A Time For Crows

Chapter 1: Opening Credits

The girl sitting on a box pallet in the shipping and receiving room of my shop looked like Ann did all those years ago—I think it was the angle of her jawline. Ann didn’t have hair the color of dripping blood and never looked scared, I don’t know, but the resemblance hurt all the same.

The girl was young, twenty-something, probably ten years younger than me, pretty—gorgeous even if she hadn’t have been so beat up, poor thing—tall and athletic, and haunted. She wore a denim jacket three sizes too big, white stretchy shorts, and streaked mascara that had smeared and raccooned into fear stains. Bruises printed her ankles and shins like she’d been dragged, and her knees had scabbed.

My heart broke for her. I could see why Kate had brought her to me.

“What’s your name?” I said and pulled up a seat; even back here, it smelled strong of brewing kombucha, sweet and yeasty, and completely at odds with the perfume sprayed as a mask coming from the girl.

Her eyes flicked to Kate, my employee and quasi-apprentice, who leaned against another pallet loaded with empty glass bottles.

Kate nodded. “Just tell him; he’ll help. I’m serious.”

“You really found Kate?” the girl said. “You’re the one?”

I nodded and opened my hands, trying to give a reassuring smile. “Yeah. How can I help?”

“What did you do to them?” She swallowed. “What’d you do? How?”

“Beth,” Kate said.

“They can’t hurt her anymore,” I said. “You see something you can’t explain?”

Beth swallowed, and her breathing picked up; she pulled her legs tighter to her, and fidgeted. “I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry.” She pushed up to leave, but Kate caught her shoulders.

“Just tell him. He can help; I promise.”

I wasn’t so sure; it depended on the problem, obviously. But I could be a decent human being and listen.

“You like kombucha?” I said.

“What?” Beth said.

“Kombucha. I always think better when I have some. Ever try it?”

“No, I love it, Kate’s brought me some, but—”

“Well then you know how damn good mine is,” I said, and stood up, slow and with a smile. “Let’s grab some. You can tell us what’s going on. We don’t open for a while anyway. Front’s a lot more comfortable than back here.” I should have grabbed some when Kate had called me back.

She swallowed again and met Kate’s eyes, who smiled. “He’s not going to think you’re nuts.”

“Everyone else did—”

“I didn’t.”

“Listen,” I said, “I’ll grab us some booches. Beth, you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. But at least have one.” I nodded to Kate. “What’re you drinking?”

“Frithwebba,” Kate said. “Thanks, boss.”

“Sure,” I said and made my way over to the brewing room. A double-doored, sort of containment hallway separates the shipping and receiving from the brew; so much easier to keep the batches clean because you have to open-brew them; I mean they’re covered with a cloth, but there’s no sense in unnecessary contamination, and when I opened the door, the fans kicked on, shoving off the air back into the shipping and receiving room.

I passed the second set of doors and into the brewing room proper, and the sweet, tangy tea filled my palate as full as a preacher does the cup of souls on Sunday. I grabbed a few cold bottles from one of the big refrigerators, then made my way back to the girls. Beth and I would drink Original, which featured the wizened Dwarf on the label I named my store after: Dwarven Spirits. And when you try it, you understand why.

Both Beth and Kate stood now, and even with just flip-flops on, Beth was taller than Kate, not as tall as me, but tall and square like a pole-vaulter, even with the jacket. Now that they stood together though, it was strange how similar they looked; one could even confuse them as sisters, but I knew Kate didn’t have a sister Beth’s age, and Kate’s the type who would have said “my sister,” or “my cousin.”

“Here,” I said, handing them the drinks. “On the house.”

“Oh, I love this one,” Beth said, “thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Sure thing.”

I handed Kate hers (which featured a hot elf maiden on the label, ‘case you were wondering), cracked open mine, and took a pull, letting the sweet and soft tang of sarsaparilla and wintergreen, sassafras, with top notes of lime and base notes of sweetened, creamy vanilla, plus a hundred more complexities cool my throat. I loved this stuff. If I could just get more exposure.

Beth gulped hers and sighed.

“Right?” I said.

She smiled, even if only a little, and despite the tear tracks, it lit up her face. “I’m sorry, I’m just; the last couple of weeks have been really hard.”

“What’s going on?”

She took in a deep breath. “I met this guy, and he was great; I mean we really hit it off, and we, you know. Anyway, well he comes to my apartment a couple weeks later, and I should have known—but I, I don’t know. He stayed over, and we started drinking.” She took in another breath.

