Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets Joe Hill in S. A. Hunt’s I Come with Knives, a horror-tinged action-adventure about a punk YouTuber on a mission to hunt witches, one vid at a time
Robin – now armed with new knowledge about mysterious demon terrorizing her around town, the support of her friends, and the assistance of her old witch-hunter mentor – plots to confront the Lazenbury coven and destroy them once and for all.
Meanwhile, a dangerous serial killer only known as The Serpent is abducting and killing Blackfield residents. An elusive order of magicians known as the Dogs of Odysseus also show up with Robin in their sights.
Robin must handle these new threats on top of the menace from the Lazenbury coven, but a secret about Robin’s past may throw all of her plans into jeopardy.
For a child to whom every experience under the sun is new, time is a long and stately thing, passing with a gargantuan battleship slowness. An hour in a doctor’s waiting room, restlessly leafing through magazines and studying the walls, becomes a hobby in itself. Every school day is a lifetime.
All this was written on Wayne Parkin’s face as they made their way toward the witches’ house. He carried a bottle of steak sauce in one hand and a bottle of ranch dressing in the other. Thunder mumbled to itself somewhere in the east, disconsolate, testy, as if the storm had gotten lost on the way. The iron sky roiled slowly like a dying snake, threatening rain.
The bottles felt like offerings. Robin walked alongside him, peering up at the sky. “I should’ve brought umbrellas.”
Something about the way their shoes scuffed across the packed dirt made Robin think of a western, of outlaws and high-noon duels. “Be on your best behavior,” Leon told his son. He carried the steaks in a glass casserole dish.
“Are they going to turn us into frogs?”
“No.” Robin had turned the GoPro back on, but instead of wearing it herself, she’d made Wayne the designated cameraman, and he wore it on his chest with the nylon harness. The camera’s red eye burned like a cigarette cherry in the darkening daylight. “Witches don’t do that,” she said, “that’s a fairytale. Love potions, flying on brooms, talking mirrors, that’s all Disneystuff.”
The good ones don’t hurt you, she thought. They make you forget so they don’t get hurt.
The hacienda seemed to grow as they approached it, beyond the aspects of perspective, as if it were swelling, lengthening, rising, and suddenly she realized how very tall it was, and how much of the property was bound by the adobe privacy wall. The façade towered over them at three stories (when had it become three? she thought), and then another six or seven feet for the bell’s arch. Gothic wrought- iron spikes rimmed the top of the wall, and weeping willows on the other side of the wall obscured most of the front porch.
“It looks so out of place this far east, doesn’t it?” asked Leon. “Like a Mexican fort. Bigger than I thought it was. It’s less of a house and more of . . . of a compound, I guess you could say.”
“It wasn’t always this ominous,” thought Robin. “I don’t remember it looking this . . . fortress-like.” As a little girl, she had played among its trellises and hidden in its vines, and made chalk drawings on the adobe walls of the hacienda. She didn’t remember the spikes on top of the garden wall; in her childhood, it had been smooth enough up there, she could climb the oak tree and walk along the top of the wall, balancing with her arms straight out while Grandma Mary watched her from the living room. And when she jumped down into the gravel with a jarring CRUNCH!, she would look up through the front window and see Grandma Mary sitting on the sofa, applauding her dismount. Happier days.
She wondered how much of her childhood memory was implanted and erased. At this point in her life, she had given a lot of thought to what her mother had done, and eventually she came to the conclusion Annie Martine had a mind-Gift like Cutty and, to a certain degree, Weaver. But where Cutty’s power involved her mind— telekinesis, scrying, things of that nature—Annie’s gift was more like Weaver’s, in that it was about influencing the minds of others. Erasing memories. Implanting memories.
Out of all the witches Robin had hunted and killed in the intervening years, Annie’s Gift was unique. On paper, fiddling with memories didn’t sound that scary or insidious, but in practice, it could be used to gaslight someone until they were utterly under your control and experienced reality in whatever fashion you saw fit. You could convince an innocent man they had committed some crime, such as murder, or if they were already criminals, you could wipe their minds clean—nothing to confess to. No loose ends.
