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The Holy Oaks Coven

An American Mystery

By Matthew FrommPublished 6 months ago Updated 6 months ago 26 min read
13
Created with Midjourney

Demon, Demon

Creature abhorred

Dispense the truth

Or it will be brought forth.

Three days from now,

of the devil’s tongue born,

it will be, forever more.

To hell, your soul

will be cast forth.

“I’ve got twelve others posting the same thing, all three days ago. I’ve also got a dead kid, captain of the football team, off to play at Notre Dame next year, and a mourning family who wants answers. I intend to get those answers. Now, are you going to help me?” Detective Ratcliff said as he set the papers down on the interrogation room desk. She gave a little start but said nothing. Her name was Veronica Calwell, and she was the second girl he had interrogated today. The saunter she came in with was long gone as she sat there, her black hair streaked with the color of the week, vintage emo band t-shirts she probably got at the same pandering store down at the Springview mall, with matching pentagram necklaces. Thirteen posts in total, ten girls alibied out at some fall bonfire event, two–this Veronica and another named Emily–were outliers, which was enough to bring them in for further questions.

And then there was the last girl, Mary…The only connections they’d been able to establish so far was every one of them, at one time or another, attended Holy Oaks, but so did every other kid in town. It would have raised more flags if they didn’t.

The detective shook his head as he grasped the back of the chair. Kids these days. Back in his day, the weird ones at least had the nerve to hide in the basement and play Dungeons and Dragons. Veronica said nothing. And right now, he had nothing anyway except a dead boy, twelve outcasts, and one missing girl, all posting the same mysterious message right before the boy’s body turned up. When it came to crimes, someone always benefited, even if to the logical person, the price of revenge would not outweigh the cost, but it wasn’t exactly anyone logical who went around killing people, was it? It was his job to fit all the puzzle pieces together – to find the truth where it existed, and Jim Ratcliff had been doing this job for a long time.

He rubbed his head. They had yet to track down Mary. That made her either victim number two or suspect number one. She had been the oddest of all, seemingly appearing from nowhere and disappearing just as quickly. As it stood, Jim had twelve mismatched pieces to a lovely Japanese garden puzzle and a thirteenth with Scooby Doo on it.

He sighed, “Look, as of right now, you’re nothing more than someone we wanted answers from. I’ve got no fingerprints or nothing. I’ve had a long day. Why don’t you help me out with one thing and tell me who this girl is? This Mary Elizabeth character? She a ghost?”

Veronica said nothing, unsurprisingly. This was futile–she was just a scared girl. One look at her and he knew she couldn’t kill a fly. At most, she was some sort of victim herself.

“Take her out,” Detective Ratcliff said, hitting the intercom. The girl was ghostly pale, and he pitied her. He’d seen enough.

The handle of the interrogation room rattled. The sound seemed to snap the girl of a trance. Her eyes went wide, and sweat ran down her brow.

“The Truth Will Set You Free.”

She spoke so fast it barely registered to the detective. It was almost unnatural. He stared at the girl as tears fell down her face. The officer came in, and he motioned to take her away. Still, the words, familiar but escaping his memory, echoed in his head. Whatever way this broke down, that girl needed therapy, and the detective doubted she would get it.

He sat there for a few minutes, savoring the silence when his phone buzzed against the metal desk, DA Alex Markowicz’s name lighting up the screen.

“Detective.”

“Jim, you sitting down?” the DA asked through his New York City Lawyer accent.

“Yeah, just got done with the Veronica girl.”

“Good. I’ve got the coroner here, and you’re going to want to hear this.”

Detective Ratcliff sighed. The asshole always went around him. Something about these big city folks always thinking they knew best.

“Hey Jim, it’s Mark,” the Coroner said like Jim hadn’t heard his voice every day for the past year. Jim liked the new coroner, but he was still finding his footing. Still, he seemed okay.

“Hey Mark, what’s going on down there?”

“Well, it’s a weird thing. Wish I could have told you first, but, well, it’s weird.”

“What are ya getting at?”

“Well, it ain’t murder, least I don’t think so…”

“You’re telling me the kid snapped his neck himself?” Jim doubted it. Forensics was nowhere near a perfect science, no matter what Law and Order said.

