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Mac and Cassie could not have come from more diverse backgrounds, yet each discovers the need for the other in their search for the truth.
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A story of unexpected love in a background of fear and prejudice.
An evil force is threatening the coastal town of Port Bellmont...evil and devious. In order to fulfill his promise to bring the town to his master, this follower of the Prince of Darkness commits a particularly heinous crime, casting the shadow of guilt upon the High Priestess of a local Wiccan coven.
Cassie Adams, a beautiful young follower of the Wiccan faith, is desperate to prove her mother innocent of the murder of one of Port Bellmont's favorite clergymen. Mac McCormick is a down on his luck reporter looking for the story that will bring him back from the obscurity his former lifestyle drove him to.
“Hey! Watch it, you moron!” Mac widened his stance, planting his feet more firmly on the pavement. This mob scene should not have come as a surprise to a reporter with Mac’s experience. Nothing like a good burning at the stake to bring out the crowds, he reflected, sizing up the gathering mob.
Jockeying for a more advantageous position, he cast a searching glance over the rapidly growing mass of humanity. At least a couple hundred people, both reporters and locals, had converged before the front steps of the tiny courthouse. The sidewalk had long since reached critical mass, forcing citizens and the media alike out onto the street, until it had become necessary to divert traffic around the growing crowd.
Though he’d used the term ‘witch hunt’ often enough in the past, Mac had never expected to actually witness one. And yet, here he was, smack-dab in the middle of a scene that belonged more in the seventeenth century than the twentieth.
Unconsciously licking his lips, he thought of the story he would file, one that had drawn him to this small town on California’s north coast. It was a story which possessed all the elements of a paranormal mystery, complete with a coven of lovely young witches. Before he was through with it, every man, woman and child in the USA would be afraid to sleep at night, sure that, left unguarded, their souls would be ripped from their unsuspecting bodies by evil witches.
Though the late September morning air was cool, Mac’s pumped up adrenaline warmed him. His senses keyed into the scene around him, until he was one with the frenzy of the crowd, feeling their anger, smelling their fear, tasting their hunger for revenge.
He spotted several familiar faces in the crowd, other reporters and photographers he’d known throughout his rather checkered career. Not that he was surprised to see them. He hadn’t expected for a moment that his paper would be the only one to latch onto a story as bizarre as this one, although it was the type for which his rag was most noted.
Contempt deepened the shade of his dark brown eyes until they were nearly black at the thought of the newspaper for which he worked. Writing for The Inquisitor was about as low as a person could go. He felt guilty even calling himself a reporter anymore.
Who was he kidding? No one reported the news at The Inquisitor. They invented it.
The crowd suddenly surged forward, nearly forcing Mac from his perch on the courthouse steps. Widening his stance, he braced himself for yet another onslaught. Years of experience had taught him how to stake out his own share of turf and hold onto it no matter what.
An ominous rumble began building at the outer edges of the crowd, gaining volume, then deepening with hostility as it surged forward. Unspent anger filled the electrified atmosphere, releasing even more tension into the mass of humanity, metamorphosing the mob into a huge, ugly beast. The scent of hate hung so heavy in the air it threatened to choke any but the most insensitive.
Mac glanced from one familiar member of the press corps to another, gauging their take of the situation. Time and again he saw it, the gleam of the hunt glittering in their hungry eyes. Yes, they sensed it too. There was no question about it, this crowd was just one step away from becoming a lynch mob. A surge of adrenaline raced through his body. Perfect, just perfect!
Another angry murmur rippled through the crowd as the front door of the sheriff’s office opened and two women stepped through. Both were fairly young, in their mid-twenties and moderately attractive, although not the type who would stand out in a crowd. Faces averted, they leaned towards one another as if this physical unity could protect them from the angry mob.
Two uniformed policemen cleared a path, hurrying them through the jeering crowd. The cops were good, Mac reflected with chagrin as the two women were ushered into a waiting police car and swept away before he or any of his cohorts were able to coax so much as one word out of either of them.
