You encounter some pretty interesting people when you work at a store that specializes in things like tarot cards and other items connected to the occult. Although encountering interesting people is the norm when you work any retail job anymore, it’s a unique experience in my case. Personally, I think it’s worth it to not have to deal with the usual nonsense like Black Friday, and the upside is that the store always smells amazing from the variety of incense you can buy. Most of the time customers are a little quirky, but respectful and polite. The store is in New Orleans, so it wasn’t like I was working at an occult store that stuck out like a sore thumb or didn’t fit in with the community. But most of all, the job was simple and straightforward, and the store itself was quiet, calm, and peaceful. And what more can you ask for from a job?
But there is one particular customer that stands out above all the rest. It was on a Tuesday afternoon when the shop was quiet. I was in the middle of adjusting some crystals we had on sale when I heard the telltale chime of the bell that announced we had a customer on the premises.
So I stood up and headed to the front of the store to see what was up.
“Hello, welcome to The Purple Candle, can I help you with anything?” I asked the figure with their back turned to me as they were looking at some books.
“I’m not sure. Let me look around and I’ll let you know,” the customer said as he turned around.
The guy was gorgeous. Deep green eyes and a jawline so sharp it could cut through bricks. But what got my attention most of all was his attitude. Many of the people who set foot in here often do it on a dare or because they’re getting a tongue in cheek gift for a friend, and it shows. That wasn’t this guy. As he browsed through the shop with a hint of seriousness, he methodically studied the various items on display. I could see his eyes sweeping over everything while I walked back to the checkout counter and busied myself. I could also tell he’d never set foot in a place like this, because he had the telltale uncertainty and awkwardness of someone who was out of their element. But that’s usually how it goes; people who come in here either know exactly what they’re looking for or don’t have the slightest idea of what’s going on.
“Do you like Ouija Boards?” he asked me out of nowhere after a few minutes.
“It’s best to avoid asking questions you don’t know the answer to. I don’t care if it’s your boss, your landlord, or a wooden board and a planchette.”
“Fair point. What about some questions you do know the answer to?”
“Those can be just as risky.”
“That they can.” He nodded. “Do you do witchcraft?”
“No, but ask my ex-boyfriend and he’ll tell you something different.”
He chuckled. “I’m sure. Well, if he left you, I’d bet money the other woman is a witch and has him under a spell. It’s the only possible explanation for leaving someone like you.”
“Actually it was a mutual decision. But nice try.”
He smiled at me. “You know it.”
“But if I’m being honest, I would’ve absolutely been accused of being a witch back in the day. Aside from working here, I have a black cat.”
“Definitely grounds to be viewed with suspicion back then. Which means you would’ve been sent right to the gallows.”
“Not burned at the stake?”
“Not here. They burned witches in Europe. Here in America it was hanging.”
“That’s correct. But at least I would’ve had good company. Me and virtually everyone else I know. Literally anything was grounds for being called a witch back then. Just like most things were fair game for being committed to a psychiatric hospital for centuries after that.”
“If I recall correctly, they even put a psychiatric hospital right where old Salem used to be. Fascinating, right?”
“Absolutely. Speaking of witchcraft, do you like working here?”
“I got no complaints. It’s a job, like any other.”
“What if a better offer came along?”
“I’ll decide what to do if it comes along.”
“I understand.” He paused briefly and went to look at the display of tarot cards that occupied a table nearby. “Do you have a favorite deck?” he asked a few moments later.
“Not particularly. They all have their own unique style.”
“Do you believe in them?”
I paused for a moment. “I tend to think of them as a form of meditation. If you’re quiet and in thought, it’s amazing what can come to you.”
“I can respect that.” He shuffled through a few decks and held one up to me. I noticed that the Devil card was displayed on the back of the box. “What would you do if I told you this was me?” He pointed at it.
I shrugged. “The same thing I’m doing right now.”
“You don’t seem surprised or shocked.”
