The Sunday Witch Hunters: Where Four Roads Meet
Good evening and welcome to episode ten of the Sunday Witch Hunters! Whoo! Whoo!
The Sunday Witch Hunters follows new exorcist Joe Malone and his adventures with a gang of backwater exorcists. In episode nine, it seemed to Joe that the more he learns about his fellow exorcists, the more questions he has. But even as Joe makes fast friends with the eclectic Balthazar Knox and the very lovely Lily Buchanan, and faces the scourge of the night, his inexperience blinds him to a far greater plight going on beneath his feet: Hell’s infernal war machines are on the move, and the Muraluna Witch Hunters may be all that stands between Hell … and hell on earth.
If you haven’t already, you can read the first episode here. For everyone else, please keep hands inside the carriage at all times, and enjoy tonight’s episode of…
The Sunday Witch Hunters
Episode 10: Where Four Roads Meet
Monday was school as usual.
Joe had one friend in Lochan Key High, and that Campbell “Kammy” Kelleher. Kammy had one interest in school, and that was as somewhere quiet to play his PSP. Or, less often, his little sister’s crumb-filled DS. The first time Kammy laid eyes on Joe he’d said, “Our eyes have met. We must do battle.”
The ensuing arm wrestle had proved them so evenly matched that they had strained and sweated for an hour before the vice principal strode into the science lab and told them to get into his office, now. They spent the next three weeks in detention together, surviving all manner of wannabe tattooists, aspirin dealers, Kamasutra illustrators, spray-taggers, actual artists, pyromaniacs and men too old to be in school.
It had been rough. But that three weeks made them thick as thieves. Or in Kammy’s case, maybe just thick. Joe didn’t like to think that about his one friend, but nor could he deny the undeniable air of thickness surrounding Campbell Kelleher.
Not that Kammy wasn’t smart. He was obviously really clever at bleep-blooping on his portable games systems and he was ingenious when it came to skipping last period. It was more that he never asked questions. Whenever he came up against a boss fight where the solution wasn’t immediately obvious, he would undoubtedly consult the internet. And when Joe mentioned Drake, back in the days before Joe had known Drake was a shinigami, Kammy had accepted Joe’s weird observations about a guy he couldn’t see, immediately and without question.
In that sense, Kammy was a good friend. A very good friend. It is easy to speak your mind around someone open to suggestion. So easy, that when Kammy dropped into his usual seat beside Joe seconds before rollcall and casually demanded where the hell Joe had been all weekend, Joe very nearly told him.
He stopped himself just in time. “I was at a – at a shop with my grandparents.”
Kammy pulled his PSP out of his bag and propped his boots on the desk. “Yeah? Musta been some shop if you missed out on Sunday ice cream parlour night.”
“It was great.” Joe could have slapped himself. Idiot! What kind of moron went to the shops with their grandparents? Well, probably a lot of people did. But they didn’t have to boast about it! Hastily, he added, “What did you do, then? Aside from Sunday ice cream parlour night.”
Kammy shrugged. “Dunno.” He shook his PSP. “Bleep bloop, you know, it’s the life.”
Mr Jervis risked lifting his head above his desk to call roll, and Kammy forgot Joe in favour of his PSP. Joe regarded Kammy from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t help but feel he was betraying Kammy by lying to him. The problem was, thought Joe, it was weird enough that he was seeing ghosts and demons and having meetings with exorcists; telling people about it would land him a one way ticket to Crankville.
And maybe it would be worse than that. Kammy was such an unquestioning friend that he would probably believe Joe, but then he might believe Joe so much that he went and told everyone else about what Joe had said. Then what would happen? At the very least, Joe supposed he would be kicked out of the Witch Hunters. Worse? Hauled off to the mad house, maybe?
Probably since there were no proper mad houses these days, Joe would just be forced to live with the Chief. That would be quite mad enough.
The idea bothered him so much that instead of catching the bus home after school as he’d planned, he got off at the second stop and walked down the street to the library.