“Well…ya? I guess? No prints, no rope marks, some trauma localized to the neck, but that could have been from a hanging or a jump…it’s almost like…ya ever see that one old movie about the exorcism?”

“Mother fucker!” The DA’s voice came somewhere behind the coroner. “You tell him to hold that story, damn it!” There was a shuffling sound on the other end of the line, “I’m back. Got a tip from a buddy that ESPN got a hold of this and wants to run with it. All American prospect dead under mysterious circumstances, on Halloween, no less? They’ll eat that shit up.”

Detective Ratcliff shook his head. What the hell was the world coming to? Nothing I like, that’s for sure.

“They know this is a kid, right?” Jim said.

“You think they care? If they don’t run with it, you’re damn sure that Netflix will.”

“Yeah, I got nothing else for you, detective. I’ll recheck the work if it helps,” Mark said meekly.

“Jim, I need you to get back over to the house before we get these findings back to the Pastor. Can’t hold the crime scene if there’s no crime,” DA Markowicz said, his other call now discarded.

“You still thinking there’s something up?”

“Obviously,” and Jim could hear the head shake on the other side of the phone. “I’ll bury this for as long as I can. Figure it out, but clock’s ticking.”

Detective Ratcliff let out a sigh. He had been looking forward to dinner.

* * *

The light of the Hunter’s Moon filled the evening sky as he drove toward the Mickelson residence. Every house in the gated neighborhood had fake graveyards and plastic boogeymen decorating their front yard. Even the Mickelson house had a grim reaper out front, which Jim found odd given their vocation. The yellow crime scene tape across the front door almost blended in…almost. He parked out front and went inside.

The Mickelson mansion made his skin crawl; something about a pastor owning a six-bedroom house didn’t sit well with him. Jim made sure to follow all the proper protocols in going through the scene–the last thing they needed was a procedural screw-up. A massive portrait of the four of them stood at the base of the double stairwell. Pastor Mickelson of Holy Oaks Church stood next to his wife, Melinda. Elegant and poised, they both radiated the strength of youth and the wisdom of age, proudly wearing hair streaked with gray and teeth that shined brighter than bleach. Their daughter Rachel sat the perfect image of a southern belle, already a freshman at Notre Dame.

And pictured right next to her was Robert Junior. Jim shook his head. The All-American boy. If he squinted, he would have no problem imagining Robert Junior shaking hands on the fourth of July, handing out Mickelson/Bush campaign pins.

Everything in the bedroom was as Mrs. Mickelson found it, besides the body removed from the bed. A trophy case adorned the far end of the wall, the signed letter to Notre Dame sitting right in the middle next to the state championship ring. A small desk sat under the window, perfectly organized, and Jim looked through the notebooks stacked on it. The worst grade he found was an A-. He had been through this room four times already–there was nothing else here.

Jim made his way down to the kitchen and poured himself a water. It was the least they could do for him, and he thought through the case files as he sipped. What was the connection between the girls and Junior? Come on, give me something. Give me the picture on the box. Even amongst the two girls he had interviewed, the links were dubious at best: a class together here, a little friend bubble there, but nothing that set them apart from the crowd besides their aesthetic. That seemed to be the case for the ones they alibied out, too. Same story for the family. The sister was gone at Notre Dame, and the pastor said he was up visiting her that night. Mom was at the church working on some of the permits related to the expansion of the worship center, confirmed by her badge scans. To Jim, it seemed that Jr. went to practice, got in his car, and ended up dead in his bed.

He set the glass down, wishing it was something stronger. Given the size of this place, there had to be at least one bottle of bourbon hiding somewhere. All their stories checked out. Mom was shaken, almost fearful, as one would expect. He had listened to the 911 call ad nauseam, and it was practically unintelligible. She spent most of it asking for her husband. As she was clearly in shock, Jim had gotten her a grief counselor right away, but she had rejected it, opting for the churches. Pastor Mickelson had ended by proclaiming the devil loose in this town and imploring the detective to get to the bottom of it after he had made the return trip at a time that the state patrol would have had something to say about. Rachel was borderline hysterical on the phone, and the DA wasn’t ready to bring her in without cause. Even still, they had recommended that she keep a low profile for now in case someone, anyone, came snooping.

