Chapter 1: Gone
The master bedroom smelled like sex and vanilla, both musky and sweet, knowing and innocent. The hard light from the glittering chandelier sent bewildering patterns of light and shadow across the black and white bed, the zebra-patterned bench, the gleaming wooden floor. Once pristine white bedding spilled over the edge of the mattress, still tumbled from a long and vigorous session of lovemaking.
The cold, hard floorboards pressed ruthlessly against my knees. I bent my head against the side of the mattress, my hands tangled up in white sheets. My joints hurt. My fingers looked almost as white as the bedding.
My heart slammed against my ribs as my stomach wrenched itself into a whole new shape.
More light spilled out of the bathroom and across the bedroom floor. So much light. It showed me everything in the room and nothing at all. Outside of the light, the black night stared in through the windows, through the slats in the white plantation shutters, mocking me.
The scent of my girlfriend’s body still clung to my skin and the beloved taste of her coated my tongue with salty musk. I licked my lips, tasting her again. Inside my chest, my heart shredded itself.
The silence mocked me. There should be sound here, laughter, a soft feminine voice. Instead there was nothing except the harsh in-and-out of my breath.
An animal groan ripped its way out of me. Then another. I tilted my head back and screamed, roar after roar tearing at the tissues of my throat. I filled the room with all the wretched noise of my anguish.
All the furniture was present — fancy-ass bed, girly lamps, zebra-patterned bench — but Nova was no longer there. She was gone, taken by Lucifer, the devil himself. She was gone. Gone.
I’d asked him to take me instead, since it was my puny soul that had been promised him. But that motherfucker would rather punish me by stealing Nova than take me.
I’d failed. All I’d wanted to do was protect her, and I’d failed.
A drawing lay face-down on the floor next to the bed. I reached for it. A self-portrait Nova had drawn for me in pencil. Her beautiful face smiled up at me from the paper. What if this was all I’d ever have of her? I folded the drawing carefully and put it in my jeans pocket.
Light footsteps clacked along the wood floor behind me. I turned my head. My mom stood in the doorway, staring at me, her eyes wild as light from the hallway lamp flooded into the bedroom. She wore pale blue satin pajamas and slip-on high heeled white slippers with bows on the toes. Her toenails were painted Easter-egg blue to match the PJ’s.
“What happened?” she said in a frightened whisper, the reek of whiskey drifting in on her breath. She’d been drinking again and I didn’t even give a shit.
“He took her,” I said, forcing the words past the pain in my throat. “He took Nova.”
She put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my God.”
“Why did you let him in?” I rose to my feet and confronted her. “You knew who he was. You let him in the house.”
“What was I supposed to do?” She put her hands on her skinny hips. “He’s the devil. I couldn’t exactly shut the door in his face.”
“Sure you could.” I advanced on her, suddenly furious, my feet oddly quiet on the throw rug.
She took a step back into the hallway. “Gage, he’s not like a vampire, where he has to be invited in before he can enter. He could have come in any time he wanted.”
“Then why didn’t he?” I growled. “How come he didn’t get in here until you let him in?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head, her eyes glistening.
Crocodile tears? She hated Nova, so I didn’t know what she was so upset about.
“Were you hoping he’d take her?”
“What?” She gaped up at me. “No. Of course not!”
“You sure? I know you thought Nova wasn’t right for me.”
“That doesn’t mean I wanted him to take her.” She drew herself upright, glaring at me. “I warned you, didn’t I? I told you this would happen but you didn’t listen. This is your fault.”
Damn right it was.
I covered my own eyes with a groan as sour bile rose up in my throat to choke me. Right before he’d shown up, I’d finally confessed to Nova that I loved her. I’d said the words, even though I knew it would bring the devil down upon us.
My mother had made a pact with him when I was ten — my soul in return for fame and fortune in my budding career as an actor. She hadn’t consulted me on this, and because she didn’t have my consent, the devil knew he couldn’t really take my soul. But he’d allowed her to think he could, because it amused him to watch us turn ourselves into emotional and social pretzels trying to hide what we’d done and protect the people around us from her piss-poor decision.
All my life, I’d avoided close emotional ties because of The Deal. Especially with women. I’d never had a girlfriend before Nova, just one-night stands and short flings. This was easy considering my career. An A-list star can get all the sex partners he wants without any promise of commitment.
But Nova was different from the beginning. She’d saved my life, pulled me from a freezing river when I’d fallen in because I was a drunken, drugged-up idiot. And she hadn’t judged me. She was the best person I knew, and this was how I thanked her for her love. By allowing the devil to take her down to hell.
I hadn’t really believed the devil would take the people I cared about until my best friend, Jeremy Lindstrom, had died of a drug overdose. There had been something in his apartment when I’d found his body, something potent and invisible. Something dark. After that experience, I’d known in my bones that I had to stay away from others.
I’d fought my love for Nova, trying to keep some distance in order to protect her. But I was weak and selfish and I couldn’t stay away from her. I’d been dumb enough to think if I could just keep from saying it out loud, keep from saying those three little words, she’d still be safe enough. And then I’d gone and blurted it out anyway, like the selfish prick I was.
Now she was gone, in a terrible place, and I couldn’t even bear to imagine what she must be going through at the moment.
“Wait a minute,” Mom said, pursing her glossy lips. Who wears lip gloss and PJ’s at the same time? “How do you know he took her? Maybe she went for a walk.”
I stared at her, appalled. “In the middle of the night? When I left her, she was asleep.”
“Maybe she woke up. You should wait a while and see if she comes back.”
“Mom, she’s not coming back. He told me he was going to do this. He said he’d take someone else instead of me, and now he has.” I groaned again at the thought of what she might even now be enduring.
My guitar stood propped up beside the door, reminding me of the songs I’d written for her that she hadn’t heard. I had the weirdest thought that it was mocking me for thinking I could ever really have Nova. I should have known he wouldn’t let me keep her, love her.
No. I wasn’t going down that road. She was mine and I was going to get her back, no matter what it took. Starting now.
I had the cutest two-bedroom apartment in Avery’s Crossing, much better than the one I’d shared with Skylar. The building didn’t look like much from the outside, just a big dark box, but my unit had clean white walls I’d decorated with posters that picked up the red and gold tones in the throw rug I’d bought for the small living room. It had a pretty kitchen with a big window that looked out on some trees I thought might be maples. I would know for sure when they leafed out in the spring.
I’d bought café curtains for the window and hung them on tension rods. They were red and white toile. I didn’t have a boyfriend, so I could put as much girly stuff in as I liked.
The building was quiet, too. Extremely quiet. Most of the time, I couldn’t hear anything but the noise I made myself.
The second bedroom was kind of overkill, since I didn’t have a roommate, but on the other hand I could use it for studying. As a pre-med student, I did a lot of studying. I had a sweet little desk in there and toile curtains that matched the ones in the kitchen.
It was the nicest place I’d ever lived besides my parents’ house. Nobody ever complained about the loud metal I played, no matter how loud I played it. I could dance around in the living room and the neighbors never came up to bang on my door and tell me to knock it off.
Lately, though, I’d had the oddest feeling something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I had a great apartment a lot of students would kill for, with a sunny little balcony off the dining nook where I could grow flowers in the summer and flowering kale in the winter. It had a big kitchen too, for an apartment, and I spent a lot of time in there cooking, at least when I could fit it in between study sessions.
My pre-med studies were going better than ever. Subjects I’d found difficult or boring at one time seemed to come easily to me now. I could actually envision my future as a doctor, with a private practice a lot like those of my parents. But something was missing and I didn’t know what it was.
On a Saturday morning in February, I stood at my kitchen counter rolling out sugar cookie dough and pondering the elusive missing piece as I stared at the drizzly weather outside. Typical Willamette Valley winter, gray and wet. The kitchen smelled like the lemon zest I’d used to flavor the cookie dough. I planned to use a heart-shaped cutter in honor of Valentine’s Day, although I didn’t have a sweetheart and now that I thought of it I wasn’t sure why I was bothering.
The thought of a lover or boyfriend made something in my chest ache with a vague, nagging pain. Someone ought to be with me. I wasn’t supposed to be alone in this apartment; I was supposed to be with a man.
Which was ridiculous. I didn’t have time for romance. I had to stay focused on my studies so I could get into the medical school of my choice. Someday, when I’d established myself as a doctor, I’d find a partner for myself. Until then, I was all about the career.
So what was the point of all this romantic baking? Why did I feel like I ought to be sharing this with someone?
Maybe I’d bring the cookies along when I met my study group in the afternoon. That would be sharing, even if it wasn’t the least bit romantic.
Someone knocked on my door. I wiped my hands on an already-floury kitchen towel and went to answer it. Had one of my study buddies shown up for an early session? They were as obsessed with success as I was.
I opened the door. A man stood there in the outdoor hallway of my building, looking at me with a slight smile on his lips. I didn’t recognize him.
He was tall, with blond hair that curled around his ears, and unusual green eyes. Although he wore a wool winter jacket, I could see the athletic build of his body beneath the lines of his clothes. He was hot, so hot that the idea of using him to fill in that missing piece flitted through my head.
He’s a stranger, Nova, and he wants something from you.
“Um, can I help you?” I said, hoping he wasn’t here to sell me religion or ask me to vote for his candidate.
“Hi. My name’s Declan. I just moved into the neighborhood, so I thought I’d come over and introduce myself.”
“Oh.” I blinked up at him. “Um, hi. I’m Nova.”
“Hi, Nova.” He stuck out his hand, so I shook with him.
His skin felt warm and dry. He was good-looking enough to render me slightly tongue-tied, as I’d never been confident with attractive men. I cast around for something appropriate to say, but found nothing.
He glanced at my flour-covered apron and grimaced. “I’m sorry. You’re busy. I’ll let you get back to your cooking.”
There was something lonely in his voice, although it was so low-key I almost thought I’d imagined it. He probably didn’t know anyone, since he’d just moved in. I knew what that felt like; the only friends I had were my study partners, and those were more like work relationships than real friends.
“Do you like to make cookies?” I said.
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “I have no idea.”
“You’ve never made cookies?”
He shrugged, giving me a self-deprecating smile. “No. I haven’t.”
“You wanna come in and help me? I’m doing heart-shaped ones for Valentine’s Day.” Oops. I probably shouldn’t have said that. He might think I was some kind of creeper putting romantic pressure on him, a guy I’d just met.
But he only smiled wider. “Sure. Sounds like fun.”
“My study group is coming over in a while, but I’m free until then. Come in.” I stood back to let him enter.
He walked into my apartment and gave a quick glance around. “Nice place.”
“Thanks.” It wasn’t much, nothing fancy or chic, but I’d tried to make it look like home with a couch and chairs, a cheap throw rug in red and sage green, some colorful floral and landscape posters on the walls.
“So what are you studying?” he said as he followed me to the kitchen.
“Micro-biology. I’m a pre-med student.”
“Wow. Gonna be a doctor, huh? I’m just a bank manager.”
“Hey, somebody’s got to handle the money,” I said, throwing him a smile.
Wow, he was cute. He had dimples in his cheeks. Long, lean fingers, too.
“Mind if I take off my coat?” he said.
“Nope. Just throw it on a kitchen stool.” I pointed at the cookie dough. “You got here just in time for the fun part.”
I glanced at him with a teasing smile and caught him staring at me, a searching expression in his eyes. It was an odd look for someone who didn’t know me. Almost like he was trying to figure me out, or wondering exactly what thoughts were going through my head.
It suddenly occurred to me that I’d invited a stranger, a male stranger, into my apartment while I was home alone. I knew better than that. What had I been thinking?
Now I had him inside, however, I wasn’t sure how to politely get rid of him. And he wasn’t threatening me, although that watchful expression he had made me a little nervous. He noticed me looking and the intent focus on his face disappeared.
“So, Valentine’s Day, huh?” he said in a jocular tone.
“Yeah. Hearts. Too cheesy for you?” I picked up my heart-shaped cutter for emphasis.
“Not at all. I don’t have a girlfriend to get jealous.” He grinned flirtatiously at me, putting his dimples on full display.
I merely smiled. I shouldn’t have invited him in after all. Normally I’d never ask a stranger to enter my apartment, not when I was alone. Again, what had I been thinking?
But he made no ominous gestures. He just watched as I pressed the cutter into the dough and removed a heart-shaped piece to carefully set on my baking sheet.
“Can I try one?” he said.
“Wash your hands first.” I pointed at the sink.
“Okay, doc.” He winked at me.
Doc. Something about that nickname made my insides twinge. A memory. No, not a memory, more like a mental ghost. Someone else had called me Doc once, someone I cared for deeply. But who? I couldn’t picture his face.
Declan washed up and returned to me. He stood close, so close I could feel his body heat. It stirred the loneliness inside me, making me feel just how long I’d been without a man. I pushed the feelings down and handed him the cutter.
“Just press it straight down,” I said.
“Like this?” He pushed it into the dough.
“Perfect. Now separate the cookie from the cutter and put it on the baking sheet.”
I watched him follow my instructions, a little frown of concentration on his handsome face. “I’ll bet you didn’t think you’d get roped into making cookies when you decided to come over here.”
He set the dough on the sheet and smiled at me. “Nope. But this is fun. Do you bake often?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I did a lot of cooking, especially considering I lived alone. That was another oddity I hadn’t thought of until now.
“Boyfriend?” he said.
His smile broadened. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No.” I backed up an inch or two. “I’ve been too busy to meet anyone.”
“So there’s no-one to take a swing at me for spending time with you?” He bent over the cookie dough again, cutting out a second heart.
“No, I guess not,” I said, wondering where he was going with this. Wishing my study group was going to get here about three hours earlier than scheduled. Like, within the next five minutes.
He glanced at me and frowned, his green eyes full of genuine-looking concern. “I’ve made you uncomfortable. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s all right. I’m not used to flirting.” I widened my eyes. “Not that I think you’re flirting with me. Just, you know, hanging out with a guy who isn’t part of my study group and someone I only just met, and oh, God, I’m totally babbling, aren’t I?”
“Yes, and it’s adorable. I was flirting, by the way. Because I find you very attractive.”
“Oh.” My cheeks began to burn. “So are you.”
“No pressure, though,” he said lightly. “Since we just met a few minutes ago.”
Right. No pressure.
“So what bank do you work for?” I said as he cut out another cookie.
“Really? That’s where I go.”
“Huh. It’s a small world. I hope you’re satisfied with our service.” He extended the cutter to me. “You want to do some more?”
Our fingers brushed when I took the cutter from his hand. A little tingle of sexual awareness shot through me, making me even more awkward than usual. I nearly dropped the cutter on the floor.
This is what’s missing.
My earlier thought repeated itself — I was supposed to be with a man. I gave Declan a surreptitious glance out of the corner of my eye. Could he be the one? Maybe Fate had sent him here just for me.
Chapter 2: Help
The kitchen looked wrong with Nova missing. She loved it in here, loved to cook for me even though I never told her I wanted her to do that. There were still dirty dishes in the sink from when we’d had dinner together.
My mom had done nothing but pace back and forth across the kitchen since Nova had disappeared. She hadn’t even had a drink, which had to be an all-time record for her. Instead, she’d guzzled down all the crappy coffee I could give her and droned non-stop about how I had to think of myself and my career and how I was endangering myself by telling people that my girlfriend had disappeared.
The smell of coffee, something I ordinarily enjoyed, filled the room and made me feel like hurling. I could still taste the bile in the back of my throat.
“Mom.” I interrupted her in the middle of yet another tirade. “I have to call the police. Someone is going to come looking for Nova, and what am I going to tell them? If I don’t report this, it’ll make me look even more guilty.”
She wrung her hands. “I knew you never should have gotten involved with her. I knew it.”
“You didn’t even know she existed until a week ago.”
“That’s not the point. And I told you not to get emotionally involved. Didn’t I tell you? He took her because you cared about her, although why I have no idea.”
Yeah, that was my mom, to slip an insult to my girl right in the middle of telling me how much she cared about me.
I pulled my smart phone out of my pocket. “I’m doing it.”
She put her hand over her eyes. “Oh, God,” she moaned. “This is going to be the end of everything.”
I ignored her as I searched for the number for a missing persons report. There it was.
“Gage, don’t do this.” She wrapped her fingers around my wrist, pleading with her eyes. “It’s not too late.”
“Her parents are staying at the Holiday Inn. They’ll probably be here later today.”
Her skinny shoulders slumped. “We’re doomed.”
I almost said it — we wouldn’t be having this problem if she hadn’t let the devil in the door. If she hadn’t made The Deal in the first place. What kind of mom sells her son’s soul to the devil? Who does that?
