I ran across the street, my hands crammed into my pockets. I didn’t bother to snatch my fingers out and reach for one of the weapons holstered surreptitiously around my waist. This was going to be easy.
The spectral phenomenon I hunted weaved in and out of existence. Or should I say, it weaved in and out of the ordinary physical plane? Its warped features, snarling thin lips, and piercing gaze were invisible to those without the gift to see the dead. Or curse, not gift - it depended if you enjoyed the truly dark side of life or preferred fluffy bunny rabbits over ghouls and demons.
I picked up the pace. In my pocket, my phone vibrated. I clutched my fingers harder around it, drawing it tightly against my palm.
No doubt it was my contract asking if I’d finally done this. The answer was it was a work in progress. Like most of my missions.
I put on a burst of speed just as a puff of wind came rocketing down the street. It grabbed my hair, tugged it around my face, and whipped it against my pale cheeks. It framed the long scar down one side of my neck. A scar from an injury that, once upon a time, had almost killed me but now one that was nothing more than my lucky charm. I patted it now, letting my jagged, short nails trail over the indentation.
Then I shoved forward again, my boots pounding the pavement as I pushed up onto the curb.
The spectral phenomenon turned and screamed.
I was lucky that there was no one around. If anyone had heard that, they would know that a) something was up, and b) that whatever was up was not normal.
While there were a few people in this screwed-up town who understood that ghosts and magic existed, most of the ordinary populace had no clue.
Or at least, that was the story. I wasn’t entirely certain if I believed it. Really? No clue at all? Ghosts walked amongst us. As did many other phenomena from the grave – ghouls, demons even, you name it. Ordinary people must have some clue.
I shoved forward again. Tracking the ghost across the street, it weaved behind a dumpster.
“Great,” I muttered under my breath. I finally yanked both of my hands out of my pockets. I needed speed for this.
Shoving across the street, I reached the other side well before a taxi could come into view, its headlights bouncing up and down as it took to the uneven road.
I was out of sight long before its lights could slice across my form. Not that that would be a problem. It wouldn’t see anything untoward. I wasn’t covered in magic. Believe it or not, apart from a few choice spells, I didn’t have any otherworldly force. And nor did I have a strange, super-powerful body. I didn’t have claws or an extended face or a physical form capable of shifting through matter. I was just me.
Me with a certain added set of extra skills.
Shoving to the side, I finally reached the dumpster. I pushed into a roll and came up sharply behind it only to see that the ghost was no longer there. I could see the path it had taken right through the wall beside me, though. Seeping ectoplasm still dripped along the bricks.
“Dammit,” I stammered quickly. I shoved forward. That’s right – straight into the wall. You know how before I promised you that I wasn’t unusual? I’m wasn’t taking that back. But when a ghost created a path through some solid substance, for a few minutes afterward, ordinary humans could walk through that path, too – if they had the balls and stomach to try.
I’d done this over 100 times, so the discombobulating experience didn’t affect me. It wasn’t like my gut was being tied around my throat and my intestines were being shaken up in a blender. I ignored all of the distracting, crackling sensations then reached the other side. I fell to my knees on purpose and pushed into a tight roll. It was just in time. I heard a scream – one of those earsplitting, spine-cracking affairs that makes you think a whole legion of demons has somehow crammed its way into your head. It didn’t just make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I swear it made my heart want to pop out of my chest and just give up and walk away.
My quick roll brought me behind a stack of cases. I came up sharply, shoved my back into the wall, then inched up it. I stared past the largest crate. The ghost was now on the other side of the room. That didn’t mean it couldn’t reach me. It had many ways to attack. As it spied me once more, it shoved forward, swiping one of its elongated fleshy arms my way. Once upon a time, I’d been scared of dead bodies. I’d been scared of a lot of things. But over the years, I’d had to get over every single fear – or they would’ve been used to strangle me.
Now, just for a fleeting second, I remembered the first time I’d seen a dead body – the ghost’s drawn white skin yanking the memory right out of me. It’d been dumped in a cell. A young woman – just like me. But unlike me, she hadn’t been lucky enough to survive.
Shaking my head now, I quickly chased that thought from my mind. I also quickly dodged. I shoved into the crate and pushed it forward at the same time, using it as a sacrifice.
The ghost’s attack smashed into the crate and ripped it in half. I don’t mean that lightly. The power of the attack was more like 100 lions that had set upon a fragile carcass. There was nothing the wood could do as it exploded across the room.
The ghost didn’t need to reach me and swipe those deadly white claws across my face to hammer home his anger at the fact I was chasing him. He could use spectral blasts of air and energy. And that’s what had just torn apart that crate as easily as lightning smashing into an unprotected tree trunk.
Shards of crackling, magic-encased wood dashed against my feet. I ignored them and pushed forward once more.
Hunting ghosts was a risky business, but it was the only one I had.
Plus, my client had already paid down half of the fee.
My phone rang. I ignored it.
It would be said client, eager to find out whether I’d done it already.
Yeah, yeah, I was on my way.
I shoved forward again.
This time I let out a little roar, but I also pushed my hand down my top. I hope you weren’t stupid enough to think I was about to pull out a glittering gold cross to scare the ghost’s ethereal socks off. Ghosts don’t care about the symbols of religion. If they were religious themselves, then the symbol of their faith could actually give them power, momentarily realigning them to who they once were.
That’s not what was crammed down my top.
It was a small, powerful flashlight. It was only the size of a thumb. But within it were seriously powerful bulbs. It wasn’t something I’d bought off the shelf. I’d created it specifically for this purpose.
I locked a hand over my eyes then flicked the top of the torch on. A blast of illumination threw itself through the room. It was so much that, had I not covered my eyes, I would’ve momentarily been blinded.
The ghost screeched. It was the worst cry it had given yet. It sounded as if I had just hammered a hole through its head.
“Yeah, that’s right, buddy. I’m not about to give up yet. Now, succumb already. They say that endless rest really is better than endless fighting.” I spat that with a bitter note to my voice. It was all twisted. I usually didn’t let raw emotion like that affect my work, but sometimes it was hard to hold it back. Sometimes, little details jogged my memory. And once it was jogged, I was back there, back in that cell, back surrounded by the corpses who were less lucky than me. Back there waiting to die at the hands of that monster.
I shook my head once more. The power of chasing away that thought gave me an added burst of energy, and I intended to use it. Quickly turning off the torch and shoving it back down my top, I ran as fast as I could.
Once upon a time, I’d been the worst at sports. Everyone at school had laughed at me. I’d barely been good at anything. I’d only ever been a bundle of nerves.
But then I’d acquired the power to run. I… failed to protect someone, but I got rewarded with the skills they’d spent their whole life honing.
It was a long story. One I didn’t want to go into right now. But I still used my powerful legs. I channeled that speed until I made it across the other side of the room. I skidded down onto my knees, rolled, and punched up.
The ghost now shrieked. I fancied that there was fear in its tone, not just hatred. It was clearly recognizing that I was capable of winning this. So it became even more erratic. It shoved forward. It now moved like a random bolt of lightning. It zigzagged this way and that.
I had no idea what kind of building we’d arrived in, but the ghost clearly realized it was a good time to skedaddle. It made it over to the wall and shot right through it. It was quite a sight to see as energy blasted all around it and it used its powers to dig straight through the wall.
I wasted no time. I skidded over and pushed through the hole.
We arrived out in a laneway between buildings.
The ghost darted forward. Rather than shoot through the building in front of us, it wafted to the side and darted further down the laneway.
“Now where are you going?” I muttered quickly.
Wait. No. I knew exactly where it was heading – back to where it got its grudge.
I sped up now. It wasn’t like I was wasting time before, but I didn’t have the luxury of remaining on the back foot for long now.
My client was currently back at his business. And the worst thing I could possibly do was let a ghost with a mortal grudge head back to the person it wanted to kill.
“No more Mrs Nice Guy,” I muttered quickly. There was a real sarcastic punch to my words. It was not, believe it or not, mine. Back in high school, I hadn’t even known what sarcasm was.
I’d received this attitude – with its devil-may-care wit and charm – when I’d failed to protect the third victim.
Again, I had to shove that thought out of my mind. Stop thinking about it, you idiot, I chided harshly as I channeled my power into thrusting forward as fast as I could.
There was only one thing I had to do now.
I shoved onward, using my legendary speed. Okay, it wasn’t legendary. But the woman I acquired the skill from had been an Olympic potential.
My legs pumped hard, my arms blasting by my sides, practically looking like flashes of comets powering across the sky.
I reached the end of the laneway, skidded, actually turned up small puddles of water from the rain yesterday, then threw myself forward again. I would’ve looked like quite a sight. Here I was, dressed completely in black, with sturdy black chunky boots, black jeans, and a black jacket. My hair was this tarnished brown as it whipped over my shoulder in a no-nonsense ponytail. I didn’t know why I mentioned the tarnished bit. It was told to me once. Some kid at school – one of the handsome sporty types who’d always been out of my league – had muttered that to me one day. The saying had stuck.
And, ironically, my hair was about one of the only things that hadn’t changed about me over the years. My attitude had morphed into something wholly different since high school. And hell, there was the notable fact that I could now run 100 meters in 12 seconds.
“Don’t think about that now,” I muttered. Damn, sometimes I just couldn’t focus on missions like this.
I reached the end of the laneway, twisted, and headed toward some kind of clothing store. It was the location of the ghost’s grudge. The guy, when alive, had been stricken with financial woes. He’d failed to get enough money after his shifts had been canceled suddenly, and he’d run into a spot of terminal trouble with a gang of loan sharks.
The rest should have been history. But he’d been foolish enough to hold on to a grudge.
And now he was back.
But not for long.
I pushed into an even faster sprint. I could finally see the store.
According to the last text I got before I started on this hunt, my contractor was waiting out the back of the store.
Maybe the ghost hadn’t figured it out yet, and he was only going back to the scene of his grudge because the location had a powerful pull on his psyche. Or maybe he’d sensed the fact his ex-employer was near like a shark detecting a cut swimmer a kilometer away.
“Damn it all to hell,” I spluttered.
I put on another burst of speed. There was a time when I couldn’t even run 10 meters. Now it didn’t matter how much energy I used. Okay, it did, but compared to my old days, I was now pretty much an Olympic team crammed into one normal-sized, slightly sarcastic exorcist.
I didn’t just have a runner in me. I had a gymnast too. I also had a triple black belt in judo, tae kwon do, and krav maga. I’d picked up those particularly useful skills from an ex-police officer.
The ghost gave another scream. This one was truly earsplitting. It made my back shake. I wondered if the contractor heard it. If he had, the guy would hopefully be running to his car right now. Then again, when he’d contacted me and booked an exorcism, he hadn’t seemed like the sharpest guy out there.
The ghost reached the side of the shop and shoved right through.
I heard a crash from within.
“Damn it all to hell,” I hissed again. That right there was my mantra. I spent most of my days saying it. It was appropriate, considering my line of work.
I reached yet another ectoplasm hole and threw myself through. I moved so quickly, I could feel the tingles of the magic breaking around my back and face like a fracturing shield.
I didn’t duck down to my knees fast enough this time. A rush of air met me. It smashed into my chest, picked me up, and slammed me back down, but before I could be winded, I rolled to take the force of the move. All of those black belts came to the fore.
The guy I’d acquired those skills from had been a true expert. He’d been knocked down only to bounce back more times than I’d had hot dinners.
The ectoplasm from the ghost’s lucky attack latched hold of my chest and pushed me down as hard as it could as if it was a bully cramming my face into the dirt. But I still managed to kick my legs over my head and rise.
With a grunt, I shoved forward.
The ghost was right there, just in front of me.
The clothing store was packed with various mannequins modeling expensive menswear. I paid no attention whatsoever to them – that was until the ghost attacked one mannequin right by my side. A blast of blisteringly hot ectoplasm slammed into the plastic figure, burning it on the spot. As it erupted into flames, I was treated to the sight of the figure’s plastic face melting right off and pooling in bubbling hisses by my feet. I couldn’t help but think that it was a promise that was going to happen to me in a few seconds if I wasn’t lucky.
So it was time to get lucky.
If I let this ghost trash the store, I would end up getting a lot less money for this hit.
The ghost twisted. It reached the counter. It was this long wooden affair.
Being a fancy menswear store, this place was outfitted like it was the Ritz Hotel. Everything looked expensive. The counter especially seemed to be one-of-a-kind. I wasn’t a wood expert or anything – though who knows, in the future, depending on who I failed to protect, maybe I would become one. But whatever that bench was, it looked as if it was the most expensive thing in here. That was until the ghost reached it. He rose over the top then ran across it. The wood started to blister then erupt into flame.
The last thing I wanted was a full-on fire.
I pushed to the side once more. I reached a mannequin. It was just as the ghost twisted and shot a blast of ectoplasm my way. I picked up the mannequin and pushed it between me and the blast, using it like a shield. The ghost’s blast struck the back of the mannequin, ripped the suit right off it, then started to blister the plastic. I threw it to the side quickly then rolled. I planted my hands on the floor, flipped, and came up fast. Then I shoved all the way forward.
The ghost was right there.
I watched its eyes as they widened.
There was clearly something about this counter that had been important to it while the guy had still been alive. Sure enough, I could see it headed toward the till.
Maybe the ghost was going to try breaking and entering one last time, or, more likely, it was remembering the day it had been fired for trying to steal from the till.
When ghosts were engaged in powerful emotional experiences that aligned with their past life, they tended to be far less aware of the real world.
Which meant they couldn’t track me as well.
I shoved a hand into my holster. I pulled out a long dagger. Carved along the side were symbols. They didn’t glow. They weren’t fancy. There were no gems encrusted in them. This weapon was simply a combat knife which I’d lovingly and painstakingly changed the handle of. Now it was made out of old oak. Not only was it pretty, but it had a ceremonial purpose. As for the symbols, the second person I’d failed to protect had helped me carve those.
They were wards.
When shoved into a ghost or a spectral phenomenon, they disrupted the creature’s energy. A swift attack would do the rest, and before you could say howdy-do, the ghost would be exorcised from this plane for good.
I leaped right over the burning counter. As I said before, I didn’t have magic. I was certainly not fireproof. But I moved damn quickly. I was also wearing fingerless gloves. The leather protected my palms, and my fingers barely touched the flame – certainly not long enough to be burnt.
I landed behind the ghost.
I thought it would be completely invested in the till, its long, wispy fingers moving desperately as it counted the cash, but it soon twisted its head to the side and screamed right in my face. A blast of spectral energy shot into me. It almost drove me back, but I called on my training. Sorry, not my training. It was the training of someone who’s skills I’d absorbed. I planted my feet down. I leaned into the attack. I gave it everything I could.
I shoved forward. I kneed the ghost right in the gut. It was a visceral move. Despite the fact the guy was technically dead and any apparent solidity was nothing more than a trick of magic, I still heard the satisfying crunch of bone. I followed up by punching it on the side of its jaw. Then and only then did I crunch forward. I sliced the dagger right through the middle of its chest.
This was a decisive blow, but it wasn’t a deadly one.
As I held the dagger, I twisted it to the side. I revealed the writing. The ghost jerked its head down, and its eyes grew wide as it stared at it.
It shook its head. It screamed.
“I’m sorry. You don’t belong here. Ghosts with grudges must go.” That was a cheesy line I repeated sometimes. Said at the right moment, it distracted me from the horror of actually exorcising spectral phenomena.
Though it wasn’t like killing a real human – not that I would know what that felt like – it was still a fundamentally violent act.
I yanked the knife out of the ghost then twisted it to the side.
The ghost pushed its own hands up, ready to grab my throat and end this, but I was faster – just a fraction frigging faster.
I was also more motivated.
Here’s the thing. When it comes to spectral phenomena – or any magical phenomena, to be fair – motivation is everything.
The ghosts with the true grudges were the hardest to kill. Those were the ghosts who’d been killed themselves, or maybe they’d been tortured their whole lives, or maybe the circumstances of their deaths had been so unjust that they simply hadn’t been able to let it go. Whenever I encountered one of those ghosts, it would be a run for my money.
But this ghost was easy. Because its grudge was nothing, absolutely goddamn nothing compared to mine.
I screamed, spittle flying from my lips as I twisted the knife around. I sliced it to the side, the blade whistling through the air.
The ghost jolted forward, maybe trying to latch onto my throat one last time, maybe trying to bring its face close to scream right in mine. But it didn’t get the chance. The dagger sliced it across the top of the chest.
It was finally an incapacitating blow.
The ghost’s eyes widened. It slowly tilted its head down. It stared at its chest and let out a mournful cry. Black smoke started to pick up from the wound. It whipped this way and that as if it were being blown by a nonexistent wind.
Now the deed was done, I stepped back. I stared at the ghost then up at the ceiling. I didn’t even glance at the fire beside me. The fire suppression system had kicked into gear, and it was raining water down over the stock and the floor.
As I got drenched, I just stared at the ghost in its final few moments. The nastiness of its form – the brutal extension of its limbs and the deadly look in its bright, piercing eyes – all of that started to drift away. For a few seconds, I saw the guy as he used to be. Just a gawky, lanky kid in his late teens. An idiot who’d gotten trapped in the wrong world.
He stared at me morosely.
This ghost might have just given me a run for my money and might’ve just tried to kill me, but that didn’t stop me from grabbing what remained of his shoulder and pulling him close. I pressed my head up against his. In his last moments, I stared right into his eyes. “Your grudge is spent.” As those words slipped from my lips, I closed my eyes just as the ghost disappeared.
The ghost’s grudge might be spent, but mine sure as hell wasn’t. I would hold on to it until the day it was paid.
When it was over and the ghost had finally disappeared, I opened my eyes, sighed, and wiped a hand down my face. It dislodged rivulets of water.
I frowned at the store. The fire was finally out, but it was going to be a costly exercise to bring this place back from the dead, if you could pardon the pun.
My phone had been ringing off the hook – if that was something you could say about a mobile.
Wincing and knowing that it was the guy who owned this place, I finally crammed a hand into my pocket and pulled it out. “It’s done,” I said before the guy could ask me what was happening. “I finally dispatched it.”
“What the hell have you done to my store? I’m standing out back—”
I wasn’t about to let him launch into a diatribe. “It’s done,” I repeated. “I’ve dealt with the dark ghost that has been haunting you. The same ghost that’s been keeping customers away from this very store, and the same ghost who’s tried to kill you twice,” I really hammered that message home.
The guy was cut short. “Fine. I’m coming in. Don’t touch anything,” he added.
I chuckled, hung up, crammed my phone back in my wet pocket, and stared around me. Why would I want to touch anything? What in this store could possibly hold any interest for someone like me?
I might have just thought that, but my gaze sliced over to a particular expensive suit, and I couldn’t help but think of the time when I’d gone into debt to buy one just like it.
No, I wasn’t talking about me. I was referring to the banker I’d absorbed. He’d frequently shopped at this place. He’d also frequently spent far more money than he’d had.
I managed to shake that thought out of my head just as the contractor ground to a stop in front of me. “What the hell happened?” he said breathlessly, his eyes wide as he took in the destruction.
I shrugged. “The ghost was hell-bent on doing as much damage to this place as it possibly could. It was also after you. I told you not to stand near the store. I told you that you should stay in your car. But you didn’t, did you?” I growled.
The guy looked pale. He finally put two and two together as he stared around. He clearly appreciated that all of this damage could’ve been done to him and not to his precious property. He gulped. He looked me up and down. “I guess I can deduct the money for the damage from your pay.”
I chucked my head back and chuckled. “Nice try. I went through hell – literally – to dispatch that ghost. You will pay what we agreed upon.”
He looked riled.
Before he could insist again, I took a step up to him. Shoving my hands deep into my pockets, I inclined my head back. I stared up at the ceiling then across at the shop window, then over to the counter, then up to him. “That ghost came within a whisker of killing you multiple times. It’s gone. Your business is safe now. Now, it’s time for my payment.”
The guy looked twitchy, but he finally shoved a hand into his pocket. He pulled out his wallet.
I watched the entire time as he counted out a thousand dollars. He handed it over, but he didn’t look pleased about it.
I held the cash but didn’t pocket it immediately. “If you’re so angry, then we can cut ties. Next time you find a ghost trying to kill you, you can call some other exorcist in the city.”
His eyes opened wider. “There’s another exorcist?”
I looked at him and shifted forward. It was a practiced move. One of the people I’d absorbed had been a police officer – one of the best. So the knowledge of how to intimidate someone was in my bones. I looked at his feet then up at his face. “No. There’s no other exorcist in town. There are a couple of fake ones who work for the church and one or two people who call themselves shamans. But no one like me. But like I said, if you want to cut ties with me—” I stopped and shoved the money into my pocket.
He shook his head, obviously thinking better of it. As he gulped, I could tell that he was remembering every single time that ghost had tried to kill him.
It was finally over. With a few more muttered words, I walked away.
I reached the hole in the wall the ghost had created and shoved through.
The guy spluttered, but I couldn’t hear anything else.
It was raining again once I hit the street. I pulled my hood over my head and walked away.
Another day’s job was done.
It was another rung up the ladder. Another step closer to the grudge in my heart.
“So where was the body found?” I pushed my hands into my pockets, walked up the rise, and turned toward the police tape flickering in the wind.
A parade of onlookers stood behind it. There was nothing to gawk at. The body had already been removed.
It’d been found in the wee hours of the morning. Some early, gung-ho dog walker had spied it, all mangled, all torn, all twisted and broken.
The officer waiting beside me pushed in close. She rubbed her hands together, trying to chase some warmth into them. But it was a chilly, unrelenting morning. She nodded to the side.
Just over another rise, I could see an officer guarding a particular section of grass. I caught the outline of where the forensic team had marked the location of the body.
I nodded. It was an empty move.
Three murders in three weeks. I hadn’t wanted to think about that cold fact before. I hadn’t wanted to believe that there could be a pattern, but now it was staring me right in the face.
Two words kept chasing themselves around my head – two words that I didn’t want to say.
My phone rang. I pulled it out of my pocket. “Yeah, Chief,” I began, without even waiting for her to launch into her questions. “I’m here.”
“You tell me the second we get any information on this case. I don’t want to have to front the media without knowing exactly what we’re dealing with.” She, just like me, didn’t want to broach those two little words. But without saying them, they were still practically echoing through her every word.
It’d been a while since we’d had one. Hell, it’d been a while since we’d had any brutal murders, whether they’d been linked together by the same killer or not.
Now things had changed.
That was the nature of crime.
The officer beside me, Whitting, took me over to the place where the body had been lying.
As my eyes jerked back and forth, they spied the blood on the grass.
I was no forensics expert, but even without reading the report, I could tell that the body had not been killed here. I’d already seen a photo of the corpse. Injuries like that did not merely leave a few scant splatters of blood in the grass. They led to a scene that looked as if someone had dropped buckets of red paint everywhere.
“Any leads at all? Have we already checked nearby cars for dashcam footage? Have we found anything? Anything on CCTV?”
“We’re still looking into it. When the chief fronts the media today, she’ll ask for any witnesses to come forward.”
I swore under my breath. I locked a hand on my mouth and pressed my fingers in hard. Then I let my gaze trace back to the crowd. I could never really understand people who stood around gawking at murders.
Was it the chance to dice with death? Was it because they watched too many true-crime TV shows and thought they were somehow experts, just like us?
You weren’t an expert until you had the responsibility on your shoulders to end violent crime. They could just stand there and look on. Me, I desperately had to figure out who had done this and pull them off the streets before there was another mangled body in the park.
Shoving my hands harder into my pockets, I walked around the perimeter of the police tape, never getting too close in case I disrupted evidence that hadn’t been found yet.
If I thought I could somehow think my way into figuring out who the killer was, just by circumnavigating the crime scene, I was fresh out of luck. But this was a habit of mine.
“You found the killer yet? You look like a shaman when you’re doing that. So are your magical powers working, Jerome?”
I frowned, chuckled, and looked over my shoulder to see Daniel Appleby, Detective Supreme, heading toward me. He too had his hands crammed in his pockets. His old but still strong frame was crunched forward, a thick woolen jacket pulled up high, the collar stark against his aged neck.
He came over to me. He glanced at the grass briefly then watched me expectantly. He clearly wanted an answer.
What answer could I give? “I haven’t got the killer yet. But I’m working on it.”
“We all are. Brutal,” Dan said. He shivered as he spoke.
Dan had been working for 45 years. He’d seen a lot in that long time. While I had never come across a serial killer, he had. And there was one about 15 years ago that had been particularly bad. The stuff of legends.
They called him The Torturer. They’d never found him. The prevailing theory was that he’d died or moved on to another city.
I watched Dan as his eyes darted this way and that. He picked up the same details I had. Then he slowed his gaze right down before letting it tick toward me. “Three in a row. You know what that means, right, don’t you?”
While the chief was happy to dart around the topic, Dan wasn’t. Reaching up, I locked a hand on my head then let it slowly drop down the back of my skull. “Yeah, I do. It means a pattern.”
“It means a serial killer,” he said quietly, not that the crowd behind would be able to hear. They were still cordoned off behind flickering police tape and watchful officers.
Locking my tongue against the top of my mouth, I ground my teeth back and forth. “What do you think we’re dealing with?”
“Judging by the photos, someone who knows how to use a knife. They also don’t have a gram of human compassion left in their twisted soul anywhere. So there will be another murder. We’ve gotta find our psychopath before they strike again.”
His words were cold and to the point. I found myself shivering. It wasn’t just the fact that I now had the impossible task of tracking down a serial killer in a week. The word psychopath rang through my skull.
That’s what The Torturer had been. But he’d been a psychopath extraordinaire. Nobody – anywhere in the country – had ever seen a serial killer like him. He’d trapped people – mostly women, but the occasional man too. They’d been from all walks of life. He’d taken them for a week, tortured them, then finally killed them and dumped their bodies.
But he hadn’t just dumped their bodies like an ordinary serial killer would. He hadn’t shoved them in an easy-to-find park somewhere.
He’d… God, how to put this? Created installations with them.
It was just as creepy as it sounded. One guy had been a banker. Rather than just dump him back in his fancy car, the killer had dumped him in a car park right outside the main financial sector. And he’d surrounded him with half-burnt piles of cash.
The police at the time had been incapable of finding the corpse before the media had. The photos had been sensational.
Locking my fingers together, I pushed my thumbs hard into my ocular ridges. “Got any tips?”
“Work as fast as you goddamn can. That’s my tip.”
“Any other tips?” I pressed.
“Go surreptitiously check the crowd.”
“If this really is a serial killer, then they dumped their victim somewhere public for a reason. They want to create a scene. And they’re gonna want to see it. So go check the crowd. I’ll wait here. Make it look like you’re making an important phone call.”
I nodded. I’d heard that too. For criminals who wanted attention – like arsonists – they tended to come back to the scene of the crime. They wanted to see all those flashing lights, all the emergency services, all the palpable shock. They wanted to soak up all of that attention. Because it was about them ultimately and not their victims.
I grabbed my phone out. I locked it against my ear and headed toward the crowd.
The officers guarding the tape didn’t look at me once. One of them grabbed the tape so I could inch under it.
I shoved through.
I muttered some nonsense over the phone, but nothing that had anything to do with the case. The whole while, I scanned the crowd.
There were the usual people you’d expect – the kind of crowd you’d get in a park. There were lycra-clad cyclists and sweaty runners. There were people entangled in dog leashes as their excited pooches locked on the heady scents of death.
There were a few figures, however, who stuck out like sore thumbs.
