Authors: Laura Kirwan
City of Eldrich — Book one
Burnt Barn Press
Table of Contents
team rose gently
from the iron cauldron. Huddled over it, in the dim light cast by the flame beneath, two cloaked figures muttered and swayed. One raised a hand, gasped a few unintelligible words, and dropped something into the cauldron.
The flame under the cauldron flared and steam billowed into the air.
The figure threw back the dark hood and shook out her auburn ringlets. “Okey doke. It needs to simmer a bit, then all done.”
The second figure pulled off her dark robe and dropped it on the floor. She wrinkled her nose. “That robe stinks. How long since they’ve been washed?”
The first woman fluffed her curls with her fingers. “It’s been a while. Sorry. I thought we needed some ceremony. Hang on a sec.” She picked up a cell phone from the gritty linoleum floor and held it out in front of her. “Sierra, you still there?”
The phone squawked. “Damn thing,” she muttered as she stabbed a button and put it to her ear. “You there? . . . Yeah, sorry. I had you on speaker. It’s this building, you know how it gets. Magnifies the magic but makes my cell phone all wonky. Did you get it? . . . Awesome. You’re the best. Tell the coven I said hi.” She pulled off her robe and slipped the phone into the back pocket of her jeans.
The second woman, younger, with shoulder-length fine straight hair somewhere between dark blond and light brown, scowled at her companion. “You said all the ritual was crap for the tourists.”
The first one sniffed her robe. “Ooh, that’s bad.” She balled up the dark robe under her arm. “Well, yeah, to a certain extent. If you’re good you don’t really need any of this. I guess we could have put a cup of hot water on my desk and stuck in a pair of scissors. But it’s Matthew’s daughter. Didn’t want to chance it by being loosey-goosey. This far away and if she’s like her dad? That’s why I included Sierra and some of the Sedona girls in the spell. Like an antenna. To give it a little boost from closer to home, you know?”
The younger woman shook her head. “I’m not comfortable with this, Natalie. Are we doing the right thing?”
“Matthew can’t do the job anymore and somebody’s got to step up before it gets all crazy again.”
“But she’s not stepping up. She’s being dragged.”
Natalie sighed. “Kady, what do you want me to say?” She glanced at her watch. “Another minute or so.” She looked back at Kady. “I mean, yeah, I know, but it’s for a good cause.”
Kady’s scowl deepened. “I know all that. But it’s her life. We’re messing with her life. Is it ever right to meddle like this?”
“From what I hear, it’s not much of a life. And I’ve been scrying her aura so I can see how much she hates her job. We aren’t dragging her. We’re merely nudging things along.”
Kady snorted. “Scrying her aura? What the hell does that mean?”
“Viewing her aura from a distance through a crystal ball. Or a mirror.”
Kady rolled her eyes. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most burnt out lawyer of them all? Give me a break. She’s like twenty five hundred miles away. You can’t read her from that far. If she’s really like Matthew, you couldn’t read her if she was in the next room. Not with magic at least.”
“Fine, you got me.” Natalie pointed at Kady’s discarded robe. “Hand me that. I’ll take them home and put them in the wash.”
Kady leaned over, picked up the robe, and handed it to Natalie, holding it between thumb and index finger as if it might be contagious.
Natalie continued. “You’re right. I can’t read her aura from here. But come on. That place she works is a circus.”
Kady raised an eyebrow. “And this isn’t?”
Natalie laughed. “Not even in the same dimension. Maybe I can’t use a scrying mirror to read her, but I can read the Arizona news online. She’s just like Matthew and you know how he gets. It’s only a matter of time before she tells that grandstanding jackass she works for what she really thinks of him. And then buh-bye employment. And besides it’s not like we’re hexing her, not technically.”
“Only because we can’t,” Kady said. “I’m not sure I see the difference.”
“The difference is we’re hexing her boss. And a few other people. Not her. It doesn’t matter whether we can’t because we aren’t. And it’s too late to stop it, so you’ll just have to live with it.” Natalie checked her watch again. “All done.”