Or you simply drove them mad.
Flames licked inside a gas grill standing on the patio by the house, visible through a gap in the lid. Ten years before, that had been a smaller charcoal grill, the clamshell top the same candy-apple red as a new sports car. Robin had a sense-memory of Theresa pouring beer over the patties as they cooked, the Dos Equis sizzling on the coals, the smell deep and ashen and thick.
“Well, hello there!”
Speak of the devil. A heavyset woman stepped outside to greet them. Her olive skin contrasted richly against the starchy white of her festive peasant dress, which was trimmed in red and blue. Gold jewelry lay across her cleavage. “My name is Theresa,” she said in a Louisiana drawl. “Theresa LaQuices. And you must be Mr. Parkin.” Mistah Paaaahkin. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” said Leon. “This is my son,Wayne.”
Theresa pressed a hand to her bosom, flashing a fistful of gaudy rings. “Oh, I know who this little gentleman is. Why, I’m the one carried him from the fairgrounds out to the road where the ambulance could get to him. We are already well acquainted, even though he don’t rightly know it.”
Even though Robin couldn’t imagine a witch doing something so helpful, she could see the muscular Theresa toting Wayne around as if he were a bouquet of roses—Robin had found herself scooped up in those titanic arms a time or two in her own childhood. She had always been a behemoth of a woman, but the last time Robin had seen her, she was merely heavy—“Ford tough,” her father Jason said about her after he first met their new neighbors, which made his wife burst out laughing—and square-shouldered. Workman’s hands, thick Bilbo Baggins feet. Now Theresa’s ungainly mass seemed almost pathological, a hairs breadth from“monstrous.” Her fists were small and clubby like dolls’ hands, but her forearms were ham hocks. Her shoulders sloped like mountain sides, and her forehead was a broad, smooth carapace.
The witch seemed invulnerable and constant, a fixture in the earth.
Gesturing toward Robin with the steak dish, Leon began, “And this is my new friend—”
“Oh, I’m well aware of who this young lady is.” Well awaya, she was. “I didn’t expect to see you here, I’ll admit. Little Miss Martine. I ain’t seen you in a dog’s age. You ain’t here to start no shenanigans today, is you?” Theresa put her fists on her considerable hips and peered from under her thick black eyebrows. “It won’t come to nothin’, mind you, but all the same, I’d really rather not have to put up with it. This ain’t nothin’ but a friendly Sunday dinner between neighbors.”
“No.” Robin shook her head, glancing at the ground. “I’m just here to eat and talk to Marilyn. I feel like we’ve got too much history for me to bust in guns blazing.”
“A dinner truce, hunh?” The old woman squinted, assessing her, then turned and trundled across the driveway toward the house. How easily the old woman seemed to walk across the jagged gravel, as if it wasn’t even there. Theresa had on a pair of slippers like nothing more than dainty satin bags on her feet, and the stones she trod on seemed no more consequential than cotton batting. “Be sure you keep it that way. I been puttin’ together a mighty nice repast, and I’d hate to see it ruined by a jackass.”
Jack-ayass. Leon wheezed Muttley-like laughter.
* * *
When Robin was last there, the cabinets were painted in farmhouse blues and whites, the fridge was an ancient freezer-top Frigidaire, and the floor was perpetually grimy linoleum in a brown cobblestone pattern. But now the place was all brushed steel and travertine tile, everything polished to a high gleam. The fridge was an enormous side-by-side. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think she’d stepped into a showroom at a home improvement store.
Leon whistled, leaving the casserole dish on the counter. “Nice place you got here.”
“Thankee much,” said Theresa. She cracked the oven dooropen to check on something, then headed back outside to the grill and opened it. Gray charcoal glowed subtly in the evening light. “Marilyn’s in the garden, if you want to visit while I knock the hooves off this beef.”
Robin hesitated, taking Leon and Wayne aside. “You two drew your algiz like I told you to do, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Leon.
Theresa snorted, smirking as she laid the steaks over the coals with her bare hands. Do what thou wilt, she seemed to be thinking, for all the good it’s gonna do ya.