She’d wanted me to be a famous actor, never mind what I wanted. I’d only been ten years old at the time, and my career hadn’t advanced at the speed my mother wanted for me. Or more accurately, for herself. So she’d struck a deal to speed things up. And now the woman I loved more than anything else in the entire world had been caught in the crossfire.
“They won’t even look for her. You know that, don’t you?” my mom said as the phone started ringing.
“Things have changed,” I said.
“Yeah, but she’s an adult. She doesn’t have dementia, does she? So why would they look for her? Give it a few days and see if she comes back.”
I cut the connection on my phone. “Comes back? How’s she going to do that? She’s in hell, Mom.” I covered my eyes as a surge of pain threatened to make me start bawling like a little kid. “He might be hurting her. Anything could be happening to her.”
“And what are the police going to do about it?”
“Nothing. I’m more concerned about her parents.”
“So tell them you had a fight and she left and you haven’t seen her since.” She stopped pacing to stand in front of me and put her hands on my shoulders. “You could go to jail over this, Gage, and you haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Yeah, I have. I fell for her. I should have stayed away from her.”
“It’s too late for that now.”
I knew that. It was too late for Nova to stay safe by staying the hell away from me. But that didn’t absolve me of my responsibilities. I had to save her. Somehow. Some way. I had to get her out of hell.
“Marie,” I said.
“What?” Mom sent me a look of bafflement.
“A friend. Marie. She might be able to help.” I stuck my phone in my back pocket and went to find Nova’s purse.
My mother tagged along behind me. “I don’t think anyone can help us with this. Don’t you think I’ve tried that? I’ve tried everything, but there’s nothing we can do.”
I took a breath and grabbed onto what little patience I had left. “I doubt you’ve tried anything at all.”
“Ever since you met Nova, you’ve been disrespectful to me,” she snapped as I started down the stairs.
She could think that if she liked. The truth was I’d been holding in a lifetime of rage and resentment toward my mom and she simply hadn’t noticed it. She rarely noticed anything she didn’t want to see, and I hadn’t wanted her to see it. Until now. I figured it was time for her to face up to the forces she’d unleashed fifteen years ago.
I stalked into the foyer, where Nova’s purse hung in the entry closet. Fishing it out, I dumped its contents onto the foyer table and sorted through them until I found a piece of folded-up scratch paper with Marie’s name and a phone number.
“It’s two o’clock in the morning,” Mom said as she came up behind me.
“Don’t care.” I dialed Marie’s number.
It seemed to ring forever before someone picked up. “‘Lo?” said a fuzzy female voice.
“Marie?” I said.
“Yeah? Who’s this?”
“It’s Gage. Gage Dalton. He took Nova.”
“What?” Her voice turned sharp and wakeful in an instant. “When?”
“Tonight. Uh — about half an hour ago.”
“Are you saying she’s gone?”
“Yes. She disappeared. I left her in the bedroom. He got into the house. We talked. He vanished. I ran upstairs and Nova was gone.”
“How do you know she didn’t leave on her own?” Marie said.
“He said he was going to take someone else instead of me. Plus, where would she go in the middle of the night?”
I heard a muffled male voice from the other end.
“It’s Gage,” Marie said. “Nova’s disappeared.”
“We have to get her back,” I said. “I have to get her back.”
“Oh, dear.” Something on Marie’s end rustled. “I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“It has to be. There must be something I can do.”
“Can you come over here? I’m going to do some research and you can help.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I got her and Brad’s address and cut the connection.
“Where are you going?” my mom said.
“To Marie’s house. She might be able to help.”
“I’ll get some clothes on.”
“No.” I stopped her with a hand on her arm. “I need to do this by myself.”
“Mom, you don’t even like Nova. I don’t want you at Marie’s.”
She looked so hurt I almost winced and gave in. But she’d caused this problem and I didn’t want her making any more trouble. Maybe justice demanded she play some role in making this thing right again, but helping me and Marie research wasn’t it. I didn’t trust her.
“I feel like you don’t trust me,” she said.
I just looked at her.
“Okay, fine. Be like that. I’ll stay here and wait.” She sighed heavily.
Whatever. She could play the martyr if she wanted, but nobody was buying it, least of all me.
I stuck my feet in my shoes without bothering to tie them. “I’m going. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Cindy and the guys will take care of you if you need anything. She should be here by nine o’clock.”
“Be careful, Gage.” She clasped her hands together, her blue eyes wide and innocent-looking. What an actress. She should have pursued the Hollywood career instead of me.
“Yeah. See ya.” I abandoned her for the garage and my car.
Chapter 3: Frater Umbrarum’s Library
I took my gray sedan, as the most nondescript car I owned. The one least likely to be marked as belonging to a celebrity.
As I left the circular drive that fronted the house, I also left all light behind. The long, narrow, unpaved lane that led from the house to the nearest road was so dark I couldn’t see anything at all except the arc illuminated by my headlights. The car crunched over the gravel and bumped along the ruts of the drive — I really needed to get my assistant, Cindy, on the paving project — in what felt like a tunnel of darkness, tangled bushes rising up like walls on both sides of the car.
The ruts and potholes kept me from driving as fast as I wanted. If I had my way, I’d floor it all the way to Brad and Marie’s farm, but getting myself stuck in a ditch wouldn’t help anyone. So I crept along, leaning forward as if that would help me see better.
My headlights lit up a deer by the left side of the road, all slender legs and spreading antlers. I figured the antlers meant it was a male. Its big eyes seemed to glow red in the light from the car.
Normally, seeing a deer would have pleased me. I hadn’t had a lot of nature growing up in L.A. Right now, though, I couldn’t care less about some wild animal that had nothing to do with my current problem. I pulled my attention back to the road, to what lay ahead.
My peripheral vision caught movement. I turned my head, just in case that deer had decided to jump out in front of me. But it wasn’t a deer. It was a man.
He strode from the left side of the road, the deer’s side, seeming to emerge right out of the bushes, and walked directly in front of my car. I frowned as my heart slammed up against my ribs and my hands bore down on the steering wheel. What the fuck was this dude doing out here in the middle of the night?
He turned his head and stared right at me and I jumped. Jeremy. Holy fuck, it was Jeremy. I could clearly see his facial features beneath the curtain of messy blond hair that hung on either side of his face.
The look he gave me was strangely detached, as if he didn’t recognize me. He passed before me and disappeared into the bushes on the right side of the road.
I put the car into park and jumped out, engine still running. “Jeremy! Hey! Jer!”
He didn’t answer. There was no sound at all, not even the frogs we’d been listening to every evening. Nothing but a soft sigh of wind through a nearby tree and the low rumble of the car’s engine.
“Jeremy,” I said loudly. “Are you here? Talk to me.”
Still, nothing. Of course there’s nothing. He’s a ghost. Either that, or I was hallucinating.
Feeling strangely energized, I got back into the car. I didn’t know what it meant, but seeing Jeremy’s ghost on the same night Nova disappeared had to be significant.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled up in a dark farmyard. A small, cottage style house painted dark blue sat under a giant tree with no leaves. With its steeply pitched gable roof and dormers in the attic, it looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. An evil fairy tale, the kind with blood and monsters in it.
The huge, gray hulk of a barn reared up to the right of the house. I could just make out its silhouette in the darkness. Here and there, some metal fencing glimmered in the beams of my headlights.
I parked the sedan beneath the spreading branches of the tree. As I shut the car door, the house door opened, silhouetting a dark-haired woman in the light spilling from inside. She raised her hand in greeting. Marie.
I dashed toward her. She looked exhausted, with dark circles under her eyes, her long dark hair tangled. She wore an ankle-length blue-plaid flannel robe clutched together in the front by one hand.
“I’m sorry to wake you up,” I said, suddenly embarrassed at what I was asking of her. Nova and I barely knew her and I’d gotten her up in the middle of the night.
“Don’t be. Come in. Would you like some coffee?”
I followed her into the little house. A small kitchen to our right had a red and white checkerboard linoleum floor that looked like it might be completely original to the house. The cabinets, too, looked really old, along with the red Formica countertops with silvery metal banding. The appliances seemed to date from the seventies, judging by the dark brown and harvest gold all over them.
The rich, dark smell of coffee filled the small room. Marie pulled a huge mug from a cupboard and filled it from the coffee pot on the tile counter.
“We were combing our library for ideas.” She handed the mug to me.
“Not yet. It’s through here.”
She led me through an archway into the living room. Bookcases crammed with books lined every wall in the room. Her lanky, brown-haired husband, Brad, sat on a sagging gold couch surrounded by stacks of books. He wore black sweatpants and a baggy, gray T-shirt with a tear along the hem. He glanced up at me, his face somber.
“Gage,” he said.
“Hey, Brad. Sorry to wake you and Marie.”
He waved that off. “Don’t mention it. We’re glad you could call. Glad we can try to help.”
These people were too good to be true. I’d never met a couple more willing to give their time and energy to other people, and I wasn’t about to complain. I needed all the help I could get.
“Is Max around?” I said.
“He’s got his own place. When the sun comes up, I’ll call him. He and Caro can help too.” Marie patted a chair. “Come sit. I’ll give you some books to flip through.”
“I don’t even know what to look for.” I sat down.
“Any mention of the devil, to start,” Brad said. “Or hell. The only story I know of someone physically raised from the dead is when Orpheus tried to resurrect Eurydice, and that didn’t go very well.”
“I don’t know that one,” I said, picking up a book at random.
“Eurydice was his wife. She died of a snake bite. He was so grieved that his sad music moved Hades and Persephone, the Greek deities of the underworld, to allow him to rescue her from their realm. But he was supposed to lead her out without looking back at her or he would lose her forever.”
“He looked.” Brad set aside the book he’d been reading and picked up another one.
“Wait. So he lost her?” I said.
“Yep,” Brad said.
“That was Hades, though, not the devil,” Marie said. “Completely different mythology.”
I peered at her in bafflement. “Are you saying one story is true and the other isn’t? Like the devil is real and Hades is just a myth?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is the rules for dealing with Hades and Persephone are different from the rules for dealing with the devil.”
I scratched my head. “Okay. I’m not sure I understand what you just said.”
“Neither is she.” Brad gave me a wry smile.
All righty. They were doing an excellent job of shaking my confidence in them.
“There are so many different mythological systems,” Brad continued. “Are they all true? Are none of them true? Nobody really knows, even those of us who work with the spirit world.”
“Let’s just concentrate on the task at hand,” Marie said. “Find out if there’s any kind of mention of rescuing someone from hell in any of these books. Gage, there are snacks in the kitchen and I’ll cook something later for us to eat.”
“I’m not hungry anyway.” I bent to the book in my hand.
By sunrise, I’d gone through uncounted mugs of coffee, a plate of scrambled eggs and toast, and a whole pile of books with titles like An ABC of Witchcraft, Abramelin the Mage — a book I’d already encountered once in L.A. — and Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. But I hadn’t found any mention of rescuing people from hell.
The three of us were surrounded by piles and stacks of books. The shelves were now almost empty. Nobody had found anything of use.
The front door opened and shut. A moment later, Max showed up in the living room archway, a petite curly-haired blonde on his arm. I thought I recognized her from a picture he’d once showed me and Nova. Max’s black hair and her blonde contrasted in a dramatic way I thought Nova would like. God, I couldn’t stop thinking of her.
“Are we too late?” he said.
“Nope. We haven’t found a thing.” Brad waved the two into the room.
“Have you eaten breakfast?” Marie said.
“We got something on the way,” the blonde told her.
“Sorry this happened,” Max told me. He nodded to the girl. “This is my girlfriend, Caroline. Caro, this is Gage Dalton.”
She gave me a shy smile. “I recognize you. I’ve seen all your movies.”
“Yeah. Uh, nice to meet you.”
“I’m so sorry about your girlfriend.” She glanced at Marie. “What can I do to help?”
“You can go through some of these books, see if you can find something we missed,” Marie said. “I’m going to make some calls. Maybe some of my friends know something.”
She got up and left the room, while Max and Caroline settled on the floor in the midst of all the books.
“This is going to be a bitch to put away,” Max remarked as he picked up one of the volumes.
I turned and grabbed another book from the shelf. It had the weird and unpromising title The Black Sow, with a line drawing of a large, presumably female pig on the faded, brown hardback cover.
Thumbing through it, I scanned the text for any mention of the devil or hell. The style of the thing seemed to be even more archaic than most of the other books I’d scanned, making it slow going. Around me, Brad, Max and Caroline talked in low tones. Marie’s voice came from some other downstairs room, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
The book I’d chosen seemed to be about magically enchanting a black sow to make her capable of finding treasure. It was such a ridiculous idea, so obviously a hoax, that I was tempted to toss the book to the side as useless. But then the phrase “resurrected from hell” caught my eye.
Examining the passage in detail, I found it referred to another book called The Secret Rites Of Necromancy, which supposedly contained a method of contacting human spirits in hell and even of extracting them.
“Guys, I think I found something.” I handed the book to Brad, pointing at the right paragraph.
He scanned the book. “Holy shit. I was beginning to think we should give up. Good work, Dalton.”
“I’ll call it good work when Nova is back.” I rubbed my eyes, which were starting to hurt. “You think we can find this Secrets book?”
“I’ve heard of it but I’ve never seen a copy,” he said. “I’ll get on it.”
“I’ll look it up on F.U.L.,” Caroline said.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Frater Umbrarum’s Library. It’s a database of obscure occult books. A lot of them are available as PDF’s, so we might not even have to order anything.” She stood up and left the room.
Max watched her go, an affectionate expression on his face that made me want to deck him. I couldn’t stand that he could look at Caroline — and touch and kiss her, talk to her — and I didn’t even know if I would ever see Nova again. Selfish of me, I know. But Nova’s fate was tearing me up inside and seeing a happy couple just made it a hundred times worse.
Chapter 4: Gloom
Everything in the world was gray. Thick white fog clung to everything in the neighborhood, draining it of color, and filled in the spaces between so I couldn’t make out any of the shapes around me with any certainty. What little sunlight made it through the gloom of the mist was diffused and weak.
There had been a lot of fog lately. It muffled sound and made me feel closed in. Alone.
You can’t bake all the time, or even during all your time off. So I’d decided to take a break from the cooking and go for a walk. With my peacoat, a scarf wrapped around my throat, and a knit beanie on my head, I felt pretty cozy. Except for the fog.
It made no sense to think the fog could see me, that it was watching me, but that’s what it felt like. As if there were eyes hidden in it somewhere. Intelligence. I shivered in spite of my warm coat and pulled my scarf a little closer to my chin.
Dark green and gray shapes emerged out of the white as I made my way down my street. Bushes. Trees. Clumps of ornamental grass like enormous heads of hair. No birds sang. There didn’t seem to be any animals around at all.
Didn’t anyone in this neighborhood have pets?
Come to think of it, I hadn’t really met any of my neighbors except for Declan. And he didn’t have any critters, not even a goldfish. He claimed he was too busy working to take care of a pet.
One advantage of the walk was it got my blood moving and made my body feel more alive. That was good because I’d been way too sedentary lately. Except for all the baking, I’d spent most of my time sitting with my books and notes.
I rounded a corner onto another suburban street, this one with all single-family houses. At two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, you’d think there would be people on the street. Cars going by. Something. But the place was as empty as a ghost town. Where was everyone?
Lately, I’d had that nagging feeling of something missing more and more often. It came to me now, sharp and aching. My world was off-kilter in a way I couldn’t see or explain or even understand.
I sighed. It was just loneliness. Lots of busy people, people like me who worked and studied hard, were lonely. It was part of the price you paid for success in the world.
From somewhere ahead of me came the sound of footsteps. I tensed, wondering who it could be. This might be an opportunity to meet someone else in the neighborhood, but it could also be an opportunity to be mugged. Should I hide? Run away?
God, I was being silly. Why would I need to hide? It might be a foggy, gloomy day but it was still broad daylight. People must be around here somewhere, so there was nothing to fear.
My heart pounded frantically in spite of my reassurances to myself.
A figure approached me from out of the fog, tall and dark. I swallowed. It came closer, seeming to grow larger as it neared. Closer. Now I could see it was male, a man wearing a dark knit hat.
The man’s features resolved out of the mist into someone I recognized. His blond hair peeked out from under the edges of his hat.
I smiled in relief. “Hey, you.”
“Hi, Nova. What are you doing out here?” He paused in front of me on the sidewalk, smiling in return. He seemed paler in the pale, gray light.
“I thought I’d take a walk. I’m tired of being cooped up in my apartment.”
“You’re not baking cookies today?”
“No.” I shook my head. “A girl can only bake so many cookies.”
He laughed. “I guess so. Would you like to walk with me? I’m getting some exercise too.”
“Sure. But aren’t you heading back?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve got plenty of energy.” He turned so he faced the same direction as me. “Have you seen the park down this way?”
