Over, Under, Around and Through
I didn't even notice the guy until after he grabbed my bag. I darted after him as soon as I was able to process what was happening, but it did me no good. He was off the train just as the doors began to close, and I reached them too late. I punched the door-open button a few times just for stress relief as the train started moving.
I glared at the door for the entire fifteen minutes it took to get to the next stop – damn suburbs – and ran out onto the platform there as if I expected the guy to be waiting there, somehow, as part of his getaway.
I forced myself to stop as the train doors closed and it continued on without me. Going off on a tangent, running around like an idiot, that wouldn't accomplish anything. No, I had to figure out what I was dealing with.
First of all, I had no idea whether the guy who stole my bag knew what he was doing. I'm a freelance occultist, after all. My bag may not be ordinary, but it certainly looks it.
My friend Mark would laugh at me if he was here – his bag is enchanted so that other people can't touch it. I thought about something like that when he did his up. He even offered to do mine! But I thought it would draw too much attention if it was randomly shocking people who got to close on the train or in a crowd. Mark's a lot less social than I am.
I sat down on the train platform, trying to decide what to do. My tarot cards, my runes and my pendulum were all back in the bag, so I didn't have an obvious divination choice. I was going to have to wing it.
I looked around for inspiration. Some of the stones lining the station platform were light colored and some were dark. I took a quick dig through them and I was able to come up with one that was relatively light on one side and dark on the other. Thank god for landscaping and city beautification.
I tossed it, asking whether I should take the train back where I'd been robbed or I should start from here. The rock said to go back so I got on the train going in the other direction when it pulled up a minute later.
Flipping the rock idly, I rode the fifteen minutes back where I'd come from. The platform was empty when I got there; no one else was getting off. I took a look around. This was not a stop I used often, and I was unfamiliar with the neighborhood. No allies around here, as far as I knew, so I'd have to stick with what I could hand up.
I tried throwing the rock to see which way to go, but it seemed confused. Giving it north/south and east/west didn't do much good, and it wasn't very precise either. I started walking experimentally to see whether that would work, but it couldn't tell me when I was going the right way, only that I always seemed to be going the wrong one.
Frustrated, I went into the first dollar store that I passed and browsed the shelves. There had to be something in there I could use. There was something, in with the kids' toys. A wooden yo-yo, that would do. I paid for it and took it outside, unspooling it and letting it hang from my hand.
"Okay, which way should I go?" I asked it, leaving it to swing freely as if it were my regular pendulum. It took a minute to get used to my energy but then it was off, spinning clockwise in a circle- and then an oval. It was definitely pointing back the way I had come. I followed.
Before I knew it, I was back on the train platform. There was no further guidance from the pendulum.
Where the hell could he have gone from the train platform without heading in any direction? I flipped the rock to determine if he'd known what he was doing.
The rock said no.
That was worse, in a lot of ways. My bag is not just some random laptop bag or school bag, though it's bad enough if those get stolen. No, my bag was something else. If I was a shaman, you might call it a medicine bag or something like that. If I was a druid, you could call it a crane bag, though you might be selling it short. (I'm sure a druid would disagree.) I've seen pathwalking kits, nanta bags, dozens of different names for the same thing. Mine is just my bag, because I'm none of those things. I'm just freelance; I take the gigs where I can find them.
And sometimes they take me.
Hence rule one: Always bring the damn bag.
No, my bag was not a random bag; it was full of my magical working kit. All the stuff I used when I was going out on a job – as I was today.
Fuck! My job! I totally forgot about that.
Thankfully, my cell phone was in my pocket, and I was able to call my client and apologize.
"Hey, it's Garcia. I had a very bad emergency come up and I'm not going to make it today. How's Tuesday work for you?"
He was a regular, and very sympathetic, and he said that was fine. It was a house blessing and exorcism on one of his rental places that had just been vacated. No rush, there weren't any new tenants waiting to move in. I thanked him and went back to the task at hand.
Okay, so the guy didn't seem to be where everything said he should be. If he wasn't at the platform and he hadn't gone in any direction from the platform, the options were:
Up. I looked up, but there was just the framed cover of the station and no shadow showing from up there.
Down. I didn't see any manhole covers askew nearby, but I supposed it was possible I asked my rock just to be sure, but it said nope.
Okay, what else?
What did I have in the bag today? There was the usual stuff for an exorcism and a house blessing – holy water, feathers, incense, a few pennies for the corners. Nothing that could make someone disappear.
There was the stuff I always carried: semi-precious stones, wire, bits and pieces from the thrift store and other places that carried the right energy, bones, circuitry… all the things I needed to make charms and magical items. It's not actually that hard if you start with the right materials. If you're using raw materials that are magical, making magical items is just plug and play.
There's my own array of magical items, pendants, protection charms, and other things that are just good to have around. There are a few oils in there just in case as well.
And I hadn't emptied it out last night when I got home from my last little foray. It wasn't a job exactly, since there'd been no guarantee it would pay out, but I hadn't done half bad. That was my own little pathwalking kit, the things that get you into the other world through liminal places, and keep you going when you get there.
Liminal places are spots where the real world is a little thinner, like graveyards and crossroads and places where people are headed to other destinations, like airports.
Or train stations. Dammit.
I asked the rock, and it confirmed.
Could there have been a harder place for me to follow without any of my equipment? Well, probably. It could have been hell or something. So I guess I should take what I get.
He went ahead and touched something that would carry him through – probably my key ring – and now he and my bag were on the other side of the city and I had to get there. It's not easy to cross, even in a liminal space, without it being a special day or there being some reason for it. I frowned.
A little bird landed next to me and pecked at a piece of potato chip on the ground. "Need help?"
"Do you need help?" the bird asked again after a minute.
"Yes," I told it. I knew I was desperate if my totem was showing up to help me out without my asking for it. "Can you get me through?"
"I can," Starling said, fluttering up to land on my shoulder. "You shouldn't be going back there so soon."
"He's got my bag."
"He doesn't know what he's doing."
"Besides, if he's messing with my stuff, my energy will be all over the place. They'll think I'm back there anyway."
"That's true." The bird looked me dead in the eye. "Are you willing to do this just to get your bag?"
"It's not just my bag," I told Starling, and it was true.
Another bird landed on my other shoulder, and then a third, and soon there was a whole flock on the station platform, circling around me. There shouldn't have been room for them all to fly around me, but they were doing it nonetheless and the daylight above me faded. I felt my stomach turn like it always did when I went through, worse than usual without my protections, and then I was there. Most of the flock disappeared, though Starling waited a bit longer on my shoulder.
"Be careful," the bird told me. "It's harder for me to see you down here." And then it was gone.
Starling, like most birds, didn't seem to like it when there was no sky. And the other city, while not strictly underground, did seem to be lacking in sky. Overhead there was a pale grey light that sometimes lightened and sometimes faded but was constant.
I looked around, catching my bearings again. As in the world above, this neighborhood was not my usual territory. There were darkened buildings around the train stop, though this looked like a considerably nicer neighborhood than the one above.
I dropped the yo-yo again, letting it spin slowly. At first it didn't seem to be doing much, which was odd; magic is usually more obvious down here, not less. But then the underground train pulled up, screeching to a stop in front of me, and the yo-yo swung forward insistently.
Okay, that made some sense. Showing up in a foreign place, he'd probably panicked and tried to head for more familiar territory. It wouldn't do him much good down here, but it was a half-decent plan.
I rode, keeping an eye on the yo-yo the whole way. The train kept going, long past what would have been downtown in the city above. I guessed he'd been waiting to see something familiar. As I waited, I saw the inhabitants of the city getting on and off the train. Most of them were looked human enough, whether their ears were curved or pointed, whether their hair was brown or blue. But there were the more obvious non-humans too, fairies only a few inches high, taking the train to rest their wings, or stick-like wood nymphs, or salamanders with fire for hair.
Most of them could pass for human one way or another if they went topside, and lots of them did, but down here very few people bothered to try to pass for something they obviously weren't – and if you were, it was better to be subtle about it. I got a lot of dirty looks from people who could tell what I was, but I tried to ignore them.
After I felt like I'd been watching the yo-yo swing forever with nothing to show for it, a conductor got on. He was tall and pale-skinned, kind of handsome if you like men in uniform. I don't. He just browsed the tickets of most of the people seated at the far end of train, but when his eye set on me he headed straight for me, barely glancing at the last few tickets. Crap.
"You got a ticket?"
Of course my pass was in my bag. I knew I should have put the thing in my wallet, but I hadn't bothered. I figured I might as well try bluffing because I didn't have another option.
I pulled out the train ticket that was in my wallet, the one for the overground train system. I handed it to him, doing my best to look a little nervous and a lot confused.
"You seem to be on the wrong train, Miss," he said, his teeth suddenly quite sharp.
"Really? I thought this one was good on all the lines."
He shook his head. "Not this line. Didn't you notice? This line's a little different."
"I wondered… I thought maybe there was a convention in town. I remember the comic book convention last year, the train looked a lot like this."
The conductor laughed and I tensed, but when he looked at me again, his eyes were no longer red and his teeth looked normal.
"You get off at the next stop," he told me. "And then you pray for a way home."
The train was slowing down, and I noticed that we had reached the very end of the line. Hopefully my long lost bag thief had been here and someone told him to get the hell off the train too. I stepped out and waited until the train and the conductor were out of sight. Then I unspooled my yo-yo again, letting the yo-yo lead me down the platform and toward the Wal-Mart across the street. He'd probably been thrilled to see something that looked like home. Yes, Wal-Marts exist in the underground, presumably the product of some long ago deal between a business-minded elf and the Wal-Mart home office. I followed the yo-yo's pull through the parking lot and into the double doors.
The Wal-Mart had taken a lot of flak from local businesses when it opened. I guess some things never changed? I don't shop there myself – it's cheaper, but I don't like the quality of mass-produced hexes and the produce was never as fresh as the local stores. At least there wasn't a Whole Foods. Yet. But nevertheless, I crossed the threshold and nodded at the dwarf in the little blue vest who greeted me.
"Do you need a cart?"
"No, I'm good," I told him, busy following the tug of the yo-yo. It was getting more insistent, which I hoped was a good sign. There was a definite pull toward the back of the store. I passed shelves full of unicorn meat imported from New Zealand, plastic clamshell-wrapped poppets for spellwork, and the toy section, which was for some reason stocked with Tinkerbell dolls.
The yo-yo led me right to the stock room door, where I was left trying to decide what to do. The last thing I wanted or needed was more trouble for trespassing, but I also needed to get back there. I spotted a restroom nearby and hurried inside. Turning the sink on, I let the water run and spoke a Latin blessing over the faucet, then dunked my head under. I hated using Catholic spells down here – when people figured out what I was up to, it never went over well. With this spell, it shouldn't matter, though. I was wet, but I was invisible to them.
I left the bathroom and went boldly into the stock room – well, boldly for the first three steps or so, until a tall, furry troll with a handcart full of stock came my way. I pressed up against the wall, praying the spell worked and he wouldn't see me.