Natalie bent and shut off the flame under the small cauldron. “This is so much easier with the camp stove. Now we leave it until it cools then dump it down the mop sink.” She straightened up and looked at Kady. “If you think about it, we’re doing her a favor. She needs a change of scenery. Bad. Don’t let me forget to take the knife out before we dump the cauldron.”
“Got it. Don’t forget to take the knife out before we dump the cauldron.”
Natalie sighed. “I walked right into that didn’t I. I gotta get back to the phones. Go downstairs and get a can of pop. Take a few minutes. This was heavier magic than you’re used to. Sugar and caffeine will help you recharge.”
“I still don’t feel good about this.”
“It’ll be fine,” Natalie said. “Trust me. She’ll love it here.”
ight hours into
her fourth day on the road, Meaghan Keele was tired. She’d started in Arizona and now—finally—neared her destination, her new home. Pennsylvania was too green for her desert-adapted eye. Too many trees closing in around her, overhung by a solid slab of dreary gray clouds. Already she missed Phoenix, missed the blue skies, the heat, the treeless vistas.
Meaghan began missing Phoenix the moment she started the car to begin her cross-country drive. She sighed and turned up the radio. Thank God for satellite. The country up here near the New York state line was a black hole. No radio stations or large cities. Only small towns separated by miles of mountains and claustrophobic forests.
She was headed for the town of Eldrich to become its new city attorney, or solicitor as they termed it in Pennsylvania. The job was a godsend, really, but she wished she were happier about it. She wished it felt more like a choice and less like a summons.
The timing had been fortuitous, almost eerie. Meaghan lost control at work and shouted at an elderly constituent who had denoted her the corrupt face of Evil Big Government. This encounter led to a second shouting match, this time with her boss, which didn’t end well. Her outburst could be blamed in part on her frustration with the latest round of political scandals to break in the office, but the real reason was the call she had just received from her younger brother, Russ.
“Dad has Alzheimer’s, Meg. I need help,” Russ said in a flat emotionless voice, without a greeting or any attempt at small talk. Given the combustible nature of Meaghan’s relationship with their father, she and Russ both knew there was no point in sugarcoating this request.
“Where are you?” she asked, feeling sick.
“In Eldrich, in his house. I’ve been here for a while and it’s too much for me to do alone.” Still the flat tone, the lack of emotion.
“Well, what do you expect me to do from out here?” Meaghan hadn’t seen her father in more than ten years. She saw her brother more often, but he hadn’t made his usual winter trip out to Arizona the last couple of years and now she knew why. Russ emailed her with news from time to time. She knew that Russ’s third marriage had fallen apart within months of the wedding, but he’d never given her even a hint about their father’s illness.
“Damn it, Meg, don’t get all lawyer on me,” he said. “I can’t do this on my own anymore. It’s too much. I need you to move back home.”
Eldrich isn’t my home, she thought, but knew enough not to say it aloud. “Are there any nursing homes or facilities you can put him in?”
“I tried that. It was a disaster. He begged me to take him home.”
She could hear the naked plea in Russ’s voice. He was near tears. “Meg, he asks for you all the time.”
Trying to put a tough veneer over her growing fear, Meaghan said, “Yeah, Russ, I just bet he does.”
“I am so goddamn sick of this shit between you and Dad,” Russ said. “He’s dying and we both need your help.” He took a few ragged breaths. “Your part in this family didn’t end when Mom died.”
Meaghan clung to the phone, staring at her feet, her face hot with anger and, she had to admit, shame. “You have my attention, Russ. But you’re asking a lot. I can’t simply pick up and leave. I’ve got a job. And a house.”
And, she could barely admit to herself, nothing more. A government law practice that was slowly killing her and a house she hid in to recharge from her dreadful job. She had friends, of course. She’d lived in Phoenix for more than thirty years. But her closest friends all found husbands and had babies before their biological clocks ran out while she hadn’t, and the gulf between them grew wider and wider. There was, she had to admit, almost nothing to keep her in Arizona.
But move in with her father? In Pennsylvania? It was the last thing she would choose to do, all things being equal. But they weren’t equal. Her father was dying and her brother wanted her to step up and do her share.
