Crushed (City of Eldrich Book 2)

 

Crushed

City of Eldrich — Book Two

 

 

 

 

Laura Kirwan

Burnt Barn Press

 

 

 

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

CHAPTER FIFTY

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A NOTE TO READERS

CHAPTER ONE

D
ark trees loomed
over the clearing where the small fire burned.

The rainy gray daylight barely penetrated the thick canopy of forest. It was afternoon in the rest of the world, but in the trees a murky twilight filled the air.

Two figures hunched near the fire and peered into the small iron dutch oven that hung above the flames.

“You’re doing it wrong,” said the first, a pudgy blonde girl wearing jeans and a green polo shirt.

“I am not. I’m doing it exactly like the book says,” the second said, tossing her tangled dark hair over her shoulder. She sat on a boulder next to the fire, a black leather jacket over her blood-red velvet dress. A heavy silver pendant—a five-cornered star enclosed in a circle—hung from her neck. It brushed against the large dusty book balanced on her knees.

“Then why does it look like cat barf?” The pudgy girl stuck an iron spoon in the dutch oven and scooped up a sample. “See?”

“Well, maybe if you took this more seriously . . .”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Maybe if you tried to dress for the part a little? At least I’m trying to look like a witch.”

The pudgy girl snorted. “It doesn’t matter how you look.”

The other girl twirled a strand of hair around a black-lacquered fingernail and squinted at the book. “Maybe if you’re not doing
real
magic.”

The pudgy girl sighed. “Heather, you don’t—”

“Circe,” the dark-haired girl said impatiently. “Don’t call me Heather. Real witches aren’t named Heather.” She looked up and glared at her companion. “Or Dana.”

Dana rolled her eyes. “What about Kady? Or Natalie? You’re telling me Natalie doesn’t do real magic? I’ve seen Natalie do big scary magic in sweaty running clothes. Using Gatorade in place of ram’s blood.” Dana grimaced at the dutch oven. “I bet Natalie’s version wouldn’t look like cat barf.”

Heather ignored this comment. “We have to make it work. I know I’m the one for him if I can only make him see it.”

Dana rolled her eyes again. “He’s like thirty years old. And he’s gay. That was his
boyfriend
who died when his world blew up.”

“I don’t think he’s all that gay,” Heather said. “I’ve seen him looking at me.”

“Yeah,” Dana said. “Along with everybody else and the wall and the floor and—”

Heather slammed the book shut and glared at Dana. “Why do you always have to be so negative about everything?”

“Accepting reality isn’t negative. It’s grown-up. Like having a job.” Dana pulled a cell phone from her back pocket. “Like the job I’m gonna get fired from if I don’t leave now.” She looked up at Heather. “Can you clean this up without me?”

Heather refused to meet her eye. “Whatever. I’ll clean it up. Go to your stupid job. If you really cared about the craft you wouldn’t bother with a job.”

“We’re not in high school anymore. Witches need to eat and pay rent like everybody else.” Dana paused a beat. “At least everybody not still living with their parents.”

Heather gave her a sour look, but said nothing.

“Thank you,” Dana said in a syrupy voice. She ran to her small, beat-up car, and drove away without a backward glance.

“She’s just jealous,” Heather muttered.

“Of course she is,” a feminine voice purred. “All women are jealous. Particularly witches.”

Heather squealed, dropped the book, and nearly fell off her boulder. She looked up and saw a woman, dressed in black, standing on the other side of the fire.

The woman had thick, flowing blonde hair. She wore a tight-fitting black leather jacket that plunged into a low V-neck. Underneath, black lace peeked through, accented by the emerald green satin scarf wrapped around her pale throat. Her black skirt was velvet like Heather’s dress, but tighter, falling to mid-calf. A slit in the front revealed a pair of black leather laced-up boots with a high spiky heel.

Around her neck, the woman wore a silver pentacle necklace identical to the one Heather wore. She glanced at Heather’s pentacle, and she smiled, small white teeth glistening behind dark red lips.

“You scared me,” Heather squeaked.

“I’ve been looking for you,” the woman said in a low musical voice.

“Me?”

The woman nodded. “Yes.
You.
I can feel your power from where I stand. I could feel it before I arrived. Your power, your potential, led me here.”

Heather’s mouth dropped open. “How do you . . . who are you?”