“I’ll show you.” He took my hand and tucked it in the crook of his arm, like an old-fashioned gentleman, and I let him, although it seemed like an odd gesture.
“It’s so dead around here today,” I said.
Declan laughed at that. “It sure is.”
“Where is everyone? I mean, it’s Saturday.” I peered up at the darkened house we were passing. “Doesn’t anyone have shopping to do? Where are the kids?”
“They’re probably inside, out of this cold fog. Where you should be.” He gave me a significant glance.
“You don’t think I should have gone for a walk?”
“I understand why you felt the need to get out, but it isn’t all that safe around here. With this fog, you could get hit.”
“Yeah, if there were any cars around. But there aren’t.”
“You never know when one will come along,” he said, tucking my arm through his a little more tightly.
“Are you worried about me, Declan?” I said teasingly.
He smiled and shrugged. “Yeah, kind of. You should be more careful, Nova. You let me into your apartment and I could have been anyone. I could have been some kind of evil freak who wanted to hurt you.”
That sent a chill through me, something much icier than the fog. “You’re not a freak, are you?”
His green eyes turned serious. “No. But that’s not true for everyone around here.”
“I thought you just moved into the neighborhood. How do you know all this?” He was starting to scare me.
“I did a little research.”
“Ookay. I’m not sure what you’re really trying to tell me.”
He patted my hand where it rested on his arm. “I’m not trying to tell you anything bad about myself. I just don’t want you wandering off alone. You never know who you’ll run into.”
“But there’s nobody around except us.”
“I saw a man.” Declan sent me a sidelong glance. “He was lurking in the bushes of one of these houses, watching me. Didn’t seem like friendly behavior.”
“Wow. Okay. I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“Good.” He pointed ahead. “See there? That’s the park.”
Mostly what I saw was a curtain of white, but there were some column-like shapes rising out of it that I took for the trunks of some huge trees. “Are you sure this place is safe?”
“You’re with me.”
I shot him a glance out of the corner of my eye. “And you’re safe?”
“I would never hurt you.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed that. But I also wasn’t sure I wanted to bolt and run for home. Stupid me, I didn’t want to insult him or hurt his feelings by acting like he was threatening me.
“You know, guys don’t usually warn me the way you just did,” I said.
He drew me closer to the park. “That’s probably because either they didn’t care about you or they didn’t know enough to warn you.”
“Are you saying you care about me?”
He paused to gaze down at me, completely serious now. “Yes. I do.”
“Why? We just met the other day.” The only thing I’d given him was a few Valentine’s Day cookies.
“I like you. I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt.”
I shook my head. “You’re very odd, do you know that?”
“Sorry. I guess I’m in an overly serious mood today.”
“I guess so.” I gazed around the park as we left the sidewalk for closely cropped grass. Ahead, there was a small sort of outbuilding, that really looked like a tiny house. It had a Victorian style to it, with tall narrow windows, shiplap siding, and carved corbels supporting the hip roof. For some reason, it gave me the creeps.
The tiny place couldn’t have been big enough to live in, unless there were only one or two people in residence. Yet it felt occupied. That really made no sense. It didn’t look any more occupied than any of the other structures in the neighborhood. Its windows were dark. There was no-one gazing out, no vehicle nearby, not even a bike. It didn’t look occupied, yet I could feel a presence there and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
“What is that place?” I whispered to Declan.
“I’m not sure. Want to go inside?”
“Hell, no. It gives me a major case of the creeps.”
“Okay. We won’t,” he said.
“Besides, doesn’t it belong to someone? Wouldn’t we be trespassing?”
“I don’t think so. It’s in a public park.”
I supposed that made sense. I still didn’t want to get close to the thing. I glanced around, looking for something park-like. Benches, playground equipment, stuff like that. But there wasn’t any. Nothing. Just a single path curving around the trunks of those enormous trees. And the house.
Then I saw the headstones. Rows and rows of headstones, gray and pink marble, black granite, some kind of white stone, some of the plain slabs with only a couple of lines of text on them and others elaborately carved. The stones disappeared into the clinging fog, but I could sense there were a lot of them just out of sight.
My hand tightened on Declan’s arm. “This isn’t a park. It’s s cemetery.”
I pointed. “Graves. We’re in a cemetery.”
“Huh. I was sure this was a park.”
“I want to go home now,” I said.
“Don’t you want to have a look around? Cemeteries are interesting.”
Walk around in all that fog, with creepy graves just waiting for us to stumble on them? “No, thank you. Let’s go back.”
“Okay.” He shrugged. I’ll bet there are some good ones in here, though.”
We turned and headed back toward the sidewalk.
“Good ones?” I said.
“Yeah. Cool stories. Cool names. You know, the history and stuff. Don’t you ever wonder about the people buried in cemeteries? Where they came from, what they were like, how they died?”
“Not really,” I said, shivering. “Graveyards are places I’ve always avoided.” And I planned to continue avoiding them in the future.
“I love them. They’re so peaceful,” he said with a dreamy expression.
This whole episode was giving me the willies. I had no idea Declan was so…odd. He’d seemed totally normal the other time. There didn’t seem to be anything peaceful in that place, just a lot of death. The fog only underscored the themes of death and forgetfulness and isolation.
“Would you think less of me if I told you I’m scared?” I said. “I don’t like the idea of ghosts.”
“Ghosts won’t hurt you,” he said firmly. As if he knew some of them personally. “Most of them are totally harmless.”
“Uh…okay. If you say so.”
He laughed. “Come on, Nova. Don’t worry. They’re dead. They can’t hurt you.”
“Well, after you went to all that trouble to tell me how dangerous it is around here, you can’t blame me for getting spooked in a foggy graveyard.”
He grinned at me. “I guess you’re right. Let’s go back to your place and warm up.”
I left the cemetery with enthusiasm. If I’d known it was there, I’d never have rented my apartment. It was only a block from my place, for crying out loud. Ick. I shivered again at the thought of all those dead people lying so close to the place where I slept.
Great. Now I’d never have a decent night’s sleep again.
Even re-entering the more normal, everyday world of a modern suburb couldn’t completely shut off that sense of hopelessness and loss I felt in the graveyard. The houses looked even emptier, their windows even more blank, than before.
“I think you need a hot toddy,” Declan said.
“A hot toddy. It’s tea with whiskey in it.” He winked at me. “You got any whiskey? I’ll make you one.”
“I don’t have hard liquor.”
“Well, I’ll duck into my place and get mine. If that’s okay.”
The fright of the graveyard loomed behind us in the fog. My apartment would be warm and dry and brightly lit, and a hot toddy sounded wonderful.
Chapter 5: Rare Books
Caroline curled up in one of the armchairs in Marie and Brad’s living room, wildly tangled gold hair spilling over her face, and pulled a tablet from her purse. She fired up the thing and started searching, looking for Frater Umbrarum’s Library. I rubbed my forehead again, suddenly exhausted. I’d been up all night and I was running on fumes.
Sleep probably wouldn’t come, though. I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep again, unless I found and rescued Nova.
“You need some rest,” Marie said from her position next to me on the couch.
“Do you read minds?”
She smiled and patted me on the arm. “Only sometimes. You look wrecked, that’s all. Want to lie down in the spare bedroom?”
“I don’t think I could sleep unless you shot me with a tranquilizer dart.”
Max glanced up from his position next to Caroline. “We could do that.”
“Screw you, Kincaid.”
“Hey, it was your idea.” He grinned at me.
I couldn’t smile back, although my lips twitched. Having Max harass me and Marie try to take care of me made the empty, jagged places inside of me a little warmer though. I had allies. Nova had allies. Somehow we’d get her back and make everything all right again.
“I can give you an herbal medicine to help you sleep,” Marie told me. “If you want it. If you don’t, I understand. You need to take care of yourself, though, or you’ll be no good to Nova.”
I heaved a sigh. “I want to do something.”
“I know, hon. But Caroline and Max are looking for your book. There’s nothing you can do at the moment besides get some sleep.” She gave me a sympathetic smile. “Honestly, you look like you haven’t slept in a week.”
Nova and I had been doing a lot of other activities at night.
The loss of her suddenly hit me all over again like a fifty-pound dumbbell thrust directly into my gut. I almost doubled over at the heavy, hard pain of it. I grabbed for the back of the nearest chair as my eyes closed on the agony.
“I don’t know what he’s doing to her,” I whispered roughly. “It could be anything. Anything. I can’t stand that she might be hurting because of me.” Or at all.
“You love her,” Marie said.
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” And that was the problem. “That’s why he took her. So it’s my fault she’s gone. It’s my fucking fault. I did this. And it’s up to me to fix it.”
“I don’t see how loving her is your fault, or how loving her could endanger her,” Marie said.
I glared at her. “Because he promised he’d take people I cared about if he couldn’t get me. If I hadn’t loved her, or maybe if I did but I’d kept my mouth shut about it, then he wouldn’t have taken her.”
“Gage, you told me he wasn’t able to take you because your mom had no authority to offer your soul. Don’t you think it’s kind of bullshit that he’s trying to make you responsible for kidnapping Nova? That he’s trying to fix the blame for Jeremy’s death on you? He’s the one who did those things, not you. He’s the one responsible. Don’t blame yourself.”
I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. “I don’t know. I can’t think straight.”
“Exactly. That’s why you need sleep. Come on, I’ll get you some valerian.”
I had no idea what valerian was, but I followed her anyway. She led me up a steep, narrow wooden staircase to a second floor. A cramped landing led to several bedrooms and a bathroom so old-fashioned with its black and white hex tiles it reminded me of a movie set. Hell, everything had been reminding me of movie sets, when they weren’t reminding me of Nova.
Instead of going to the medicine cabinet, Marie opened a small cupboard fixed to the wall of the landing and pulled out a plastic bottle. “Take these with water,” she said, dumping four green capsules into my open palm.
“They smell weird.” Like smelly cheese or sweaty socks.
“That’s how you know the valerian is good. If they don’t stink, they’ve lost their power. They’ll help you relax. I gave you kind of a strong dose because you’re a big guy and you’re so tense right now. You should sleep for a few hours anyway.”
“Okay. Thanks, Marie.”
She patted me again. “You’re welcome. The room’s right through there.”
I staggered into the bedroom and closed the door. The ceiling slanted down to short walls. Thin winter light came through the cotton curtains on the dormer window. The room felt chilly, too, as if they never turned on the heat up here. There was a single twin bed with a little-girl quilt on top. It had blue ribbons printed on it in a diamond pattern, and a different girl in each diamond. Every girl had an enormous pioneer-type bonnet on her head and some kind of loose smock.
Clearly, I’d been transported back to the seventies. I should have known the instant I saw the harvest gold fridge downstairs. I kicked off my shoes, peeled back the quilt, and stretched out on the mattress.
No way could I sleep with Nova missing. But maybe I’d lay here and rest for a while before going back downstairs to help with the search.
The whiskey Declan brought over was in a crystal decanter rather than in an ordinary bottle. I made some tea — nothing special, just English breakfast — and he poured generous amounts of the whiskey into each mug. I added milk and sugar to mine, because that’s the way I always take my tea.
Damn, toddies are good. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
We sat on the couch, me with my red throw blanket wrapped around my shoulders for extra coziness. The toddy helped take the edge off that nasty feeling I’d gotten in the fog. I glanced over to find Declan watching me with a soft expression on his face.
He liked me. I could tell.
Normally, I didn’t think that way about guys. I was kind of dense when it came to flirting, because I never thought guys were interested in me. Especially not hot ones like him. But for some reason I could easily see that he really liked me.
“I’m sorry our walk scared you,” he said, reaching for my hand.
I let him take it, let him lace his fingers through mine. It felt good. Reassuring. The lamplight in my living room made a circle of apparent safety, a refuge from the darkness and fog outside.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You didn’t know how it would affect me.”
“Yeah, but you’re right. After all those grim warnings, I shouldn’t have taken you to a cemetery.”
“I thought you didn’t realize it was a cemetery.”
“I didn’t, but you pointed out the headstones. I should have gotten you out of there.”
All I wanted to do was forget about it, not be reminded all over. I shrugged. “It’s over now. I’ll be fine.”
“Why did you give me all those warnings?”
He paused, studying our clasped hands. “Yesterday I saw some things that worried me. Some of the people around here aren’t exactly upstanding citizens.”
“Oh, yeah? I don’t think I’ve seen any of the people around here. You’re the only one I’ve met.” Which seemed almost weirder than the haunted fog, now that I thought about it.
“You’re lucky then.” He smiled at me.
“Don’t you think it’s odd that we’re the only ones around here, though?”
“Nova, you’re just going to scare yourself again. Let’s turn on some music and forget about the frightening and uncanny for a while.” He pulled an mp3 player out of his pocket and turned it on. There were no speakers attached to it, yet music immediately filled the room.
The piece was something classical that I’d heard before. I couldn’t remember the name.
I took another sip of the toddy, letting the heat of the tea relax me while the booze gave me a pleasant little buzz. “How did you learn about this drink? I never even heard of it before.”
“Oh, they’re popular where I’m from,” he said.
He frowned. “Around. Uh, east of here.”
“East?” I raised my brows. “That’s kind of vague.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m here now, and that’s all that counts.” He scooted closer to me on the couch and stretched his arm along the back, behind me. “Is this okay?”
“Yeah.” I smiled up at him with the feeling he was going to try to kiss me soon.
My heart began fluttering. I hadn’t kissed a man in such a long time, I could hardly remember what I was supposed to do. And Declan was so freaking hot, much better looking than my ex-fiance Barry.
My mind gave a little hiccup at the thought of Barry. Hadn’t I done something because of him? Besides break up, that is. Hadn’t I gone away? And something big had happened when I did, something crucial that I was supposed to remember. But what?
Then Declan’s hand came up to cup the side of my face and his warm lips brushed gently over mine. It felt nice. So nice that I raised my own hand to his shoulder, enjoying the strength I felt there.
He toyed with my mouth, skillfully using his lips to caress mine. I moved more deeply into his embrace, while a tiny voice at the back of my mind whispered that this was wrong. We weren’t supposed to be together.
Declan’s tongue slid across my lips and I opened for him. When he entered my mouth, I found he tasted faintly of whiskey. His arms tightened around me and his mouth delved more insistently into mine, making me warm and tingly deep inside.
Still, the notion we were doing something wrong wouldn’t leave me alone. I tensed, my hand pushing at his shoulder, my back stiffening, pulling away from him.
He released me, his blond brows drawing slightly together. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m just — I’m not ready yet.”
Declan backed off, scooting away from me down the couch. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to rush you.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s just that I broke up with my fiancé, Barry, not too long ago and I guess I need to take it slow.”
“Okay. I can do that.” He smiled at me as he took my hand and raised it to his lips. “I like you a lot, though. I hope we can keep seeing each other.”
“Of course we can. I like you too.”
After Declan left and the hot toddy had worn off, the creepy feeling returned to me. In the graveyard, I’d felt as if the fog had a consciousness, maybe even eyes through which it could watch me. A bizarre idea, but that was the image that kept recurring to me.
By now, it was dark outside and the heavy fog hid all outside detail. I shut the curtains in every room, yet the creepiness persisted, as if it had followed me home from the cemetery. As if something from the graveyard had invaded my home.
Yuck. Now why had I thought about that? I needed to police my thoughts.
I brushed my teeth and got into some pink flannel pj’s, then climbed into bed. Even though I couldn’t see anything outside with my curtains drawn, I kept imagining the fog creeping into my room, curling its way beneath my curtains and over to my bed. I hadn’t been this spooked since I was a kid and had scared the crap out of myself with The Sixth Sense.
I’d leave my bedside lamp on all night. Maybe that would hold the boogie man at bay.
I wake up sometime later. There is white outside, but it isn’t fog. It’s falling snow — giant flakes swirling down and down and down, hitting the glass of the window with a barely audible hushing sound. Yet the room feels warm and safe.
I look around, noticing this isn’t my apartment bedroom. It’s the master bedroom of my parents’ cabin. I haven’t seen this place in years, and yet it feels like home to me. The walls are made of logs. The curtains on the window are blue and white gingham, and a blue and white quilt covers the big bed.
The door to the room opens. A man comes inside. Not Declan. This man has dark hair and huge blue eyes. His face looks as sculpted and beautiful as if he were a statue. Maybe a statue of a Greek god. He has the body to match, his muscled form on display through the snugly fitting black sweatpants and T-shirt he wears.
My belly flutters and aches at the same time as he comes deeper into the room and stands next to the bed. I want him with a desperation I’ve never felt before.
