mall begins to wonder if perhaps people are being literal when they say there’s something in the water in Twelvelms.

EXCERPT:

If it hadn’t been such a sore issue, Mall might have said that landing her detective badge happened just like magic. She’d filed her application, got a good recommendation from Angel that she’d be fit for the job. A week later he was dead.


Aneurysm, they said. They found him on his kitchen floor two days after he first didn’t show up for work. Angel was old but he wasn’t that old. He cycled to the office every morning and showered when he got there. He could probably put Mall to shame at the gym even though he was twice her age. He’d been teaching his nephew how to swim.


Now he was in a metal box downstairs, with a tag on his toe. And Mall had his job.


There was a case file waiting in his in-tray that would probably never get looked at now. Angel’s big A4 pad of scribbly notes was open, lines of messy script crammed onto the page like he’d been in a hurry to get the words out of his head. Mall couldn’t read them. She could pick out the odd word here and there but Angel’s handwriting was notoriously indecipherable. She would have to leave his near-last thoughts to themselves.


She flicked Angel’s bobble head and tiny Tyler Durden nodded as if in agreement from where he was fastened to the corner of Angel’s desk. He was held fast with two strips of double sided tape, whose ragged edges curled up towards the base, both sides coated in grey-black dust.


“You moving in?” Craig asked, returning to his own desk with a mug of coffee.


“Thinking about it,” Mall huffed, standing a little straighter. She looked at Angel’s empty chair, the worn grey fabric shaped precisely to the shape of his body. She smiled. “Doesn’t feel right yet.”


“No. You told anybody about the job?” Craig slumped into his chair. He watched Mall with a strange, measured caution, like he was half-certain he’d said exactly the wrong thing. She ducked her head.


“Not yet,” she sighed. Craig didn’t say anything. She was waiting until the funeral, though she hadn’t told anybody. She knew it might be months. It didn’t seem like anyone else was going to move his stuff for a while yet and she didn’t want to be the one that broke the peace. “They said anything about releasing his body yet?”


Craig made a sour face. “Nah. I don’t think they’re ready.”

“They’re sticking by their statement of non-suspicious?”

“Probably. Steph’s not written a proper report yet but, you know, seems unfair to expect that.”

Mall nodded. “Couldn’t they have got someone else to review?”

“Steph insisted.” Craig’s voice was grim. He sipped his drink. “Angel was good to her. She wants to do right by him.”

“Yeah.” It didn’t seem right, to look inside the body of someone you love. To see all the working parts once they’ve stopped moving. Mall knew they put make-up on corpses for a reason. Without it people looked… well, they looked dead. When you’re used to that person smiling, making you coffee, touching your hair… It’s best you don’t see them without the make-up. “I should probably get back to my desk.”

“You get the reports I passed down to you?” Craig’s eyes settled on Angel’s chair as he spoke. It shifted Mall back into the corner of a dark bar, the man yelling at her over the music wishing she was someone else, looking down at her hips instead if at her face. “Right. There’s some stuff I want you to look at…” He rummaged around his in-tray and shifted through the paper spread across his desk. “I’ll run it down.”

“You sure? I can wait.”

Craig raised an eyebrow. “Awful lot of standing around you’re doing, partner.”

Mall half-cracked a grin. “I’ll go take a look at those reports.”
Settled back at her own desk she flipped open the first case file. The last thing Craig and Angel had been called out to check on was an old woman who’d fallen down her stairs. Should have been open and close but there were what looked like defensive wounds on her arms. She was probably in the fridges with Angel. Mall made a note to go check.

Other reports, boring, boring. She leafed through them without paying too much attention. She kept finding herself getting stuck on odd words, reading them in loops. She’d been staring at ‘front-porch railing’ for way too long when Craig slammed a mug down on the coaster a few inches from her face.

“Here’s them papers. And I thought you could use some Joe,” he explained.

Mall took a greedy gulp of the coffee and it scalded the back of her throat and the very tip of her tongue. Her whole mouth tingled. “I really did need that.”

“You off at five?”

“Yeah.” Mall glanced at the clock. Just another hour to go.

“Me and the guys are heading out to the Broomsticks if you fancy coming along?” he asked. He probably knew she was going to turn him down already, but the tone of his voice made the invitation sound genuine anyway. She couldn’t tell if he actually wanted to spend time with her or if he was just a good liar.

“Thanks, but I said I’d pick Ivy up by six.”

“Kids, eh?” Craig tutted with a roll of his eyes. Mall smiled and brushed her finger along the edge of the photo of Ivy she kept on her desk.

“Yeah. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”

By the time she was heading out of the office, she was almost half an hour late. The forms she’d started filling out had taken longer than she’d thought to finish and she’d stopped checking the clock, hoping that focus would make the paper shift faster under her pen nib. The sky was streaked indigo behind brush strokes of dark grey clouds. There were jack-o’-lanterns on the steps down to the sidewalk, and somebody had been out to light them already, even though it wasn’t even really starting to get dark. More toothy gourds smiled their flickering grins, eyes square or triangular or carved into slits, watching and dancing as Mall’s stride stirred the air.

The store fronts were even more crammed with cauldrons and spell books than usual; even the stock-brokers had strung cobwebs across their windows, complete with plastic spiders hanging from strings. Every few streetlamps she passed had a piece of orange paper sellotaped to their breast, not much higher than Mall’s waist, each of them guiding kids towards the community centre at the old church for ‘spooky fun and games’. They were looking a little dog eared now. Most of the decorations had been up since the start of October.

It was easy to spot the tourists, laden with black and orange plastic bags, cauldrons or broomsticks or witches’ hats under their arms. They stopped and stared at the plaques outside the oldest buildings, throngs of them forming around the old courthouse, empty now and slowly being reclaimed by grass and weeds, built on the rubble of the church where they’d held the witch trails four hundred years ago. It was a small wonder that Twelvelms was only on the tourist trail around Halloween. Mall scowled as she drove down the high street at half the speed she’d be able to go at any other time of year. She steered around an inconsiderately placed sandwich board advertising toffee-pumpkin ice-cream.

Away from the town centre, the gaudy decorations gave way to trees, rising up from square holes in the paved sidewalks, kinked uneven by their thirsty roots. A couple of miles out, the house had long driveways, some of them glued to their neighbours, others standing alone, peering over hedges and fences. Some gardens had scarecrows in fancy hats and tattered clothing, rosettes on their chest for the best in down. Every now and then a house had a pumpkin or two on its porch or the entrance to the garden, but that was all.

Ivy’s bike was on its side on Teddy’s front lawn, which looked like it needed mowing again before the frosts really started to set in. The house was smaller than the other places on the street, and set further away from the road. Scores of Ivy’s namesake clung thickly to rectangular trellises bolted to the house’s face but reached out with spidery fingers towards the windows and the bright red front door.  The paint was peeling, and there were brown streaks of rust dribbling from around the goat’s head knocker in its centre. When they were kids Mall would lift Teddy by the waist to knock it, and his mother would beam as she let them in.

The driveway crackled under Mall’s tyres as she pulled in to park. She’d loved this house when she was small, with its old stone foundations and wooden walls, split and veiny with age. As she walked down the path to the little door into the kitchen, she smiled at the old swing set, and at the leaning apple tree, fruit weighing heavy on the wrinkled branches.

Note: Though this work is complete, it is currently undergoing revisions.

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