There was an older man. He had a pair of binoculars slung around his neck. There was also an old yellow notepad in his hand. Ostensibly, he looked like a birdwatcher. But he was far too engaged in staring over at the crime scene.
There was a guy, fit and in his 40s maybe. While he didn’t look like he belonged here, maybe he’d just been taking a shortcut to work through the park only to be waylaid by all the chaos.
Then there was a woman. She stood right at the back of the crowd. She wasn’t looking at the crime scene. She stared out toward a set of trees to the left.
The first thing I was drawn to was her gaze. It was sharp. She looked like someone who knew how to look so she could see. That might sound like a crazy statement, but bear with me. Most people just let their gaze dart over things like a Richter scale. They sought out the most interesting details without taking the picture in as a whole. I could just tell by the way she was looking that she knew exactly what she should be trying to find.
She had a strong stance, too. She wore mostly black. Black heels, black jeans, and a black jacket.
The jacket was worn. The ends were a little singed, too. It was that detail that made me pay sharp attention.
I pushed closer toward her.
I wasn’t that close yet, and there were still some people between me and her, yet she stiffened. She must have had good senses to know that I was approaching her.
And I balked.
I suddenly recognized her.
“Jesus,” I muttered, the word sliding out of my stiff, white lips. “Lily Parkinson.”
She looked right at me, her big brown eyes suddenly widening. Then they narrowed. “Do I know you?”
I was surprised. We’d gone to school together. She should know me. Everyone had known me at school. Though I now understood that school was a pretty irrelevant steppingstone to adulthood, I couldn’t deny that I’d been one of the most popular students. I’d been good at sports and great academically. And… dare I say this, I’d been popular with almost every female student.
She just stared at me as if she honest to God couldn’t remember me.
That’s when I realized she was different from the Lily I remembered.
The Lily from high school was… I don’t want to say infamous, but she’d had issues. Let’s put it that way. She’d been scared. Pretty much of everything. Back at school, I’d actually found that funny. I cringed at that memory now. Becoming an adult – and critically working for the police – had forced a knife into my heart and carved out compassion where once all I’d had was arrogance.
People aren’t born into fear. Usually they’re beaten into it.
Not once in high school had I ever paused to question why she’d been the way she was.
Now it didn’t matter, because it was like I was staring at a different person. I shook my head. “We went to school together. Do you remember me? Jerome Smith.”
My name obviously rang a bell. She shoved her hands into her pockets and shrugged. “Oh.”
Her reaction was a non-event. Occasionally I ran into people from school. They were always keen to catch up. Lily was….
She glanced back toward the crime scene. “You a cop?”
I’d approached her from behind. You wouldn’t think she would’ve seen me coming from the crime scene.
She had to be quick, and she had to be a strong student of psychology, because she could obviously figure out what I was thinking. She nodded down at my pocket.
I stared down at it. There was an oblong shape visible, but that’s it.
“I can see your name tag.”
I nodded, muddling through a frown. “Yeah, I’m a cop. What… do you do these days?” This was not the right time to catch up with someone from school. Especially someone who clearly couldn’t remember me. But I’d thought of Lily over the years. Not because we’d had anything together in school. Just because… she’d always been such an enigma.
She’d remained alone, no matter what. And as I’d already said, she’d been scared of everything – from dogs, to the dark, to closed spaces.
All those memories came flooding back in now.
I remembered the way she’d looked back then, and I searched for that fragility now, but the only thing that stared back was someone who just couldn’t give a crap.
She nodded at me. “Looks like some guy’s looking for you.” She pointed over my shoulder.
I turned around to see Dan.
He was standing off beside the crowd, frowning over at me, a strange look in his eyes.
I nodded and patted the back of my head. I didn’t really know why I was doing that. It was something I only did when I was nervous or overwhelmed.
Maybe I was both.
If you’d asked me, I would’ve said that someone like Lily couldn’t transform. If I’d really thought hard about it, I would’ve assumed that her life would have gone downhill from high school. Maybe she would’ve wound up in an institution. Maybe she would have ended up in the river, not that I wanted to sound brutal.
“You look good,” I said, and I honestly meant it.
She just stared at me. “See you around, Jerome.” With that, she turned and headed off, not along the track, but out toward the trees.
“What are you doing?” I called after her.
“I have no intention of messing up your crime scene. I’m looking for a lost dog.”
She didn’t give me the chance to respond to that. And hell, I didn’t even know what to say, anyway.
She just walked off confidently along the grass and disappeared into the trees. She moved… I couldn’t really put my finger on it. No, I could. She moved like somebody who was highly trained. She had this looseness about her body. Her shoulders were held perfectly evenly, her arms swaying but ready by her sides.
And the look in her eyes….
Dan reached me and cleared his throat. “Damn,” he said in a tone I couldn’t place.
I turned to him quickly. “I went to school with her,” I blurted way too fast.
He didn’t look at me. “Long time since I saw her.”
I really couldn’t place the look in his eyes now. Was it… fragile?
I frowned hard. “What do you mean?” A little alarm spiked through my voice, but not much. I really doubted Lily could be a criminal. If she’d had a history with Dan, he wouldn’t have approached so slowly. He would’ve pulled her to the side and questioned why she was hanging around a crime scene.
No… the look in his eyes was haunted, wasn’t it?
My stomach kicked. “You know her?” I prompted again.
He grabbed the side of his head. He pushed his fingers in and let his hand drop. “Yeah. From an old case. Brings up old demons, let’s put it like that.”
My gut churned. “Old demons? Are you telling me she was a suspect or something?”
He shook his head as quickly as he possibly could. “No.” There was a real hard note to his voice.
“Then what was she?”
I got cold all over. Every theory I ever had about Lily was about to be confirmed, ha? “Victim of what?” I said quietly.
“The Torturer. She was the only one who ever got away.”
I stared back in the direction of Lily. Everything slipped into place. “But… nobody survived The Torturer.”
“We didn’t let the media know that anyone survived. But she did. Only one. I would’ve thought she’d left this town and gone as far away as she could. It’s good to see she’s fine.”
I turned back. I couldn’t see Lily anymore, and I wondered if I ever really had. All I’d seen in high school had been an emotional, scarred freak. Now I knew the truth, and it was hell.
What a sight.
And I don’t mean his handsome features and broad, muscular build. His family was half Samoan, half Cherokee Indian. The result was a strapping lad who looked like he could lift up the world.
I might’ve pretended not to know him, but I remembered him – as I remembered every other asshole from school.
I quickly shook off seeing him, but it was hard. It wasn’t the fact that he was a cop that was bugging me. It was the fact there’d been another brutal murder.
Murders were the worst. Murders created ghosts with true grudges, and as I told you last night, they were the hardest to kill. Sometimes they were impossible to dispatch, depending on how the victim was murdered in the first place.
I shoved my hands into my pockets harder, stared up through the canopy above me, and sighed.
I tried to shake off that meeting. It had meant nothing, after all. It was just another unwanted connection to my past.
I could still remember who I’d been back in high school. The answer was a mess.
I couldn’t really say that I was better now, but I had technically grown. It would be pretty hard not to when personalities had been added onto me like wings to an old, crumbling building.
I tried to shake it all off, but my shoulders trembled a little.
I pushed forward and got back to my task.
“Somewhere around here, there’s got to be evidence. Come on. There’s got to be somebody who saw how that body got transported there,” I muttered to myself.
I leaned down. I started rifling through the leaf litter.
I wasn’t looking for tiny people who were somehow buried in the dirt. The witnesses I cared about were far cooler than that.
I finally spied one halfway up a tree. It was this squat, strange looking creature. It was like a cross between a seriously fat rat and a house cat. As soon as I stopped under the tree, I rapped my knuckles on the trunk. I stared at it pointedly and crossed my arms. “I’m here to talk. If you run,” I patted my pocket, “I will stop you.”
The little creature’s eyes opened wide, and he snarled. “Exorcist.”
I nodded. “Yeah, exorcist. That’s me, Lily Parkinson. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
As soon as I said my name, its eyes widened even more. It shook its head. It twisted to jump away, but I just patted my pocket harder. I didn’t actually have an exorcist knife in there. That would be kinda stupid. I came to the park knowing that there would be a crime scene. And that always meant police.
So of course I wasn’t dumb enough to bring a knife. The creature didn’t know that, though.
Its claws reached the trunk, but it stopped.
It tipped its head down to me. “Don’t know nothing. Didn’t see nothing,” it said in broken English.
“Sure. Gosh, then I guess I should just let you go.”
“Yes. Busy.” It scampered down the trunk.
Now it was right in front of me, and there was nowhere for it to go.
I finally pulled my hands out of my pockets. Like I’d said before, I didn’t have a knife. But I did have my phone. I yanked it out quickly and took a photo.
As the flash subsided, the creature jerked its head this way and that. It closed its eyes and hissed. “What was that for?”
“Evidence. If I find out that you did see something and you’re lying to me, I’m going to track you down.” I leaned forward and locked my hands on my knees. “I’m awfully good at tracking spectral phenomenon like you. That’s all I do every day.” The threat just rolled off my lips like somebody throwing a knife on a table.
The creature jerked its head back. Its trembling body struck the trunk. “Didn’t see anything. Didn’t see anything.”
I inclined my head back in the direction of the crime scene. Fortunately I’d walked far. I couldn’t hear the crowd, and there were no officers walking toward me. There wasn’t a single witness around.
Even if there had been, they would just think I was mad. Spectral phenomena rarely occupied the same realm as humans. Though it’s probably better to say that humans rarely occupied the same spectral realm as them.
It became tricky when it was time to explain the physics of ghosts and all other spiritual forms. Humans lived in a narrow world, and they had narrow imaginations. It meant they couldn’t always see what was there. Ghosts and true shamans and exorcists like me, on the other hand, could. We saw what was right in front of us at every point, at every moment. We couldn’t hide from reality, no matter how hard we tried.
The creature shuddered back again. It shook its head, but I leaned in, grabbed it, and squished my fingers right up against its fat cheeks. Saliva slicked along my thumb. I stared at it without blinking once. “How about you tell me the truth? No more games. I don’t have time to waste. There’s a killer out there,” I hissed. “I gotta catch them. If anyone gets in my way—” I left that as an open statement. I didn’t need to list what I’d do to this creature if it was dumb enough to get in my way. It could just wait around and find out.
It shuddered, its eyes opening wider. “Body dumped four hours ago. Early hours of morning.”
“There we go.” I straightened up, but I remained close. “Did you see who dumped it?”
My brow descended so fast, it felt like a whip. “What do you mean a ghost?”
“Not human. Spectral phenomenon. Creature who has been brought back—”
“I don’t need you to explain what a ghost is. I need you to explain how the hell a ghost could drop a body. It would have to be a ghost with one heck of a grudge. Or it would have to be one who’s working with a human. I saw that crime scene. I smelt the blood. That was a human killed by another human, not a ghost. So what’s going on?”
The little creature shrugged, its tiny shoulders making its fat back ripple like a stone thrown in water. “Telling you that’s what I saw.”
Its English was becoming even more broken, confirming the fact that it was likely telling the truth. It wouldn’t become this agitated if it were confident that it could get away with a lie.
I stepped back and closed my eyes. I hissed through my teeth. This was not what I’d wanted to hear. This morning when I’d gotten home and grabbed up the paper, I’d known something was wrong. I’d felt it in my bones. So I’d hopped online, and sure enough, the amateur sleuth chat rooms I frequented had been erupting about reports of a murder.
I didn’t like it when I was right. I preferred to be wrong. Because when I was wrong, I could just laze about on the couch. When I was right, I had to go out and bust a gut to save people. And if there was one thing my life had confirmed, it was that not everyone could be saved.
I ground a hand into a fist. It was tight and strong. And the only reason it was tight and strong was that I’d never managed to save an ex-police officer, and his strength was now mine.
The shame of that moment suddenly came back – the guilt, the everything. I leaned in again, my expression even darker. “You’re not shitting me, are you? An actual ghost delivered that corpse. So tell me what it looked like.”
“Big. Old. Ghost of maybe 50 years.”
The creature wasn’t holding back now. It could clearly see that I was getting more agitated, and if I snapped, I’d be a risk to it. That being said, I honestly wouldn’t exorcise the little guy. Not without a reason. I didn’t go around dealing with every single spectral phenomenon I came across. That would be a waste of my damn time. And money.
I used to be one of those good girls who thought that life was only worth living if you lived it charitably. You shouldn’t ask for anything. You should just give.
But then I’d grown the hell up.
My business was an expensive one. The gear I had to procure to continue my exorcisms cost money. So I needed money.
And this little creature was worthless – no one had a hit out on its head. I still leaned forward. I didn’t grab it up again, but the look in my eyes told it I could lock onto it at any second. Just as I could boot it right through the trees into Hell.
“Seen the ghost before,” the creature said, spluttering now.
My cheeks twitched. Now I was on to something. “What do you mean you’ve seen it?”
“Comes from the train yard. Lives in one of the carriages. Ghost of worker who was murdered there. Big grudge.”
I nodded. I still clenched my hands into tight fists. I drummed my knuckles against my pants. I hadn’t changed my clothes last night, as I hadn’t bothered to sleep.
As I rapped my knuckles hard against my jeans, my fingernails snagged the slightly burned edges of my jacket. I stared down at it. It reminded me of Jerome. He might’ve thought that he’d been staring at me surreptitiously before, but he hadn’t been. I’d seen every single detail his eyes had locked on.
It’d been damn clear that he’d been canvassing the crowd for anybody who could’ve murdered that woman. He’d never thought he’d come across me, though.
“This case is important, isn’t it?” the creature said, speaking quickly now, its fat, bulbous tongue shooting out of its slippery lips. “Me help you. You reward me.”
I locked my hands on my hips. I arched an eyebrow. “How about I try not killing you?” I snarled.
It jammed its tiny clawed-hands up. It had little T-Rex arms. It couldn’t reach them far, but it still pushed them as high as it possibly could. “That my reward. Me happy with that reward. Good reward.”
I just chuckled. I crossed my arms. I tried to think this through.
For a human to have a functioning relationship with a ghost – one whereby they could tame the ghost into dumping dead bodies for them… it meant that I was dealing with a seriously powerful practitioner.
As I’d already told you before, ordinary humans couldn’t see ghosts. Even extraordinary humans shouldn’t be able to contact them – unless the ghost desperately wanted something from them.
The only thing a ghost ever wanted was either for their grudge to be fulfilled or more power.
I snarled and swore harshly.
“Me help you,” the creature spat excitedly. “Me tell you exactly where ghost is. You go now. Exorcise him.”
I narrowed my eyes again. “You seem a little too keen about me exorcising this ghost. You got a grudge against him?” I crossed my arms. I said the word grudge very specifically. It just rolled off my tongue like far-off thunder. This was my job, after all. Ever since high school… ever since my life changed irrevocably, dealing with grudges was all I’d ever done.
“Me take you there. Me show you exactly where ghost is.”
I looked at the little guy. He was speaking too quickly. His fear was also starting to ebb. It was clear he didn’t trust me. As a frigging exorcist, it would be like a human cracking up a relationship with the hangman at their prison.
The only reason this little guy would be getting more confident around me was that he would think he was about to get rid of me.
Knowing this, I still shrugged. “Really? You’re gonna take me right there? Right to the correct ghost? You’d do that, just for me?”
If the creature were capable of sensing irony, right now it would be shaking in its socks – not that it was wearing any. It just grinned. It was a particularly disgusting affair. It was very slobbery, for one. For another, it focused all my attention on its jagged, sharp teeth. I thought I could see a few slicks of blood here and there. Though I wanted to believe it was just animal blood, it could very well be human.
While creatures like this very rarely actually murdered people, they didn’t mind taking a snack on them. Especially when drunk. Those stupid enough to stagger through this park late at night would likely come face-to-face and skin-to-teeth with this critter.
I kept an eye on the crimes in this city – as I already said. I frequented the right chat boards. Citizen police and overly involved grandparents with nothing to do but watch the streets were a font of useful information.
I was aware of the fact that in the past month, countless drunk people had ended up in the hospital with lacerations after walking through this park. The prevailing theory was that there was some kind of crazy dog living close by.
I think I had my crazy dog.
I crossed my arms tighter. Then I nodded. “Take me to the train yard. Chip chop, though – I don’t have time,” I said, my tone neutral.
The creature smiled. I watched the flash of blood between its teeth again. It glistened, looking fresh. If you asked me, it meant it had fed recently. Maybe even as recently as last night.
Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone here. No one was paying me to get rid of this guy, but at the same time, I wasn’t gonna let a spectral phenomenon hang around and attack humans.
The creature hopped to the side, moving like a cross between a marsupial and a slinky cat. It was a hard sight to wrap my head around.
It shifted forward several bounds and turned its head over its bulbous shoulder. It whipped its tongue over its teeth. “Come. No time. Ghost busy.”
“I’m sure it is.” I shoved my hands into my pockets again. I made the mistake of staring back in the direction of the crime scene. And it wasn’t the dead woman that bothered me. It was Jerome.
… A cop, ha? Made sense. It was gonna be that, or he was gonna go into the military. With a body like that, he was never going to waste it. But he wasn’t a shoo-in for sports, either. He was too academic. His real area of expertise was his mind. Maybe that hadn’t changed over the years, but one thing had.
Jerome Smith never had compassion back in school. He’d just been another of my tormentors, not that he would have realized that. He was the same jock I spoke of earlier – the one that had called my hair tarnished. At the time, he’d been commenting on my character, ha? It was a holier-than-thou serve from one of the most popular kids at the school to me, the kid right at the bottom.
Well, screw him.
He might be a cop. He might’ve made his way up to be a detective, even. But he didn’t keep this town safe. I did.
And I had been doing it for 15 damn years. I’d keep doing it, too, until my grudge was spent. Until my debt was paid.
It didn’t take long until things started to wrap up at the crime scene. For now, at least. It would have to stay cordoned off for a while.
It would take us much longer than a few hours to find out its every secret.
Though I couldn’t shake the feeling niggling in the pit of my stomach that it’d already laid bare every secret it had. We weren’t going to find any more clues. Because we were dealing with a professional.
Grabbing the back of my head and letting my fingers slide down my skull, I closed my eyes briefly as I walked away. Dan had already left. And more than anything, he’d left a hole in my frigging head.
“The Torturer,” I muttered to myself, the words long. It was like I didn’t want to say the syllables clearly, like I wanted to drag them out so they were incomprehensible. I didn’t believe in superstitions, but The Torturer hadn’t been seen for years. What if by saying his name out loud, I’d somehow bring him back…?
“Yeah, don’t go there, you idiot. There’s more than enough to distract you with already.”
That was no lie. My thoughts automatically ticked right back to Lily.
A victim of The Torturer… I wanted to say that everything made sense now, that of course she’d been skittish as a kid. But it was a surprise she hadn’t lost it completely.
Lily had disappeared for about three weeks at one point at school. Don’t ask me how I still remembered that, but I did, and it was likely the time she’d been attacked.
I stopped suddenly, reached up, and tapped my cheek. Had Lily seemed different when she’d come back? The answer was maybe. If I’d ever paid real attention to her, it would be more than a maybe. But here was the thing: I hadn’t.
Everybody was arrogant at school, right? Schools were kind of like the ocean. They were brutal and led by the kids at the top of the food chain. Like it or loathe it, I’d known my place, and I’d milked it for what it had been worth.
But here I was, years later, hating myself for how much of a dick I’d been, angry that I hadn’t been able to see the writing on the wall when it had come to Lily and her horrendous situation.
While I’d been living it up, Lily had desperately been trying to survive.
I grabbed my face again, sinking my fingers in hard and letting them trail down from my hairline to my ear. It wasn’t like it was going to get rid of any of the tension. And said tension was winding its way happily around my gut then up to my back. It felt like somebody was industriously trying to chain me up from the inside out. It wasn’t just the murder or the inopportune mention of The Torturer. It was everything. The last two murders had been brutal, just like this one. And just like this one, the bodies had been killed somewhere else and dumped obviously.
Those were the actions of somebody who wanted to be seen.
If you had a hit out on somebody, or if you killed them out of rage or by accident, you tended to try to hide the body. If you wanted to be seen, you….
“Just don’t be a serial killer,” I muttered under my breath.
The park was strangely peaceful. You’d think after news of the murder had spread that there’d be gawkers on their way. The kind of sick puppies who wanted to take photos and share stories. There was no one about – at least in this section. It gave me time to be with my thoughts. Not, of course, that they were that helpful.
It was just when they were dragging themselves around in my mind, kicking and screaming at me for being an idiot back in high school that I swore I saw something up ahead – the flash of a slightly burnt black jacket and the quick glimpse of tarnished hair.
“Lily.” Her name slipped off my lips easily.
I stopped for a few seconds, almost like I was a bloodhound that had just locked onto a scent. Then I shoved forward. I went to open my mouth, to call her name, but she’d already ducked out of sight below a rise.
I had no reason to chase her down. But at the same time, I had no reason not to.
I pushed into a jog, reasoning that even if I didn’t catch her, at least I’d get back to the office quicker.
I’d always been fast. That came hand-in-hand with being one of the top athletes at school. If I hadn’t chosen to go into a career of law and order, I would’ve been able to get a sports scholarship easily. And for a time, it had been tempting.
Sport seemed so simple compared to the real world.
The point was, I knew how to run. I knew how to keep my body poised, how to pump every single muscle in time, and where to distribute my weight. There were few people on the Force who could beat me. As I finally came down that rise, it was to the sight of Lily already a good 50 meters away again.
Her head was tilted to the side, almost as if she was following something at her feet, but I couldn’t see what it was from this far off.
Then I snapped back to the fact that she had somehow outrun me. That or maybe I’d miscalculated how far off she’d been to begin with.
I went to open my mouth to call her name, but I thought better of it. She’d claimed not to even remember me. When I’d shared my name, as I’d already pointed out, her expression had been underwhelming. Her reaction had been of somebody who didn’t give a shit. Did I really have the right to chase her down?
Those few moments of indecision saw her turn around another corner. She was once more out of sight.
Throwing caution to the wind, I shoved into a run again. But when I made it up to the point where she’d been, she was now well and truly gone.
“Dammit,” I muttered under my breath, the words biting and sharp.
What did I want to say to her? Did I want to ask how she’d been? Or did I really want to know what it had been like to be one of The Torturer’s victims? No. I couldn’t go there. That was privileged information. And she had most definitely clearly moved on. But she’d clearly also moved on from school. I had no right to bring it up. If she didn’t want to see me, then she didn’t want to see me.
All of those thoughts were rational, but I couldn’t ignore the niggling feeling in my gut. I had no real clue what it was trying to tell me. I just… maybe all I really wanted to do was face Lily one more time and apologize for high school.
Cramming my hands back into my pockets, it wasn’t long until my phone rang. Frowning, I plucked it out.
“I need you to go and check on something in the train yard.” It was my direct superior, Melanie White.
“Don’t you want me to come straight back to the office? I’m currently in the park.”
“Precisely. It’s only a hop, skip, and a jump over to the train yard. Head there now.”
There was zero point in arguing with my boss. Heck, there was zero point in suggesting anything. When she locked on a plan, she enacted it, no questions asked.
“What exactly do you want me to check on?”
“We’ve had strange reports. Last night, a passing witness heard screams.”
I stopped and straightened up. This was clearly related to my case, after all. “What kind of screams? Who was the witness?”
My hope quickly ebbed. “Right.”
“It’s still a lead. So head there now.”
I hung up the phone in a far more focused mood than I’d been in previously.
It didn’t take long to get to my car. I pulled out from the curb, all thoughts of high school and Lily now thrust from my mind.
I reached a set of lights and closed my eyes. Briefly, the photo of that woman’s mangled body came to mind.
Her limbs had been arranged, hadn’t they? I wanted to tell myself that was just a consequence of how she’d been dumped. But what if it hadn’t been?
I started to drum my hands on the steering wheel. My fingers let out a rat-a-tat beat. It was this driving sound that accompanied me as the lights turned to green and I moved off down the left lane of traffic.
It’d been 15 damn years. Assuming the profiling had been correct and The Torturer had been already in his fifties at the height of his murders, he’d be 65 now. Presumably that would mean there would be physical limitations. He wouldn’t be as quick. He wouldn’t be as strong. He wouldn’t be able to overpower people as easily.
“Put it the hell out of your head. This isn’t the work of The Torturer.” I had to believe that with all my damn heart. Because if it was The Torturer, then there’d be no easy fix to this.
Before he’d disappeared, every single federal agency in the country had been working on the case. So many resources had been thrown at it that, theoretically, he should have been found in hours.
But it hadn’t worked.
To this day, despite the fact they had people going over that cold case frequently, no one knew anything more. All we had is the sketchy evidence the profilers had given us. Guesses, in other words. Assumptions that held no weight whatsoever.
I finally arrived at the train station.
It was cold out here. Maybe there’d been a change in the weather. Or maybe it was just the grim outlook. I’d always found the yards particularly unappealing. Maybe it was their industrial nature. Perhaps it was the fact that they were, back in the day, a common place for crime. Hell, notwithstanding violent attacks, hundreds of people had died here over the years through work-place accidents. The place had started operating in the late 1800s. Suffice to say, occupational health and safety hadn’t been a thing. Being dragged under the trains and being crushed by various machines had just been a hazard of work.
I parked in the small fenced-off car park and walked toward the little office to the left. This place was still in operation. While the trains themselves no longer took passengers, they hauled freight.
It was a good way of getting trucks off the road if you asked me. But some people wanted to get rid of them. They saw this area as prime land. They no doubt wanted to build hundreds of apartments here. It wouldn’t change the vibe. This place would still be as grim as all hell.
I reached the office and knocked on the door, my knuckles hard.
It didn’t take long for an old balding man in his fifties to answer. At first he looked confused, but I reached into my pocket and pulled out my badge.
Usually when I rocked up at some business and showed my badge, they’d react with surprise. Not this guy. “You need access to the whole yard? There are no trains running at the moment. It’ll be safe. You want me to come with you?”
“No. I’ve got this. We heard reports of screams here last night. Have you seen anything?”
The guy shrugged. “No. That doesn’t mean a lot. The trains in the new yard get loaded and unloaded pretty quickly. But the old yard is barely looked at anymore. It’s more of a graveyard than anything else.”
I couldn’t help but straighten on the term graveyard. “I’ll start there.”
The guy took me through the office.
It was small. It was just this demountable that had clearly been set down off the back of a truck with no eye to design or comfort.
It was about as homely as a chunk of concrete. The only sign that somebody actually worked here was a few old posters of trains on the wall. My gaze slid across them then flashed to a wooden board nearby. There were names and dates – hundreds of them.
The guy glanced at me. “Workers who died on the job. None recently, clearly. But there was a problem with safety back in the day.”
It was an impressively long list. If impressive was anywhere near the right word to use in the context of so much careless death.
I let my gaze flash down it, saying a silent prayer to all those poor bastards. The modern world might be a complicated, hard place to live in, but a lot of things had changed for the better.
The guy took me out of the back door.
On the way out, he grabbed a hard hat and handed it over.
I crammed it on my head.
“Yard policy,” he muttered. He walked forward, his old shoes crunching the gravel.
Twisting my head to the side, I looked across at the yard. It was cut on two different levels. The level above was clearly the old yard, and the level below was the new yard that led straight to the major tracks.
I’d been here before. This wasn’t the first time some violent crime had sent me down here. But I swore this place got grimmer and grimmer with every new visit.
My guide certainly didn’t crack a smile even once.
He went through a gate that led straight to the old graveyard. It was quite a sight. If you cared about old machines, maybe you’d like it. My father had been into trains at some point. He’d always been overly serious whenever I’d played with them as a kid.