Spell or no spell, there wasn't much space between the troll, his pallet full of boxes, and the edge of the doorway. I dodged aside, pressing myself flat against the wall; the last place you want to be when you're invisible is between a troll and a hard place. I felt the cardboard brush against
After he'd gone by, I let the yo-yo drop again. Left, between the shelves, and further back. The longer I followed it through the shelves, the more sure I became that something was strange – even stranger than usual. How big was this place? I was pretty sure I'd walked further in here than I had in the store itself, and the yo-yo showed no sign of slowing down, nor could I see the back wall. It was getting darker and darker in here and I didn't have anything I could use for a light spell on me except my lighter and waving fire around seemed like a last resort. I kept walking, my left hand resting on the edge of the shelves so I knew where I was, my right holding the yo-yo so I knew where I was going. It was slow, but as weird as this was, I didn't want to go any faster.
Eventually I ran out of shelf. I let go, telling myself that I would have to trust the yo-yo. When I looked back a minute later, I couldn't even tell where the shelves had ended. I tried walking backward, going twice as far as I thought I was from the shelves, but nothing.
I wondered offhandedly if all Wal-Marts were portals to dark dimensions or if it was just this one. Both seemed equally likely.
Now, I decided, I was desperate enough to start throwing fire around. I pulled out my lighter and flicked it.
The flame illuminated my body, and the yo-yo, enough that I could clearly follow it. Beyond that, I couldn't see anything. I hate walking into things blind, but sometimes walking into things with a little light was worse than none at all.
I heard a dripping noise in the distance finally, and that at least reassured me that I was still on a physical plane. Finally I saw something up ahead of me. At first, I couldn't tell what it was, just that there was something that was not the empty space that otherwise surrounded me. I checked the yo-yo, which said I was going in the right direction, and then I ran for it. I hate to admit it, but I had scared myself by this point. I didn't even hesitate before opening the door.
I found myself in a tiny little office, badly decorated, with a giant Wal-Mart smiley face on the wall and calendars for this month and next with sales targets on them. There was a desk and in the chair before it, shaking with fear, sat the guy who'd grabbed my bag.
"Are you the manager? I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! I'm sorry I took your bag!"
"Manager?" That made sense. This was obviously the store manager's office.
He blinked at me. "You're not? Oh god, then you gotta get me out of here."
"How'd you end up back here in the first place?"
"I don't know. I mean, there were all these weird people on the train, and I didn't know where it was going at all, and then I finally see this place and I think I know where I am, but it's all crazy weird in here, and someone comes up to me and says he's a store detective and he needs to take a look in my bag. He brought me back here and said the manager would talk to me."
Manager, hell. Odds were good that they'd called the hunters, knowing what was in my bag.
"Do you have the bag?"
"He kept it."
I swore. "Okay, look, I'm going to get you out of here because leaving you here is dangerous to me, alright?"
"Um. Thank you," he mumbled. I opened the other door to the office. This one led into a second room, where a man was on the phone. Thankfully, he was facing the wall.
"Yeah, it definitely looks like the bugs that were stolen last night. No, I'm holding them in my office for the time being. Doesn't look like the description of her, but you know how those topsiders are."
He was on the phone with the hunters right now. Crap. Well, at least he wasn't facing me. I turned my head and spotted my bag on top of a file cabinet across the room. I stepped quietly, praying that the water spell would be enough to keep him from turning around.
I laid hands on my bag, finally, and picked it up, starting back the other way. I wasn't paying enough attention, though, and I stubbed my toe on his desk. I bit my lip, but I'd already made a noise.
"Hey!" he shouted, turning around. "She's here!"
I ran, knowing that for every minute of lead I got while he stayed on the phone was a minute closer to the hunters catching up with me. I grabbed the thief's arm as I dashed through the manager's office and back into the blackness.
I wondered for a minute if the blackness was liminal enough to get us through, but I decided not to chance it. This was corporate territory. There was no telling what kind of gate magicians Wal-Mart had on the payroll.
Blind running and panic, amazingly, got us back to the stock room faster than I'd expected. It's amazing what kind of magic fear can power, really.
We ran through the stock room and onto the sales floor. I could hear the detective yelling behind us. Employees and other shoppers stared as we ran toward the Wal-Mart entrance, bowling over the greeter as we went.
Out on the street, without any better ideas, I started for the train platform. I'd dropped the thief's arm; he had enough sense to follow me across asphalt-covered lot anyway.
We were almost there when the Hunters came racing up on their motorcycles. I swore and in English and Spanish and turned.
"Wait, where are you going?" the guy who'd gotten me into this yelled from behind me. I was tempted to leave him to the Hunters, but at this point, there wasn't much to gain from it.
"Away from them."
"What are they? Some kind of biker gang."
"What do they hunt?"
Either my yelling or a better look at the hunters satisfied him, because there were no more questions after that. We ran in silence, and I did my best to stay away from places that were easily accessible by motorcycle. As I ran across a park, we came up against some kind of pond. That was a little odd- usually the city down here was a pretty good facsimile of the city above, and you didn't get a lot of ponds on Phoenix during the hottest months of the year.
It wasn't an ordinary pond, though. I could tell that much. Once you got close to it, you saw it was much larger than it appeared, and the water level was below the grass. There was about three feet of rocky drop where the grass ended and the pond began. A quick look around the property told me why it felt liminal – there was a waterfall with some kind of space behind it not too far away. Probably a magical passage in its own right. I could feel the energy I needed here. The waterfall would get us though, though it would be painful. The thief came dashing to a stop beside me and sent a rock tumbling down into the pond.
I rifled through my bag, pulling out my key ring and holding it up as two mermaids came to the surface and grabbed at the rock until they got a good look at it. Realizing it was nothing interesting, one threw it back at us.
The rock plowed into my shoulder hard enough to knock me forward and my arm went numb. I stumbled forward, dropping the keys on the grass. My bag slipped from my grip and tumbled down, spilling a few things onto the grass before dropping into the pond.
"Fuck," I yelled, watching it fall.
"I'll get it," the thief said, kneeling at the edge of the pond. The mermaids were there in a minute, smiling, their mouths full of sharp, sharp teeth and pretty song notes.
"No!" I snapped at him, but he ignored me. One of them had grabbed the bag and was holding it out to him. The other was closer, reaching for him as if she was going to give him a hand.
"Get away from them," I told him.
"They just want to help," he said, his voice dull. Their song had gotten to him. I tried to scramble over to him, but I didn't make it in time. The closer one pulled him in and they both giggled. It sounded like breaking glass.
He began to thrash in the water.
"Give him back!"
"He came willingly. You know the rules," the one with my bag said.
"I do, but he didn't. He's never been here before."
She shook her head. "Ours. And this is ours too." She held up my bag. Her sister had sunk her teeth into their catch and he'd nearly stopped moving.
Behind me, I heard the scream of the hunters. Usually I stayed where they couldn't get on their bikes and I was okay. I'd heard, though, that if you got them off their bikes you were in trouble.
Mermaids in front of me, hunters behind me, and only… What did I have? I grabbed up what had fallen in the grass. There were keys, a necklace with a handful of charms on it, and the container from last night with the bugs inside. I jammed the necklace and the tube into the pocket of my jeans.
Well, at least last night's debacle hadn't been for nothing.
"You owe me in return," I shouted at the mermaids as I tried to hold the key ring steady. "I know the rules too."
"We acknowledge the debt. Thanks for the shiny things."
I sighed and shook the key ring three times, poured all my fear and frustration into the spell, and turned it. The backlash was so vicious that I all but blacked out. When I opened my eyes it was still dark, but after a minute my eyes started to pick out stars overhead and I knew I'd made it out.
I stood up and stretched, rubbing my shoulder where it was sore. I knew I'd have a bad bruise there tomorrow. I checked my pockets – tube, necklace, cell phone, wallet, house keys, yo-yo, smooth rock, pocket knife, lighter. I added the magical key ring to the collection. I felt naked without my bag, though, and knowing it was gone for good this time didn't help.
Looking around, I figured I was in a little park. The grass was dry and scratchy, and the air was still and hot. It couldn't be that late, then – if it were after midnight, the temperature probably would be a little under a hundred.
When I made it out to the street, I followed the sidewalk east to the light rail tracks. I made it a point to stand on the sidewalk until I saw the train approaching from the west and only then did I step up onto the platform and then onto the train.
I spent the ride home reading through the messages and email that had piled up while I was out of service range. I'd heard that there were arcane ways to get your phone to work in the undercity, and service plans that would cover it, but I was barely covering my cell phone plan as it was. The last thing I needed was magical roaming charges.
The train took me to my bus and the bus took me to my apartment. It wasn't much to see from the outside; you'd only know it belonged to practitioner of any stripe if you knew what you were looking for. I poured the salt along the threshold fresh every week, but it was a thin enough line to overlook, and all my protective sigils were written on the underside of the doormat.
I let myself in and turned on the light. The place looked just as I'd left it that morning – a mess. I'd been running late, and doing dishes or straightening was never high on my list of priorities anyway unless I had a client coming over.
Which I did, tomorrow, and the thought made me realize my loss all over again. I had a few tools in the house – my staff, basic things like candles and herbs, and a few larger pieces that weren't worth carrying when I didn't have a use in mind for them. But I'd lost almost everything.
Almost being the key word, I reminded myself. The thief had lost everything.
After all the effort I'd put into saving him, I'd gotten attached. It shook me, losing him like that. I didn't know him personally, but I was used to things going my way in the undercity. They didn't work out up here, but down there I could depend on my luck.
At least, I'd been able to in the past. Now I wasn't so sure. If I could avoid it, I wouldn't be going back down there for a while.
Before going to bed, I put the key ring away in my dresser and tucked the tube in beside it. I sat down on the bed and studied the necklace. Despite carrying it with me so often in the bag, I'd hardly looked at it since I was in high school. It was just a piece of cord with a bunch of charms hanging from it, not much to look at. They were all magical, though, with all the faith and belief that comes from being fifteen and in love with magic and thinking that the world will bow down at your feet any day now.
There was a rune pendant I'd gotten on a school trip, from some gift shop or other, and a dyed piece of quartz hung from a piece of wire wrap that I'd gotten on another trip. A gold cross, that had been my confirmation present. My best friend at the time had had her name written on a grain of rice and encased in a little glass tube. When she'd died later that year, her mom had given it to me with a few other of her things. I'd tried to bring her back and ended up tying her soul to the rice.
It occurred to me that maybe I hadn't come as far from that as I'd thought I had. I thought again about the dead thief and the favor I'd forced the mermaids to acknowledge.
I left the necklace on my bedside table and before I put out the light, I lit a candle for the man's soul – I realized I didn't even know his name – and asked that he cross quickly and easily. This wasn't out of the goodness of my heart; if he wanted someone to haunt, I'd probably be pretty high on the list.
Whatever sympathy I felt, a haunting was the last thing I needed.
The One That Got Away
That night I dreamed about sharp, sharp teeth. A rat came up to me in the middle of it and said "you have a lot to learn, kid." Then it ran off.
I woke up to a sunny Sunday morning and an already hot apartment. it was still fifteen minutes before I'd set my alarm to ring. I turned it off anyway and sat on the edge of the bed for a couple of minutes, trying to clear my head. Eventually I slid the temperature on the air conditioner down and showered, contemplating my immediate problems. Clean the apartment. Restock at least the bare bones of my kit. And then meet my new client tomorrow evening, work on Monday, and the house blessing Tuesday afternoon.
I tried not to feel overwhelmed. Instead, I turned on my computer and turned on my favorite guilty pleasure music, a mix of early 80s arena rock power ballads, and got to work on the cleaning.