The patio occupied the top of the driveway, a large area about the size of a basketball court separating the back of the house from the two-car garage. An adobe privacy wall like the one that enclosed the front garden ran clear out to one side all the way to the treeline some eighty or ninety yards out. A tall wooden gate allowed them into the back garden.
Inside the wall, they were greeted by rows and rows of trellis fences crawling with sickly ivy. Grapes withered in clusters. “A vineyard,” said Leon. “Man, I could go for some wine.”
Sitting at a table in the freshly-mown grass were Marilyn Cutty and Karen Weaver, a large wooden pub-style table with a white linen tablecloth thrown over it. Marilyn slouched down in a chair with one elbow on the table, nursing a glass of what looked like iced tea and staring out into the pinewoods.
Seeing them together sent Robin reeling backward through the years, to afternoons spent trying to master croquet with Grandma Mary and her ancient hand-me-down mallet and balls, sharing handfuls of blueberries from the bushes by the east wall. Mornings in the cornflower-blue kitchen, making cat-head biscuits with Theresa and stealing chocolate chip cookies out of the Premium Saltines tin in the pantry. Late nights pretending to be a mannequin while Karen pinned a dress around her tiny frame. If you’re gonna be hangin’ around here like a damned beggar, I might as well put you to work, the old woman would tell her, lifting her up and standing her on a stepladder. Now, don’t move or I’m gonna poke you.
She ain’t your grandmother, chastised Annie’s twisted voice in the back of her mind. This ain’t your house. Robin twitched as she heard a spectral echo of the meaty, drumming impact her mother’s body made when it hit the wooden floor in the foyer of the Victorian. Witches, her lying mother had warned her about them as she died with a broken neck. Instead of wiping her mind squeaky clean as she’d always done before, Annie’s final warning broke the spell, poured all those missing memories back into her, filling in all the vacant puzzle pieces.
Having her mother’s memory-wipe undone, and all those clues and whispered secrets surging back in, had inadvertently driven her insane. It had taken a long time to overcome . . . and here she was again, in the thick of it.
As the misfits came shushing across the close-cropped grass, Weaver stood. “Hi there!” Then she noticed Robin. “Oooooh, it’s you. I thought I told you to vamoose. Y’know, I don’t remember you being this stupid.”
“I’m hard to vamoose. And yes, I’m plenty stupid.”
Wild-haired Weaver had on a witchy-looking petticoat made out of a hundred silk scarves of as many dark colors, all tied together. It might have been ragged were it not so artfully arranged. She pushed up her sleeves. “Was the illusion not enough to run your ass outta here? I can conjure up some real flies, you know. Big, nasty ones that bite.”
“Excuse me?” said Leon.
“I assume our self-proclaimed witch-hunter here has taken it upon herself to unload all her knowledge on you, including her gory internet videos.”
“A man said in one of my mother’s favorite books, ‘First comes smiles, then lies. Last is gunfire.’” Robin put up her hands to demonstrate they were empty. “For the sake of transparency and trust, I think it behooves all of us to skip the polite make-believe. I’m not here to fight. Just talk.”
“A palaver, eh? The hunter comes to parley?” Cutty folded her arms. “Yes. Well, the truth will out, I’ve always heard, so there’s no reason to tell lies when we can keep it at smiles, and I think we could all do without the gunfire. You didn’t bring that nasty silver dagger, did you? I’d be hard pressed to observe the rules of parley if you showed up packing the Godsdagger.”
“No. It’s in a safe place.”
Cutty simply nodded slowly, agreefully, her eyes darting around the tabletop before meeting the girl’s once again.
“I’ve been told what you are,” said Leon. “I’m still not sure I believe it one hundred percent, but I am informed. And after what happened Friday night and yesterday morning, y’know, with the snakebite and all, I’m also not convinced violence is necessary, so consider me the dove of peace in this here scenario, yeah? I really appreciate what Miss Weaver here did for us, and I’d like to avoid bloodshed.”
Her hands still raised like Madam Mim, Weaver looked back and forth between them. “Truce, then?”