I vaguely recognized some of the old locomotives. The rest just added to the overall vibe.
The guy suddenly stopped and pointed to the side. “You just have to stay on this level.”
“How do I get down below again?” I muttered out of interest.
“The trains take those.” He pointed over to some serious industrial lifts that looked as if they belonged in a shipbuilding yard. “They’re barely used anymore. When trains go out of service these days, they get taken straight to the scrapheap. At some point,” he jammed a thumb behind him at all of the broken, old train carcasses, “the same will happen to those. When the company gets its act together, that is. If you want to go down to the other level, the lift for people is over there. There’s a staircase that way, too.” He pointed toward it. “You can’t go down there without me, though. Now, will that be all?”
I nodded at him.
Without another word, he turned and walked off, his hands in his pockets, his head held down. That was likely because he, just like me, goddamn hated this place.
There was no time to think of that though – it was time to work.
My boss had only sent me. If she’d actually believed there was anything to this report, she would have sent a bunch of other officers, too. It was a hard ask for one man to canvas this entire area.
But it was a similarly hard ask to base an entire investigation on a known career drunk’s witness report. We didn’t have time to waste in this investigation.
I walked along the trains, going more by feel than by being logical. It was likely a mistake. I needed to be methodical, but at the same time, I got the feeling there was nothing here.
That was until I heard a voice.
At first, I told myself it was nothing. The yard commander would’ve told me if there were workers out here. As soon as I dismissed it and took another step, I heard it again. It was light and female, and for whatever reason, seemed fresh in my mind.
I walked toward it. The skin along the back of my neck started to prickle.
That’s when I heard someone letting out a slight grunt. If I was an expert, they sounded like they were in pain.
“Is anyone there?” I demanded, my voice hard.
There was a swearword. I heard it easily.
My eyes widened as I finally recognized the voice. It was the same woman I’d been thinking of all day. My lips parted. “Lily.”
10 minutes ago
I knew for a fact this was a trap. But the little critter behind me clearly thought that I was too stupid to figure that out. As we reached the train yards finally, it licked its bulbous lips, tilted its head back, and looked at me. Deep in its eyes, I could see the glitter of oncoming death. To spectral phenomena like this guy, murdering people was about as fun as seeing them being murdered by bigger prey. It was a dog-eat-dog world, after all.
Not all spectral phenomena could survive on grudges alone. Unless they consumed the power of others, they would die. And it was a hard ask to die while you were a ghost or some other phenomena. You would never be reborn. The remnants of your soul would just be broken down.
So you did what you could to continue. And yeah, that often meant being brutal and feeding on others, no questions asked.
But I just played along. “Are you going to take me right there? I don’t have a lot of time.” That at least was not a lie. There were a thousand other things I needed to investigate today. Before I’d come out here, I’d received a phone call. The message was still recorded on my mobile. It was from a woman – distressed as hell, crying down the line, and complaining about a lost son.
I had this skill. I’d developed it over the years. Some of it came down to my intuition, and some of it came down to the combined intuition of those I’d absorbed. That skill was that I just knew whenever I was dealing with a murder. I could hear it in someone’s voice whenever they complained of a missing person, even if they had no clue at the time their loved one had died. I guess it was the universe reaching out through them to tell me I had an injustice to solve and a ghost to find.
My point was I’d heard that same force coming through that desperate woman’s message. She didn’t know it yet, but her dear son was most definitely dead. I would track down both his murderer and his ghost – once I was done here.
While I took all of my work seriously, when it came to murders, I pulled out every single stop to solve the case, find the ghost, and send them back to where they belonged. Murders were personal, see.
With my hands in the pockets of my jacket, I followed the little critter down the side of the train yard. We soon reached a massive fence. “Just up here,” it said as it danced from foot to foot. Then it shot right through the fence. It paid no attention whatsoever to the wire. It just pushed on through as if it were nothing more than a flaming bowling ball.
I arched an eyebrow. I shot forward and started to climb the fence competently. My balance was perfect, my movements quick. There was prison wire up the top – you know that curled barbed wire that’s meant to stop people from climbing over it? I maneuvered around it easily, flipped, then jumped down on the other side of the fence. I landed and pushed into a roll to absorb the force of the move. As soon as I rose to my feet, I patted myself off then glanced at the creature once more. “Lead the way.”
It actually chuckled to itself. I mean, come on. Didn’t it know that I was right here and I had a functioning set of ears and eyes? The glitter in its deathly gaze was now so intense, it was like it was leading me to a gladiatorial battle.
Not for the first time, I checked my pocket.
I wasn’t dumb enough to have a knife – I’d already pointed that out. That didn’t mean I’d come completely weaponless. I had a pen. And before you think that the pen is mightier than the sword, it frigging isn’t. You take a pen to a knife fight, and you lose. This was no ordinary pen. The base could be unscrewed, and within was a small blade. It wasn’t ideal, but critically, it had wards carved across it, which meant that it could be used as an exorcism tool in a pinch.
“You’ll get all the information you need. Just in a few more seconds. Then it’ll all be over,” the creature said in its broken syntax. It shoved its bulbous tongue out and licked it quickly over its lips.
I almost had to say something. I mean, really? Here I was, like a little lamb walking in front of the lion, but just how stupid could the critter possibly think I was? Did I have idiot written over the top of my head?
I’d already shared my name with it, so it understood my reputation. But maybe my reputation wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it was anymore. Perhaps it had really slipped, and word had gotten around the spectral phenomena community, claiming that I was a doofus who would follow even the dumbest critter to certain death.
The train yard was… a train yard. What more did you want me to say? Grim.
Considering all of the old train carcasses, some on their sides, and some of them looking as if they were fresh out of a goddamn brutal accident, it wasn’t exactly the kind of place you would take someone for a picnic.
There were puddles of rust everywhere, too. I tried to avoid them. It was hard, though. There’d been heavy rains of late. As I walked past a particularly large puddle, I saw a reflection of myself. It was only a slice of the top of my body. But I saw my face. My expression was resigned but controlled.
I’d done this hundreds of times before, after all. Or was it thousands? It was hard to keep track.
My life tended to meld together. Every exorcism would be like the next. There were only certain moments that stood out.
As a chill wind raced along through the open carriages, I shuddered.
Whenever I couldn’t save a victim from him – the damn bastard who’d tried to kill me as a teenager - I recalled everything.
Every detail, every scream, every second that had made me too late.
As we walked, I opened my hand surreptitiously and stared at it. There were a few scars along the back of my thumb. I’d gotten them back then, back during my week of hell. Sometimes if I was stupid enough to close my eyes, I could conjure up the perfect memory of it. The smells, the sensations, the sounds. To this day, I could re-create them all so perfectly. The exact size of my drab, moldy room, every scratch on the concrete walls, every stain on the ceiling.
“Just this way, just this way,” the critter said, its cheery but still brutal voice cutting through my reverie.
It forced me to open my eyes slowly.
I glanced down at it. When this was done and I’d dealt with the ghost it was taking me to, I’d deal with it, too. That would be one less spectral phenomenon out there to hunt humans.
One day, if I was lucky, and I kept working my way up from the bottom to the top, I’d even reach him, my tormentor. I’d finally meet him once more, and this time, I’d win.
Grinding a hand into a fist, I followed the critter right to the edge of the yards.
It was cut in two sections. The old yard was up here, and the new shiny yard was down below.
I didn’t know why this old graveyard existed. It was the perfect place for crime. Squatters and druggies would cut through the fence to get here, no matter how much security they put up. As for ghosts? Yeah, I shouldn’t have to point out the obvious.
Not only had a lot of people died in these carriages over the years, but it was just the kind of grim vibe ghosts lived for.
“Here we go,” the creature said. Its tongue now moved so freaking fast, it was like a whip carving its words out of the air.
I slowly pulled a hand out of my pocket. I swiveled my finger forward and pointed at the train. “You mean this one right here?” There were two carriages right in front of me. The door to one of them was closed. The door to the other was open ever so slightly. I used my good eyesight to notice that the door was dented. The indents appeared to come from fingers. The kind of strong fingers that could bend metal like a knife slicing through butter.
The critter jumped from one foot to another. “Just in there. I’ll stick around. In case you need a guide afterward.”
I nodded at it. Guide, ha? Critters like that didn’t care what meat they ate. Living, dead – it was all the same to them. It was clear that this guy fully intended to feast on my corpse. The ghost would kill me, and the critter would finish off the evidence like a pig to a carcass.
I shook my head. I hid it, though. I forced a smile onto my lips. It was hard to tell if that’s what this creature expected. It had clearly concluded that I was a complete idiot. So was I meant to smile? Clap even? Heck, was I meant to give it a gold star for all its help?
Instead I shoved a hand into my pocket and started playing with my pen. I quickly unscrewed the cap with nothing more than an agile twist of my thumb.
I grabbed the door, letting my fingers slide into the indents. Then I yanked it back in a powerful move.
The carriage was exactly what you would expect from a train carcass that had been left out in the rain for years. Not only was there rust everywhere, climbing over the roof and walls and floor like pernicious mold, but there were old rags, half a mattress, and a suspicious pile of something over in the corner. Oh yeah, there was also an ethereal being.
The ghost had its back to me. Once upon a time, before death, the guy had clearly possessed the body of a large man with broad shoulders, a strong back, and big arms. It was the kind of body that was at home with hard physical labor.
But that’s not all I noticed. This ghost was strong. Not only was it covered in an ethereal light that suggested that it ate frequently, but it had a solid form. Not entirely solid like my own body, but a form that suggested that it had inherent force. The longer a ghost went without fulfilling its grudge or feeding, the more insubstantial it became. As soon as it got to the truly wispy stage, while it would be able to travel through matter with ease, it would be much, much harder for it to actually interact with things.
I pushed a breath through my teeth and finally pulled my pen out of my pocket. I twisted it in my fingers. “I heard you dumped that body in the park today. How about you turn around and face me.”
Outside, the critter jumped from foot to foot and practically screamed with glee. “Trap, fool. Going to die now, aren’t you?” It had managed full sentences before. Now it was dropping back into broken English. Apparently it was too excited to even string together words right now.
I just sighed.
The ghost was taking its damn time to turn. It was obviously quite a dramatic old soul. It finally twisted all the way around. The first thing it showed me was its blazing eyes. I’d give it one thing – its gaze was powerful. It was piercing like two daggers right through the heart. And speaking of sharp things, it soon peeled its lips back and showed me its teeth. They looked like the kinds of spikes you might find if you were unlucky enough to come across a booby-trap in some old archaeology movie. They were replete with blood, too.
That mere detail made me sneer. I threw my pen up and caught it, my grip tightening around the smooth metal. “Looks like you fed recently. Did you get to have a snack on that corpse?”
“Human knows nothing. Human is nothing more than a fool. And human will die. Forthwith.”
Sliding my fingers harder around the pen, I smiled. “You’re a chatty one, aren’t you? But you’re not answering the questions I want you to. Who,” I threw the penknife back up and caught it, “are you working for?”
I snapped a hand up, making the move quick, showing off just how fast I could move when I wanted to. “I’m gonna have to stop you there. I might have the body of a human, but over the years, I’ve changed. I have a few added extras. You have heard my name, just as that little idiot out there has heard my name, too. Lily. The exorcist,” I added, my growl practically shaking through the floor like thunder.
The ghost did not react as predicted. It sure as hell didn’t shrink away from me. Instead, it chucked its head back and laughed. “Yes. Many have heard of you. You are an exorcist of simple ghosts. A self-appointed hangman for the weak. But what is it you can do against we strong ghosts?”
It started to square off in front of me. Don’t get me wrong – it had been big previously, but now it looked enormous. If it were human, the scene would be impossible. People, after all, can’t grow on fast forward. Ghosts possessed with a less solid body can. And this guy was growing like crazy.
It started off looking more like its old human form, but as it took a breath, its body began to ripple. Energy and light cascaded around it.
Maybe this was where I had to gasp and throw myself back, shaking against the wall in fear. But I sure as heck didn’t do that. My eyes darted across the ghost methodically, picking up every single detail of the transformation process. I logged every fact for later.
Yeah, it was big, and yeah, it clearly had a lot of energy, but it was also clearly not the ghost’s power to begin with.
Ghosts were not just ethereal creatures. They were fundamentally magical. As soon as one gave up their real body and moved on to the next world, even if they got stuck in the in-between realms of reality, they became realigned with the magical properties of existence.
While that meant they had substantial magic of their own, it also meant they could channel. They would instantly become better than any half-baked wizard or witch. And if you found one of the aforementioned half-baked wizards or witches, they could use a ghost to feed another, ripping down one spectral body like meat to feed to a favorite pet.
That was exactly what was happening now. The murderer of that poor woman in the park was clearly a strong practitioner indeed – and they also clearly had ghosts at their fingertips. They would have used said ghosts to feed to this guy right here.
“Fear me, stupid child,” the ghost roared. “For I will be the last sight you ever see.”
“Enough of this. You will tell me who you work for. Right before I get rid of you.” I shoved forward. I moved as fast as I could. And as I’d already told you many times before, that was fast indeed. Shoving a foot into the rusty, puddle covered floor of the warped carriage, I pushed into a roll and came up quickly beside the ghost.
It tried to swipe to the side, sending out a blast of ectoplasm, but I was faster again. I crunched down, planted my hands on the floor, and managed to flip even while holding onto my penknife. Then I twisted and slashed right at the ghost’s knees.
It was kind of generous to say the ghost had recognizable human body parts. Ghosts didn’t need to absorb shocks through their knees. They didn’t need to bend them to pivot. And they sure as heck didn’t need them to run. But body parts were a hangover from the time when they were alive. And sometimes, if you were lucky, and if you injured the right part, it could cripple the ghost just as breaking the kneecap of a person would ruin their day.
Twisting the knife to the side, I jammed it right into the side of the ghost’s knee, and it screamed. The cry was brutal. As it bounced off the cramped walls of the carriage, it felt as if it would take the ceiling down – which wasn’t as unlikely as it sounded. Force was carried along with the cry, and the carriage started to buckle.
I just shoved forward again, flicking the knife around in my fingers and stabbing the ghost in its ethereal shoulder. It screamed once more, then started to fight back, but the end was already within reach. I shifted around it then shunted my shoulder into its back. Usually when a ghost was at the height of their power, they could choose to become insubstantial at will. That was unless they were fighting someone who knew how to call on wards.
An ordinary human would be screwed in a fight like this. No matter what weapon they brought with them, it wouldn’t count, but the particular runes carved into my pen were poison to ghosts. They were incapable of shifting through them.
Powerful ancient symbols, they were about the only defense against the ethereal.
That, and simple grit.
Bolting forward, I grabbed the ghost by the throat, twisted it around, and planted the knife hard against the back of its left shoulder. I dug the knife in a little, letting it push through the ghost’s wafting flesh. The scream it now gave could split the heavens in two.
That being said, unless you were an exorcist like me, you wouldn’t be able to hear it.
“How about we get back to the bit about you telling me who you work for?”
“No. You will lose—”
“Evidence suggests otherwise.” I shoved the knife in just a little more. I could feel the ghost’s flesh fighting against me. Energy amassed around the knife, trying to push it back, but there was nothing it could do against the wards. They started to glow on the side of the pen.
I remembered carving them. I’d had to do it on a full moon – with all the right ceremonial objects in place. I could repeat that without even a shrug, but once upon a time, I hadn’t believed in superstition. That was before I’d been taken, broken, and remade anew.
Now I knew just how to wield this knife and its sacred properties. I slid it a little further into the ghost’s back. It shrieked once more. I wasn’t wearing earplugs, but over the years, I’d managed to ignore the particular high-pitched shrieks of a ghost in pain. Now it was just like water off a duck’s back.
“You dumped that body in the park, didn’t you? Now, who did you do it for? Who do you work for?”
The ghost tried to wrestle out of my grip, but the wards were stopping it in place.
I was proud of myself. I’d dealt with this ghost in a few seconds. Just a slash or two, and it was putty in my hands.
But maybe I was counting my chickens before they’d hatched.
It suddenly put on a burst of power and tried to wrench free of my grip. The only way to hold onto it was to shove my knife harder into its back.
It screamed again and managed to twist its head around. An ordinary neck wouldn’t be able to do that, but I shouldn’t have to tell you this was not ordinary. The sound of its bones – be they ethereal or not – crunched. It was like a cat gnawing through a cooked chicken carcass. “He will kill you. He will wrap his hands around your throat and end your life.”
“So the murderer is a he, ha? What did he look like? What was his name? Where was the corpse killed?”
“You have nothing that can—”
“Except for a ward knife buried half in your back. You know what’s gonna happen when I push it all the way through? You are going to cease to be a ghost. And your grudge,” I brought my lips close to its ear, “will never be paid. You know what happens to a ghost who can’t exact their grudge? They just disappear.” I said disappear in a far-off voice. It was like I was disappearing myself. But while I was pretending, the ghost wouldn’t be. It would lose every single connection it had ever had to life. And it would never regain them again.
It started to buck in my grip, trying to force its way forward. But no matter what it did, it couldn’t break through the grip of my ward symbols.
“I saw the blood on your teeth. You had a snack on the corpse, didn’t you? I’m gonna ask you one last time,” I growled, my voice punching down and reaching this note that sounded as if it would shake through the floor and finally bring this carriage down around my ears, “who the hell do you work for?”
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“Your choice. But if you tell me, I’ll exorcise you properly. That means you’ll get to have a life down the track. It means you’ll get to be reborn once more. You won’t be a broken soul, cursed to walk through damnation forever. That’s a lot more than the murderer is going to offer you. So think carefully before you answer.” I shoved the knife just a little further into the yielding flesh of the ghost’s back.
It started to shudder. But I could tell it was thinking. Its neck was still twisted all the way around, its golden gaze locked on me. The viciousness was well and truly gone. Fragility faced me now.
I’d lost all track of that critter outside. Presumably it had already run away, its tail tucked between its legs. Whatever. I would just track it down some time. It really wasn’t the smartest ethereal creature out there, so it would likely go back to the park once more. I’d do a drive-by tonight and get rid of it.
But first things first.
“Old,” the ghost hissed.
“You’d be surprised. I look older than I am. Hard life,” I spat.
I straightened as I realized what it was saying. “The murderer was old? What? In his seventies or something?”
“Not old like that. Old… mind.”
I narrowed my eyes. As far as I was aware, the murderer was human. I’d already smelt that much from the blood at the crime scene. But that’s not what this ghost was suggesting, ha? “How old?”
“Maybe centuries, maybe more,” the ghost hissed.
There were ways for someone to live a long time. But they quickly stripped the humanity from you. I shook my head. “That makes no sense. I smelt that blood. The person who killed that woman was human.”
“But their mind was old,” the ghost said in a fragile, shaking voice. It had clearly finally given in to this situation.
“I have no clue what you’re speaking about. I told you not to lie to me.” I went to shove the knife harder into its back, but the ghost balked.
It twisted its head further around until it stared at me. Its eyes were wide and entreating. It was a pretty crazy sight considering the hell this thing had put me through. A few seconds ago, it had been trying to rip my head off. Now it looked as if I was its only hope.
“If you’re not lying to me, then what the hell are you saying? I sensed the murderer was human.”
“There are ways for someone to allow their mind to continue, from body to body, host to host.”
That statement right there made my hackles rise faster than a space shuttle. My mouth suddenly became dry. It took a long, agonizingly slow time for me to part my lips open. “Host to host? What are you talking about?”
“You’re the exorcist.”
“I’m not asking for you to be snide,” I growled right in its ear. “I want an explanation.”
I might not have ever heard that term before, but it had an electric effect on my body. I straightened up, my cheeks paling, my eyes widening as if somebody had their hands either side of my skull and they were squeezing as hard as they could. It took a long time to conjure up the effort to open my lips a small crack. “Body skipper. I’ve never heard of that.”
“Ancient process. Dark magic.”
“I want to know more. So you’re going to tell me.”
“I don’t know.”
“Then that’s sad news for you—”
“But I can tell you how to find out.”
I locked my gaze on its eyes. “And how exactly can I find out?”
“Talk to some of the old ethereal spirits in town.”
My cheeks twitched. “That little critter who led me here already thought I was stupid enough to blindly follow it into a trap. You think I’m gonna blindly follow you into another trap? I know my limitations. I can’t take on the ancient ghosts in this shit-hole of a city.”
“It would be the only way to find out about body skippers. And you’ll need all the information you can get.”
“You would be nothing to him. Just an ant. Just an insect to be crushed underfoot.” As the ghost spoke, it did so without any force whatsoever. It wasn’t screaming this at the top of its lungs anymore. This was just… a cold hard fact to it.
It quickly became a cold hard fact to me, too – one that felt pressed right up against my jugular. My lips wobbled then broke open. “This is a trap,” I said emptily, but there was no force or belief in my words.
“It’s your last advice. Now do it. I told you who I work for.”
“I want a name.”
“A name would be useless. As I said – body skipper.”
My lips hung open, but I didn’t know what to say. I wanted another explanation, but surely it was in the name. A body skipper could switch bodies like someone taking off a jacket and pulling on another….
There were some serious dark things out in this twisted world. When you looked beyond the shiny veneer of modern life and down into the cracks of reality, you could find horrors for every occasion.
Ghosts were just the tip of the iceberg. There were creatures so dark and old, they would turn life-long priests to dust with one simple look.
“Fine. Tell me where the woman was killed. Or at least where you picked her up from.”
“A warehouse on 49th Street.”
Finally I was getting somewhere. I was adept at reading ghosts. I’d done it for so many frigging years. This one wasn’t lying to me.
“You promised – now you exorcise me.”
“Yeah, I promised.” I closed my eyes. “Return to that which you ultimately came from. May your grudge be paid through karma. May you give up your quest for revenge and release it into the universe.”
“I was killed,” the ghost said in a far-off voice as my spell started to take root.
“By the foreman. Revenge. Revenge for….” The ghost’s body started to break apart more.
Muttering under my breath, I now shoved the knife all the way through its form. But I twitched at the last moment, intrigued by what it was saying. “Killed for what?”
“Finding out… finding out about his den.”
“Den?” That word was sufficiently novel that I frowned. But I couldn’t pull the knife out. The spell was already taking root.
“Magic… there was magic. That’s all… I can remember now.”
I balked. Ghosts never lied – not on the edge of death, not while they were being exorcised. It was the last moment for their souls to tell the truth.
But this soul was already breaking apart. The ghost vibrated badly. All solidity in its form started to be lost.
As it jerked its head around one last time, its eyes widened then disappeared. I tried to clutch forward, but there was nothing to hold onto. “You found a magic den? Where?”
There was nothing to talk to anymore.
The ghost disappeared.
I watched the sight of the spirit giving up. The grudge was paid, not by the ghost’s own hands, but by its surrender to the universe.
It was a particularly human trait to think that the only way to do something was with one’s own hands. But it wasn’t just we humans alone who believed in justice. The universe would pay a debt – eventually.
“Dammit,” I spat. As I watched the last wisps of the ghost disappear, I jammed my thumb into my mouth. I ignored the taste of iron from the rusted puddles I’d been rolling through.
That wasn’t the first time I’d exorcised a ghost only to find out that their last words were useful. As I shivered, I couldn’t shake the feeling that these had been particularly important. But I had nothing to go on.
That ghost had been old. It had likely been an ethereal form for over 50 years. That meant that any evidence about its murder was now completely cold. And who knew, the den had probably disappeared, too. But I made a point of investigating every single claim of magic in this twisted city. Because if you let any go underground for long enough, they would always explode in your face at just the wrong time.
“Crap.” I turned and went to leave the carriage. I assumed that critter had already run. I was wrong.
It was still there. It had watched the fight right until the end in the hopes that I would still lose, likely. As I jumped down from the open carriage, my boots grinding over the loose gravel, it came at me in a flurry. It latched hold of my arm and bit hard. It immediately drew blood before I could pick it up by the back of its neck and throw it down like a misbehaving basketball.
It crunched in the gravel, twisted, and stared at me, my blood dripping off its teeth.
“You know, I was going to give you another day before hunting you down. Screw that now.” I grunted through my pain, swore loudly, and went to lurch at it.
But that’s when I heard something – someone calling my frigging name. Someone whose voice I instantly recognized.
What the hell was he doing here? He’d followed me? I’d seen him in the park, but I’d lost him.
The critter danced back. It went to disappear, no doubt finally figuring out that it was high time to hightail it out of this town, but I jerked forward. I grabbed it by the back of the neck. “No way,” I grunted. I turned over my shoulder, tracking Jerome.
He was coming this way.
“Crap,” I muttered under my breath. I really didn’t need to have another awkward conversation with him – especially when I was illegally trespassing in a train yard.
I was good at coming up with excuses. It was because I was often in situations that were hard to explain. That happened when you tracked ghosts. They didn’t adhere to human laws. They went wherever they pleased. I had only made it this far in my career because I could think on my feet.
I jerked my gaze down to the little creature. “If you want to live, then you will do exactly as I say, or you’re going to end up like that ghost. You got it?”
“Whatever you want. Whatever you want,” it spluttered.
Now it understood that there wasn’t a single thing it could do to get away from me, it became limp in my grip.
“Transform into a dog right now. Some small white thing.”
“Just do it,” I growled.
The creature just looked at me then shook. It was this specific magical shiver that ran all the way down its body. The next thing I knew, it transformed right in my grip. It turned into a little white pooch. Though a terrifying version of one. Its mouth was way too large. Its teeth looked as if they’d been pulled out of a monster’s gaping maw.
“I’m not screwing with you,” I muttered quietly as I darted to the side behind a different carriage. “I want a normal dog. Not something out of a kid’s nightmare.”
It shivered and transformed again. It looked better, but it still took the form of a terrifying dog that looked as if it had been in 100 accidents only to have been put together by Humpty Dumpty himself. “That’s terrifying. Have you ever actually seen a dog?”
“No, but I’ve eaten plenty. They look like this,” the creature supplied.
I slapped it on the face. “Don’t eat pets. Now, one last time. If you want to live, you will do this for me.”
It shook again, and this time it transformed into a relatively normal dog. An ugly one, but normal enough to actually pass for someone’s beloved pooch.
While I could just try to run away, Jerome was already out there. He didn’t seem to be the kind to let something go, either. If I ran, he’d likely just check nearby CCTV footage. While I was usually careful, one of the things I relied on the most was being discreet. If nobody knew a crime had been committed, then they wouldn’t bother looking for footage. If they did, I’d be in serious trouble.
Pressing my lips together and forcing a breath through them, I shook off my nerves. “There you are. You gave me a right run around, little pooch,” I said loudly and clearly.
“Lily?” Jerome called again, his voice hard.
I stayed exactly where I was. His strapping form soon came into view. There was a frown plastered over his lips. Then he looked down at the dog and up at me. “What are you doing here?”
I shrugged. “I found the dog I was looking for.”
“How did you get in here?”
“The guy in the demountable told me I could come in.” It was a lie, but I knew that guy. I’d exorcised for Stanley before. I mean of course I had. As I’d already pointed out, the train yard was a grim frigging place. It was full of ghosts. I came here every other month to get rid of one, so I knew if I needed it, Stanley would come up with an alibi for me.
Jerome turned back in the direction of the demountable office. “I was told that—”
“We can walk over right now and check if you’d like?”
Jerome looked confused – that was until he saw my hand. It was covered in blood.
I looked down at it. “This little guy gave me a bite. Sweet thing, ha?” I grabbed the critter tighter by the collar.