“Someone who understands that real magic requires real witches. Someone who honors the traditions of the craft. Someone not afraid to show the world what she is.”

“You’re a witch,” Heather said, breathlessly. “A
real
witch. You . . . you
get
it.”

The woman nodded. “I do get it. Much better than those work-a-day drabs who infest this town, with their sloppy demeanor and slipshod spell casting. Natalie Segretti, for instance. She is powerful, I’ll give her that, but she sorely lacks style. It denigrates the craft.”

Heather nodded. “Style matters. That’s what I keep telling everybody and they laugh and treat me like a dumb kid.”

“Even your friend,” the woman said in gentle voice. “The one who ruined your spell and left you behind to clean up her mess.” She shook her head. “Shameful, the way standards have slipped in this town.”

“Will you teach me?” Heather asked in a rush. “Please? I’m apprenticed to this stupid rich woman who wears pastels and plays golf. She’s awful.”

The woman smiled. “Perhaps, but first you must prove yourself. Raw talent is not enough. You must show me that you have the necessary cunning and strength, that you understand the sacrifices that must be made to achieve true power.” She paused a moment. “And true love.”

Heather flushed. “He’s . . .” She stared down at her lap. “I see how the other witches look at him. They tell each other he’s gay, but I know they think they can make him forget all that.”

“While they squabble, do you have the will to take him? To fight for him?”

“Dana says it’s a crush, not love, but she’s wrong. I know he’ll fall for me if I can only get him to forget that man, and if I can keep the other witches away. If I could only get the spell to work.”

“Here, little one,” the woman said. “Let me help you.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

O
n Jamie Smith’s
third day back at work, office supplies began turning up in odd places.

Like the hallway in front of Meaghan Keele’s office in Eldrich City Hall. With care, she stepped around a tower made from reams of copier paper and yellow legal pads. About three feet high, the stack was capped with a smaller pile of neon-hued Post-It Note pads and surrounded by pens and pencils lying on the carpet with their points facing away, like the petals of a flower.

She peeked into the office next door. Jamie, her deputy city solicitor, sat at his desk with his back to the door, staring out the window—his customary pose since his return. Considering the view from the third floor, looking out the window was understandable, except Meaghan suspected he barely noticed what he saw.

She took a longer look into Jamie’s office and stopped short.

There was more to this than misplaced office supplies.

His files were floating about six inches above the glass desktop. Meaghan cleared her throat. The files dropped with a loud thump.

Jamie spun around in his chair, eyes wide with fear, a stapler gripped in his right fist like a club. After a moment, he registered Meaghan standing in the doorway. His face grew red. He placed the stapler carefully on the desktop and stared at it.

“Good morning,” Meaghan said with a smile, trying to pretend things were normal. Or at least as normal as they ever were in a haunted city hall surrounded by dimensional gateways to magical worlds. “Would you come out here and take a look at this?”

Jamie followed her into the hall. He stared at the legal pad tower and shook his head. “This wasn’t here when I came in.”

“When did you get here?”

“Six-thirty,” he said.

Meaghan raised an eyebrow, but Jamie, staring at the floor, didn’t notice.

“Kind of early,” Meaghan said.

“I have keys.” He turned and walked back into his office. He sat, turned toward the window, and resumed his vigil. In a moment, the files rose back into the air. The stapler joined them.

Okay, she thought. Time to talk to an expert. Meaghan dropped her purse and gym bag on her desk, and headed out toward the front office to find Natalie Segretti, her office manager and the head witch of the local coven.

It had been quite a shock for Meaghan, at age fifty, to discover that magic was real and that she was impervious to its effects. She thought she’d been moving to tiny little Eldrich to take over her father’s job as the city’s attorney. In her phone interview, no one had mentioned her father’s additional duties—negotiating magical disputes and guarding the human world from magical incursion.

Natalie had helped her quickly find her feet, in both jobs. A tall, curvy woman with a head of unruly copper curls, Natalie was a top-notch administrative assistant. And a powerful witch. At thirty-two, she was young to head the local coven, but no other witch in town approached her in power and skill. In the space of not quite three months, she had become one of the most important people in Meaghan’s life.