I push the quilt off me, an invitation for him to join me. He kneels on the bed. I reach up and stroke his angular jaw, feeling the dark stubble beneath my palm. My thumb brushes his full lower lip.
“I love you,” he says.
I slip my hand behind his neck and urge him downward, until his mouth claims mine. He tastes like pure sex and I moan, suddenly on fire to have him inside me. Our hands pull and tear at each other’s clothes as we kiss with voracious need.
Everywhere he touches me, I come alive with the most intense desire I’ve ever felt, until the need for him is almost unbearable. I pant, my hands trembling as I touch his smooth skin, feeling the hard muscle underneath.
“I need you inside me,” I whisper.
“Yes. Baby, yes.” He sinks into the space between my thighs, his hard cock prodding eagerly at my body.
Sweating, trembling, still aching with need, I awoke. I sat up in bed and pushed my hair from my face. My bedside lamp still burned, and judging by the overall darkness of the room, the sun wasn’t up yet.
I wanted him back, wanted to complete the encounter. I wanted more from him, even more than sex. The need in me wasn’t merely sexual, it was emotional. A heart need.
He hadn’t even entered me before I’d been dragged back to waking consciousness. I needed him so much, wanted him so much, and I couldn’t even have him in a dream.
But who was he?
God, Nova, it was just a dream. Get over it.
Sensible advice. But it had felt real somehow, as if I should know who he was. As if he ought to be more real to me than my own home, than my flesh-and-blood next door neighbor Declan.
Chapter 6: Secret Rites Of Necromancy
The middle of an old cemetery is the perfect spot for the house. I’ve never built a house before, yet somehow I know exactly what to do although I have no blueprints or plans of any kind. I wield my tools expertly, putting together the stone foundation, the walls and high ceilings and hip roof like I’ve built hundreds of them before. It’s small, almost like a playhouse, and in a simple Victorian style that I know Nova will love. I lavish bright colors on it to charm her, because I know she loves bright colors — Christmas red and pale green and white and a touch of dark, almost-black green for some of the details on the roof corbels. I know she’ll fall in love with this place the instant she sees it, especially since it’s in the cemetery.
She’ll know I made it just for her.
Suddenly, I’m with her again. We’re in the master bedroom up at her parents’ cabin, where I first met her. She’s sprawled beneath me in the bed, and I’m loving every inch of her body with my mouth and hands. All I can think of is how good she feels and smells and tastes, and how bad I want to get inside her. She’s moaning, touching me, her hands moving everywhere, and it’s like her touch fills me up, like it’s a kind of food and I’m starving.
I groan, pressing myself close to her hot, wet body. God, she feels so good. Perfect. She’ll feel even better when I get inside her; I can hardly wait for the hot, tight clasp of her sheath on my cock.
“Nova.” I moan into her hair.
She disappears. Vanishes right from under me.
I blinked. A dream. That’s what it was. Just a dream.
God damn it. I almost groaned again at the loss of her, my whole body still throbbing with need and my soul dark and empty without her.
I needed her back. I needed to know she was safe and happy, which obviously couldn’t be true given her current location.
Gradually, the sound of someone softly playing a guitar penetrated my consciousness. The song was something I used to play with Jeremy, when we were learning ballads to impress girls. I’d never really used my skill that way, but he had. Love songs almost always work to soften up a reluctant girl when she’s not impressed with all your other stellar qualities, at least according to him.
My eyes opened. The light seemed even dimmer and chillier than it had when I’d fallen asleep. A man sat on the end of the borrowed bed, his blond head bent over a guitar as he played a whispery tune. I blinked again, narrowing my eyes. He was familiar. Too familiar.
Jeremy. My heart zoomed from a lazy, post-sleep rhythm to a frantic race. I broke out in a sweat. Seeing him in front of my car had been weird enough, but this was in a whole new category of bizarre.
Was he real? Maybe I was still dreaming.
I lay still under the quilt, almost holding my breath, waiting to see what he’d do next. Would he look at me? Would he talk to me?
I could feel his weight pressing down on the mattress, making it dip. I could see his long fingers, bony from all the drugs and not-eating he did before he died. I could even hear the soft, occasional scritch of his fingers against the strings as he picked out the tune.
This didn’t feel like a dream at all. It felt real.
“Jeremy,” I said.
He vanished. He didn’t fade or grow insubstantial; he simply was there one instant and gone the next.
I jackknifed up to a sitting position, my heart still galloping. Why was he visiting me? And if he had something to tell me, why not just come out and say it? Why the guitar playing?
I scrubbed my face. I hadn’t expected to fall asleep, but now I felt that I’d been deep under for a while. A couple of hours at least.
“Okay, Jer,” I said out loud. “If you can hear me, know that I want to hear whatever message you have for me. Don’t worry about scaring me.”
Yeah, I felt like a dumbass talking to an empty room, but there was a chance he could hear what I said. And I wanted him to come back. I wanted to have a face-to-face conversation with him, the sooner the better.
Maybe Jeremy knew a way to get Nova back. Or maybe he knew someone who could help us. And even if he didn’t, I wanted to see my friend again, to apologize for not being there to help him. For failing to save him.
I padded back down the stairs in my stocking feet, making only the occasional creaking noise on the old steps. Nobody else was making any sound. The old house smelled of moisture and age and loneliness.
At the bottom of the stairs, I glanced into the living room. It was empty. The books still lay over end tables, couch cushions, and the floor, although more of them were back on the shelves.
I noticed a nondescript black guitar case sitting against the far arm of the couch. I hadn’t noticed it before, yet it seemed obvious now. Maybe because I’d also seen Jeremy’s ghost playing a few minutes earlier. Was he trying to tell me I needed to play?
I didn’t really get that. What difference would my playing guitar make? I should be working, looking for a method of rescuing Nova. But it’s not every day you see your dead best friend, and the connection between my vision and this guitar nagged at me.
A burst of laughter escaped the kitchen, drawing my attention. The others were probably all gathered there and it sounded like they were having a good time. They wouldn’t notice or care if I took a bit longer joining them.
“Okay, Jer,” I said. “This is for you.”
I went to the case and unfastened it, pulled out the instrument. It was a standard cheap guitar, the kind parents buy their rock-star addled kids for Christmas. But it would do.
Sitting down on the couch with it, I tuned it up, quickly because it was already almost there. Not as convenient as the one I’d gotten on the streets in L.A., which was always magically in tune, but good enough. Someone had obviously played it not too long ago.
The first song I did was a ballad I’d done for Nova months ago, when we’d been stuck in the cabin together. I’d played it in an attempt to make her feel better as she was sick with stomach flu at the time.
Ever since I’d left Oregon without her, I’d played this song to remind myself of her and it still felt like the most solid connection I had with her. She was gone, in a place I couldn’t reach, but I could still play this song. And someday, I’d find her and get her back where she belonged.
I finished that piece and segued into one I’d written for her. She’d only heard it once, right before she’d been taken. I would play it for her, I told myself. Soon. It wouldn’t be long before she would be here with me.
I didn’t fully believe it, but I repeated that thought to myself anyway.
You think I’ve forgotten you
Your sweet face
The way you kissed me and said you loved me
You think I’ve forgotten you
But I will never forget
I know I’m not good enough for you
November Daye, you deserve better than me
You think I’ve gone away
Left your beautiful soul behind
You think I’ve gone away
But I’ll never leave unless you make me
I know I’m not good enough for you
November Daye, you deserve better than me
You think I’m moving on
But I’m only moving up
I will make myself over
I will fight my way back to you
Someday, I’ll be good enough for you
November Daye, you deserve better than me
You think I don’t care
You think I’d rather be with someone else
You think I don’t care
But baby, I love you
Someday I’ll be strong enough for you
November Daye, I love you
I love you, November Daye
The song felt even sadder than usual. I’d written it when we were apart, and it seemed even more relevant now. My throat tightened, making my voice husky and rough as I sang in a voice low enough to avoid bothering the others.
Nova had loved listening to me. I didn’t think I was all that good, yet she kept insisting how great I was at it. She thought I was as good a musician and songwriter as I was an actor, a comparison that made me laugh since I didn’t see myself as a great actor either. But Nova did. She believed in me, even though I’d never believed in myself.
Lucifer said I’d built my career on my own, that he’d never honored his end of The Deal. And if that was true, then maybe Nova was right about the music thing. Maybe I did have some real skill. But it wouldn’t bring her back, would it?
I finished her love song, the notes of the last chord dying away into silence. When I looked up, I found the others all crowded around the archway listening. Marie, in front, began to clap.
My face flushed with heat as I stuck the guitar back in its case. “Cut it out. I was just fooling around.”
“You’re really good,” Max said.
“You are.” Brad grinned at me. “Wanna join my band?”
“Ha ha.” I stood up. “Thanks for letting me borrow it. Did anybody find anything while I was asleep?”
Marie stared at me with narrowed eyes. “Don’t you know how good you sounded?”
“I want to find Nova.” I got up and joined them.
“We’ll get to that in a minute,” Marie told me. “Seriously. You don’t know how good a song that was, do you?”
Max gave me a sympathetic look. “You can’t stop her when she gets like this.”
“Nova thinks I’m good,” I said. “But she’s biased.” Because she loved me. My chest felt like it was going to collapse.
“Well, she’s right. You’re really good,” Marie said.
Brad clapped me on the shoulder. “I wouldn’t ask just anyone to join the band. Only the best get invitations.”
I laughed, but it sounded forced. “I’m honored then. So about Nova.”
Then I noticed another man standing next to Max. The two of them looked so alike they could have been brothers, or maybe cousins, same black hair and dark blue eyes, same bone structure. The new guy looked watchful as he gazed at me, as if he were assessing me, trying to make up his mind whether I was a friend or an enemy.
He sported one of those handlebar mustaches that a few trendy dudes were wearing these days. That was when I noticed how old-fashioned his clothes were. He wore a loose, dark jacket with an oddly narrow lapel and loose trousers out of the same material.
“Did you get some sleep?” Max said.
“Yeah.” I rubbed my face again.
“This is my — uh — ancestor, Fred Marchand.” He indicated the guy next to him with a motion of his head.
Ancestor? That was a fucking weird way of saying they were related. But whatever. Max was an odd-ball.
“A pleasure.” I stuck out my hand.
Fred glanced at it, then at Max. Then he gave me an apologetic shrug and a smile.
“I’d be glad to shake hands with you, sir, if I could.”
I looked at Max with a puzzled lift of my brows.
“Fred is a ghost,” he said.
“Huh?” I stared from him to Fred and back again. “A ghost?”
“I’m afraid so,” Fred said.
“But you look real.”
“I am real. Just not physical.”
“Christ. Am I still dreaming?”
“You’re awake,” Marie said. “Do you feel all right?”
“Yeah. But a few minutes ago, I saw another ghost. My friend Jeremy. He was sitting on the end of my bed playing the guitar.”
Max and Fred looked at each other.
“I didn’t feel him,” Fred remarked. “But I did have my attention on this room, so perhaps that’s the reason.”
“Are you really a ghost?” I said, coming closer. “I mean, you’re not pulling my leg, are you?”
“No.” Fred stood and extended his hand to me. “Try to shake.”
I grasped his hand. At least, that’s what I meant to do, but my flesh seemed to pass right through his. The only sensation I received was a kind of electric tingling.
“Holy shit,” I said.
Fred laughed. “Indeed.”
“I asked Fred to come in case he had some idea how to help you get your girl back,” Max said.
“Do you?” I fixed Fred with an eager stare.
“Not really. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. But there may be others who know more than I.”
A sigh escaped me. “Fuck. I have to do something. I can’t sit around on my hands while she suffers. Did anybody find that book?”
“There’s one copy,” Caroline said. “But it’s not on-line.”
“It’s in the private collection of this ceremonial magician in Seattle,” Max said.
“Okay. Great. I’ll call the guy and ask him what he’ll take for it.”
“I already did that. It’s not for sale.”
I shook my head, hard enough to give myself a headache. “Everything’s for sale if the price is high enough.”
“That’s not what he said.”
“Give me his number. I’ll call him and see if I can talk him around,” I said, holding my hand out toward Max.
“Go on,” Marie said. “It can’t hurt to let him try.”
I took the number he gave me, scribbled on a scrap of lined paper. The others were standing there, watching me like they expected to be my audience. I might be an actor, but I didn’t want an audience for this.
“I’ll be outside,” I said, and walked out the front door.
The fields around the house were hidden in mist; even the giant tree overhanging the house was shrouded in gray. My skin instantly felt damp. The air smelled strongly of some kind of herb or bush, although I had no idea what it was.
The little house didn’t have a real porch, just an overhang sheltering the front stoop. I leaned against the door and pulled out my smart phone and dialed the book owner’s number.
“Yeah?” said a careless voice on the other end.
“Is this Adam Freiberg?” I said.
“I hear you have a book, Secrets Rites Of Necromancy, that I’d very much like to buy.”
Freiberg sighed loudly. “Look, those other people called earlier and I told them I wasn’t selling. You’re wasting your time.”
“Are you sure? I’m willing to pay a lot of money for it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Why’s it so important to you, anyway?”
Probably for the same reason he was refusing to sell. “It has some obscure information in it I haven’t been able to trace to any other source.”
Rule number one of negotiation: never reveal how much you want the doo-dad or how much you’re willing to give for it. I was revealing way too much for a smart negotiation, but I didn’t give a shit about the price. I’d do, or pay, whatever I had to in order to get the book.
“Sorry. I’m not interested in selling.”
“Not for any price?” I said, wondering how much it was going to take to make him change his mind.
“Dude, you can’t possibly have enough money to make it worth my while.”
He sounded awfully confident about that.
I smiled. “Name your price and I’ll meet it.”
“No. I don’t want money. I don’t want anything.”
“Would it be possible for me to drive up and look at it?” I said. “I won’t take it or pester you to sell it to me. I just want to read it.”
“No. Not a good idea.”
“What? Why not?” I started to pace back and forth across the little stoop. He was being damned unreasonable.
“You must not know much about magical artifacts,” he said, his voice sticky with condescension.
“Maybe I don’t. So enlighten me.”
“Secret Rites is a grimoire.” He announced this as if it explained everything.
“Yeah? So? It’s just a book.”
Freiberg snorted. “It’s not just a book. It’s a magical book that has a lot of power attached to it. Its magical charge will be weakened if I allow anyone else to touch it.”
“Can’t you re-charge it?”
“Maybe. But it would take a long time and a lot of effort and I’d rather not have to go to all that trouble.”
I gritted my teeth in frustration. “A woman’s life is on the line here. Isn’t that more important than your magical toy?”
“Secrets is not a toy, and the fact you’d call it that just confirms my decision not to let you near it. You don’t have the proper respect.”
I ground my teeth together, as gritting them wasn’t doing the job anymore. “It’s not that I don’t respect the book. It’s that I have more important things on my mind, like rescuing my girlfriend.”
“Dude, if you’re talking about storming the gates of hell, that has never worked.”
Dude? He’d called me that twice now. It seemed so California, and really out of place in the context. Like a surfer who worked dark magic on the side. Not very believable.
“How do you know it’s never worked?” I said.
“There’s never been a recorded instance of it working, while there have been several accounts of people trying it with disastrous results.”
I stared at the misty tree, tapping my fingers against my denim-clad leg. “I’m willing to take that risk.”
“No way. I’m not going to be a part of that.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. It’s my neck. What do you care if I break it?”
“I don’t. Except there’ll be a karmic backlash on me, because the book belongs to me. So no. You can’t look at it.”
I ground my teeth again. This guy was impossible. If he couldn’t see reason, I’d have to find out where he lived and break in, because there was no way I was leaving that book behind. I needed the information in it.
“And don’t think you can sneak up here and break into my place,” he added. “I’ve got wards here that would grind you into mush if you tried to breach them. Do yourself a favor and give up on Secrets now.”
That wasn’t going to happen.
“Fine,” I bit out. “Is there anything you can tell me, any other technique that can get someone released from hell?”
He laughed. “You don’t ask for much, do you?”
He sighed again. I could picture him on the other end shaking his head at my obstinacy. “People in hell are there for a reason. No disrespect to your girlfriend, but I don’t think you really want her back.”
“She’s not there because she’s a bad person,” I said, taking a step down onto the front walk. “The devil took her to punish me. She’s not even dead. At least, she wasn’t when he took her.”
Freiberg said nothing. The line went so dead and silent I began to think he’d hung up on me. Rain dripped miserably from the house eaves and the broad branches of the tree. A drop splashed right in my eye. I jumped back beneath the overhang.
“Freiberg? You there?”
“Yeah. Uh…fuck.” He paused. “You are seriously fucked, dude. And your girlfriend…Jesus H. Christ.”
“That’s not helpful.”