It was doing a good job of holding its form. It was even getting into being a dog. It was wagging its tail. Then it made the cardinal mistake of opening its gob and barking. It sounded strangled.
Jerome winced and took a closer look at it. “What’s wrong with that dog?”
“Oh, it has all sorts of exotic issues. I found him for a little old lady down the road from me. I’ve gotta get this guy back to her. He’s practically her kid.” I tightened my grip on the back of the critter’s collar. It had done a good job to morph one around its throat when it had changed shape. Then again, it clearly knew that I was not screwing with it, and if it failed to look like a real dog, it’d be dead meat soon after.
If it so much as tried to get away from me, I would get rid of it. No exorcism, no second life.
“That looks like a pretty bad bite. You need to get that stitched up.”
I glanced down at it. I could barely feel it. I’d been bitten and cut and bashed way too many times to count. But I had a secret weapon. One of the people I had absorbed over the years – one of the poor souls I had failed to save – had been a top surgeon. I knew exactly how to keep myself in proper shape. I had all the gear back home I would need to deal with everything from bullet wounds to stab wounds to concussions to shrapnel.
I shrugged. “Yeah. I’ll head there now. I’ll leave the dog in my car. With the window open,” I said quickly.
“But we’re going to talk to the guy at the office first,” Jerome said haltingly. As he stared at me, it was damn clear that he didn’t know what to think. Fair enough. The last time he saw me in high school, I was a mess.
Then again, did he ever really see me in high school? No one ever looked at me. I was just this shadow in the corridor that people felt privileged enough to ignore.
No one had had any clue what I was going through, and no one had ever stopped to ask.
As those thoughts flashed through my mind now, my jaw hardened a little. I straightened. I was done pretending to be polite. I’d given my story, and it was a good enough one that he would not be able to poke holes in it.
He opened his mouth. It was hard to tell what he was going to say, but he decided to drop it. He shrugged in the direction of the demountable.
The critter had turned into a small enough dog that I could just pick it up.
“If it bit you, do you really want to do that?” Jerome pointed out.
I looked the critter right in the eyes. It whimpered and shrank back into my grip. “It’s fine. We’ve got an understanding now.”
He looked at me. A frown started to march its way across Jerome’s lips. “You… didn’t you used to be scared of dogs?”
I took several steps and slid my gaze over to him. He was right. Once upon a time, I had been scared of dogs. Deathly afraid, even. Back when I’d been tortured… there’d been a dog. I didn’t know then what I knew now. It hadn’t been an ordinary pooch. It had been half a ghost.
It had bitten me on the leg and arm and stopped me from escaping three times.
In the months after my attack, before I’d realized what I’d become, I had been scared of dogs. Deathly, deathly afraid. Even the sight of a dog far off had turned me into blubbering jelly. Now I just clutched the critter harder and shrugged. “We all get over the past. Happens all the time.”
He slowed down. His gaze was on the side of my neck. His lips opened. He clearly wanted to say something – and based on the way he was looking at me, it would be emotionally poignant. He couldn’t push the words out of his lips. “I guess,” he muttered.
It didn’t take much longer to reach the demountable. I raised my voice, wanting the guy inside – Stanley Madison – to know I was here long before I arrived on his doorstep with a cranky looking critter dog and a bleeding hand. “Stanley, you in there? I ran into this officer while searching for the dog I told you escaped in the old train yard.”
I heard Stanley swear softly inside his shitty office. He soon opened the door and pushed out.
Stanley looked dead half the time. Fair enough – so would you if you had to look after a hell hole like this, crawling with ethereal creatures and junkies. But he looked alive as soon as he saw me.
Jerome frowned at him. “You didn’t tell me someone else was here. Is it even safe—”
Stanley chuckled. Bless his cotton socks, but he was bad at acting. At least he was giving this his all, though. “Yeah, sorry, I forgot about Lily here. I figured she’d already found the dog and left.”
“Is it even safe? She doesn’t have a hard hat—”
“Safer than having a dog walking around the train yards. It’s all right. I know Stanley,” I said, nodding at him pointedly and clutching the dog tighter. “We go way back.”
Stanley fortunately was acting better now. He didn’t wince at every word I said. But he did stare over at the dog, his eyes narrowed. As I’d already pointed out, Stanley was an avid ghost hunter. He would know exactly what I was holding.
He straightened and turned to Jerome. “Sorry for not mentioning her.”
“You should have,” Jerome said, his voice becoming quiet. But he didn’t add anything. He just looked at me. His mouth opened. I saw it in his eyes again – he clearly wanted to say something to me.
What? Was he surprised that I just didn’t care about the fact that we’d met up for the first time since high school? Yeah, I get it – he’d been a god back then. But presumably since then, he’d realized that gods don’t exist. And high school? It was just a waste of time between being a kid and an adult. Everybody sane got over it. Right?
Maybe not him.
“Do you want to…?” he began.
What, meet up for a coffee? No. Meet up for a drink? Hell no. Meet up with the rest of his classmates? I could think of a trillion things I’d rather do, including going down to Hell and fighting the Devil himself.
“I need to get to the hospital.” I gestured to my bleeding hand.
“I’ve got a bandage you can borrow.” Stanley expertly extricated himself from the awkward conversation, turned, and practically threw himself into the demountable.
“Yeah,” Jerome said haltingly. “I should take you there. You won’t be able to drive.”
“Isn’t St. Vincent’s right across the street? I’ll just walk. As I said, I’ll deposit the dog then head right there. You don’t need to come.”
Stanley appeared again and offered me the bandage. I grabbed it up and nodded at him. We had a moment where he made eye contact and I tried to convey a lot.
He just nodded. Then he sliced his gaze back across the train yard. Presumably he’d be trying to figure out just how many more ghosts were out there.
He didn’t like it when I came to visit. But at least it meant that his job would be more peaceful afterward.
“I guess,” Jerome said awkwardly. “But….”
“But what?” I looked right up into his eyes.
“I guess it’s good to see you after high school, that’s all.”
Good to see me after high school. Really?
I knew what the look in his eyes meant. He was surprised that I was functioning. In Jerome’s head, and probably in the heads of every single person I’d gone to school with, they would’ve thought that I’d be dead by now. Either by my own hand or some junkie’s. I was the no-hoper at school – the one who’d always been destined to crash and burn. But look at me now? Technically I was standing around with a bitten hand, a bolshie spirit dog, and a burned jacket, but I had risen above the rest of them. No matter what they did in their combined lives, they would never achieve what I had. I had saved countless souls. I had scraped the ethereal scum off the streets of this city. And I had done it all on my frigging own.
I didn’t need the look in Jerome’s eyes, or the compassion in his voice, or the recognition in his expression.
If this was him somehow apologizing for who he’d been in high school, I didn’t care.
That was the old world. I now lived in the new, real world. I didn’t need him muscling in on my territory.
“See you around,” I said, my voice hard. With a nod at Stanley, I walked off, the critter in my arms, my hand bleeding softly.
I felt Jerome’s gaze drilling into the back of my neck the entire time.
Let him stare.
Let him face me. Let him see what he couldn’t see back in high school. And once he was done staring, he could go the hell away and never come back. Because I was a busy damn woman and I had this city to save.
As soon as I got to my car, I dumped the critter inside.
I frowned at him, securing him in the passenger seat with nothing more than a glare. “I’m going to drive you home, got it?”
“To my beloved trees?” It actually managed a full sentence.
I gripped the steering wheel, gunned the engine, and pulled out from the curb quickly. “Not to your beloved trees. To my abode. Then, later tonight, I’m gonna exorcise you, and you’re finally going to be on your way to another life.”
The critter started to shake. “Me help you. You should help me.”
I ticked my head back and laughed, my hair rumpling against the old, torn leather headrest behind me. “By help me out, do you mean you tried to feed me to that ghost back there? Do you think I have a short memory?”
The critter actually looked disappointed as if he hoped I really did have a short memory. I mean really, what kind of rumors were going around about me? Did every critter out there think I was an idiot?
I tried not to focus on it. I had a whole world of other crap to distract me with right now.
I tried to force myself to go over what I learned from that ghost. 49th Street was going to be important. And as soon as it was dark, I was gonna head there. But at the same time, Jerome….
“Human’s gone all red-cheeked. Human must be close to dying. So sad.”
I glowered over at the creature. “I’m sorry, close to dying? And what do you mean red-cheeked?” I yanked a hand off the steering wheel and palpated my skin. Sure enough, it was a little warmer. It was probably owing to the fact I was currently bleeding out from a nasty wound, I concluded quickly, knowing full well that it could have absolutely nothing to do with thinking of Jerome.
“Don’t worry. Critter will be at human’s funeral. I will see you off.” It opened its lips and smiled. Suffice to say, it was all teeth. All teeth and blood, of course.
I didn’t need to pay attention to driving. This was not recommended for any ordinary human, but you did not need any more evidence to conclude that I was not ordinary. Nowhere close.
With one hand on the steering wheel, I leaned right over and glowered in the creature’s face. “I’m not about to die. But hold up for a second. You call yourself a critter, too?”
It flattened one of its tiny little hands on its chest. “That is my name.”
I snorted with laughter. “Good name. I suppose I need to start calling you something. So Mr. Critter will do.”
His massive eyes widened. They were like two little paths down to Hell. And I imagine the critter had both seen enough and doled out enough to buy himself a permanent ticket down to that nasty fiery abode. “Mister Critter? Really, mister? Do you actually think I’m a mister? That is a great honor indeed. Misters have more monetary rights, don’t they? More rights in general. I am honored.”
I snorted. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. And don’t you dare be sexist in my car.” I reached over, locked my hand on his head, and pushed him forward slightly. “But for now, Mr. Critter will do. So, Mr. Critter, this is how it’s gonna go down. We’re gonna go back to my house, I’m gonna fashion a nice little cage for you, and you’re gonna go inside, and I’m gonna go about my day.”
“Misters are better than missus,” the critter continued, completely oblivious to the fact I was threatening it. “I am a mister now.” He puffed his chest out. It was such an athletic move, I thought he would lose his heart and it would start ricocheting around the car.
I still had a hand on his head. I pushed it down harder. I leaned over. “Cut the sexist shit. I am threatening you right now, Mr. Critter.”
I made the mistake of saying Mr. Critter again. He just looked thrilled. “Mister better than missus,” he repeated. Then the idiot started to sing it.
If there was one thing this ridiculous conversation was doing, it was distracting me, and right now, to be fair, I needed a distraction. My thoughts kept spiraling back around to Jerome.
Why the heck had he been at the train yard? He’d clearly been after something, because he’d been angry at Stanley for not letting him know that I was there – not of course that Stanley had had any clue whatsoever. Point was, Jerome would only have been pissed off like that if he’d thought that I was muscling in on an investigation.
“It’s got to do with the murder,” I muttered to myself as I brought my hand back and clutched the steering wheel hard.
“What has to do with the murder?”
I slid my gaze over to Mr. Critter. “You are not my partner.”
“Partner in crime?”
“No. There are plenty of other partners other than those that help you with crimes. I,” I flattened a hand on my chest, “am a good guy.”
“No, no, no, no – you not guy. Me mister.” He punched his chest forward again.
Seriously, maybe I should just exorcise this thing as soon as I got to my house. It would be preferable to putting up with it for much longer.
My mind ticked back to Jerome.
Maybe they’d received a report or something about the train yards? Fair enough – they were probably receiving reports about that place near continuously. It was a favorite haunt for junkies. And God knows I’d seen enough dead bodies there, too. It was a very convenient place to dispatch somebody. As for ghosts, as I’d already mentioned, it was full of them.
I soon put it out of my head.
It didn’t really matter what Jerome had been looking for there. The body had not been killed in the train yards.
49th Street. Those words rolled around my mind like a pinball looking for something to bounce off.
I didn’t live that far out of town. It was an easy trip on a quick highway. As soon as I pulled up into my driveway, I shot my neighbors a surreptitious look. I didn’t have the best neighbors, see. I couldn’t afford to live deep in town, so I had a little sweet suburban place. I even had a white picket fence. And you heard that correctly.
My nosiest neighbors were a pair of old retirees. They had nothing to do. Except for watch me.
As soon as I pulled up and slammed my door closed loudly, I saw one of the curtains from my left neighbors’ house twitching. That would be Marjorie. And she would no doubt now be taking notes.
If you’d bothered to ask me why I didn’t move, considering I didn’t really have the kind of career where someone could take notes on me, the answer was I enjoyed razzing her up. In my head, it gave her something to do. And retirees without hobbies always went bonkers.
I walked over to the passenger door, opened it, and manhandled the dog out.
Now I could see Marjorie’s purple rinse curls peeking out from between the curtains. I even saw her muttering to herself. I had the ability to read lips from far off. I knew exactly what she was saying. Animal cruelty.
Really? She wanted to see animal cruelty? How about I let Mr. Critter go to town on her own pooch? Now that would be animal cruelty. But it was a nasty damn thought, and it was one I chased away immediately. I personally adored pets. I couldn’t have them though – it was pretty hard to come back and feed your dog or cat on time when you were running around the city, dealing with the damned. But I was an animal lover at heart, and I was a vegetarian to boot. The less cruelty one imposed on life, no matter where it came from in the animal or plant kingdom, the better it was for your soul.
Still, I didn’t loosen my grip on Mr. Critter.
I saw the flash of a camera. Marjorie was pretty old-school – she wasn’t even using her phone. She probably thought she was being surreptitious, too, but I managed a smile.
When she finally developed the photo, she would notice something curious. There would be nothing underneath my arm.
The thing about critters like this was they didn’t have the kind of body that could be photographed.
I made it up to the door. I grabbed the handle with my bleeding fingers. I’d clean the blood off at some point. Or maybe I wouldn’t. There was meant to be a good rain tonight.
I never locked my door. Ever. I didn’t see the point. Every single enemy I had in this town was not the kind of creature who cared about a locked door. They would either breeze right through it or just blow it up.
I walked into the main room and closed the door but did not let Mr. Critter go.
“You can put me down now,” Mr. Critter said ominously. “I am better than you.”
I squeezed him. “You can stop pretending to be a dog now.”
He shook, and he turned back into his original form.
“And you can stop pretending that you’re going to live through this. You, Mr. Critter, are going to be exorcised tonight.”
“But I will die happy. I will die knowing I am much, much better than you.”
I just rolled my eyes.
My house was pretty open plan. It had two levels, but down below, most of them were connected. I needed a lot of space, see. There was always a lot for me to do and make.
I didn’t need to manufacture a spirit cage from scratch. I already had one.
I walked over to it. It was technically in the sitting room. There was a threadbare, beaten-up couch to one side. I pushed it out of the way with the toe of my boot. I opened the cage door.
I didn’t do so immediately. First I tapped the side of it. Though the cage was made out of bars and ostensibly I could see inside, I wasn’t an idiot and this wasn’t my first rodeo.
That right there was a fully insulated spirit cage. While it could keep a critter like this locked up indefinitely, it was also a great place for some spectral phenomena to rest. It protected them from all the spiritual junk noise you got in the real world. Think of it like a Faraday cage. If some stressed-out critter went in there, it would be like retreating into a deep, peaceful cave.
After a good, solid tap, I realized that no ambitious ghost had wandered inside for a kip. Then I turfed Mr. Critter inside and quickly closed the door.
Mr. Critter was still too amused by the fact that I’d called him mister in the first place. He stood in the middle of the cage, his fat tail flicking back and forth. “Me better than you,” he said again, in case I’d forgotten that in the past few seconds.
I locked my hands on my knees and leaned all the way in. “But me going to live beyond tonight,” I said, parroting his broken syntax and cruel tone.
The critter looked right into my eyes. Then he laughed. It was this blast of air like someone blowing on an enormous horn. It smelt pretty fetid. I really didn’t think he had ever brushed his teeth.
“You think you going to live beyond tonight?” He snorted. “Laughable. You going to die.”
“And which idiot in this town is gonna be dumb enough to kill me?”
“Me heard the conversation between you and ghost. Body skipper,” Mr. Critter said, and this time, he lost the amused edge to his voice. His shoulders shot toward his ears, and he shrank backward. He was already small, but now he looked almost adorably so.
I locked my hands on my hips. I had not forgotten about the body skipper. The thought had been circulating in my mind, pinging backward and forward, doing as much damage to my psyche as it could.
I prided myself on the fact that I now knew most of everything there was to know about magic.
I’d studied hard over the past 15 years. And by studied hard, I meant that the facts of magic – cold, hard, and brutal – had been rammed down my throat. But I’d never heard of a body skipper.
“What do you know?” I demanded.
“Body skipper,” he said, separating both words and then ticking his tiny little hands from left to right.
“I’m waiting for an explanation.” I crossed my arms hard.
“It is creature capable of skipping bodies. You no understand English?”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s in the name. What else do you know?”
“Scary.” I expected him to try to crack another inappropriate joke, but he didn’t. And to be honest, this was much worse. It hammered home just how scary this was.
He suddenly looked two times as small. If he kept going like this, he would just disappear from sight.
I crunched forward again, locking my hands on my knees once more and securing my fingers in tightly as if I wanted to rip my legs out of my jeans. “Scary. I get that. What else?” I did a good job of controlling my tone even though I was shaking on the inside.
There were things in this town that I could not go after. I had made my peace with that fact over the past 15 years. There were all kinds of ghosts and creatures out there. While low to midrange phenomena I could exorcise, the rest I didn’t have a hope of going near. So I’d learned where they were, and I avoided them.
Usually, it didn’t really matter, because our lives did not intersect. The truly old ghosts didn’t go around murdering people and leaving them in the park. They didn’t need to do that anymore. They had a much closer connection to Hell. They often chose to commit crimes on other spectral phenomena instead, reasoning there was no point in wasting their precious energy on hunting humans down when a human’s soul would not be able to feed them, but a ghost’s soul would be able to extend their lives.
But that rule was about to change. This body skipper was clearly going after humans. Which meant….
Mr. Critter looked me right in the eyes again. “You have no chance. You die immediately when you take on body skipper.”
I laughed. Not because anything was funny, just because it was clear that Mr. Critter and I were on the same page.
The first thing you had to learn in this brutal world was your limitations. And trust me, I had learned mine. They had been wrapped around my throat like a noose to strangle me.
And that was a very particular image.
I patted my throat, walked away, and busied myself with a table full of junk to the side. I could not forget that my hand was still bleeding. I needed to sew it up and get out there.
Mr. Critter pushed against the bars. I was not scared that he was about to break through them. There was no way. He was likely just going to enjoy these last few minutes to irritate the hell out of me. “Body skipper takes mind and puts it into another body. Yours would be perfect.”
I started to rummage under the table. I had a medkit under there. And before you assumed that it just had Band-Aids and some scissors, don’t bother. It was fully equipped. Like I’d said, I’d absorbed a surgeon once.
I pulled out my gear and started to get to work on my wound. I didn’t bother to slide my gaze over to the creature, though that comment deserved it. He had to stop saying the obvious.
“Look at your body. You exorcist. You have powers. You have good strength. You have great teeth,” he added as if he were looking for a horse to buy. “Your body perfect for body skipper. As soon as body skipper finds out you exist, body skipper will come to you.”
“Can you just shut the—” I stopped.
My needle was in my hand, my thread ready to start sewing up my wound. And yeah, I was doing it without anesthetic. I had an exceptionally high pain tolerance.
“Me right,” Mr. Critter said as he started to hop around on the small cage floor. “Body skipper come to you.”
“You are right,” I said softly. “I am a great body for someone to skip into. Maybe this will be easier than I thought.”
Mr. Critter let out a spluttering laugh. It sounded as if someone had stepped on a steam pipe. “You have no chance against body skipper. Body skipper old,” he said, emphasizing that with a real blast of shaking air. “You pathetic exorcist. No one in town appreciates you.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Nobody in town appreciates me? I’ve exorcised ghosts pretty much every single day for the past 15 years. I know I have a reputation.”
“You exorcise smalltime ghosts.” Mr. Critter flopped one of his little hands at me. “You do nothing big time.”
“If I did nothing big time,” I said as I leaned over, still stitching up my wound, “then how would I have easily gotten through that ghost you sent me to? You thought I’d die, right? Quickly. But I didn’t. I exorcised it. Just like that.”
“You got lucky. Ghost was slow. Body skipper will not be.”
I rolled my eyes. I was done talking to Mr. Critter. He could just sit there in the cage and wait to be exorcised later.
I was also done with my wound. I cleaned up the stitches once more, going over them with several alcohol swabs. When I was happy, I placed an expensive dressing over the top.
I was pretty certain that the stitches would hold. I’d done a great job.
I might not be able to punch with abandon, but I certainly would be functional tonight. And that was all I cared about.
I packed my stuff up, hid my med kit away, then stopped in front of Mr. Critter’s cage again. Even though I’d told myself to ignore him, I just couldn’t. “You’re going to love Hell, by the way. Which is exactly where you’re going.”
“You right. Me going to love Hell. Me mister now. Whole world my oyster – because me wear pants.”
I just growled. Then my phone beeped. I yanked it out of my pocket. It was another message from that poor woman I’d mentioned earlier.
It was time to get back to work.
Leaning against the table, not caring that Mr. Critter was right behind me, I thumbed back to the original message. I played it on loudspeaker. I closed my eyes.
I let her every word wash over me. I paid attention to the tone. And there, once more, I swore I heard that note of soul fatigue. As I’d said earlier, I just knew when I was dealing with a murder, even if the person reporting it had no clue themselves. It was like the universe was reaching out to warn me that some injustice had occurred and I had to settle it.
I had a thing about murders, see, and I shouldn’t have to tell you why. Whenever one came across my desk, I pulled out all stops.
The ghost of a murdered soul was unlike any other ghost. They tended to have greater power and a much, much more powerful grudge. Depending on the circumstances of how they were murdered, that grudge could become all-consuming. The victim of a murder had already lost their lives. Why should they lose their second lives through becoming a ghost? I didn’t care what they got up to in their ethereal form. It was up to me to exorcise them so they could finally find peace.
The message stopped. “Definitely a murder,” I muttered under my breath.
“Me know that voice,” Mr. Critter said suddenly.
I opened my eyes and twisted around. “What?” I growled. “You’re not telling me you had something to do with the murder of that woman’s poor son, right?”
“You heard the note in her voice too? Son definitely murdered.”
“You go back to the bit about you knowing the woman’s voice. How and why?”
“Has store. Me go there sometimes to eat the rats behind it.”
“I thought you remained at the park, snacking on drunks?”
Mr. Critter shrugged his shoulders. “Important to have varied diet. Leads to strong teeth.” He opened his mouth and revealed the rows of yellow, jagged, blood-covered teeth.
I just arched an eyebrow. “Where’s the store?”
“Just across from park. Near pharmacy.”
I didn’t know why I was asking Mr. Critter this. This was all stuff I could ask my client or just find out on the Internet. Still, I never passed up a lead when I was facing one. Especially when I could collar that lead, kick it in the guts, and get it to tell me whatever I wanted. “Have you ever seen her son?”
“Smelt of sulfur.”
That right there was not a throwaway comment. It was also not the kind of comment that you usually heard. People in cities did not smell of sulfur, because they did not have access to it. “Are you telling me that he was some kind of magical practitioner?”
“Me no sense strong magic. He never able to see me, either. But methinks he budding magician.”
I crossed my arms and sighed. I closed my eyes and shook my head. I didn’t want this case to be complicated. I wanted something quiet and easy to solve. That way I could wrap it up before I had to go to 49th Street tonight.
But life never went how you wanted it to. “Did you notice anything else? Did he have any friends?” I asked in a dark voice.
“Define friend? Does friend not want to kill you?”
I lifted an eyebrow again. “Yeah, friends have to not want to kill you. Why?” My voice peaked with alarm. “Did this guy have an unusual number of people who wanted to kill him?”
“Me know not where he was finding out how to practice magic – probably on Internet. But me know that the things he thought he needed to practice magic are dangerous. He bought them from the Vincent Gang. You heard of them?”
I made a dark face. “Yeah, I’ve heard of the Vincent Gang. And goddamnit. Why does this have to be hard?”
“Because you pesky exorcist, and you—”
I suddenly locked my hands on the bars. I brought my face close, my sneer even closer. “If you’re about to make some shady joke about the fact I’m a woman, I suggest you don’t. I am the exorcist here, after all.”
“You crappy bi-ped,” he said, smartly changing tact.
“I don’t see how having four feet would help me right now.” I rubbed my face. I occasionally had to go up against magical gangs. As I’d said before, it didn’t matter how a ghost had lost their life – I’d always track down the murderer. And I would always exorcise the ghost. That was my debt to the universe. That was my payment for surviving the impossible.
“Right. Is there anything else you can tell me? When was the last time you were at this woman’s restaurant?”
“Two days ago. Me had fight with rat,” Mr. Critter said. He pushed his head down, and he got a particularly dark look in his eyes, which was saying something considering it was as if he was channeling Hell most of the time. “Me won against rat.” He balled up a fist, pumped it against his chest, and snarled through his teeth. “Then me feasted on rat’s bones.”
“Fascinating. Go back to the bit about being at the woman’s restaurant. Did you see the son? Any sign of magical equipment? Any sign of the Vincent Gang?”
“Sign on wall.”
My interest was piqued once more. “What do you mean there was a sign on a wall?”
“Out in alley behind restaurant – Vincent Gang symbol. Black circle with strike through it.”
I made a face. I knew exactly what that meant. That was a hit. Wow. In one simple conversation with this critter, I’d pretty much solved the case. Clearly this woman’s son had overstepped the line with the Vincent Gang, and they’d ordered a hit on his head. Case closed. I still had to find the ghost though. I also needed to tell my poor client what her son had done.
“Right. Well… thank you for the information, I guess.”
“Any time. Me capable of doing anything because me—”
“You are a caged critter waiting to be exorcised,” I said pointedly. “Enjoy your last few hours.” With that, I grabbed some stuff, threw on a new jacket, and hit the street.
It was only noon. I had a murder to solve and a ghost to find before nightfall.
I didn’t head straight to my client’s house. The first thing I did was go to her restaurant.
I needed to see the symbol for myself. There was every chance that the critter was playing with me, but as soon as I slunk down the side of the aforementioned restaurant, I realized Mr. Critter was bang on the money. Right there behind the dumpster was a dripping symbol – a black circle with a strike through it. It was a call to arms. An invitation for any scum-sucking magical lowlife to off a target for a fee.
I yanked my phone out of my pocket and took a photo. This symbol was an ethereal mark. Most people would walk past and not see it. Not me. When it came time to take photos of spiritual phenomena, you had to know exactly what you were doing. You needed to set your phone to be able to take images with a certain color filter on. And you also needed wards.
I had them carved onto the inside case of my phone. It’d been delicate work, but over the years, I’d absorbed a jeweler.
I remained in the alley for a little while, not soaking up the vibe, but searching for other clues. I couldn’t find much. I did however notice that when I came out of the alley that there was a car parked across the street. There were a couple of goons inside watching the alley mouth.
I really doubted they were plainclothes policemen. Even from here I could smell the sulfur on their breath.
People knew who I was. Sorry – people in the magical community knew who I was. The Vincent Gang were highly aware of me. They usually stuck to their turf, and I stuck to mine. It would be too costly for them to take me on, and vice versa.
So now I just glowered at the boys and saluted them. Then I headed straight to my client’s house.
It was a nice abode not far out from the park. Either it was a hand me down from a rich grandparent, or this family had bought beyond their means.
As soon as I pushed past the white picket fence and beyond the little rose garden and up to the porch, I could detect the strong vibe in the air. It was dark. Even if I hadn’t heard that woman’s voice on the phone, if I’d made it this far, I would’ve been able to conclude immediately that I was dealing with a murder. It was in the air all around me.