“Because I’m not. I get asked weird things all the time working here. Besides, everyone’s got their own version of the Devil and everyone’s the Devil to someone, it’s just a question of how many people share that version. You know what the difference between an angel and a demon is?”
“About 30 seconds.”
He chuckled. “Well said. But what’s your version of the Devil?”
“I haven’t quite decided yet. Probably because there are countless versions. To some the Devil is that bottle of booze, while to others it’s a bag of powder, the abusive spouse, the nasty boss, or the treacherous coworker. But they’re all accurate. It’s just a matter of picking your poison. My version, like most people’s, all depends on what’s happening.”
“Very interesting observation. I like you.”
“Thanks.” I had no idea how I felt about this guy.
“One last question. What do you think of all this stuff in general?” He gestured around the store. It was a common question for me.
“Humanity has existed for thousands of years. Certain practices have come and gone over the years, but a lot of the tradition and folklore has endured. It’s just a question of whether it’s simply changed shape or gone underground. Many ancient ideas and practices are still out there, they’re just hiding beneath the surface or practiced on the margins.”
He nodded. “I see where you’re coming from.”
“Alright, I give,” I said. “What are you here for?”
“Do you read cards?”
“No, even better: I read people. And you, my friend, are here for a specific reason. I’m just not sure what it is. Yet.”
“Would it be ridiculous to say I was looking for some help?”
“Not at all. Most people are looking for help anymore. But as to what brings people in here, I find people are typically looking for assistance as it relates to job, family, or romantic troubles. And since you don’t carry that unique sense of misery that comes with job issues, I’m gonna guess family or dating.”
“You’re observant. It’s family.”
He paused for a moment while I stood there, quietly waiting.
“It’s my sister. Kelly’s her name. She’s in trouble.”
I remained silent while he stood there, trying to articulate his thoughts.
“She ran away a few months ago. We couldn’t find her, so we hired a private investigator. He found her two weeks ago in a place about three hours outside of town, and she was hanging out with people widely described as ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’. The investigator had also done some research and found people associated with them have gone missing.”
“It gets worse.” He swallowed nervously. “He says there are rumors they meet in remote places and do….” he fumbled for a word. “Things. Rituals.”
“So you want some insight.”
“I’d be grateful for literally any help at all. The PI is good, but he lost them. Said they just up and vanished without a trace.”
“And here you are.”
“And here I am.” He nodded. “I’m Alec by the way.”
“Isla.” I reached out and shook his hand. Alec’s grip was firm but gentle. Then I stood up from where I’d been leaning over the counter and looked him in the eye. “Well Alec, the first thing to remember is that a ritual means different things to different people. The term ritual has an inherently ominous connotation in many cultures, but anything can be a ritual. Opening presents on Christmas morning after you eat a breakfast of pancakes is a ritual. Like most things, everyone and everything has rituals, it’s just a question of how far some people take it.”
“Fair enough. I just…” He struggled for a moment to get the words out. “I’m scared. We all are. We’ve noticed people following us. Lurking outside the house. Nothing serious or overtly scary. Or enough to call the police. But it’s just enough to let us know they’re there.”
“But I did manage to get a picture of some of them one night. Here it is.” Alec took out his phone, swiped through it, and held the screen up to me after a moment.
The picture was of a group of people who were dressed casually, but in ways that took care to hide their faces, be it with baseball hats, knit caps, or the odd hood up. I was almost done with the photo when something in it caught my eye. One of the figures in the middle of the frame looked vaguely familiar. So I took a closer look and noticed that despite the baseball cap on his head, I could still make out his face from the angle. My stomach sank when I recognized it immediately.
“Oh my God. One of the people in it is my ex-boyfriend Cameron.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No. That’s him.” I jabbed my finger at the picture while the floor felt like it was tilting beneath me.
