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Authors: Jeffery X Martin

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Hunting Witches

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Praise for Jeffery X Martin and
Hunting Witches

 

"X can conjure dread like a sorcerer. His mastery of horror is something to envy and
Hunting Witches
is a damn fine feast for the imagination."

—Tim Murr, author of
City Long Suffering

 

"Martin's novel is proof a talented writer can keep the horror novel alive without disconnecting it from history. His writing comes from parents like Ramsey Campbell and Charles L. Grant, but his gifts for creating memorable characters and grasping the complexities of how we live today give him an original voice. This novel breathes with a heartfelt terror. Read it once and you'll recommend it to a friend before the back cover closes."

—Axel Kohagen, co-author of
Orphans

 

Hunting Witches

Jeffery X Martin

 

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

SHADOW WORK PUBLISHING

 

 

Copyright © 2016 by Jeffery X Martin

All rights reserved.

Author Photo © Jeffery X Martin, 2012

Cover Design by Erin Sunday

 

Also by Jeffery X Martin

Short Stories About You
(collection)

Black Friday: An Elders Keep Collection

Tarotsphere
(collection)

Visit
www.elderskeep.com

(Ask for Babs.)

and
Amazon

 

 

Part One

Vanishing Pointe

 

Penny Renfro was smiling too much.

She always did that when she was nervous. Her mouth locked into a professional rictus that allowed every visible light source to glint off of her braces. The invisible ones were too pricy, so Dr. Mike, the local dentist, had installed a set of shiny metal ones for next to nothing. They hurt. The aluminum cages dug into her gums, making them bleed almost constantly. Dr. Mike said that was natural and the pain would go away. It hadn’t.

Now she stood in front of two out-of-towners, with her bank account empty and a gleaming blood-enhanced smile on her face, hoping they wouldn’t notice how desperate she was.

“The sub-division was platted in 2010,” Penny said, “and this particular house was built in 2012.” She could feel sweat running down her back and sides, and the urge to pee was rising. It seemed like every ounce of liquid in her body wanted to escape at the same time.

The woman, tall and brown, walked around the kitchen, her hands grazing the faux marble countertops, examining the better-than-average cabinetry. Her hair flowed from her scalp like strands from an old fiber optic lamp, and she kept blowing loose black rows of curls out of her eyes. The man, standard issue Caucasian, pale and business-like, couldn’t keep his eyes off the baseboards. Penny wanted to tell him he couldn’t physically see into the foundation of the house. He did not have X-ray vision. If there were any cracks, mold or flooding, she would have told him. She had no choice. It was the law.

“There are two bedrooms,” Penny said, her shaky voice echoing in the empty house. “The master bedroom has a garden tub. The second bedroom is smaller, of course, but the perfect size for a child’s room.”

The couple laughed. “No kids for us, thank you,” said the woman.

“Right,” said the man. “We just ate.”

Penny laughed, unsure whether that was a joke or not. You meet a lot of strange people selling real estate. One time, Penny had sold a house to a married couple who were professional clowns. Can you imagine? But that had been a long time ago, in another town.

“The basement is basically finished,” Penny said. “There’s some shelving already on the walls and a drop ceiling. Linoleum on the floor. It’s ideal for a home theater room or an office.”

The woman gasped and pointed out the kitchen window. “Mark?” she called to her husband. “Come here!”

Mark stopped trying to stare through the walls and joined his wife at the sink. “Holy shit,” he whispered.

“There are standing stones in the backyard,” she said.

“Unbelievable,” Mark whispered.

“We can have those rocks removed,” Penny interjected. “I don’t know why the landscapers didn’t have them pulled out to begin with.” She was sweating, big cold rivers rolling down her neck, underneath her jacket and into the crack of her ass. Soon the squirming would start and that was both professional
and
sexy.

Mark raised his hands. “No, no. The stones are great. I like them.” He motioned to his wife. “Nika likes them.”

Penny sighed in relief.

“And the houses on either side of us are empty, is that right?” Nika asked. Her voice was lovely and deep, almost a purr.

“Yes, ma’am,” Penny said. “In fact, if you were to buy this house, you would be the only people in Vanishing Pointe. The hope was that building this subdivision would bring more people into Elders Keep. That maybe the Keep would become a bedroom community for Bell Plains, like Kennesaw is to Atlanta. It didn’t work. We just had some people who already lived here move in and move right back out. Nobody new. We hardly ever get anyone new.”