That left the girls. This Mary Elizabeth profile seemed to be a ghost. Veronica had seemingly no connection with the boy or the family. And the first girl, Emily, had an alibi herself, volunteering at the middle school Halloween play that night. When he asked her about the post, all she would do was hang her head and say, “I can’t believe it.” She didn’t know who Mary Elizabeth was and seemed to have no connection to the case outside the post, which she said was nothing more than some Halloween fun. They also both attended Wiccan Fest in Indianapolis a few years back, but that’s where the connections ended. It was hardly grounds for murder. Jim imagined the rest of the girls would be similar. The puzzle seemed blank.

He picked his phone up and called the Pastor.

“Detective, how are you?” he said in a voice Jim swore he oozed a fake Southern accent into.

“Well, been better, Pastor, been better. Got a minute?”

“Of course.”

“Well, you’re not going to believe this, but the coroner is saying suicide–I know, tough to hear,” For the religious man, He had to imagine that was worse than murder. “We’re going to keep following the leads but, well, can’t exactly keep this place a crime scene. I’m wrapping up now, and with any luck, you can be home tomorrow.”

“God is good and will bring everything to light. I thank you for your efforts, detective. If there is any way I can be of assistance, please let me know. I know the congregation is looking for answers. The devil is out there, certain as sin, and I will not stand for it in this town,” the Pastor said. What was that in his voice? It wasn’t what Jim was expecting. It almost sounded like relief. Closure did have that effect on some people, he supposed.

Jim sighed, “Yeah, we are here to serve, Pastor. Give the Missus my regards.”

“Thank you, and Jim, it would do you well to get this buttoned up quietly. Good night.”

He set the glass in the sink. Tomorrow would be a long day, but for all the reasons he hated. Small-town media attention, idiot reporters asking about things that they had no idea about, all while they berated him. He hated it at the best of times, of which these were not. Jim was caught up in thoughts of tomorrow as he walked back toward the front door.

He paused. Outside the kitchen, next to the door out to the garage, was another door. Previously, he had assumed it to be a pantry, but while he examined the bedroom, someone else must have checked it out and left the door ajar. Stairs were visible beyond, and Jim pushed it open.

The basement was as impressive as the rest of the house—a home theater, a second kitchen, and even what looked like another bedroom. The entire place was nearly as large as Jim’s house. It looked clean. The trash bins were all tagged and empty–the department had done a thorough job. Jim went through it all the same. There was a door on the far end, and he pushed his way through.

The workout room looked like something out of a college gym. A treadmill, bike, Stairmaster, and rowing machine adorned one side, while two powerlifting stations lined the other. Jim flicked on the lights, and a TV at the other end turned on with them, tuned to ESPN. He stepped inside; the entire floor was padded rubber, and it smelled of good use. Pictures of Robert Junior at every level of football dominated the walls. Even Rachel had a few down here. While she was an accomplished gymnast, she never rose to Junior's pinnacle.

“Ahh, kid, what did you get yourself into…” Jim said to himself as he watched, frame by frame, Junior grow up before his eyes. The coroner's report ate at him as he examined the shrine to the eldest son. It didn’t add up. He’d been on this job a long time, had seen quite a few weird things, and had heard tales of many more. He could not deny that no matter what outsiders tried to make it seem like, sometimes weird things happened. Sometimes, the end of the story did not make sense or make you feel good, and you had to fit the pieces together as they lay before you. He sighed. And sometimes, when the job was done and all the pieces were in place, no matter how much you wanted it not to be true, the bad guys won. Those were the times that gnawed at him relentlessly—when the slow wheels of justice groaned to a halt entirely. Still, he could not shake the thought that he was trying to fit together pieces of different puzzles.