“I’ve heard of this kind of shit, but only as part of old stories. Not as something that happens in real life. Truth is, I didn’t think it was even possible.”
“I wouldn’t either if I hadn’t seen it happen.”
“Fuck.” He sighed. “Okay, I’m in.”
“I’m in. I’ll help you. But I can’t sell you the book.”
My back straightened. “But you’ll let me look at it.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. And I’ll do some research for you, see what else I can turn up. But it won’t be free.”
“That’s not a problem. I can pay.”
“If you could come up to Seattle, it would be easier. That way we’ll have access to all my shit.”
“That’s cool. You mind if I bring some friends?” I was willing to go up alone, but I’d rather have Max by my side. Maybe Brad and Marie too.
“As long as they can keep their hands off my tools, they’re welcome.”
“They seem pretty experienced, so I’m sure they’ll be cool.”
“What’s your name again?” he said.
He barked a laugh. “No fucking way. The Gage Dalton?”
“Uh huh. We need to keep this quiet, though, okay? No media attention or I won’t pay a dime.”
“No, that’s fine. I won’t say anything. Gage Dalton. Holy crap.”
He sounded way more impressed than I’d expected, given his overall attitude toward me and my dilemma. I wondered if he was the kind of guy who’d come on to me. I’d gotten plenty of that kind of proposition, besides my more usual offers from females.
But Freiberg just laughed again. “Some psychic I am. I never would have guessed your identity.”
“Yeah. I don’t want anyone to know I’m not in L.A. Paparazzi are not people we want hanging around.”
“Yeah, I got you. Okay, so here’s the address.”
I wondered who would be willing to go with me. Marie, probably. She’d said the farm was her job, so she might be able to swing a few days in Seattle. Max and Caroline, on the other hand, I had no idea. Caro was a student, so she probably had classes. Not that it mattered; If I had to go alone and naked, I’d do it.
“Listen, I’ve gotta go,” Freiberg said. “I have an operation coming due and I can’t be late.”
“You’re a surgeon?” I said, confused.
“No.” He gave one of those short laughs. “A magical operation. Alchemical, actually. I’ll see you on Sunday, right?”
“Right. Sunday.” Tomorrow afternoon, in fact.
Chapter 7: Tombstone
We were having a rare sunny day and I’d decided to take a walk. Yeah, Declan had given me all those dire warnings, but it was the middle of the day and it felt safe. The visibility was fine without that heavy fog to hide things.
The only problem with the greater visibility was I could now see how odd the neighborhood really was. Empty, for example. The pretty winter sunlight fell on empty houses, empty driveways, empty streets.
I left the apartment building without seeing a single other person. Maybe everyone in my building worked nights except for me and Declan. That in itself seemed like an awfully odd coincidence, though.
Don’t think about that right now.
Damn it, I wanted to just enjoy my walk, without having strange fears and premonitions spoil it for me. I had my walking shoes on, a bottle of water, and my sketchpad and pencil in case I saw something I wanted to draw. I was all set to have a good time. I put my weird imaginings away.
The houses in the neighborhood, a mix of seventies suburbia and twenties charm, still looked as dark and shuttered as they had on all my other walks. Most people were likely to be at work right now…unless they were those graveyard shift people I’d imagined earlier.
A small, seventies ranch painted a faded blue had curtains visible through the living room window. The grass was neatly cut, the boxwood shrubs near the door growing in tidy round shapes. But there were no cars in the driveway, no toys in the yard. I walked a few yards up the driveway, staring at that living room window.
The room had no furniture. It was nothing but an empty rectangle with brown wall-to-wall carpet. Did no-one live here?
Maybe nobody lived in the neighborhood at all, except for me and Declan.
Nope. Don’t go there.
Sunny day. Cheerful. I pulled my attention away from the sad little ranch house and looked up at the blue, cloud-dotted sky. A crow cawed at me from its perch in a nearby oak.
If I could get a good look at the bird, maybe I could sketch it. I glanced around for a place to draw and noticed the cemetery. That stopped me in my tracks.
I hadn’t meant to end up here. The pillar-like trunks of the trees I’d seen through the fog just looked like big trees today, a mixture of oaks and spruce mostly, but there were still the gravestones. Rows and clusters of them, sticking out of the ground like stone hands raised to get my attention.
I gave another glance around. Still alone. No traffic on the street at all. In fact, I couldn’t hear any traffic noise from adjacent streets, either. But in spite of the eerie stillness of the day, the place looked a lot less threatening with the sun shining.
It’s just a graveyard. It’s not going to hurt you.
Declan was right. Dead people couldn’t do anything to me. They were dead.
I crossed the street and entered through an opening in a long, wrought-iron fence I hadn’t noticed the other time I’d been here. It must have been hidden in the fog. It had sharp, spear-like points sticking up as if to skewer the unwary.
Inside the cemetery, the first row of stones looked almost new, their surfaces shiny and polished. The death dates on them seemed to be mostly from the nineteen-eighties and nineties. Some were made of shiny, black granite and others of pink marble. Most of them were flat in the ground. I supposed it cost more to buy one of the upright kind.
There was so much silence in this place. No birds sang, except for the crow that still cawed in the oak tree. Sunlight filtered down through the bare branches and cast intricate patterns across the grass.
I wandered farther into the cemetery as a sense of peace came over me. At least here I didn’t have the blank windows of all those houses, like dark staring eyes.
The ground sloped upward under my feet. As I penetrated more deeply into the place, the stones became less shiny, more weathered. Some of them bore thick coverings of grayish lichen and bright green sphagnum moss. The dates moved further into the past. The nineteen fifties, thirties, teens. The eighteen hundreds.
I passed a sad little row of small, gray stones laid flat into the ground. All of them belonged to children. The surnames were different — Smith, Grant, McIntosh, Breier — but the dates were all in the same year. What local epidemic had wiped out all of these poor kids?
There were a lot of graves, and the path meandered in a more or less random way between them, wandering around clumps of vine maple and the trunks of enormous oak trees. I rounded a particularly large tree and came on an odd structure. It wasn’t a gravestone, but it was clearly meant as a grave marker.
It looked a lot like a miniature temple, the stone carved into pillars in the front, the openings in between them shaped like Gothic arches. In the center was an open space, like a tiny room. It wasn’t big enough to enter, though, since the whole thing only came up to my knees. It was like a temple for garden gnomes or something.
I bent closer to it, admiring the Goth beauty of it. Why had I thought this place was so scary? It only felt intriguing and pleasantly evocative now.
The name on the memorial caught my eye. Declan Stanhope, 1840-1869. He’d died so young. I wondered what had killed him. And his name…Declan. What an odd coincidence, especially considering it wasn’t a common name in North America.
Fallen oak leaves, acorns, and thick moss clung to the deep places in the memorial. Obviously, no-one had cared for it in a long time and that seemed sad to me. Declan Stanhope had been forgotten.
“Who were you?” I murmured. “How did you die?”
The only answer I received was another caw from a crow sitting in the spruce tree next to the memorial. I glanced up, but couldn’t make out the bird. Was it the same one, following me, or one of its friends?
What if the grave belonged to my Declan?
God, that was so crazy I felt embarrassed for thinking it. Normally I’d never consider something like that. It was the strangeness of the neighborhood that put the idea in my head.
No, my Declan was just an ordinary guy. No relation to this Declan Stanhope, just an odd coincidence.
Maybe I’d sketch Mr. Stanhope’s memorial. But there was no place to sit except another grave marker, and that didn’t seem right. Reluctantly, I turned to follow the path that had brought me here.
After a few dozen yards, it dawned on me that I’d chosen a different route. The row of flat headstones marking the children’s graves never materialized. Instead, I walked past a row of elaborate memorials similar to the one for Declan Stanhope, as the overhanging trees grew more and more oppressive and the shrubs larger, encroaching on the path and blocking out much of the cheerful sunshine. The path did move downward along the gentle slope of the hillside, though, so I figured I ought to be going in the right direction.
A huge thicket of shrubs and small trees grew next to the path on my left side, and the way curved around the miniature forest. Whatever was on the other side hid behind the screen of tangled branches, bramble, and dead leaves. I couldn’t quite make it out, yet I could see what looked like the peak of a roof.
Something rustled loudly in the bushes and I jumped back, my heart pounding so hard I imagined I could almost hear it. Something was in there, caught among the dead oak leaves and wickedly sharp blackberry thorns. The rustle came again.
A glossy black head peeked out from behind an oak leaf, shiny black eyes peering up at me as the crow cocked its head to the side. I snorted a laugh of relief. Just a bird.
What had I thought it was? A monster? Of course it was a bird.
The crow made a soft clucking noise, as if to confirm my silliness.
Shaking my head at myself, I continued down the path. I rounded the thicket and there was the tiny Victorian-style house. Great. I’d just recovered from the Great Crow Scare and now I had to walk past that haunted-feeling creepfest of a house.
It should have been cute. Tiny, perfectly proportioned, with the tall narrow windows and steeply pitched roof typical of a Victorian, it had been painted in varying shades of gray to pick out the detail in the trim. And the paint job looked new. This small structure was the best-kept item in the cemetery so far.
Yet as I approached it, the air around it seemed to hum at the same time as some invisible weight pressed in on my skull. The sense of being watched, something that had dogged me a lot lately, intensified the closer I got. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and stood up, and I had an almost irresistible urge to look around to see who was there.
No-one is there. It’s just you and the crows.
The path promised to take me within a yard of the building, and I couldn’t give it a wider berth because of the heavy underbrush that had overtaken this area. It was either get within touching distance of the house or turn around and try to find the other route. I stared at the building, my heart rate now well into the cardio zone.
It’s just an old building, Nova. For crying out loud, get hold of yourself.
Okay. Just an old building. I could totally do this.
I straightened my shoulders and started around the house. I could almost smell it, the scent of mildew and dry rot emanating from the clean-looking shiplap siding. When I glanced at a window, I noticed thickly enmeshed strands of cobweb clinging to the inside of the glass and the sill. The smell of rot seemed to intensify.
My steps quickened. Almost all the way around. The tiny front stoop with its thick slab of stone forming the only step appeared. The corbels and the trim around the front door had no cobwebs, so apparently people were cleaning the outside but not the interior.
It wasn’t really a house anyway. Nobody could live in a place that small. I had no idea what the structure was really meant for, and at the moment I didn’t want to find out. I just wanted to pass it and get back into the sunshine.
A flash of white caught my eye. I turned my head. A shape pressed up against the glass. A shape from the interior of the building.
A face. I could make out the features — they looked female, with long flowing hair and dark staring eyes. Her hand pressed up against the glass and I gave another start.
I ran. Just turned tail and ran down the path, tumbling over rocks and tree roots in my hurry to get away.
What was that thing? A ghost? She couldn’t have been a live human, not with such a colorless face and that blank stare. She’d looked as if no-one was home inside her head. No-one at all.
Chapter 8: Master Of The Dark Arts
It’s a fair drive from Avery’s Crossing to Seattle and we had to swing by Portland on the way. The landscape looked much like what I’d already seen around Avery’s — green and misty, with lots of fields full of sheep and cows interspersed with rank upon rank of dark evergreens. I couldn’t decide if the gloom made my head hurt or if it was restful. One thing was for sure, though — it was a whole different world from SoCal.
I glanced over at Max, who sat in the passenger seat with his long legs stretched out in front of him as far as they would go. “You ever been to Seattle before?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “That’s where I met Brad and Marie.”
“Really. I assumed you’d grown up in Avery’s Crossing.”
“Nah. We all moved down there about a year ago. Before that, we were in Seattle.”
“So how did you meet them?”
He shot me a sidelong glance. “Bookstore. I was living on the streets, but I used to go into this one occult bookstore to warm up and look at the books. Couldn’t afford anything, and I wouldn’t have had anyplace to keep a book anyway, but I love to read.”
“Funny. That’s where Nova met Marie, in a bookstore in Avery’s.”
He smiled as he stared out the windshield at the passing scenery. “Yeah, she probably sensed there was someone in there who needed her. She’s really talented that way.”
“Until I met you guys, I’d never known anyone into the occult,” I said.
He turned his head toward me. “So being caught in a deal with the devil didn’t pique your interest?”
“It wasn’t like that. There was this whole secrecy thing, like it was something shameful we had to hide from everyone.”
“Doesn’t that sound familiar.” Max tilted back his head for a swallow of coffee from the paper cup he’d gotten at a local drive-thru coffee place.
“You grew up under a deal with the devil too?” I asked, only half in jest.
“No. My dad beat on me.” He took another swallow of coffee. “It was the dirty family secret.”
“Shit. That’s rough.”
“That’s why I was on the streets in Seattle instead of back home in Montana.”
I spared him a glance before refocusing on the road. He looked lost in thought, his dark-blue eyes distant.
“So you were already into the occult?” I said.
“Yeah. I started having weird shit happen to me as a kid. When you’re like that, you look for ways to deal with it. Explanations.”
“Makes sense. Maybe if I’d looked for information on my own, I would have gotten out from under The Deal a long time ago.”
Max looked right at me. “Why didn’t you?”
He didn’t pull any punches, that was for sure. I shifted uncomfortably, Nova’s self-portrait crackling in the pocket of my jacket where I’d put it for safe-keeping. But Max seemed to expect an answer, so I cast around inside my head for some kind of insight. Why hadn’t I investigated?
I shrugged. “I dunno. My mom put the fear of the devil into me. She always hinted that bad things would happen to anybody I told, so I kept it to myself. And there was this whole ‘there’s nothing we can do’ vibe going on, like it was Fate or something.”
“She did a number on your head,” Max remarked.
“You’re gonna have to deprogram yourself. Or get help, if you’re willing to talk about it with someone else.”
I had a shrink back in L.A., but of course I’d never brought up the devil business with him. There weren’t many people I’d even consider telling my problem to. Max was one of them. Brad and Marie, too.
“I’m working on it,” I said without taking my eyes off the road. “I never gave it much thought until Nova. Guess I was just fatalistic about it all. But Nova changed everything.”
“Women will do that.”
I’d only known Max a few weeks and we’d already had more meaningful conversations than I’d ever had with Jeremy, except those times we’d been drunk or stoned and he’d chosen to unload on me. He’d told me all kinds of horrible shit about his childhood in the business, things that had been done to him by people in power. Those were the memories that had continued to drive him back to the heroin, the booze. Just to forget for a while.
But there had been only a few of those conversations in all the years I’d known him. Max and I had already gotten about as deep as I’d ever been with Jer. This was a new thing for me and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
“You hungry?” Max said as he stuck his coffee cup into the cup holder in the door.
“Yeah.” Now that he mentioned it.
“There’s a roadhouse up at the next exit. Food’s not too bad.”
I glanced idly at the right shoulder of the road. A man stood there, knee deep in dead weeds, a hundred yards or so ahead of us. He wore a perfectly fitted black suit and he was smoking a cigarette that veiled him in a cloud of smoke.
It was him. The smoking man Nova and I had both spotted watching us at various times and places over the last few weeks. He’d even appeared to invade our house at one time. I’d thought he was the devil, but when Lucifer did appear and steal Nova, he looked nothing like the Suit Guy.
“What is it?” Max said.
“That guy over there.” I nodded toward the shoulder. “See him? The suit with the ciggy.”
“Yeah. Weird. What’s he doing on the side of the road dressed like that?”
“I’ve seen him before. He was watching me in L.A. Nova saw him spying on her in Avery’s Crossing more than once. And one evening he was in our back yard, watching her through the window.”
We passed him. He stared openly at my car as we sped by. Max made no bones about watching him from the passenger window, either.
“Not human,” he said.
“I figured he was a demon or some shit.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s infernal at all.”
I glanced at him. He still had his head cranked around, although the smoking man was long gone, way behind us at that point.
“What do you think he is then?” I said.
“I dunno. There’s a lot of power in him, though. We should do a reading or three. He’s definitely watching you.”
“He scared the hell out of Nova.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Max turned toward the front again, tapping his fingers on his denim covered thigh. “We should have stopped the car and asked him.”
I shot him an incredulous glare. “Are you shitting me? No way am I gonna talk to that dude.”
“He might be helpful.” Max grinned at me. “You have me here to protect you.”
“No offense, Kincaid, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Adam Freiberg lived in a massively oversized Victorian mansion in one of Seattle’s older neighborhoods. The house perched on a hill that would have done San Francisco proud. It had a lot almost small enough for a San Francisco house, too, but it was no painted lady. The color seemed drab even for a gloomy afternoon like this one, with a dull, medium brown body and a slightly darker brown shade on the trim. Some of the details were picked out in red, though, giving it more character.
The tiny yard held little but an evergreen shrub of some kind, growing in a perfect cone shape, some leafy mounded bushes near the front windows, and a patch of tired grass.