Mark grabbed Nika’s hands. “What do you think?”

Nika shrugged, then started giggling, the corners of her pale green eyes crinkling as she smiled.

Grinning, Mark turned to Penny. “Where do we sign?”

Penny laughed, thinking of the commission that would soon be headed her way. “We’ll start the paperwork this afternoon. Do you have someone selling your house in Atlanta?”

Nika shook her head. “We’re going month by month in an apartment. How long do you think it will take for us to close?”

Penny shrugged. “It’s a clear title. No one has lived in this house before, so we won’t have to search that out. We’ll get working on the financing and once that’s established, it shouldn’t take long at all. Ninety days, maybe? Fewer, if we’re lucky.”

Nika looked concerned. “Do you think Bo will be okay with that, Mark?”

“We’ll ask him over dinner,” Mark said. “We’re supposed to meet him in a couple hours.”

Nika nodded, her wavy hair flying as she did.

Penny, with her limp blonde hair, was entranced. She had spent her entire life in the South, living in towns where the population had been almost entirely white. Black people were a rarity, an anomaly. To see a black woman in Elders Keep was almost like seeing a scene from a television show come to life, and Penny was filled with an awkward wonder.

“Mrs. Pendleton,” Penny asked, “I don’t mean to sound strange, but you’re a beautiful woman. Are you Egyptian? Maybe Persian?”

Nika cocked an eyebrow. “Persian? Seriously? Maybe somewhere back in the bloodline, but as far as I know, I’m just another Atlanta-American.”

This answer confused Penny and it showed on her face. Nika smiled gently.

“I’m just a black girl from Georgia, honey,” Nika said. “Nothing special about me.”

Her husband came up behind her and put his arm around her waist. “I wouldn’t say that,” he said. Nika pretended to be surprised and slapped Mark lightly on the back of the hand.

“When are y’all heading home tomorrow?” Penny asked. “What time?”

“I’ve got some stuff to work out in the morning at my new job,” Mark said. “I figure we’ll probably head out of Bell Plains around eleven-thirty or noon. That’s what, twenty minutes away from here?”

Penny nodded. “About that. Twenty minutes, maybe half an hour. I was just curious, wondering if you’ll have time to swing by the office and get some preliminary paperwork going.”

The Pendletons nodded. “That will get us back home around five, maybe five-thirty,” Nika said.

“Rush hour,” Mark said. “You drive, babe.”

“I’ve got your number in my phone, Penny,” Nika said. “I’ll give you a call when we’re on our way back to town.” She extended her hand. Penny took it and squeezed, right as a horrible stomach cramp hit. It was like touching a fork to an electrical outlet. Nika’s eyes widened and she pulled her hand out of Penny’s sudden death grip. She extended and retracted her fingers to make sure they weren’t broken.

Penny shoved her hand into her jacket pocket, offering only a weak smile as an apology. Sweet Jesus, what was going on? Just that black woman’s touch sent waves of energy through her body. It felt like her insides were muddled and melting.

“Well, then,” she said, “I’ll wait for your call in the morning. Thank you. Thank you both so much.” She extended her arm towards the front door, like a spokesmodel on an infomercial. The Pendletons followed her cue and left the house.

Mark and Nika stood in the driveway. Surrounded by dry lawns and pieces of land dotted with wooden stakes and orange vinyl flags, the sub-division seemed like an outpost, and the two of them desert pioneers. Mark thought briefly about the concept of terraforming.

“It’s quiet,” Mark said. “
Too
quiet.”

Nika rolled her eyes. “You watch too many movies.”

“You don’t watch enough of them,” Mark replied.

Nika marveled at the yard. All that space! So much dirt! And that was just the front! There was still plenty of room in the back. Those standing stones gave the place a magical feel, a sense of wonder and strangeness that Nika loved. There would be more room for herbs and vegetables than she had ever been able to call her own. She glanced at her hands; her nails were too clean. She wanted to dig into the dry ground right then, raking and furrowing, breaking up clumps of brown dirt. Maybe she could construct some raised beds. All she would need were a few railroad ties and some mulch. She could start a compost pile in the far corner of the backyard! Tomatoes! Potatoes! Snapdragons! Phlox!

“Nika!” Mark said, tapping her shoulder. She jumped a little, and then laughed.