She found Natalie in the front area of the small office suite, talking with Annie, the mayor’s secretary. Somewhere in her late thirties, with shoulder-length blonde hair, Annie had what Meaghan now assumed to be a supernatural ability to know exactly what was going on at any given moment in city hall. Annie wasn’t a witch, Meaghan knew. But Annie wasn’t a clueless civilian either.

When Meaghan walked up, they turned grim faces to her.

“We’ve got a problem,” Natalie said.

Meaghan sighed. “Would this problem have something to do with the pile of office supplies stacked outside my office and Jamie’s floating file folders?”

Annie’s eyes widened. “Stacking and levitating? Already?” She turned to look at Natalie. “I was afraid of this after what he’d been through, but I didn’t think it would manifest this soon.”

It had been a little over ten weeks since Jamie had been kidnapped and tortured under circumstances that, for Meaghan at least, made no sense. The generally accepted narrative was that Jamie had been the victim of a power struggle between his uncle and his father over rule of a dumpy little magical world—now destroyed—known as Fahraya. But Meaghan remained convinced that there had to be more to it.

“Didn’t think what would manifest?” Meaghan asked. “What are we talking about and why is it a problem? It’s only paperwork. It’s not like his desk was floating.” She looked expectantly at them. “Oh, and his stapler. That started floating too after I asked him about the office supply sculpture.”

Annie’s eyes opened wider. “Oh, shit. Definitely a poltergeist. Not good.”

“Is that new?” Meaghan asked. “I thought the building was totally haunted already. And how did you know this was going on? Natalie, you got here the same time I did and you haven’t been back there yet.”

Annie sighed. “Yes, it’s new. We have plenty of ghosts, but poltergeists are different. The ghosts told me as soon as I got in this morning and I asked them to let me know when Natalie got here.”

Meaghan raised an eyebrow. “The ghosts talk to you? When you’re awake?” Meaghan had had her own encounters with the deceased, but only in dreams or under the influence of mystical hallucinogens. And one time when the fabric of reality was unravelling.

Annie looked at Natalie. “I thought you told her.”

Natalie shrugged. “I can’t remember what I told her anymore.” She looked at Meaghan. “Annie’s a medium. It’s how she always knows who’s in city hall and where.”

Meaghan nodded. “I wondered about that. Medium, huh? Like on the TV show?”

Annie rolled her eyes. “Not even close. I’m not some kind of post-life therapist, you know? If I tried to solve the problems of every ghost who talked to me, I wouldn’t have time to eat or sleep.”

“So,” Meaghan said. “Tell me about poltergeists. This thing is drawn to Jamie?”

“It
is
Jamie,” Annie said. “He’s making it happen.”

“What—like ESP?”

Annie shrugged. “Sort of. But he’s not doing it consciously. Paranormal researchers think it’s a kind of involuntary response to stress. Happens a lot with kids in puberty. PTSD will trigger it, too.”

Meaghan nodded. “Which Jamie is showing signs of even though he refuses to acknowledge it. Considering what happened to him, I don’t know how he couldn’t have it. Hell, I’m waking myself up with screaming nightmares a couple times a week and the worst thing that happened to me over there was a bug bite.”

Natalie snorted. “It wasn’t a bug. It was a giant scorpion.” She shuddered. “And it nearly killed you.”

Meaghan gave her a look. “Thank you for reminding me. I’m sure I’ll sleep much easier tonight.”

“Fine,” Natalie said, throwing up her hands. “Be a smart-ass. But denial is killing him and I won’t watch you go, too.”

To Meaghan’s surprise, Natalie’s eyes shimmered with tears.

Despite her flippant tone, Meaghan hadn’t been lying about the screaming nightmares. The one that had woken her that morning, before dawn, had been the worst one yet. Not the giant scorpion, but Jamie, battered and naked, his throat slashed, blood gushing down his chest, staring at her in reproach.
Too late
, she’d heard him whisper.
You got here too
late.

She couldn’t imagine how bad Jamie’s dreams must be.

“Natalie, I’m sorry,” Meaghan said in a soft voice. “You’re right. I shouldn’t joke about it. What I suffered was minor compared to Jamie, but I shouldn’t minimize it. It makes it too easy for him to do the same.”

Natalie nodded, biting her lip to keep the tears in. “And it’s so much worse than he’s letting on.”

At the same moment, as if in response, the stack of paper in Natalie’s in-box lifted a foot into the air and burst into flames.

 

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