The windows all looked blank and dark, as if the house were empty. It had an Addams Family quality to it, even though it lacked the Mansard roof. There was something about all the gables and the tall, narrow windows all staring down at us. In the darkness of nightfall, it seemed ominous.
Even the air around it felt heavy, giving off a sense of foreboding that grew thicker and darker the closer we got to the building. In fact, it would have made the perfect haunted house for a movie.
“He’s got a flair for the dramatic,” Max said.
“I’m surprised there aren’t any skulls on posts out in front.” He grinned at me. “Or maybe a body hanging in a gibbet.”
“So you think the grim look is for show?”
“I’m not sure. But it probably keeps the local kids away.”
We moved up the short walk to the front steps. The door looked original to the house and had been painted a glossy black. Or it would have been glossy if it weren’t for the cobwebs and dust festooning it. I rang the bell, which gave a mournful sound.
Picturing an arthritic geezer carefully picking his way down the stairs, I took my time looking around the front while we waited. The porch had a hanging lamp that also looked like it could have been original and converted from a gaslight. It was pretty goddamn ugly. I’d always hated Victorian shit — way too fussy and ornate for me.
Other than the lamp and a pot with some dead flowers hanging limply over its sides, there was nothing on the porch. Nothing except a pervasive smell of dry rot and mildew. Gag. It must be ten times worse inside. I didn’t know how Freiberg could tolerate that stench, but maybe he was too old to notice it.
The door opened with a horror-movie squeal of un-oiled hinges. A young blond dude stood there, looking at us expectantly. He wore low-slung jeans and a long-sleeve black T-shirt, and his feet were bare.
“Uh, we’re looking for Adam Freiberg,” I said. “Is he here?”
“Who wants to know?” The dude’s voice sounded familiar, so maybe he was Adam’s son.
“I’m Gage Dalton and this is Max Kincaid,” I said. “We called. Mr. Freiberg knows we’re coming.”
The blond kid grinned. “Come in. I’m Adam, by the way.”
Max and I exchanged a glance. The look on his face suggested he was as surprised as I was. Freiberg looked way too young to be a Master of The Dark Arts, as he’d hinted over the phone. Maybe he was just a Master of the Art of Bullshit.
He stood back to allow us into the foyer. And wow. Holy shit. The place inside looked like a completely different house from the view outside.
You could see the Victorian bones in the high ceilings and fancy woodwork, but other than that it was completely modern. All the woodwork had been painted white, and the walls were some kind of pale grayish blue. Nova would have had a special name for it, I thought, wishing she were here. Of course, if she were with me I wouldn’t have to visit Freiberg and beg to see his Arcane Tome Of Ancient Magic.
“Have you got the book?” I said without preamble. Best to get down to business. I wanted the information so I could take it back to Avery’s Crossing and make use of it, and any socializing along the way just interfered with my goal.
“Sure, I’ve got it. You want a drink first?”
He motioned us to follow him through an archway into a starkly modern living room furnished with an angular gray sofa, a pair of black leather Barcelona chairs, and a gray and red abstract rug on the floor. How did the guy afford all this? A fancy Victorian mansion, especially one that had been completely updated like this, must cost a fortune in Seattle. He must have inherited.
Not that I gave a shit. I just wanted the book.
“I’ll take a beer,” Max said. “If you have it in the bottle.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“Bottle only, huh?” Freiberg said with a wry smile.
“You can’t be too careful,” Max said.
Did he think Freiberg would try to slip something in our drinks? The ominous vibe of the place had disappeared the instant we’d entered, at least for me, but maybe Max was picking up something I couldn’t sense. He was better at this shit and had been doing it a lot longer, after all.
“I would never harm a guest in my home,” Adam said. “But I don’t blame you for being careful.”
He disappeared through another archway, leaving Max and me to look around the living room.
The view out the front window seemed to show all of Seattle spread out, the lights of evening just starting to glow like the eyes of millions of demons. I wondered if the Space Needle was visible from here. I hadn’t thought to check when we were still outside, and now it was too dark to tell.
Max came up beside me to gaze out. “Some view.”
“What do you make of him?” he said in a low voice.
“I have no idea.” I glanced at him. “You?”
“Too early to tell.”
“But you don’t trust him.”
“Nope.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Not at all.”
“Why is that, if you don’t mind telling me?”
He shrugged. “Not sure. Just a feeling.”
“It seems like a weird set-up for such a young dude. I expected an old guy.”
“Me too. Maybe that’s part of the glamour he’s got on the place. Make himself seem old and weird, with a weird house.”
I glanced at him, wondering. “He didn’t sound old on the phone. But I still expected a geezer.”
“That’s probably the glamour.” He looked around the living room, as if assessing the value of all the furniture. “Wonder if he’s a trust fund baby.”
“Could be. Or maybe it’s his command of the Dark Arts that got him this place.” I waggled my brows when I said Dark Arts.
Max grinned. “I might have to master a couple of those Arts myself, if it gets you a house like this.”
“Or you could just become a movie star like me. Then it’s easy.”
“Sure. Easy. I’ll get right on that.”
“You’ve got the looks for it.”
Max stared at me like I’d lost my last wit. “Get outta here.”
“Seriously. You could be a model or a leading man type, easily.”
He snorted. “I didn’t know you felt that way about me.”
“Fuck off. You know what I mean.”
“I have zero desire to be an actor. I’d take some more success with my graphic design biz, though.”
“Great view, huh?” Freiberg’s voice came from directly behind us, and we both jumped a little.
“Yeah.” Max recovered first. “Spectacular.”
“We were just speculating on how you scored a place like this,” I said, accepting the beer he offered with a smile. I noted the cap was still tightly attached.
“I know, right?” Freiberg said, handing the second one off to Max.
“Isn’t Seattle real estate kinda pricey?” I said, hauling out my key chain with its bottle opener. I popped the cap off the beer.
He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I inherited the place. All I know is property taxes are a bitch.”
“I like what you’ve done inside,” Max said. “Coming up the steps, I thought this would be like a museum or something.”
“The haunted house look comes in handy.” Freiberg smirked. “Keeps out people I don’t want getting close, know what I mean?”
“Uh huh.” I nodded, thinking of the paparazzi. Of course, the gossip rags would love a place like this if I owned it. I could see their headlines — Is Gage Taking His Latest Role Too Seriously? Gage Dalton Believes He’s A Vampire. And so on. They’d probably have me sleeping in a coffin in the basement.
But I wasn’t here to gossip about a house or spin daydreams about an alternative life.
“Have you got the book?” I said.
Freiberg lifted his blond brows. “In a hurry?”
“I told you I was.”
“We’ll get to that. Let’s have a drink first.” He had a third beer, which he lifted to his own lips.
Max and I exchanged glances, mine exasperated as hell. Why was Freiberg stalling? It’s not like he could reasonably expect us all to become buddies over a beer and I couldn’t figure out why he’d care in the first place. I was here to do a job, not to socialize.
My regular business was all about socializing, schmoozing, and I’d always hated that part of it.
“So you practice ceremonial magic,” Max said.
“Yeah. Not in here, though.” Freiberg grinned as if he’d made a joke.
“You have a secret wizard’s tower?” Max said.
“I wish. No, but I do have a dedicated temple. It’s one of the great things about a house this size.”
“No shit.” Max looked around. “You could have one on every floor and still have plenty of room for other stuff.”
“Are you a magician?” Freiberg said.
“You could say that.”
“Got a specialty?”
“Necromancy.” Max tossed off the morbid word with casual unconcern, then took a long swallow of beer.
I gave him a sideways glance. Necromancy? So what did he do? Raise corpses or some shit?
“That’s heavy,” Freiberg said, raising his brows again. “What made you go into necromancy?”
“They came to me first.”
Maybe he was talking about Fred. The whole idea of dead people seemed a lot less creepy when I thought of Fred, who looked just like a regular guy. He didn’t go around looking half rotted or showing off his death wounds or any of that nasty shit you saw in the movies.
“You?” Max said. “Any specialty?”
“I’m a generalist. Goetia, mainly.”
“I’d love to see your set-up.” Max raised his brows expectantly, but Freiberg just looked at him.
Chapter 9: Wizard’s Tower
Declan claimed his favorite food was potted beef, whatever that was. It sounded kind of disgusting, and I hoped the pot roast I’d made was close enough. I had mashed potatoes, too, plus salad and a chocolate cake for dessert. I’d spent the whole day in the kitchen.
My cheap little dinette table was already covered with dishes — a big mixing bowl for the salad, a smaller one for the potatoes. The chocolate cake sat on my counter and the pot roast was waiting on top of the stove.
“It smells delicious,” he said, handing me a bottle of merlot.
“Ooh, you brought wine.” I set the bottle on the counter.
“Do you have a corkscrew?”
“Uh…” I thought for a minute and couldn’t remember whether I did or not. “Let me look.”
When I opened my tool drawer, there was a corkscrew sitting right in front. I pulled it out.
“I guess I do.” Weird that I had no memory of buying it, putting it away, or ever using it.
That was one more weird thing in an ever-lengthening list of oddities. Like Declan Stanhope’s memorial. What were the odds I’d know someone named Declan and there would just happen to be a grave in the nearby cemetery with that name on it? It’s not as if he were named something common, like John or Peter.
“Great. Let me open this.” He took the corkscrew from me and stuck the sharply pointed end in the cork.
“Hey, Declan, I was just wondering…” I said in an offhand tone. “What’s your last name?”
“Why do you ask?” He glanced at me.
“Just wondering.” I shrugged and put on some oven mitts before handling the hot roast pan. “Mine’s Pennyman.”
“I’ve never met anyone named Pennyman before.”
I smiled at him as I picked up the roast. “Well, I’ve never met anyone named Declan before.”
“Stanhope,” he said.
I paused, the roast heavy in my hands. Icy worms seemed to crawl through my stomach. “Stanhope. That’s unusual too.”
“Is it? I guess it’s more common where I come from.”
“Which is east of here.”
He gave me a sunny smile. “That’s right.”
I brought the roast to the table, my gut churning. Until I’d asked him that question, I’d had quite an appetite. Now, I wasn’t sure I could eat.
“Are you all right?” he said, peering into my face. “You look kind of sick.”
“I’m fine.” I straightened and pasted on another smile. “It’s just been a strange week.”
He set the bottle of wine on the table. “I know what you mean. Can I carry something for you?”
Should I tell him what I’d found? Maybe it was really only a coincidence, although that was some crazy coincidence. A grave with the same name on it as that of my cute neighbor? How often did that happen? It’s not like Declan Stanhope was a common name. If he’d been John Smith or Dave Brown, I might be able to blow it off.
“Let’s try to forget the weirdness,” he said, carrying in the potatoes, “and just enjoy our time together.”
“Okay. I can do that.” I hoped.
“How is your schoolwork coming?” he said as we took our seats.
“It’s great. I’m doing a lot better this term than I ever have before.” I scanned some oddly hazy memories of recent class sessions as that uneasy feeling moved through my innards again. Why did everything having to do with school and work feel so vague? It was like my only vivid memories were of this apartment and Declan.
“How’s your job?” I asked to distract myself.
“It’s good. I might be in line for a promotion.”
“Oh, congratulations. I hope you get it.”
He went on to tell me some funny stories about his customers. Nice, pleasant dinnertime conversation, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong. I had the most bizarre image in my head, that this empty neighborhood was a kind of island, floating in a sea of nothingness. Where had that idea come from?
“I went to the cemetery today,” I blurted.
Declan looked up from cutting another bite of pot roast. “Why? You hated it the first time.”
“I know, but it was sunny and it didn’t seem spooky at all when I went in.”
“What makes you think there’s a but?”
He sent me a freighted look. “I can hear it in your voice.”
I stalled by scooping up a bite of mashed potato and sticking it in my mouth. Should I tell him about the grave?
“You know, it’s a cemetery,” I said. “The deeper I got into it, the spookier it felt. And I walked past that little house thing again, and I swear I saw someone inside.”
His eyes widened. “No kidding.”
“Yeah. It looked just like a ghost. Scared the crap out of me. I think I ran all the way home.”
He shook his head. “Nova, you really should stay away from there. I never should have taken you and I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be sorry. It was interesting until the ghost showed up.”
“Well, I hope you’ll stay away from now on.”
Maybe he didn’t know about the grave. He seemed completely unconcerned as he put the bite of roast in his mouth and chewed.
“This is excellent,” he said, cutting another piece.
“I’m glad you like it.” I took a sip of wine, bolstering my courage. “Declan, I found the strangest memorial up there.”
“Oh?” He glanced at me, pleasant and entirely innocent-looking.
“Yeah. It had your name on it.”
He frowned. “My name?”
“Uh huh. Declan Stanhope. 1840-1869.”
He paused with his fork in mid-air and stared at me. “There’s a grave with my name on it?”
“Yes, there is. You’re telling me you didn’t know?”
“Of course I didn’t know.” His frown deepened until it looked painful. “That’s quite chilling, isn’t it?”
“I thought so too. Sad, though. He was so young when he died, only twenty-nine.”
“A lot of people died young back then. Maybe he was a soldier in the Civil War?”
“But the war ended in 1864. And if he was a soldier, then why was he buried in Oregon?”
He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”
So far, his reaction told me very little. I was pretty sure his confusion was genuine, but maybe he was just a skillful actor. Could my hot neighbor be a ghost? But I’d kissed him, and he’d felt completely physical.
“Maybe he was an ancestor of yours,” I said. “Maybe you were named after him.”
“Maybe.” He shot me a troubled glance. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”
“Dang, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, it’s all right. That’s not something you’d want to keep to yourself.” The glance he gave me this time was uncomfortably perceptive. “No wonder you’ve been skittish tonight. You have had quite a strange day.”
“Yes, I have. But there’s wine with dinner and chocolate cake for dessert, so things are looking up.”
He laughed and we turned the conversation to more pleasant subjects. I could still feel the weirdness, though, waiting to bubble up again, and God only knew what it would bring with it when it did.
There’s nothing like the quiet of a ceremonial magician’s living room when he’s giving you and your friend the hairy eyeball. The only sound was faint traffic noise from Greater Seattle just outside the windows. Inside, the atmosphere of the ultra-modern room had gone from guarded-but-friendly to unpleasantly searching.
It could have been ugly, except I actually trusted Adam, even though we’d only met him a few minutes before.
Aside from the crazy magic stuff, what interested me most about the exchange between Max and me on the one hand and Freiberg on the other was that Freiberg showed very little interest in the fact that I was a famous movie star. It was like I was just a normal person, an experience I didn’t have very often, and I found it refreshing. Maybe even reassuring.
He didn’t fawn all over me, like I’d expected him to do. That, I thought, spoke well of him.
At the moment, Freiberg had stopped talking to study Max intently. Almost like he was reading him on some level, although he didn’t have the abstracted look Marie seemed to get when she did a reading. He glanced at me and subjected me to the same intense scrutiny.
Finally, he grinned. “Okay. Sure. It’s downstairs.”
“Is that where you’ve got the book?” I said.
“Yep. How’d you guess?”
He laughed. “Didn’t you play a wizard in one of your movies?”
“Yeah. I was just the apprentice, though.”
“And now you’re getting involved with the real thing?” he said, leading us through an archway into a formal dining room and from there into a very modern-style kitchen.
“I told you. My girl’s in trouble.”
Adam came to a heavy wooden door, painted white like the woodwork. He stuffed his feet into a pair of Birkenstocks waiting by the door and paused with his hand on the knob. “I hope you can save her. I really do. But you’ve gotta remember, this stuff is unpredictable and the operation you’re talking about has a nasty reputation for going wrong.” He glanced over his shoulder at Max. “I’m surprised you don’t know it, being a necromancer and all.”
“I just talk to the dead. I’ve never tried to resurrect anyone.”
“Ah. Gotcha.” He opened the door, revealing a plain wooden staircase descending into a dark, old-style basement.
We clumped down the unlit stairs, with only the light from the kitchen to keep us from falling on our faces. My skin and hair started to prickle as we went lower and lower, deeper into what I couldn’t help thinking of as Freiberg’s lair. The expected smell of mildew and stagnant air never materialized, though. Instead, I caught a note of something resinous and fragrant, like incense.
At the bottom, Freiberg reached up and pulled a string, turning on a single bare bulb and revealing a standard-looking basement room. Low-ish ceiling with exposed beams, pipes, and ductwork, concrete floor, stacks of boxes here and there.
“Window dressing,” he said. “In case I have to allow a service person in. Plus the utilities are in here. The temple is this way.”
We wended our way between a couple stacks of cardboard boxes and past a big water heater and furnace standing up against a concrete-block wall. A plain brown exterior-type door stood between the heater and furnace, the cheap slab kind like you see on so many apartments. Freiberg pulled a key out of his jeans pocket and unlocked the door.