“You caught me,” she said.

Mark nodded. “I know the garden planning face.”

“Yeah,” Nika said, her voice dreamy and far away. “It’s going to be Paradise.”

“Paradise shouldn’t require a mortgage,” he replied.

She turned to him, an eyebrow raised in mock scorn. He was smiling back, ready to disarm her, his blue eyes showing the excitement his words hid. That grin was the first thing she had noticed about Mark eleven years before, when she had stood behind him in line at Tate Center, waiting to get copies made. Mark had been wearing a Miami Hurricanes shirt.

“A Florida boy going to school in Georgia,” she said. “How novel.”

He turned around to see who was making fun of him. His face was angry at first, but when he got a good look at Nika, he smiled. It wasn’t a perfect smile, by any stretch. His top two teeth overlapped a bit, and his bottom teeth weren’t perfectly straight, so it wasn’t a romance novel bullshit moment. There was warmth in that face, though, and a solid sincerity that made Nika stop and consider.

“Huh,” Mark said. “A smart-ass Georgia girl at UGA. Who would have thought it?”

Stranger things have happened in less time, and within the week, Mark and Nika were inseparable. She sat with him until late at night, helping him learn coding as he worked on his computer science degree. He learned about osmosis by osmosis as she plowed through the requirements for her Bachelor’s degree in botany.

They moved in together during their junior year, much to the chagrin of Mark’s grandmother, who fretted about the possibility of “half-breed mulatto babies.” Mark’s mama would tell the old hag to keep her mouth shut, insisting that Nika was as sweet as could be. Nika brushed it off. Old behaviors died hard in the New South.

Mark and Nika married soon after graduation, taking up residence in an unincorporated Atlanta suburb called Tucker. Their apartment was cramped. There weren’t enough electrical outlets. The rent checks went to a Post Office box somewhere in the ass end of the Sunshine State. Getting things repaired, like the dripping faucet in the bathroom, was impossible. Nika crammed the windowsills with potted plants and Mark covered the walls with fractal art prints. The traffic never seemed to stop, and all night long, they could hear the cars and trucks rumbling through. Mark used to say he could get to work half an hour early, as long as he left an hour in advance.

It was fine for a while. Anything can be.

Mark spent his days creating websites for clients who didn’t know the difference between a style sheet and a newspaper. Nika worked part time in the lawn and garden area of a large hardware store. The ends were being met, and sometimes there was a little left over for a night out or some wine.

But after a few years in the Tucker apartment and no sign of advancement or increase on the job front, it was becoming plain that something had to change. Nika was fidgety and had taken to staring out the window, at what little sky she could see, for long periods of time. She would lose focus during conversations, sometimes wandering off in the middle of a talk to care for her plants.

Nika lay in bed with her back towards Mark for the third night in a row. Mark touched her shoulder, but she didn’t respond. “All right, goddammit,” he said. “If you’re not gonna fuck me, you can at least talk to me. What is wrong with you?”

She turned over. “What are you on about?”

“You know damned good and well what I’m on about, Nika.” He rolled over onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “Talk to me, baby.”

Nika exhaled, and then took a deep breath.
Oh, shit,
Mark thought.
Here it comes.
He always forgot that if he asked Nika what was on her mind, she would tell him. Sometimes, he regretted asking.

“I love you, Paleface,” she said. “I love my life with you. But we have got to move.”

“You mean, to a bigger apartment?”

Nika gave him the stink-eye, and he closed his mouth.

“I can hear the people next door through the walls, and it doesn’t matter if they’re shitting, fucking or whispering. I don’t want to hear other people shitting, Mark. That does not enrich my life.”

“I can understand that point of view,” Mark said.

“We get sunlight in this place an hour a day. An hour! Even my healthy plants look like old papyrus. I don’t have any garden space!”

“You’ve got flowers,” he said.

“I’ve got a Wandering Jew and an African violet. Those are the only plants that have survived living in this suburban cave. I don’t know how the violet has made it this long. And while I certainly enjoy reenacting the book of Exodus on my windowsill, it’s not enough. I need an herb garden. I want to grow fresh sage and Echinacea! I want tomatoes that didn’t come from an artisanal market or a hothouse in Florida!”

“Don’t knock Florida, babe,” Mark said.

“Something needs to change, Mark. And it needs to change soon.”

“All right,” he said. “I’m listening. I hear you.”

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