I thought I knew where it was going, and my heart broke harder for her. I rubbed the leather bracelet Ann had given me all those years ago. And the resemblance between this girl and Ann made me miss her all the more. They say time heals all wounds, but it just isn’t true.

She shook her head, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “Things got a little heated, and then, then I woke up.”

“Then you woke up?”

She nodded.

“Like you’d been drugged?”

“Same thing happened to me,” Kate said. “I mean, just the drugged part. Not the other stuff.”

I shuddered, and my stomach hurt. Bastards.

“I don’t know,” Beth said. “One minute we were, we were just, you know, and then I wake up. But then, there were these, these weird drawings all over me.”

“Do you remember any of them?” I said.

“I took pictures.”

“Can I see them?”

“I, uh,” she swallowed. “I just took them in the mirror, you know.”

“Oh,” I said, understanding dawning on me; she’d woken up naked. “Can you draw them for me then?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah that’d work. Or maybe I could just zoom in. I’m not very good at drawing. My hand’s a little too shaky anyway.”

“And any explanation from—?”

“Ryan, he said his name was Ryan.” She pulled out her phone and swiped through the apps, then started scrolling. “There was a note that said sorry he had to go, but it was an amazing night, and he can’t wait to see me again.”

“So, no explanation?”

Beth shook her head. “No. Just a note.”

“Dickhead blocked her calls too,” Kate said, “or used a fake number. Nothing goes through.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That really sucks.”

“There’s more,” Kate said.

Beth took another drink, then pinched her fingers and shoved the phone at me. “Here. That’s the biggest one.”

It was a spell form if I’ve ever seen one, or my name wasn’t Joe Joyce. Twisting, red lines jerked like angry flames or vines around and through what looked like a mix between a diamond and a portal. Just looking at the picture made the spot above and just in-between my eyebrows spin. If Eddy were awake, he’d probably recognize it (some people say I’m schizophrenic; I just say they haven’t met Eddy; but I’ll get to him in a bit), and he’d probably know where the form had been taken from. It looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Probably in one of the books I’d inherited from Earl Wayne, or maybe from my time in the Order. I just couldn’t remember for sure.

“You said this was the biggest one. How many were there?”

“I don’t know; they were all over.”

“I’m going to need these drawn out, and the placements of each, and I’ll need to know if any of them were particularly hard to wash off.”

“Beth, you got to tell him.”

I took another pull at my kombucha, but barely tasted it, other than the sharp CO2 fizz. “There’s more?”

“I took pictures, and then I—” she lifted her hands, waving “—I’m not crazy, I swear.”

“I know. Go on.”

“The lines, they, they started moving; I felt them crawling all over me. And then, then I was in my bedroom, and I was also in a cave-like place, almost looked like a church. I heard this wind, and I saw this huge, huge man, with black hair down to his waist, and he said ‘Welcome’ in the most beautiful, deepest voice I’ve ever heard. Mr. Joyce, I promise I’m not tweaking. I’m an honor student, studying psychology; and I can’t screw that up; I promise.”

“It’s Joe,” I said. “Call me Joe.”

“I promise, Joe,” Beth said, almost hysterical. “It was so real, and at first I thought I’d just been drugged; I mean, it makes sense.”

“Did the man do or say anything else?”

“He touched my hand, and I was back in my room, and the drawings were just, just gone.”

“You didn’t try showering or anything?”

She shook her head. “But I keep waking up in my room, just like the other night. We could be talking right now, and then, I’m back in my room waking up, and it’s the next day. I got fired from my job, and I missed a big exam.”

“Do the markings ever come back?”

“Each time I wake up, they’re there, and I’m naked.”


“And then, and then two days ago, Ryan, well it wasn’t Ryan, but it looked like him, but his face, just, it just changed—he came through the mirror. I promise I’m not making it up. It just started rippling, and then, I don’t know, he just stepped through. I ran, but he caught me, and he, he, here.” She pushed up her jacket sleeves.

Similar markings as the pictures cut into both forearms, all scabbed over now, but still an angry red and probably pretty damn infected. “But then I woke up again; I woke up, naked with the markings all over me, no other cuts, just these.” Tears slipped from her eyes, and her hands trembled.

Kate gave her a hug.