His attention was drawn back to the top of the steps by the unrelenting force of the surging mass. The jostling for space became even more vicious. Mac’s reporter’s instincts thrilled at the escalation of emotion. More than idle curiosity was driving these people. A gut-wrenching mixture of hatred and fear masked the faces of people who under normal circumstances were most likely simple, gentle folk.
Ignoring the door at the top of the stairs for a moment, Mac turned his camera on the surging crowd, snapping quickly, hoping to capture the essence of the mob’s emotions in the reflections of their hate-filled eyes.
His editor would love these shots, he thought grimly as his camera captured the image of one distorted face after another.
Ugly epithets hung in the air like the stench of filthy garbage, polluting the atmosphere with their stink. A tiny core of Mac’s humanity cringed at the viciousness of the words, but he pushed it brusquely aside, reminding himself that he was only there to observe and record what he saw. If he ever allowed his emotions to get involved with the stories he covered he might just as well hang up his byline. If you go soft, you damned well better get out of the business, he reminded himself grimly as he turned his attention back to the main door of the sheriff’s office.
Suddenly the door swung wide, allowing three more people to pass through. Two police officers flanked a girl who appeared to be barely out of her teens. The petite woman was dressed in faded jeans and a gray sweat shirt bearing the logo PETS ‘N STUFF in purple. Flaming red hair brushed her shoulders, framing a face that would have suited an angel. Topaz eyes, accented dramatically by a complexion totally devoid of color, gazed back at the jeering mob.
Mac’s first thought was that her eyes reflected fear, but then he realized it wasn’t fear he saw in them, it was defiance. Raw, barely-controlled anger radiated gloriously from her, forming an aura of power about her that was nearly palpable.
“Hey, Cassie! Over here, honey. Give us a smile!”
“Can you tell us if it was a ritual murder?”
“How many people has your coven sacrificed?”
The reporters shouted their questions, snapping as many pictures of the girl as they were able to in the scant seconds before she too was ushered into a waiting police car.
“Is it true Myra Adams is your mother and that she was the one who actually did the killing, or did you all participate in the ritual?”
This last question drew no more of a reply than any of the others. All it earned the questioner was a scathing glare from the beautiful young witch.
“May the Lord smite you with his vengeance,” a man in clerical garb intoned in a deep, resonating voice. Mac had long experienced the baser side of humanity, but even he was shocked at the unabated hatred that flashed from the man’s cold eyes. The shear adulation Mac observed in the manner of those who surrounded him alarmed Mac all the more. It was if the man’s gaze alone, shifting from one person to another, was all it took to control their volatile emotions.
“Damn you, witches. Damn you all to hell!” a man standing next to the preacher screamed at the young woman. The man glanced at the preacher, apparently hoping to see an expression of approval on his leader’s face.
“Think you can get away with it, don’t you? You Satan worshipers are all the same. Scum!” yet another of the minister’s followers yelled.
“Give us the girl! We know how to take care of her sort!”
The crowd surged toward the police officers and the girl, grasping hands reaching out for her.
For a brief moment Cassie Adams knew real fear, a fear more powerful than any she had known before. Would the nightmare never end? These were her neighbors. They knew her. How could they be saying these things? How could they believe she or any of her sisters in Wicca could be guilty of such an atrocity?
But then anger replaced the fear. How dare these people accuse her mother and her friends of such a despicable crime? Every single member of the coven had served the community with total selflessness. They had asked nothing in return, only trust, a trust which they had each earned a hundred fold.
The hate reflected in her neighbor’s eyes bewildered her but the hunger she saw in the faces of the news media was even more disturbing. They would devour her if she let them. They would feed on her fear, feast on the misery of those she loved.
But then, just as panic threatened to overwhelm her, she found herself gazing directly into the eyes of a tall, darkly handsome man, a man who managed to be a part of the crowd and yet at the same time separate from it. The angles of his face were hard, giving him the look of a soul who had seen too much of mankind’s cruelties.
Their gaze held for what seemed to be an eternal moment. A sense of hope filled her as their gaze deepened. Turbulent emotions were instantly replaced by a beautiful sense of serenity. The roar of the jeering crowd faded, becoming little more than the buzzing of a swarm of bees.