Even in the mid-afternoon the May sun was pallid and mocking from behind a scrap of dishwater-coloured cirrus clouds, colours robbed from the buildings until they were as bleak and grey as the concrete footpath. The library hunched like a wet black cat on the corner of the block, its yellow windows glaring out at the drab street. Joe pushed aside his reservations and jogged through the thin rain, beads of freezing water curling under the collar of his jacket and sliding down his neck.
He slowed to a halt in the warm air soaking the library’s foyer. Ahh. It was like standing in a river of magma. He stood between the theft detectors in the warm breeze as the heat was sucked out onto the cold street behind him, the automated doors wide open, and scanned the rows of shelves around the front desk for any sign of Knox. A polite, stern cough summoned his attention to the fore.
Neila Speer, a femme fatale in her grey skirt suit and silky beige stockings, looked Joe up and down behind her wireframe glasses. “Malone,” she greeted without warmth. “Do you have business here aside from letting out the heat?”
“Uh.” Joe shuffled into the library. “I’m looking for the Chief. Is he here today? Um. So you work here too?”
“I do. I’m sure I mentioned it to you before. And yes, Knox is here. His office is on the third floor, behind the archives.”
Joe figured he might as well go ahead on up. Neila waited for him to crabwalk away before she swept outside to join the rest of the icy breezes. She didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t look back. She never did.
At this time of day, the library was quiet. The throngs of seniors and mothers with young children had left, and the teenagers with their contraband Mars Bars and smart phones had yet to wander in. Barely a soul flickered between the shelves. Joe’s footsteps echoed on the stairway.
But if the ground floor was quiet, the first floor was a cemetery, and the second floor was a ghost town. By time he reached the third floor, where the archives and microfilms were kept, Joe’s ears were straining against the silence. Dust motes hung in the few weak lances of sunlight filtering through the high, grimy windows. The shelves seemed to hum with the sensation of too many books gone too long unread.
“Hello? Chief?” Joe called. The silence dwarfed his voice. He went to call out again, and the shelf beside him spat a row of microfilm to the carpet. Joe yelped and scuttled sideways.
The Chief’s unruly black mop stuck through the space on the shelf. He checked the aisle away from Joe, then towards him, and smiled in recognition.
“Hallo, Joe,” he said, oblivious to Joe sucking in breath through his gritted teeth, “could you fetch those microfilms for me? I thought you were a gremlin. Only way to catch a gremlin is to sneak up on it, you know.”
“Oh yes? Er. Gremlin?”
Bloody hell, thought Joe, I’ve only been up here fifteen seconds and he’s already talking about things that don’t exist.
“Yes. They’ve been stealing the archives on the topic of raising cattle.” Knox scowled. “Silly bloody creatures. We’re in a library; where are they going to put livestock?”
Joe wondered where he should go with this and decided he shouldn’t. “Er, anyway. If you’re busy, I’ll go, but er, if you’ve got a minute, I wanted to ah, ask you about the club.”
“Shoot,” said Knox, and settled in place on the shelf.
Disturbed at the prospect of conversing with a disembodied head, Joe ducked around the shelf into Knox’s aisle.
“You’re no fun,” Knox grumbled good-naturedly, retreating from the bookcase. “I was going to scout for gremlins from there.”
“I’ll help you look,” Joe said, without having the slightest idea of what he would be looking for, or at if he saw it. Tiny cattle ranchers, maybe? Knox seemed satisfied with the offer however, so Joe steadied himself with a breath and asked his question. “Can I – what if I – what’ll happen if I tell someone I’m a Witch Hunter?”
There. Out. Now the pause like the silence after the bomb is dropped.
“Boom,” Knox grinned. “I suspect they’ll know.”
“Who?” said Joe.
“Whoever you tell about being a Witch Hunter. Unless they’re deaf and not in a position to lip read, or an animal incapable of grasping the concept of exorcism. If you manage to avoid that, then I’m quite certain that’s what will happen; they’ll know.”
Growing desperate, Joe demanded, “Is that a problem?”
