Moon Murder Mysteries #1
No one wants a witch for a partner.
Time is running out, and the deck is stacked against Professor Lennox “Nox” MacIlwraith. Six girls have been abducted, but the FBI doesn’t realize they’re connected. There’s also the matter of the dead girl in New Castle. She was found tied to a tree and Nox suspects one serial kidnapper and killer is responsible. An unorthodox expert on the occult, Nox is rumored to be a psychic and a witch. And a crackpot. The wily young professor has to prove he’s not batty—or possibly a vampire—and that the cases are linked before the next full moon. If not, he fears the remaining girls will be sacrificed to a mythical god-king.
Everyone in the FBI hates Agent Grady Nelson. He’s failed to live up to his legendary father’s reputation within the bureau and is almost universally despised for being an uptight do-gooder. Nelson’s ready to kiss what’s left of his career goodbye when he’s ordered to work with the “sketchy professor” on what should be a nuisance case. The investigation turns into a professional minefield when Nox claims it’s connected to an ancient Gaelic cult. Rules are broken and lines are crossed as Nelson falls under Nox’s spell and begins to suspect his partner might be a real witch.
Nox is a little bit witchcraft. Nelson is a little bit Federal Bureau. Together, they’re a wickedly good team, but can they find the missing girls before it’s too late? Nox is prepared to sacrifice his own career and his life to save them. He’d also like to save Nelson, but is Nox ready to sacrifice his heart too?
“A couple of witches have gone missing,” Deputy Director Felton barked from behind his desk. He didn’t look up from his newspaper as he held out two manila folders. Nelson blinked and waited for an explanation but the haggard older man continued to glare at the crossword puzzle. He ignored Nelson as his pen tapped next to what appeared to be a particularly vexing clue. Nelson usually preferred to go unnoticed but he was exhausted and felt like he was stretched too thin—transparent—lately. He felt bare like the walls behind him and Nelson wondered if he’d finally achieved invisibility.
1. Triangle containing 15 spheres.
Nelson glanced at the corresponding squares on the page and saw the green felted top of a pool table before he frowned at the folders.
“Are you waiting for me to ask nicely?” Felton muttered at the puzzle, doing his best to pretend Nelson didn’t exist.
“I wasn’t aware that magical mysteries were within the bureau’s purview,” Nelson replied warily. Felton made a loud, irritated sound as he tossed the pen at the paper. There was a loud Clap! when he slapped the files on the desktop and pushed them at Nelson.
“The FBI doesn’t give a fuck about a couple of rich girls who skipped into the woods to look for crystals or mushrooms. They’re probably getting banged by a yoga instructor or at some coven orgy but I want you to look into it.”
Nelson flipped open the first file and scanned it, immediately recognizing Sharon Cleary’s name. Cleary was a respected correspondent who generally covered international politics. She didn’t strike Nelson as an irrational person or someone who’d overreact without good cause. Her daughter, Mila, had gone missing three days ago on the eve of her birthday, and based on her employment and academic history, Nelson wasn’t seeing a nuisance case. His gut was already screaming that this girl was in danger and he’d barely opened the file. “I beg your pardon, sir, but…this doesn’t look like a hoax or a nuisance.”
“Look at me, Nelson.” A gnarled and bent finger pointed, the yellow nail shaking as Felton snarled at Nelson. “The next thing I wanna hear about this Cleary case is that it’s closed. Go over there with Dr. Van Halfass and shut it down. You got it?”
“Dr. Van Half—?”
“MacIlwraith. He’s got Cleary worked up over some crackpot theory. Get over to Georgetown and shut it down. Got it?”
“Got it,” Nelson said flatly. “Why me, though?” He knew Felton wouldn’t let him near a case with any real potential and there were lazier agents who specialized in closing cases without doing any legwork. These were two possible abductions with an obvious link, even if they were… Witches? Nelson had his answer when Felton dragged a hand down his face and sighed wearily.
“There’s no case—I’ve been assured that it’s a waste of fucking time—but we’ve got a consultant who won’t shut up and he’s got Mommy convinced there’s more. It’ll turn into a circus the minute she starts running her mouth and the rest of the media gets a hold of this. You’re going because no one wants to work with you and everything you touch turns to shit.”
“I see.” Nelson swiped the files off the desk and snorted when he read the attached Post-It note.