Inside was what looked a lot like an English gentlemen’s club library, if those gentlemen had been members of an occult lodge. Books crammed floor to ceiling bookcases made of some kind of dark wood. A thick Persian carpet, black background with gold and cream designs, covered the concrete floor. He had a leather wingback chair with reading lamp, and more shelves displaying all kinds of freaky shit. Animal skulls, uncut crystals, plain old rocks, weird drawings with notations in a language I’d never even seen before, flasks full of odd-colored liquids. Objects floated in those flasks.
I peered into one. The object inside looked like some kind of animal fetus.
“Nice,” Max said, surveying the place.
What can I say? He was batshit crazy, but he was still my friend.
All in all, this room didn’t look much like a temple, although I guessed rituals could be performed in the open space in the center of the room. Then I noticed the door on the opposite wall.
Freiberg went right to it. Some kind of geometric drawing decorated the door, with more of that obscure script at various locations around the drawing. I had no idea what I was looking at, but it definitely seemed mystical.
He opened the door and flicked on an electric light, another single bare bulb. It was the plainest thing in the temple room.
The walls were painted four different colors — blue, yellow, red, and black. The concrete floor had been painted black, with an elaborate geometric circular design painted in white. Each wall had its own small table — altar? — along with a larger one in the center of the circle. There were sconces on all the walls as well, which held old-fashioned candles.
“You have good ventilation in here, I hope,” Max said, gesturing at the candles.
“Yeah. I’ve got an air exchange system.” He glanced at me. “It’s not safe to burn anything in an enclosed space. Uses up all the oxygen eventually.”
Hmm. The things you need to know when you’re a ceremonial magician.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.
“Great temple, though,” Max continued. “I’m jealous.”
“Yeah? Where do you work?”
“Wherever. I don’t have a permanent work space.”
I was starting to get antsy. “So, where’s this book?”
Freiberg pointed back toward the library. “After you.”
We filed back into the library. It was obviously furnished for only one person, since there was just the one chair. But I didn’t care about getting comfy. I just wanted to see the damn book.
Freiberg went to the shelves and pulled out a volume bound in ordinary-looking brown leather. I looked for some mystical symbols, runes or something, but the binding looked completely plain. He turned with it held in two hands. I reached for it. He kept it close to his chest.
“You can’t touch it,” he said. “Remember what I told you on the phone?”
“Oh, yeah. You don’t want my energy on it or something.”
“Can we take it upstairs?” Max said. “You can lay it on the table and turn the pages for us.”
“Good idea.” Freiberg pointed to the door.
I was really getting sick of all his stalling. Why had he invited us here if he wasn’t going to let us see the thing? What would be the point? It’s not as if I’d paid him ahead of time. If he wanted to get his money, he needed to show me the goods.
Maybe he’d accepted a bribe to call the paparazzi, tell them I was here. But that might expose his unusual lifestyle, so I didn’t think so.
We trooped back up the stairs and into the kitchen, where we sat at the sleek, glass-topped table. Freiberg sat opposite me and Max and laid the book in the middle, facing us.
“I don’t normally allow anyone to view items from my collection,” he said. “Except for a handful of close friends and colleagues. I hope you understand how much of an exception I’m making here.”
“I understand,” Max said.
“Yeah, sure.” I nodded, even though I was ready to snatch the book from Freiberg and make off with it.
“I also don’t normally show strangers my temple.”
“What’s your point?” Max said.
“I wanted to get a feel for you before I let you look at this.” He opened the book.
The title page read Secret Rites Of Necromancy, in such an old-fashioned typeface that I had to study it for a second to make out the words. I reached for it, wanting to draw it closer.
Freiberg grabbed it and hauled it back across the table. “No touching.”
“Sorry, dude. I just forgot for a sec.”
He fixed me with a stern glare. “I’ll forgive you this once. But don’t try again.”
“Okay. All right. I’ll sit on my hands. Will that make you happy?”
“It’s better than nothing, but I’d rather handcuff you to the chair.”
I shifted uneasily. “Not funny.”
“Neither is what will happen to this book if you manhandle it. Look but don’t touch.”
“You sound like my stepmother,” Max said.
“This is an important tool for me. It’s got a lot of stored energy and I don’t want you fucking it up. Can I trust you two or not?”
Max sighed. “Of course you can. Gage just isn’t used to this kind of thing. He’ll be fine now that you’ve made yourself clear.”
“Yeah. I swear I won’t even put my hands on the table top,” I said.
“Okay. See that you don’t.” He began flipping pages.
The paper looked like that thick, ancient kind made out of linen. There were notes in the margin in spidery handwriting, as if made with a dip pen. It sure wasn’t ballpoint ink. I wondered if the notes were Freiberg’s work or someone else’s.
“This is it,” he said, stopping at a page titled “The Rite Of Retrieval Of A Soul From Hell.”
“A soul,” I said. “Will this apply to someone who’s still in her body?”
“I don’t know. You asked to see the book and here it is.”
I frowned at the testiness in his voice. “All right.”
Leaning over the table, I studied the text while keeping my hands under the top. The ritual required all kinds of exotic supplies, like dirt from a recent grave, human blood, asafoetida, and something called galbanum. I blinked at the human blood. I was fine with cutting myself a bit and collecting what came out, but there was no way I was going to murder someone. Not even for Nova.
“This blood,” I said. “How much does it require?”
“Not much. Maybe an ounce,” he said.
I relaxed my shoulders. “Okay. Not so bad.”
Freiberg grinned. “Did you think you’d have to kill someone?”
“I didn’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“I told you,” Freiberg said. “This is some intense shit. You sure you want to go through with it?”
“Yes,” I said. I reached into the pocket of my denim jacket and pulled out the self-portrait Nova had made and given to me. “This is her.”
Adam took the picture and studied it without comment.
“You talked about things going wrong.” Max spoke without looking up from the text. “You mind explaining that a little?”
“I’ve read some stories, that’s all. This rite is supposed to open a gateway, and theoretically creatures can rise up through the gateway. Not just the soul you’re trying to rescue, but demons and condemned souls. And there were a couple of stories of people attempting the rite and simply disappearing.”
“Like they’d been dragged down to hell themselves?” Max said.
“That’s what I would assume,” Freiberg said.
“I’d rather be in hell with Nova than up here by myself.”
They both turned to me, Freiberg looking incredulous, his brows raised so high they disappeared behind his bangs.
“You’re crazy,” he said.
“He’s in love.” Max tilted his head. “I’d probably do the same for Caro.”
“I do not like the karmic blowback I’m likely to get if you do this thing and fuck it up.” Freiberg shook his head.
“I’m not going to fuck it up.” I stared him down. “I’ll do it exactly as written. I swear. This has to work, and I’m not taking any chances.”
“Jesus.” The blond rubbed his eyes before turning to Max. “Does this Caro of yours know what you’re planning to do? You are going to help the lunatic here, right?”
“Yeah, she knows,” Max said. “And yes, I am. If I could borrow a pen and some paper, I’d like to copy this out.”
“Sure, whatever.” Freiberg got up, shaking his head again. “And don’t even think about touching it while I’m out of the room.”
“No touching,” Max said. “Got it.”
Chapter 10: Where’s My Daughter?
I dropped Adam off at a local hotel. Max and I continued on to my house, where I planned to pick up some things before we headed to a local cemetery to look for the graveyard dirt the ritual required. Back in Seattle, we’d agreed that Adam would take a cab out to Marie and Brad’s farm later to meet with me, Max, and the others later to discuss the ritual.
Max stayed remarkably quiet all the way over there. He just gazed out the window, like he was trying to memorize Avery’s Crossing or something. Since he’d lived here longer than I had, I wasn’t too sure what the point would be, but I was too lost in worry over Nova to care much for conversation anyway, so it was all good.
I turned into the circular drive that fronted my country-style house, only to find a familiar-looking gray SUV parked there. “Oh, shit.”
“What’s up?” Max said.
“Nova’s parents are here.”
“Do they know?”
“Hell, no. How do you tell your girlfriend’s parents that she’s been whisked off to hell?”
“You’ve got a point.”
I opened the car door and got out into the mist. What was I going to tell them now? What had my mom already said? I walked up to the covered front porch with my stomach dropping relentlessly toward my toes.
Like an idiot, I’d hoped they wouldn’t come looking for her until I’d found a solution to our problem. Until I’d gotten her back. Yet here they were, and I didn’t know what to say to them.
The front door opened just as I reached it, her dad glaring at me from inside the foyer. “Dalton, where’s my daughter?”
“I don’t know,” I said baldly.
His glower deepened. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Where did she go?”
“She didn’t say.” That was the truth.
“Your mom’s been giving us the runaround for the last half hour,” he growled.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I kept my voice as neutral as possible. At last, a practical use for all those acting skills I’d developed.
“I’ll bet you are. Where have you been, anyway? Your mom wouldn’t tell us where you went either.”
“I was up in Seattle visiting an associate. I just got into town.”
“Is that so?” He fixed me with a suspicious stare, then turned his gaze on Max. “Who’s this?”
“Max Kincaid.” Max offered a hand.
Dr. Pennyman stared at Max’s hand for what felt like a full minute before grudgingly taking it. “You know anything about what happened to my daughter?”
“No,” Max said. “As far as I know, she just went out for a while and didn’t come back.”
“Sir, I’m very worried about her myself,” I said.
He leaned toward me, his jaw jutting out belligerently. “Then why’d you run up to Seattle? Huh? None of this adds up, Dalton. I don’t trust you.”
I could see that.
“I wish I could help you,” I said. “If you see Nova, tell her I’ve been looking for her. Say I love her and I want her to come home.”
God, I hated spouting this crap. It wasn’t lying, exactly, but it was a deliberate attempt to mislead, which amounted to the same thing.
He snorted again. “Sure you do.”
Jesus, did this guy ever let up?
He turned back into the foyer. “Louise, let’s go!” he bellowed before swiveling back to glare at me again.
I stood there and took it. Arguing would do no good and there was nothing useful I could tell him.
Louise Pennyman emerged onto the porch with obvious strain around her brown eyes. God, her eyes looked just like Nova’s, giving me a sickening sense of longing and dread. I wanted my girl back more than anything in the world, yet I couldn’t tell these people what was going on.
She laid a hand on my arm. “We came over to see if you and Nova wanted to go out for lunch.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, putting my hand over hers. “I wish I knew where Nova is. I’m worried sick about her.”
Ray Pennyman snorted again.
Louise patted my arm. “You’ll let us know if you find out anything, right?”
“Let’s go, Ray,” she said.
I didn’t watch them leave. It seemed like something a guilty man would do and I didn’t want to look any guiltier than I already did.
“That man is not your friend,” Max said as we went inside.
“Why does he hate you so much?”
I skinned out of my jacket. “I don’t know. Maybe just because I’m with Nova.”
“Damn.” He shook his head. “You’re gonna have fun at Thanksgiving with in-laws like that.”
I hadn’t said anything to Max about wanting to marry Nova, but he’d guessed correctly so I let it pass. “I’m more concerned with making sure we have Thanksgivings.”
“You ready to go out for those supplies, then?” he said, looking pointedly at my jacket.
“Yeah. I’m gonna talk to my mom for a sec.”
I walked back to the kitchen. All the lights blazed. Dirty dishes littered the golden granite counter.
She tottered out of the breakfast area, alcohol fumes wafting ahead of her like heralds announcing her approach. Great. She was still sneaking booze, and to make things even better, she’d talked to Nova’s parents in that state. Way to make a good impression.
“Where have you been?” she said in a drunken shriek.
“Ma, I told you no drinking in the house.”
She waved that off. “You’ve been gone two days. You didn’t even call.”
“Yeah. Sorry about that. I had to make a run up to Seattle yesterday.”
“You worried me. And then those awful people came by. You have no idea how stressful that was. The things they said to me.”
“Oh? Like what?”
She used a hand to prop herself against the wall. “They accused you of hurting her. Can you believe it? They threatened me. Said they were going to call the police.”
“Really. They didn’t say anything about that to me.”
“Are you saying I’m lying?” Her voice rose in pitch by at least half an octave.
“No, Mom. I’m saying they didn’t mention the police to me.” I took her by the elbow. “Come on, let’s sit down for a minute. I have to go again, though. There are a few things I have to get before tonight.”
“Oh?” She looked up at me. “What’s tonight?”
“Just a get-together.” Couldn’t really call it a party.
“Can I come?”
“No. It’s not that kind of thing.” I tried to urge her into a kitchen chair.
“What kind of thing is it?” she said, swaying as she sat down.
“We’re looking for Nova.”
“Then I want to help.”
I shook my head, resisting the urge to glance over my shoulder and see if Max was listening. “No. I have to do this on my own.”
She peered up at me. “You didn’t hurt her, did you?”
“Jesus, Mom, of course not.” Did she really believe I was capable of something like that? “I love her. I’d never do anything to hurt her.”
“I was just asking.”
Cindy bustled into the room, looking concerned, lines showing around her mouth. “Gage, thank God you’re back. What’s going on with Nova?”
“I don’t know. I’m looking for her.”
“Did you know her parents were here?” she said with an agitated glance at my mom.
“Yeah. I ran into them in the doorway.”
Cindy ran her fingers through hair that was usually perfectly styled, making it stick out in random clumps. “They were unbelievable, especially her dad. They acted like you’d killed her and buried the body out back.”
“I know. Ray hates my guts.”
“I think he’s dangerous.” She glanced at my mom again. “He said some things —”
“I’m doing everything I can to find her. I have to go back out now, so look after my mom, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Of course. Should I get Ted for you?”
“No. The security guys can’t help. Just have them keep watch over the house.”
She frowned, the lines at the corners of her mouth deepening. “But what about the pap? What about fans? You’ll be mobbed if you go out alone.”
“Not where I’m going. There won’t be many people around, so it’ll be fine.”
“Where is that, anyway?”
I shook my head. “Not sure of the location yet. I’ll call if I need you.”
I could see by the set of her lips and the narrowing of her eyes that she wanted to argue with me. That wasn’t happening, mainly because I wasn’t going to stick around to listen. I had work to do.
Max was still standing in the foyer when I returned, his coat on and everything. He looked uncomfortable, and a pang of guilt hit me at the way I’d abandoned him.
“Sorry. I should have brought you back with me,” I said.
“No, it’s fine. This is your house. I’m just a visitor.”
“Okay, well, let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do.”
Chapter 11: Graveyard Dirt
I grabbed my jacket and we went outside. The mist hung over everything, a gray, wet curtain hiding any details more than twenty or so yards away. The gloominess of it matched my mood perfectly.
I paused at the car. “You sure you want to do this, Kincaid? You don’t have to.”
“I want to help. Besides, Freiberg was right about the karmic connection, and that includes anyone involved in the ritual. If I’m going to be karmically connected to this thing anyway, I might as well make sure you do it up right.”
We slid into the front seats.
“I don’t think I get what you mean by karmically connected,” I said as I turned the ignition.
“You’re using information Adam gave you, plus like I said the rest of us are going to be involved in the ritual itself. That makes us ethically and energetically bound up with your ritual. So anything that goes wrong will affect whoever participates, either directly or indirectly by providing information or tools.”
“I see.” I pulled out of the drive. “Will it affect Nova?”
“Karmically, no, I don’t think so. That’s because it’s not something she’s participating in voluntarily. But she will be affected energetically, no matter what happens. That’s the point of the operation.”
“Just one more reason to get it right.”
Max hauled out his smart phone. “There’s a pioneer cemetery not far from here. Okay, you’ll want to go up to White Oak Road, turn west, and go about one and seven tenths of a mile to get to the cemetery.”
“How do I get to White Oak Road?”
“It’s about four miles north on this road. You’ll be taking a left.”
“I’m not a complete idiot,” I said dryly. Even I could tell where west was, especially since I had a compass direction indicator on my dashboard.
“Just drive, Dalton.”
I grunted. The roads out here were narrow, winding country lanes, not freeways, but I gave the car as much gas as I thought I could get away with. Fields dotted with enormous, gnarled trees and little clumps of sheep and cows passed by in a blur. I saw a few farmhouses that reminded me of Brad and Marie’s place, some of them with falling-down wrecks right next door, as if their ancestors had built a new house and left the old one standing. But the new houses were already fifty and sixty years old at least.
“I’ve been wondering. How long have you lived in the area?” Max said.
“A few weeks.”
“Whoa. I figured this was where you came to escape Hollywood.”
“I bought the house so I could be near Nova.”
He leaned against the window. “You have got it bad.”
“She means everything to me. That’s why I can’t fuck this up.”