At some point we ended up calling Vivian, the store owner and a good friend of mine who knew Cameron. She didn’t hesitate to come in when I explained what was going on. Despite arriving on short notice, Vivian looked great as always. She’s one of those people who always looks great no matter what’s going on or what she wears.
“So where do we go from here?” Vivian asked when Alec had finally finished explaining things.
“Well, everything we’ve been told says that unless an actual crime has been committed, there’s no reason to call the cops. But regular people like us? We’re free to do our own legwork. Although I’m not sure how much good that would do. We tried that before and got nothing. The group Kelly is with constantly moves and leaves false trails.”
“But we know they remain in the general area.” Vivian brushed a strand of auburn hair out of her face. “Which means they must have a place to go where they do, well, whatever it is they do. And if there’s one thing I know, it must be well hidden. Because everyone notices a group of people.”
“That’s exactly what the PI my family hired said. It’s what drove him so crazy. That a large group of people would be so hard to keep track of.”
“The island.” I blurted out without warning.
“The island?” Alec asked.
“It’s the name for a stretch of land that’s been in Cameron’s family for generations. It’s been his ever since his father died. There used to be a cabin there, but it’s been long since demolished.”
“Is it a good place to hide?” For the first time since he walked in, Alec was looking at me with something that resembled hope.
“You have no idea. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and unless you know what you’re looking for, you’d never find it.”
“Well then what are we waiting for? It’s field trip time.” Vivian clapped her hands together.
It took Vivian no time at all to close up and flip the sign to closed on the shop door. Then we piled into her black SUV and headed for the island. Vivian drove, Alec took the passenger seat, and I was in the back. We drove there in complete silence, and while the radio was on, I couldn’t tell you what was playing if you paid me. The whole thing had a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere to it.
Eventually the city faded away in the rearview mirror and we were the only ones on the road. I’m not sure how I felt about that. It was fitting for sure.
“I can’t believe Cameron is mixed up in this,” I said eventually. “I just can’t.”
“Why?” Alec turned around in his seat to face me.
“He was always so normal and intelligent. The last person you’d expect to get involved in something like this.”
“My sister was like that too. That’s what makes it so terrifying.”
“They wanted his land,” Vivian said from the driver’s seat.
“What?” I asked.
“His land. They wanted it. Whoever is the ringleader probably saw Cameron had something useful and then did whatever was necessary to recruit him. Made him feel included. Important even. Same reason people get involved in gangs or organized crime. From what you told me, Cameron always felt like he was an outsider and excluded. Being made to feel part of something when you have that feeling is incredibly powerful.”
“I think you’re onto something there.” Alec whispered. It was a sentiment I agreed with.
It didn’t take long to arrive at our destination after that. The Sun had gone down by then and the area came to life at night like only a swamp can. The air hummed with the sounds of splashes in the water and of things whizzing through the air. I never did particularly like coming out here with Cameron. The island was a massive bit of land situated deep in the swamp that was surrounded by water on almost all sides, and the only way I knew how to get there was through a narrow path that wound around the swamp. So with my phone in hand as a flashlight, I led the way.
We all trooped silently on the worn dirt path, with only the frogs, crickets, and other swamp dwellers to keep us company. But it didn’t take long to find out we had the right idea. Because after walking for about 20 minutes, I could see through the trees that there was a massive bonfire sitting right in the middle of Cameron’s land. And as is often the case with massive bonfires, there were plenty of people surrounding it.
They were dressed casually enough, but that was the only remotely normal thing about the situation. The people moved and danced around the fire in ways that can only be described as unnatural. I love to dance, and I love the freedom and the fun that comes from dancing to one of your favorite songs. You can always tell if someone is truly happy while they’re dancing because no matter what the tune is, they move in a way that’s inherently calming to watch. This was anything but. The movements I was watching now were manic and intense. If you didn’t know better, you’d suspect them of having a bad reaction to some kind of drug, which was entirely possible. Which was why, despite the dense humidity that was already making sweat drip down my arms, a shiver ran through my body at the sight.