It didn't go as fast as I would have liked, but it went faster than it would have if I hadn't spent the time singing Journey and Aerosmith. Some of the clutter went into the closet, because I wasn't sure where I wanted to put it and I didn't have time to reorganize the apartment, only to clean it.
I took the bus down to the closest Goodwill and headed inside to look for the bones to rebuild my kit.
It took me three thrift stores to find a bag I liked – though this one wasn't actually a bag, it was a hard-sided train case. It looked like a good size, though, and it latched, which meant that it'd be harder for things to fall out if it was, say, rolling down a hill. Not that I intended to let that happen again.
It had little metal triangles on either side where I could attach a shoulder strap and even came with the key to the lock taped inside.
Three dollars. Not bad.
I paid for it and a few little things – a shell necklace I could break down for cowries, a rosary that had been well-loved and a pocket watch that looked like it still ran.
After that I caught the bus up to something a little more expected- a new age pagan store. I didn't usually like these kinds of places, but there are things you're just not going to find secondhand.
I picked up a few rough stones (tourmaline, bloodstone, and a couple pieces of quartz) and a tiny container of luck oil, figuring I needed it something fierce just now. The store clerk looked at me oddly as I paid, like she was trying to figure out whether to help me out or accuse me of shoplifting. She wasn't the one who normally ran the register in here and I mentally looked myself over – t-shirt and jeans, darker skin, and no obvious rhyme or reason to what I was buying. Maybe she thought I was setting up someone else, but I was the only one in the store. And of course, I wasn't dressed like the usual fancy customers that came in here.
It also doesn't help that I tend to give off an aura of Poor Innocent Me I Have No Idea About This Magic Stuff. Sometimes it saved my life – like it probably had on the train the day before – but mostly it meant that people who should have been my colleagues talked to me like I was still in high school. All it served to do was piss me off.
I wanted to replace my divination tools, but I didn't like any of the tarot decks at first glance and the looks from the sales clerk weren't exactly encouraging me to stick around much longer. I left the store, but I still had about twenty minutes to wait for the bus going back in the other direction. I wandered into the closest open shop, which happened to be a comic book store.
I'd wandered through here a couple of times while waiting for the bus up here. Usually I just poked around the comics until it was time to go, but today I felt drawn over to the counter. There were a number of tiny things tucked behind there where it was harder for kids to get grabby fingers on them.
The dice stood out to me like I was drawn to them. I waited for the guy behind the counter to notice me, and watched the -Gasp! A Girl!- look wash over his face before he asked me if he could help me with anything.
I asked to see the dice in the case, specifically a pair in the front that seemed to be almost transparent. He pulled them out for me and took the bottom off the case so I could inspect them. I let them fall into my hand and experimentally tossed two on the counter, asking how my meeting with the client would go tonight.
The two ten-sided dice gave me a perfect one hundred, which had to be a good sign. I paid for the dice on the spot and added one more bag to my handful. The bus was pulling up just as I left the store and I jumped on. One more problem solved, I thought to myself as I headed home.
Meeting with clients is a delicate business. A lot of new clients, unless they've been referred by someone who warns them, expect me to be older, or maybe white, or maybe to look like Miss Cleo in those old commercials. Short Latina in her twenties? Almost never on the radar.
So I spend a little more time than I'd like to admit dressing up for a new client, making sure I don't look too casual. Out of jeans and t-shirts, I don't look quite as desperately young. Add a little bit of magical-looking jewelry (virtually never stuff that's actually got any power in it) and the calmest, most knowledgeable demeanor they will ever see from me, and you've got my best foot forward.
In addition, I cracked open the plastic on a new hardcover writing journal. I used these for all sorts of records – research, client notes, records of things I ran into on my own. When I was talking to clients, I usually wrote down appointments in longhand and transferred them to my phone's calendar later – people tend to be put off by you typing into a phone while they're talking, even if you tell them what you're doing.
The knock on my door came about ten minutes early, but I was already sitting there waiting, so I didn't mind too much. As I stood, I noticed the candle I'd lit for the thief was out. I made a note to re-light it later as I opened the door.
I didn't know too much about this client ahead of time. She'd said she was referred by an old friend of mine who'd moved out of the area, which was odd but not impossible. She turned out to be only a little older than me, with red-brown hair and blue eyes behind glasses.
"Are you Sophie Garcia?"
It was the same name she'd used on the phone, a nickname I hadn't gone by in over a year.
"You can call me Garcia," I told her. "Please, come in."
"Call me Susan." As she stepped in, I noticed she was leaning on a cane as she walked. I was suddenly very glad I'd finished cleaning up all the mess from the middle of the floor.
"Now then," I said as she settled into one of my armchairs. "You said one of my clients had referred you, right?"
"She didn't say she was a client. But Gwen did, yes."
Oh. My ex. That was a good sign. Knowing Susan had been referred by my ex-girlfriend made me even warier than I normally was with a new client. "What exactly did Gwen tell you about me?"
She looked embarrassed. "Not very much. She said I shouldn't talk to you about her at all, actually."
I rolled my eyes. That sounded like Gwen alright. "She always says that about her exes."
"Oh, you and she were…" she trailed off.
"I hope you don't have a problem with that." I hadn't gotten any weird vibrations off of her but there were always things that jumped out and surprised you.
"Not unless you do. She and I were involved as well."
I smirked. "No wonder she didn't want you to talk about her with me, then. How's she doing?"
"I haven't seen her since I moved back to Phoenix, but I guess she's doing okay. She had a new girlfriend ready to go before we broke up."
Somehow that wasn't surprising. "It happens. Anyway, I'm sure gossip wasn't the reason you came in today."
"Not exactly, no. I came to see you because of school."
"School?" I raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure Gwen told you I can't do any spells to raise your grades or anything like that."
She shook her head. "That's not it at all, no. My grades are fine. The problem is in the library."
"I got a job there working the overnight shift – it's easy work and I like the people. But I came across a ghost one night and now it won't leave me alone."
"Ah, an exorcism."
"Probably. I asked Gwen what she suggested and she recommended you. She said she taught you everything she knew."
I laughed at that. "I was doing this before I met her, but knowing her, she meant it as a compliment."
Susan nodded. "Somehow I'm more reassured to know that than I was when I thought she taught you everything."
"Yeah, well, let's not dwell on her. So tell me about this ghost." I sat down in the opposite armchair, the fresh journal in my lap.
"It's a young woman, she looks college aged. Maybe a freshman or a sophomore. There's something wrong with her face, to the point where I can't see it, but she keeps asking me to help her."
"Do you usually see ghosts?"
"Yeah, I'm prone to it, but they don't usually ask me for help."
I nodded. "It's definitely odd that she'd be so active. Does she stay in one area?"
"Well, she stays in the library. I haven't seen her outside of it. I first encountered her downstairs in the periodicals but she's turned up all over since then. I guessed she noticed I can see her, because she follows me around all the time."
"When's your next shift? I can come out and check it out."
"Tomorrow night at eleven. I'll be working the circulation desk."
I made a note of the time and the place and agreed to meet her there. We discussed a few other details, and as she was about to leave she asked about one more thing.
"What do I owe you?"
"I never set a price before I meet the ghost. Consider it a free consultation tomorrow; you don't have to take me up on it once I set the price."
She thanked me and I saw her to the door.
Alone again in my apartment, I ran a bath. It had been a long day on public transportation and I needed to get the knots out of my back. I added lavender, for relaxation.
I had just about closed my eyes and started to relax when I felt something bite my leg. I pulled my legs in immediately, and when I felt similar pain in my side I was out of the tub as fast as I could stumble.
There was nothing in the tub, but there we red welts on my skin where I'd felt the bites. "What the crap?"
"Not fun, is it?" The voice was coming from all around me and it took me a moment to recognize it.
"You again," I sighed. I'd forgotten entirely about letting the candle go out.
"Do you have to sound so bored?" his voice was less echoing and more localized, at a spot behind me.
I turned. "I'm a professional. What were you expecting?"
"Not that professional. You couldn't keep me away from those shark things." He sounded almost normal now, and was starting to fade into view, sitting on my bathroom counter.
I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around myself. "Mermaids."
"Those sure didn't look like any mermaid I've ever seen."
"I'm betting the only mermaid you've ever seen was named Ariel."
He hesitated. "Okay, that's fair, missy."
"Besides, I told you not to go in. They'd probably already gotten you by then."
"What do you mean, gotten me?" He looked almost solid now, and had no trouble following me out of the bathroom and into the living room.
"Mermaids can entice you. Kind of like sirens, but they don't have to sing. Their voice can do it, and sometimes their eyes are enough."
"So I was, like, hypnotized?"
I nodded. "So you didn't hear me when I yelled no, and you didn't even flinch much when they bit you."
"That- I didn't? It felt like I did."
"Nope. You were just kind of… bleeding quietly."
He looked down at his arms, which were solid enough for me to see had large chunks torn from them. I felt bad for the guy, really.
"Look, why don't you just move on? It'll be better for you."
His head snapped up and he looked at me with something like fear. "No! I don't want to go to Hell."
"You don't know that you're going to Hell."
"I was a thief. That's sinning. And I didn't get last rites. I haven't even been to confession in weeks!"
I hesitated a minute before replying, to let my brain sort itself back into Good Catholic mode. It wasn't a point of view I had to take often but I'd grown up with it so it was easy enough, like pulling out an old blanket.
"I can light candles for you if you want. Arrange to have Mass said for you."
"You don't even know my name."
He was right. I sighed. "Okay, fine, let's start from the beginning, okay? Hi, nice to meet you, my name is Garcia. What's yours?"
"Garcia? What kind of name is that?"
"What's yours?" I repeated, glaring.
"Okay, Jesse Daniels, first rule of being dead or otherwise metaphysically unusual is you do not give your full name out casually."
"But you asked for it! You tricked me!"
"You could have just given me your first name. Or your last, which is what I do."
He nodded, sullen. "I guess."
"Anyway, it's much easier for me to help you if I know your name."
"What kind of help did you have in mind? I still don't want to move on or whatever."
"You sure? It's better than staying here. Stealing isn't that bad a sin, you'd probably just go to Purgatory and work off your sins after a while."
"That doesn't sound better. That sounds boring. Or painful, if it's not boring. I don't remember which."
To be honest, neither did I. "But it's better than Hell."
"Why don't I work off my sins here? I can do good deeds! Like, ghostly good deeds. I can be like that Casper kid and haunt the shit out of friendliness."
"I mean- haunt friendily. What's the word?"
"I have no idea. But if you really want to stick around-"
"I guess I can help with that, too."
"If I link your spirit to something, you won't have to focus on staying here. It'll just happen automatically. How does that sound?"
He nodded. "That sounds okay. You'd let me go if I wanted?"
"Yeah. Having a whiny ghost around that doesn't want to be here isn't worth the effort."
"Oh, I totally get- hey!"
"Right now I need to sleep, though. Ask me again tomorrow night, okay?"
He didn't look happy, but he agreed and even left without further argument when I told him to. I finally managed to get into bed, and I fell asleep almost immediately.
I woke up with the last image from my dream in my mind, a large blue foam rat that started talking to me. I shook it off – I didn't have much time for much dream analysis. I had to go work.