“We’ll do everything we can.” Max nudged me with his elbow. “Seriously. Everybody likes Nova. We’d help even if we hated you.”
“Careful with those warm fuzzies,” I said. “You’re making me blush.”
The ritual couldn’t be conducted until the dark of the moon, which was in a few days. This delay drove me apeshit crazy, but according to Freiberg and Max, it was crucial to the success of the ritual, so I wasn’t going to try to fudge it. All the details had to be correct. I owed it to Nova.
White Oak Road wound up into some hills on the west edge of the Avery’s Crossing area. We passed small vineyards and hobby farms as we penetrated more deeply into the hills. It seemed to take forever and I was beginning to think we’d passed the pioneer cemetery we were looking for, when Max pointed.
“There it is. Turn.”
I pulled into a lane so narrow the tall grass on either side brushed against the car doors. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I saw the gravestones.”
The car crept forward, the grass making soft brushing sounds against its body. Through the mist, I could make out the shape of one of those enormous, spreading trees, its bare branches twisted into weird patterns. Other trees and shrubs were clustered throughout the open space of the cemetery; I could see the tops of their branches. But only the huge one really stood out.
The road widened enough for a gravel pull-out. A small, weathered sign made of wood announced that this was White Oak Cemetery. I parked the car and we got out. The mist came down more thickly now, almost turning into full-fledged rain.
“Come on.” I strode through a small mowed area in the tall grass and into the cemetery itself.
Someone had cut the grass here within the last few months. It was only slightly overgrown, not the jungle-like thicket that bordered the road. Rows and clusters of headstones and monuments spread away from us in three directions, some of them shiny and relatively new-looking and others dull, mossy, broken.
“Where do we go? Is there something in particular we’re looking for?” I said, scanning the area.
“Not really. Just walk until you feel it’s the right place.”
Most of the graves were covered with sod. Would it be right to dig through the grass to get to the dirt beneath? It seemed disrespectful, so I started wandering, heading for the trees and bushes. Maybe there would be some bare ground beneath them.
Max followed me silently. We were alone, and most of the graves were at least fifty years old. Not too many people came out here, I guessed.
It felt peaceful, yet I also felt something watchful in the air. Maybe it was only my imagination, powered up by our mission and the clinging mist. But I kept wanting to turn around and see if someone were spying on us.
Max gained on me and then took the lead. Off to our left, someone picked out a soft tune on the guitar. I turned my head, peering through the misty air. A dark figure sat on of the larger black granite headstones, his dark head bent over his instrument, his feet in their glossy black dress shoes braced against the stone. How had he gotten up there? It seemed like a difficult place to perch.
Something about him seemed familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him. Obviously, it wasn’t Jeremy. Jer had been a blond and this guy had dark brown or black hair. His black suit fitted closely, a European cut rather than the boxy American style.
Hold on. A black suit? He wasn’t smoking a cigarette, but he could easily be the smoking man. What the hell was he doing here? What was with the guitar?
He lifted his head and looked right at me. An icy finger seemed to trace the length of my spine. The dude smiled at me.
I couldn’t return the smile. My head turned more and more as I continued walking up the hill. Max, ahead of me, didn’t seem to notice the man in the black suit.
The suited man nodded once. Then he bent his head over his guitar again and began to play another tune. I thought about what Max had said — that I should just go up to the guy and ask him what he wanted.
Kincaid was losing me, though. While I’d dawdled, staring at suit guy, he’d been charging up the hill. He was already in the trees. I didn’t want us to get separated, but I also didn’t want to yell out for him to stop.
I glanced back at the suit guy. He’d vanished. The headstone where he’d been sitting was vacant. Nobody was on the open field portion of the cemetery at all, except a crow hopping over the wet ground. How had he disappeared like that? There was no cover anywhere, unless he was crouched behind the headstone where he’d been sitting.
It didn’t look quite big enough to hide a grown man of his size, though. Nope, it was like he’d truly vanished into thin air.
I’d grown up in the shadow of The Deal, yet I felt completely out of my depth here. My mother and I had never explored the occult. We’d only done our best to avoid the subject, and now that I was grappling with it directly, the bizarre events that continually confronted me made me wonder if I was losing my mind.
“Gage, you coming?” Max hollered from the top of the hill.
“Yeah. Be right there.” I turned my back on suit guy’s headstone. Whatever or whoever he was, it would have to wait. I had some graveyard dirt to collect.
I caught up with Max in a dash up the slippery grass of the hill. Big, old trees and overgrown shrubs covered the whole crest of the hill, with graves huddled at their feet and almost obscured by all the plant growth and the clinging mist.
We rounded a cluster of rangy bushes and came upon a small house-like building that looked startlingly familiar. Only it wasn’t red. Someone had painted it a dull buff color, with no difference between the body color and the trim. I stood and stared at it.
“What’s wrong?” Max said.
“I’ve seen this before.”
He tucked his chin down as he stared at me. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. I had a dream about it. I was building it in the dream, and I painted it red.”
“Interesting.” He walked right up to it and peered in the window.
“I thought Nova would like it. That’s why I made it red.” I tagged along behind him, although I didn’t look in the window. Something about the small building made me uneasy.
“Hey, look at this.” He pointed to a sign fixed to the siding.
I peered at it. The sign explained that this building was known as the Sexton’s Tool House and had originally housed, in addition to gardening tools, the corpses while their graves were being dug. The hair on the back of my neck stood up at that.
“Corpses, huh?” I muttered. Jesus.
“I thought they usually laid people out at home in the front parlor,” Kincaid said, frowning.
“Maybe some people didn’t have room. Besides, it says here they kept ice in here to keep the bodies from rotting too fast. Why the fuck would I dream about a place like this?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Only that it’s connected with death and so is hell.”
“This place is giving me the heebie-jeebies, I don’t mind telling you.”
“Yeah, I don’t like it much either. Let’s get what we came for and go.”
We turned away from the creepy little building and wandered off to another clump of shrubs and trees, which sheltered an odd little memorial made of gray stone. It looked kind of like those fancy mausoleums some of the bigger cemeteries have, complete with pillars and an elaborate little roof, except it was only about two feet tall. Like a mausoleum for dolls or something. The ground around it had no grass, only fallen leaves and a few acorns.
“This looks good.” I crouched down to scoop some of the damp soil into my hand.
“Declan Stanhope,” Max said. “He was only twenty-nine when he died.”
I grunted and stood up. “Thanks, Declan. We appreciate it.”
“You have good instincts.” Max dug in his jeans pocket and withdrew a dime, which he carefully laid at the foot of the little memorial.
“Yeah. Thanking the dead. It’s also traditional to pay for any soil you remove from a grave by leaving a silver coin.”
“Hm. Maybe if this acting thing doesn’t work out, I can have a career in the dark arts.”
And according to the devil himself, my acting work was real. I wasn’t the cheat and the fraud I’d always believed myself to be, since The Deal had mostly been in my mom’s head. The devil just liked jerking us around, I guess, pretending he’d made a deal with her just to see what she’d do.
Max sent me a sharp glance. “You kid, but good instincts are essential in this work. Always listen to your gut and your heart. They can save you when your rational mind hasn’t got a fucking clue what’s really going on.”
I took a deep breath as we headed back down the hill, trying to release some of the tension. “Okay. I’ll start by saying that corpse house or whatever it is gives me some major bad feelings. Way beyond it being a way station for dead bodies.”
We reached the corpse house again and gave it a wide berth, the wet grass soaking the hems of our jeans.
“In fact, ever since we got here, I’ve felt like someone was watching us.”
“There’s always some heavy energy in a graveyard,” he said, “but I know what you mean. This place almost feels haunted.”
I glanced at him. He seemed at ease despite the creepy topic of conversation, his hands in his pockets, gaze traveling across the graves and landscaping in a relaxed kind of way.
“Remember that dude we saw on the side of the road on the way to Seattle?” I said. “The one you said wasn’t human?”
“I saw him here, on the way up the hill. He was sitting on top of a gravestone, playing the guitar.”
Max frowned, his black brows drawing down harshly. “Whoa. We need to find out what he is and what he wants.”
“Yeah. But not here.”
“No. Not here.”
We reached the car. Max seemed as relieved as I was to shut the doors on that creepy graveyard, turn on the heat and the radio, and drive away.
Chapter 12: Corpse House
The mist was as thick as ever when I left Brad and Marie’s farm that night. Coupled with the darkness, it completely cloaked my surroundings and seemed to press in on the car in a wet, dark embrace. Wisps of fog floated up and over my windshield like ghosts. Which reminded me of the cemetery Max and I had visited earlier.
I’d been in a damned hurry to get away from there this afternoon. Now, I had the urge to go back and see what it was like at night. A stupid idea right on the face of it — at the least, I could trip and break a bone on a dark, wet night like this.
Of course, on second thought, that sounded like my mom talking. Or maybe my insurance agent. I was insured for a fuckload of money, and he and Cindy would have fits if they knew I was thinking of risking my precious self.
We’d done some divination to find out who or what suit guy was, but we hadn’t really turned up anything conclusive. Marie seemed to think he was a good guy. I didn’t think so. He seemed too much like a creeper. And since the divination hadn’t worked out and there was nothing more for me to do at the farm, I decided to get gone.
Marie had told me to chill, but I couldn’t do it. I left her place just as restless as I’d been when I got there. We had the graveyard dirt and we were going to use my blood for the ritual, plus Marie and Brad already possessed the asafoetida and galbanum. Apparently, those were herbs and they were fairly standard magical supplies.
That meant there was nothing for me to do but hang around and wait. I’m not much good at waiting.
I took the turn onto White Oak Road, barely visible in the misty darkness. I couldn’t have cared less about the insurance. If I killed myself, my rates couldn’t go up, now could they? Besides, I’d go to hell and then I could be with Nova.
That wasn’t the true reason I headed for the graveyard, though. I couldn’t put my finger on the real reason; it was one of those nagging urges that you know are going to drive you nuts unless you give in to them.
Max had said I should listen to my gut and my heart, hadn’t he? And both gut and heart were pushing me toward the cemetery.
There aren’t any streetlights in the country. Very few houselights, too. That left me only my headlights to illuminate my way. It’s amazing how dark it can get when you don’t have the city lights to brighten things up, something I’d always taken for granted as a city boy.
The dark reminded me pleasantly of Nova’s cabin, even while it creeped me out.
I found the gravel pull-out and parked the car. With the headlights out, I could see almost nothing at all. It was so dark I couldn’t even see the end of the hood. The rain shut out the stars and the moon, if there even was a moon. I’d never been very aware of that kind of shit, but even I could tell there was nothing to see tonight. Just blackness.
I rested my skull against the headrest. Why had I driven out here? It was too dark to do much of anything.
A picture of Jeremy’s ghost sitting on the bed and playing guitar flashed into my head. “I wish you were here,” I muttered.
He’d probably tell me I was crazy to care so much for a chick when there so many others out there I could have. But he would never have abandoned Nova to her fate, any more than I would.
When I’d fallen in the river, drunk and stupid with drugs, Jeremy’s ghost had appeared to Nova and directed her to the bank so she could pull me out. She hadn’t realized he was a ghost until he disappeared on her. If he could do that, he should be able to show up here and advise me.
Nothing happened, though. Idly, I started to hum a tune. It was the song I’d played at Marie and Brad’s, the one I’d written for her. Without the guitar part, it didn’t sound as good, but I didn’t care. Nobody was here to listen.
Get out of the car.
The voice came from inside my head, but it didn’t sound like me. It sounded like Jeremy.
I stopped singing and looked around, hoping to see him in the back seat. No-one was there.
Get out of the car. Go for a walk up the hill. Find the corpse house.
“You want me to walk around in a graveyard after dark?” I muttered under my breath. “And visit the corpse house? Seriously, dude?”
I got the impression of laughter. Either I was nuts, or my best friend wanted me to take a walk in the graveyard. And it was just like him to laugh at me over my reluctance to go.
I leaned over and popped open my glovebox to get my flashlight. “This is crazy. But I’m doing it.”
Now to see if I could find my way with just this tiny beam of light to guide me. My feet slipped on the wet grass as I strode into the cemetery. Cursing, I struggled to keep my balance. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I fell and broke my neck out here? Yeah. Hilarious.
I knew the area I wanted was roughly to my left, so I headed in that direction.
The corpse house was a lot more difficult to find in the dark. As I bumbled around, getting tangled in some bushes and banging into headstones, I wondered if anyone would notice my car sitting there. People didn’t usually take kindly to those who frequent graveyards at night. But it was so dark that nobody would see it unless they knew exactly where to look.
The black silhouette of the corpse house reared up in front of me. I shined the beam of my flashlight on it, waiting for the nasty feelings I’d had before to creep up on me. They hovered at the edges of my awareness, but it was much less intense than before.
Wasn’t that odd. You’d think it would seem even more eerie at night.
Now that I was here, I wasn’t sure why I’d come. Yes, the corpse house was exactly where Max and I had left it. Okay. Now what?
I moved around the side. It had a stone block as a front stoop. No overhang. My boots clumped dully over the hard-packed earth as I walked to the door. Of course it was locked — no-one would leave something like this open at night — but I put my hand on the doorknob anyway. And it moved.
Okay. I’d been wrong. It wasn’t locked.
I paused as the door creaked open just a sliver. To go in or not to go in. It couldn’t be all that interesting in there, right? Just one room, I imagined, with maybe a cellar where they’d kept the ice in huge blocks, waiting for a body. On the other hand, why not?
I pushed the door open all the way and went in, the door squealing shut behind me. My flashlight beam swept back and forth slowly, showing dusty floorboards, peeling plaster on the walls, thickly cobwebbed window sills and filthy glass. Garden tools stood propped against the wall or hung from hooks.
I was right. There wasn’t anything in here, really.
Except a table. The center of the room was taken up with a big, wooden table with thick, square legs and a metal-clad top. I froze with the flashlight beam centered on that table.
They must have put the corpses there.
Why did whoever was responsible for this place keep the corpse table? The house I could see. It probably had historical value. But that table?
It’s got historical value, too.
Yeah. I knew people in Hollywood who’d pay enormous piles of cash to have such a morbid thing in their house. Think what a conversation starter it would be.
I played the flashlight over the floor again. There was a square trapdoor off to one side, which I imagined led down into the cellar. Where they’d kept the ice.
My skin crawled as I turned back toward the door. Whatever I’d thought I would find here, it seemed to be absent.
I opened the door and stared out at the view of the cemetery. It was too dark to really tell, but the plant life outside seemed different somehow than it had been when I entered. Bigger. Thicker.
Weird how I hadn’t noticed how heavily overgrown this place was on the way in, or how tightly the branches crowded the house. I pushed leafless twigs out of my face as I made my way back to the open space of the cemetery, twigs I didn’t remember from the trip in. But the open space never came. The underbrush cleared away quite a bit, yet all that did was make the column-like trunks of the epically huge trees more obvious.
Had I gone the wrong way? Maybe I should turn around and try another route, because this didn’t look familiar at all. But something kept driving me forward.
I walked beneath the canopies of some evergreens that were so big they looked like they belonged in Middle Earth, and finally found my way to the entrance. A wrought-iron fence surrounded it, and on the other side I could see the tightly spaced houses of a suburb.
The fuck? Where had that come from?
White Oak Cemetery was in the middle of farmland. There weren’t any suburbs anywhere nearby at all. So where the hell was I?
The smart thing would be to turn around and go back. But my heart kept telling me to move forward, so that’s what I did. I left the cemetery behind and entered the suburban neighborhood ahead of me.
The houses were strangely empty-looking. None of them had cars parked in front, even those without garages. I wouldn’t expect much activity so late at night, but there weren’t even any porch lights. No traffic noise, either.
It was like this place was isolated somehow, drifting somewhere far away from human civilization.
The prickling on the back of my neck returned. Was someone watching me? When I glanced around, of course I saw nothing except more empty-looking houses with blank windows. I kept going, turning a couple of corners without knowing why except it seemed like the thing to do.
An apartment building rose up ahead of me. It was one of those nondescript places that cater to college students, a big dark-brown building with a covered second-story walkway like a cheap motel. Only one apartment had any lights on; just like the larger neighborhood, this building seemed largely abandoned.
I took the concrete stairs up to that walkway. The units I passed all had cheap, aluminum-frame windows. Dark windows. The doors were just as crappy, just brown slabs all beaten up and gouged from decades of hard use.
At the third door from the end, I paused. This was where the lights burned, their glow seeping out around the drawn curtains inside. My heart started hammering crazily in my chest. Why was I here? What would happen if I rang the bell?
Something would change. I didn’t know what it was, but I’d come this far and I wasn’t going to turn around until I found out why I was here. I rang the bell.
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