In all the world there was only the two of them, this man, a total stranger, and herself. Not a word was spoken between them, yet she knew his heart. His gaze spoke directly to her soul. The message was simple, yet at that moment it meant everything to her. He cared.
Relief swept through her as she realized who he was. Yes, he was the one. Her Goddess had not failed her.
The experience lasted but a moment, yet it calmed her. The man’s gaze had warmed and comforted her. If her special gift had not forsaken her, and she prayed that it had not, the man in the crowd was destined to become very important to her and to her coven. She doubted if he was aware of it, but she was certain that through him their innocence would be proven.
For one brief, fearful moment she doubted. The horrible reality of her coven’s situation overwhelmed her. Could she have only imagined what she saw in his eyes, seeing in them what she had so desperately prayed for?
She forced herself to put aside all thoughts of the stranger in the crowd. If he was to be their salvation, wonderful. If not, so be it.
Whichever, she and the rest of her coven would survive, no matter what. She would see to that herself.
Squaring her shoulders, she tossed her flaming tresses back from her face. They were innocent, every single one of them. No matter what it took, she would never allow ignorant superstitions to condemn her or those she loved.
Mac was the only one in the crowd who remained silent throughout Cassie’s ordeal. The questions he had prepared remained unasked. His camera hung forgotten from its strap around his neck. For the very first time in his professional career he had let his emotions come between himself and a story.
He couldn’t believe he had allowed those golden eyes to have held him spellbound. He had been only dimly aware of Cassie’s fiery hair, seeing only the halo of its glow as it accented eyes that burned with intensity.
A stab of shock raced through him at the thought that no human being could possibly have golden eyes. And yet he knew what he had seen. Cassie Adams’ eyes were the purest gold possible. The word ‘impossible’ had been his last conscious thought before he had been captured by her gaze and drawn into her inner being.
In that instant just the two of them had existed. He had seen past the brittle shell of her bravado and experienced the very essence of her, her confusion, her fear. He had felt her strength and her innocence. In that instant he had known to the very depths of his soul that the hard face she was so determined to show to her tormentors hid a vulnerability that threatened to destroy her.
In that moment he had no longer been a jaded, world-weary reporter, someone who had seen and done things he could never forget or forgive. He had suddenly become someone, no something, so much better. He had felt his soul touch hers, creating a mystical oneness. Something magical had happened between them. He might never fully understand it, but in that brief instant she had reached inside him and touched his very soul.
The spell was broken as her escorts unceremoniously swept her past him and into the waiting automobile. Once again he was one with the crowd, one more hungry reporter hanging around outside a small town sheriff’s office, trying to dig up that one story that would help him regain the career he had once taken for granted. He stood on the steps of the courthouse and watched the car drive down Main Street, too shocked at his own reaction to the young witch to pay much attention to the angry people who shoved him from all sides.
“Some service, heh? It’s a fine day when her kind gets chauffeured around town by our so-called finest,” an old man standing directly behind Mac complained.
“Yeah, well, I guess they figured if they didn’t, we’d get our hands on her and give her a good old fashioned neck-tie party,” the woman standing next to him replied.
“No better than any of them deserves, if you ask me. It’d be a damned sight more humane than what they did to Reverend Elkins,” the old man grumbled.
A murmur of assent rose from those who stood nearby.
The news of the Presbyterian minister’s brutal murder, coupled with tales of modern day witchcraft, had been the magnet that had drawn Mac and his fellow reporters to the remote town of Port Bellmont. Perched on the very edge of the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by forests of huge redwoods, the citizens of the tiny city had thought their town to be impervious to the evils of modern day society. Yet the brutal murder proved that just the opposite was true.
The victim, highly respected and beloved by everyone in Port Bellmont, had been found late the previous night in a nearby meadow ritualistically tortured and mutilated. Word had quickly spread through the town that after finding the mutilated corpse the sheriff believed he was dealing with more than a mere murder. Such a vicious crime could only be committed by a particularly fiendish mind, he had commented, perhaps a mind warped by some sort of religious fanaticism.