Three days a week I catch the bus down to the call center and work my ten hour shift. It's not quite fun, but I've worked plenty of worse jobs. As call centers go, this one's not bad. Most of my co-workers are friendly, most of the people are happy to hear from us, and most of the time we're left alone to do our jobs. The only thing I didn't like about it was the fact that I was required to be up at the ass crack of dawn to get to work on time. Two buses and a twenty minute layover to go four miles? Welcome to Phoenix public transit – it's super efficient, except when it's not.
I was already tired when I got home, and I knew odds were good I'd be up late, so I laid down to take a nap. Just to be on the safe side, I set my alarm so I had plenty of time to get to the library.
When I woke up, I was running late and Jesse was standing there, playing with the alarm clock.
"What the hell?" I asked him as I dashed out of bed to my closet. "Why would you mess with my alarm clock?"
"I didn't mean to," he insisted. "I was just seeing if I could move it."
The alarm slipped through his hands and fell to the floor with a cracking noise. "Sorry."
I pulled on a t-shirt and went back over to pick up the clock. "I have to go out." There were bits of plastic all over the floor, but it seemed to still be running. I set it back on the bedside table.
"But you told me to come back tonight and you'd help me."
I sighed. He was right. "Okay, step one is for me to speak your name and call you in."
"But I'm already here."
"Who's in charge of this, me or you?"
"You are, Garcia."
"Good." I lit a fresh candle, this one a blue seven day votive candle, and rattled off the first thing that came to mind. "Jessie Daniels, I call you forth from the afterlife. You need not wander; you are welcome in this place. Come in and be comforted."
His form seemed to solidify in front of me. "Hey, neat."
I nodded. "Calling you in makes your presence not only allowed but welcomed. Later on I'll find something to bind your soul to, but for now that should be enough to keep you here."
"Thank you," Jesse said.
"Now I'm already insanely late, so I'll see you later," I told him and hurried out the door.
I was very late – I'd already missed the bus I intended to take and just barely got to the bus stop in time for the next one. Luckily my client had me meeting her at her job, so at least I knew she wasn't going anywhere. I was more than half an hour late when I strode into the library and she looked relieved when I caught her eye across the lobby.
"I thought maybe you'd decided not to come," Susan said as I walked up to her. She sounded as relieved as she looked. I hadn't spent a lot of time in the University's library lately but it was like an old friend – most of the libraries in town are to me, even the ones underneath. I knew where the periodicals were but I let Susan lead me down in the elevator and to the spot where she'd first encountered the ghost.
"It was down here. You can imagine how quiet it gets down here in the middle of the night," she said as we stepped out. The periodicals are stored on a series of motorized shelves to save space. For every open aisle, there are three or four pressed together, and you access the one you want by pushing the buttons on the ends of the shelves, sending them sliding along the rails.
She pressed the buttons to open a particular aisle and started down it, carefully placing her cane outside the rails and guides to keep from tripping. I followed her about halfway down the aisle before she stopped and pointed to some faint stains on the carpet.
"I think those are bloodstains. This is the place where I first saw her."
I knelt down and placed my hands on the stains, trying to sense any energy that might be left in them. "Did you try to research the death?"
She nodded. "I couldn't find any reference to someone dying in the library. Nothing at all."
"That's weird. You'd think somebody would report that. Police blotter, at least? When some drunk goes over the banister of their apartment its front page news in the State Press."
"I know," she said. "But there was nothing. I thought that was weird by itself."
"Well, we'll just have to start with her, then." I closed my eyes and tried to feel the energy of the library. There were plenty of people around, but it was less electric than most places that see that much activity.
Libraries tend to be almost meditative, in terms of energy wavelengths. They're quieter than they should be for the amount of traffic they see. To me, they're generally warm and inviting places. Sometimes, if they're old or busy enough, they acquire a genus loci, a spirit of place, and Hayden is one of those libraries.
"Did someone die here?" I asked the library.
"Look out," it whispered.
I heard the engine come to life again.
"Who?" Susan asked as she noticed the shelves beginning to move. She jammed her cane against the base of one, which slowed it down.
"Both sides shouldn't be able to move at once!"
"I won't be silenced!" a girl's voice yelled behind above us. "You can't get rid of me!"
Thinking quickly as the shelves closed in on us, Susan ignored the ghost shrieking above us and laid her cane down into the track the shelf's wheels ran along. She slipped it into place just in time, as the shelves were almost immediately stopped along both ends.
"No!" the ghost yelled.
"Please be quiet, this is a library," Susan snapped. "You'll upset the patrons."
The voice dropped down in front of us and was barely more than a whisper now. "Sorry."
"You've been following me around for weeks now, and when I try to help you, you… you… do whatever this was! What did you think you were going to accomplish, anyway?"
"I just panicked," the ghost said, sounding like she might cry. "I don't want to be exorcised. Then I'd really be forgotten!"
"Why don't you tell me what happened and I'll see if I can help you," I said, hoping to keep her calm and talking.
She was just beginning to solidify when she started talking. "I don't remember a lot. I was down here doing some research. My boyfriend was supposed to meet me but he was running late. I thought I heard him say my name, so I started to turn around, and then I just felt like someone was stabbing me in the face."
"Did your boyfriend hurt you?"
"He wouldn't! He was the sweetest guy, and a total pacifist." She shook her head, and now she was solid enough that I could see what Susan had told me about before – most of her face was a mask of red, almost like she was wearing a lace veil. I'd occasionally run into ghosts that showed all their injuries in gruesome detail, but she seemed not to be the type, thankfully. Some people really dwell on their wounds and visualize them, and some show them only symbolically, or not at all. It's all up to the ghost really – keep that in mind next time you're dealing with a really horrifying one.
"Were you aware of anything after that?"
"Somebody came and took my body. Police, I think? I wasn't really aware of what was going on yet, but I heard them tell someone it had been an accident with the stacks. It wasn't, though."
"So now you haunt the stacks, trying to cause another so-called accident?"
"Well, not really." She put her hands into ghostly pockets. "It just seemed like a good idea at the time, you know?"
I looked at Susan. "You're sure there was nothing about someone dying in the stacks?"
"Nope. Nothing at all."
"Hm. I'll have to follow up on that tomorrow." I made a note in my journal. "Miss… what was your name?"
"Madeline, right. So what do you want? For people to know how you died?"
She looked up at the ceiling. "I don't know. I mean, I feel like people forgot me, you know? Somebody killed me, but they don't even believe that."
"Well, I'll see what I can find out about that, and then I'll come back…" I looked at Susan. "When do you work again?"
"Right. I'll come back Wednesday with Susan here and we'll see what I can go over, okay? As long as you're not bothering people, I'm not going to exorcise you against your will."
"Thanks." She smiled, and I suspected it was the first time she'd had reason to in a while.
"Oh, help me narrow it down. When did you die?"
"Um…" Madeline looked thoughtful. "Maybe two months ago?"
"What's the last date you remember it being?"
"It was right before Homecoming."
Susan looked at me, confused. "But Homecoming was months ago, almost a year. It's July now."
"What?" the ghost looked like she might cry.
"Time's different for ghosts," I told her. "It's okay. It doesn't hurt anything, and it won't make this too much harder. It's not like you died in the sixties or anything, right?"
"Nope. Good ol' 1997."
"What?" she asked.
"Never mind," I told her. "We'll be back soon, okay?"
"Yeah. Thanks. Sorry for scaring you."
Susan and I made our way back to the elevators. The temperature had dropped while we were talking to the ghost and it was quite chilly now. I realized that I'd been so busy arguing with Jesse back at my apartment that I'd forgotten to bring anything for the inevitable air conditioning freeze.
The problem with summer in Arizona is that it's so hot outside, businesses try to compromise by lowering the temperature inside as far below comfortable as the outside temperature is above it. This means that when it's 120 degrees outside, it's about 50 degrees inside any given public building.
Still, I'd be back outside in no time and it was hot enough that I shouldn't have any trouble warming up. I had to hurry if I was going to catch the last bus, though.
"Why didn't you tell her how long it's been?" Susan asked as the elevator doors closed.
"I didn't want to upset her any more than she already was," I admitted. "The last thing I want to deal with is a crying ghost."
Susan nodded. "So… you already promised to come back, but you haven't told me what you're charging."
I shrugged. "This isn't a deal with you anymore. It's a deal with her. You're just the one who put her in touch with me, essentially."
"Oh." She sounded disappointed.
"Is that a problem?"
"No," she said in a way that indicated that it clearly was. "It's just- it's exactly what I got from Gwen, too, I don't know why I expected any different from someone she introduced me to."
"What?" I had to get to the bus stop, but I sure as hell was not letting that one go. Gwen and I were still on speaking terms, but just barely, and mostly because it was easier to keep talking to her than it was to put up with her reaction if you told her off.
"You use me for as long as it's useful and then you tell me to get out of the way and let the real psychics do the work." Susan said it with real bitterness.
"That's not what I meant at all," I told her. "You're welcome to stay involved if you want. And if it's that big a deal, you're welcome to pay me whatever you think is fair, but I'm not going to charge you after I've already promised the ghost something. I told you I'd give you an estimate before you obligated yourself; that wouldn't be fair."
She nodded. "Okay then, that… that makes sense. I didn't mean to go off like that."
I shrugged. "I know Gwen too, remember? Just don't mistake me for her again and we'll be fine."
Susan smiled at me. "Thanks."
"No problem. I'll see you on Wednesday." I had to run to the bus stop but I made it just in time to catch the last bus. Thank god. I didn't have to get up quite as early on the days I didn't work, but that didn't mean I wanted to walk home at one in the morning, either. Even this time of day, it was warm enough for a couple of miles walk to be uncomfortable.
I tucked myself into bed, waiting to see if Jesse was hanging around, but he didn't say anything if he was.
On The Road
In the morning, I woke up around ten and made myself breakfast before I had to leave the house. Tuesdays and Thursdays I work on my clientele. The schedule was left over from when I had class two days a week, but I'd gotten used to it and so I kept it.
Today I had the house blessing that I'd had to reschedule over the weekend. I caught the bus and the train, this time with my mostly empty train case. I'd supplemented the handful of things I'd been able to buy with candles and take-out salt packets I had laying around the house, but I couldn't seem to shake the feeling that I was running into battle half-naked. I told myself it was nothing and kept reading my book, one arm on the train case the whole time.
My client was waiting for me when I got to his rental house – a picturesque little place only half a mile's walk from one of the train stations downtown. It was a vintage bungalow with two bedrooms and a garage, a must in Phoenix's ridiculous summers. If your parking wasn't covered, you weren't going to be happy getting into that car every day. The neighborhood was gentrified, with virtually every house colored pastel and thoroughly landscaped.
"Once we're done here, I want your opinion on something else," he told me.
I laughed. "You know the drill. You have to tell me up front if you're adding something on to your tab."
"You know I'm good for it," he protested. "It's just another place I'm thinking about buying. I want your opinion."
"Sure, no problem," I told him. He led me into the rental house, which was freshly cleaned. The energy was normal if a little stagnant, about normal when a house was vacant. I asked him if there had been any problems with the last renters.
"Nothing, nothing at all, but you know me," he said and I nodded. I did the best I could to mimic my usual procedure, using the salt packets to line both doors and trickle small amounts in the corners. I called up the spirits of the place, the land fae and whatever else might be there, to take care of the new owners and keep watch over the property. There was something a little off about the energy so I asked them if there was anything they needed to tell me.
