“Extracurricular” by Wm. Mark Simmons
I see dead people.
Not like that kid in The Sixth Sense, where the departed are all noncorporeal and invisible to the rest of the living.
No, when I see the dead, they’ve crawled back out of their graves and show up in all of their decomposed, cadaverous glory.
When I say “glory” in this instance, I mean it ironically.
Over the years they’ve crossed—or shambled across—my path so frequently that I’ve practically developed my own sixth sense that alerts me when they’re nearby. And, when I awoke, my Spidey-sense was providing the backbeat to Ezra Furman’s “Restless Year” on my clock radio.
“Death!” Furman shouted. “Is my former employer!”
I fumbled for the clock. The snooze button and the off buttons seemed to have migrated to unknown destinations. I found the power cord, instead, and gave it a tug.
“I never wanna die and I’ll never grow older . . .”
A second tug killed the indie rock anthem and I heard the shower running, off down the hall.
I glanced at the Fitbit twisted around on my wrist.
Heartrate: 7 beats per minute.
Time: 6:30 p.m.
The sun was officially down and I was officially up.
Here’s the thing: I sleep by day and manage the day-to-day stuff, night-by-night. It’s sort of a requirement when you have a problematic relationship with sunlight.
The sound of the shower running was also problematic as I live alone.
I slipped out of bed and I grabbed a handgun out of the bedside drawer. I eased the magazine into the Glock 19 as softly as I could and chambered a round as I crept to my bedroom door. The locks—plural—were well oiled: I slipped the heavy security bolts with the barest of whispers as the mechanisms shifted within the steel-reinforced, solid core door. The hinges, also regularly lubricated, were even quieter as I eased it open a few inches and considered the evidence.
The hallway light was on.
It had been off when I’d retired, just before sunrise.
The bathroom door, halfway down on the right, was now closed.
I always leave it open when it’s not in use.
In addition to the sound of the shower running, there was a line of light under the door. Which was also burping lazy tendrils of steamy water vapor.
I almost missed all of these details as my attention was, more immediately, drawn to the crumpled dress a foot or so from the door. And the dirt. Mostly the dirt.
A trail of fresh, dark earth traced a path from the back door and the den, down the hall, and up to the bathroom door. Given the amount of muck, stealth-ninjas were off the list of tonight’s home invasion suspects. Ditto werewolves, based on the general configuration of the blurry footprints along the mud path.
Yeah, I said: “werewolves.”
On the Who’s Who of unwelcome visitors in my sad excuse for a life, normal human beings are pretty far down the default list. But, as I was saying, not werewolves this particular night.
There had been no rain for the past week—which is the equivalent of a drought in Louisiana this time of the year. So, the volume of mud and dirt on the carpet suggested whoever was treating my domicile as an Airbnb was most likely one of the dead.
Yeah, I said: “the dead.” We’re back to them.
I used to live just outside of West Monroe in a house on a bluff, overlooking the Ouachita River. It was surrounded on three sides by cemeteries. Maybe a little too goth for your tastes but there was a time I had found the proximity of the dead . . . companionable. Not to mention a handy early-warning system. When the dead are partial to you, their tombstones can be the equivalent of an arcane minefield to forces aligned with the Powers of Darkness.
And yeah, I said: “Powers of Darkness.”
By and large, I get along with most of the dead just fine—aside from their oblivious lack of boundaries, which I’ve detailed elsewhere. Interacting with the living is kind of a big no-no for them. Me? I’m kind of an exemption to the rule. A lot of rules, in fact. So, when the dead go a-walkin’, it’s my door where they’re a-knockin’.
If I’m a little flip on the subject, it’s because ambulatory corpses still tend to unnerve me. My defense mechanism is inappropriate humor.
The Glock is my defense mechanism against the undead and predatory humans. Which have proven to be far more problematic than the occasional zombie needing Yours Truly to assist in adjusting its karma.
I took another look at the trail of dirt and detritus leading to the bathroom door.
Ditto the dress.
Probably not the fanged folk, I decided: my past experiences with their ilk leaned more toward broken down bedroom doors and bloody violence than detours for personal ablutions. Unless I was dealing with a particularly fastidious vampire, the fifteen silver-frag rounds in the Glock’s magazine would be next to useless. I quietly reclosed the door, retraced my steps, returned the handgun to the bedside drawer—there was no way I was tucking that into the elasticized waistband of my boxer briefs. Then I retrieved the baseball bat next to the nightstand.
There are various spells and stratagems for the dis-corporation of the animated dead but I’ve found—by no little trial and error—that the Louisville Slugger tops the list. As I said, I tend to get along with most of your run-of-the-mill zombies just fine. But every so often the dead, just like the living, are going to present you with that statistical anomaly that requires your capacity for violence to be greater than theirs. And killing something that is already dead comes with a built-in set of challenges . . .
I propped the bat on my right shoulder, moved back to the bedroom door, and eased it open all the way.
A pale, ghostly light flickered in the den at the far end of the hallway, suggesting a gathering of spooks and specters. I say “suggesting” because my previous experiences with the departed—outside of one invisible poltergeist—have been limited to the non-glowy, corporeal deceased. My best anticipation of a spectral lightshow would be mostly informed by ancient, Caspar the Friendly Ghost cartoons and the craptastic, horror fare on cable hosted by Svengoolie on Saturday nights.
Don’t give me that look. Snopes.com has been strangely reticent about weighing in on topics like this.
I took a deep breath and began an awkward advance, carefully placing each foot against the opposite wall so as to avoid stepping in the muddy filth taking up the center of the hall. Straddling the trail of dirt, I waddled carefully toward the uncertain light show, easing the bat off of my shoulder and gauging how much swinging room I would actually have if I was braced in the narrow confines of the corridor. At the same time, I was trying to calculate all of the potential variables—numbers, corporeal versus noncorporeal opponents—and psyching myself up for the potential horror show that was about to come into view. Physically, mentally, I wanted to be prepared.
There was a corpse in the den, barely illuminated by the flickering glow of the flat screen TV. A woman, I decided after a moment’s consideration. She was plastered in dirt and decay from head to toe, obscuring features, flesh, and garments. Only her deep-set eyes glittered in the reflected light of the television; everything else was a vague camouflage coating of beige, umber, coffee, russet, charcoal, and burnt sienna. She looked like an amalgamation of all of the crayons in the “brown” section of the Crayola 64-pack.