This house was reeling from the shock of one of its inhabitants dying.
I reached the door and knocked. I was barely through my second knock when the door was wrenched open.
I saw a woman, her eyes hooded with fatigue, still in a bathrobe, her hands rounded until her knuckles looked as if they would push from her flesh. “You Lily? The… exorcist?” she said quickly, her breath slicing out of her lips as if it were a knife.
She grabbed my hand and shook it. Her grip was wet with sweat. “I’m Winnie. I… you have to find my boy, Bradley. You have to find him. The police said he was just missing. But—”
When I got to this point in a conversation, I had to make a decision. I was now absolutely certain that her son was dead. The thing was, did I give her false hope and say that I’d find him? Or did I just lay it out, plain and simple?
I was used to dealing with people who weren’t good students of psychology. Winnie, however, was not in that aforementioned group. She took one look at my expression and receded. She had to clutch the doorway for support. “You… think he’s dead, don’t you?”
I narrowed my eyes. Usually it was hard to read an exorcist’s expression. Maybe Bradley hadn’t been the only one into magic. After all, Winnie had found my number, and she’d also had the guts to call an exorcist in the first place.
“How about we go inside?” I nodded at her.
This clearly just confirmed her worst suspicions. She turned around, staggering as she went.
I closed the door behind her. I shoved my hands into my pockets and immediately stared at the house. It was just as nice inside as it was outside. Someone had money. That or they had a lot of debts.
If Bradley had been the kind of boy who’d been used to getting what he wanted, regardless of whether he could afford it, then he would’ve been mincemeat in the Vincent Gang’s hands. If you wanted something, you paid for it. And if you couldn’t pay in cash, you paid in blood.
I scratched my nose as I walked past the hall stand. There was a photo sitting there of Winnie, an older man, and a youngish boy – maybe in his late teens. He was all gangly, and he had floppy hair. He had rimmed glasses. He had a really keen look in his eyes. It was the kind of sharp gaze that told me he’d been the kind of kid who hadn’t been content to just look at the so-called real world.
Though usually you needed to be an exorcist or some form of magician to be able to see magic, some kids were born with the skill. Often it hounded them until their death. For others, though, it just gave them the motivation to find out more about the unseen realms.
Bradley was probably in that latter category.
I made a mental note of his face as I shifted past. I didn’t really need to take a photo. The gaze in his eyes was enough. I would recognize him, even in a ghost form. I was confident of that.
I made it to the lounge room. It was beautiful and huge. There was a plush cream carpet and cream couches to match. The cushions had a Persian pattern and delicate beadwork. As Winnie sat down on one, it scrunched against her bathrobe.
She clutched her collar and stared at the carpet, her eyes practically dead. Then finally they jerked up to me. “You… you think he’s no longer with us, don’t you?”
I sat down quietly and arranged my hands on my knees. “You are aware that you called an exorcist, aren’t you, Madam?”
“Our powers are in tracking down lost souls and finally exorcising them from this world. If you called an exorcist… it meant there was a fair chance that you already knew that your boy was… unlikely to be alive.”
“Yes, but… I thought… there was a possibility…. Tell me the truth?” she said, choking.
I’m glad that she hadn’t told me to lie. Though I usually spoke plainly and truthfully, when it came to moments like this, especially when a parent had lost a child, it became a heck of a lot harder.
I closed my eyes. “He is likely dead. I’m 99 percent sure of that.”
She burst into tears. But she didn’t cry as much as she should have. It was damn clear that she’d already started crying, as it was damn clear that she had already suspected this.
I didn’t interrupt her once. I took the time to stare around the room. There were more photos of Bradley. There were also photos of that old man. I pushed up.
I walked up to the mantelpiece and plucked one up.
I thought that Winnie was too out of it to notice what I was doing, but she pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket, pressed it against her eyes, and nodded at me. “That was Bradley’s grandfather. He lost his father at a young age,” she said in the kind of haunted voice I couldn’t come close to mimicking. No one would be able to come close to it unless they’d lost as much as her. “He was such a strong presence in Bradley’s life.”
I stared at the guy. This was a better photo than the one in the hall. It allowed me to see this guy’s gaze. It was almost exactly like Bradley’s. It made it obvious where the kid had gotten his stare from. And likely his passion for magic from, too.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said.
“Of course. Anything that will help you bring him home. Or… at least his soul.”
“Was Bradley’s grandfather magical?”
“I… he was always interested in the occult, yes. But… I….”
“Why did you call an exorcist?”
“Bradley wasn’t shy about what he was doing. I… I didn’t think it was real. But toward the end,” she gripped her collar once more, securing her fingers in so tightly, I thought she would rip it to shreds, “I saw it with my own eyes.”
I frowned hard. “Saw what with your own eyes, Winnie?”
“Magic,” she hissed. Her voice dropped. It was like a stone thrown off a tower.
“Are you telling me that your son successfully managed to practice magic?”
“I saw it with my own eyes,” she said again as if I didn’t believe her. “I… I was brought up to be a good girl. A Christian girl. My family told me to believe in only what I could see but to always recognize the majesty of Christ. And yet… he managed to make something disappear,” she hissed. “Right in front of my eyes.”
“What did he make disappear?”
“It was my purse. I… I pushed him to do it. I said I didn’t believe in him. He plucked up my purse, and right in front of me, he just….” She clutched her mouth. It was clear she could not continue.
That was more useful information. It just added to the story I was already developing in my mind. Bradley had gotten himself into trouble. He’d bought things from the Vincent Gang he could not afford. But the fact he’d actually practiced magic was worrying.
Yeah, there were powerful magical objects out there, but you had to be a magician yourself in order to practice. I was not one. As I’d already told you multiple times, while I had certain added extras, they weren’t technically magical, not in the way that witches and wizards practiced, anyway.
But this kid…. If you were magical, you were discovered early on. Then the other witches and wizards would start to control you. Magic, when uncontrolled, was a seriously dangerous thing. It could attract all the wrong kinds of creatures.
So how the heck did Bradley get so old before his skills manifested?
“I… I should’ve supported him more. I should’ve believed him. I did this,” Winnie said, her voice cracking with every word.
“You did not do this, Madam. I believe… I have some evidence to suggest that maybe your son was attempting to procure magical items from a certain gang in town. I believe it is they who exacted revenge on him. Perhaps he fell behind on his debts.” I didn’t usually supply so much information so early on in the piece. Yeah, I’d seen a Vincent symbol at the back of this lady’s restaurant, but I needed to confirm a lot before I started to share my suspicions. And yet, I couldn’t stay silent in the face of her grief.
She clutched her mouth harder. “My Bradley wouldn’t do that. He was always good with money. He always understood that you didn’t buy what you couldn’t pay for.”
“Whatever happened to your purse?”
She didn’t answer. Which was an answer anyway. She looked in horror over at the mantelpiece.
I started to walk around the room. It was big, and there were a lot of things spread around on various antique dressers and bookshelves. There was also another photo of the grandfather. It was up above the door.
He had a seriously penetrating gaze. It was the kind of gaze that, if I saw it on the street, I would shrink back from. But if the guy had been magical, the magical community would have found out, and young Bradley’s powers would have been discovered sooner.
So what the hell was going on here?
“I… please find him. Please bring him home. And please… bring whoever killed him to justice.”
I stood in front of her. “There are a few things you need to understand about an exorcist.” I looked her right in the eyes. I might not like facing grief usually, but she had to understand this. “I can’t exact revenge on behalf of your son. All I can do is find information about his murder. I can hand it on to the police – though anonymously. As for your son… I can’t bring him back. I have to exorcise his soul if I find it.”
She suddenly threw herself forward. She fell to her knees and clutched the ends of my jacket. “He can’t go to Hell. Do you understand me? He can’t go to Hell. I know he practiced magic, but he can’t go there. I won’t let him do that. He won’t end up like his grandfather.”
She had just said so much that it was pretty hard to try to figure out exactly what was going on. But at the mention of the grandfather, my curiosity was piqued. “What do you mean that he can’t end up like his grandfather?”
“His namesake. Bradley Senior. He was… a complicated man. My son cannot end up like him, do you hear? You have to send him to Heaven. Can you do that? Can you send him to Heaven and not Hell?”
None of this was making sense, but it was clear that to her it was.
She grabbed my jacket even harder. She used it as purchase to pull herself up. She stared desperately into my eyes. “You have to send him to Heaven.”
If she were anyone else, this is where I would pluck her hands off my jacket pointedly, stare into her eyes, and tell her that I didn’t get to decide where people went. I mean, it was up for discussion as to whether Heaven and Hell existed. Okay, I had to take that back – Hell definitely existed. But I honestly didn’t know what happened to a person when they were exorcised. Their soul would be reborn again, but what happened in between was the business of the universe and not humans.
But I couldn’t tell her something so brutal. She was fracturing right in front of me. As I looked into her eyes, I saw my own. It wasn’t my current stare. I saw my eyes from 15 years ago. From the broken, fractured Lily who’d begged for an escape.
I stood there stoically, trying to hide my own tears.
She soon crumpled. She helped herself back to the couch. She locked one hand on her face. “He just can’t go to Hell. Not like his grandfather.”
“Why do you think his grandfather went to Hell?”
“Because he murdered someone,” she said in such a quiet voice, I almost couldn’t pick it up.
But here’s the thing – murder was my trigger word. Even if you whispered it kilometers away, I would hear, and I would be at your door kicking it down a second later. “What… do you mean he murdered someone?”
“He… I don’t think he ever thought anyone knew. But I did. I found one of his diaries. I figured it all out.”
“What happened to him? Were the police involved? Did anyone else know?”
“He died of a heart attack not long after. I… he went to Hell,” she said, her voice firm. This time, there was no fragility. It was clear that she wanted that guy in Hell. She turned her tear-streaked face up to me again. “But my Bradley can’t go to Hell. He was just a foolish child. He didn’t know what he was dealing with. I should’ve kept him away from his grandfather.”
I hadn’t bargained for this case to be so complicated. I thought it would just be a kid who’d gone missing and who would wind up dead from an accident or something. But my worst fears had been confirmed. Magic was involved. And whenever magic was involved, the stakes rose exponentially.
I grabbed my mouth, locking my fingers in hard. “Can I visit Bradley’s room? Do you know where he practiced magic? And where were you when he made your purse disappear?”
She was not in the frame of mind for questions anymore. It was clear she couldn’t process anything. Her stare was kind of glassy. I imagined her mind was currently pulled between the extreme twin opposites of Heaven and Hell.
I took a soft step up to her. “Do you mind if I look around the house?”
“Please, go ahead. I’ll….”
“I’ll make you a cup of tea when I’m done.”
I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked away. I paused at the doorway, ensuring she was fine. When she didn’t collapse again, I started to explore the house.
I could feel the heavy vibe of death in the air. But now she’d pointed it out, maybe I could feel another vibe, too.
When I’d walked in here, I’d had a strong impression that this family couldn’t afford this home. But when Winnie had been talking about Bradley knowing that you couldn’t buy what you couldn’t afford, that hadn’t been ironic. That had clearly been a principle she had grown up with. So maybe she owned the house and all this nice stuff, after all. But that dark vibe still stood. So it had to stand for another reason.
What if the grandfather had owned this house and had handed it down to them? But what if the grandfather had obtained the house not just illegally, but through an act of murder? That would account for the dense feeling in the air.
There were many ways one could not afford something. If they stole it, and especially if they did so in a violent act of crime, then the cost they made someone else pay was too high by definition.
I stuck to the first floor for a while. I walked into the kitchen. It was beautifully appointed. There was a white tile floor, a huge stone island bench with pans hanging on hooks above it, and a massive gas cooker. Blue-and-white dinner wear was lined up on open French dressers, and there was a sweet table with a set of carved chairs.
But it wasn’t the kitchen’s décor that got to me. As I sniffed, I swore I detected just the faintest whiff of sulfur.
I followed my nose. I walked into a huge pantry. I started to search through the jars until finally I found one.
I pulled it out. I knew it had a magical substance within it way before I unscrewed the lid and practically gagged. It was an off-the-shelf mixture of sulfur, lizard bellies, orange peel, and a chicken carcass. Nasty stuff. I told you before that I was a vegetarian for a very good reason. When you dealt with souls, you understood that there was zero point in adding more destruction to this planet, whether it be through human lives or animal lives. If you could live without hurting others, then you damn well had to live without hurting others, no matter how you chose to define what an other was.
I didn’t put the potion back. I kept it tucked under my arm. I continued through the pantry. I found a small penknife. It was nothing like my own knife, but it was also an off-the-shelf magical device. As I flicked it open, I saw that somebody had gone to a lot of trouble in magically enameling the side of the blade. There were runes. They were not particularly powerful. They weren’t like the ones on my penknife. But this was still a magical device. I pocketed it.
I continued through the rest of the house. I found a small sitting room. There was a sweet desk. I rifled through it.
On the wall was another photo of the grandfather. I turned at one point and faced him. I let a sneer crinkle my lips. “You’re lucky you’re dead, mate. If you weren’t, I’d be coming after you. I just hope you’ve been reborn as a slug.”
I finally headed upstairs to the rooms. It was very clear which one belonged to Winnie, and I didn’t bother to rifle through it much. But when I hit Bradley’s room, it was a cornucopia of sights and sounds. An ordinary set of human ears wouldn’t be able to pick them up, and neither would an ordinary set of eyes. But to me, it was like walking inside a kaleidoscope.
There were countless symbols strewn across the walls. They were done in cheap magical marker. Bradley had cast these himself. He had even figured out how to keep them hidden from other people.
As I stood there, my hands loose but my back rigid, I read them. They were a mess. It was very clear that he’d been teaching himself about magic, probably from dodgy guides he’d gotten off the Internet.
The symbols had no cohesive pattern to them, and that would have greatly disrupted their magic. But the point was, they were there. And so was a somewhat persistent screech in the air. It made me get down on my knees. I rifled under the bed. It took me a while until I managed to see a slight magical barrier. Grabbing my own pen out of my pocket, I flipped it to its knife and cut right through. Then I found a case. I dragged it out.
Inside was Winnie’s purse. There wasn’t any cash, and God knows there weren’t any credit cards. I set it to my left. I continued to search through the case. It didn’t take long until I found a business card. On one side was the symbol of the Vincent Gang, and on the other was a message. I could no longer see it. It presumably had been a once-only-read. As soon as a set of eyes had glimpsed it, it would have destroyed itself.
I wasn’t sure I needed to actually see it, to be honest. It would likely have been a threat from the Vincent Gang to pay Bradley’s debts, or else. And we were already way past the or else.
There was more magical paraphernalia in the box. I was ready to dismiss it until I found something.
It was a ring. A signet ring if I was any judge. And it had a strong magical vibe.
There was a creak on the landing outside. I’d already heard that Winnie had pulled herself up from the lounge room. She paused just outside the door, her deathly white grip on the wood. “I… am I interrupting you?”
“No. Come on in.” I patted the floor beside me. I grabbed her purse and handed it over.
She became as pale as a sheet. “I… it disappeared.”
“I found this under his bed. It’s a magical case. Your purse just went inside. But… there is no cash or cards in there anymore.”
She controlled her expression, even though I knew she wanted to cry again. She flopped onto the bed. She didn’t check what was inside her purse. She just clutched it up as hard as she could. She pressed it against her chest as if it were a surrogate for her son.
When I was happy that she’d gathered her nerves again, I plucked up the ring. I gestured at it. “Whose was this?”
Her eyes widened in alarm. “I… I buried that out in the garden. How… how is it back here?” Her voice shot up high.
I frowned hard. “What do you mean you buried it in the garden?”
She shook her head. A single tear trailed down her cheeks, but she wasn’t about to start crying. It was clear she was terrified. “That was his. Bradley Senior’s. I… when I found out what he’d done, I buried it in the garden. It was after his death. He wanted me to hand it on to my son. But I wouldn’t do it. I… how on earth did my son find it?”
I frowned at the ring. “This is magical.”
“I should have thrown it off a bridge. I should’ve driven it out of town. How could I be so stupid?”
“Don’t beat yourself up. If it’s what I think it is, it would’ve found its way back to your son anyway.” I continued to frown at it. I turned it around, and I saw a symbol on the front. “I don’t suppose you know what this symbol means, do you?”
“It was from his work.”
“And what did he do?”
“He worked for the train yards.”
Excuse me if the train yards weren’t fresh in my mind. I blinked but didn’t say anything. “And they gave him this ring? It looks expensive.”
“It is. But he was a foreman there for a short time before he became the general manager for the entire railway district. Many of the managers for the rail company were given this ring. They had a… I guess you could call it a fraternity.”
I looked at her. I wondered if she had any clue of just how magical this ring was. If they had a fraternity, it sure as heck wasn’t of train managers. I couldn’t think of anything blander. But I could tell you what was not bland – the red-hot, vibrating magical ring in my fingers. Okay, it was neither red-hot, nor was it vibrating. But given a chance, it would do both. “I don’t recommend that you keep this ring here,” I said flatly. “It’s a powerful magical object, and it might attract the wrong kinds of… things.” Though it was damn clear that she now accepted the existence of magic, it might be a bridge too far to start talking of critters and demons and all sorts of ghouls.
She balked. She grabbed her collar again. “Get rid of it. I don’t care what you do, but destroy it. Can you destroy it?”
I frowned at it. “In time. But I can trap it before I do that.” I shoved it into my pocket.
There was nothing much else in the case. She looked morose as she stared at her purse once more. “Will it… take long until you find his… soul body?” She clearly didn’t want to refer to her son as a ghost. And to be fair, we were just guessing that he was a ghost.
It was a pretty damn good guess, though. Given the circumstances of his death – and especially the fact of what his grandfather was – I could guarantee that Bradley was out there right now causing havoc.
“But will I… get to see him before he goes?”
I shook my head. “Only the gifted can see ghosts. When he goes, the dark feelings in this place will lift. Not entirely,” I added quickly. “But you will certainly know.” I balled up a hand and tapped it on my chest twice. I didn’t need to tell her that she’d feel it in her heart. That was obvious.
“I hate this place, to be honest,” she hissed as she clutched her collar once again and twisted her head from this side to that as if she were tracking spirits through the walls. “It always feels like it’s haunted. I have the most horrendous dreams. People in cages, screaming for their lives. And I dream of him,” she pointed to my pocket, indicating the grandfather’s ring within, “murdering people. It’s become worse ever since Bradley disappeared.”
“Do you want some advice?”
“Sell up and leave town. Have you got anything else holding you to this place?”
She shook her head. “Most of my family is upstate.”
“Then move to them.”
It took her a while, but she nodded.
I shoved to my feet.
I was done here. I had all the evidence I needed. I would pay a visit to the Vincent Gang.
That being said, they were sometimes hard to track down. But I had the means to figure out exactly where they were. I nodded at her purse. “Do you mind if I have another look at that?”
She handed it over without question.
I turned it over. It took me a while, but I found the transport ward that Bradley had no doubt used to port this thing into the box under his bed. I scratched it a little with my nail. I started to smell magic.
Then I got down on my knees. I pulled out my phone, placed the purse down, and took a picture of the ward. It would help me track down where the cards and cash from the purse had gone. Presumably the cash had already been spent, but the card would be a different matter.
“Have you canceled your card yet?”
“No. I… thought that my wallet had gone away with the fairies or something.” She suddenly gripped her face. “I’m such an idiot, aren’t I? Please don’t laugh at me for being such a fool. I—”
I stood. “I would never laugh. And you’re not a fool. You’re just trusting. That,” my voice punched down low, “is a very good thing. Continue trusting, if you have the bravery to try. And I will go and find who did this. You have my word.”
She looked up at me and nodded.
I stopped in the doorway and stared at her once more. I couldn’t tell you how many broken families I’d dealt with over the years. I remembered every single one. It was their grief that always remained. Tear-streaked faces, blotchy cheeks, dead gazes – you name it. Whenever it was quiet and I closed my eyes for long enough, I’d see it all.
Then I’d remember myself, back there in that cell, back there alone, and back there, begging to escape.
Not everybody was lucky enough to survive. For those of us who were, we had to continue on, no matter what.
He hopped from one foot to the other, bored but still somewhat happy.
Mr. Critter, he kept repeating in his head. It was the only name he’d ever received. His mother hadn’t bothered to call him anything. After all, he had been one of several thousand children in the same litter.
He hopped from foot to foot again. But there was only so much hopping that one critter could do. It was starting to get boring, so he launched forward and bit the bars instead. It gave his jaw something to do, but there was no way to chew through them. They were made of a holy metal that had been inscribed with wards.
Still, it felt good to show the bars a lesson.
It would be preferable, of course, to show the exorcist lady a lesson, but she wasn’t here.
That being said, he did not wish her ill. She was just meat. And how could you wish meat ill?
It was when he was biting the bars that he heard a creak from the door.
He looked over at it, his eyes widening. He could see through matter, and he knew full well that there was a figure out there.
He did not make the mistake of thinking it was Lady Exorcist.
Tilting his head to the side, he shrank back.
His nose flared, his nostrils opening wide.
He detected the scent of sulfur. But something else – fresh blood.
“Just in here. Spread out. Find the damn thing while we’ve still got time.”
Mr. Critter couldn’t think of what to do, so he did the last thing he remembered. As his body shivered, he changed into a dog.
He, over the years, had realized that many people were not a fan of his. Perhaps it was his beautiful teeth. Perhaps it was his even better bite. Or perhaps they were just jealous of his superior form.
But upon seeing Mr. Critter, most people tried to kick him or, heaven forbid, shoo him away like an unruly house cat.
He’d already had a long, hard day – he could not put up with more right now.
He heard the creaking again, and a set of heavy footsteps made it around the corner and into the room.
It was a man, or should he say a half wizard? He clearly didn’t have the same level of magic as a genuine practitioner – and nowhere near as much as Mr. Critter.
That was evidenced by the fact that, as the man stared over at Mr. Critter in the cage, he laughed. “I didn’t know that exorcist bitch had gotten a dog. So scary.” He walked over and shoved the cage hard.
Mr. Critter, still in his dog form, fell against the bars and gave out a yelp. At least, he gave out what he assumed was an appropriate bark.
The half wizard turned. “What was that?” he demanded with a frown.
Mr. Critter dipped his eyes to the left, thought about it, and yelped again. This one sounded a lot more natural.
There was another set of footsteps. A large man walked in. He too was only half a wizard. He didn’t give Mr. Critter a second glance. “Spread out. Find the damn ring. It’s gotta be here somewhere. We know she went back to that idiot Bradley’s house. We know she’s got it. So she must’ve brought it back here.”
Despite the fact that Mr. Critter didn’t always speak in proper English, he understood it. So he knew exactly what these wizard grunts were saying. And they were wrong. Lady Exorcist had not returned since leaving.
Whatever they were looking for, it was not here.
But they would find one thing here. When Lady Exorcist returned, she would not be pleased. As Mr. Critter had already learned, when Lady Exorcist was angry, things went boom.
“Come on, it’s gotta be here somewhere. We’re running out of time. We’ve gotta get it to the boss. We didn’t do this all for nothing. Let’s go.”
Both men started to tear through everything. They found the medical supply box Lady Exorcist had used to fix her wound and deposited the contents onto the floor disrespectfully.
They certainly did not find what they were after.
“Maybe it’s in the cage?” the first goon said, a cruel look in his eyes.
Mr. Critter just barked. This time, it was a passable utterance for a dog.
“Shut that goddamn dog up.” The second, beefier wizard fobbed a hand Mr. Critter’s way.
A magical cage like this could not be opened from the inside, but from outside, it wasn’t even locked.
The first grunt reached forward and opened it. Then he shoved a beefy hand in.
It was a smelly chunk of flesh, really. Mr. Critter caught the scents of sulfur and fresh blood.
He liked what he smelled. So he leaned in for a taste.
I went home after seeing Winnie.
As soon as I parked the car and got out, I knew something was wrong. It wasn’t just the fact that my door was open a creak, flapping in the wind moaning down the street. It was that the vibe had changed.
“Screw it,” I muttered quickly under my breath as I shoved my car door closed and warily walked toward my house. Not once did I tick my gaze over toward my neighbors, despite the fact that their curtains were open a crack and I knew I had witnesses. I had to focus.
My house had been attacked. I could tell that, because, despite the fact it hadn’t been locked to begin with, some goon had ripped the doorknob off.
I reached it, and by the time I did, I knew that I would have a sight to see within.
Yeah, I never locked my door, because as I’d said before, my enemies would not be the kind to be put off by a cheap metal lock. But at the same time, I had an understanding with most of the criminals in town – or at least the extraordinary ones. They wouldn’t, in their wildest dreams, attack me for fear of retribution. But obviously some idiot had slipped through the cracks.
“Here we go.” With a deep breath, I shoved the door open.
I expected to see junk strewn everywhere. I did. I also saw blood and chunks of leather. Lots and lots of chunks of leather. Specifically, torn fabric with the kind of teeth marks in it that could only come from one category of spectral phenomena.
I shoved forward, darting into my main room. I stared at the spirit cage, and it was empty. It was down on its side by my desk, which was trashed. It looked as if I’d been visited by a hurricane.
And speaking of that hurricane, I heard something hopping from foot to foot in the kitchen.
Unlike the beautiful abode that I visited today, my kitchen was pretty plain. It just had a couple of benches, a cooker, a fridge, and a massive freezer. The kind of freezer, ironically, that you could fit a body inside. I did not do that, of course. But I did stock a lot of magical substances that had to be kept on ice.
As soon as I whirled into the kitchen, it was to the sight of Mr. Critter jumping up and down on top of the freezer lid. He had a thrilled look on his little round face, and his teeth, which were covered in blood, were fully revealed.
“What the hell happened here, Mr. Critter?”
Mr. Critter turned around, his expression opening with joy. “You have not forgotten my name.” He was almost breathless. He sounded like he was out of some kind of drama.
“What the hell happened? I felt the vibe. Somebody attacked my house. I—”
“Two half wizards. Came from Vincent Gang. After some kind of ring. Said you must have it after visiting some idiot called Bradley. Though, thinking between the lines – Bradley must be son of woman at restaurant. He dead.”
“No shit. Now, are you telling me the truth? The Vincent Gang,” I growled, “sent two idiots here to find the ring?”
“You said the ring. Note of familiarity in your voice. You have it, don’t you?”
I really hated being analyzed by a damn critter, but I just shrugged, figuring out there was no point in hiding it.
All the while, Mr. Critter kept dancing around on the freezer. Suddenly everything made sense – all the torn leather, all the blood on the floor, and the absolutely thrilled expression plastered over his face.
I jolted forward. “You haven’t got one of those idiot wizards in the freezer, have you?”
He grinned. It was from cheek to cheek and revealed every single one of his impressive teeth.
I arched an eyebrow. I grabbed him up and pulled him off the freezer and dumped him on the ground, knowing full well that wouldn’t hurt him.
I opened the freezer. Sure enough, inside was a squished half wizard. He was not dead, but he had been bitten quite badly.
He was half unconscious. But at the sight of me, his eyes widened. He went to reach a lethal magic-covered hand out to grab my throat, but Mr. Critter just jumped up onto the rim of the freezer. As soon as the half wizard saw Mr. Critter, he screamed, grabbed the freezer lid, and shut it on himself.
I jerked back. I slowly looked over at Mr. Critter. “Did you… save my house?”
“Inadvertently. I just wanted to taste their hands.”