Get Cleary and MacIlwraith to shut up about this ASAP.
“Report to the sketchy professor and run this witch thing to the ground. Keep him quiet and try not to piss him off. I can’t stand the freaky little shit but he’s connected and he’s had his uses.”
“Report to MacIlwraith and run it to the ground.” Nelson had resigned himself to a slow, agonizing death within the bureau but being assigned as an errand boy for Felton’s other problem child was humiliating. He was already the most hated agent in the FBI. Now, he’d be a laughingstock. “Why don’t you just go ahead and—”
“And what, Nelson? I would have canned your ass after Baltimore if your father wasn’t one of the best agents I’ve ever known. You’re a disgrace but too many people respect his memory to do anything about it so I’m stuck with you.” He tossed his hand at the door and threw Nelson a sneer to go along with it. “Get out of here and see if you can find a way to shit this one down your leg too. Not that anyone’s going to care if some sorority girls got lost on their way to Burning Man.”
“I’ll see what I can do, sir.”
Nelson’s dignity remained dormant and he kept his head down as he left Felton’s office. He heard the snickers and the coughs of laughter from the bullpen but ignored them. He stayed stiff and stared at the dark gray carpet in front of his feet until he reached the elevator. Agents Bride and Carlson were waiting but they stepped aside when the doors opened, muttering that they’d get the next one. Always the pariah, Nelson stepped into the empty elevator and opened the first file as he pressed the button for the lobby.
He scanned Mila Cleary’s college transcripts and frowned. She was carrying a full-time class load and had a 4.0 GPA going into her senior year at Georgetown. He scanned as the doors opened but didn’t see any mention of a sorority or any indication that Mila was unreliable or irresponsible. She was an activist and had traveled to several protests and abroad to study but Nelson certainly wouldn’t consider her a flake or flighty.
He ignored the murmurs and coughs from the other agents milling around the lobby of the Hoover Building. Nelson couldn’t do anything about the gossip or his battered reputation so he focused on the fresh cases in front of him. He was up to his eyeballs in reports but most of those were just busy work and legitimate nuisance cases.
That was Nelson’s purview.
Felton shoveled all the slop onto Nelson, keeping him bogged down in the bullshit no one else wanted so he never saw the light of day. But this had the promise of legwork and a puzzle. And there was the possibility that Nelson might get to do something useful again.
His concern swelled and Nelson’s gut was aching by the time he reached the parking lot and leaned against the side of his Continental. Mila Cleary lived with a roommate off campus and was last seen three nights ago, leaving the school’s library just before it closed. Rachel Martin—the other missing “witch”—had been abducted five days ago. She had graduated from college and had just started an internship at a magazine. She was a photographer and a poet and Nelson saw nothing to suggest that she’d abandon a project just before a deadline, as stated in one of the witnesses’ statements.
Nelson’s instincts told him that these girls hadn’t run off to Burning Man or into the woods for whatever it was that Felton was imagining. They were both known to read tarot cards, collect crystals, and meditate but there was no mention of any connections to any cults or an organized coven from what Nelson was seeing. Collecting crystals and reading tarot cards didn’t necessarily mean they were witches but Mila and Rachel shared a lot more than an interest in the occult. Both were in their early twenties and were attractive. They had long red hair and were what Nelson would consider average height but curvy, based on their most recent photos.
His confidence buckled almost as soon as his ass hit his car seat. Nelson’s gaze flicked to the rearview mirror and he asked himself what would happen if he exercised a little self-preservation for once and did what was expected of him. The bureau didn’t want Sharon Cleary raising the alarm and leaning on her connections in the media and Washington D.C. And Felton wanted MacIlwraith quiet and happy.
There was MacIlwraith. They called him the Sketchy Professor because he looked like the frontman of a punk band and occasionally lurked around the Hoover Building, babbling about conspiracies and cults. MacIlwraith wasn’t completely sketchy, though. He was a thorn in the bureau’s side because he was blunt and didn’t pay attention to protocol or politics. But MacIlwraith was also considered a brilliant anthropologist, despite his young age and being so unorthodox. The professor was an expert on all things occult and had become a bit of a celebrity after assisting on a few high-profile cases and a Netflix documentary labeled him the bureau’s “cult whisperer.”