I listened carefully to the land spirits. They were pulling me out into the yard, and I followed. In the back corner, I pulled aside a large bush that had overgrown and found a series of little dirt piles.
"What the-?" I mumbled, sticking my head back out. "Do you know what these are? Were they here before?"
He shook his head. "I don't think they were. I've never seen them before."
I nodded and sat down. When I shut my eyes, I opened myself to hear what was around me and asked whatever was uncomfortable here to come out and talk to me, let me help it. A moment later, handful of rats sat in front of me on the grass. I felt Starling come and perch on my shoulder. I can't understand animals on my own, not even dead ones, but Starling translates for me on occasion.
"What happened?" I asked them.
They looked at each other as if deciding who would speak for them. After a minute, a large white rat stepped to the front. She squeaked to Starling, and Starling leaned her head to my ear.
"Their owner was the child living here. He had to go away suddenly – to the hospital, I believe – and in the confusion, they weren't fed. They starved."
"Oh, you poor things," I said to the rats. "And so you can't move on?"
"We want to know what happened to him," the rat told Starling.
I poked my head out of the growth again and asked the landlord if he'd heard anything about the previous tenants having a child who was ill or something.
"Not ill exactly," he said. "There was a car accident – the boy and his mother were both injured. He was hurt pretty badly and he's still recovering. That's why they moved, I guess his mom couldn't take care of him herself so they're moving in with her family."
I turned around and relayed this to the rats, who nodded.
"Thank you," the white rat said. "In that case, we can go."
I closed my eyes, picked up the white rat's ghostly form and held it up, whispering a prayer. When I opened them, all of the rats were gone. I thanked Starling for her help and in a moment she was gone as well. I crawled out from under the bush.
"I owe you any extra for that?" the landlord asked.
"Not this time," I told him. I needed to remind myself that not every sob story could be a charity case as well. Two in two days was a bit much. But I couldn't say no to either the girl in the stacks or the rats. "There was another place you wanted me to check out?"
The landlord nodded. "It's just down the block here." We walked together to the bungalow, which could have been identical to any other place on the street. Could have been identical, but wasn't – the bones were the same, but unlike all the other restored, pastel bungalows on the street, it looked run-down and sad. The walls were brown and so was most of the lawn. In a lot of the city that wouldn't be noticeable this time of year, but in this neighborhood, it was. Even the FOR SALE sign looked a little forlorn, hanging off-kilter next to the driveway.
"It's certainly a fixer-upper," I told him, looking at the place. Something about it seemed off, but I couldn't put my finger on any particular thing.
He shrugged. "The price is right." When we went up to the house, the feeling didn't get any better.
Despite my earlier misgivings, once I got inside the house, I was less alarms. Inside, it appeared to be little more than one hell of a fixer-upper. I felt like I was definitely not the professional my landlord needed for this particular job, but nonetheless I called out any spirits that might be living in the place. There was a loud clatter from the back of the house.
I looked at the landlord, but he just shrugged. Slowly, I started toward the noise. He followed. I searched each room, looking inside and asking whatever might be there to come out. Finally I reached the door to the master bedroom at the very back of the house. I slowly opened the door.
A man came dashing out just as I looked inside. I jumped back instinctively to get out of his way. I didn't get a close enough look to identify him, but he looked like he might have been living there. I looked into the bedroom and sure enough he'd left some of his things when he ran.
"Poor guy," I said, looking at the things he'd left behind. "He must have been squatting. I bet we scared the heck out of him. You should put his stuff out on the driveway so he can retrieve it."
"Is that the best thing to do?"
I looked out the way he'd gone. "Best I can think of, anyway. He can come back for it if he needs it. And it'd be bad karma to throw out someone's stuff before you've even bought the house." The energy in here was fine, and I advised him that I couldn't see any reason not to buy the place, but he'd want to make sure to open up the backyard to lots of light so the rooms back there didn't feel cold and stagnant.
He nodded and told me he'd do what I'd suggested.
"Is that everything?" I asked him.
"Yep, that'll do it." He handed me cash and I thanked him, then headed back to the train station.
It was getting late and the rush hour parade crushed around me as I waited for the train. Luckily my apartment was on the other side of town, so the train I caught would not be full of commuters – yet. Still, it was important to get a seat I wouldn't hate when the train became packed in a few minutes.
When I got home, I said hello to Jesse and got to work researching the girl who'd died in the library. Unfortunately, since she didn't remember dying and there hadn't been any coverage of her death, there wasn't a lot for me to do short of calling people.
I started with the office of the State Press, the student newspaper.
"Buried a story?" the assistant editor asked when I explained what I was looking for and why. "Why would somebody bother to cover that up?"
"I don't know," I told her. "I was hoping you would. That's why I called you."
There was a shuffle of plastic. "Hang on, the search on the website is terrible, so I'm looking it up on microfiche."
"Really? That's faster than searching?"
"Faster, and I get to chart the use of the films, so microfiche lives to fight another day."
"Oh, every so often the university thinks the best way to save money in the library is to get rid of some priceless original source material and replace it with something online. That's overlooking the cost of the internet license and the lost productivity from the librarians constantly having to explain how it works, though they tended to have to do that regardless of whether there were physical books involved.
I thanked the assistant editor for her help and called the Dean's office. The current administration had only been in place a few years, but I guessed there would be someone in the office who might know about it.
I didn't want to try it just yet, since I had nothing to bribe with, so it was a relief when the number yielded only a voicemail that told me when the dean would be in tomorrow. So much for that regardless.
In the morning, I did go in, smiling at the front desk receptionist in front of the university president's office. "I need to know who's been here the longest."
"Oh, that would be me."
"You were in the office in 1997?"
"I've been here since '74, honey."
"Perfect. So tell me about the girl who died in the library in '97."
She blinked at me. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Come on, I'm sure the dean was fully aware of the cover up, probably had something to do with it. A violent attack in the library right after homecoming? How do you miss that? And who would have done the typing up for whatever cover story got dreamed up? That'd be the dean's secretary."
"The girl's still trapped in the library."
"I don't believe in that kind of thing." But she sounded flustered and I moved in for the kill.
"Her name was Madeline Georges and she waiting to find out who killed her."
I am not a very nice person. Oh well. I've always been more fond of the dead than the living.
The secretary was now ashen. "I remember. They covered it up because the dean thought people would panic if they heard there might be a violent killer on campus. And a werewolf? That was even worse."
"What was the werewolf's name?"
She hesitated. "There's privacy rules…"
"I'll find it on my own if I have to. I can always traumatize poor Madeleine until she remembers."
"Aaron Goldman," she said quickly.
"Thank you." That detail would probably be enough to get Madeleine remembering, but that wasn't necessarily what I wanted. Traumatizing her wouldn't help anybody. That detail was also enough to get me thinking, though. And now I had an idea.
The next time I strode into the library, I was on time and Susan was waiting for me. "What's next?" she asked me as we walked to the elevator.
"I want to ask Madeleine about her boyfriend." I went immediately into the stacks and talked to Madeleine that night, calming her.
"His name was Aaron," she began, and I wish I had been more surprised. I'd suspected, however, from the minute she said she'd thought her boyfriend was behind her during the attack. She told me that he was a pacifist, a vegan, a Buddhist, a history major. Nothing that helped immediately, but it gave me a better sense of him as a person.
I told her I had a lead, and that I was going to talk to her boyfriend about what he might have seen, both true things.
"At first I thought he might come visit," she said. "I thought maybe he'd know I was here somehow, or at least come because this was where I died. Then I thought maybe whatever it was got him too? He's not here, of course, but maybe he got to move on. I don't know what to think anymore."
"You don't have to figure it out," I told her. "I offered to do that, remember? I know it's hard for you."
"I know there's things I don't remember. It's like I can tell the memory is there, but it's all sharp around the edges so I can't get too close."
"Think of it like barbed wire on a minefield," I told her. "It's protecting you from something explosive in there, and when you get in, you might not like it. In the end, though, it's better to clear the minefields."
"I might be gone a little longer this time. Gotta put the legwork in, you know?" I told her.
"Can I come with you?" she asked permission.
"Can you?" Susan asked, curious.
I thought about it. She'd managed to follow Susan around the library, so she wasn't tied to the spot. She obviously wasn't emotionally tied to any one person. She might be tied to the library itself, or she might just be here for lack of a better place.
"I don't know," I told her honestly. "Why don't you follow me home tonight and we'll see if it works, okay?"
"I understand." She was smiling, though. Was that hope? God, I didn't want it to be. I hate it when people are actually depending on me.
After the bus ride home, I stood at the front door and waited, holding it open to invite her in. It wasn't necessary but I figured it would help. When I didn't see her right away, I went over to my computer and started googling her boyfriend.
"What are you doing?" Jesse asked without preamble. I jumped.
"God, don't sneak up on me," I told him.
"Who's that?" I'd forgotten about Madeleine, too. Clearly experiment Follow Me Home had been a success.
"Madeleine, this is Jesse. He was eaten by mermaids. Jesse, this is Madeleine. She was killed by a werewolf."
"A werewolf? Really?" Madeleine asked. "I didn't think those were real."
I nodded. "Looks like it."
It took me a while to track down all the different people with Madeleine's ex-boyfriend's name and where they were, but A couple of hours on Google and Facebook led me to the website for a small Buddhist temple outside of Los Angeles. I finally found someone with his name in Redondo Beach, California.
"Hey, Madeleine, come here," I called her. "Does this look familiar?"
"Oh, weird, I didn't know he had an older brother."
"No, that's him."
Crap. I was going to have to tell her. "You've been dead for a while, Madeleine. Longer than you thought."
"Oh." She looked thoughtful. "What year is it?"
"Oh," she said again.
I checked Google Maps, asking it for driving directions to the temple in Redondo Beach. "That's not such a long drive," I told Madeleine and Jesse. "I think I can head down there this weekend."
"So soon?" Madeleine asked.
"I thought you wanted to see him."
She hesitated. "I do! I mean, I did. When I didn't know… I mean, what if he's married? Won't that be weird?"
"Do Buddhist monks get married?" Jesse asked nobody in particular.
"Odds are he can't even see you, Madeleine."
"Call me Maddy, please. I'm in your house, I think formality's out the window at this point."
"Okay, Maddy. Most people can't see ghosts, remember?"
"I just… I don't know. This seems like it's going so fast."
I nodded. "It is going pretty fast. No offense, but I like to get these things sorted out. I'm really curious what happened now too, you know? So I don't want to hang around. Besides, I have some vacation time saved up."
Maddy didn't argue. I could tell she still didn't like the idea, but I'm not a ghost therapist. Sure, I was doing this to help her find out what happened, but I'm not a trained therapist for ghosts or anything. I don't know if it's better to push them to confront their issues or let them work through it in their own time. I just follow my instincts and do the best I can here, you know? And my instinct said to take this and run with it.
My instinct also told me this was going to be a very hot weekend and I should get out of the valley.
In the morning, I got up bright and early when my alarm went off, not even hitting snooze. Madeleine and Jesse were sitting in my living room, looking vaguely guilty.
"You guys are welcome to talk when I'm not around," I told them point blank. "I don't expect you to pretend you sleep or anything. I know you're up all night while I'm not. It has to be pretty boring."
"… Yeah, boring," Jesse said. I didn't like the tone, but there wasn't anything I could say without cancelling out the fact that I'd just told them to relax, so I didn't say anything to them.