I chuckled. “I’m sure you did. What did you do to the other one, though?” I asked quickly. I didn’t actually sense death in my house. If someone had been murdered here, I would have known three streets away. My entire world would’ve changed.
“Wizard ran away. Me was going to chase him, but me decided to stay here.”
“Why? You remember that I’m going to exorcise you, right?”
“You call me mister. No one else done that before.”
“… So you stuck around because I was nice to you?”
I had no clue what to do with that. I didn’t think Mr. Critter was capable of irony. “How long have you had that one in there for?” I nodded at the freezer.
“He’s clearly got the magic to keep himself alive. I’ll prepare a sleeping potion and knock him out. Then I’ll wheel him into a park somewhere.”
“And I’ll,” Mr. Critter said with a note of drama in his voice, “remove his hands.” That was the first full sentence Mr. Critter had said in a while. He was obviously very keen to do this and had likely practiced what he would say to me over and over again.
I laughed. “You could, and though that’s tempting, I want to have a clean nose when I go in to see the Vincent Gang. They attacked me. I didn’t attack them.”
“But you’re not associated with me.”
“Me your Mr. Critter, though.”
“Why did they let you out of the cage?” I leaned back against the wall and crossed my arms.
“Me smart. Me took appearance of dog. They wanted to be mean to me,” he said overly dramatically. “So me bit them instead.” He showed his teeth once more.
I knew I shouldn’t be amused by this critter. God knows how much havoc this thing had gotten up to throughout its life, but I still chuckled again. Then I did something incredibly crazy. I reached forward, and I patted it on the head. “You did good.”
You should’ve seen his eyes light up. It was as if someone had crammed fog lights down behind them. “Me… me did good?” he said, slowing down each word as if he had to savor every single one. “You mean… good?”
“Yeah, good. You know, the polar opposite of bad? The thing you’ve been doing most of your life.”
Mr. Critter was no longer paying attention. There was a glassy look in his eyes. It appeared as if I had just made his century.
I walked back into the main room and started plucking things up.
“You want to do good again?” I muttered loudly.
He scurried into the room, his bulbous tail whipping backward and forward and dragging trash along with it. “Me love to.”
“Can you clean up the blood in here? And the leather?”
I didn’t have to ask Mr. Critter twice. He walked over to a patch of blood on the floor and, with a sickly slop of his tongue, started to lap it up. It didn’t matter how long it’d had to sink into the pile, he cleaned it as if he were a professional.
I began to pick up various things. It would take a while to clean this place up. That being said, it wasn’t like it had been clean to begin with. At least I pushed most things back from the central walkway.
All the while, I thought of Winnie and her son. More than anything, I considered the ring in my pocket.
When everything was done and Mr. Critter had cleaned up all of the evidence of a wizard fight, I leaned against my desk and plucked the ring out of my pocket.
He jumped up onto the table beside me. “Vincent Gang after ring. That ring bad. Strong magical vibe.” He shuddered.
“Yeah. Seriously strong magical vibe. And the asshole who had it was a murderer. Turned his grandson toward bad magic from the grave.”
“If Vincent Gang after that ring, need to hide somewhere safe.”
“I was thinking of destroying it, actually.” I twisted the ring around. The light didn’t glimmer along it properly. I wasn’t sure why. But it seemed to get trapped in the metal as if it was really a black hole.
Mr. Critter shook his head. It was a crazy move to watch. It was a lesson in physics as ripples shifted down his back, up into his cheeks, and across into his lips as he opened them dramatically. “Can’t destroy. Not unless very, very strong wizard. You not very strong wizard. Just exorcist.”
I chose not to snort. There was a large difference between me and a strong wizard. Yeah, I could exorcise, and strong magicians couldn’t really do that. But I couldn’t hold my own when it came to the true magical world. “Surely there’s something I can do, though? I was thinking of ripping it apart into its constituent pieces and then writing powerful wards on each bit. Then I was going to try to melt them. You sure that won’t work?”
“No. Too strong magic. Spirit of something protecting it, too.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Listen here. I’m the exorcist. I haven’t felt any spirit in this ring.”
“Spirit in there. Trust me. Want to see?”
I did not want to receive lessons from a critter, but I had to admit that this guy had been particularly useful today. I sighed. “How?”
“Bowl of water and vinegar. Drop of blood. Maybe chicken carcass or two.”
I was familiar with the spell he was suggesting. “Wait. Chicken carcasses?”
“For me to snack on while I watch.”
I rolled my eyes. I headed into the kitchen. Mr. Critter followed along after me like he was a loyal dog. And maybe that was an image I couldn’t really shake, because, just like a loyal dog, he’d kept my house safe. If he hadn’t, I would’ve had a lot more trouble to deal with. Left alone, those wizards from the Vincent Gang could’ve stolen my best gear.
The ring, however, was still very much firmly in my grip. I swallowed, my stomach descending with nerves as I grabbed a bowl and started to prepare the concoction. Maybe Mr. Critter was right and I didn’t need to go through with the spell, though – I could definitely feel that there was something haunting this ring.
When everything was done, I dumped the ring inside the spell.
Mr. Critter shot me a pointed look. “You bad witch.”
“I’m not a witch at all. We’ve already ascertained that several times.”
“Let me do magic.” He shoved me out of the way with his large, strong tail. He locked his little claws up on the edge of the bowl, shoved his face over, and started to chant. Though he had a high-pitched, shrill voice most of the time, now it was deep and sonorous. It seemed to interact only with the water. It sent these deep ripples spreading over the top.
I watched. I had to admit I was impressed. Mr. Critter was doing something in several seconds that would’ve taken me about 10 minutes. Soon enough, I started to see the ring changing, though the metal technically stayed the same. The veil around what it truly was, however, lifted. I could see these little ribbons of force twisting around it. They looked like dark wisps of smoke. “Damn it,” I snapped.
“You don’t need to curse. Already damned.”
I snorted. Then I shoved a hand in and grabbed the ring up. I had to clench my teeth. It was vibrating now, and let me tell you, it was a nasty sensation. I slid my gaze over to Mr. Critter. “If I can’t destroy this thing because it’s haunted, where the heck can I hide it? I don’t want to carry it around with me,” I said quickly. “If I leave it here, then the Vincent Gang is just going to come back for it.”
“You need to hide it in something with stronger force.”
I pressed my lips together. I tried to think. “But even if I do hide it within something with a stronger force, the Vincent Gang is just going to be able to divine where it is, and they’re going to steal both objects.”
“Then you need to hide it in something with teeth that knows how to defend itself.”
I started to think. I half closed my eyes but opened them very slowly. I looked right at Mr. Critter.
He couldn’t touch his lips unless he bent all the way down. I’d already told you that his T-Rex arms couldn’t reach far. So he had to kind of collapse in on himself as he tried to drum his claws on his cheek.
“You,” I said flatly, cutting his rumination short.
“Me mister,” he said. “Not you. Saying you is rude.”
I wasn’t about to stand here and get a lesson in propriety from a critter who spent most of his time biting drunk men’s asses. “No, I mean you. You’re already damned. You’re a critter. If you eat this,” I proffered the ring in front of him, “not only would it likely give you a kick, but the Vincent Gang wouldn’t be able to divine where it was. And even if they did figure out where it was, you’d give them a run for their money, wouldn’t you?”
Mr. Critter looked at me. It was like he was trying to convey something but I was too stupid to figure out what it was.
“What?” I shrugged expressively. “It’s a good plan.”
“Me getting exorcised tonight. As soon as me exorcised, ring plops out onto floor obviously.”
I opened my mouth. I closed it. I’d kinda forgotten about the fact I was going to get rid of him.
This was up to me. It was entirely my call. I knew full well that there was every reason to exorcise this critter. But… he’d been useful. And I could see many uses opening up for him in the future.
I didn’t have anything else to hide this ring in.
I sighed. “Okay, let’s make a deal.”
“You going to give me another name?”
“What? You don’t like Mr. Critter?”
“No. But what else can you give me?”
“How about I not kill you? That’s good enough, right? All you have to do,” I leaned forward and proffered the ring in front of his nose, “is swallow this and keep it safe. Oh yes,” I said, “and retain your absolute loyalty to me. No running away. I’ll find you,” I said.
“And exorcise me. No need for threat. For years, me just in park, eating drunk asses like you said. Bad tasting. But now me hanging around with you, me get prime wizard steak. Tasty.”
I patted his head again. “You also get to hide this.”
He opened his mouth. I threw the ring inside. It was quite a sight to see him eating it. He had to first chew past the ring’s defensive magic. He couldn’t destroy it completely, but he could subdue it. The sound of it was like him going to town on a dinosaur skeleton. It took him a good five minutes, but finally he swallowed it.
I actually clapped. I mean really? I’d come a long way today if I was now clapping at a critter digesting something.
He let out a belch that any frat boy would be proud of. “Done.” He jumped off the table then tilted his head up to me. “What now?”
“Now we’re going to pay a visit to the Vincent Gang. It might be during the day, but I know exactly where their haunt is. You’re going to come. And if I don’t like what they say—”
“We going to eat them all. What about man in freezer?”
I shrugged. “I’ll deal with him—”
There was a sudden knock on the door.
I frowned. No one, and I mean no one ever came to visit me. They sure as heck never knocked.
Mr. Critter turned around. He narrowed his eyes. “Police officer. One that makes your cheeks red. You want me to go eat him?”
“Jerome?” I hissed. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“Me loyal to you now. What we do?”
“Change into a dog. I’ll call you if I need you.” With that, I walked toward the door. Though I didn’t want to admit this, my belly was starting to twist and turn. Nerves darted up my back. And where did they go? Why, right to my cheeks.
I had a crazy aunt. I mean really crazy. I’d lost my mom a few years back, though, so she was one of my only living relations now. She had no kids of her own. So I visited whenever I could.
It was different when she called me while I was working, though.
I winced as I looked at the phone. “Aunt?” I answered. “What is it?”
“You need to come now. Right now.”
“Whoa, slow down.” I’d been driving through the relatively quiet edge of town. I pulled up to the side of the road. “What is it? Is uncle sick?”
“No. It’s that rowdy neighbor of mine.”
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t tell you how many times my aunt had complained of her neighbor. She was certain that she was a witch and she had séances every other week. And if it wasn’t a witch, then the story just kept changing. Once, she’d claimed her neighbor was a hitman. I, of course, had never taken it seriously.
“What’s the matter?” I tried to keep my voice even.
“Two dangerous looking men went into her house and trashed it.”
I made a face. This wasn’t like her usual claims. It was a lot more specific. “You sure?”
“Yes. I am. One of them ran out. But the other never did.”
“She just came back, and I saw her go into her kitchen. What if she has the man in her freezer or something?”
“You need to come over here, right now. Please. I don’t ask for much, but come over here right now.”
She was right. She didn’t ask me for much. She’d given a lot, though. She’d been there for me after my mother had died.
Technically, it wouldn’t matter if I took a detour to her house. I wasn’t doing anything constructive right now anyway. It was nearing the end of my shift, too.
I pressed my teeth together and sighed, though I was smart enough to pull the receiver away from my ear. “Okay. Fine. I’m on my way there. But have you called the police?”
“You are the police.”
“I’m a detective. This is something that uniformed officers need to do.” I didn’t know why I was saying this. This was not something that uniformed officers needed to do. Though this was a strange story from my aunt, I was 90 percent sure that it was bullshit.
Still, a sense of familial duty found me turning around and heading straight to her house. I wasn’t that far away – maybe five minutes, maybe even less.
I put her on speakerphone as I drove.
“She’s a nuisance. You know she’s into animal cruelty?”
“What do you mean?”
“I have photos. I just got them developed. It was a rush job. I’ve had the company deliver them. They’ll be here by the time you are. You’ll be able to arrest her then.”
I winced. I had explained many times to her that it didn’t work that way. I couldn’t just march over and arrest my aunt’s neighbor without real evidence.
That being said, I had no clue what my auntie thought she’d taken a photo of. If it was incriminating enough, then….
I shouldn’t be thinking about this. I had a world of other troubles. My mind should be back on the case. And in part, it was. But it was also distracted.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel as my auntie went off her nut, claiming that her neighbor was some kind of exorcist and that once she’d seen her dragging a ghost in by the collar.
All the time I thought of one person – Lily. Why… why the hell had I not been able to see the truth back in high school? Yeah, I’d changed a lot since then. Everybody did when they grew up. But… why had I been such a goddamn brute?
I remembered an incident. I’d been brushing past her in the corridor. Her hair had gotten tangled up in my watch. I’d made some snide comment about it being tarnished. I could see her eyes, even now – all wide and vulnerable.
I sighed and rubbed my face. “I’ll apologize next time I see you,” I muttered under my breath.
“Sorry?” my auntie demanded.
“Never mind. I’m pulling up now.” I managed the drive in four minutes. I pulled up right outside of my auntie’s house.
She was already on the doorstep.
She rushed down. She grabbed her collar and secured her fingers in tightly. “It’s that house there.” She pointed an arthritic finger at it.
I looked at it. Sure, the lawn was long, and the outside façade hadn’t been painted in a long while, but it didn’t look like the home of a séance witch exorcist hitman. Or whatever the hell it was these days.
That being said as I took a step to the side, I did see that the front doorknob was hanging off.
My gut kicked. This couldn’t be real, could it?
My auntie locked an arm around mine. She leaned in close. Her breath was quick. “I still haven’t seen the other man leave. There was terrible crashing and banging about half an hour ago. There was even snarling. I swear she’s got some truly violent dog in there. I saw her take one in today. She collared it like she wanted to strangle it. But it was small. She must have something else in there. A wolf maybe?”
I winced and looked down at my auntie. Fortunately she wasn’t facing me.
Yeah, a wolf.
She started to lead me forward, but I cleared my throat. “If this is official, I’m going to have to do it on my own.” I extricated myself from her arm.
She looked a little disappointed, but then she took several steps back, clutched at her gold cross necklace, and just nodded. “You’ll be fine. You’re a big strapping lad.”
I didn’t know what that meant. What exactly did she think her neighbor would be able to do to me? I just nodded and smiled. I cleared my throat.
There was every reason I shouldn’t be doing this. If I had a legitimate belief that this had been an attack, I should’ve just called dispatch and got them to send a squad car over.
But I was here now.
I walked up to the front porch.
There was a lot of litter in the grass. Strange things, too. Little glass reflective objects, little gemstones, and a few broken gnomes.
I tried to put it all out of my head. None of this was illegal.
I reached the front door. The doorknob was still hanging off. It looked as if someone had wrenched it off with a crowbar.
“Here goes nothing,” I whispered. I knocked on the door. It was hard to ensure that it didn’t swing inward. “Hello? Is someone there? We’ve had reports of a disturbance. I’m from the local police force—”
I thought I heard someone swearing. For some reason, it sounded memorable.
There was footfall. It made its way up to the door. Then somebody grabbed it. I saw some petite fingers coming into view. Slowly they opened it.
And there, right in front of me, was Lily.
I was so surprised, I just stared at her, my mouth half open. “… Lily? What are you… doing here?”
She forced a smile over her lips. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“Seriously, what are you doing here?”
“This is my house, Officer,” she said. She spoke around a forced smile. It was the kind of grin that looked as if someone had drawn it onto her teeth.
Things started to line up. The séance witch exorcist hitman that my auntie had been complaining about for years was none other than Lily.
I didn’t do anything for a few seconds. I just stood there, looking like an idiot. Then I came to my senses. “We’ve had reports of a disturbance. Two gentlemen entered this property and only one exited.”
Lily just looked at me. She had an expression that was completely at odds with the Lily I remembered from high school. She channeled this overwhelming sense of cool control. At the same time, it was also clear that she was irritated as hell. “Don’t tell me. The dear old lady next door called you, did she? Always watching me, isn’t she. Well,” Lily gave out a heavy sigh, “it’s fine. There’s no one here.”
I scratched my shoulder. I didn’t want to push, but I also kind of had to. “We had reports that you have a violent dog here.”
“I have a dog here, but he’s not violent. Now where is he? Mr. Critter? Mr. Critter?” she called.
There was a god-awful strange yelp from the kitchen. It made me stand straighter immediately. But then I heard trotting paws. Into view came that little dog from earlier today. The kind of dog that, though it had given Lily a bad bite, could not tear down two men in their prime. It just gave me a quizzical look.
“I thought that belonged to some old lady down the road?”
“She needed me to look after him for a few days. He’s a pleasant chap, really.” She leaned down and patted him on the head.
The dog shot me this look. It was almost impossible to describe what it was. It… it was like it was sizing me up to see how much meat I had. But that was a stupid thought. The dog barely came up to my calf. The only thing it was going to eat was a can of food and a bit of kibble.
“Do you mind if I have a look around?”
She kept the door half closed behind her. “Why? Because the lady next door thinks I have a wolf eating men in my house? Is this a real complaint?” She started to push her cuticles down distractedly. “Has it actually been registered? Is there any kind of warrant?”
I stood straighter. “No. But—”
“Do you honest to God think that there’s a body on this property? Do you think that two men broke into my house and this dog here,” she pointed at it, “mauled one to death?”
I opened my mouth. I didn’t know what to say to that. “It’s just a report. These are just preliminary investigations.”
“It’s detective, actually.” My voice hardened. I had told myself in the car that the next time I saw Lily, I would apologize to her. This was not apologizing.
She flashed her gaze up to me. It was controlled. I didn’t need to keep repeating that it was different from everything I remembered about Lily. But it was… strong in a way I hadn’t seen for a long time. “Look. I’m just following through—”
The dog started to bark. The first time I’d heard it yelp, it had sounded… I dunno, otherworldly maybe? Now it sounded like a real dog.
Sorry… what had I just thought? It was a real dog. I couldn’t let my aunt’s paranoia slip in and poison my mind.
The dog turned and looked as if it was barking back in the direction of the rest of the house.
Lily turned her head around. She leaned down and patted the dog. “You go do something useful, Mr. Critter.”
With another bark, he scooted off.
As she leaned away, she inadvertently revealed more of her house. It looked trashed. But not the kind of trashed you’d expect if there’d been a break-in.
She shifted up, and she met my gaze. It brought her face very close to mine. Her eyes were… I didn’t exactly know how to explain it. Intense, maybe? They looked like the kind of eyes that could see through any barrier, no matter how thick and well constructed.
“Are we really on first name terms, Detective?” she said pointedly.
That was a kick in the guts. I now didn’t have an opportunity to apologize, did I?
I opened my mouth again. She leaned past me. “You know the old lady from next door is behind you, right? Looks as if she has some evidence on me,” Lily said as she twisted her tongue around her teeth.
I didn’t want to describe Lily as arrogant, but she clearly thought she had this situation under control. I felt my gut hardening against her.
Sure enough, my aunt was walking up the path, though. She made disgruntled noises at the dirty grass. She had an old-school envelope of developed photos under her arm. “You’re here, my boy. They just arrived. They’re hot off the presses, if you will. It’s all the evidence you’re going to need.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “My boy? How come you’re not telling her to call you detective?”
I shot Lily a warning look.
My aunt came to a stop on the porch. She was shaking slightly as if she was terrified that Lily would do something to her. She ripped open the photo envelope and started to pull them out. She leafed to the most recent one and handed it over. “This shows her manhandling a dog. So cruel. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I stared at the photo. With my brow creasing and my gut sinking, I looked up at my aunt. “She’s not holding anything,” I said in a dead voice. Dammit. This had all been a wild goose chase. Not only did I look like a complete idiot, but I had completely ruined my opportunity to say sorry.
My aunt leaned in and grabbed up the photo. She stared at it with wild eyes then over at Lily. “She’s a witch. She managed to cast some kind of invisibility spell on the dog.”
“Which dog are you talking about? My beloved little pooch? The one that belongs to the lady down the road? Mr. Critter,” Lily called, her voice somewhat sarcastic.
There was the pounding of paws. Mr. Critter came back into view again. Lily opened her arms, and he leaped right in. It was a pretty athletic move.
She chucked him under the chin. “Why would I be cruel to this thing?”
“I saw you collar him and drag him out of your car this morning. I know what you’ve done. There’s a man dead in your freezer, isn’t there?”
Lily looked completely fine, but the dog, for whatever reason, looked sprung. Until once more I reminded myself that it was just an ordinary dog.
Lily pursed her lips and shoved a breath through them. “I’ve put up with the fact that you’ve been spying on me all of these years. I knew full well that you were taking photos. But this is another level of accusation. Do I really need to go and show you my freezer, officer?” she said pointedly to me. She once more called me officer, despite the fact I’d already corrected her.
It was clearly a test to see if I would correct her once more. I didn’t. I was no longer in control of this situation. It turned out that I’d never been in control of it. My aunt had just been crazy from the beginning.
I pinched the bridge of my nose.
My aunt leaned in. She snatched the photos off me. She started to search through them. Her eyes filled with alarm. “I saw you drag in a ghost two days ago.” She proffered a photo that looked as if Lily was leaning down and cleaning something off her shoe.
“You see ghosts, do you?” Lily said with a completely even voice.
Again, the dog looked sprung. It had such a strange range of expressions. Far more than you would expect for an ordinary pooch.
“I think we need to drop this now, Auntie,” I whispered as I went to grab her shoulder.
Lily locked her gaze on me. “Related, are you? Makes sense.”
I stiffened. I looked at her. “All I was doing was investigating a report.”
“From a family member,” she emphasized.
I started this day full of horror at what happened to Lily. The horror was still there. But now it was making space for frustration, too. “Look—”
“We need to look in the freezer right now,” my auntie said as she went to brush past me.
I immediately shoved a hand forward and locked it on her shoulder. “We’re done here, Auntie. I’m sorry,” I said, and I looked right at Lily, trying to mean it on every level, “for wasting your time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Fine.” With that, she turned around, and she closed the door in my face.
My aunt spluttered. “You can’t leave it there. There’s a man in the freezer.”
I grabbed my face and let my hand fall down it. “There’s nobody in the freezer, Auntie. Just as there was no photo of her manhandling that dog. I….” I went to unload on her, but I knew I couldn’t. She had no idea about my history with Lily, and I certainly wasn’t about to share it. “Let’s just go, okay?”
“But these photos show what I’ve been telling you. She’s an exorcist. She’s a hitman. She’s a witch.”
“Come on.” I dragged her down the porch. By the time we made it to Lily’s surprisingly neat white picket fence, I glanced at the house again.
So much for apologizing. I’d just made the situation 10 times as bad.
But at least… strangely, at least I’d seen her again.
Little did I know that I’d be seeing a lot of Lily from here on out.
I stood there with my back pressed up against my door. Mr. Critter was still in my arms. I arched an eyebrow at him. “Is that wizard still in the freezer?”
He nodded. “I placed many things on top of the freezer so idiot not get out and make a noise.”
I laughed. “Great. But it would’ve looked exceptionally dodgy had I actually taken Jerome into the kitchen.”
“You were never planning to, Lady Exorcist. You were playing this like chess. You had him in the bag from beginning.”
I laughed. “Sorry, Lady Exorcist?”
“Me Mr. Critter, you Lady Exorcist.”
I had to admit, I kind of liked the name.
Realizing I couldn’t just leave my door with the broken knob, I quickly searched around for something to block it off with. I found a dresser and shoved it over.
Meanwhile, Mr. Critter jumped up to one of my windows and shoved his head under the curtain. He glowered at the lady next door. “She see ghosts. She didn’t see me, though.”
When I was done, I patted my hands off. Everything in my house was coated with dust. Not only did I never clean it, but magic was messy by definition. “Yeah. I didn’t see that coming.” I locked my hands on my hips. “But it doesn’t matter. Now everyone thinks she’s crazy. She’s the perfect neighbor to have.”
“You want me to go over and bite her?” Mr. Critter asked legitimately.
“No. From now on out, we have to play it straight. We’ll keep on the lowdown for a while. That being said,” I clicked my fingers, “it’s probably time to deal with the body in the freezer.”
“We take a finger first?”
I looked at him seriously. “No. But you will accompany me to the Vincent Gang’s hideout. It’s time to show them my displeasure at the fact that they sent two of their goons here.”
“How are we going to get wizard body into your car?”
I tapped my chin. He had a good point. I didn’t really want to wait until nightfall. As soon as it became dark, I was going to head to 49th Street.
“Me know. Me can jump on top of wizard, and me can use my powerful appearance magic to change our appearance into something else.”
I wasn’t used to having someone who could practice real magic. “Seriously? Like what?”
He thought for a moment. “Rug. Big rug. You can walk out with rug over your shoulder and dump it in car.”
I crossed my arms. “That’s just going to look like I have a body inside the rug.”
He conceded my point. “Then big bag?”
“Also associated with bodies.”
He tilted his head all the way down until he could drum on his chin with his little fingers. “Then… how about big jacket? Hard magic, and me going to get tired afterward and probably need to snack on wizard, but possible.”
I wasn’t opposed to him having a little bite of the wizard’s leg or something – just a taste of blood and nothing else. “Okay. Show me what you can do.”
He rushed ahead, made it into the kitchen, and shoved everything off the freezer. There were massive bangs and clangs. No doubt Mrs. Snoopy from next door was listening to them with a stethoscope up against my wall or something. I’d have to keep an eye on her.
Mr. Critter opened the door of the freezer and almost immediately the wizard within tried to close it. They had a battle until Mr. Critter hissed right in the guy’s face. I grabbed the freezer lid and forced it open. Then I looked pointedly at the wizard. “I’m gonna take you home. What do you say to that?”
“Don’t bury me in the graveyard, all right? I’ve got a lot of enemies there.”
I rolled my eyes. “By home, I meant the Vincent Gang. Come on. I’m an exorcist of real ghosts, not of idiots like you.” I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up.
He’d obviously been using his magic to keep himself warm. His skin was all tingly.
He stared down at Mr. Critter, and Mr. Critter enjoyed every damn second of it. He opened his lips and let his teeth shine.
The wizard actually grabbed me by the shoulders and held me close as if I was some kind of comfort.
I just sliced my gaze up to him. “Seriously?”
“Keep me away from that thing, okay? I’ll do anything you want, just keep me away from him.”
Mr. Critter was turning out to be even more useful than I’d thought he’d be. With my hand still latched around the guy’s collar, I yanked him out of the freezer. He stood there, a few ice shards falling off him and shattering at his feet. He was a massive bloke. He was easily a good foot taller than me. He looked as if he could pick me up and use me as a basketball, but now he shrank down.
I crossed my arms. “Just what exactly were the Vincent Gang thinking? That they would manage to break into my house and steal what they want, and then that would be that? Have I ever given you the impression that I’m the kind of person you can screw with easily?”
He shrank back again. “Look, lady, I was just doing what I was told.”
“Lady Exorcist,” Mr. Critter snarled. “Call her by her title, or else.” He flashed his teeth.
The guy yanked his hands up and held them wide. “Lady Exorcist. Lady Exorcist.” He even half bowed.
My life had gotten a lot more interesting now that I’d adopted a critter. Or at least… for the time being.
I took several steps away from the wizard. I stood by Mr. Critter. We now formed a line of power. And should the wizard try anything on, he would not like our response. “I’m gonna tell you how this is gonna go down. Mr. Critter here is going to jump on you and use appearance magic to change the way you look. Then I’m gonna take you into my car. I’m gonna dump you in the back. With Mr. Critter. You will ride in the boot until we get to the Vincent Gang. And if at any time you try to escape—”
“Me going to eat every one of your fingers,” Mr. Critter said excitedly as he jumped from one foot to another.
The guy paled until it looked as if someone had nicked his jugular. “No way. I will do anything—”
“Don’t worry. Mr. Critter here is loyal to me.” I knelt down and patted his hand fondly. “You will just do as I say. Got it?”