“Truce,” said Cutty.
“Truce,” said Robin. “For today.”
The witch in the ragged petticoat lowered her hands dejectedly.
Wayne looked as if he were about to jump the fence and bolt.
“I guess I knew you were going to come eventually.” Weaver sighed, shaking down her sleeves. The bracelets and beads around her wrists rattled. “I’d hoped you’d ‘a been smart enough not to.” The three of them took a seat at the table, and Weaver sat back down with what was probably a whiskey. “For some reason, Maryhas taken a liking to you and your murdering, backstabbing, coward whore of a mother, and I’ve tried to honor that because of our history and all. You didn’t make a bad seamstress dummy, after all. But don’t give me a reason to turn you inside out. ’Cause I don’t give a tin shit. I’ll do it.”
“Your skill at diplomacy has not waned in the least, I see,” said Cutty.
“Diplomacy is for cowards.”
Thunder mumbled again to the east. The evening was darker than it ought to be for six o’clock, although a hard blue luminescence lingered on the western horizon. Humid air made soft halos around the candle-flames, like lamps in London fog.
“I’m surprised you guys want to eat outside,” Leon said, studying the sky. “Looks like rain.”
“Nah,” said Weaver.
“How do you know?” He fidgeted, a coy smile on his lips that betrayed the anxious look in his eye. “Did you see it in the knucklebones, or tea leaves, or something?”
“Nope. It just don’t rain ’round these parts unless I say it can.” She smiled.
On the other side of the parking spaces, at the end of a row of empty slots, was an old Ford pickup truck. A camper-shell covered the bed like a turtle, the same brick-red as the body. The self-declared master of hide-and-seek was looking for a place to hide, and this was the coolest possible place to hide in the entire apartment complex. What grabbed little Delilah’s attention was the bright green snake. Diamond-shaped scales uncoiled across the truck’s body, from door to door. Each scale shone with its own sharp gleam, reflecting some source of light beyond the ken of the canvas.At the leading end of the dragonesque body was a great mouth full of teeth and writhing tongue, dominated by white fangs the size of bananas.
One screwhead eye gazed out at her, as big as her fist, the color of honey. Screwing it out, she discovered the gasoline receptacle underneath. The gas cap was the snake’s eye! How clever.
Walking around the back she found the body stretched across the tailgate, went behind the passenger taillight, and came out again on the passenger fender.
After that it coiled twice, and clinging tightly to the very tip was a bare-chested woman in Viking garb, her giant boobs squeezed between her outstretched arms. The barbarian Barbie gripped the last slender inch of the snake’s tail as if it were a baseball bat and dug in with both heels.
It was a bit of a ratty truck to have such a gloriously cheesy picture painted on it. The girl wondered who it belonged to, and what he was like, as she reached up and put her hand on its metal belly, still warm withthe day’s beating. The barbarian’s bulging arms, winecork nipples, and glowing lightning-god eyes stood out from the truck body around it, a paint-depth bas-relief.
“I’m coming to find youuuu!” Ginny called from somewhere to her distant right, shouting in a singsong voice.
Lifting the rear sash, Delilah climbed into the bed of the truck, letting it sigh back down on pneumatic hinges.
Crammed against the front of the cargo space was a fluffy black bale of pine needles. Many of the needles had slipped out and now coated the floor of the truck bed with a thin, crunchy carpet. Inside the camper shell, the air seemed sapped of oxygen—stifling hot, grainy with the smell of earth and bitter pine. The side windows were painted over with the red of the body, coloring the light from the streetlamps a boudoir crimson.
To Delilah’s right as she climbed in was a burlap sack with fertilizer stenciled across the front, full of something large, bulbous, as big as the girl herself. Next to that was a Stihl weed eater with a well-gnawed line, encrusted with grass and reeking of gasoline. A gardener-man, she thought, duck-walking over to the bale of pine needles and settling down beside it. I wonder if he plants tulips? She loved tulips, loved the light, sweet smell of them.