Instead, I called into my office and told them I wouldn't be in Friday. Then I called Susan.
"Are you busy?"
"Yes, but it's nothing I don't want to procrastinate."
"Perfect." I filled her in on what I'd found out about Maddy's boyfriend. "How do you feel about Los Angeles?"
"I feel like it's been way too long since I had lunch at Philippe's," she said. "When should I pick you up?"
While Susan was getting ready, I did my own packing. Aside from my magical supplies, I hated luggage, so I pulled out the duffel bag I'd shoved in the bottom of my closet and looked through my closet. I pulled out my favorite jeans and put them on along with a comfy t-shirt. Into the bag I threw a few changes of underwear, a pair of socks in case it got to cold, another t-shirt and a button-down shirt in case I needed to look a little neater.
I put on the necklace I'd retrieved from my bag, and a second necklace that had been a gift from a client – it was quartz and tourmaline and it was good for keeping psychic vampires and other energy drains off of me. There was no telling what I'd run into in LA.
Susan texted to tell me that she was there, so I threw my laptop into the bag and slipped my sandals on before running out to meet her.
"Are you coming in the car?" I asked Madeline as we stepped away from the apartment.
She looked back. "I think I'll meet you there, if you don't mind? Jesse said he'd show me how."
"Is it okay if I come?" Jesse asked, sticking his head through the door.
I shrugged. "I don't see why not. It might be a little dangerous, but it's probably not too bad."
"I think the company will be good for Maddy," he said with a smile.
That was weird, but I let it go. "We should be in LA in about six or seven hours depending on where we stop for lunch," I told them. "Meet us in Santa Monica by the pier at sunset?"
"Sounds good to me," Maddy said, and she and Jesse both disappeared.
"I think they're up to something," I said to Susan as I got in the car.
"Oh, Maddy's made friends with this other ghost that's been hanging around my apartment."
She looked at me oddly. "Do you have a lot of ghosts hanging around?"
"Not really. This one's a special case." We stopped at a gas station and I filled Susan's tank for her.
"What kind of special case?" she asked when I got back in the car.
I sighed. "He blames me for his death."
"Because it was kind of my fault."
"Oh." She looked studiously out the front window of the car, focusing intently on the process of merging onto the freeway. There was hardly any traffic, so it was pretty clear she was uncomfortable.
"What's wrong?" I asked her.
"No, I'm not driving all the way to LA with you when you're obviously uncomfortable. What's wrong?"
Susan bit her lip. "How… how did he die?"
So I gave her the short version of the story, but I didn't try to make myself sound good. I knew it was my fault. For as much as I had defensively told Jesse it was his fault too, I blamed myself. If I'd been more careful – if I'd thought ahead – if I was better at my job and I'd been able to get us out sooner – there were a dozen or more things I should have done.
When finished, she just nodded and changed the subject, but she seemed more relaxed about the whole thing. That was a relief. I really wouldn't have let her drive me to LA without some level of comfort on her part, and I wasn't looking forward to taking the Greyhound again.
The drive was actually really pleasant. There wasn't a lot of traffic going west from Phoenix in the late morning on a work day, and it got lighter as we got further away from the city. We stopped for pizza not long after we got into California, and we followed the I-10 highway all the way to its end at Santa Monica.
"Park by the beach," I told Susan. "I need to go down to the water before we do anything else." She didn't ask me why, which I appreciated. We got out of the car together and walked to the sand. She looked at the uneven surface and sighed.
"Do you want to wait here?" I asked. "This particular beach is hard enough to walk on even if you don't need help."
"I think I'll go down to the pier," she said, pointing up the beach. "That way if Maddy and your other ghost are early, they can find me."
She did that, and I took off my sandals and rolled up my jeans before started down to the water. The sand was burning hot under my feet, but I couldn't put my sandals back on. There are rules for this sort of thing, you see.
When I reached the water, I searched for a spot a little away from all the beach visitors – not too hard, since most of them were packing up for the day by now. I stepped forward to meet the next wave that came in, and the water curled around my ankles and pulled me forward. I bent down, letting the saltwater wet my fingertips, and then brought my hand to my lips, tasting it.
Unlike Starling or most of the others I work with, I don't hear the Ocean when I'm with her. Sometimes I hear her at home, when I'm surrounded by the dry desert and she needs a voice to reach me. But here the waves and the spray speak loudly enough, somehow, and I sang with the waves as they climbed higher. I let them pull me forward, until the water was seeping into my rolled-up jeans and all I could smell was salt. Out here, I just knew she was there, in the pounding of the waves. I didn't need anything more. It just worked.
And I knew she wanted something, too.
"I'm here on business," I said, knowing it wouldn't matter. I owed her. I always owed her, and I would until I finally gave up on the desert and moved out here. Not necessarily to Los Angeles, but somewhere with a shore. Somewhere where I could visit her more than every six months for a few hours.
I knew she was being lenient with me, letting me go away. She could have demanded that I move, and she didn't. So when she did ask for things, I didn't feel bad about complying. She didn't tell me what it would be, but that didn't matter. I knew I would know when the time came.
By then the sun was down, and the still-cold Pacific Ocean was trying to numb my feet. I knew when to leave. I said my goodbyes and my thank yous, and promised to see her at least once more before I left. That would most likely be after I did whatever it was she had in mind for me. I walked back up to the edge of the beach and knocked as much of the sand off my feet as I could before I put my sandals back on. Then I headed off to the pier to find Susan.
It turned out not to be hard at all. She was standing on the edge of the pier, looking out over the ocean as the sun set at the horizon.
"Waiting for the green flash?" I asked her, smiling.
"Never mind. Any signs of ghosts yet?"
Susan nodded. "I saw them a few minutes ago. They're riding on the Ferris wheel right now."
"Isn't it cute?"
"I guess." I blinked. That wasn't what I'd been expecting, but anyway. "So the plan is for us to find a hotel room for the night and head to Redondo Beach in the morning. I found him listed as a monk in residence at a Buddhist temple so I think we won't have too much trouble finding him."
"A Buddhist monk?" Maddy had come up behind me while I was talking. I turned around and Jesse was there too.
"Hey, guys. And yes, a Buddhist monk."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I can see that."
"So I'll go see him in the morning. Do you think you're ready, or do you want to… I don't know, haunt Disneyland or something while I do it?"
Her eyes went wide. "Disneyland? Really?"
"Well, nobody's going to be stopping you at the gate." I smiled. "And I bet you'd fit right in at the Haunted Mansion."
Maddy curled in on herself suddenly, as if she'd forgotten that she was dead and I'd reminded her. I supposed I probably had.
"Anyway, there's plenty of other rides too. There's some new ones. And California Adventure, you've never been there, right?"
"I guess Disneyland does sound fun…"
We drove down to Anaheim with Maddy and Jesse in the back seat. Susan kept doing double-takes at the rear view mirror, as if she wasn't sure they were really there or not.
"Combined with your joke about the Haunted Mansion, I keep thinking about that part at the end of the ride," Susan said.
"Which part?" Maddy asked from the back seat.
"The part at the very end," Susan answered. "Where you're on your way out, and the Ghost Host says something about you taking a ghost home with you, and you look in the mirror and see a ghost reflected between the two people in the buggy."
Jesse snickered. "We should totally haunt the Haunted Mansion. Do you think that'd work?"
"Maybe," I thought aloud. "People are more likely to expect that kind of thing in there. They might be more inclined to see you."
"Look for a haunted wheelchair," Susan said. "If you see one, move it out where it's visible to riders."
I studied her for a minute. "So… you're a Disney geek?" I asked her.
"Maybe." She blushed. It was kind of adorable.
About that time we hit the freeway exit for Anaheim, and I had to give Susan directions to the hotel. We got there without too much trouble, and Maddy and Jesse immediately flitted off to the park.
"So are they dating or something?" Susan asked.
"No, of course…" I trailed off and then looked over at her. "Well, I don't know about dating, but they do seem to get along pretty well."
"Good for them," Susan said. She sat down on the edge of the bed. "So what are the living going to do tonight?"
I shrugged. "You're the one who's been driving all day. Do you want to go to Downtown Disney or something? Or are you too tired?"
"I'm never too tired for Disney," she said, reaching for her cane again.
The drive up to Redondo Beach seemed to take forever. Maddy was in the backseat shaking the whole time, and I wasn't sure if it was with excitement or fear. I doubt she could have told me either.
We got lost three times looking for the temple. Google Maps just could not seem to decide on a direction, and even when we stopped to get directions from a local, they didn't seem to be going in the right direction.
Finally I broke down and got out the yoyo I'd bought a week earlier and asked it where we were supposed to go. It took us almost straight to the ocean before turning up a side street and taking us up a hill. At the top was a small, simple building that we would have easily missed if the yoyo wasn't pointing right there.
There was a small sign next to the door that advertised it as the Redondo Beach Center for Meditation and Buddhist Studies, so I knew we were in the right place.
"Can you guys wait outside?" Madeleine asked, turning to us.
"All of us?" I asked her. I was going to be a little annoyed if I didn't get to see the resolution to this.
"Well, I guess I need you, in case he can't hear me," she conceded. "But you two?"
Susan nodded and turned the car back on, letting the radio play. Jesse looked disappointed but didn't seem to want to argue with her.
"Thanks," Maddy said, then floated through the back door on the driver's side. I got out of the passenger's side and followed her up to the temple doors. I studied them for a minute, not sure whether I should knock or if there was a bell – I wasn't sure of the protocol for this sort of thing.
I tried the handle and it was unlocked. I pushed the door open and stepped inside. There was no one in the front room, which was something between a vestibule and a closet. There was a large array of cubbyholes for shoes and about half of them were full. I stuck my head into a side room and saw a number of middle-aged men and women sitting cross-legged, presumably fulfilling the "meditation" part of the building's title.
The man leading the class looked exactly like his picture on the website. Maddy started to walk over to him, so distracted she walked right through several of the students sitting intently between them. I started to call her back and then bit back my words, not wanting to interrupt the class.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I jumped.
"Can I help you?" It was another man, this one older than Maddy's boyfriend but dressed identically in orange robes. I started to shake my head and then realized it'd be better to do this politely.
"I need to talk to the gentleman teaching the class," I said, pointing stupidly.
"He's a bit busy at the moment."
"I know," I told him. "I just noticed. I can wait, I guess."
"Was he expecting you?"
"No," I shook my head. "I just-"
"Ghost!" someone shouted in the room behind me. I turned and the monk I'd been talking to poked his head in as well. One of the students had jumped to his feet and was wasting no time running for the door. I tried to step out of his way but he slammed into me anyway.
"Sorry, sorry," he muttered as he hurried to his feet.
"It's okay," I told him. "I'm here about the ghost. She won't hurt you."
"I didn't- I was meditating- I had my eyes closed- I felt her-" he was rushing through his words and not making sense.
"Get him some tea," I told the older monk, "or something that will calm him down, will you?"
He didn't look terribly happy with me, but he took the gibbering young man and lead him into another room. The rest of the students were still seated, though they were now talking excitedly instead of quietly meditating. Maddy was standing nearly nose to nose with her former boyfriend, who was looking increasingly nervous.
I supposed there was no harm in me interrupting the class now, so I stepped in.
"Can- can I help you?" Aaron asked.
"Not me, no," I told him, "but you can help Madeleine."
He went pale. "What?"
"Your college girlfriend. You remember her, don't you?"