Compounding the evidence that pointed to a ritualistic rite was the fact that the body had been found lying in the center of a circle of burning candles. The scent of incense still hung in the air, mingling with the acrid aroma of burning candles and the coppery odor of fresh blood when the sheriff and his men came upon the gory scene after receiving an anonymous telephone tip.
Sheriff Whitaker had stood amidst the gore, the expression on his weathered face reflecting his horror. The solution to the case appeared to be glaringly obvious. It had to have been those damned witches.
The ring of burning candles reminded him of his first reaction to the arrival of Port Bellmont’s resident coven two years earlier. He’d known even then that they would be trouble. Heathens, all of them, as bad as any damned religious cult. But, even feeling as he had, he had kept his silence. Until they committed a crime they were free to live wherever they pleased. After all, the Constitution guaranteed them religious freedom and there were no laws prohibiting them from living wherever they chose.
In the months prior to the witches arrival, the sheriff had found himself knee deep in the midst of a mini-crime wave. Looking for a semi-retirement job after working fifteen years with the Houston Police Department, Port Bellmont had been a sweet answer to his prayers.
But within three years of his arrival the idyllic city had undergone some very unpleasant changes. Something had taken hold of the younger generation, turning sweet kids into punks, law abiding youngsters into graffiti writing, drug using gang members. Considering the problems the kids were causing him, Sheriff Whitaker considered a bunch of loony women who thought they were witches to be the least of his worries. As long as they kept their religion to themselves, he had made it a point to give them a wide berth.
And, to be fair, the women had settled in with barely a ripple of resistance, quickly becoming integral contributors to the community. Each one, using her own unique talents, had managed to bring something special to the town, enriching it until Port Bellmont was once again the sort of town in which people dreamed of raising their families in safety.
Within a few weeks of their arrival, good things had begun to happen. The local kids had found better things to do with their time than to join gangs and get into trouble. Before the year was over drug arrests had dropped to an all-time low. Perhaps reflecting the absence of crime, the local economy had taken on a new life, gradually becoming healthier than it had been in years.
The atmosphere in town changed, returning to its former ‘down home’ feel. It had become a local joke that the town’s good fortune had come with the witches. Perhaps, some of the local citizens quipped, all Port Bellmont had needed all along was a few good spells cast for it.
And so the coven had gradually become an accepted part of the community. Some members of the local clergy had actually welcomed the women, most specifically Reverend Elkins. While not espousing their form of religion, he had become one of the greatest supporters of their right to be included as members of the community.
But all of this had ended abruptly when the minister’s corpse had been discovered.
A roar of bloodthirsty anticipation rose from the crowd, drawing Mac’s attention once again to the main door of the sheriff’s office.
“Give Myra to us!”
“We know how to take care of her kind!”
“She ought to get what she gave!”
“The evil must be cast out, trampled and stoned until it lives no more,” the minister’s voice rang out above the others.
The ugly threats subsided when, instead of the coven’s high priestess, Myra Adams, Sheriff Walt Whitaker strode purposefully through the door. The sheriff was an imposing man who wore his authority well. His brown Stetson hat added several inches to his already impressive six foot four, sturdily built body.
One voice rang out from the rear of the mob. “Give her to us, Whit! We’ll give her all the justice she deserves.” The comment was welcomed by a raucous roar that echoed agreement to the man’s sentiment.
“Now, now, now, there’ll be none of that. You folks know me better’n that,” Walt drawled in his rich West Texas accent.
A low rumble of displeasure spread through the crowd. They wanted vengeance and they wanted it now.
Mac noted a slight narrowing of the sheriff’s gaze and a tightening of his jaw as his eyes rested momentarily upon two men who stood at the rear of the crowd. A quick glance was all it took for the reporter to see that both men wore clerical garb, one the turned collar of a Roman Catholic priest. Another glance at the glowering expression on the sheriff’s face suggested to Mac that the man held nothing but contempt for the men of God. Interesting, Mac thought as the sheriff began to once again address the crowd.
“You folks just go on about your business. There ain’t nothin’ gonna happen ‘round here that’s any concern of yours. Myra Adams is upstairs being questioned at this time. I don’t look for us to be through with her for a good long time. In the meantime, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to order y’all to break up this here unlawful assembly.”