She swayed hypnotically, comfortably ensconced in my glider-rocking chair. When she didn’t look up, I followed her gaze to the screen where a rerun of Keeping Up with the Kardashians was suggesting that true happiness was somehow connected to unfathomable fashion trends.
Horror takes many forms.
Repressing a shudder, I worked my way back down the hallway to turn off the shower. When the dead come calling, and they’re not hostile, I’ve found it’s best to police the perimeter and make coffee. Revenants, zombies, and animated corpses typically don’t just “pop in for a moment.” I had the feeling I was in for a long night.
The bathroom was foggy with warm vapor from the shower. Which was still occupied. By a blonde. Also, dead. But very attractive—aside from the Y-incision of her autopsy scar. Averting my eyes, I rummaged through the cabinet and left her a big, fluffy towel. Added another to the stack for her hair. My late wife had trained me well.
Next, I vacuumed the carpet before the cemetery earth could settle in any deeper. And picked up the once lovely, backless dress that had been dropped on the way to shower.
Now when I say backless dress, you might imagine a swank piece of couture that would be right at home at some penthouse cocktail party.
Here’s just one of the many things that zombie movies get wrong about the reanimation logistics. Aside from the logistics of rigor mortis—which can kick in four to six hours after death and last another forty-eight to sixty hours post mortem—dressing an unresponsive human body can be challenging. If, as a parent, you’ve ever had to dress an uncooperative five-year-old on a school morning, imagine super-sizing that into a corpse that outweighs you. And you know what they say about dead weight.
It’s very time/labor intensive for just a combined three hours of limited and partial display.
So, the mortician typically cuts a section out of the back of the garment. Sometimes a straight, vertical slit, sometimes removing up to a sizable panel of the material, essentially turning any and all sartorial ensembles into the equivalent of a sleeved blanket. Depending on where you live or shop, they’re marketed under such various identities as the Snuggie, Snuggler, Toasty Wrap, or Slanket. In much the same principle, the mortician’s assistant puts the deceased’s arms through the sleeves of the backless ensemble, tucking the sides around the torso, giving them the appearance of being properly dressed and not actually missing up to a quarter of the original material in the back. It’s a practical approach to dressing the one-and-done who leave this life, never to return.
Not so practical for the occasional escapee from the grave. Just once I’d like to see a zombie movie where the shambling corpses are stumbling about, tangled up in their three-quarter attire.
Or, ew, maybe not.
I was surprised that blondie had been able to retain her dress all the way to my house as the nearest cemetery was a couple of miles away.
While the alterations to the back of her little white, tulle number seemed carefully done, the same could not be said for the hem. It looked like someone had taken a conservatively cut bridal gown and hacked it off at the knees with a butcher knife.
Neither alteration particularly required a professional approach as the back and anything below the waist would be unseen during the viewing. The question was: why would someone take a professional approach to the cut-out in the back and then massacre the lower third of the dress? The latter suggested that either someone had suddenly misplaced their fabric shears or had suddenly given vent to some serious anger issues . . .
I filed that away as food for thought as I returned to my bedroom and picked up my phone. I called the office while rummaging around for two sets of clothing.
“After Dark Investigations,” my former secretary-turned-partner answered on the third ring.
“Olive?” I put her on speaker as I threw on a pair of black jeans and a forest green button-up shirt.
“Mister Chris?” Her voice was soft and surprised; almost a sigh. “How you doin’, baby?”
“Fine . . . fine . . . .” We both knew I wasn’t fine. Hadn’t been fine for a long time. Not likely to ever be fine again.
“What can I do for you?” she asked softly. The kindness in her voice was almost hurtful. I started to feel something after all this time of trying to not feel anything at all. “Any chance you’ll be coming in for a visit?”
“No!” It came out harsher than I meant.” “No,” I repeated, trying for mellow while I was feeling anything but. “Something’s come up.” Yeah, like that covered all the weeks turned into months, turned into something longer, that I had absented myself from work, from friends . . .
“Listen,” I said after an awkward pause. “Can you check the papers? News, internet, any of your sources, and see if there’s some sort of . . .” What? Some sort of what? “Voodoo convention?” Socks were next, then shoes.
“Voodoo convention?” she echoed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Like anything on the radar that might be dead related?”
“Dead related,” she echoed again.
Come on, Olive: work with me here. “Uh, anything that might stir up the deceased? Open graves? Animate corpses?”
“Abra-cadaver?” The arch of her left eyebrow was palpable in her voice. She knew exactly whereof I spoke. Or was familiar with the zip code, anyway.
“Mister Chris, is you all right? Need some intervention?”
I glanced back at the flickering light at the other end of the hall. “No. Not yet, anyway.”
“You certain?” The eyebrow arch had lessened but it was still there.
“Not my first rodeo.”
“Sure,” she said, sounding anything but. “Just the same, you will call me in an hour. If you do not, I will be on your front porch and I will bring reinforcements.”
“Okay, baby,” she said, relenting and slipping back into that tone that conjured memories of a mother that loved me and a life once lived where the only creatures under the bed were dust bunnies. “You be careful now. Don’t get in over your head and try to go it alone.”
I swallowed. “I . . . sure.”
“And call me back or I will make you sorry that you di’nt.”
“Thanks, Olive.” I heard the bathroom door open. “Gotta go. Talk soon.”
She let me hang up first, reminding me that there were people out there that were worried about me. And that I had spent the last couple of years giving them cause to.
The blonde dropped her towel and put on the proffered T-shirt and sweatpants without a word. Right in front of me. I would have averted my eyes a little sooner but something about her torso caught my attention.
No, not that. Or those.
It was her autopsy scars.
The dead don’t heal. The coroner will close the torso, stitching the incisions back up so that things don’t come tumbling out when the body is moved or prepared for the final dispositions. But the Y-shaped autopsy scar is merely the demarcation of parted flesh held in close proximity by the five-cord, waxed polyester, postmortem thread. It’s not a scar like the pale cicatrix of granulated tissue where the flesh has healed together.
