The Autumn Witch of Crawford County

Mark Russell, 38, television director, sits on his couch in his crumbling Jersey City apartment, wondering what in the hell he’s going to do for work. It’s been a month since the network series he was working on, Truth Detectives, was cancelled – unceremoniously, he’s been saying, though he’s not exactly sure what that means.

The truth is that Truth Detectives was, quite frankly, a dud. It centered around two older detectives (played by well-known but, by Hollywood standards, ancient television stars) who were personae non grata in their department and who considered themselves the only cops on earth who still cared about justice and, naturally, the truth. 

In the month since its cancellation Mark has been sitting around his apartment smoking and watching old NBA playoff games recorded on VHS tapes he’s inherited from his deceased father. His dad, who had retired to Medford, Oregon, from a 40-year deployment with an insurance company in Madison, Wisconsin, died in his car on a way to get a six pack of beer. A meth addict fleeing from the police ran into poor dad head-on and Mark received a little bit of money from Dad’s savings and a little more money from an insurance settlement from the meth-head’s auto policy, and a lot of VHS tapes. 

The game he’s now enjoying is from the 1993 Western Conference semifinals between the Suns and the Spurs and a fairly young scrawny-looking Charles Barkley is, as they say, going off. Mark watches Barkley crash the boards and considers calling his agent because the insurance money is dwindling. Instead, Mark lights another smoke and watches Barkley miss a mid-range jumper and then run to the other end of the court to knock a wayward Spurs pass out of bounds. Then Mark’s phone rings. His agent is calling him. 

***

She’s got work for him. It’s a done deal. All he has to do is say yes. Mark takes a series of trains to her office on the Upper West Side to get the script. The office is cramped, and filled with papers, telephone books and Hollywood directories. She has no computer as far as Mark can see. Nora, 58, has long fading reddish brown hair and wears her glass low on her nose. 

“I was so sorry about Truth Detectives, Mark,” Nora says. “It was a great show. A great show!” Mark knows that Nora doesn’t watch any TV at all. All she does is work, and read romance novels in bed before sleeping.

“Thanks, Nora,” Mark says. “So what have you got for me?
“It’s called…”, Nora looks around at the papers on her desk and finds a sticky note. “‘The Autumn Witch of Crawford County’.” Nora looks up with a smile. “How about that?” 

“Wow,” Mark says. “Great title.”

“It’s a made-for-TV family Halloween special,” Nora says. “The producer, he’s some businessman in Arizona trying to get into the TV business. His name is…,” she looks around for another sticky note, “Pat Morrison.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Yeah, well,” Nora puts her hand up to her mouth and whispers, “they say he’s some kind of gangster.” 

“Intriguing,” Mark says.

“He’s already cut some deal with The Family Channel to air it this Halloween. And he asked for you specifically to direct. Isn’t that wild? He’s a huge fan of Truth Detectives.”

“He’s got great taste.”

“I know! And the best part is, it shoots in Arizona.”

“Arizona? What the hell for?”

“I guess the producer can’t get away from his other work there,” she says, “and he wants to be around while it shoots. It’s gonna be starring his girlfriend, uh,”, she looks for yet another sticky note, “Lucia Montez.” 

“Never heard of her either.”

“It’s her very first role.”

“Oh, jesus. First time producer, first time actress…”

“Come on, Mark. You like working with raw talent!”

“I’m not sure about this, Nora. It sounds a little weird.” 

“Come on! The producer’s converted a warehouse down there into a full sound studio. And the weather is perfect there right now. Great working conditions.” Nora lowers her head to look over her glasses at Mark. “And let’s get real, Mark. You don’t have a lot of options. If you don’t do this, you’re gonna be directing community theater on Long Island. Then you’ll have all the raw talent you can handle.”

“Alright, give me the fuckin’ script. I’ll take a look at it.”

“That’s my boy,” Nora says, tilting her head back up. “Just say the word and we’ll have you on a flight to Arizona. It shoots next week.”