“You’re really brave for coming here, you know that?” I said. “For trusting Kate and me. You’re really brave.” I wanted to say it’s going to be okay, but I couldn’t lie to her. “Listen, why don’t you stay here until we can make sure you’re safe. I’ve got several things that can help, stop them from taking you, and in the meantime, I can find the bastards responsible and put a stop to them.”

“You, you don’t think I’m crazy?”

I shook my head. “Kid, as nice as it would be to say this is just dimethyltryptamine agonizing the serotonergic and adenosine receptors in your brain, it’s not that. There are things in this world that you can’t just explain away. Most people don’t have to deal with it; most people don’t even know about it, or choose not to, even when it stares them in the face. But us, we three, we’re different. We have to deal with it. I’m just sorry this is your initiation into it.”

“What do you mean?”


Her eyes raised, with a flicker and quiver in her jaws, and a slight twitch in her wrists and knees, like she was either going to slap me or bolt, and then she settled, realizing that no, I wasn’t making fun of her, and yes, I was deadly serious, and yes, I could help. She’d known all along what it was. I think most of us are like that.

I nodded. “Kate can help walk you through some things. I’m going to need to ask you a lot of questions here in a minute, and I’ve got a few tests we’ll need to run.”

“I don’t have any money—” she said.

“Don’t worry about any of that. You’re not the first who’s stayed here; I’ve got a couch back here, and we can get you some privacy. It’s not the best place to stay, but it’s safe. Probably will only need to be for a couple of days. Usually, these bastards slip up, and I can find them pretty fast.”

“Thank you,” Beth said, and hugged me. “Thank you.”

I patted her back. “Let me grab a few things, and then I’ll meet you back here. Okay?”

“This is where I stayed at first,” Kate said, pointing to the far corner where a plush, seventies-floral couch that could probably withstand a nuclear bomb sat with boxes stacked on it. That’s not to say it wasn’t comfortable, far from it, I just don’t think you could damage the damn thing. “Let’s grab your stuff,” Kate continued, “and then we can get it ready. Oh, Joe, do we still have the blinder walls?”

I turned back. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll grab them from the cellar. If Kevin gets in before I get back, just—just tell him to talk to me about it, okay?”

“Sure,” Kate said, and I turned back toward my office.

“Is Kevin the boss?” Beth asked in a hushed tone.

“Sometimes acts like it,” Kate said. “But no, Joe owns the place; Kevin sort of runs it. They’re both great though, so don’t worry. Let’s just—”

I didn’t hear the rest. I stepped into the hall, and the fans kicked on.

Looking back, God forgive me, I wished I would have stopped right there and told them to stay inside. Maybe it would have all been different. But I didn’t. It was one of those stupid mistakes I’d made by having my mind on too many different things.

First things first, I needed to grab some of my rune-engraved rock salt, or rune salt as I sometimes called it. I don’t practice magic anymore, been clean for years now, but before I’d stopped, I’d devised a way to cancel out bindings from other practitioners, which has saved me more than I can count. It involves engraving runes on rock salt; the special sequence I engrave them in unlocks their potential, so maybe it’s a gray area, but that’s how I do it. Kate doesn’t know it, but that’s how I’d gotten some of the residual psychic ick off her when I’d found her.

I’d kept some of the rune salt in my office up here, in between the brewery and the store front, and I needed Beth to ingest some of it asap. Injection would work better—but in her current state, I’m not sure she’d allow it and might bolt. I’d also wake Eddy up in the office.

I passed the brewery with its wonderful smells and stepped into my office where both Kevin’s and my desk sat, each with an iMac and stacks of folders, albeit Kevin has more (he’s also way better at organizing his desk, so it made it look like mine had more; I mean, I literally had a stack of napkins for setting booch bottles on), and plopped onto my black roller chair.

I checked the time; Kevin shouldn’t be in for another fifteen minutes, so I pushed up my left sleeve, double-checked to make sure no one was watching, took three, full breaths and touched my fingers to the three stacked circles tattoo on my forearm.

You might say that this is doing magic, and maybe it is, but the truth is, Eddy’s a spirit bonded to my mind in ways neither of us understand, and if I don’t wake him up, bad things happen to both of us; just a matter now of survival. Happened right after Earl.

Bad things also happen if I wake him up too early.

The ink extended up my fingers, and the black lines glowed with the faintest blue. The tattoo itself twisted on my flesh, and a surging rush, like wind through chimes, shivered up my arm, up my neck, and into my head.