Madeleine hand her hands pressed against her chest and she was staring at him hard, as if she was willing him to remember her and say what she wanted him to say.
"Of course I remember her." He stuttered less this time.
"She's here with me."
"Where?" He stepped forward, peering around the room, and actually managed to pass through her.
I sighed. "She's standing right by you. You can't see her."
"Oh, well, then," he sounded looked down at the floor and took a deep breath, like he'd been waiting for this. When he turned his face up again, he seemed relieved. "How do you want me to talk to her, then?"
"I can hear you," Maddy said, almost plaintive, and I repeated.
"She can year you. I'll repeat what she says."
"Just repeat? That's all?"
"That's the best-" That wasn't the best I could do. "Well, I could let her ride me."
"Yes! That! Let me do that!" Madeleine said, turning her eyes away from him for the first time.
Suddenly I was pretty sure this was a bad idea, but it was too late. Madeleine was stepping into my body and I could already feel her reaching for the controls, my legs pulled as if by puppet strings as I walked toward the monk.
"Yes." I could hear the words coming out of my mouth, but they sounded strange and faraway. I had never really liked the act of playing body for the deceased. I'd done it for underworld creatures a few times as well, to help further some goal of my own, but that was less strange somehow. Probably because they were almost always uncomfortable and wanted my help with the body. Madeleine, like most dead humans, knew exactly what they wanted my body to do.
I stood up on tiptoes and kissed the monk before I realized what was going on.
When we stepped back from him, he was crying.
"Aaron?" I asked, quietly.
"I'm so sorry, Maddy."
"For what?" I didn't want him to tell her because I didn't want to deal with the fallout. I hadn't expected her to be in my body when he explained it.
It was too late, though.
"For hurting you."
"What?" This time my voice was confused, but I could feel the anger seeping in as she put two and two together in the back of her mind.
"You don't know?"
"I don't remember dying, except that it hurt."
He put his hands on my shoulders, holding us tightly. I instinctively wanted to pull away, but Maddy wouldn't let me. "I killed you, Maddy. I'm sorry."
"Why?" I whispered.
"I was just going to tell you I couldn't see you that night. I thought I still had time." He let us go and sank down to the floor. "I thought I had time. But I was new to it, then. I lost control."
It all came rushing back to Maddy, vivid as technicolor, and since I was in the backseat I got to see it too.
A boring paper hanging over her head on a Friday night. Her boyfriend's voice, the promise of something more interesting.
Then he screamed and doubled over. She started to run to him, until she noticed that something was wrong. Seriously wrong, in a way that she didn't understand. Her sense told her to run away, but she wanted to help him. She couldn't do anything. She froze.
After that, there was only fur and claws and her mind stopped processing things even before the pain set in.
Maddy stood there, my body staring off into space, for several minutes. Finally I realized I could control my body, and I decided to get her out of there. I walked out to the car, making sure she stayed with me every step of the way.
"What happened?" Susan asked.
"Where's Maddy?" Jesse added almost on top of her.
"She's- with me. She's riding. She wanted to talk to him, and then she remembered how she died, and she's having a hard time processing it." I opened the back door and slid in beside Jesse. He looked like he didn't want me there, but I ignored him.
Instead I settled into the seat and tried to relax enough that Maddy would just slip out of my body. It didn't seem to be working at first.
"Come on out, Maddy," Jesse said, taking my hand. "You don't want to be in there. Come here and let me take care of you instead."
I felt like I should say something to that, but before I could, my hand dropped away from his and her hand remained. I was able to slide back out of the back seat and leave Madeleine there. There was a long, awkward moment where Jesse was glaring at me as if I'd enjoyed it.
"I… should probably go back inside and make sure he's… you know, okay. Not going to flip out or anything."
"Sure, worry about him," Jesse muttered.
"You just said you could take better care of her than me," I snapped back at him, not sure why I was taking this so personally.
"Give them some time," Susan told me, and knew she was right even if I didn't like it, so I turned in a huff and went back into the temple.
The classroom was empty but down the hall I found a small kitchen. Both monks and about half of the students were in there, and the older monk was busy passing around mugs of tea.
Everyone looked up when I stepped into the doorway.
I felt the need to say something helpful, but nothing came to mind. "The ghost is gone." There was a collective sigh from most of the students.
"Gone where?" Aaron asked.
"These things are not always for us to know," the other monk started, but I interrupted him.
"She's in the car."
"I'm sorry about that. I don't usually get possessed. It's… unprofessional," I told him.
"You're a professional ghost-person?" one of the students asked.
"I don't just deal in ghosts. But yes, this is part of my job."
"You should go down to the beach, then. I heard there's some crazy chick ghost down there whose boyfriend got her drunk and she drowned, and now she drowns other guys."
I was about to tell the student to be quiet, but I got the little \>ping\< of interest in the back of head. That was what Ocean was expecting me to do. I made a note to follow up on it later.
"I'll see what I can do," I told the student, and turned back to Aaron.
"Will… will she talk to me?" he asked.
"I don't know," I told him honestly. "I don't think so. She just remembered dying, and that's never fun."
He shook his head. "I didn't mean to hurt her. I came out here to get it under control, you know? And it's worked, for the most part. I haven't hurt anyone else. I help people. I meditate a lot."
"I'm sure you've done everything you could," I said, not sure what else to say to him. "She needed her resolution, her closure. You probably did too."
He looked down at the table and I could tell he was crying again. I looked at the older monk.
"I will care for him," he said, and I nodded. I left my card, in case Aaron had any more questions, and then I went back outside.
When I got back to the car, Susan was standing outside in the heat, leaning on her cane.
"What are you doing out here?"
"Jesse asked me to give them some privacy," she explained.
"Oh, for the love of…" I opened the door. "Privacy or no privacy, guys, only one of you is benefitting from the air conditioning and I guarantee you it's the person with the pulse."
"There you go worrying about the living first again. You don't know what it's like," Jesse snapped at me. "Dying hurts."
"What, you don't think I've died?" I asked him. "How do you think I got this gig? I died."
Jesse shook his head. "That ain't the same thing, though. You're still here-"
"And you're leaving people outside in the heat when you're perfectly capable of ignoring it-"
"I'm fine," Susan said. "If you guys want to argue, have a party, but don't have it on my account."
"Let's… I don't know. Let's go eat," I grumbled, getting into the passenger side.
Jesse grumbled something about eating being living-centered again, but wouldn't repeat it, so we drove toward downtown Los Angeles.
"I need French dip," I declared. "Anybody have a problem with Chinatown?" Maddy was still not speaking and Jesse was glaring too hard to answer so I looked at Susan.
"I love Philippe's," she said with a shrug. The drive was awkward and silent and even the radio wasn't helping, but by the time we got downtown I was starting to relax. Phoenix may be the city my heart is tied to, but Los Angeles is hard not to love, especially when you're downtown on a weekend and everything is bustling but nobody's in that really rude kind of hurry you get on weekdays.
"You guys want to do some sightseeing while we're eating?" I asked Jesse and Maddy. "I'm sure watching us chew isn't actually that interesting."
"What's interesting around here?" Jesse asked.
"Well, Chinatown's right up there," I pointed up the hill, "and Olivera Street's over that way. Union Station isn't too far and Little Tokyo's over that way if you're into anime or Hello Kitty."
"I like Hello Kitty," Maddy said quietly. It was the first thing she'd said since we left the temple.
"We can do that, then," Jesse said, smiling at her. They headed off toward the south while Susan and I went in to eat. We stood in line to order and then took our trays upstairs since it was a little crowded.
"God, I love this stuff," I said, biting into my sandwich. And I do. Philippe's is the one place I insist on eating every time I'm in Los Angeles, no matter what part of my city is my actual destination. All roads lead past Chinatown, as far as I'm concerned, and all lunches should be held at Philippe's.
"So now what?" Susan asked me between bites. "What can you do for Maddy now?"
I swallowed a little harder than my sandwich required. "I'm not really sure. I mean, given time she'll get used to the memories and then she can decide what she wants to do. A lot of times it's the absence of memories that ties a ghost to the world, so now that she knows, she might decide to move on. If she does, I can help with that."
Susan set her sandwich on the tray. "You mean you dragged her out here and- and put her through that, and you weren't even sure what would happen?"
"I wasn't expecting catatonia!" I dropped my sandwich, suddenly without much of an appetite. I took a deep breath. "Every ghost is different. There's never any guarantees in this business. Just risks."
"Jesse made his choices, too. I didn't want him to die."
"But he did."
I made myself finish the sandwich, but I couldn't enjoy it the way I usually do. We went back to the car and started driving toward Little Tokyo, but as we drove south on Alameda Street, I felt an overwhelming tug.
"Stop," I said to Susan, grabbing her arm. I couldn't put my finger on the feeling, but it was similar to the pull in my chest the night Jesse died. The feeling that someone I was responsible for was about to do something I shouldn't let them do.
"What? Stop where?" Susan asked. We came up on a red light at the entrance to Union Station and I threw the door open.
"Where are you going?" she yelled.
I didn't stop, but I turned back to yell. "Olivera Street! Find parking and meet me there."
I raced across the rest of traffic and into the Plaza Park, looking around in desperation for Maddy or Jesse. I wasn't sure what kind of trouble they were getting into; there are a lot fewer options when you're dead, but the ones that remain are generally a lot worse.
I finally spotted Maddy on the far side of the park, talking to a guy I didn't like the look of. Nothing about him seemed right – he didn't look like a human, but there wasn't anything about him that I could put my finger on as being wrong, either. His hair was slicked back and he wore a jacket that looked unseasonably warm for the summer.
"Maddy!" I yelled. They both turned to look at me, as did several other people in the crowd. I waited until I caught up before I said anything else. "Maddy, what are you doing?"
"Are you asking me because you want to protect me or because you think I need to be protected?" she asked me.
I had to think about that for a minute before I could answer. "There's something not right about him, but I'll need to talk to him to find out what. You might distract me, or you might distract him from me. Either one could be dangerous."
She didn't look happy, but she stayed where she was while I turned to the stranger.
"They call me the King of Oblivion." He said it with a wink and a nod, as if I was supposed to care.
"And what am I supposed to call you? I don't much hold with titles."
"Neil will do."
"Well then, Neil," I put too much emphasis on the name. "You can call me Garcia. How can I help you?"
He shook his head. "I think the question is what I can do for you, my dear. I hear you've got a friend who'd rather forget a few things."
I froze, but I forced myself to answer and act natural. "Who told you that?"
"Oh, a little voice on the wind," he said, waving his fingers through the air. "Does it really matter, if I can help her?"
"I think it does."
"But she does need help," he said, and I realized I'd confirmed it for him. Damn it.
I nodded. "She does."
"I can take away the painful memories, you know." He took my wrist in his hand, and his skin was cool – too cold for a summer day in Los Angeles.
I shook my head. "I don't think-"
"Please." Maddy jumped in. I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. She was the one we were talking about, after all.
I turned to Maddy, ready to talk her out of it, but she was determined. "I was happier when I didn't know. I want to be left alone with Jesse. Maybe we'll stay and haunt the Mansion."
"That's not generally how it works."
"It's my decision."
"Always ask the price before you decide." The crowd passing around us ignored Neil and I thoroughly, as if we were as ghostly as Madeleine.
She looked at the King and my eyes followed. He smiled too broadly, showing teeth. He knew he'd won.