***

Mark reads the script, and smokes, and puts an old playoff game on in the background – Game 3 of the 1996 first round matchup between the Pistons and the Magic. The script is bad but Mark has to admit it’s better than Truth Detectives. The story, which strikes Mark as inappropriately erotic for a family special, is about a Mexican woman executed in the 19th century in a Southwestern frontier county for the crime of allegedly being a witch. As revenge on the county that killed her, the magically undead but beautiful witch reappears each Halloween to lure one of the county’s unfortunate adolescent boys to a cabin on the edge of town and kills him in a witchy manner. 

As Mark finishes the script he glances at the TV just as Shaquille O’Neal airballs at the foul line. Mark closes his eyes and tries to summon in his mind a future without making this movie. Nothing comes up except the formless texture behind his eyelids. He picks up the phone and calls Nora.

“I’ll take it.”

***

Mark lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport around noon and rents a car. All the agency has available is a comically small baby blue Nissan Versa hatchback. It strikes Mark as the kind of car an adult woman who collects stuffed animals would drive. With the help of his GPS, he steers it to his motel, the Fiesta Inn – paid for, like the flight, by Pat Morrison, to whom Mark has not yet even spoken, let alone met. But when Mark gets into his room the message light on the phone is blinking and Mark listens.

“Hey Mark, it’s Pat Morrison,” the message begins. Pat’s voice sounds just like he thinks a gangster’s would,  like everything he’s saying should already be assumed by the listener. “I pray your flight was smooth and painless. I fuckin’ hate flying, myself. After you get a chance to dip your toes in the pool, get dressed and head over to Garcia’s. That’s where I do all my business. You’ll find me there and we can talk. The front desk gal at the hotel will tell you how to get there. See you soon, buddy.” 

Mark ignores Pat’s directive to dip his toes in the pools and heads right out the door. 

***

Garcia’s is a Mexican restaurant tucked in the corner of a shopping mall. Mark thinks the cave-like restaurant is an odd place for a gangster to keep office hours, but then again Mark recognizes he’s not from around here and maybe doesn’t yet get the regional gestalt, and maybe the food is the best on earth. Mark walks past the anorexically skinny Mexican hostess guarding the door, who can’t be any older than 16, and eyes a man sitting at the bar that must be Pat Morrison: large and pale, curly blonde hair, about 45, golf clothes head to toe. 

“Um, excuse me,” Mark squeaks. “Pat?” Pat turns around.

“Holy shit! This must be the great Mark Russell,” Pat says as he stands up from the bar stool. He reaches out a big strong hand for a shake. “Do you know how much I fuckin’ loved Truth Detectives?”

“Thank you,” Mark says as he submits his hand to Pat’s. Pat grips hard. 

“Why the fuck did they cancel that anyway? It was the best thing on TV.”

“Well, the ratings were…” Mark starts to say.

“Lemme, guess, it was the fuckin’ Jews,” Pat laughs. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

Mark musters a smirk in response.

“I want to introduce you to the love of my life and the star of our great production.” Pat turns around and helps up a beautiful Mexican woman, maybe 28 years old, that was previously hidden on the bar stool behind Pat. “This is Lucia Montez. Lucia, this is our brilliant director, Mark Russell.” 

“Wow,” Lucia says with the mist of a Mexican accent, smiling wide and extending her arms for a gentle hug. “Mark, it is simply so nice to meet you. Your work on Truth Detectives was quite simply amazing.”

“Oh, thank you very much,” Mark says, now seeing why Pat wanted to keep the production in his backyard and Lucia within his sight. Lucia is not tall, but with the low cut black cotton shirt and black yoga pants she’s wearing in combination with her long black hair and long black fake nails, she gives the overall impression of length, like if she was stretched out on the floor or on a bed she would reach from Garcia’s to the Mexican border. Mark thinks that with her as the seductive Autumn Witch, his so-called family movie will at least have some visual appeal. After taking in Lucia and liking what he sees, he sheepishly adds, “I was just getting warmed up with Truth Detectives, really.”