Except hers was. Or looked like it. The pale pink lines marking her abnormally white skin looked like freshly healed cuts. Or even scratches. Autopsy incisions tend to be deep and not the least bit cosmetic but these lines were . . .
I looked up at the impossibly blue eyes that were staring back at me.
I say impossibly blue because, after death, the human eyeball—you know what? Let’s just say that there’s a reason why the eyes of the deceased, at all of the funerals you’ve ever attended, are closed. And leave it at that.
But her eyes were clear and bright and far more “alive” than some of the living I’d encountered on my midnight supply runs to Walmart. And her scars looked like the aftermath of a fingernail scratch rather than a number twenty-two scalpel blade.
I turned and marched back into the den, flipped on the lights and turned off the TV. The corpse in the chair was a stark contrast to one down the hall. Whereas Blondie looked like one of those sugar-spun brides atop a confectioner’s wedding cake, fresh scrubbed and almost glowing with youthful health, the brunette was wearing a layer of dirt and detritus like a second skin. That same coating of soil seemed to be keeping her grime encrusted garments more or less in place. It also seemed to mitigate some of the external signs of decomp that set her apart from the not-yet-deceased.
Her sunken eyes glittered up at me. “You are Christopher Cséjthe?” she rasped through atrophied vocal cords.
This is what my reputation had gotten me: nocturnal buttinskis with boundary issues. As usual.
I nodded and she leaned forward in the rocking chair. She gestured at the recliner a few feet away. “Sit,” she said.
I sat. Like a good boy.
Her name was Gwendolyn Hahn. The blonde, that is. The talkative one was Gena Mantz. Gwen had joined us within a few minutes, perching on the settee, and continuing her Marcel Marceau impersonation so Gina just seemed loquacious by comparison.
After a few minutes and a couple of questions I got back up and gestured for her to keep talking while I went on the hunt for a pair of scissors.
The issue, it seemed, was something—and maybe “Something” should be capitalized—was messing around in Beausoleil Cemetery. “Messing with” was the more precise phrase and It—or They—were stirring up the dead. Gwendolyn specifically, Gina and other nearby gravesites tangentially.
“You’re sure Gwen here is the focus?” I yelled, digging through the upstairs kitchen junk drawers.
That’s right, I said: “junk drawers.” Plural.
“Area of effect around sixty feet in a circle with her grave at the epicenter. Whatever it is, drew her up, out of the ground . . .”
“You’re up and out of the ground,” I countered.
“Look at her,” Gina said.
I came halfway down the stairs and leaned down to look at the blonde.
“Now look at me.”
I looked at the brunette.
“According to her grave stone, Gwennie started her dirt nap a couple of months before me,” she continued. So . . .”
“Gotcha.” I went back up the stairs and started fishing around under the kitchen sink. “So, her grave is at the center of what? A circle?”
“Apparently. Various degrees of arousal emanating out from her plot.”
“So how many zombies are on the loose, now?” Shifting a tray of plumbing tools beneath the garbage disposal, I finally managed to find my aquarium scissors.
“Zombies?” she rasped unpleasantly. “That’s offensive. We may be dead, we may be vulnerable to the natural decay that flesh is heir to. But we’re not some horror, sideshow freaks shambling around like somnambulant fiends in search of brains because we don’t have any of our own!”
“Sorry,” I called, rinsing the shears under a stream of hot water. “What appellation would you prefer? Revenant? Visitant?”
“Let’s go with Animate. And, no; we’re the only two up and out of the ground.”
I grabbed a paper towel and wiped down the blades as I came back down the stairs and back into the den.
“Before you ask, she was actually pulled out of the ground against her will. I was awakened but had no such compulsion. I just stuck my head out to see what was going on. I am—or was—wiccan and am a little more sensitive to magical forces . . .”
Over the years I had made my peace with the physics and biologics that produced vampires and lycanthropes. The concept of “magic” was still pretty much the equivalent of a bridge too far in my metaphysical journey. But you can’t exactly argue religion with the reanimated dead. In their case, the power of belief trumps logic as soon as that first hand comes thrusting up, out of the ground.
“Well, let’s see what Gwen can tell us,” I said as I sat next to her on the divan. “Hold still, dear.” I raised the scissors. “Let’s see if we can get you your voice back . . .”
Another thing zombie cinema skips over is the undertaker’s artifice in keeping the deceased’s mouth from gaping open. This is achieved by placing a few stitches through the gums and soft palette. Works great for open caskets, not so great for the freshly resurrected who might have something to say. Gina’s oral tissues had apparently liquefied sufficiently to allow her stitches to pop through. Gwen was still mute.
I gently slipped the elongated and very sharp blades of my old aquarium scissors between the blonde’s pillowy lips and freed her tongue with a few careful snips.
“Better?” I asked.
She nodded wordlessly, as if afraid to try to talk.
I turned to Gina. “So, why me?”
She looked thoughtful. “You’re not afraid of us.”
I snorted. “That’s not true. I’m going to have to rent a Rug Doctor tomorrow. And, no offense,” I added, nodding at the chair she was in, “I’m going to need to get the upholstery attachment, as well.”
“You’ve helped others like us.”
“The water heater has had time to recycle and I have more towels, if that’s what you’re hoping for.”
They stared at me like I was some kind of moron.
I really hate that look.
“Look,” Gina said, speaking with an exaggerated air of patience, suggesting that she was dangerously close to running out of same. “Something is messing with the Laws of God and Man. Over the past two nights, some kind of power is being focused on her grave and it’s stirring up the dead in the plots surrounding hers. She needs your help!”
I raised my hands. “What kind of help? Filing a police report?”
Both zom—animates—shook their heads.
“The police can’t do anything,” Gina said. “She’s already dead. And the forces at work here are beyond their understanding. They can’t protect her! It would just complicate things.”
“I don’t do ‘protection,’” I said. “I’m a private investigator.” Was a private investigator. Half owner of After Dark Investigations now where Olive Perdue did all the work and I just stayed all bunkered up in my house and did as little as possible while waiting for . . .
One of New York’s vampire hit squads to finally put me out of my . . . ennui?
