“There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect,
and once in a while man’s evil prying calls them just within our range.”
People live in one of two worlds: either they live in a safe fantasy where all is right with the world and bad things happen to other people, or they live in the real world. Michael Connor used to believe the “real world” consisted of those who wanted to–and would–steal, harm, kill, manipulate, wage war, and basically do all manner of evil things to suit their own agendas. It still did, he supposed, but it turned out there was another world, a third one, that he was not prepared for. And it had nothing to do with the gorgeous witch standing next to him.
From the outside, the storefront looked like your typical New Orleans occult gift shop. The display window was crammed full of creepy looking merchandise set against a purple backdrop, along with neon signs that read, “Tarot Readings,” “Discover Your Psychic Awareness,” and “Meeting Site for French Quarter Ghost Tour.” The sign over the door was not neon, and it was lit with only a soft-white bulb. It was hard to see amid the garish lights of the Quarter’s nighttime atmosphere, which Mike suspected was by design. The sign said “Mister Guidry’s Arcane Emporium” and had a tiny metallic symbol attached in the bottom right-hand corner. The symbol was a stylized sword with what looked like a halo around the hilt. It was so subtle that it was almost invisible, and Mike had to squint to make it out.
There were a dozen of these shops in the Quarter, and more than half of them were a front for some sort of organized crime syndicate or gang. At the very least, they were paying protection money to someone. Most of the others–most–were scams. According to Janelle, two or three of them were legitimate psychics or witches. Their readings were accurate, and their magickal items actually worked. This shop, however, was a mystery. It had been here forever, and the proprietor had kept his nose clean. The only stories that came out of this place were good reviews. Even Janelle, who was thoroughly dialed into the city’s occult subculture, knew next to nothing about the shop. That alone made Mike suspicious.
Once upon a time, the NOPD had gotten several calls a week about cults that were doing something nefarious; but more often than not, they turned out to be mundane, just not exactly Christian. People were more tolerant these days, or at least less fearful. When they did call, the cops were experienced enough to determine if there really was something nefarious going on or if the “cultists” were just doing their own thing. That said, they had instituted an Occult Investigations Task Force, the only one in the U.S. It consisted of a handful of uniformed officers, consultants, and researchers, most with some experience or knowledge of the occult. Janelle was one of four detectives working in the field, all of them with personal life experience in such a community.
Once in a while, one of local groups garnered the wrong kind of attention. Six months ago, the task force started getting reports of a cult that was performing human sacrifices. One even said they had witnessed a gang smashing someone over the head and burying them alive. There was evidence of activity at the crime scene, and the ground had been dug up and then recovered. A dig revealed no body and, oddly, no forensic evidence whatsoever. It was as though they had dug the hole and then immediately covered it back up while wearing hazmat suits. It was unusual enough for the department to open an investigation, and after way too long, the search had led them here to Mister Guidry’s.
This case had turned into quite a saga. For Mike part, it had started with a standard murder investigation. He was a detective with NOPD’s Sixth District, and at first, it hadn’t seemed like anything unusual. It turned out there was a lot more to it, and he had been working the case for months, following one lead after another, until it had led him to the Eighth District and the French Quarter, where he crossed paths with Janelle. She was working the human sacrifice case and had been undercover for six months. It didn’t take much to figure out they were basically working the same case, so they joined forces–in more ways than one, but now wasn’t the time to think about that. They were on the job.
Mike and Janelle entered the establishment and paused just inside the door, arguing quietly. Mike was in his mid-30’s, red haired and green eyed, above average in height and solidly built, with a plain face and a pronounced slouch. He wore board shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, with Birkenstocks on his feet, small gold hoops in his ears, and a pentacle amulet around his neck. A fake sleeve tattoo covered his right arm. Janelle was a black-haired, blue-eyed beauty who looked like every sexy witch poster Mike had ever seen. She was fair-skinned and svelte, and she usually wore some sort of Bohemian style of clothing unless she expected to be running after a perp. Today, she wore a black spaghetti-strap dress with half a dozen tattoos showing on her arms. Some of the tattoos were real, but some had been placed there to enhance her look. Pentacles hung around her neck and from her ears. She was the epitome of a goth chick, and they made an odd pair. Then again, it was The Big Easy, and you never knew what you were going to see.
“We shouldn’t be here, babe,” Mike whispered with a mild Southern drawl.
“Pour l’amour des dieux, cher, how many times do we have to have this conversation?” Janelle replied in an exaggerated Cajun accent. “We’ve gotta find out what happened to her, Steven. It’s been months, and the cops aren’t doin’ shit.”
“Well, if these guys do know something, what makes you think they’re gonna tell us? More likely, we’ll end up like Diane.”
A man walked out of the back room and around the counter to join them by the door. He was short, maybe 5’6″ tall, with pale skin, black hair, and inky black eyes. He had a broad, friendly smile on his face as he approached. “Welcome to Mister Guidry’s. How can I help you?”
Janelle pulled a small picture out of her bra and handed it to the man. “We’re looking for her,” she said shakily. “Have you seen her?”
He examined the picture closely and then looked back at them, studying them as intently. “What’s your name, love?”
“Why do you want to know her name?” Mike demanded.
“Just courtesy, I assure you. I’m Mister Guidry.”
“Margie. It’s Margie. That’s Steven. Diane is my sister.”
“Yeah. Diane Stanfield.”
He peered at them for a long moment, and Mike got the distinct impression this creepy guy was reading their minds. Or just reading them. It could just be part of the occult shop’s schtick, but it didn’t seem like an act. Something was . . . off . . . about Guidry, and it made Mike extremely uncomfortable.
The proprietor finally handed the picture back to Janelle. “I believe I can help you,” he said magnanimously.
Janelle’s pale face lit up. “You’ve seen her? Where?”
“Let me make some calls.”
“Calls?” Mike repeated. “To who?”
“Follow me, please.”
“I don’t think–“
The compulsion to follow Mister Guidry was overwhelming, and Mike took Janelle’s hand and led her to the back of the shop to a waiting area with some comfortable chairs, several candles burning, and soft music playing “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” by Elton John.
“Have a seat,” Guidry instructed them. “I’ll be with you in a moment. There is coffee and tea on the sideboard if you’re interested.”
Janelle gave Mike a perplexed look, but she sat down and pulled him with her as Guidry ascended a set of stairs at the back of the room. “I get nothing from this guy,” she whispered. “You?”
“He seemed awfully eager to help. And there’s something about him I can’t put my finger on.”
“Eerie, right? Kind of . . . off.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
She tilted her head curiously. “We could be in the right place.”
“Keep your eyes open.”
She flashed a stunning grin at him, showing perfect, white teeth that her parents had paid thousands of dollars for. “Always do.”
* * *
Alex made his way upstairs, out of earshot, to his apartment. It looked how one might expect a French Quarter psychic’s home to look–baroque, with lots of deep colors, shelves full of crystals, herbs, potions, and several occult symbols hanging on the walls. It had been centuries since he had used such things, but they still made him feel at home, so he kept them around. Besides, the neonates seemed to appreciate them, as well.
He sat down at a massive, ornate desk and made a few notes in the laptop sitting to the right; then he picked up the phone and dialed.
“Davis,” a gruff male voice barked on the other end after four rings.
“Sheriff, it’s Alex Guidry. I have evidence that we may have a Masquerade violation.”