"It's hardly any price at all. I get to keep what I take, that's all."
"I want to forget him," she said. "I want to forget everything he did to me."
"Neil, she doesn't know what she's asking-"
"I do!" Maddy insisted. "I want him gone."
"You were doing this for me, weren't you?" Maddy asked.
I looked around. Olivera Street behind me didn't offer me any answers. "Mostly. I was curious, too."
She nodded. "Mostly, though. Well, let me decide what I want. I'm releasing you from your promise. You got me out of the library. You introduced me to Jesse. The question you ask is 'are you ready to move on?' isn't it? Well, I'm ready."
"Then let me-"
"Not like that!" There was fear in her eyes for a minute. "I want to stay with Jesse."
Neil narrowed his eyes. "You know the rules, Garcia. You warned her twice. Now you step back."
He was right. I knew the rules in my bones, though I couldn't have rattled them off. I knew them like I knew gravity.
I gave Maddy a last look, but I didn't say anything more.
"Come to me freely," the King of Oblivion said, holding out his hand. "I will take what you no longer want."
Madeleine stepped forward and placed her hand in his. There was a moment's silence as they stared at each other, and then he was shaking her hand.
"Pleasure doing business with you," he said. He started to turn away and put his hat on.
Madeleine hung there for a minute, as if she was unsure what she was doing. I went over to her as the King disappeared into the crowd. "Madeleine? Are you alright?"
"I-" She shook her head. "I feel like I've forgotten something."
"What was it?"
"I couldn't tell you," I told her, and I meant it honestly. Even if her ex-boyfriend himself came out here, she wouldn't know him now. "Were you going to find Jesse?"
She smiled, an open and generous expression that I hadn't seen on her before. It was unguarded and almost peaceful. "Jesse! Yes."
"Where did you leave him?"
"In the park!"
"You should go see him, then."
She was gone a moment later.
Well, I supposed the Haunted Mansion might have room for two more happy haunts.
"So what just happened?" Susan asked me as she caught up.
"Maddy sold her memories. She doesn't remember Aaron at all, probably."
She considered this for a minute. "That sounds like it might be a good thing."
"Maybe it is," I sighed. "I wouldn't do it, though. I don't know who I'd be without my memories."
"So does that take care of everything you came out here to do?"
"That takes care of Maddy, for better or worse. There's still one other thing. Well, two things."
"What are those?"
"First," I said pointing down the street, "we do some shopping in Chinatown. I need to pick up a few things I can't replace in Phoenix. Then I have a second job to do. I hope you don't mind too much."
"Is this about what the Ocean told you?" she asked me.
I stopped dead and stared at her. "How did you know about that?"
"I don't have to know everything to hear something." She smiled and prodded me toward Chinatown. I know when to do as I'm told, so off to shop we went.
As we shopped, Susan and I reviewed the ghost story that we'd been told while we were at the temple. I had a pretty good idea. Susan thought it was dangerous, but she was willing to go along with it.
Afterward, we stopped at the first CVS I saw so I could get the supplies I needed – a back brace, some glitter, aftershave, a six-pack of beer and a baseball cap. Then we headed back to Redondo Beach, to the place we had been told us about.
I had always been a tomboy, but putting on the glamour was harder than I expected. I had to start with the physical aspects – binding my chest with the back brace and adjusting my clothes so they hung right. Susan helped me adjust the brace so that my chest looked flat and not lumpy.
"You have a boyish face, and it'll be mostly dark, so that shouldn't be too hard." Susan watched as I sprayed aftershave on the glitter, mixed it up, and threw it in the air. It sparked down over me and faded, hopefully into a more masculine mien.
I nodded. "I just need her to come out," I said, as much for myself as for her. "Then I can handle her. How do I look?"
"Like a guy, definitely."
Susan drove me down to the beach. "I've been here before. This is actually one of my favorite beaches," she said as we got out of the car. It was a narrow strip of rocky sand and almost entirely deserted. The sand was tightly packed and barely gave way under her shoes and her cane.
I cracked the first bottle of beer and waited. Below me, the Ocean was whispering that I was on the right track, but that was the only sign I had that I was doing this right.
I'd finished the first bottle and was on to the second by the time the girl came up to me – and she really was a girl, probably not more than fifteen or sixteen and still growing into her legs. Or she would have been if she was alive, anyway.
"Hi, there," she said, smiling at me.
"Hey, babe," I replied, trying not to think too hard about the role I was supposed to be playing. I didn't want to overdo it. The alcohol seemed to be helping.
She sidled up to me, flirting hard, and I'll be honest, going along wasn't that hard. She was cute and seemed sweet and fun. We talked a little, and danced a little, and I kissed her a little. She felt much more solid than any ghost I'd ever dealt with.
"Want to go for a swim?" she asked, and my heart raced.
This was what I'd been waiting for, though, so I nodded and smiled. "How about a wade? It's a little chilly." I couldn't take off my shirt.
"Sure," she agreed. I assumed she just wanted to get me down to the water. The sand was hot and damp when I took my sandals off, and she laughed and took my hand. It felt good, running through the water, and I was starting to think that I'd found the wrong girl somehow, that this was a real girl I was going to hurt. What if I was wrong?
She pulled me hard by my arm, and we tumbled into the water. I tried to stand up and she pulled harder. The waves crashed over my head and I didn't hear the Ocean anymore, didn't hear anything but the girl's laugh, saying we could dance and be young forever, couldn't we? Wouldn't I stay? And I swung my arms around, but I couldn't find the surface even though we weren't that far out. My lungs were starting to burn, and I had no air to spare for words or commands.
The edges of my vision turned black and I realized I was going to drown.
I felt the water rushing around me change direction and I was tossed around like a doll. I heard the ghost-girl scream and I wondered what was going on.
The ocean finally parted and deposited me on the shore with a thump. I gasped in air, trying to make up for lost time. It was only after a few seconds that I thought to look up and see what was going on.
Susan stood there on the beach a few feet away, the water curing around her ankles like a loving cat. She held both hands out to the water, with her cane dangling from one wrist, and she was yelling. In the water, I saw the shape of the girl. Her mouth was open and I realized she was still screaming. The water was holding her up, crashing through the air in unnatural patters. It took me a minute to realize Susan was saying words, and another moment to focus enough to hear her.
"-and leave her alone," she finished, bringing her arms down. The ghost's scream cut off abruptly and the ocean water hung where it was for a minute and then collapsed back into normal eddies and waves. Susan twisted her wrist to get the cane back under her and she leaned on it heavily, looking tired. She stood like that for only a minute, though, before she looked toward me and hurried over.
"Are you alright?" she asked, kneeling down as best she could.
I tried to scurry to my feet so she didn't have to. "I'm okay, yeah. I'm breathing. I think I'll be okay."
"For a minute I thought she was going to drown you."
"She almost did." I studied her face. "You saved my life."
And somewhere in there, while I tried to get up and she tried kneel down, I leaned in and surprised myself by kissing her. Time stopped just then, all I could feel was the sand beneath us, cooling off in the sunset, and the feeling of her lips against mine.
I sat back, not sure what I'd just done or how it would be received. Susan leaned back too, and almost fell over. I reached out to stabilize her and she smiled at me.
"I, um. I'm sorry."
"For what?" she asked.
"Was that too forward of me? I think it was probably too much."
"Or bad timing, all things considered."
"It was perfect."
I wondered how I'd not looked at her this way before now. "Well, if you say so."
We stayed there a moment longer, holding hands, and then I shivered hard as the breeze came in off the Pacific.
"We should go back to the hotel," Susan said decisively, and I nodded as I shivered. It wasn't actually that cold, but dripping wet, the wind seemed to go right through my clothes.
We went back up to the car, me leaning on her for support the whole way. I was amazed how weak I could feel though I couldn't have gone more than a few moments without oxygen. Every so often I run up against the fragility of the human body, especially in relation to some of the other creatures I come across in my line of work. This was one of those times.
Susan spread a towel on the passenger seat and made sure I was safely tucked in before she went around to the driver's side and got in. We drove back to the hotel in Anaheim without a word, letting the radio spit pop songs and insurance commercials instead. It was one of the longest drives of my life.
By the time we got back to the hotel, I was feeling less like I might keel over at any moment and more itchy from the sand and the salt.
"Take a shower," Susan told me when we got into the room. "I'll order pizza for dinner."
I did as I was told, dropping the sopping wet t-shirt and shorts on the floor of the hotel bathroom and peeling myself out of the back brace with a groan. It had done the job, but it looked and my shirt both looked pretty torn up from the beating we'd taken in the water. When I looked in the mirror I could see yellow spots where I'd have bruises in the morning. Instead of thinking too much about that, I turned the shower temperature up to just shy of scalding and stepped in. The water stung my skin, especially the raw or bruising parts, but the scalding felt good. I was alive, and glad to be reminded of it.
I used the hotel's shampoo and conditioner to wash most of the sand out of my hair and once I was clean, just let the water run over my body until it got cold. I heard the pizza guy arrive and leave, and the television turned on.
Finally I got out and dried off. I wrapped myself in a towel and hung my sopping wet clothes up to dry.
"That made me a lot more uncomfortable than I expected," Susan said later, as I came out of the bathroom. I noticed she was watching cartoons.
I unwrapped the towel from my head and rubbed my hair with it. "Watching me almost drown, or watching me flirt with her?"
"So what does that mean?"
"What does it mean?"
"You know. The kiss. All that," I gestured, but all I could seem to point at was the pizza, and that wasn't really part of the equation.
Susan shrugged and pulled a slice out. "That's up to you. You know I dated Gwen, so it isn't as if you have to worry that I don't swing your way."
I helped myself to a piece of pizza as well, suddenly realizing that I was starving. "I don't do this a lot. Dating in general, I mean."
"It's hard to find someone who'd understand my career choices, for one thing," I said taking a bite. "And it's hard to find people I like, period. I'm not a very romantic person."
Susan looked at the television and back at me. "There's nothing wrong with that. I don't need a lot of romance or drama in my life. I got more than enough drama with Gwen, really, and as for romance… a little bit will do me."
"So are we dating?" I asked her, feeling awkward.
"If you want to."
And then she pulled me down beside her on the bed and we watched cartoons and ate pizza. I thought I should probably follow up on the decision to date with something romantic or sexual, but nothing came to mind and I passed out almost as soon as I was done eating.
In the morning, I thought I was awakened by the sun pouring through curtains that didn't quite close in the middle. "Oh, good, you're awake." I looked around and saw Jesse in the middle of the room. Of course I couldn't be woken up by something as simple as sunlight. It had to be ghosts. Work hazard.
"Is there a problem? Is Maddy okay?"
"She's… okay," he said, but he hesitated. "She's not quite herself. But she's happier."
"That's good." When he didn't say anything else, I continued. "Did you need something?"
He shook his head. "No, I just thought… well, you got me killed, but you helped me out after, and I got to meet Maddy. And you did help her. So I wanted to do something for you. One of the other ghosts in the Mansion showed me how to get these."
A pair of cards dropped onto the foot of the bed. I leaned forward and picked them up. One-day passes to Disneyland. "Aww, that's sweet of you."
"Yeah, well. Have fun." And then he was gone. I figured there were worse ways to wake up. And then I looked over and saw Susan sleeping beside me, curled up and smiling, and thought that there probably weren't many better ones.