“That better be true!” Pat says while looking around. “Let’s get a fuckin’ table and eat some motherfuckin’ food!” 

***

Over dinner, in the far back corner of the restaurant, Mark nervously dunks tortilla chips in a watery bean dip, one after another, while Lucia sits and smiles at Mark and Pat talks about why he relocated from New Jersey to Phoenix – “You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ambitious Irish fuck in North Jersey. And I can’t fuckin’ stand competition.” – and about his various business interests across the Valley of the Sun: salvage yards in South Phoenix, trailer parks in East Mesa, and warehouse rentals in Tempe. It’s the warehouse rental business that gave him the idea to make a movie.

“I fuckin’ love TV and movies – The Departed, you seen The Departed? That shit fuckin’ rocks my cock. Speakin’ of my cock, you heard of the Irish curse? Doesn’t apply in my case. Isn’t that right, Lucia?” Pat smirks and nudges Lucia, who just doubles the smile already on her face in response. “Anyway I figured why not take one of my warehouses and turn it into a movie studio? So that’s what I did.” Pat is shoveling dry chips into his mouth. “I can’t wait for you to see the set tomorrow. We’ve got it all built for the scenes in the witch’s cabin.”

“It’s simply amazing, Mark,” Lucia says. “You are going to love it.”

“I’m sure I will,” Mark says, aggressively rubbing his mouth, hoping no crumbs or bean dip is on it. 

“We got this big beautiful coffin in the center of the set,” Pat says. “Very spooky stuff.”

“What’s the coffin for?” Mark asks, hoping it wasn’t an essential aspect of the script he somehow missed.

“Huh…” Pat says. “I guess it’s where the witch fuckin’ sleeps or somethin’. I just thought it looked really fuckin’ cool.”

“It really does, Mark,” Lucia throws in. 

“Oh yeah, no doubt,” Mark says. “You can’t ever go wrong with a coffin.” Everyone laughs. Mark is pleased that his low effort joke landed.

“You certainly fuckin’ can’t!” Pat says, spraying wet tortilla chip crumbs across the table onto Mark’s face. 

With the tortilla chip spray in his face, Mark’s feeling comfortable enough to ask a question that’s been on his mind since meeting with his agent.  “Say, Pat, look, let me know if I’m out of line but I heard that you were,” Mark leans in and whispers, “something of a gangster?” 

At this, Pat’s look turns dark and his face turns red. Lucia’s eyes go wide.

“Where’d you fuckin’ hear that?” Pat says, angrily.

“Oh, well it’s something my agent said,” Mark says with intentional calm, hoping he hasn’t fucked up too badly. 

“You know what, Mark?” Pat says. “With the fucking libtards in this country, any independent successful businessman’s gonna get accused of being a criminal. But it simply isn’t fuckin’ true.”

“Of course,” Mark says. “Of course. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious. I’ve never met, you know, a gangster in real life. Even though there were lots of them on Truth Detectives.”

“Right,” Lucia says, putting a calming hand on Pat’s back. “You did not mean anything. You are just a very curious Hollywood person.”

“Yeah,” Mark says. “Too curious maybe.” Mark lets out a small laugh.

“Yeah, yeah,” Pat says. “I get it. I’ll tell you what, Mark. I’m not what people say I am. However, sometimes,” Pat slams his fist on the table, “organizations, or entities, or people, get in the way of productive business. And so I do what I have to do. And when it comes to business, the opinion of the law is just that, an opinion. And I don’t give a fuck about anyone’s opinion but my own.” Pat stares into Mark’s eyes checking for understanding. Mark is nodding. 

“Roger that,” Mark says.

Lucia smiles again. “So how did you get into TV making, Mark?” 

“Yeah,” Pat says, the tension and anger evaporating from his body and from the entire table. “This I want to know.”

Relieved to have gotten through the difficult moment spawned by his stupid and risky question Mark tells them all about his unremarkable career in television and both Pat and Lucia appear fascinated. Heaping plates of Mexican food come and Pat attacks his meal with hunger and focus. Lucia nibbles here and there. Mark can barely eat at all, having accidentally filled up on chips. 