“Tell me what’s going on, kid–Ouch!” Jim yelled as he stubbed his toe on the low bookshelf. A series of workout programs lay stacked together, innocuous as could be. Jim reached down and picked up the September one. Flicking through the pages painted the picture of a kid with everything ahead of him. Every hour of every day was planned out meticulously, color-coded, and more organized than Jim could ever hope to be. Not a single evening was wasted, and every box was checked next to each task. Jim set it down. The hairs on his neck stood up as he did. Now, what’s this? He went through them month by month…until…

There was no October. Jim turned, half expecting to see some shadowed figure standing in the doorway. There was no one.

He opened the AV closet at the far end of the room. Nothing. The closet had cables that seemed to run into the home theater, and Jim followed those back into the large room. It was sitting right there next to the stack of game films as if hiding in plain sight. Jim opened the October binder.

It was a hard job being a detective. Having to look into the darkest that humanity could offer constantly tore at the edges of his morality. The first years were the hardest; that’s when the nightmares were the worst until you learned to live with them. But he trudged onward, driven by the ever-weakening dopamine rush solving puzzles gave him. Right now, the old feeling was back. Jim’s lips curled as he saw it sitting right there, the piece that proved that puzzle piece of Scooby Do indeed belonged in the Japanese garden. The receipt was short and folded behind some papers as if to be hidden.

He dialed Markowicz.

“...yeah you’re not going to like this, but I’ll need those girls brought back in,” Jim said without an introduction.

“Jim, why the fuck are you calling me this late?” DA Markowicz said.

“Well, Alex. I’m here at the estate, and I’ve got a receipt for Mifeprex from a store over the border. Dated three days ago.”

“What the fuck…Alright, I’ll meet you at the station. Make sure you keep the chain of custody on that.”

“Ya will do.”

* * *

She sat across from him, jet-white hair streaked with purple. It was late, and he was exhausted, but they had to stay ahead of this story. Emily Jones was even less forthcoming this time around. She sat in the interrogation room, arms crossed and sulking.

“Alright, I’m done with these games,” Jim said. “So, were you all jealous of him? Tough girl wants to get some revenge on the jock? What? Give me something here. I’ve got Veronica coming back in here next, and I have half a feeling she will be singing like a bird.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t do anything but post a stupid Halloween prank. You all are just trying to pin this on me because I don’t show up at that church on Sundays. That’s how it always goes around here.”

“Look, I get it. It’s fun to be a rebel. I was a rebel once, too. But someone took it too far, and I got a dead kid. What about this? A tough girl like you maybe falls for the All-American boy's spell. Things get out of hand when he falls for someone else?”

“The hell are you talking about? They’re all gross.”

“Okay, let’s try this then. The tough girl finds out he’s a hypocrite and tries to bring the house down because it’ll make her feel good. The boy confronts her, and she gets a little handsy, and he falls. It was an accident, but she doesn’t know what to do, so she takes him home and tucks him in. It’s messed up, but so is murder.”

“Dude, I don’t know what your problem is, but I didn’t kill him. Yeah, he was uppity, but trust me, if I were going to kill someone, it wouldn’t be him. Which I didn’t!”

Jim wanted to slam his head against the desk, “it’s late. Help me out here.”

“I’m just as much of a victim here…stupid account tricked me,” Emily said in a tone that made Jim want to throttle her. Then what she said broke through.

“What do you mean?”

“Mary…she wasn’t who I thought she was. She had said I could be a help, be a part of something big, and all I had to do was make that post. I feel like I’ve been catfished. I have been catfished! You should be arresting her.”

“Wait. You knew this, Mary? You better tell me the truth now; false testimony is a serious crime,” Jim said. He felt a mellow thrill at the prospect of finding another piece.

“I knew a Mary Elizabeth once. She was nice to me when others weren’t, and I thought she had tracked me down. Turns out it was some dumb fake account all along,” Emily said. She had started to cry.

“Where did you meet her?” Jim said, injecting a note of calm and sympathy into his tone.

“This summer at Holy Oaks. She was my leader for this dumb summer camp thing my parents made me do. She talked with me a lot about college because she was getting ready to apply, and she was really excited about these leadership positions. She said they would help put her over the top.”

The puzzle was falling into place.

“Where was she applying to?” Jim said. He knew the answer before she opened her mouth.

“Her dream was to go to Notre Dame.”