But I did my best to stifle the feeling as we slowly crept around and settled in a spot that gave us a perfect view of the area. It was a sliver of land with several trees that was raised above the island, so it allowed all three of us to look down at the group without them having a clue. So all that was left was for us to sit there silently and watch until Vivian took out her phone and began recording what the group was doing.
“In case there’s something we can use,” she explained when the two of us looked at her.
“Good idea,” Alec nodded.
Whatever we were witnessing went on for a few minutes until a loud popping sound rumbled through the dense swamp air.
It was obvious that something was up, because the group immediately stopped what they were doing and looked around in what I could tell was total confusion. There were no deliberate, unnatural movements here; it was all good old-fashioned surprise.
Moments later, more popping sounds penetrated the air, and it was obvious that it was gunfire and someone was shooting at the group. One of them on the far-right side had been hit and went down immediately. As several more shots rang out in the air, more people around the fire went down and didn’t get up.
The group was in full confusion now; they were trying to run for cover, but there was nowhere to run to, and they had no clue what they were even running from. The three of us sat there spellbound as the sight unfolded before us.
But after several more moments of haphazard gunfire, it was silent. But not for long, because from far across the swamp, several figures emerged from the shadows and approached the roughly two dozen group members still remaining. In the flickering light from the massive bonfire, I could see there were four figures, and they were all armed with machetes and wearing cheap costume-store masks.
It didn’t take me long to realize what would happen next. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the raw brutality of the four masked strangers and how they raised their machetes and hacked through the group one at a time. They were methodical, taking care to surround them and pick them off at odd intervals like a pack of lions going after a herd of prey. The screams were without a doubt the worst sound I’ve ever heard. The assailants’ blood-soaked machetes gleamed in the fire light as Vivian silently recorded it all.
But eventually the area fell silent again and the masked assailants left soon after. Then it was just the three of us, what was left of the group, and the bonfire. Once a few moments had passed, Vivian used her phone to call the police and tell them what happened. Then we were left with nothing but the hum of bugs and frogs to keep us company.
Vivian, Alec, and I didn’t talk much as we waited. There wasn’t much you could say after something like that unfolds right in front of you. And the longer we were there, the more the massacre we had just witnessed chilled me to the bone. This wasn’t some random act of violence by people who were just out for a thrill. The assailants knew exactly what they were doing, knew that the group was there, picked off just enough of them to cause a panic, then methodically set about executing the rest of them in a way that suggested they’d done this all before.
It was late at night when help finally arrived, and by then the bonfire was little more than smoldering ash and glowing coals. But no one was prepared for what the paramedics found when they arrived. As they were cataloging bodies, they stumbled onto Alec’s sister Kelly, and she was still alive. Unconscious, but alive. And she was the only one. She’d been hit with gunfire, but it was in the right shoulder and the leg. Then she immediately went down and was knocked unconscious when her head hit the ground at an odd angle. Which was how the paramedics found her.
The surgery went fine, but it’s a long road to recovery, and that’s just the physical part. The mental therapy involved will be even more grueling. But Alec and his family got what they wanted, as Kelly was finally free of those people and whatever they had planned.
Cameron wasn’t so lucky. He’d fallen victim to one of the machetes and there was nothing to be done. I felt sad at his demise, but worse about how his family would take it. They were such nice people. That’s the real tragedy of the situation; all the people who were nothing but collateral damage.
But somewhere along the line, you make ties that even if they don’t replace broken ones, they help ease the pain. Which is why it was no surprise Alec stayed in contact with Vivian and I after what we saw in the swamp. He’s told me a million times I’m the only reason Kelly had a shot at making it out. Vivian agrees. The one thing that bothers us the most is the assailants who massacred the group. There was absolutely no way to identify them, which means their motive was unknown and they were still out there. The theory is that the group messed with them in some way, and this was their way to get even. If that’s the case, then mission accomplished.