Antoinette Sophia Stark, deep in concentration, didn’t hear the summons from outside the Circle until Jarvis placed a silver paw on her knee.
“Mistress,” he murmured, and only that.
Toni didn’t respond physically, barely a twitch in her posture, but mentally acknowledged him and otherwise stayed focused on the task at hand.
Jarvis jumped back onto the worktable and peered at the earring she was hard at work on. She placed the grain-sized gem - a garnet - into the crevice waiting for it. The magick seemed to have been waiting for the moment, and she whispered a few words of power, a command in an ancient tongue.
The metal embraced the gem, held it fast.
The spell snapped into shape, and the air seemed to flare for a moment, then everything died down to normal.
Toni finally looked up and put the earring down. “What is it, Jarvis?”
“Strega Potts sent her Astral down. You have a visitor in the foyer.” The silver cat stretched in a wave, his tail rippling. “It is Detective Carter from CPD.”
Toni felt a frisson of warning run up her spine. “A murder.”
Jarvis didn’t bother to contradict her.
Toni slowly climbed off of the bench and slipped her feet into beat-up moccasins. She grabbed her shawl off of the hook next to the table and waved a hand, extinguishing all the candles in the Circle. They were all burnt down to their bases, having been used all the previous night.
She spoke a word in Veritan, the Witch language. “Abruttè.”
The Circle broke open and Toni stepped out, Jarvis at her ankles.
“I really hope I’m wrong,” Toni said.
Peggy was studying the scrolls on the foyer walls when Toni and Jarvis emerged from the workroom. She was a pretty English-born woman, of average height, on the heavier side of average-weight, with curly brown hair and dark eyes. Toni had never seen her without a slash of red lipstick adorning her heart-shaped face. She seemed perturbed.
Pepper sidled up next to Toni and leaned in. “She didn’t tell me anything, but it’s bad. Her energy is off.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Don’t play dumb, Toni.”
“Hm.” Toni patted her assistant and friend’s shoulder before clearing her throat. “Good morrow?”
Peggy raised her eyebrows, amused. “‘Good morrow?’ Who actually says that?”
“Small-town Witches who want to sound mysterious and ancient,” Toni replied, wrapping her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Working the Craft tended to leave her feeling cold for a while after.
Peggy snorted. “Hello, Jarvis.” She bent down to pet Toni’s Familiar on the head. Jarvis closed his feline eyes in pleasure.
“So this isn’t a social call, as much as I wish it were,” Peggy said as she straightened, smoothing down her blazer. “Steve and I need your expertise, and the sooner we can move out, the better.”
Toni nodded. “A homicide.”
Peggy nodded sadly. “Yes.”
“Let’s go, then.” Toni waved Pepper over. “Hold down the fort for me?”
“Sure. Keep yourself safe,” Pepper touched her own forehead in respect towards her coven’s head, and Toni returned the gesture to her coven-sister out of custom and habit.
Jarvis rubbed up against Toni’s ankles, silently lending her strength; he couldn’t typically come along to the crime scene, but would be awaiting her return.
Peggy waited as Pepper disappeared into the conservatory and while Toni switched her shawl out for a more utilitarian jacket and her slippers for her customary boots. “So. Steve, huh?”
Peggy laughed. “Don’t be so obvious, Strega Stark.”
Just as they were pulling out of the manor’s circular driveway, another car pulled in. This one was a luxury model Lexus, and had rental tags. A blond man was driving it.
“Hold up a sec,” Toni said, and got out of Peggy’s car.
Pepper, having been alerted to the newcomer’s arrival, appeared at the top of the steps. Her Familiar Hera, in her sparrow form, perched on her shoulder.
The Lexus’s motor turned off, and the blond man got out of the cab.
Toni’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh. Greg.”
It had been well over ten years since Toni last laid eyes on her twin brother. She hadn’t seen him in person since before she’d taken her leave of New York City.
Despite being twins, Toni and Greg were a study in polar opposites. Toni was petite, with long, curly black hair and fringe, her olive skin paled due to countless hours spent in her underground workshop, and golden lamplike eyes. She tended towards dressing in black and burgundy, playing her status as a Witch to the fullest with flowing skirts, Victorian-style boots, and plenty of handmade jewelry.