“Meg, I know it’s a lot to ask. But if it helps, the city’s lawyer quit a few weeks ago and they need a new one. They still talk about how much they miss Dad. With your experience, if you want the job it’s yours.”
Matthew Keele served as Eldrich’s solicitor for nearly two decades and retired, with great reluctance, when his health began to fail. The city had gone through a couple of lawyers since, both of whom washed out quickly, and Matthew continued to hold the job in spirit and legend if not in actuality.
“Russ, I . . .” She was, for once, at a loss for words.
Russ relented. In a softer voice, he said, “I know this is a lot to spring on you all of a sudden and if it wasn’t so bad, I wouldn’t ask. Think about it. Okay?”
“Can you get any help in town? A nurse or something?”
“Some of the neighbors are helping. Dad has a lot of friends here, but . . .”
For a long moment neither of them spoke. Russ broke the silence. “Could you at least come out for a visit? It might calm him down a bit. He’s pretty agitated about wanting to see you.”
Meaghan sighed, not sure if she dreaded more the thought of seeing her father or staying away and never seeing him again. “Sure, I can fly out for a few days, but I’ll need to reschedule some stuff. Let me figure it all out and I’ll call you with the dates. Give me the best number to reach you.”
Russ gave her his up-to-date contact info and the call ended as abruptly as it began.
A few minutes later, Meaghan got into her shouting match with the elderly conspiracy theorist. Her boss, the elected head of her office, had been looking for an excuse to knock her down a few pegs. He summoned her into his office and more shouting ensued. What miniscule respect Meaghan once had for the man had devolved over time into pure contempt. When he called her unprofessional, she called him twenty pounds of shit in a ten-pound bag.
And just like that, Meaghan severed one of the two tethers holding her in Arizona. As she cleaned out her office under the watchful eye of a security guard, her cell phone rang. Seeing an Eldrich area code, she answered. It was the mayor of Eldrich offering her the city solicitor’s job.
The pay was adequate for the middle of nowhere, particularly if she lived in her father’s house. She would supervise a deputy solicitor and two support staff. The county handled all criminal matters. The deputy solicitor handled any civil litigation, mostly defending claims against the city for sidewalk slip-and-falls, civil rights complaints against the tiny city police force, cars being nicked by snow plows, that sort of thing. A small law firm in Williamsport, Hallam and Associates, provided backup when needed.
Meaghan would advise the mayor, the council, and city staff members on all legal matters. She would prepare contracts and ordinances and manage litigation, which she took to mean supervising her deputy and reviewing the bills whenever the town hired Hallam and Associates as outside counsel. She didn’t even have to take the bar exam to get admitted to practice in Pennsylvania. The mayor must have spoken to Russ before calling her, because he made sure to point out that the job would give her the “flexibility to take care of things at home.”
She couldn’t say no to a gift-wrapped job offer ten minutes after getting fired. They even threw in a moving allowance.
So, less than twenty-four hours after her brother’s call for help, Meaghan found herself unemployed in Arizona, soon to be employed in Pennsylvania, and talking with a realtor about selling her house. Twenty-four hours after that, before the house was even listed, a cash investor made a generous offer sight unseen.
She said goodbye to friends and acquaintances. They expressed sadness at her leaving despite having spent very little time with her during the last few years. A mere two weeks after Russ’s cry for help, Meaghan hit the road, with thirty plus years of life reduced to the contents of a small moving container to be delivered to her father’s house in Eldrich.
Things happened so fast, it wasn’t until she was actually driving that she had the chance to think about what she’d done and regret it. She wanted to turn back before she hit Albuquerque, but pressed on. By the time she got to Denver, she had convinced herself that it was a temporary move. If her father was declining at the rate Russ claimed, he wouldn’t live much longer. She’d stick around to settle his estate, work at the city job at least a year to keep her resume from looking too flaky, and ponder her next move.
Crossing the Great Plains, despite her best efforts, she couldn’t talk herself out of the realization that the ease with which she shed her entire life proved how empty and pointless that life had been. She’d been restive and unhappy for a while now, but when she thought of changing careers, she couldn’t figure out what else to do. Meaghan was her father’s daughter and a lawyer to the bone. Without a husband or kids, the job was all Meaghan had. If she wasn’t a lawyer, what was she?