Nelson had never had the opportunity to consult with MacIlwraith and had only seen him in passing and on television. But the peculiar academic had a reputation of being difficult to work with and unpredictable. He was rumored to be creepy and possibly psychic and a witch, but the FBI sent for MacIlwraith the moment a pentacle was spotted at a crime scene or at the first mention of brainwashing.
Everything about MacIlwraith rubbed Nelson the wrong way and there was nowhere to go but downward and at a high velocity from a professional standpoint. Nelson would become an absolute laughing stock as MacIlwraith’s sidekick or he’d piss off Felton by catching a real case and possibly embarrassing the FBI again. If Nelson was smart, he’d convince MacIlwraith and Sharon Cleary that the cases weren’t related and find at least one—but ideally both—of the girls safe and sound. Then, Nelson could go back to his miserable existence at the bureau until he was able to retire.
In sixteen years.
His father had pulled strings and got Nelson into the FBI Academy a year early and made sure there was a spot in the Hoover Building for him. Agent Grady Nelson Sr. had regretted that almost immediately. Nelson exposed some hazing at the academy and got several cadets suspended. Then, during his first year at the Hoover Building, Nelson tripped right into a ring of senior agents running an extortion operation at the port. His first task force was supposed to be Nelson’s chance to redeem himself, but he had listened to his gut and had done the “right” thing in Baltimore. He stopped a low-level mafia hit and had saved at least one life, but the FBI hadn’t rewarded him for blowing months of surveillance to stop a hit. And he wasn’t getting another chance after turning in his last partner for banging an informant. Nelson had once again blown an investigation and made the department look like a shit show. After that, his father had washed his hands of Nelson.
“It’s not that I’m ashamed of you, son. You didn’t do anything wrong. I just had higher hopes, is all.”
“I won’t do the smart thing,” Nelson predicted with a heavy sigh. He started the car and Nelson’s stomach was already sour and tight as he backed out of his spot. “I’m going to piss Felton off again and this time he will can me.”
Nelson’s gut was yelling by the time he parked and jogged across the courtyard in front of Georgetown University’s Healy Hall. He turned over the details of Mila’s and Rachel’s lives and last days as he drove and it didn’t make sense to him, writing both cases off as nuisances and unrelated. Unless there was a reason Felton or the bureau wanted both cases to go away.
There was also the possibility that someone was counting on Nelson to compromise the investigation. And it wouldn’t be hard to discredit an already disgraced agent if Nelson did cross Felton or the author of the Post-it note. He felt like he was doomed as he passed through the red brick hallway, searching for the anthropology department. The gray sky and the gathering clouds over the campus added to the general air of foreboding so Nelson popped an antacid into his mouth once he’d found the right door.
Professor Lennox MacIlwraith wasn’t the head of the anthropology department, but he was its most celebrated faculty member thanks to his high-profile work with the FBI. According to the professor’s assistant, Ava, MacIlwraith was wrapping up his final lecture of the afternoon and was looking forward to meeting with Nelson. She directed him to the proper lecture hall and the professor’s TA was waiting in the corridor to escort Nelson.
“You’re in for a treat! Professor Mac’s discussing fire symbology in ancient mythology,” Tony, the TA, whispered excitedly, their footsteps echoing on the marble floors.
Nelson slipped into the room and noticed that all but a few of the students in the back row were sitting forward in their seats, spellbound. Nelson was as well as he sank into the nearest seat and rested his forearms on the desk in front of him.
“Now, take the bird god, Bennu.” MacIlwraith was slouched against the edge of the long wooden desk at the front of the room but his arms swept through the air, mimicking wings and flames. He was dressed in a baggy, ratty charcoal sweater, distressed black jeans, and combat boots. His hair was jet black and flopped over his dark eyes but MacIlwraith was enthralling as he animatedly described the ancient precursor to the phoenix myth. “Bennu is believed to be a familiar of the god Ra and the spirit that powered all creation. Later, our friend, Herodotus immortalized Bennu by describing it as a giant gold and red bird, born anew every day, like the sun!” His hands swept through the air in front of him and there were startled gasps as flames jumped from MacIlwraith’s fingertips.
More of a magician than a witch, I think…
But Nelson was still impressed as MacIlwraith went to the chalkboard and quickly drew several different examples of flame iconography, ranging from Egyptian to Celtic to Aztec.