My body went slack, and I toppled to the floor. Damn. Think I was even drooling.

Is it that time already? Eddy said inside my head with a yawn. He speaks with a British accent, and it felt like he stretched out arms inside my head, which was weird because he’s just a spirit. I was having the loveliest dream about Jenny and— what are you drooling for? You woke me up too early, didn’t you? Gods, no wonder we didn’t get to the good part—wait, she’s not in trouble, is she?

I tried to talk, but like I said, when I wake him up too early, I literally become the poster child for dumbass of the year award, and all that came out were slurs, even in my head.

The suspense is killing me, Eddy said. And you’re just in here, shaking on the floor. Do you have any idea what you look like right now? Imagine if Kate walks in and sees you like this. I’m embarrassed for you. I really am. 

Took a bit longer than normal, but I got up, and I did use that napkin on my desk to wipe my face, not my sleeve, thank you very much. You’re embarrassed for me? What are you, Churchill? Really?

Well, it’s about time. I thought we’d—and that’s to say I—had another six hours. 

Maybe I just missed you.

Aw that’s so cute. Maybe you’re going to offer me some incense and a candle now. Spirits love that sort of devotional shit, don’t you know? Oh wait, we also love sleep.

I’ll get you some shells.

Wait, really?

Eddy has a thing for seashells. Not sure he even knows why. Sure. 

Oh. Well. Thanks. All’s forgiven. I imagine it’s probably a pretty good reason; what’s going on?

 That’s when the screaming began.


I shot to my feet, insides still slurring from waking up Eddy too early, and I tripped, landing on my desk and knees. Papers flew in a swirl. I shoved up and crashed into the door frame.

“Joe! Joe!” Kate said, tearing through the hallway doors and sprinting toward me. “She’s gone; she vanished. She just vanished!”

I caught myself on one of the brewing tables, and Kate caught my other arm.

“They took her; they took her!”

I shook my head, trying to clear it, and I half ran, half stumbled after Kate.

She’d left the outside door to the shipping and receiving room wide, and not ten feet out on the asphalt rested a pile of clothes—denim jacket almost big enough for me, white bra, and stretchy shorts. One flip flop lay a few feet away as if kicked.

I wanted to vomit, my head swam so hard, and I think I smelled it.

What we got? I asked Eddy.

Energy signature’s just clipped. 

What do you mean?

Just that; something took her, like she went through a black hole or something.

“Her eyes went all black,” Kate said, “and then, then those weird lines just crawled up her face and pulled her down.”

“Grab her clothes,” I said, run-stumbling toward the alleyway that led to my parking lot. “We don’t want a link back here.”

I was in no shape for a fight, not till my head cleared, but if on the off chance there was anyone—or anything—that had been close by and nabbed Beth, then, at the very least, Eddy would be able to see.

I don’t think they came this way, Eddy said. I don’t see anything off.

Neither did I. I ran with my hand close to the wall to help catch me, and when I got to the street at the front of my shop, all there was were cars and normals. I’ve spent a good deal of time tracking down assholes, and nobody stood out. A green Toyota drove by, followed by a silver Mazda. Cars lined both sides of the streets, all empty.

Anything, I asked Eddy.

Felt like he shook his head, which is odd because he’s a spirit bonded to me and doesn’t technically have a corporeal form, and I shivered. Aside from that lady across the street who thinks you’re drunk, there’s nothing; no one’s used magic, no supernaturals. Oh, there’s a ghost over there, looks like he’s just a porn addict though, quite weak, couldn’t pull off much. 


I’m telling you, it’s a portal. Whoever took her’s covering their tracks.

Yeah, well some of those have to be close. No chances.

I ran back toward my car. The air swam, and I tasted vomit, just before crashing onto the pavement. Little shocks from gravel cut into my hands and knees. But I got back to my feet. My head spun, and I tried controlling my breathing and pounding heart. When I wake up Eddy too early, it’s like a shock to my hypothalamus, and my body spins like an off-balanced gyroscope, trying to find equilibrium and homeostasis.

“Nothing out front,” I called to Kate, who came back out, carrying Beth’s clothes in a plastic bag. Plastic’s a good insulator against tracking magic because it’s just harder to bond to. “Do you know where she lives?” Franksburg’s huge; if she were taken back to her apartment, we may not be able to reach her in time.