Gregory, on the other hand, had pale blond hair and piercing blue eyes. Their shared Mediterranean heritage was displayed on him in richly tanned skin, and he presented himself as the height of class, in a snow-white linen suit and with his facial hair trimmed in an immaculate goatee. He was tall, and of a more muscular build, and moved like a being sure of his place in the world. He walked like a man used to hearing his footfalls, steady and sure.
Toni moved to embrace him, but he turned, held out a hand for a handshake.
Toni stopped and stared at the extended hand. After a hesitation, she took it. “Good… good to see you again,” she finally said.
Greg smiled, and it was a plastic, artificial expression. “Antoinette. It’s been a while.”
Toni attempted to regain her composure, but couldn’t manage to return the smile. “Yeah. Yes, it has.” She blinked, shook her head to clear it. “What brings you out here to Cravenswood?”
“The city has become too… noisy. Crowded.” Greg shrugged. “I have been long overdue for a vacation, and had yet to visit the hometown of our late mother.”
“Do… do you need a place to stay?” Toni glanced up the steps at Pepper, whose eyes widened.
Greg tilted his head, an unreadable look in his eyes. “I have a room at the bed-and-breakfast.”
“Ben and May Parker’s?”
“I believe that was the couple’s name.” Greg glanced up at the manor. “So this is our mother’s home.”
“Yeah.” Toni felt something anxious stir in the pit of her belly, and Peggy coughed in the car behind her. “Look, Greg, I’m kind of on my way out--”
“No, I understand. I apologize for springing this sudden visit on you.” Greg met her gaze again. “I should have called ahead.” He shrugged. “I was hoping to catch up with you, but I understand if you’ve been called away.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of important.” Toni twisted a curl of hair around her finger and bit her lip. “Can we meet up later on, maybe in the afternoon? I’ll let you know when things are quiet again.”
“Feel free to leave a message with the Parkers,” Greg said. He nodded to Pepper, who narrowed her eyes at him, and then climbed back into his rental. “I look forward to reconnecting with you, Antoinette.”
“Greg,” Toni smiled weakly. “We’re family. Least you can do is call me Toni.”
“Indeed.” Greg turned the keys in the ignition, and shut the car door.
Toni sighed and got back into Peggy’s car, and they pulled out and away.
When they pulled up to the abandoned lot behind Old Stan's hardware store, Toni immediately picked out Detective Steve Rogers’ blond head, half a foot above everyone else. There were uniformed cops swarming the lot, and yellow police tape boxed the scene in.
They let Peggy and Toni in, and Toni made a beeline for the center of the activity. Peggy called out behind her, but Toni didn’t heed her. She didn’t even make it to Steve before she caught sight of the corpse. What she saw made her stop dead in her tracks.
The girl had been stripped naked and laid on her back, her limbs spread to match the pentagram etched in the dirt. That was routine, for a Cowan - a non-Witch - attempting to make a crime look occult in nature. Nothing incredibly creative; Toni wished it had ended there.
The girl's hands had been literally staked to the ground with actual metal, right through the palm of each hand. Her feet were wrapped with chicken wire that had also been secured by stakes. Her head was positioned so that she would be looking straight upward... if her eyes hadn't been removed completely. And worst of all, her abdomen had been cut open and her innards pulled out. There were flies everywhere, the metallic tang of blood and the stink of death and the buzzing of the carrion insects overwhelming--
Toni stumbled to the side and found herself revisiting breakfast.
There were surprised yelps and a few weak chuckles from the forensic team as she heaved again, coughing up bile.
"It's okay," she heard Steve murmur. "Get it all out." He rubbed her shoulder soothingly.
"Don't feel bad," Peggy added. "Krzeminski didn't even make it past the yellow tape."
Toni took the tissue Steve offered her and wiped her mouth, muttering a curse in Veritan.
Steve chuckled. "I have no idea what you just said but I assume you were swearing?"