The guy winced.
I gestured to Mr. Critter. With one simple bound, he landed on the wizard’s shoulder. The guy gave this high-pitched yelp.
“Keep it down,” I growled. “I really don’t need to give my nosy neighbor anything else to call her bloody nephew about.”
Mr. Critter started to get in the groove of things, and as he concentrated, his magic spun around him.
The wizard winced once more, then in a click, magic changed both of them. They formed a huge jacket. It flopped down to the floor.
It was insane.
Mr. Critter was a seriously powerful conjurer.
“Damn, Mr. Critter, I should’ve adopted you sooner.”
The jacket twitched as if it wanted to reply. It couldn’t in its current state. And I knew for a fact that despite how powerful Mr. Critter was, he wouldn’t be able to remain in this state for long. I picked up the jacket quickly. I looked around my house. I had nothing else of importance to hide or secure.
I did however shift over to the back door. I bolted it, then moved something heavy in front.
I made it over to the front door, shoved the chest of drawers out of the way, and walked through.
I needed something to guard my house.
Mr. Critter would be with me, so that wasn’t an option. But I had another. I didn’t usually use them, because I didn’t see the point. They wouldn’t help with extraordinary creatures, but right now the only thing I cared about was Mrs. Snoopy from next door coming in and looking at my stuff while I was gone.
Now what the hell was I talking about? A gnome. A broken one.
With the jacket over my shoulder and feeling exactly like it was a wizard and not just a garment, I knelt down with a grunt and patted the head of a broken gnome. Its eyes suddenly lit up. “Protect the house. If anyone comes, haunt them to death. Sorry,” I corrected quickly, “haunt them until they run.”
The gnome grinned.
I made it to my car. The whole while, it was like dragging a damn anvil. While Mr. Critter could change the appearance of the wizard, the guy was still as heavy.
I tried not to grunt too much. If I weren’t as strong as I was, this would be a damn hard feat. I opened the boot, and I set the jacket down. I made a surreptitious look left and right as the suspension of my car groaned. Whatever. Mrs. Snoopy could be taking as many photos as she wanted, but she wouldn’t see a thing. Once that was done and the boot was closed, I made it to the driver’s side. I reversed and shot out onto the road.
I had a long day ahead of me.
I couldn’t even appreciate right now how long it would get. Because this was the beginning. The beginning of the end.
I knew exactly where the Vincent Gang’s main haunt was. Every single magical person in town did. Because it was the kind of place that you did not go unless you were invited. Right now, I didn’t give a goddamn hoot.
I parked not too far away. I knocked on the boot twice. There was a whimper.
“Mr. Critter, change back into a jacket,” I hissed.
There was a slight growl then a pop. The car shook. I turned around to check that no one was watching me. Then I opened the boot. The jacket was back.
I leaned down, braced from the knees, grabbed it up, and shoved it over my shoulder. I closed and locked the boot.
I headed straight across the street to the Vincent Gang. The whole while, I prepared what I would say – and do. I would do anything to hammer home the point that they should not mess with me again.
The Vincent Gang’s main haunt was down a little set of steps. It was in an old sandstone building. I mean seriously old. Like 250 years. The sandstone had never been cleaned, and it wept this nasty black mold. It was kind of appropriate, really. No sane person would look at it and think that whatever was within would be fun.
I went to march down the stairs, but a guy smoothly walked out of an alley to the side and plopped himself between me and them. “Exorcists are not welcome.”
I looked up at him. “You are gonna get the hell out of my way right now. I’m gonna pay Vincent himself a visit. And if he doesn’t accept to see me, I’m going to take this,” I pointed at my shoulder, “and hand it over to the cops.”
He looked at the jacket, his lips crinkling into a smile. “Are you pointing to that overly large jacket? Do you think I care?”
“Oh God, Vincent has slipped. You can’t actually see what it is, can you? Because you’re only half a wizard. What? Did he train you off the Internet? Or do they have an app for that?” I asked sarcastically.
“Look, lady,” he said as he suddenly squared off in front of me.
I didn’t need to crack out an insult. The jacket whimpered in the wizard’s voice. “Just get the boss.”
The bouncer’s eyes opened so wide, it looked as if it was an involuntary twitch that would eject his eyeballs out onto me.
I sliced my lips up into a smile. “You heard the jacket.”
He turned fast. He headed down the stairs. I followed, but nowhere near as quickly. It was quite a feat to drag this wizard jacket down the steps.
He opened the door and rushed through. It led to a wide hall. While the outside was old, the inside had been torn up. It was modern but nasty.
It was the middle of the day, but it was still dark and smoky in this club.
I dragged the wizard forward. I headed into the main room. There was a sticky bar that had likely never been cleaned in its entire existence and a suspicious looking barman behind it. I imagined that guy had seen some things over his career. The kind of things that would make an ordinary person wither up and die. He certainly had that kind of look about him. He just snarled at me.
Pressing my lips hard over my teeth, I repaid the move in kind.
Twisting around, I stared at the rest of the club. Club was a generous term, really. There was an open area where you could dance – if you were mad enough to do it in amongst the Vincent Gang. Toward the side, there were tables and chairs if all you wanted to do was imbibe yourself on suspicious alcohol. But upstairs was where everything really went down. I climbed them, huffing all the way.
I headed toward a large ornate door. That would lead me straight to Vincent himself. The door creaked open, and a massive bouncer walked out. He looked right at my jacket. “Are you out of your mind, exorcist? You attacked one of our own—”
“You’re gonna cut the shit and let me go and see Vincent right now.”
“You think—” the guy began, ready to square off in front of me once more.
“Let her in,” a rumbling voice said from within.
I snarled in the bouncer’s face, getting right up into his mug as I shifted past. I walked through the door.
This room was opulent as hell. The rest of the bar was completely scummy, but this place was kept pristine clean.
It even had a wide window that, by rights, it shouldn’t have. Any real window here should just look out onto the street-level, but this one offered a view of the entire city.
I didn’t even look at it once. I kept all of my attention for the wizard behind the desk next to it.
He was older – maybe in his late forties. But he was a silver fox. He had the kind of face that would never cease to be handsome. And as for his eyes? I shouldn’t have to tell you that they were just as piercing as two daggers through the heart.
He sliced his gaze over to the jacket immediately. “I see you’re here to return my property.”
I laughed. I walked over then dumped the jacket on the desk. There was a real shake. Which is exactly what would happen if you manhandled a large man down onto a desk as if you were dropping an anvil onto an egg.
Vincent jerked back, and one of his bouncers shot forward to attack me, but he opened a hand.
I stepped back, and I clapped once.
Mr. Critter gave up his spell. In a puff of magic, he appeared on the wizard’s chest. He shook his back out, turned, stared at the wizard, brought his teeth close, then laughed.
Vincent looked straight at the critter than over at me. “I had no clue that you’d made a pact with a damned thing.”
I gestured wide. “It ain’t really a pact. Turns out your boys are stupid. They can’t see through a critter’s spell.” I patted him on the head.
Mr. Critter actually purred. It was a very unsettling sound. He was still on the wizard’s chest, and the guy was now shuddering.
Vincent sat down in his chair and leaned all the way back. “What do you want?”
I laughed. “What do I want? Do you mean what do you want? You were the idiot who broke our pact and sent goons to my house.”
“What pact?” he said in a calm voice.
I locked a hand on the edge of his desk and leaned in. He just sat there and stared at me, not flinching back once.
“Maybe it’s not on paper, but it sure as hell has operated for the past couple of years, wouldn’t you say? It’s the pact that says that if you mess with me,” I pried a hand off the desk and patted my chest, “then I mess with you.”
He just laughed. “You’re nothing more than an exorcist.”
I laughed too. “Nothing more than an exorcist? You sure about that?”
“I’ll admit that you’re stronger and smarter and more powerful than most,” he said as he looked me up and down, “but ultimately, you have no magic of your own.”
I straightened. “Is this a war, Vincent?” I asked, really slowing his name down as I spat it from my lips.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a war. It’s only war if the other person has a chance of winning, isn’t it?”
I really laughed now. “So you’ve got the ring, then, do you? Your attempt to get it worked, did it?”
“You thought I didn’t know what you were after, ha?”
He looked like he wanted to rise, but he smartly stayed seated. His bouncer behind me growled, though.
I just turned and slowly looked at the guy. “I’ve still got the ring, boys. And you’re not gonna get it. No matter what you do. You shouldn’t have messed with me.”
Vincent finally pushed to his feet. It was a slow, edgy move. It certainly was not the kind that was meant to intimidate me. He was shaking a little too much for that.
I locked onto his fragility. “You desperately need the ring, ha? And let me guess, if you don’t get it, something bad is gonna happen to you.” I pointed at him, waggling a finger this way and that.
“You have no idea what you’ve just walked into.”
“Sorry. Walked? I was dragged. You were the idiot who attacked my place. And you’re wrong, Vincent. It is war,” I said as I slapped my hand down on the edge of the desk and leaned in once more.
Mr. Critter was getting into the act, too, and he growled right in Vincent’s face.
The wizard that Mr. Critter was still pinning was smart enough not to move, but he did at Mr. Critter’s vicious snarl.
Vincent would do well to recognize his employee’s fear, but he was clearly too arrogant for that. “You will give me the ring. Or you will never get out of here.”
I laughed. “Firstly, do you think I’m dumb enough to have brought it right to you when that was all you wanted in the first place? And secondly, what exactly could you do to me?”
It was his turn to place a hand down on his desk and lean in. His face stopped just a few centimeters from my own. “There are many things I could do to you.”
I laughed once more. “You’re nowhere near as strong as you think you are. Plus, you crossed the line.”
“What line is that?”
“The boy’s name was Bradley. You killed him, right?”
“He stole from us.”
“So you’re admitting that you killed him?”
“I don’t ultimately know who killed him.”
“But I’m assuming that you put the hit out on him and you’ve already paid the successful assassin, ha?”
“I’m not here to talk about such matters.”
“Yeah, well I am. I’m going to find out who killed him. And I’m gonna bring them to justice. And if I find out that you’re lying, and it was one of your boys after all, I’m going to hand them straight over to the cops.”
“Do you honestly think you’re going to get out of this room?” Vincent nodded over at the door.
I rolled my eyes. “Mr. Critter,” I said in a light voice, “are you feeling hungry yet?”
Mr. Critter danced back and forth frantically. “Me ravenous. Long time since me snacked on blood. Magic of appearance hard. Me really want a finger or two.”
I patted my shoulder. He leaped up onto it. The wizard he’d been pinning let out this sigh as if he were a balloon that had been plucked with a pin.
“I have at least 20 wizards on call. You’re just a lowly exorcist with some kind of pathetic critter. You can’t get out of here,” Vincent snarled.
“Pathetic critter?” Mr. Critter practically exploded. “Use my real name.”
Vincent didn’t even glance down at Mr. Critter. Which was a mistake.
“I will do a deal with you, Vincent,” I snarled. “You will hand over the assassin of Bradley, and then you will tell me where the ghost is. And then… I might leave you with some functioning wizards.”
“You were always far more arrogant than you had reason to be. You live in a magical world, but you have nothing but the capacity to get rid of old ghosts. You’re nothing. You’re weak. You’re a child playing an adult’s game.”
I held Vincent’s gaze. “But I still play it better than you. Mr. Critter – go to town.”
Mr. Critter didn’t need to be told twice. He jerked off my shoulder and went right for the bouncer behind me. He went straight for the guy’s knees. Though the wizard had clearly been expecting an attack, he wasn’t up for it.
Yeah, wizards had magic and all, but critters were damned creatures, and when it came time to fighting them, exorcists like me were much better at it. We knew how to track their movements. Plus, unless you could actually exorcise Mr. Critter, you would never get rid of him.
Vincent had clearly figured out that he had a chance and had assumed Mr. Critter was less powerful than he was. And that was an assumption that was quickly brought crashing down. So was the bouncer. The guy tried to let off several spells, but Mr. Critter just went after his knees like a bat. There was a crunch, and I could see blood splattering out from here.
“Get my guards,” Vincent roared in the kind of magical voice that would be able to pierce through matter.
Meanwhile, the wizard I’d brought from my house just crumpled onto the floor. When Vincent demanded that he jump up and protect him, the guy just shook his head. When he saw an opening, he ran right through the door.
All the while I just stood there, staring at Vincent, my hands in my pockets. “I can end this any time.”
“You will get yours, exorcist bitch.” Vincent spat that with as much vehemence as he could. His words were like a tidal wave of spite.
So I just shook my head back and laughed.
Mr. Critter continued to go to town.
I thought it would be an easy fight – that was until I heard the whimper of a dog. This was no critter pretending to be a pooch.
Immediately a body memory rushed through my form. It started at my heart and spread out.
I knew that sound. It had practically been carved into my bones.
A soul dog.
Back… back then, when I’d been tortured for a week, a soul dog had guarded me.
I jerked my head around in the direction of it.
Mr. Critter clearly heard the sound too, and his eyes widened. He’d be no match for a soul dog. It would be able to rip him to shreds.
I thought this would be an easy fight. But now I had to get involved.
I… it was murder to unstick my feet from the floor. For a few seconds, all I could remember was my old self. All of the years of training disappeared. I was back there, weak, pathetic, and with no one to save me.
A bead of sweat slid down my brow.
I heard the growl of the soul dog getting closer.
Mr. Critter whimpered again.
A wizard went right for him.
I closed my eyes. But only for a moment.
I remembered. All the things I’d tried to push away – I let them flood in.
It didn’t immobilize me. Just the opposite. By the time I opened my eyes, I was ready.
I’d survived this long because I had learned to fight back then. And I had not forgotten how to fight since.
I shot into action. My feet had become well and truly unstuck.
It was just as Mr. Critter started to lose power. Fair enough. While these wizards weren’t much of a match for him, the soul dog would take one look at him, rip him apart, and tear his soul to shreds. Hence the name.
I had my penknife out of my pocket before I could say hello. I unscrewed the cap with a quick, dexterous move of my thumb. It clunked onto the floor. By that time, the soul dog had already reached the doorway. I saw Vincent out of the corner of my eye. Glee practically exploded over his face. It was the look of a man who knew that he was about to see death laid out at his feet.
I didn’t even grunt as the soul dog threw itself at me. I had to time everything perfectly.
I had not been joking when I’d claimed earlier that I had been exorcising for 15 years. My anniversary would actually come up in a week or two.
So I knew exactly how to do it in any circumstance. And more than once, I’d been forced to do it on the run. An exorcism on the fly was not as easy as it sounded. I didn’t just willy-nilly make a cross over my chest and start chanting some liturgy or something. I had to embed an object with exorcist wards into the creature I wanted to dispatch. I had to do it with such power and force that I would rob them of their momentum. Then I had to collar them and say my prayer.
The dog came at me. All I saw was a flash of teeth. It was the kind of strong glint that could bury itself into my skull. With a sneer, I twisted. Time pretty much slowed down. It always did when I was in situations like this. My senses would align. I’d see all the details I needed to. The force and movement of the dog’s leap. The look in its eyes. The angle of its teeth. Everything just flowed through me, my mind grabbing hold of the most important details. While this was arguably a skill I had developed myself over the years, it was also one that drew on a lot of the skills of the people I’d absorbed.
As I’d already mentioned previously, I had a policeman under my wing, as I did a top surgeon. I had a bunch of other skilled professionals too, who’d had to be able to make split-second decisions under the pump. Now all of that information coalesced, and it allowed me to twist on my foot and slam the knife down at the exact right moment. It buried itself into the side of the soul dog’s shoulder. It was just as its teeth reached toward me.
There was an enormous whimper then the sound of something cracking. This wasn’t like someone throwing a bowling ball at glass. This was far more like the ethereal strings holding a creature to this world all cracking at once.
I could tell that Vincent had been expecting that I and Mr. Critter would go down easily to this soul dog. But he had another thing coming.
The past day had taught me that my reputation in this town was worth nothing. Yeah, so I knew exactly what I’d been doing over the years, but clearly out there the magical community had a less than favorable view of me. It was time to rectify that issue.
Without a grunt, and with my penknife still buried deep in the dog’s shoulder, I twisted around and pinned it against the floor. I locked a sweaty hand on the clean marble. Then I jerked my head up, and I made eye contact with Vincent once. It was long enough to see the terror making his eyes gape wide open like hands that were ready to clutch any weapon, any weapon at all.
But there was nothing within his reach anymore.
With a blasting voice and spittle flying over my lips, I started to chant the exorcist mantra.
The dog tried to buck in my arms, but it was too weak. Its soul had already connected to the exorcist wards.
Light began to pick up around me.
“Lady Exorcist wins again,” Mr. Critter declared. He roared and threw himself at the remaining guard.
Vincent just stood there, his cheeks cold. The reality of this situation had clearly just caught up with him. There was no way that he was going to win this. That had clearly been his only soul dog. And with another mutter from me, the creature was now well and truly gone. Its soul gave up and departed this world. Wisps of ethereal smoke scattered where its body had once been. A few descended through the floor, but most of them curled up into the air and disappeared like smoke on the wind.
It took me a while to shove to my feet. I locked my gaze on Vincent. I gave him the kind of stare that suggested that he wasn’t going to get past me.
He made it to the corner of his desk. He brought his hands up in a defensive position. While there wasn’t magic crackling around them yet, I could tell that there could be in a few short seconds. “You’re not going to win,” he spat.
I shrugged and looked pointedly down at where his soul dog had been. And I slid my gaze over to Mr. Critter. He currently had his very impressive teeth buried into the leg of what looked like Vincent’s most impressive wizard. “You sure?”
Vincent’s lips twitched hard. They looked as if they wanted to pull themselves off his face. I’d seen Vincent a few times. This was the only time he’d ever shown true fear. And trust me, this was no act. Nor was it directed at me and the threat I currently posed to him. I could tell from the look of total, almost wretched terror crossing over him that he needed my ring. He needed it, or it would be lights out, Mr. Vincent.
He started to shuffle to the side. If I’d been paying clear attention, I would’ve realized he’d given up on trying to run through the door behind me. He slid his gaze once or twice toward that impressive window with the impossible view.
I threw my penknife up and caught it. It was still vibrating a little from where I’d dispatched the soul dog.
I would not be able to dispatch Vincent. But I would be able to threaten him. Once Mr. Critter was done with that other wizard, he would do the rest. “You’re never going to break into my house again,” I said, my voice bottoming out low.
He laughed. It had this eerie edge to it. I imagined that over the years someone like Vincent had seen a lot of stuff. I also imagined that he’d doled out worse. But the look he gave me… it was like he could currently imagine something that I couldn’t even begin to conceive of. Some depth of true dark terror that he’d heard about and that had now dragged his soul down to Hell. He looked as if he was someone who was tied up with horror. “I’m going to give you one option. You give me the ring, and you get out of town.”
I laughed. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m currently winning. I’m not leaving. I’m sure as hell not giving you the ring.”
“Fine. Then he can come and get it off you.”
I didn’t like the way Vincent said he. It had this gravitas to it. Someone like Vincent knew exactly how to intimidate people. It was in his damn genes. Plus, he practiced every single day. But this… it made my skin crawl. “And who are you talking about?”
He looked right at me. His gaze was as straight as a spirit level. And that was no casual use of terms. It was as if he was making direct contact with my soul. He wasn’t about to share some pleasantries. As he continued to make solid eye contact, his lips broke apart as if someone had just ripped a hole in plastic wrap. “The Torturer.”
He could have said anything – absolutely anything. He could’ve told me that the Devil himself was about to pluck his way out of Hell and land right at my feet. He could’ve told me that a hundred demons were on their way to dismember me. I wouldn’t have reacted. But those two little words….
The magical community didn’t know why I was an exorcist. Only I knew. Only me and the woman who had died after me. I hadn’t been alone when I’d been in one of The Torturer’s cells. She’d been there. And she’d made the ultimate sacrifice so that I could live.
I tried to breathe, but I suddenly couldn’t. It felt like someone had rammed a cork down my throat. If Vincent noticed, he didn’t let on. He was clearly too consumed by his own fear. His cheeks were all pale. They were blotchy too. It looked as if someone had been alternating between strangling and slapping him. “The Torturer is back. He’s back, and he wants sacrifices. That ring is important to him.”
“What…?” I just couldn’t push the question out. That cork was growing inside my throat. It was getting fatter. It was going to make my neck explode. There was nothing I could do to stop it.
But thankfully Mr. Critter had just finished off his wizard. He trotted up beside me. “What you talking of?” he asked in a completely unperturbed voice.
Vincent continued to make eye contact with me, though I could tell that out of his peripheral vision he still locked his gaze on Mr. Critter. It would be a career miscalculation not to pay attention to a creature like that, especially while it had the taste for wizard blood.
“That ring belonged to a sect. It was where The Torturer cut his teeth. I don’t know why, but he wants it back. If I were you, I’d just hand it over. You’re not an idiot, are you, Lily? You might not know much about the precise magical details of this town, but you know who The Torturer is, don’t you?” Vincent shoved out a hand.
I actually… as crazy as it sounded, the thought crossed my mind to give him the ring.
I didn’t want to face The Torturer, but I had to. At the same time as fear immobilized me, another sensation rose through me. I had been exorcising like crazy for the past 15 years for one chance. I had told myself that when I was strong enough, I would go after The Torturer. I would be the one to finally bring him down.
Vincent could obviously see me gazing at his hand. He let out a laugh. Or at least he let out a pressured breath. It looked and sounded as if he was about to crack and this was the last movement he could make before his chest exploded. “You know who The Torturer is, then? Hand over the ring. Don’t be stupid.”
“She no hand over ring. Me eat your fingers though, if you want?” Mr. Critter supplied.
Vincent sneered. He dropped his hand. “Deal’s off, then. Don’t worry. I’ll tell The Torturer exactly where the ring is. He will come looking for you.” With that, Vincent turned hard on his foot and threw himself at the window.
This was not a window that had just been programmed to show some fancy view. This was a magical portal that gave the exact view that it had because the window itself was up above the city with a direct line of sight to the horizon below. So as Vincent slammed through it, I watched him fall down the side of the building.
The fall probably wouldn’t kill him. I said probably. But he was obviously so terrified of the consequences of going against The Torturer that he would do anything to flee that possibility.
For too long, I just stood there. The soul dog had terrified me for a few seconds, but this was….
Mr. Critter suddenly jumped on my shoulder. His fat tail hung close by my cheek. “You stuck. Me unstick you.” He suddenly slapped me with that nasty thing. It was covered in blood. Maybe wizard saliva, too. He had slapped those wizards with his tail a lot.
The sight and smell were just disgusting enough to finally unstick me. “What was that for?”
“You emotional. You look like someone reached in and stole your heart. You want me to check if still there?” He hung off my shoulder and stared at my chest.
This was likely a genuine ask. If I nodded, he would try to open my chest to see if I still had a beating heart.
I locked a hand on my chest protectively. I managed a breath.
“Who Torturer? You scared. Me never seen you scared before. He must be baddy.”
I didn’t laugh at Mr. Critter’s use of the adorable term baddy. I continued to hold my chest. When I was certain that I wasn’t going to lose my heart, I finally turned around.
“You think Vincent isn’t going to mess with you again?” Mr. Critter asked conversationally.
“I think Vincent is on his way to flee town. Forever.”
“You did good job then,” Mr. Critter said proudly as he whipped his tail from left to right.
I didn’t say anything. I walked out of the club. Nobody stopped me. There were a few more wizards, but they just stared at Mr. Critter in fear.
And maybe a few of them knew that Mr. Critter was just the beginning. If Vincent… if Vincent was right and The Torturer was back, then horror was about to befall this city in every way, shape, and form possible.
I made it to the street outside. It was finally going on late afternoon. It wouldn’t be much longer until it was night.
I couldn’t really notice the weather, or the ambient light. The only thing that could consume me was the possibility that The Torturer was on his way.
The Torturer had made visits to this town over the years. This was not his only haunt. And every time he had come, I had attempted to stop him.
I had always failed. And that… that was why I was still here.
I was certain you didn’t understand that thought, but I couldn’t explain it to you now. The only thing I could do was put one foot in front of another.
It took Mr. Critter a few seconds to turn and look at me. “Me still Mr. Critter. Me invisible, though. You want me being a dog?”
I shook my head. I continued to walk aimlessly.
“Your car over there.” He suddenly grabbed my face with his tiny little claws and turned my head to the side.
He was right. I aimlessly walked across the street. I almost walked in front of a truck, but Mr. Critter stopped me.
“You suicidal? You don’t bother. If you want to experience death, me just snack on you.”
I made it over to the car. I sat down in the driver’s seat, and Mr. Critter jumped off onto the passenger seat. He looked at me. “The Torturer that bad?”
“He has another name.”
“Arcane,” I said as I reached forward, locked my hands on the steering wheel, and closed my eyes.
Mr. Critter didn’t make a sound. Not a single utterance or noise. It was like somebody had taken footage of him and they’d muted it.
I didn’t drive away. I couldn’t. I had to deal with this. Finally Mr. Critter found his voice. He let out a strangled gasp. “Arcane bad news. Worse news. Worse than Devil. Arcane very, very, very bad news.”
“I know,” I said quietly under my breath.
“If Mr. Arcane want this ring, then we just give it to him.”
I stared over at Mr. Critter. As I’d already admitted back in the club, I’d been tempted to hand the ring over to Vincent. But I couldn’t. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t.
… This always happened whenever I found out that The Torturer had come back to town. I vacillated between total fear and the determination I’d been building over the past several years.
My whole life had been dedicated to catching him, but every time the prospect came near, I turned back into the scared, terrified me who hadn’t been able to do anything but pray.
I surprised myself when I pulled one hand off the steering wheel and patted Mr. Critter on the head once. “We’re not going to give him the ring. Because if we gave him the ring, he’d just kill us.”
Mr. Critter’s eyes opened wide. “You’re right. We hold onto ring. Maybe… Mr. Arcane won’t even be able to tell where it is.”
I scrunched my lips around against my teeth. He was right. Arcane… despite all of his abilities, shouldn’t be able to divine where the ring was. Mr. Critter’s body was the very perfect place to hide it.
Still…. I closed my eyes.
“Me suggest you wrap things up quickly, go home, and stay home until Arcane done.”
“I have wrapped things up.”
“What about Bradley ghost? Must get rid of that as soon as possible. Connected to ring. By the sounds of it, Bradley ghost’s grandfather responsible for Bradley’s death. Introduced him to magic. Ring would have connected to that. Remember, it has some kind of soul connection.”
Sometimes Mr. Critter’s English got so bad, I could barely understand it, but I caught the gist, and my eyes suddenly opened wide.
He was absolutely right. The ring still probably had a soul connection to Bradley. Which meant that the ghost might be attracted to it. And its attraction would be completely different to Vincent or Arcane’s ability to divine the ring. They would not be anywhere near as connected.
“Shit,” I said, spitting the word out hard until it vibrated against my lips.
“Indeed. You have anything else that will help you track down ghost?”
I shoved a hand in my pocket and pulled out my phone. I thumbed to the right picture. “Bradley stole his mom’s purse. He nicked the cash and credit cards. I’m assuming the cash has been spent, but the credit cards are probably still with the Vincent Gang. I’m assuming, based on how they operate, that they would’ve taken them off Bradley and then killed him. It might lead us straight to where Bradley was murdered. If we get there, we might—”
“He ghost. Murder still relatively fresh. Ghost probably hanging around there. Good plan. You not bad exorcist after all.”
Despite how cold I felt, I still snorted with laughter. “Of course not. You’ve stuck around with me for most of the day. You’ve seen what I’m capable of.”