“Fire is both destruction and rebirth but it can also represent power and immortality. Next week, we’re learning about water symbols and sirens, starting with El Naddaha of the Nile. Don’t forget to submit your topics for approval by Friday. That’s it, my precious pupils. Be brave, but be safe.”
The rapt silence of the auditorium was broken by the sounds of bags being jerked open and stuffed with books and hushed chatter as students packed up and cleared out. Nelson stood but hung back as students filed past him. Not every student, though. A young woman sidled up to the professor’s desk, hugging a book and coyly twisting the tattered sleeve of her oversized black sweater. She had paired it with black fishnet tights and combat boots and her indigo blue curls were pulled into a messy bun. Nelson was reminded of a young Helena Bonham Carter and grew concerned when she batted wide, fan-like black lashes at MacIlwraith as he turned to acknowledge her.
“What can I do for you, mademoiselle?” MacIlwraith flashed her an open, easy smile but Nelson could feel the other man’s focus as it honed in on him. It was like a warm tickle, causing Nelson to rub his ear against his shoulder as he stifled a shiver.
There was a nervous, muffled titter from the young woman. “I read your book and I was fascinated by your observations on the way social media’s changed how we form relationships and the evolution of the modern mega cult.” It was a rushed gush of blushing adoration but MacIlwraith merely nodded and seemed almost distracted as he hefted an overloaded messenger bag off the desk.
“Thanks. Social media is particularly fascinating because we’re seeing the return of symbology— or memes and emojis as modern hieroglyphs—as a form of communication. And there’s a lot of material to study with cults weighing so heavily on our political discourse,” he said with a wince before pulling the strap over his head.
“There has been, but I was particularly struck by your theory about what draws people to certain cult leaders.” She pushed a copy of his book and a pen at him. He took them and his brow arched expectantly as he waited for a name. She deflated for a moment, her hopes momentarily dashed.
“Janessa Wilder,” she said softly.
“Ah. You already submitted your topic. The Tuath Dé, correct?”
“Yes! Do you think there are still any practicing sects?” She asked excitedly, causing MacIlwraith to laugh.
“Of druids?” He confirmed and laughed again when she nodded. “The Tuath Dé were a mythological super race and nothing more than folklore. Any cults organized around those deities were wiped out when Christianity swept into Gaelic Ireland.”
“Do you really think so? I was hoping you were a believer. You said in an interview that you could trace your ancestry back to Ireland, almost to the druids.” She sounded a little too assured and Nelson could sense that MacIlwraith didn’t like the hint of awe he heard either. He laughed it off as he handed back her book.
“Sure. If you believe my grandmother and want to make a boring interview a little more exciting with a family anecdote. I can also trace half of my ancestry back to Eastern Europe by way of Staten Island, but I don’t believe in the Baba Yaga either.” He was gentle and not at all condescending but there was enough scolding in his tone for her lip to push out. She canted toward him.
“I was secretly hoping it was still a thing and you were the new Dagda. I offer myself as tribute!” she whispered loudly, earning a loud cackle from MacIlwraith.
“I am…” He cringed and there was a soft grunt as he shook his head. “Flattered. But absolutely not,” he said unequivocally with another shake of his head. “I have no interest in my students or their lives outside of my classroom, for one. And that sad, cranky agent is much more my type,” MacIlwraith confided but he didn’t lower his voice and tossed his wild black waves in Nelson’s direction. Nelson flinched and frowned as he drew back but MacIlwraith winked at him before sliding her a cocky grin. “We have an appointment so you’ll have to excuse me.” He offered her a half-bow, then hugged his bag against his side as he jogged over to meet Nelson. “I was hoping they’d send you. It’s nice to finally meet in person, Agent Nelson.” He extended his hand and his lips curved in a wide, delighted smile as he swiftly scanned Nelson from head to toe. His eyes weren’t actually dark. They were a soft, soft blue, but heavily lined with smudgy black liner, and his nails were painted black as well. Tattoos peeked from under MacIlwraith’s sleeves and around his collar, making Nelson slightly disoriented as he accepted his hand. But a wave of warm easiness swept over Nelson as MacIlwraith’s eyes held his.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Nelson parroted weakly. It wasn’t nice and Nelson wished he could follow Ms. Wilder as she side-stepped around him and slipped out. MacIlwraith was too many things when they were this close. His face was too angular and his lips and expressions too mobile to be handsome, but he was beautiful. Nelson tried not to stare, but he thought he caught quick glints of gold in the professor’s soft blue eyes as he chatted and smirked at Nelson. He recalled that MacIlwraith was only twenty-five. But he seemed both too young to be a professor and too old to be fooled and flattered at the same time. And he saw too much as he sized Nelson up.