"Lay off the nagging, Winghead," Toni snapped, but she still buried her head in his shoulder once she'd stood up and turned around. "Carillon d’inferno, I can't believe..."
"I know," Steve answered. "None of us can."
It had been nearly seven years since a homicide happened in Cravenswood, and that had been committed by a member of a traveling carnival. It had been a straightforward rape and strangling, but the lack of magick had not made it any less horrendous. The violent death had resulted in a very tragic ghost. Toni had been called in to help the ghost as the CPD hunted down the culprit, and thus hadn’t really interacted with the poor woman’s corpse. It seemed that day would be a day of many firsts.
There was always the possibility that a resident could commit such a heinous act, but nobody liked to think of that. It made folks feel better to blame the out-of-town visitors and big city dwellers. Normally Toni - and, to some degree, the various members of the CPD - would disagree, but Toni and her coven usually got some warning before major crimes were committed. They had known to be prepared for the tragedy with the carnival, even if they hadn’t known exactly what was about to occur. Just by keying into the natural balance and tone of the town's energy, they were usually prepared for what could happen.
Toni had received absolutely no warning for this, and neither Pepper nor any Familiars present had mentioned anything either. She was also fairly certain her coven would have sought her out had they gotten a whiff of foul play, but her interactions of the past week with the various Witches of the town had been very relaxed and benign.
This had literally come out of nowhere.
Steve patted her back and she drew away from him. Peggy offered her a stick of wintergreen gum, which she gratefully accepted. "Okay," she said after chewing for a minute. "Fill me in."
The wind rustled the trees in the distance, and a chill crawled down her spine. She suddenly felt like she was being scrutinized, as if some great eyes had cast their gaze upon her and begun to contemplate whatever she did.
She forced her focus back onto the here and now, on the detectives.
"Old Stan called it in after he opened the store up. Said he saw a tarp thrown out in the lot and went to see if it was debris from last night's storm." Peggy nodded at the blue tarp being folded up into an evidence bag. "He didn't see anything last night while closing up. As far as we can tell, he was not involved. His wife vouched for him being at home last night until he left to open up shop."
"We're going to wait for dental records to confirm it, but we are fairly certain that we found Tania McGee." Steve bowed his head, his expression unreadable.
Toni swallowed and felt the prickling of what had to be tears at the back of her eyes, and that was impossible. Witches couldn't cry. "She's only seventeen."
Steve sighed. "We want to be sure before we go to her mother."
"Mater diella Deava…"
"Toni? Focus." Peggy pulled her from her dark thoughts. The dark-haired detective was staring intently at her, but she softened her tone when she spoke again. "The sooner we identify who or what did this, the sooner we can put them away."
"Any idea which school of magic pulled this?" Steve added.
Toni steeled herself and looked over the corpse again. "I need more data. Is Bruce here yet?"
Steve pointed the CPD medical examiner out, and Toni mentally girdled her loins and headed for the body.
Dr. Banner was just removing the liver probe. He nodded distractedly to Toni and checked the temperature reading. "Blood splatter and pooling indicates that this is the spot where she died… Judging by this reading, I would put time of death at around one or two in the morning."
"The so-called 'witching hour'," Toni commented, trying not to breathe in the corpse's scent. Her stomach churned in warning, and she tried to focus on the mint of the gum.
Bruce shrugged and laid the thermometer aside. "That tells us something, I guess."
Toni nodded. Whoever had done this was either a Cowan or a very savvy Witch trying to throw others off his or her scent. Considering that every local Witch belonged to the same coven and no one had noticed any new magick users passing through, Toni doubted the latter. And they would have noticed. Much like feral animals could tell when intruders had passed through their territory, the coven would have immediately picked up a foreign Witch. They’d dealt with countless interlopers - Whitney Frost and the Hammer girls had been the latest, just over a year ago. And besides, the patented Small Town Rumor Mill would have started churning the minute someone from outside Cravenswood showed up in their midst; that was how Toni had become aware of the Maggia’s arrival back in ‘95. Besides Greg, who had shown up at the manor before Toni had heard anything of his arrival, there hadn't been anyone else of note.
Toni sighed. "What else can you tell me?"