“If it is, maybe you should have considered that before you ran your mouth.”
“I haven’t told anybody yet!”
Silence prevailed between Joe and Knox. Joe was ready to run at any second. Knox appeared equally tense. There was a shrill giggle from further down the aisle.
“Ah! I knew it!” Knox whirled on the sound. “Here, Joe! We’ve a gremlin to catch!”
Fifteen minutes later, panting and exhausted, the men regarded the fruits of their labour. A scrawny brown gremlin crouched sulking in its jam jar prison. Its eyes were slitted and entirely red, a bit like Bliss Van Hook’s when she was mad, which was always. The gremlin looked a bit like a human and a lot like a lizard, was covered in wrinkled skin with a handkerchief wrapped around its waist, and standing straight was about as tall as Joe’s hand.
“It really is exceptionally similar to Van Hook,” Knox remarked, tapping the jar. “I think I’ll call it Kilturney.”
He and Joe sat slumped in the armchairs in the third storey office, a small space walled off from the archives. Books of no common variety were stacked in haphazard towers around the room, and there was a radio buried somewhere, droning so softly that Joe couldn’t make out the words. The ceiling bulb was bare and the light it cast was amber. Directly opposite Knox’s crowded desk was a poster for fire safety. It was the only poster in the room. There were no photographs. Joe could almost see Neila stomping up the stairs and tacking the fire safety poster to the wall in ire at the state of the office. He smiled at the image. Knox caught his eye, raised his eyebrows in question.
Joe nodded to the gremlin jar on the desk instead. “Will it go to Canberra?”
Knox peered over a stack of papers at Kilturney. “Oh no, Canberra is overrun with gremlins as it is. I’ll find him a new home where he can’t thieve my agricultural archives. Hm, Kilturney?”
Kilturney fixed its red glare on Knox, then wrenched one hook-clawed finger in a hard line across its throat. Knox laughed.
“Oh, he thinks he can kill me. You’ll rue the day you try, creature. Now, Joe. You asked a question. Did I answer it?”
Joe searched for any hint of humour in the other man’s face, found none. “Not particularly. I mean, I wouldn’t mind a different answer.”
“Can I hear the question again? I’ve got gremlins on the brain this afternoon.”
Resigned, Joe ventured, “I have a friend at school, and I want to tell him about the Witch Hunters. Does that make problems for you?”
He was stunned. He’d asked a question without stammering or delving into absurdities even once. Maybe Kilturney had a calming presence. Joe glanced at the gremlin. It caught his eye and flicked a booger at him, then returned to rooting around in its loincloth.
Above acknowledging such ignoble behaviour, Knox said, “That really depends on your friend. There’s no shame in telling people, but you have to be prepared to not be believed, or even worse, have them believe you. If that happens, and your friend is possessed of a big mouth, then it creates no end of headaches for us. I for one have no desire to be called upon at all hours by media, sceptics, protest groups, religious groups, wannabes and weirdos. We must also have respect for the privacy of our fellow Witch Hunters. Forget that, and you will soon raise the hackles of all involved. Believe you me, that’s the last thing you want.”
Joe nodded. “That’s what I thought. Maybe it’s better if I don’t say anything.”
“Use your discretion, whatever you chose to do.” Knox thought for a moment. On a whim, he said, “Say, Joe. You’ve told us already that Ms Buchanan tricked you into the dread pits of the Sunday Witch Hunters. What about before that? Were you always able to communicate with the undead?”
“I dunno. Maybe. I never paid them much attention before.” Joe frowned. Inspiration struck. “I thought maybe it was just, you know, made up. Like maybe I was just dreaming things. You see that stuff on TV, and magazines and stuff run your horoscope, and I guess most people have their superstitions. Sometimes it’s spooky stuff. But unless you’re home alone, you never really think of it being anything other than made up.”
“What changed your mind?”
“It’s sort of a story,” said Joe, squirming.
“Well I’m not going out there until that mob clears off,” Knox gestured rather savagely to the teenagers filtering upstairs in packs of three and four. “So if you’re inclined to tell it, it’s a story I’d like to hear.”