“I’m going to find you,” said Ginny from somewhere in front of the truck. It had been parked facing the apartment building, with the rear pointing at the dark street. Delilah could hear the little girl’s new shoes clopping along the pavement as she skipped from car to car. “Ah-ha! . . . No, I guess not.”
Delilah froze in place and slowed her breathing. Her belly rose and fell under her T-shirt and she pinched the seams of her jeans, anticipating her discovery in the hot dark camper, studying the rough denim with her fingertips as she listened.
“Are you in here?” Ginny asked. A car door opened with a metallic crackle. A couple of heartbeats passed. “Nope.” The door slammed shut, ker-tunk!
Sitting there in the gas-smelling dark, Delilah strained at the limit of her hearing, pine needles poking through her jeans. She slid an inch to her left as quietly as possible and pressed herself against the bristly straw bale. Ginny sounded closer. She gave a surfer-like “Whoa” and walked right up to the snake truck. “Check that out.” Delilah could hear her creeping around the vehicle, taking in the entirety of the artwork. A tiny hand trailed down the side of the panel with a susurrant hiss that sounded more snake-like than Delilah wanted to admit. She shifted to get away from a pine needle poking her and rested her feet against the burlap sack.
Whatever was inside the bag was solid. Whatever it was, it wasn’t fertilizer.
“Whoa,” Ginny said again, this time from the passenger side of the truck. She giggled. “Look at those boobies. She looks like Thor.”
Delilah could hear her breathing even over her own. Ginny was a tall, Nordic little blonde girl that never had any trouble clearing her plate at dinner and stayed stocky and moon-faced even though she was an active kid and played kickball. Delilah could see Ginny in her mind’s eye, swiping a wispy lock of hair out of her big pink grinning face.
A voice called from the apartment building. “Regina! Time to come in!”
Ginny sighed. “Okay, Mama,” she called back. Delilah thought about popping out to surprise her but realized she could reuse this spot next time. Why ruin it now? “Okay, Lilah! You can come out now!” shouted Ginny. “I have to go back in!”
Waiting until Ginny had left, Delilah stayed quiet. She really was a ninja! She had gone undetected. She got up off the floor of the bed and crouched there in the womblike red shadow, striking a kung-fu pose. “Kyah.” She whispered spirit-shouts to herself. “Kyah. Eeyah.” She threw a punch, and then another with the other hand, then tried to kick, but the low ceiling didn’t give her enough room to maintain her center of balance, so she fell back on her butt. She caught herself with her hands, raking the inside of her forearm down the rock-chipped edge of the weed-trimmer head. “Ouch!”
Her hand landed on some angular object inside the burlap bag. It was flat on one side. She raised her arm into the dim light and saw that the trimmer hadn’t broken skin, but there was a painful four-inch red welt.
Tugging back the rim of the burlap sack, Delilah saw a New Balance tennis shoe.
Time ground to a halt. Even the cicadas silenced themselves, though not all at once—dwindling to three or four, and then one buzzing razz tapered off into nothing. All thought of ninjas fled her mind. She was a seven-year-old girl again, bewildered and vulnerable and alone.
Fear didn’t quite enter into it, not yet. Some lingering logic said the bag was full of old hand-me-down shoes; a load of clothes destined for Goodwill. Maybe the owner of the truck was a good- hearted man that collected old giveaways for the church or something. She pressed her fingertips against the burlap sack again and felt another shoe inside.
A big bag of shoes for the church. She relaxed and peeled the bag open a little bit more. Wrapped in a striped sock, a skinny ankle protruded from the mouth of the shoe, pale, hairless.
Delilah’s mouth moved, but nothing came out.
If something had come from her mouth, it would have been “Mama, Mama, Mama,” but for some reason, her voice box didn’t want to work, the wind wouldn’t catch the guitar strings, her throat wouldn’t respond. She just kept mouthing the word over and over again. Her legs didn’t want to work either. She wanted to get out of the truck, to crawl over to the sash and push it open, throw herself out of the camper shell, and run home. But she couldn’t quite wrap her mind around the sight of seeing a little boy’s legs poking out of a fertilizer bag in the back of a stranger’s truck, and it was the confusion that kept her frozen. Instead of directing her feet to propel her outside, her child brain could only spin in place, trying to reconcile one with the other, tires in deep mud.