At the end of dinner, Mark mentions that he’d like to get to the set early in the morning for some directorial planning, so Pat gives him directions to the warehouse-turned-studio. Lucia gives Mark a hug and a kiss on the cheek and says, “I look very much forward to working with you, Mark,” which makes Mark feel really good. Pat sends him off with another firm handshake and Mark gets in the baby blue Versa and drives back to the Fiesta Inn. 

***

Back in his room, Mark drinks complimentary bottled water, smokes, and tries to find something good to watch on TV. He flips around but when he lands on a rerun of Truth Detectives he turns the set off in embarrassment. That’s when he hears a gentle rap on the door. He gets up to answer it and is surprised and pleased to see Lucia Montez standing on the other side, still in her all-black athleisure outfit from earlier. 

“Oh, Mark,” she says, like she’s known Mark for years. “I just simply could not resist stopping by and running a few of my lines at you before we go to work tomorrow.”

“Sure thing,” Mark looks around for his car keys, taken off guard by the request. “Maybe there’s a diner or bar open somewhere that we could go to.”

Lucia steps in the room and softly shuts the door. “No, Mark,” she says. “I would like to run them here if that is okay with you. I’m too shy to run them in the public.”

“Well, you’ll have to get over that if you’re going to perform in front of a full cast and crew in the morning,” Mark says. 

“Yes,” she says. “I will be over it by then. But for now,  let me practice in here ” 

“Ok,” Mark says. “Yeah. Sure. Let me find my script.”

“That is not necessary,” she says. “I am off the book.”

“I’m unfortunately not.”

“That is okay. The director has no lines.”

“Guess not,” Mark says, and sits down on the edge of the bed. “Oh. Do you want something to drink? I have, uh…,” Mark looks around, “bottled water.”

“No. I am not thirsty.” Lucia sits down next to Mark on the bed. 

Mark wonders where this is all going. If it’s going where he thinks it’s going and definitely wants it to go but knows that it should not go, he realizes that he’ll be powerless to stop it. 

“Mark,” Lucia says. “Pat really did not like your question.”

“What question was that?”

“You know the one,” she says. “About him being a gangster.”

“Oh yeah,” Mark says. “That was way stupid. I’m sorry.”

“Do not be sorry, Mark,” she says. “It is true. He is a gangster. He laundries money. He has had people killed. Many people.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“It is very bad,” she says. “I do not like it. I do not like him. But he gave me the chance to be on TV. Which I have always wanted and needed. I know you know the feeling.”

“I do,” Mark says, though he does not.

“The truth simply is that I do not prefer gangsters,” she says. “I have known many of them. My uncles and dad and brother, they are gangsters, sicarios, and they are very mean and insensitive men. Bad men”

“I see,” Mark says.

“But I prefer sensitive men,” she says, turning to Mark. “Artists. Like you, Mark.” 

“Lucia, I’m not an artist,” Mark says. “I’m just a TV director.”

“Do not say that,” she says, putting a finger to Mark’s lips. “I have seen the Truth Detectives.”

“Ok, you make a good point,” Mark says.

“Of course, I do,” Lucia says. “And now I have a good question for you.”

“Fire away.”

“Can you summon the great courage it will take to kiss me?”

“I’m not a very courageous person,” Mark says.

“Wrong, Mark,” Lucia protests. “You are a brave artist!”

“I don’t think Pat would like it very much,” Mark says.

“Forget, Pat,” she says. “I cannot stand him. The Irish Curse he jokes about. It is real.”

“I see,” Mark says. “But I thought you wanted to run lines.”

“Fine,” she says. “Then I am the Autumn Witch of the Crawford County. And I have come on this Halloween to seduce you, young man. I am here to take you from your family and take your life as revenge for your ancestors’ cruelness. And you must kiss me.” 

And with that, all of Mark’s meek resistance dissolves and he lets Lucia take him like a dust storm overtaking Mark’s tiny Versa on a desert highway. He loses himself to euphoric Sonoran oblivion. 