Joe knew he was had. He settled into the armchair, his eyes on Kilturney as the gremlin chewed on its skinny arm. After a few moments of meditation, Joe thought he knew where to begin.
I was on my way home from school (he said), and I’d been walking for about a fifteen minutes and had another five to go before I reached the hospital.
My mum is a nurse there, you see, and she finished her shift at five, so if I hung around the hospital for an hour or so then we would go home together. Otherwise it was two hours on the bus. I was still on my learner’s licence then so I never drove to school.
The cicadas were having a fine time of things. It was December, and hot, and there was barely anybody out. Even the cars were all up at the school end of town. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Hume’s Cross but it’s a gateway to nowhere. I’d walked blocks without seeing anybody when I reached the crossroads of the old highway and the main street, though no one uses the highway now the bypass is in place, and that end of the main street is a torn-up track with a few buildings per block. After the hospital, the street empties out into the dust, and that’s it for Hume’s Cross.
So in light of all this I wasn’t surprised to see a lady lost at the intersection of the old highway and Main Street. It was weirder to see someone new in town than it was to see them lost. I could tell she was lost the way she was looking at the corner sign and then up and down the street like she didn’t know what to make of it. She had a sort of floaty look about her. I thought she was pretty without needing to see her face. White dress, hat in her hands. She looked like she should be sweating in the heat, and as I crossed the street towards her I could see strands of hair sticking to her cheek, but she didn’t seem all that bothered by it.
The street sign she was looking at was bent so the arm to the hospital pointed to the sky, and the arm to the highway was guiding her into the house across the road. I tapped her shoulder and said,
“If you need ’em, I can give you directions.”
I startled her, though I figured she would have heard me by then. She turned around with a hand on her heart.
“Can you really?” she said. “I’m terribly lost. I’d so appreciate a your help.”
Man, she was gorgeous. Full figure, this long, dark, straight hair, shiny as silk. Cleavage a man could drown in. Too nice for me. Anyway, I told her, “The hospital is that way, another five minutes’. Town, shops, post office are all fifteen minutes that way.”
Then she gave this laugh, bitter like, maybe a little frightened. She said to me, “I’ve walked through this crossroads three times now, and I’m afraid if I walk through again I’ll be stuck here forever.”
On any other day I might have laughed. But I could tell by her tone she wasn’t kidding, and that outright killed my humour. She went on to say that she was trying to get from the hospital to town, but every time she walked straight along the main street she wound up back at the old highway. Her voice shook as she spoke, her pupils dilated under the bright sun. Sweat was beading on her forehead now, and I was worried she was going to faint.
“How about I walk with you to the hospital?” I said. “I know it’s not the way you want to go, but at least if you wind up here again, you’ll have me with you.”
Not much of an offer. I didn’t know what else I could do. The mercury must’ve been pushing 38, and coming off the pavement it felt double that. She couldn’t just stand in the crossroads all afternoon in that heat. She agreed she would go with me. She smiled as she said it. She even put her hand on my arm as we crossed the old highway and went north towards the hospital.
We walked for a block, not saying a word. I can’t tell you how tense I was. Her fingers were digging into my arm harder than was comfortable. I kept track of the houses we passed. Each one I recognised, I checked it off my mental list. As absurd as it seemed, I was dreading seeing that old highway up ahead of us, like the lady said she had. She didn’t let go of my arm.
Next thing I knew, there we were. Main and Hospital Street. A car went by on Last, like none had done since a block before I met the lady. I saw people walking further north on the main, where there’s a park right before the hospital, and I realised it had been a long while since I’d seen anyone other than the lady.
I couldn’t feel her fingers on my arm, but when I looked down, I could see her hand squeezing tight on my elbow. She met my eyes. She was my height, tall for a woman. Her eyes were shining softly, beautiful. She smiled at me and I wasn’t game to smile in return.
“We made it,” she said, and she sounded as relieved as I felt. “How can I thank you?”