“Well, then,” Gina said, “investigate! Find out what’s going on and put a stop to it!”
“You said something about magic. I don’t do magic,” I said stubbornly. “You’re the wiccan.”
“Was the wiccan,” she snapped. “And I have no experience with this kind of thaumaturgy. I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole!”
“But you want me to?” I sighed and we all spent a minute looking anywhere but at each other.
I was so busy trying to act like I didn’t know what they really wanted that I’d missed a couple of cues. “Hold on! It sounds like you actually know what this is.” I gave her my best and most intimidating side-eye. “What is it?”
She looked at Gwen who was still silent but her agitation was practically a shout. Finally, she whispered: “Necromancy.”
My first impulse was to call Kurt in New York. But I’d changed phones and phone numbers, not to mention houses, trying to cut myself off from the presumed responsibilities that I owed the East Coast Demesne. Oh, I knew that they would have no trouble tracking me down if they really wanted to find me. But I’d made the token gestures of severing ties so ringing them up for information or favors was not going to play well. Not if I were to continue living at some remove.
I stepped back down the hall and dialed Mama Samm D’Arbonne, juju woman extraordinaire.
She answered on the sixth ring.
“Mister Chris. Why you interrupting my beauty sleep at dis hour?” Her voice wasn’t cranky but I stood up a little straighter, anyway.
“How are you—” I started. I hadn’t seen her since the whole Cthulhu business with Marie Laveau, Rasputin, and Captain Nemo in the underwater battle for New Orleans.
She cut me off. “I don’ think it’s a good idea for me be talking to you, even over de phone. Dose pheromones of yours—”
“What?” I yelped. “No! No pheromones! The pheromones are gone. For a long time now. Likewise, the nanobots. The EMP from Squidley’s pandimensional translocation nuked their teeny asses!”
“Make it short, den,” she grumped. “If I even tink I might feel some kind of subharmonic coming tru de speaker, I’m hanging up an’ treating dis number like a robo-spammer.”
I couldn’t believe she could still carry a grudge after all this time. Especially since it wasn’t even my fau—
“Tick tock, Cséjthe.”
“I’ve got a little problem,” I started.
“Are you still traveling all over de world trying to rebuild a lifetime’s accumulation of mana that you spent all in one day battling de forces of evil?”
“Well . . . no . . . but . . .”
“Good. Den you really just have a leetle problem, unlike some of de rest of us . . .”
“I may have a rogue necromancer in my back yard,” I said hurriedly.
“A . . . necromancer?” she asked.
“Mister Chris, what you know about necromancy?”
“Nothing, really. Something to do with raising the dead?”
“Necromancy is death magic, cher! You say anything about dis to your pet vampires, yet?”
I swallowed. “You know that they’d kill me if they heard you say that. And then kill you.”
“Pfft! You say necromancer to any of de undead an’ dey’ll cut you a wide berth. Though dey might hire human assassins to kill you so you’re no longer a conduit to any of dey bidness. Lissen to me, necromancers don’ just raise de dead, dey have de power to control dem. To make dem do things against deir will. A necromancer could make an undead kill deir sire. Or walk out into de sunlight. Sort of like when you bloodwalk only necromancers do it by remote control. I don’t know if necromancy would work on you, being what you is, but you do not want to go anywhere near dat.”
“Well,” I said, “some of that is already in my house as we’re speaking.”
“Putain!” she hissed. Followed by something, something, and ending in: “être dans la merde jusqu’au cou!”
“No,” I said. “The necromancer isn’t here.” At least I hoped he wasn’t. “Just one of his victims.” A thought occurred. “Can he trace his victims if they leave the graveyard?”
“Necromancy is not one of my disciplines.” Her voice was subdued. That frightened me more than anything. “I don’ know de answer to dat. Probably not right away. It depend on how powerful your sorcerer is. You may have a day or maybe two. Longer if you’re dealing wit’ a novice. But you shouldn’t take any chances. Arm yourself. An’ get out of town. Take a long vacation, far away. If your necromancer show up before you can get away, kill him. Tell de police it was self-defense.”
“What about his target? I can’t abandon her.”
“Ah coo-yon! Of course it be a woman! Lissen to me, Mister Chris! I would come an’ help you with dis if I could but I’m at de Grotto of Lourdes.”
“You’re in France?”
“No. South America. De grotto is outside Puerto Deseado. It’s all de way down in de Santa Cruz Province of Argentina. Dere’s no way I could get to an airport an’ den to you in time to be of any help.”’
“Just looking for advice. Anything you might know that could be helpful.”
She sighed. “Okay. Here is my advice based on the circumstances an’ all of my years of study an’ experiences in dealing with death magic an’ dese kinds of t’ings. Lissen very carefully.” She paused.
I waited. There was a distant, high-pitched “singing” as if the sound of a strong wind blowing against tautly stretched telephone lines.
“Are you paying close attention?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” I half meant it to sound a little snarky but I sounded sincere. And was more than a little surprised to find that I was.
“Listen to me, cher; whoever dis woman is, she is already dead. She has lived her life. Maybe things did not turn out de way she hoped. Or wanted. Whose life does? You hear me, mon ange? What happens next is not de same t’ing as trying to help de living. You need to t’ink about you, now, you. Get out as fast as you can!” She paused. “You are not lissning to a word I’m saying, now are you?”
I was listening. But I was also thinking about Lupe and Deirdre and my extended family who were beyond my reach in the Realm of the Fae. There were worse things than going down swinging. And everything I’d done since Hurricane Eibon and the resetting of Eternity’s clock was nothing more than marking time. With no discernable goal before me other than waiting . . .
“Gotta go,” I said. And broke the connection.
Gena was gone when I returned.
Gwen sat in a sturdy kitchen chair in the middle of the den, numerous coils of rope and bungee cords from the garage looped tightly around her torso and the chair’s seat and back. Her legs were pulled back and bound to the outside of the back legs of the chair and her arms tied behind the seat and lower support in a manner to deny her any leverage in moving about.
Every time I think my dealings with the dead can’t get any weirder . . .
There was a note (of course there was) with a corner tucked under the top loop of cord that encompassed my new client’s upper chest.