***

Mark wakes up from a deep post-coital slumber and Lucia is gone. It’s 5:30 AM and the sun is already poking in through the blinds. He dresses and hops in the Versa and drives south to the makeshift studio. The door to the big warehouse is unlocked when he arrives and the big room is completely empty. On the far end of the warehouse he sees the witch’s cabin set. There’s a black cauldron and next to it a wooden table with what he guesses are the witch’s adolescent-murdering implements, including a curved Mexican-looking dagger. Upon closer inspection, Mark sees that it’s not a prop knife but a real dagger. And sure enough, next to the wooden table, in the middle of the witch’s room, there’s a big black wooden coffin as Pat described. Mark opens the coffin and looks inside. It’s empty. As he’s staring at the inside of the coffin and wondering what it would be like to fuck Lucia in it he hears the door opening from the other end of the warehouse behind him. He turns to see Pat Morrison in a fresh set of golf clothes angrily storming towards him.

“You fuck!” Pat yells. “You sneaky Jewish New York Hollyweird fuck!”

“What’s the matter, Pat?” Mark chokes out as Pat gets up in his face, wondering if Pat knows he’s not Jewish, and that Hollywood is not the same place as New York. 

“You know exactly what’s the matter, you rat fuck!”

“I don’t,” Mark says. “I’m sorry.”

“Lucia didn’t come home last night,” Pat says.

“Oh, Jesus. Is she okay?”

“Is she okay? You tell me. I looked up her location last night on my phone. None other than the Fiesta fuckin’ Inn.”

“Oh, wow. Weird.”

“Don’t fuckin’ oh wow weird me, you bohemian faggot. You were fuckin’ her!”

Mark takes a step back and bumps into the wooden table with the dagger on it. He breathes and tries to take full stock of the situation. The only conclusion he can draw is that he’s fucked.

“You’re fucked,” Pat in fact says. “Remember what I said about people getting in the way of productive business? Well that’s you. You’re getting in the way of productive business. And like I said, I do what I have to do.”

And so Mark thinks about what he has to do. In front of him is a belligerent criminal who has killed before and will kill again and who appears to be on the verge of killing right now. Mark, who has never so much as punched another man, not in anger nor in sport, realizes that perhaps the world needs less of this type of man – mean and insensitive, as Lucia put it. And if Pat gets removed from the world – well, it could have been a mob hit. No one would look too hard for him. And Mark – well, he has productive business still to conduct, a TV movie to shoot. The production is already paid for, and the set is already built, and the deal with The Family Channel already inked. The cast and crew are due to show up in half an hour. The show must go on.

“Look, Pat,” Mark says. “I really didn’t want to fuck your girlfriend. But if she was sitting next to you on your Fiesta Inn bed, what would you do, my man?”

“You rat fuck!” Pat lunges towards Mark. Mark reaches behind him and finds the witch’s dagger.

***

The cast and crew have all arrived and are ready to go. Lucia stands behind the witch’s wooden table looking, Mark thinks, insanely hot in her witch costume. Everyone is looking at director Mark for direction. 

Mark clears his throat and steps forward to address the waiting crowd.

“The first day of any shoot is an exciting moment,” Mark says. “I know it’s many of you folks’ first time on a movie set. Well, relax. We’re going to have fun. Now in this first scene we’re shooting,” Mark turns and smiles at Lucia who smiles back, “the beautiful and seductive Autumn Witch gives a haunting soliloquy about the fate she envisions for the poor citizens of Crawford County. So are we ready to rock, people?” 

The cast and crew offer a rousing cheer in response.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Mark says. “Whatever you do, don’t open the coffin. I got here early to check things out, and the door seems like it’s just about ready to fall right off. Got it?”

Everyone nods.

“Good,” Mark says. “Places everyone!”

— Brendan is a co-host of the ELLROY BOYS podcast and co-creator of the audio drama THE ISOLATION CHAMBER. Follow him on Twitter.