Mr. Critter tilted his head up and looked at me. “You capable of impossible. No one like you. You can take on anything in this city.”
I stared at him. I really hoped that was true. I sliced my gaze up and looked out of the windscreen. I closed my eyes. Because if it wasn’t true, I was walking into certain death.
It didn’t take long to get to a nice subdued street somewhere. When magic was involved, I didn’t like witnesses. I didn’t head home. I already had a snoopy witness in my neighbor next door.
I pulled up in a laneway that looked as if it was never used. Mr. Critter was dancing around on the seat beside me. My phone was in front of him. He was not looking up pictures of bodies on the Internet or anything. He was just getting ready for the spell. He was obviously quite into magic and liked practicing it. He would just never have had that much of a reason to do so in the park. His life had been relatively simple. Now simple would be the last thing he would ever remember. If he stuck with me, complex would be his new normal.
“Are you ready yet?” I muttered.
Mr. Critter closed his eyes. “Me got to attune to ring in stomach and transport symbol on phone. May need assistance.”
“We all know I’m not a witch. But what do you require?”
I frowned hard. “Ambience? What exactly does that mean?”
“Hum. Certain pitch. Like this.”
I mimicked what he did. That appeared to get him into the mood. He continued to hop around until he suddenly stopped. He sat down. He tilted his head forward. He closed his eyes. He didn’t even bare his teeth, which he did most of the time, no doubt to advertise how beautifully large they were.
He started to chant.
I could feel the magic in the car picking up. It was vibrating. It felt as if a storm was about to collect around us. The car started to shake, too. It wasn’t enough that I was going to lose my suspension, but I had to grip the steering wheel. When I stopped humming, Mr. Critter snapped at me to continue.
I started to see lines of light picking up around him. They were these little tendrils of perfect illumination. They almost gave him this otherworldly, holy glow. But they could not detract from the fact that there were still a few little spots of blood on his scant fur.
Finally I could feel the spell taking root.
Mr. Critter clutched up my phone in his tiny little claws. He started to tap on it furiously. Not only was he likely accessing the transport spell on the photo, but he began to navigate to the map app.
I just maintained my humming, though I was starting to become restless. I wasn’t suddenly losing my fitness or anything. I realized this was it.
I… the only thing I could hope for was that Bradley’s case wasn’t directly connected to Arcane. If it was.….
If it was… then I would have to run away.
I kept telling myself that one day I would take control of the situation and I would take Arcane down. But I knew that the day could not be today.
I wasn’t strong enough. I….
“Here,” Mr. Critter said finally. He shoved the phone into my face.
I looked at it. Then I balked. “This is 49th Street. This is the abandoned warehouse the train yard ghost told me about. Crap,” I said, my voice bottoming out low. “Both cases are connected. That’s a terrible thing,” I stammered.
“Probably. Maybe Mr. Arcane going to be there, too.” He shuddered.
I looked right at him. I couldn’t even begin to respond to that. It wasn’t a joke, because he certainly didn’t look like he was having fun.
I closed my hand into a tight, bloodless fist. I remembered her face – the woman who saved me all those years ago. The woman in the cell beside mine.
To this day, I didn’t know her name – just her energy. She’d always reached out a hand whenever things had gotten too bad. She’d placed it on mine through the bars, and she’d just held me until I’d calmed.
I channeled some of that energy now. It took a while, but I finally found my courage. I shoved the keys back into the ignition, and I pulled out.
It was now thankfully dark. I much preferred it when there was no sun in the sky. That wasn’t to say that I was a dark creature myself at heart. But it was to say that it was so much easier to exorcise when people couldn’t see what you were doing in the shadows.
As I drove to 49th Street, I went over the plan. If I had one.
If Bradley was there… I’d dispatch him. But I’d have to question the hell out of him before I did that. First things first, I had to know what the grandfather had been into. Presumably, he’d told Bradley. Regardless of the fact that grandpa had clearly died long ago, I knew how twisted little wizards like him worked. He would’ve left clues all through the house for Bradley to find. He might’ve even channeled something directly into Bradley’s dreams. Bradley, in other words, would be a font of information I would have to tap.
As I drove toward 49th Street, the wind picked up. It whistled past my car. I stared up at the dark night sky. A few scant clouds were chased around. It was as if they were too scared to stay still in the one place for too long – as if they thought something would come and attack them.
I swore that general vibe was repeated around town. It wasn’t that late. There were hardly any cars out, though.
“Vibe is descending. Feels like city knows something going to go down tonight. You have to be ready,” Mr. Critter counseled. He had a really direct tone. He kind of sounded like he was my coach and I was about to go play the match of my life.
I turned my head down and looked at him. “I’m ready.”
“If I’m not, then we’re going to die.”
“Then you better be ready.”
Yeah. I’d better be ready….
I was off duty. Finally.
It had been a crazy shift. I just kept going over one thing – and it wasn’t the sight of that woman’s mangled body.
I should’ve apologized to Lily when I had the chance, I thought to myself again. I ground my hand hard against my head. I was walking back to my car.
I was in the industrial section of town. I’d had to pick up an engine part for a friend. It was under my arm. All I wanted to do was head back home, get some takeout, and sit there for the rest of the night.
I was trying to stop ruminating, but it wasn’t damn well working. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw two images of Lily transposed over each other. There was the shocked young woman who I’d taken pleasure in berating back in high school – then there was the same woman who’d stood proudly on her porch, snarling at me.
What had happened in between? And did I really have any right to be curious?
“You blew it,” I muttered to myself as I reached my car. I opened the back and threw the box inside. Then I straightened. I locked a hand on the back of my head. I twisted from this side to that as I tried to valiantly work out a crick in my neck. As I twisted my head to the left, I saw a car pull up on the opposite side of the street. I had no clue why I was paying so much attention to it, but I was.
… And a second later I realized why. I recognized the make. It was the same car that had been in Lily’s driveway.
But it sure as hell couldn’t be her.
Whoever was in the driver’s seat had their head tilted down. They were clearly chatting to someone or something.
They got out of the car.
And I practically lost it.
It was Lily. She was far away, and it was dark – and there were barely any streetlights in this section of town. It didn’t matter. I now thought that my brain was perfectly primed to recognize her, no matter the circumstances.
Someone got out of the passenger side and slammed the door closed. I waited to see who they were… but I never did.
As for Lily, she shoved her hands into her pockets. She tilted her head down then slowly ticked it up. She locked her eyes on a building just in front of her. I knew it well. It was an abandoned factory.
It had been slated for both destruction and renovation so many times, but every single time, the deals had always fallen through. Maybe it had been fraud, embezzlement, or simple bad finance, but that particular factory was cursed. Now Lily strode toward it as if she had something important to do there.
… Which she wouldn’t. I knew for a fact who currently owned it – a shady real estate agent in town who was desperately trying to flog it off.
“What the hell is she doing?” I muttered to myself. There was no one to answer.
I slid my car door closed quietly. I locked it, shoved my keys into my pocket, and started shifting off after her.
In my head, I’d just pull her aside, ask what she was doing, then maybe… if the time was finally right, apologize for everything.
But then I watched her reach the high fence that protected the factory. In a smooth move that made it look as if she was a cat and not a human, she started to climb up it. She reached the curly wire on the top, shifted around it, then dropped. It was a good five meters. She just rolled.
I… had no clue whatsoever what I was looking at.
But clearly my training did. I hadn’t walked that far away from my car yet.
I was without a jacket and a gun. For now.
Though I did not think that I would have to use them, I headed around to the trunk of my car. I grabbed up my jacket, my badge, and my firearm. I locked my car and walked away.
I knew another way into the factory. There was a hole at the back. I made my way toward it. The whole while, I tried to figure out what she could possibly be doing here.
Unbidden, thoughts of my auntie rose to the fore.
Lily was a witch hitman exorcist. I really doubted any of that was true. Or at least I hoped it wasn’t true. Not the witch exorcist part – I wasn’t an idiot. But the hitman….
“Don’t you go there, you goddamn idiot,” I whispered to myself.
I knew what hitmen looked like. They were usually the biker types. The kind of men that could hold themselves in any fight, even if they strayed across a gorilla.
Lily didn’t fit the bill. That being said, if you were a well-trained assassin for the mob, sometimes the smaller and less obvious you were, the easier your task would be. You could slip someone some poison, mess with their car, or drive them off a cliff without anyone else noticing.
My lips pressed hard against my teeth. My mouth was dry. No matter how much I swallowed, I couldn’t seem to lubricate it sufficiently.
I headed around to where I knew there was a hole in the fence. I crouched down and shuffled through it. Some of the wire snagged my jacket, but it didn’t rip a hole in it. I shoved up. I scanned the backyard of the factory.
There had to be someone else here, right? Otherwise what the hell was she doing here?
Drugs? But she looked too high functioning. Plus, she could’ve just injected herself in her car.
I shoved forward until I reached the back door of the factory. I paused. I closed my eyes.
All day, I’d been imagining one thing – the horrors poor Lily had gone through.
As I opened my eyes, I thought of something else.
Just how the hell had she really escaped from The Torturer? No one else ever had. He’d gone after high-level targets – everything from generals in the army to decorated police officers. They’d all succumbed to him. But she’d gotten away. How?
I guess I was about to find out.
I told Mr. Critter to watch the perimeter. The very last thing I wanted was for Arcane to show up.
But he wouldn’t. I would know. I had developed such a fine ability to be able to sense his malignant presence over the years that I would understand as soon as the vibe changed. Whenever he appeared, it was like cancer in the environment. His mere presence would suck all the life out of everything. He would leave a place feeling as if someone had strangled it continuously.
I opened the front door of the factory.
I was quiet, but at the same time, it wasn’t as if I could completely hide my tracks. This place was excruciatingly old. Nobody had bothered to do any renovations. It had been built sometime in the sixties, and its heyday was long past.
The door creaked. It was like a tree that was about to fall in some ancient forest.
I shoved into the factory. The first thing I noted was that the ceiling was high – which was pretty standard in a factory. It meant that every single noise I made echoed. It was like they were being recorded by an orchestra and then played back on loudspeakers.
The floor was dusty. I mean really dirty. It meant that every single footstep I made was noted in a perfect footprint.
I sliced my gaze to the side. There was some kind of sub building to my left. It was no doubt the manager’s office. As for the factory itself, it was surprisingly bare. I didn’t know what I’d expected. I knew precisely what I hadn’t wanted to see – body plastic. There was thankfully none of it around.
There was something, though – a set of footprints. They were just to my left.
I walked toward them. But I stopped.
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Keen sensations began to churn in my gut.
As an exorcist, you had to be able to detect spirits. That was part of the job description.
In a rush, my intuition told me I was not alone. It was long before I heard a specific kind of moaning, long before my exquisite hearing picked up the rattling of chains.
The sensation prickled at the base of my spine. I didn’t have to close my eyes to pay attention to it. I sliced my gaze to the side immediately. And that’s when I saw the set of footprints to my left changing. They veered away, and then they suddenly veered back.
I always kept true exorcist knives in my car. Now I had two holstered at my hips.
I wasted no time in plucking one out as quickly as I possibly could. The sound of it slicing through the air was sharp and loud. I pushed forward. I held the exorcist knife in a defensive position. “I know you’re there. It’s Bradley, isn’t it?”
The name a ghost had when they’d been alive had power over them. Of course it did. Your name, after all, is one of your greatest associations with your personality. Not only is it a legal requirement that binds you to many of the things that you did and had in life, but it is the unique way that you identify yourself. That does not change, even when one passes.
I heard a specific kind of hiss. It was right to my side, but I wasn’t stupid enough to turn toward it. Ghosts could and would throw their voices. It was a defensive mechanism. I quickly drew my remaining dagger from my side and pointed it right behind me.
There was another hiss, and this time, it wasn’t Bradley throwing his voice. I turned ever so slowly. I would’ve looked like a pig on a spit. “Reveal yourself,” I snarled. “Or I’ll stab you, and that will reveal you instead.”
There was a rush of air. Something twisted in front of me. It was Bradley. I finally saw his form.
He looked a lot like the gaunt little kid I’d seen in the photos at his mom’s house. That being said, the image of him was starting to be stretched. While his face still had a lot of details, the rest of his body didn’t. His hands were all extended, too. His fingers were no longer there. They were just wisps of ethereal smoke instead. He suddenly opened his mouth and screamed at me. It was earsplitting, but as I told you before, I already knew exactly how to deal with ghost shrieks.
I looked bored then blew air up against my fringe. “I’m gonna tell you how this is going to go down. I’m gonna question you. Then I will put you out of your misery.”
“Misery,” he hissed, “is what the Vincent Gang will feel.”
“The Vincent Gang has pretty much disbanded.”
His eyes widened in suspicion. I could tell that he didn’t believe a thing I’d said. Fair enough. It was hard for a ghost to change tack. Sometimes it was pretty hard for humans to do that, too. I knew many people that, when they thought they knew something, would not let another fact in to crush their worldview. For ghosts, it was so much harder. They didn’t technically possess the same critical reasoning skills that humans had anymore. They didn’t have a functioning cerebellum, after all – just the impression of one.
“Vincent will die. At my hands,” he growled. There was a lot of violent passion in Bradley’s words. I wouldn’t have expected it based on the smiling kid I’d seen in those photos back at his mom’s house.
“That anger is not yours. It comes from your grandfather, doesn’t it? Bradley Senior,” I hissed. I specifically used the guy’s name.
It had the desired effect. Bradley’s shoulders slackened. Then one by one, his cheeks started to twitch. It was a strange move, considering he didn’t really have cheeks to begin with. I would say that it was a lesson in anatomy, but it was exactly the opposite. It was a lesson in a creature that had once possessed a body but now possessed nothing more than a memory of it. “He gave me magic. He opened my eyes.”
“Yeah, I’m sure he did. But did he communicate with you from beyond the grave?” I hissed.
There was a possibility I hadn’t really articulated well yet. I was just assuming that Bradley Senior was gone.
Mr. Critter had detected a spirit of some description around the ring. It hadn’t been a ghost – Mr. Critter would’ve told me. But what if it was a connection to a ghost that still remained somewhere?
I hadn’t felt anything specific in the house. Maybe Bradley Senior was off haunting someplace else.
“I have nothing to share with you. You are nothing. You do not understand the true nature of reality. You are a fool waiting to be killed.”
“Those are not your words, are they, Bradley? You weren’t brought up like that, were you? Your mother,” I said specifically, “always wanted you to be a good boy.”
His expression cracked. Seconds before, it had been this vicious thing. Now it looked like he was a little boy again. He shook his head. Momentarily his body became a little more solid. His insubstantial hands gave way to actual fingers. But it couldn’t last. He suddenly rounded said fingers into fists. He roared right in my face. “You know nothing—”
“You’d be surprised. I have the ring,” I said flatly.
His gaze shook. “The ring was hidden.”
“I found it, as well as your mother’s purse. You took her money, didn’t you? Because you had debts, didn’t you? Vincent said you stole from his gang. You just couldn’t pay, right?”
“I took back what was ours.”
I frowned. “What do you mean you took back what was yours?”
“Ours,” he snarled. “My family’s. Vincent had stolen an object from my grandfather. I took it back.” Again, his words were so damn forceful, it was like they were exploding from his lips.
“An object that belonged to your grandfather?”
“To what?” My mind worked quickly. “Wait, it was to that room, wasn’t it? The sect room. Your grandfather was part of a dark magical sect, wasn’t he?”
Bradley didn’t need to answer with words. He did it with his expression. The way his eyes widened made it clear that I was onto something.
“Where’s this key now?”
“You will never find it.”
“You would have kept it near the ring. That box clearly kept your most precious stuff. There was nothing else in it but junk…. So it’s in the ring, isn’t it?” I suddenly clicked my fingers. I pulled up a memory of the signet ring. It was chunky. And thinking back, it kind of looked like those old poison rings where you could open them and keep something small inside.
The key wouldn’t have to be a long, standard-sized key. It could be anything and any size. Likely it was just a core of magic waiting to be activated.
Bradley shot back then forced himself forward. He was now right up in my face. “You will give me the ring. You will get out of my way—”
“None of those things are going to occur. I am, however, going to exorcise you. I’m gonna do it for your mother. You remember her, right?” I started to circle him. “Do you remember all the things she sacrificed for you? She wants you to go to Heaven, Bradley. She wants to finally break your connection to your grandfather.”
The mere mention of his mother did it again. He just stopped. It was like someone had pressed pause on him.
I knew that I was finally in with a chance. “Your grandfather latched onto you. No matter what you did, you would never have gotten away from him until you finally accepted his reality. But you didn’t like it at first, did you? It was everything you were brought up to loathe, wasn’t it?”
He tried to shake his head. He could do that all he wanted, but he couldn’t change the fact that his body was becoming more human. And the more that occurred, the more it meant he was aligning with his true past self.
I let compassion touch my features. “You’re gonna do this for your mother. It’s the last thing she wants from you. I want to go back there and tell her that I exorcised you, that you didn’t fight. That in the end, you understood how much of a monster your grandfather was. He murdered people,” I whispered. “Your mother’s been dreaming of that ever since you left the house.”
“Dreams… I had dreams, too,” he said in a far-off voice.
My eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Dreams about the sect. Dreams about everything they did.”
“And what did they do?” I asked furiously quickly, realizing this might be my last opportunity to get some good information.
That word set my nerves exploding through my stomach. “Practiced? What do you mean?”
“They practiced on the living so that they could control the dead.”
I couldn’t breathe anymore. This was far too horrifying to accept. “They were… necromancers?”
“They called themselves ghost whisperers.”
“Bradley, I need you to tell me where the sect room is located.”
“Under the train yards. I… never managed to go there. I didn’t have the magic. But I had the key.”
“And how do you use the key?”
“You have to be worthy.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have to be able to control ghosts.”
I swore. This was dark magic. I needed to see that sect room, but at the same time….
Bradley looked at me morosely. “I… I don’t want to go to Hell.”
I’d finally broken the spell his grandfather had cast on him. I looked at him. I nodded. “Don’t worry. I’ll send you to Heaven.”
I reached toward him, my dagger in my hand.
I slunk through the back door, having no idea what I would find.
For whatever reason, my whole body was alert.
I usually wasn’t like this, even on a proper stakeout. But right now, every single muscle was primed. I could taste the tinge of iron in my mouth, too. This wave of anticipation was running down from my head to my feet then up again. It felt like I was getting ready to go on a roller coaster ride.
I’d always believed that occasionally my body could predict things. I wasn’t about to claim that I actually believed in clairvoyance or anything like that. But I did respect the fact that the subconscious processed a lot more information than consciously became available to somebody. I would know when a stakeout was about to turn bad. Just as I would get this kick in my guts whenever I realized that a murder would turn out to be worse than it looked. Now that very same warning was rushing through me – louder than it ever had before. It was blaring in my skull that something was about to change – forever.
As I skulked through the back of the factory, I saw a single crate right in front of me. I dashed toward it.
Then I leaned out from behind cover.
And that’s when I saw Lily. She was talking to a guy. I couldn’t see him clearly in the dark. She was fine, but he was… blurry for some reason.
I couldn’t pick up their words. The conversation seemed to come to an end, anyway. There was one thing I could pick up. I saw the flash of a knife.
Lily had two daggers in her hands. Daggers. I knew that I was not mistaken.
She brought one of the daggers up toward the guy’s chest. Right in front of me, she was about to stab him.
I didn’t really have time to process what was going on. I couldn’t think about all the myriad ways I’d been wrong about Lily. All I could do was dive out of cover, my gun in my hands. “Stop,” I bellowed, my voice cutting high.
Lily turned around, her eyes opening wide. I could see them clearly from here, even if the guy was still kind of blurry for whatever reason.
“Jerome? Seriously? What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded in a peeved voice that was completely at odds with what she was doing.
My heart hammered in my chest. “Put the daggers down,” I commanded. My voice reverberated around the room.
The guy standing with her didn’t twitch back. Here I was, saving the day, but he still stood loyally by her side as if he’d been complicit in this.
“I’m not going to put the daggers down, idiot. Just walk away – you have no clue what you’re dealing with.” Her delivery was that of somebody who just didn’t care that there was a gun pointed at them.
“Put the gun down, Lily.”
She tipped her head back. She rolled her eyes. I should’ve taken something of the fact that I could see her clearly but the guy was still somehow… I didn’t know… insubstantial or something.
I didn’t. I settled my focus on her. I took several more steps toward her, my gun trained on her chest. “Put,” I said as slowly and clearly as I could, “the knives down.”
She shook her head. “Were you following me?”
“Put the weapons down,” I growled.
There wasn’t that much light in this factory. But there was a skylight just above me. As I walked below it, I shifted through a beam of light.
It brought me closer to Lily and the guy.
I could see his face clearly for the first time. His body though….
“This was a trap, wasn’t it?” the boy – who couldn’t be older than 19 – stammered. “You were always going to exorcise me. You… manipulated me. This was all about the ring. All you wanted was information on my grandfather,” as the guy spoke, he became progressively faster and faster. It was like he was winding up, like someone had a crank embedded in his back and they were just twisting it around and around.
“It’s okay, son,” I said in a calming voice. “I’ve got this. Just take a step away from her.”
“Take your own advice, Jerome. Get the hell out of here while you still can.”
“Put the knives down, Lily,” I bit back.
The boy suddenly grabbed his head. I… I could see his face, but not his fingers. They were… almost wispy. Then he screamed.
Not in my entire life had I ever heard a scream like it. I didn’t drop my gun fortunately, but I clutched my ear with my free hand. I buried my palm in and sunk my fingers against my head. I shouted in pain.
Then the boy rushed at me. But his feet never touched the ground. He didn’t move like he was running. Because he wasn’t. He was just… moving over the floor as if gravity had no hold over him.
There was nothing for me to think of in that moment. There was nothing for me to do, either. Though the gun was in my hand, I couldn’t… I couldn’t begin to fire, as I had no idea what I was looking at.
There was a grunt.
The boy reached me. He shoved something into my chest. It felt like being punched by electricity. I was thrown back and fell down. My head rang as my body slammed into the floor.
I felt the gun being wrenched from my grip.
I stared up. I finally saw the kid in full. There was a reason the rest of his body was blurry. It was because… it was because it wasn’t a body.
I could see his face, because that was solid, but even that… I started to be able to see through it. He was now standing in the only shaft of light making it into this factory. It was pure moonlight. And it sliced right through his face as if he didn’t have a face at all and just a mere suggestion of one.
Everything I thought I knew about the world came crashing down. It was a short sharp kind of bark of a scream, and it didn’t last.
The ghost went to turn the gun on me. It never got the chance. Lily put on a burst of speed – the kind of speed that, if she’d used it in high school, would’ve seen her win every single tournament. She wrapped a hand around the boy’s body somehow and pulled him to the side.
The gun clattered to his left.
“Just stay the hell where you are, Jerome,” she spat. “I’ve got this.”
I had no clue what she thought she had.
The boy screamed in her face. There was that earsplitting shriek again. It didn’t sound normal. Even if you somehow combined the voices of a thousand people screaming, you wouldn’t achieve the sheer ear-crushing quality of it.
I thought I would start bleeding out of my nose.
I crunched up, my whole body shaking.
I watched Lily. She darted back. She flipped to the side. She looked like she was a goddamn Olympic gymnast. Her movements were swift, quick, and impossibly strong.
The boy swiped… something at her. It couldn’t be termed a hand anymore. It was just smoke now. Something was ejected out of his sleeve. It was a bolt of… force.
I couldn’t think. I tried to. But there was no ready explanation for what I was seeing. I believed in science. Unlike my auntie, I never grasped at alternative explanations of readily explainable phenomena.
But there was nothing about the situation that was explainable, let alone readily.
That blast of fire almost reached Lily, but she twisted. Her tarnished hair fanned around her face. She dropped to the side. She was only holding one dagger now, but I could see the other holstered at her hip.
She shoved forward again. “Think about your mother,” she growled.
It took me a second to realize that she wasn’t talking to me.
“This is all manipulation. You haven’t seen my mother. All you cared about was getting to the sect room. You have to be stopped. I’ll be the one to stop you.” The guy shot forward again.
No… I had to… stop talking about him as a guy. Because he wasn’t one. He was a….
My mother had been just like my aunt. She’d been into the occult. I remembered that as a little kid when I’d gone to my father’s funeral that she’d turned around and pointed to every single tree, telling me that my father had been following me.
Not as a human, but as a ghost.
And now I finally let that word crack out of my lips, “Ghost.”
Lily twisted her head toward me. “Bit late to the party, aren’t you? Now stay down.”
She grunted and rolled.
The ghost came at her again. There was no other way to describe it. It was now completely losing its form. The only thing it had was a suggestion of a face. That started to fracture as it screamed once more.
I had to clutch my ears.
I left my gun in my lap. There was nothing it could do for me, anyway.
The ghost suddenly picked Lily up. It grabbed her by the hip and slammed her down.
I didn’t know why. My whole worldview was crumbling at my feet, but something within me snapped. Maybe it was my training – maybe it was just the sight of her in trouble. I shoved up. The gun was now in my grip. I managed to fire two shots at the ghost by the time I reached Lily.
I put myself between her and the ghost.
For what good it was worth.
The ghost opened its mouth so widely, I thought it would swallow me whole.
My eyes bolted wide open, and my gun trembled in my grip. But I didn’t let go. I fired off another shot.
The ghost came at me.
Suddenly Lily put one of her feet between mine. She wrapped it around my knee and pulled. It yanked me to the side.
Then she twisted up. She had one of those daggers in her hand. I could finally see that one of the sides was glowing. There were… symbols of some description written across it. They attracted my attention – but not as much as her form did. She had this grace I had never seen in anyone else. This force, too. And more than anything – this explosive determination.
The ghost reached her just as she reached it.
It tried to wrap its ethereal hands around her throat and tried to bring its face over hers, but it didn’t matter. She plunged the knife down into its chest.
Its eyes widened.
I was still down there on the floor, lying on my side, staring at everything without being able to move a centimeter.
“It’s time to exorcise you. You will go to Heaven whether you like it or not. You will remember your mother,” she spat. “And you will release your grandfather’s control.”
The ghost shuddered.
It tried to fight her, but she just buried the knife in harder.
Just when I thought she would win, it tried to throw her back. It screamed. I thought I saw something rising up through its form. It was… the picture of an older man. It was terrifying to watch. I didn’t take much stock by vibes, but suddenly the energy of the place changed. It became so dark, it was like we were standing on top of a mass grave.
Lily was almost thrown back. That was until I acted. I pushed in. Wrapping one arm around her back, I shoved a hand against hers. I held the dagger along with her and helped plunge it down just that little bit further.
She had a chance to look into my eyes. Then she twisted around.
She chanted something under her breath. The words… would stay with me for life.
I remained there, pressed up against her, my force combining with hers as the ghost started to melt.
Right in front of me, I could feel its soul disconnecting from the real world. Then with a crack, it just disappeared. Sparks of light erupted everywhere. Then wisps of smoke descended into the cracks in the ground and up into the air.
For a few good seconds, I did nothing. Even when the ghost was completely gone, I did nothing.
All I could do was remain right up against Lily, my breath rhythmically pushing my chest into her back.
Then she turned all the way around. She was right there, her face right up against mine.
“Sorry,” I spluttered, the one word I’d needed to say all day finally releasing from my lips.
She tilted her head to the side. “Why be sorry? You just exorcised your first ghost, Jerome Smith.”
The end of Today’s Exorcist Book One. This series is complete, and there are four books in total.