He raised both arms, hands spread, as if he could silence the crowd with them. Surprisingly, the gesture, coupled with his no-nonsense attitude, had the desired effect. Though not particularly happy, the local citizens began to disperse. However, the media was not so ready to quit their posts.
“And all you newsmen, and ladies too, y’all might as well get on about your business too. There ain’t nothin’ gonna happening around here for quite a spell.”
“Just tell us if it was a ritualistic killing, Sheriff.”
“How many of those witches do you figure participated in the murder?”
“Have they been having orgies out there in the woods?”
“Have you seen a rise in animal mutilations since the witches moved here?”
“Hold it, hold it! I didn’t come out here to make a statement. As soon as we’re sure we have our facts straight, I promise to call a press conference and tell you everything I legally can. But until that time, I must ask you to disperse. I won’t have you disrupting my town.”
When he had come to Port Bellmont from the Houston, Texas, police department five years earlier, folks had described Walt Whitaker as a bull dog in uniform. It was an apt description. Whit was not a man to take any guff from anyone. The local citizens had quickly learned that when Walt Whitaker said something he damn well meant it, earning him the respect of everyone in town, whether they be law abiding citizen or not.
After giving the assembled reporters a look that said he meant what he said, the sheriff stepped back into the courthouse, closing the door firmly behind him.
“Yeah, sure, blame all the fuss on us,” a woman reporter next to Mac grumbled. “As if a coven of witches killing and ripping the heart out of a nice old minister wouldn’t cause a little disruption.”
Mac turned a sardonic smile on the woman. After she’d been in the business as long as he had, she’d be used to being dumped on. If she couldn’t take it, she had better get herself another job.
He glanced at his watch as he walked down the steps away from the courthouse. Nine-thirty. A cup of coffee and a stack of pancakes sounded good. He glanced in both directions, figuring that some enterprising soul would have opened a coffee shop within easy walking distance of the police station.
“Hey, there! Haven’t we met before?” The question was directed at Mac by a tall, slender man leaning against a Ford Bronco that was parked directly in front of the courthouse. About forty-five to fifty, the man’s casual, yet obviously expensive, clothes somehow didn’t fit in with the regular citizens of the city, nor did it reflect the general appearance of the members of the third estate who had swarmed into Port Bellmont for the murdering witches story. Attached to the side of the car was a magnetic sign proclaiming it to be the property of The Port Bellmont Sentinel.
Mac put on his professional ‘I’m your new best friend, why don’t you tell me everything you’ve ever known’ smile as he reached out to shake the other man’s hand.
“Could be, buddy. I’ve been around a bit and I suppose you could say the same, right?”
Mac couldn’t believe his luck. Getting in with the local newsman was better than striking gold. These small town reporters were usually more than willing to share all they knew about the locals just to be able to rub shoulders with a pro such as himself.
“Quite a show, heh?” the man made an indication toward the disbursing crowd with his pipe.
“That it is. Say, you wouldn’t know where a guy could find a good cup of coffee in this town, would you? Somewhere close by? Maybe you’d like to join me. Give us a chance to remember where it was we met, talk about old times.”
“Why, sure!” The man’s eagerness was pathetic as he insisted on giving Mac a lift to the café, though it was only three blocks down the street.
Mac was pleased to accept the man’s invitation. He knew reporters well enough to bet that every last one of them would soon be crowding into that little café. By the time the others got there, he figured he’d have already ordered his breakfast and be sipping his second cup of coffee.
“Been living here long?” Mac asked his benefactor as they slid into a narrow booth.
“Not long by local standards, which is all your life and a couple generations of ancestors to boot. I settled down here about five years ago. You know how it is with us newspaper junkies. I had always dreamed of owning my own weekly. Saw that The Sentinel was up for grabs, so I figured, why not?”
Kind of a funny guy, Mac thought, quickly assessing the man who sat opposite him. He had a classy air, with his tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and perfectly creased woolen slacks. He looked like the kind of guy who would never trust his thick, perfectly-styled prematurely-gray hair to a mere barber.