Nelson thought he’d sized the professor up by scanning his file and doing a quick internet search in the parking lot. But MacIlwraith was shrewd and a little too cunning for a nepotism baby who had toddled upwards into a comfy teaching job at his famous parents’ alma mater.
In MacIlwraith’s case, nepotism had worked in his favor. He appeared to be living up to expectations and managing well, but Nelson wasn’t going to hold that against him.
Tony, the TA, leaned into the room. “I’m heading out, Nox. Everything’s turned off and locked in the office.”
“Thanks, Tony. I’ll see you on Tuesday,” MacIlwraith replied with a warm smile and a wave before turning back to Nelson. “You drive and I’ll fill you in on the way,” he said as he gestured for Nelson to go ahead.
“On the way?”
“We’re going to New Castle, Agent.” He gave Nelson a gentle shove to get him moving.
“New Castle? Where the hell is that and why—?”
Nelson didn’t like the way MacIlwraith’s lips pulled into a pained grimace and his eyes hardened. “Because they found a girl tied to a tree in the Appalachian Mountains early this morning and I think we need to take a look.”
“Jesus!” Nelson’s stomach tightened into a cold knot. Not just because someone had murdered a young girl, but Felton was going to shit a brick. “Hold on. I’m here about two missing girls in Maryland. Why are you so sure that this girl in…” He had no idea which part of the Appalachians New Castle was so he made a wild guess. “Virginia is connected to Cleary and the other missing girl?”
“Just a moment,” MacIlwraith said as he opened his messenger bag and pulled out a folder. He looked around quickly before flipping it open and stepping closer so Nelson could take a look. “Does she remind you of anyone, Agent?”
Long, flame-red hair spilled from the trunk of an oak tree. Nelson was confused by that bright flash in the middle of what appeared to be muddy, soggy woods until he noticed her naked, bruised, and battered body. Her arms and torso were lashed to the tree with rope and she was surrounded by antlers. They radiated from the tree around her and a ram’s skull with large, curved horns capped the strange altar. Nelson became dizzy as he noted the three swirls burned into the flesh on the victim’s chest as if she’d been branded before she had been mounted to the altar. Her abdomen had been cut open, but Nelson couldn’t make out more than a dark shape there due to the camera’s angle. He closed the folder, not wanting to see more.
“No.” Nelson shook his head. He was appalled and furious at the cruelty, but he didn’t want this to be connected to the girls he’d been tasked with finding. They were supposed to be off with their yoga instructors or hunting for mushrooms. Nelson’s heart raced as he imagined Mila Cleary or Rachel Martin in the hands of this monster. And then there was Felton. “Aside from the red hair, doesn’t remind me of anyone,” he said, still refusing to make the connection.
“I’ve got more bad news for you.” MacIlwraith hissed as he stuffed the folder back into his bag. He put an arm around Nelson, shocking him before he felt an instant rush of calming warmth. It might have been his imagination, but Nelson’s heartbeat settled and he wouldn’t be surprised if his blood pressure had lowered. The soothing sensation didn’t last for long and Nelson braced himself when Macilwraith sighed heavily. “I’ve got four more missing girls that might be part of this.”
“Seven girls?” Nelson was sick again. “I’m not a big fan of touching,” he managed. MacIlwraith answered with a knowing hum and gave Nelson a reassuring squeeze before releasing him.
“I can see that now. And I can tell that you’ve had a hell of a day already and it’s four hours to New Castle. Let’s get on the road and I’ll fill you in on the way.”
Nelson didn’t feel all that reassured as he followed MacIlwraith. He was expecting a fight if the Cleary and Martin cases were connected but seven girls? And multiple states and jurisdictions meant the FBI would have to run it.
“Damn it. Felton’s going to be so pissed at me.”
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