She nodded. “You think she’s there?”

I tried catching my breath. My heart hammered, and I stumbled, almost falling again. “I can’t drive for another couple minutes. We’ll take my car, but you drive.”

Kate gulped in the breaths, nodding, then bolted toward my car.

I fished out my keys and plopped into the passenger seat, the leather warm and creaking and smelling like all the black tea I had in the back.

“Come on, come on,” Kate said.

Her hands shook, and she missed the ignition once, twice, three times, but then got it, and the engine roared to life.


We didn’t say much as we drove. But as the dizziness passed, I reached into my glove compartment and pulled out my Taurus Judge. I’m always packing, my car, my shop, my house, my person. Seen too many things not to.

“I’m going to load this with rune salt,” I told Kate and reached on the back floor to where I’d kept a box of .410 shells, preloaded with my specialty rune-engraved rock salt.


“Remember the lesson on the energy path vs the soul path?”

“Yeah, but how does that help with shooting somebody?”

“Might be a thing, a something not a somebody.”

She swallowed and gunned it at the light.

“Almost nobody practices the energy path anymore, but—”

“They cancel each other out; that’s right.”

“Shoot any binder with this, and it’ll block their ability to channel for twenty minutes to an hour, plus it’ll hurt like a bitch, and scare them more.”

“I wish I’d just kept her in the damn shop. I just didn’t think; I just didn’t think.”

I hadn’t either—and I knew better too.

“Is she going to be okay?” Kate asked.

I loaded the gun.



Beth’s apartment was trashed.

It stunk of blood and shit and sour trash. Seven, no, eight holes pounded through the living room drywall, even tearing two of the studs as if swiped by a lion or a bear; even the floor had claw marks. Couch had been overturned, and rustic coffee table smashed. The mirror leaning against the wall had somehow survived though.

But it wasn’t these that really drew my gaze; no, it was the body of a handsome man slumped against the wall with his throat torn out that really caught my eye.

I stepped over a fallen lamp that still buzzed and flashed, Glock Twenty ready in my right hand, knife at my hip in the other.

Arterial spray splattered the wall behind the corpse, and blood pooled under him, bright and fresh.

Anyone still here? I asked Eddy.

There’s so much magical residue, I can’t be sure. It’s all blurring together.

Shit. I should have forced Kate to stay in the car; what was I thinking, dammit.

The edges of the pooled blood glistened silver, just there, almost imperceptible unless you’ve trained for it. I called it binding slag; magic is all about the displacement of energy, and when you force-strip electrons from one source and slam it with spirit into another, you get unpredictable results. Hence the slag.

That toxic? I asked.

Hmm? No, that one’s not, but there’s something coming from the kitchen that definitely is. It’s going to be a bastard for forensics. 

We’ll see if we can clean it up then.

Kate gasped.

I jerked back, then sucked in a breath.

“That’s Ryan,” she whispered.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded, fast and sharp.

He’s the chap that came through the mirror, Eddy said, or at least one of them; energy signature matches.

One of them? How many?

Gods, I’d say six, but they’re signatures are muddying, like they’re hiding their tracks. I don’t remember seeing any signatures disintegrate so fast. 

Do you see Beth’s? Was she here?

Yes, yes she was, but her energy’s entwined with something different; it’s almost hard to make it out. But no, she was here, maybe twenty minutes ago.

Mirror too?

No. Bloods and stones—move over to the left more, stop—it’s just like at the shop. 

I needed Jenny here, and fast. She was still part of the Order, and about the only one of them I still trusted. She had access to things I didn’t anymore, and if the energy signatures were disintegrating as quickly as Eddy said, she’d need to see them.

“I don’t want to be here,” Kate whispered, shaking. “I don’t want to be here.”

“Step where I step. We’ve got to get pictures and make sure there’s nothing else here; otherwise, we can’t help Beth.”

She nodded and swallowed and grabbed my back, shaking.

“I can’t move if you’re holding me. Just step where I step, okay? I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”


We checked the rest of the rooms, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom—all trashed, all disfigured. But no Beth.

Sirens wailed in the distance.


In the months that followed, nine more red-headed women disappeared, all heartbreakingly similar to Beth. I won’t rehash the same story over and over, chasing, disappearing, no real leads; but know this: I never stopped looking for her, or the others. In fact, a year later—to the day—I found one more woman, but this time—I wasn’t too late.