Bruce breathed deeply, then coughed. Toni couldn't blame him. "She was alive when she was... bound. Her hands and ankles bled."
Toni closed her eyes, and there it was: the place-memory, waiting to dump the residual energy of the site into her sixth sense. "I think she was drugged, and somewhat awake." Strangely, the place-memory was faint. Try as she might, Toni couldn’t glean anything else from the ambient energy of the crime scene. Such violent actions usually generated magical signs and residual leavings, like faint ghostlike forms and empathetic imprints.
Toni knew it in her bones: something had wiped it all away. All that was left was the victim and her last conscious moments, stored in her skin and blood.
"Lord help us all," Bruce said in response. "I'll order a tox screen." He leaned forward and pulled the dead girl's mouth open, then recoiled. "Jesus--"
Toni looked and then scrambled back. The girl's tongue had also been cut out.
Toni cursed and got to her feet, tracing the Goddess circle on her chest. "None of this ritual is familiar to me, and I have studied a lot of these." She spat the now-useless gum into her spent tissue and wiped her mouth again. "I'm going to call a coven meeting, see if anyone knows anything."
"I hope you find something," Bruce said, scrubbing at his curly hair, his face in a pinched expression. "Because if you can't, we are going to be in for trouble."
Toni surveyed the silent woods beyond the edge of the lot, which had suddenly become much more menacing. She shuddered with a sudden thought of or maybe we already are.
Peggy took Toni to the diner after they left the crime scene, citing that "Pepper would have my hide if I didn't make sure you ate something."
Toni suspected that she only wanted to see her girlfriend, who was working behind the counter as they took two stools for themselves.
Angie took one look at her and handed Toni her usual coffee. "You look like you've seen a ghost. Or," she made a face that got Peggy to snort, "something that would actually scare you as much as a ghost would scare us Muggles."
"Ugh," Toni wrinkled her nose. "Too early in the morning for pop culture references." Peggy had been sent a copy of a popular English children’s book, and it had been about fictional wizards. Toni had disliked it immediately, purely because the author had opted to make absolutely everything up. Angie had apparently enjoyed it… or she enjoyed driving Toni nuts by quoting it.
Angie laughed. "What'll it be, Glinda?"
Toni glared at her over the rim of the mug as Peggy failed to keep the giggles contained. "Just coffee," she finally said.
"Absolutely not!" Peggy admonished her. "At least eat some toast, something bland to settle your stomach."
Toni closed her eyes. Tania's mutilated face swam on the inside of her eyelids. "Not sure I can handle that right now."
"I can get some saltines?" Angie offered.
"Coming right up." Angie disappeared into the kitchen, and Peggy huffed out a small sigh.
"I am so sorry," the detective finally said. "I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was, Steve got there before me and called me to grab you on my way over. I still should have warned you on the way over there, about the gore. "
"As much as I would have appreciated that, I'm still not sure I would have handled it any better."
Peggy and Toni sipped at their coffee, and when Angie brought the saltines, Toni obligingly nibbled on those.
"So do you think the others might know anything about this?" Peggy asked.
Toni considered it. "See, now that I think of it, the rite is familiar. Like, I've seen it before but I can't for the life of me remember it."
"Maybe someone will refresh your memory?" Peggy ventured hopefully.
"We can only pray," Toni said quietly.
"Whatever you two got into, it sounds awful." Angie wrinkled her nose. "I won't ask."
Toni waggled her eyebrows gratefully at Angie as Peggy put out money for their bill. "Thanks for the crackers, Martinelli."
"Don't sweat it. Hey, feel better, okay?" Angie nodded to her before hurrying away to deal with a regular seated down the bar.
Peggy blew a kiss after her (which Angie mimed catching) and then ushered Toni back to her car.
"Must be nice, to have a literal ray of sunlight for a roommate," Toni commented.
Peggy rolled her eyes at her. "I already told you to quit being so obvious, Toni."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Sure, sure you don't."
Peggy dropped Toni back at the manor and left after teasing her about her taste in music - Toni had sung along to Depeche Mode on the radio, and made an impassioned argument about the signature riff of "Enjoy the Silence". It was either that or let the memory of what they'd just seen stew in the uncomfortable quiet.