A braver man might have asked for her phone number, or at least her name. I just said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m glad to help.”
She laughed at me. “Don’t be silly. I would have been trapped there if it weren’t for you. And I’ve messed with this plane so thoroughly already that no one will notice one tiny favour.”
My heart skipped a beat. Maybe she would give me her number without me even asking her. I was thinking too hard about that to notice her words didn’t make much sense. I mean, we don’t even have an air strip in town. She took my left hand and pushed it against my chest. She kept smiling. I thought maybe she was going to kiss me.
“There,” she said, without the kiss. “To make up for the one that was lost.”
I felt a coldness spread through me, starting at my head and chest, and then the rest of me, and it wasn’t a coldness of a cloud shadow or a chill breeze, but of something inanimate, of cold things deep beneath the ground. And there was this noise, the clanging of a bell. A big bell, not pretty sound but a brutal one, and it made my heartbeat quicker to hear it.
Then it was gone. The cold, the noise, the lady; all gone. I was alone on the corner, sweating under the sun, hearing people and cars up the road, and of the lady there was not a single hair. My hand was up against my chest, so I pulled it up to my face to see if I’d been dreaming.
I heard a whisper then, from behind me and maybe above, and maybe not at all. “I’ve changed things. Feel free to choose the rest.”
When I turned, I was still alone. I began to think I had been all along. Anyway I was looking a fool standing on the street searching for nothing, so I crossed the last road and went on to the hospital.
I thought a lot about that lady, mainly because she was a babe, but also because she had disappeared in such a strange way. But a week passed and then another, and nothing was solved, and so I didn’t think about it anymore.
Plus, then I had something else to think about, that I couldn’t help but feel was related, and was in my opinion the most out of place part of the whole weird episode. A few days after I met the lady, Mum and Dad called me into the kitchen, and Dad said,
“We’ve made up our minds. Joe, we’re sending you to the city. To Muraluna. It’s about time you got a proper education.”
In the library, Joe fell silent.
Knox mimicked him for several seconds, before stirring from his trance.
“Well,” he said, and stretched cat-like in his comfortable chair, “crossroads are notorious for being haunted, by demons and spirits both. I agree it’s fascinating is that so soon after meeting your lovely lady, you were sent here. Where you met us. Or at least, where you met Drake.”
“I think that’s what she meant by change,” said Joe. “She sent me here so I could join the Witch Hunters.”
“That would be an exceptional favour,” Knox mused. After a few moments’ though he jumped up from his seat and stalked to the door. “Thank you for that. It’s an intriguing case indeed. I’ll take it you’re still keen for Thursday’s mission.”
Joe rose, taking the hint that his stay was over, “Yes, sir.”
Knox offered him a brief, fluttering smile. It was clear by the dreamy quality of his tone that his mind was anywhere but Thursday. “Good, good. It ought to be interesting; we’ve been enlisted by National Parks to see to a disturbance. There are rumours there are monsters involved.”
Monsters? Joe gulped. “Sounds great. What time should I meet you?”
“Any time, boy. Any time is a good time for hunting demons,” Knox smirked. God only knew what he was thinking. “As for a practical time, six o’ clock will do nicely. I’ll pick you up from your place. Also, schedule in an hour of training for tomorrow afternoon, if it isn’t too much bother; you can meet me in front of the Welfare Centre. As for telling people about the Witch Hunters … as she said, Joe, it’s up to you.”
Laughing, cackling, Knox slammed the office door in Joe’s face.
How’d you like it? I hope you did!
There is certainly a lot of editing to be done with this series. Even though the book is written, and the flow of events is basically good, I feel the writing is very poor. I go through each episode three or four times, changing virtually every sentence and trying to make it tighter. There is, then, plenty of room for typos in the new material. But it’s a story I really enjoy, and so I hope my fastidious editing has brought the writing up to a standard that you, too, can take pleasure from.
That said, please join me again next week for episode eleven. Knox and Joe duking it out in the Welfare Centre – don’t miss it!