(people misspell my name almost as often as they mispronounce it),
No one else knows I brought her here. Which is not to say that others in Beausoleil might make an educated guess if questioned. I’ll be somewhere off in the woods until this is resolved. Good luck.
BTW: I’ll leave the sleuthing to you but you might ask yourself this: Do you think Gwen’s ex was too old for her?
“How about we get you out of those ropes?” I asked, moving around behind her.
“No!” she practically shrieked. “I mean . . . not until sunrise.”
A light went on in the broom closet of my brain. “You were drawn out of your grave by some kind of power that you were helpless to resist.”
“That same power could compel you against your will now that you’re out of the ground.”
“And the compulsion only comes at night?”
“Around midnight,” she said in a small voice.
Of course, it does. “Okay, Ms. Hahn . . .”
I had a nubile blonde tied to a chair in my den. Willing and even desperate to be tied up, alone, with a perfect stranger. Yeah, let’s keep the tone as professional as possible.
“I’m going to ask you a series of questions,” I continued, “some of them personal. I need you to be completely honest in your answers if you want me to help you. Anything you tell me will be held in the strictest confidence. Client privilege, if you will.”
“Okay,” she said. In a little girl voice.
Cliché, I asked myself, or trope?
“Have you ever had any dealings with covens, cults, religious-type organizations that would practice any type of thaumaturgy—”
“Magic. Black magic or any other color of the supernatural spectrum?”
“No. I stopped going to church a long time ago.”
“’Kay. Do you know of anyone who would wish you harm?”
She hesitated and I was reminded of the first axiom of the P.I. playbook: clients always lie. Or, at the very least, hedge.
Everyone has secrets. They don’t have to be deep and dark or sinister. But everyone has them. And hiring someone to look into anything that even borders on one’s affairs is an uncomfortable violation of one’s perceived boundaries.
Unfortunately, I was not any kind of an expert on the sort of things that reanimate the dead and pull them out of their graves. Beyond the fact that they seemed to turn up on my doorstep far more often than was reasonable, that is. What I could do, however, was dig down for the identity of our presumed necromancer and what might motivate him. Or her, as I had no real evidence to determine gender, yet, and didn’t want to be sexist.
“My . . . ex . . .” she said reluctantly.
“Ex . . . husband? Ex . . . boyfriend?” Ex . . . girlfriend? Cséjthe, you old-fashioned, sexist prig . . .
“Husband,” she answered.
“Divorced?” She sounded unsure. “We were separated. Maybe six months. The divorce was in the works but wasn’t finalized before I . . .”
“Before you died?”
“Yes,” she said softly. A tear whispered down her cheek.
“Was he ever violent?”
She stared out at the darkness beyond the sliding glass door to the back yard. “A . . . couple . . . of times.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“Not in any way that I didn’t deserve,” she said, her voice stronger now.
“Ms. Hahn. Gwendolyn. You are . . .” Were? “ . . . a young woman. May I ask how you died?”
She stared at the floor now. “Are you asking me if I was murdered?” Now the tears dropped with a disconcerting regularity. “I was turned out of my home. I had lost my job. All of my friends were his so, of course, I ended up having no friends. I was weak, I suppose. I died by my own hand. Pills.”
I understood her reticence now. For someone seeking refuge and protection she seemed pretty closemouthed about her former life. But a nasty divorce that led to suicide meant she barely had time to process her grief, anger, and shame before reawakening to an existence of terror.
The dead don’t like to talk about death. I’d learned that much in all of my half-assed dealings with the revenants that turned up on my doorstep over the years. With all the resources that had accumulated since my own demise—or demises, plural, as there was some debate over my actual post-mortem status—I still knew very little about the veracity of religious accounts of the afterlife. Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? Limbo? Sartre’s sitting room? I don’t know if the dead came back with selective amnesia or they just didn’t want to talk about it. As a suicide, Gwendolyn Hahn might have spent the past six months in a special level of Perdition, suffering the tortures of the damned—as suggested by certain sects that worshipped a supposedly benevolent deity. I could see why anything around this particular subject and/or timeline would be a touchy subject for her.
“I’m sorry to ask these questions,” I told her. “But I’m not some sort of magic savant. I’m pretty much agnostic on the subject. What I am—” was, my inner voice corrected “—is a private investigator. I look for clues, patterns, motives. I ask questions. Facts are important. You may not think that a piece of information is important but you need to let me decide whether it is or isn’t. Do not filter or hold back. I apologize if my snooping around makes you uncomfortable but this is how it works.” I reached out and cupped her cheek. “No judgement. All right?”
Her cheek was still warm from the shower and her eyes, bright and luminous from her recent storm of tears, gazed up at me with a mix of sorrow and heartbreaking hope.
“Thank you, Mr. Cséjthe.”
“Chris,” I said.
She smiled. “Gwen.”
“Okay,” I said. “Now, what is your husband’s name and where does he live?”
I didn’t like leaving her tied up and alone in my house but I had a limited amount of time before the next sunrise. And, unless I wanted to ask Olive to interview the primary suspect, I needed to catch him before the hour grew late.
But first I made a detour to the public library.
I’d run a quick check on my Amazon app for books on the subject of death magic—serious reference works as opposed to New Age twaddle or so-called fictional entertainments. Sadly, there was nothing of any import available for immediate download in the Kindle format. Not even a Necromancy for Dummies—which was surprising given the lucrative nature of the “Dummy” demographic.
Various versions of the Necronomicon ranged from “serious” attempts to recreate Lovecraft’s fictional monograph to fannish spoofs of the iconic Book of the Dead.
And then there were a few, antiquated, out-of-print, dead-tree tomes purporting to be actual grimoires available from third-party sellers. Legitimate or not, the delivery times ranged from a week to a month for the more promising ones.
Driving down to New Orleans to browse some of their more “interesting” used bookstores would involve some serious prep-work, including high-powered ordnance and body-armor.
So, the local library was probably my best bet for the moment. I just had to get there before closing time. I made it with twenty minutes to spare. But, as it turned out, I was a month too late.
Someone had checked out the four most promising tomes: Necromantic Sorcery: the Forbidden Rites of Death Magick, An Encyclopædia of Occultism, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds—A Collection of Ancient Texts (2nd edition), Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe (New edition), and De Nigromancia.