She touched the leg. Cold. Dead cold.
This was incorrect, untrue, unreal. It didn’t make sense. People didn’t die like this. People died in hospitals at a ripe old age and their family cried over them at the funeral home, people in cheap gray suits and bifocals. They were buried in cemeteries with flowers and pretty headstones with carvings of angels and animals. You don’t walk on graves. That’s rude, Miss Delilah Lee. Go ’round them. “Are you okay in there?” The words came out wrong. Strangled, wet. She touched her own face and realized she was crying. “Boy? Are you oh—Are you okay?”
Taking the edge of the sack opening in both hands, she pulled it up, up, up, past the boy’s knees. He was wearing a pair of black gymshorts. She would have kept going but the sack was caught on the toe of his shoe. With a terrified respect, Delilah pulled the burlap back down, covering the boy’s legs, and started sobbing outright. The inside of the painted-over camper swam in red chaos, a hot-box full of blood, and she went for the back sash.
Nothing there but a round hole where the handle was supposed to be.
For the second time in as many minutes, reality ceased to color inside the middle of the sash, looking for the handle, but it wasn’t there. The only thing marking its prior presence was the round hole in the sash frame. Inside, she could see the mechanism that operated the latch, but she couldn’t figure out how to move the parts.
In the cab of the truck, someone sat up in the passenger seat. She became moveless and silent, unwilling to give herself away, a fawn in the grass. The man fetched a heavy sigh and unlatched the cab’s rear window, sliding it open. He twisted in the seat and peered inside, a silhouette crowned with a shock of fiery copper hair. She couldn’t quite see his face, but his head was big. He had the affect of a pit viper, with a wide-set jaw and narrow throat.
“Hey there,” said the man. His voice was dry and high, like sandpaper, like the scraping of sandstone vaults.
Delilah said nothing.
“I know you’re back there, your friend woke me up looking for you.”
Delilah’s burning eyes refused to blink. She was afraid to take them off the wide-headed shadow in the front seat. Snot crept down her upperlip.
“What’s your name?” he asked. Nothing.
“Not talkin’, huh? I can dig it,” he said, emphasizing the phrase with a brief jazz-hand. “Smart. Y’know, when I was your age, I was great at hide-and-seek. Nobody could find me. I knew all the best hiding places. My friends called me Snake—’cause I could wriggle into the littlest places.”
“Liah,” said the girl. She hunkered against the tailgate, shivering.
“My name is Delilah.”
“Delilah,” the man said pleasantly. “Pretty name. Mine’s Roy. Maybe I can teach you a few things about hiding, huh? You don’t want to jump in the back of a crazy-lookin’ truck like this one. This is a bad place. I can show you where to hide where no one will ever, ever find you again.” He put a ziptie between his lips and let it dangle there, as if it were a wheat-straw in a cowboy’s mouth. Delilah thought it looked like a snake’s tongue.
Deet-deet. The stillness was broken by an electronic alarm. Roy took a phone out of his pocket and studied it, the screen illuminating his face. His nose was pointed, his nostrils wide, his eyes thin and somehow both clever and stupid at once. As he read the message, his mean slash of a mouth formed silent words.
“Looks like I need to get back to the house. No rest for the wicked.” His eyes flashed up to Delilah and he got out of the truck. The camper sash opened with a creak, allowing cool night air to pour in like fresh river-water, and the man scowled in at her. “Out of the truck, princess,” said Roy, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Game’s canceled.”
Delilah clambered over the tailgate and stumbled onto the pavement.
Leaning over her, the red-headed man smiled. “Run on home. And if you tell anybody I was here, well . . . I know where you live. And I promise you, you don’t want to play hide and seek with me. I know where you live.” Getting back into his truck, Roy regarded her with those tiny, venomous eyes. “Stay outta strangers’ cars, kid. You’ll live longer.”
Copyright © S.A. Hunt 2020
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