She hit the Rust Belt too tired to think and simply drove. Now she was in Pennsylvania at the exit from I-80 that would take her north to Eldrich. Russ had told her to stay on that road for about nine miles until she got to an abandoned gas station and then call him and he’d guide her in. When she told him she’d use her GPS, he laughed and said, “Good luck with that.” The deep twisting valleys and ravines were not amenable to GPS. Trust the satellites, he told her, and she’d find yourself at the bottom of a quarry or on a rutted lumber road mired in the ever-present mud. He wouldn’t even give her written directions, claiming it was easier to simply talk her through it.
Meaghan drove north. More green, more trees crowding to the very edge of the road. It was like driving through a leaf-covered tunnel. Lumber was big business around here, but to her it looked like they hadn’t made a dent.
She shivered. The dim forests hemmed her in on either side. She felt a visceral stab of longing for the open desert stretching to meet the bright clear Arizona sky.
“What the hell have I done?” she muttered aloud for about the hundredth time. As if in answer, her cell phone rang. She jumped in her seat with a yelp, jerked the wheel, and almost swerved off the road.
The caller ID showed Russ’s number. With a vicious stab, she hit the dashboard button that connected her to her cell phone.
“What?” she growled.
“Enjoying our drive, are we?” Now that he had Meaghan trapped and knew help was on the way, he was far more jovial.
Russ laughed. “Where are you?”
“The heavily forested ass end of nowhere.”
“You off the interstate yet?” He could barely conceal his glee, the bastard.
“Um . . .” She squinted at the odometer. “About eight miles up Witch Hollow Road. Who comes up with these names?”
Ignoring her crack about the road name, Russ said, “Great. Stay on the phone and I’ll guide you in. If the call drops, pull the car over and I’ll find you.”
He was making her nuts with this. “Russ, give me some damn directions already. I just drove across America. I don’t need an escort.”
“Do it my way for once, please?” Tension crept into his voice. “If you get lost out there, we’ll never find you.”
“I’ll toss bread crumbs out the car window, Hansel.”
“Ha. Ha.” Russ’s voice dripped sarcasm, but with a hint of worry. “I’m serious. People disappear out in those woods. You make a wrong turn, run out of gas, and all we find is the empty car. Humor me, all right?”
Meaghan sighed in disgust. “Fine. Okay, I’m passing the closed gas station. Now what?”
He talked her in by phone, like an air traffic controller. She would never admit it, but she was glad he had insisted on it. The thick woods obscured all landmarks and her sense of direction abandoned her. She now believed that people could be swallowed up by all those trees and simply vanish. Driving after dark must be a nightmare out here, she thought.
Just as she felt something close to claustrophobia coming on, she came around a blind curve, and the forest ended. The road wound into a lovely green valley. Eldrich lay below, tiny and perfect. A green square, surrounded by ornate buildings, anchored the town. Grand Victorian mansions lined the streets north of the square. To the south and west sat tidy bungalows and cottages. On the east side of town, a river flowed like a ribbon. Rolling farmland surrounded it all.
The sun finally made an appearance. A single beam shone through the thick clouds. The river sparkled for a moment, and then the clouds closed again. But it raised Meaghan’s spirits a bit. In spite of her homesickness, she was dazzled. A charming little town, Eldrich shone like a bright jewel after the miles of dark forest.
Despite Russ’s concern, the call didn’t drop and he still spoke to her from the dashboard. “So?” he asked. “What do you think?”
“Damn. It’s stupid pretty. You didn’t lie.”
“Wait until you see Dad’s house, Gretel. You’ll want to eat it up.” Now that she was out of the woods, he gave her directions to the house on Holly Lane and hung up.
Meaghan drove through the quiet streets. In the warm Sunday twilight, a restful calm presided over the town. She’d expected things to be a bit shabbier up close, but no. It was even more charming when she saw the details. Her mood lifted. This might be okay after all.