If you think that kind of esoterica is surprising in a public library, you should see how many Louisiana library shelves are dedicated to just Voodoo, alone.
It was closing time and the librarian would only tell me that the books had been checked out a month ago, had all been renewed a week ago, and that the patron could renew them in another two weeks for three weeks beyond that, if they wished. I could be waiting another five weeks if our dark arts enthusiast was so motivated.
So, who had decided to take a crash course on raising the dead? I was standing in an institution that believed in making vast amounts of information open and available to the general public. They just didn’t believe in making that specific piece of information available to me.
I leaned across the check-out desk and asked my obstinate bibliothecary to look deep into my eyes . . .
I’ve never been very good at the mind-control, bend-you-to-my-will, power that all the Dracula movies like to unpack before the first commercial break. Chalk it up to me not being fully undead. Almost, but not quite, the vampire. Never grew the obligatory fangs. Don’t sparkle . . . but then I never met a vampire that did. Except for that one time at La Cage aux Folles down in New Orleans during Mardi Gras . . .
Anyway, a couple of minutes and three “shushes” later I was headed back out to my car with the name “Michael Guidry” on a slip of paper in my pocket. In the parking lot I started my car and pulled out my phone. I ran Guidry’s name through a couple of directory search engines. Guidry was not an uncommon name for the Ouachita Parish area. But there were no street addresses for a Michael Guidry listed in a one-hundred-mile radius.
The name yielded one cell phone number with the same area code but, when I called, it was no longer in service.
So. Was Michael Guidry a fake identity? The cell number a burner phone that had since been discarded? Was Michael Guidry actually Harold Hahn, Gwendolyn’s ex-husband?
I didn’t know that and I didn’t know what time he turned in for the night so I put my car in gear and drove across town.
Harold Hahn lived in a Craftsman-style house nearing the century mark. Its squat silhouette, wide eaves and triangular brackets matched most of the architecture on the block with only the unfinished wood planks of a fairly new privacy fence setting it apart from the neighbors. The porch was roomy with stone supports, a pair of square columns holding up the extended roof with a row of exposed beams. The streetlight was old and at some remove and the porchlight was off. A dim lamp in the living room gave the impression that no one was home. The driveway was empty but the car could have been inside the detached garage.
The area was mostly dark with only a couple of porchlights glimmering down the street. It was 9:28 so either the neighbors were elderly and turned in for the night or young, still out-and-about. A waxing, crescent moon was on the rise, giving me just enough illumination to see that the yard was a bit unkempt and neglected. What did that tell me? That the man who had physically abused his wife and kicked her out of the house, got his friends to shun her and may have driven her to take her own life . . . was what? A brute and a slob? I really didn’t have enough info to build much of a profile, yet. And, to be fair, this time of the year you almost had to mow your lawn twice a week to keep up with the overgrowth. I swear, you can sit out on the patio and watch the grass grow like some kind of botany film that utilizes time-lapse motion-capture.
And clients always lie, whispered that voice in the back of my head.
I shook my head as I walked up to the front porch. It was too early to get a read on anything, yet. Everything felt hinky so far because, well . . . necromancer. Right?
I tiptoed up the three steps to the concrete porch. A peek through the windows, I thought. No old, creaky wood to alert anyone inside. But maybe Mr. Hahn was curled up on the sofa with an ex-mistress/new fiancée. Wouldn’t hurt to see what anyone walking up to the front door would see anyway. No sneaking around the back of the house or peeking in a bedroom window. Just an innocuous glimpse and maybe there’s something to give me a better idea of Harry Hahn before I dug into his background for any anomalies.
A few steps from the front door I leaned to my right and craned my neck to get a better look through the large picture window. The interior of the house was quiet.
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t: a dun colored pit bull suddenly attacked the window from the inside, barking furiously and scrabbling at the glass as if he had been starved for a week and I was a choice cut of sirloin.
I ducked to the left but the porchlight was suddenly on. I quickly raised my right fist as if I were about to knock. The inner door flew open. Magically, the pit bull seemed to teleport to the front entrance and was now trying to tear through the glass of the storm door to get to me. A hand grabbed the dog’s studded collar, pulling him back from the door and holding him in place. The animal calmed somewhat but continued to bark at me: more professional guard dog, less unhinged, furry buzz saw.
“What do you want?” asked a surly voice.
I looked up at a slender man who couldn’t have seen his thirtieth birthday, yet. So much for the older husband, younger trophy-wife cliché. He had unkept brown hair that was just beginning to thin in conformance with emerging male pattern baldness. He was slight of build, though wiry looking. His face was unremarkable but for the bruised look around his eyes and a tightening of his lips that exuded a sour vibe that matched his voice.
I pulled out my wallet with my P.I license. “Christopher L. Cséjthe,” I said. “I’m a private investigator.”
Something seemed to move behind his eyes but the light was too uncertain for more than the barest of impressions.
“What’s this about?” he asked suspiciously.
The dog continued to bark reflexively and he made no effort to quiet it.
“May I come in?” I asked.
He gave it all the thought contained in a single eyeblink.
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m looking into the possibility that your wife—”
“Ex-wife,” he snapped. “Deceased.”
“Yes,” I said, “well . . . there may be an insurance policy—”
“Not mine,” he said, edging toward a dangerous unpleasantness as he kept cutting me off. “If it’s hers, I’m not interested.”
“Well, I don’t know if your ex-wife is the Gwendolyn Hahn on this particular policy. That’s what I’ve been hired to find out.”
“Not my problem.”
“I don’t know all of the particulars, Mr. Hahn, but there could be a great deal of money in it for you.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want it.”
I opened my mouth again but he opened the outer door first and leaned toward me. The dog lunged forward but he managed to keep it under control for the moment.
“Look,” he snarled, a slow-rolling wave of beer fumes breaking over my face. “I thought I was done talking to you people after the inquest. Let me say this just one . . . more . . . time. I want nothing to do with anything regarding my ex-wife. I didn’t then. And I certainly don’t now. She’s dead. And we were done well before that happened. The only money related to her that I care about now is the money I’m going to spend to have my last name chiseled off of her headstone. Once her mother is dead and can’t interfere, I’ll pay to put her maiden name on her grave and that truly will be the end of it. Now get off of my property!”