* * *

Rachel sat before him, her dorm painting the perfect picture of her freshmen experience. It was too much pink for his taste. She was pale as a ghost as he laid out what he knew to her. Jim had made the trip in near record time; he needed to get to her first.

“Look, I know this is hard to comprehend. But there’s a girl in danger somewhere, or she might be dangerous. I need to know.” he said after telling her what he knew. His instincts told him there was no way this had a happy ending to it, and Jim felt exhausted the entire car ride here. In a normal world, he would have had to reach out to the school, find recommendation letters, and hunt down roommates and friends in the best of cases. This time, he went on his gut, right to the source at the blank space at the center of his puzzle.

“My brother couldn’t do this.”

“I know it’s hard to believe that it’s hard to think the ones we look up to are capable of evil. But I need to know everything. He never said anything about seeing a girl? We really need to find her, make sure her and your brother’s child are safe.”

“No, you don’t understand. There’s no way my brother could have done this. He’s been too busy with football. Too busy for anyone here or there. He’s never visited me,” Rachel said as she gasped for air.

The words hit him like a sledgehammer as his puzzle was pushed off the table. Jim took a deep breath. He would have to confirm this before drawing any conclusions.

“Here, I’ll give you a minute,” Jim said, faking calm, and stepped into the hallway to dial Markowicz.

“Where the fuck are you?” The DA’s voice cut across the phone after one ring.

“Doing my job. You in the office?”

“Yeah”

“Go to evidence, go back in those workout notebooks till, I don’t know, June or so. Tell me, are there any breaks? Anything that would look like a vacation. A missed workout? I don’t know.”

“Hold on,” and Jim heard shuffling in the background. “Alright, looking now,” a flip of papers followed. “Nope, nothing. Every day is clean.”

“Thanks.”

“You going to tell me what this is about?”

Jim hung up. He’d tell him later. He stepped back into the room where Rachel had composed herself.

“Thank you,” he said to her. “One last thing, if he’s never visited, when was the last time you saw him?”

“Uhh, when I was home last? End of August. I had asked him to come up in September, but he said he was too busy, and my mom came instead. Last time I saw anyone.”

“Wait, when did your dad visit you last?”

“My dad? Not since I moved in, like the second week of August.”

As the puzzle lay there on the floor, the pieces came together. And to Jim’s surprise, he felt no pleasure in it, only disgust.

* * *

“Your honor, this is what never made sense to us, to any of us, when this case first began. Why would a kid who had everything before him, who was a leader both on and off the field, take his own life? Due to the diligent work of Detective Ratcliff, we now know that, indeed, Robert Mickelson Junior was everything we expected him to be. A good kid trying to do the right thing. We also know that the accused has shown all the hallmarks of a serial predator. One who used his considerable influence to groom the unsuspecting to unspeakable ends, until one day he took it too far with one of his victims…”

Jim sat in the back. He had to give it to Markowicz; the man gave no quarter when he wanted to put away a bad guy. The investigation had spiraled after his trip to Rachel, who sat alone on the other side of the courtroom. Woman by woman, more victims than he could count, came forward with every sort of abuse, most of them bullied or shamed into silence by this, that, and the other. It all made him sick. It made him feel like a failure. A coven of silent trauma existed right under his nose, their childhood innocence ripped away by a monster more terrible than Jim could have imagined. Worst of all, several studios already had producers lined up to tell the story on the silver screen, reality more terrifying than anything their writers' rooms could come up with.

They had yet to find Mary Elizabeth, or Mary Woodyard as they were able to identify her. Thanks to some of Markowicz’s strong-arming, they were able to get some digital logs that showed a pattern of communication between her and Junior, enough for them to take the case forward. Additionally, a secondary evaluation of the body by a more senior hand, given the new revelations, could not rule out blunt-force trauma and post-mortem repositioning. Some further proverbial digging found several tools missing from the church inventory, including a hammer.