“How rude of me”, the man exclaimed after the waitress had brought them both steaming mugs of coffee and taken their order. “I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Alan Boatwright, the editor and owner of the local rag.”
Mac reached across the table to shake the man’s hand again. “Glad to meet you, Alan. Mac McCormick. I’m with a, uh, national tabloid.”
“Oh, you don’t have to tell me who you are, Mac. I remember you from your days on the Washington Post. I’ll never forget when you uncovered that story about the Senator and the Mafia. Man, that’s what I call a story!”
Mac took a sip of his coffee. The man’s obvious hero worshipping was beginning to get on his nerves. Next thing you knew the guy would be wanting to know why Mac was working on a cheesy tabloid like The Inquisitor, and that was a story he would just as soon keep to himself.
“What do you know about these so-called witches?” Mac asked, hoping to lead the guy back towards the story and away from himself. He brushed aside the thought that he had any special interest in the intriguing young witch, Cassie Adams. “They aren’t for real, are they?”
“Oh, they’re for real, all right. Those little ladies take their religion very seriously.”
“Religion? I’d hardly call witchcraft a religion,” Mac commented. “Since when did casting spells and whacking old guys become a religion?”
“Religion is an elusive concept, don’t you agree?”
When Mac responded to the question with only a slight shrug, Alan continued. “As I understand it, there’s a great deal more to Wiccan, as they call it, than casting spells. And as far as ‘whacking’ Reverend Elkins, well, that hasn’t been proved yet, has it?”
“Am I to understand that you don’t agree with that mob, and that those ladies might actually be innocent?”
“I try to maintain an unbiased opinion, that’s all. After all, though my paper is small by comparison to the ones you’ve worked for, I am still a journalist, and as such I owe it to my readership to remain neutral.”
“Well said, Alan, well said,” Mac toasted the older man with his coffee mug. “It’s a shame more journalists don’t adhere to your principles. But I’m interested in these women.” Mac tried to push his special interest in one gorgeous young witch in particular to the back of his mind. “Do you know any of them personally?”
“Oh my, yes. Why, I’ve known Myra Adams from the day she moved into town two years ago. And a finer woman you’ll never find, I might add. She’s beautiful, witty, charming and utterly fascinating. And, of course, I’ve known her daughter, Cassie, for just as long. A lovely girl.”
“But Myra Adams is a practicing witch, right? In fact, isn’t it true that she’s the leader of this so-called coven, what they call the high priestess?” Mac’s left brow lifted sardonically.
“Oh, you know how things are. These women get their notions. Believe me when I tell you, it’s entirely self-delusional. Witchcraft! Come on, this is the twentieth century - nearly the twenty-first. We’re talking about a bunch of women who sit inside a circle of lit candles chanting rhymes. Now what harm can there be in that, I ask you?”
A wry smile tugged at one corner of Mac’s mouth as he answered, “None that I can think of.” He had not missed the fact that Alan Boatwright had made a complete turnaround regarding his thoughts on the Wiccan religion, but decided to keep his observation to himself. More was learned by listening than by talking, he reminded himself as he continued the conversation. “That is, I see no harm until someone comes up murdered, spread out dead center in a circle of candles, with a pentagram carved in his chest and an empty hole where his heart ought to be. Given those circumstances, if a coven of witches should happen to live in the neighborhood, well then, I just might start taking their customs a bit more seriously.”
“Hog wash! Not one of those little ladies would hurt a flea. I don’t believe a word of it.”
Mac leaned back in his seat, appraising the older man with a studied eye. He found it fascinating that the editor of the local newspaper would come out so strongly in defense of the accused women. He couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t another twist to the story he hadn’t discovered yet.
“I try to keep an open mind,” Mac said slowly, letting the words settle between them. “I’d really like to get an interview with Myra, but as long as the sheriff keeps her out of reach that’s not likely to happen. You wouldn’t happen to have an in with the guy, would you?”
“Not enough to get myself in there at the moment. But why don’t you drop in on little Cassie? She works just down the street in that little pet shop we passed by. A pro like you shouldn’t have any trouble getting her to talk. You ought to go down there and give it a try.”