I caught the outer door before he could close it completely. “One last question, Mr. Hahn. Do you know a Michael Guidry?”
He froze for a long moment and the color literally drained out of his face.
And then both doors were slammed in my face in quick succession and the porchlight flicked off. I stood there in the dark for another fifteen seconds and pulled my phone out and called Olive as I turned and walked back to my car. I asked her to get me a copy of the divorce filing tomorrow if it wasn’t sealed and to try to get it even if it was.
Even better than her courthouse connections, I asked her to reach out to her social network for any juicy gossip that had to be out there, somewhere, for a divorce/suicide that had so much acrimony trumping alimony.
I had parked four houses up from the Hahn residence so I sat there in the dark and considered what I knew, so far.
Gwendolyn Hahn had committed suicide after the failure of her marriage and the loss of her friends. Her husband clearly had anger issues and seemed to bear her great enmity. She had confirmed to me that the white dress she “woke up” wearing was, indeed, her wedding dress—minus the lower half of her skirt and train. Who provides the funeral home with the outfits worn by the deceased? The family or spouse. My money was on Harry handing over the wedding dress after he’d hacked off the bottom third.
Definitely anger issues . . .
The man had been drinking—which might have meant nothing in itself other than to exaggerate his anger issues—but he said he was about to go back out, late in the evening. Given that his oral cologne would probably blow a breathalyzer’s internal circuitry, it suggested judgement issues, as well.
All of these little things, along with the lazy lawncare issues, didn’t necessarily add up anything particularly sinister. And nothing specifically suggested that I had been in the presence of a man capable of raising the dead. But, then maybe he had changed out of his sorcerer’s robes before answering the door.
I say that with only a modicum of irony.
Another quarter of an hour passed before Hahn emerged from his house. He was going out but he wasn’t driving. A car had pulled up to the curb in front of his house. Not a cab. Uber? Lyft? Lover? Co-conspirator? Necromancing ride-share service? I picked up my binoculars from the passenger seat and made a note of the license plate and then the car. It was a late model Toyota Prius. Probably powder blue but the darkness flattened its daytime color out into a nocturnal gray. The oddly configured taillights looked like a “Z” morphing into a boomerang. Or vice-versa. This was a lucky break as they would stand out in a veritable sea of taillights, enabling me to follow at some remove without losing them. Or so I hoped.
I waited until Harry’s wheels made a right turn at the end of the block before starting my car and giving “chase.”
Traffic was relatively sparse so I had to hang back for a few blocks until they pulled onto I-20, headed west. A few bypassed exits indicated that Beausoleil Cemetery was not on the immediate destination list.
We left the environs of Monroe, Louisiana, behind but traffic on the interstate was robust enough that I could close the gap a little bit without standing out in the rearview mirror. As I drove, I had to remind myself that my sleuthing skills had grown decidedly rusty over the past several years.
If I were being honest, I’d say that all of my life skills were in need of a generous application of WD-40.
Around ten miles out we left the Interstate and took a parallel route on US 80. Now the traffic dropped off and things got trickier. Had I been made? Before I knew it, we were slowing down and entering Calhoun, a town whose population fluctuated around the two-thousand mark. Easier to stand out now, but the darkness could continue to be my friend if I played my cards right.
While not as strong or as fast or as preternaturally enhanced as an actual vampire, one of the dark gifts that I “enjoyed” was the ability to see into the infra-red spectrum.
And, yes, I said “vampire.”
If we moved any deeper onto the back roads, I could flip a switch, killing all of the car’s running lights, interior and exterior, and continue driving in dark mode, the road still visible as a ribbon of darkening red, its cooling heat signature still a high contrast to the vegetative matter bordering its asphalt lanes and gravel roughened shoulders. Anything warm-blooded would be more clearly seen than if I drove with my high-beams on.
But the Prius continued through downtown Calhoun, which meant keeping the headlights on rather than draw the unwanted attention of the local constabulary. Meandering down the main drag, now, I had to drop even further back as each successive streetlight painted my Chevy Equinox like an aiming laser acquiring a target. A sheriff’s patrol car suddenly merged onto main street ahead of me. I focused on being extra-uninteresting to the authorities who probably had a mental database of all of the resident vehicles that would be out this time of night.
So, I almost missed the Toyota’s turn up Calhoun Road. They were headed north now, up past an Exxon station and the Kuntry Korner Market.
And then they pulled into the parking lot of a local bar.
I drove past as unobtrusively as possible, observing Mr. Hahn exiting the car in my rearview mirror as I continued on down the road. My first, best chance came a little way ahead, where Easy Street to my left became LA-151 to my right. A little maneuvering and I was back around to the bar, again.
The parking lot was half full and a neon-lined sign said: “Deriso’s.” No sign of Hahn or the Prius.
The natural assumption was that Gwen’s ex had continued on into the bar and his Uber/Lyft/ride-share had dropped him off and continued on its merry way.
There was no way to be sure without getting out of my car and going in to check. Which was risky in that it increased the chance that he would see me and then I’d be on his radar for the foreseeable future. I did not fancy conducting future surveillance by wearing wigs and fake beards while driving rental cars. I could just sit in my car, in the parking lot, until he came out. But unless he came back out with his arm thrown around the shoulders of a potential co-conspirator/necromancer-for-hire type, I might only assume he had come all the way out here to drink. Alone.
Unless he was meeting his girlfriend/lover/fiancée here so no one he knew would know that he . . . what? Had moved on from a bad marriage? Maybe his girlfriend/lover/fiancée lived in Calhoun and it was just easier for him to come out here to hook up . . .
Maybe the marriage had collapsed because he had a mid-life epiphany and realized that he was gay. Or bi. And that he wasn’t ready to come out to his family, friends, and/or co-workers yet so he came out here to meet his boyfriend/lover/fiancé . . .
I felt like I was grasping at straws.
I got out of my car and walked across the graveled lot to the doors on a route that would take me out of the sight-lines of the front windows.