“What does that leave us? A predator whose kingdom was threatened, who had the means to kill, the motive to keep this information from coming to light, and the opportunity when he found himself confronted with his heinous crimes by his son, no less, who had heroically attempted to stand up for the greater good. In a fit of terrible passion, the father struck down the brave son in a vain attempt to protect himself. Then, faced with the gruesomeness of his crime, he tried to cover it up…”

Jim zoned out as Markowicz finished up his rousing closing argument. In what the media called a stunning turn of events, Robert Senior had all but admitted to everything, every count of abuse he at least fessed up to inappropriate conduct, but had remained adamant about his innocence in the murder. Jim didn’t care. The puzzle still had a few blank spaces left, but it was now in the DA’s hands to complete for the jury. At the gavel, he left with the rest of the crowd, doing his best to avoid the media circus. He was ready to be done with the whole thing. Every piece of it was more disgusting than the last, and Jim felt the urge to shower after each day in court.

* * *

He sat outside Holy Oaks Church, sipping his coffee and trying to figure out what he would say. Get it done and get going. Stupid, damned sense of right and wrong. It was a brisk day, and winter would be right around the corner. The construction din drowned out any peaceful morning sounds as they erected the expanded worship area. The Escalade pulled around and parked in the VIP space. She walked up on one-inch heels, still garbed all in black designer clothes.

“Morning, Mrs. Mickelson,” Jim tipped his hat.

“Morning Detective. To what do I owe the pleasure.”

“Well, didn’t see you at the sentencing. The judge threw the book at him.”

“As they should.”

“Yeah, well…yeah, thought you should know.”

“Thank you, detective.”

“Got to be hard running a church like this by yourself?”

“We’ll get by. The flock needs a shepherd. Especially in these times.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Anyway, thought you should know.”

“Thank you, Detective. You know, Junior came to visit me that night. I ushered him out so I could finish the sermon for Robert and the accounting. The next time I saw him, he was dead.”

Jim paused, his hair standing up on the back of his neck again.

“I’m real sorry for your loss, ma’am,” he said after a moment. He had already cleared the puzzle from the table.

“All I can do now is bear my cross and lead this flock. You should come by sometime. I’ve got a sermon coming up tomorrow on Robert. Here.”

“I may just do that,” Jim said as he took the pamphlet. With a tip of his hat, he was back on the road, the shadow of her accursed church thankfully disappearing over the ridge.

He pushed send on the email before slamming his laptop shut. It had been a generous enough gesture to give the department two extra weeks' notice. Markowicz would be pissed, but well, he always was. He had looked the lipsticked pig in the mouth, and now he was tired of stepping in its shit. He’d land on his feet after a few weeks on a beach somewhere, or he wouldn’t, but it wouldn’t be here.

The pamphlet fell to the floor as he packed his briefcase. Jim picked it up and read the sermon's title set for the next day.

John 8:31-32 - and the truth will set you free!

Jim shook his head and threw it in the trash. The next sorry soul who sat at his desk could solve the rest of this puzzle.

* * *

A/N:

If you've enjoyed this, please leave a like and an insight below. If you really enjoyed this, tips to fuel my coffee addiction are always appreciated. All formatting is designed for desktops. You can check out all my works below:

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About the Creator

Matthew Fromm

Full-time nerd, history enthusiast, and proprietor of random knowledge. The best way to find your perfect story is to make it yourself.

Here there be dragons, and knights, and castles, and quests for entities not wished to be found.

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Comments (8)

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  • Raymond G. Taylor4 months ago

    Great story development. Well done and thanks for sharing

  • JBaz4 months ago

    Matthew, I expect no less from you. This was well written with twists and turns and little hints dropped in, but no clear evidence given away. A true ‘ who dunnit’ Good luck

  • Lamar Wiggins6 months ago

    Very well-developed story. I could see it as a mini-series. I love detective stories and you created some very real situations and clues a detective would encounter. Good luck in the challenge!

  • Babs Iverson6 months ago

    I'd say the pastor's wife. Fantastic mystery!!!❤️❤️💕

  • Kelsey Clarey6 months ago

    This was such a gripping story! I couldn't stop reading and trying to guess at where it was going to go.

  • Judey Kalchik 6 months ago

    Well developed story, lots of twists and turns. I could see future stories starring this Detective!

  • Mother Combs6 months ago

    Very well told.

  • Mark Gagnon6 months ago

    Lots of twists and turns, just the way I like it. Still not sure who the bad guy or lady really was.

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