Toni waved as Peggy pulled out of the drive and then shook out her skirt, trying to shake the gloom still clinging to her. Jarvis appeared at her feet, slinking out from under the porch.
"Streghe Rhodes has returned from San Francisco," he informed her, and Toni scooped him up in her arms. He went willingly, and she took comfort in his weight and warmth.
Toni buried her nose in Jarvis's fur. "I need you to put the call out to the rest of the coven."
"Of course, Mistress." Jarvis purred in an attempt to calm her, and Toni felt the soothing emotions he was projecting. They did little to salve the rawness of what she had just witnessed, but she appreciated the gesture all the same.
"We meet tonight, at ten." Toni was reasonably sure any Cowan obligations would be finished by then. "Here, at the manor."
"Understood." Jarvis rubbed his face against hers and then jumped down from her arms. He disappeared into the brush surrounding the property, and Toni gathered her wits before ascending the stairs to the porch.
Rhodey opened the door and stepped outside before she reached the top of the steps, and his Familiar Ares - in his customary form of a Doberman - was hot on his heels. "Pepper!" he called over his shoulder. "She's back."
"Rhodey--" Toni threw her arms around his waist and hugged him close. "Miertè, I'm glad you're back."
Rhodey squeezed her back. "I heard there was a murder." Behind him, Pepper slipped out onto the porch to join them.
"Old Stan found Tania McGee's body in the empty lot behind his store." Toni swallowed down her nausea. "Peggy and Steve brought me in to see if I could identify the Craft. She was put in a pentagram and mutilated to all hell."
"Dìus mai," Rhodey murmured, his eyes wide, as Pepper gasped in horror.
"They don't have any witnesses or suspects, do they?" Pepper said from behind clasped hands.
Toni shook her head. "It wasn't any kind of Craft I know of, dark or light. I think it was Cowan."
"That means we missed something big," Rhodey said darkly. "Damn it, I shouldn't have left."
"We didn't leave," Pepper pointed out. "We were here and it still happened."
Ares whined loudly, echoing the displeasure clearly displayed on Rhodey's face.
"Hush, you," Pepper scolded the Familiar, who dropped his ears instantly and hung his head. "You're both being irrational," she went on, regaining her composure. "Your presence would not have stopped the killer." Hera puffed up her chest feathers in agreement.
"Pepper's right," said Toni. "We can beat ourselves up over Tania's death, or we can find her murderer and bring them to justice." She looked up at the overcast sky, the steel-colored clouds keeping all but the most strained sunlight from filtering through. "I'm calling the coven in tonight, to discuss this and see what everyone knows."
"Could it have been Loki?" Ares wondered.
Hera chittered. "We haven't sensed Hel anywhere near us."
"No, Loki is still being held by the Shadow Council." Toni shuddered. Even she didn't know - or want to know - what that exactly meant. She had had her share of brushes with the assembled council that governed over the world's community of Witches and magick users, and once was one too many. You crossed the council once, and then you disappeared forever.
"So let's hope that someone recognizes the ritual and that it will point us toward the killer," Pepper said, squaring her shoulders. "In the meantime, I have a batch of inks that need to be finished."
Rhodey tugged Toni into the manor after Pepper and glanced over his shoulder. "So what's this about Greg showing up here?"
"Just that." Toni shrugged. "He showed up right as Peggy and I were leaving and said he was in town on vacation."
Rhodey and Greg had never gotten along as youths, so Toni wasn't surprised when he narrowed his eyes. Ares growled at his knee, and Toni rolled her eyes and scratched the Familiar between his ears. That made him stop.
"Seriously," Rhodey insisted. "Why would your brother - who hates anything having to do with the Craft - vacation in Cravenswood, of all places?"
"Does it matter?" Toni retorted. "At least we can rule him out as a suspect. He only arrived this morning."
Rhodey sighed, but conceded. "I still don't want to be around him any longer than necessary," he said, punctuating his statement with a poke at Toni's shoulder.
“Carillon d’inferno,” Toni rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Very well. Men!"