The main entrance consisted of a pair of matched, wooden doors. A square pane of glass in each, tilted point-down, diamond-like allowed a limited view of the bar’s interior without actually entering. I did a cursory scan of the layout and immediately picked out Harold Hahn. He was sitting at the bar. Alone. Check that: the stools on either side of him were occupied. But the occupants were clearly engaged with other patrons seated on their adjacent stools.
In the midst of the crowd, Hahn looked very much alone.
And he still wasn’t wearing his necromancy robes.
See what I did there? Still being cautiously ironical.
But while Hahn was still a riddle trapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, while not wrapped in the sartorial trappings of a mage who raised the dead . . . he didn’t feel quite right for the part. His head came up from his drink to stare at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. I ducked back from the door’s glass insert and retreated back to my vehicle before he could catch a reflected glimpse of me.
If he could catch a reflected glimpse of me. The whole “not seeing myself in mirrors” issue was theoretically a subconscious projection that took place within an area of effect. But I didn’t know the range and I hadn’t looked at my own reflection in years. Discretion was the better part of valor. Or stupidity.
I didn’t get the vibe that he was actually expecting to meet someone here. Michael Guidry or anyone else. And it was unlikely that he would be performing any arcane rituals in Deriso’s. Unless the bar was a cover for an actual coven. Sounds stupid, right? But I was pretty sure I’d seen a movie with this very plotline on the USA Network. Or maybe the SyFy Channel.
Maybe I should just burn my P.I. license.
I started my car and headed back to West Monroe and home.
Maybe I could task one of our independent contractors to tail Hahn tomorrow. Right now, it was getting close to midnight and I had to decide whether to check on my BDSM houseguest or stake out the cemetery.
I opted for the third choice. I was able to push the speed limit on the return trip and I was back at Hahn’s house in less than twenty minutes. I parked around the corner and grabbed a navy-blue hoodie out of the back seat. My cellphone was in my pocket if I needed any additional light but my enhanced night vision was more than serviceable as I exited the car and made my way up the back alleyway to the rear of Hahn’s property.
Again, not as strong nor as fast as a vampire but I was still able to pull a standing high jump to the top of my suspect’s privacy fence—even though it felt like a bit more than the six-foot height limit mandated by the zoning ordinances. As graceful as my ascent was, I caught the hem of my hoodie on a bush as I jumped down into the back yard. Stumbling to my knees, I was suddenly confronted by the pit bull that had tried to claw his way through a window and a door to get to me on my prior visit.
In the eight seconds it had taken the beast to awaken to my intrusion, spring to his feet, and come rushing across the grass to presumably bite my face off, several things happened. First, my augmented hypothalamus boosted a series combat messages to my adrenal glands (and maybe some glands not in the anatomy books thanks to the mutagenic virus in my body). Which fired up all of my serosanguinous chemistry sets. Tyrosine amino acids blasted out a sequence of dopamine in oxygenated combinates that yielded noradrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol. These are the ordinary building blocks of adrenaline and mine had been weaponized, thanks to a sloppy blood transfusion with a centuries-old hemovore awhile back. I didn’t know what other chemicals might have been introduced to my still transforming physiology but it was like getting a dose of Captain America’s super soldier serum.
So, maybe two seconds in, I have the adrenaline analogs binding to the receptors on my heart, arteries, pancreas, liver, muscles and fatty tissue. In the meantime, my brain was dealing with stress hormones which were causing my hippocampus to contract and stimulating the production of IL-1 beta, a signaling molecule, that was simultaneously binding to sites in my hypothalamus, pituitary, and hippocampus. My whole limbic system was flipping switches on my neurotransmitters, kicking them up to warp speed and performing complex juggling acts with adrenergic and noradrenergic neurons. And my amygdala was adapting previous threat templates to match my new circumstance.
By the time Fido arrived I had little difficulty in overmatching his speed and canine strength. I grabbed him by the throat and carefully delivered a punch that sent him to doggie dreamland rather than fully euthanizing him.
I got to my feet and brushed myself off. Unharmed but now in need of a drink. Unfortunately, the blood banks were closed and my own, private supply was back home in the fridge.
I made my way over to the back door, bent at the waist, and listened for any sound of a busybody or the neighborhood watch. Nothing, so far: maybe Lady Luck was in my corner.
I tried the back door. I wasn’t really up for a B & E, just whatever I could peep at through the available windows. Even second floor if necessary, though that would put me in the sight lines of the neighbors.
The back door was unlocked.
I guess Hahn wasn’t worried about back yard security with a two-meter privacy perimeter and a slavering hellhound on patrol. I checked the door for alarms or a security system but it was just old-school Schlage deadbolts and single-cylinder knob set. I didn’t have to pick either lock to be stealthy. Lady Luck wasn’t just smiling, she was blowing kisses and giving me come-hither glances.
“What’s that?” I murmured. “Did I hear the sounds of someone in distress?”
I crossed the threshold.
I did a quick, cursory search of the house, careful to not disturb anything. If Hahn returned or the neighbors called the cops, saying I found the back door open or thought someone inside had—er—fallen and couldn’t get up, well that wasn’t going to cut any ice on Trespassing charges. And opening an unlocked door was still considered Breaking and Entering. At least the latter of the two.
So, I conducted a fairly quick walk-through. No hidden dungeons in the basement. No ceremonial robes in the closets. No arcane paraphernalia in the attic. No pictures of the Ex anywhere in the house.
If he harbored the slightest fondness for his former spouse, he was hiding it well.
But there were no overt signs of hostility or “deathless” obsession, either.
I finally found the paperwork for the Hahn’s divorce tucked away in a desk drawer on the second floor. I had to read it by the light of my phone as documents read like paint swatches in the infra-red spectrum.
I was tempted to take pictures of each page but, again: second floor, clear sightlines for the neighbors. Taking pictures with a flash in a dark room was way more of an attention getter than the soft glow of a hand-shielded phone screen to skim a document.
Despite the legalese, the gist was rather succinct. It was a No-Fault divorce. Or, at least Hahn anticipated no resistance from his wife. No specifics, just the boilerplate triad: Irreconcilable Differences . . . Incompatibility . . . Irretrievable Breakdown.
Wow, that really helped. Again, note ironical tone, here.
I replaced the papers and slipped back out of the house before that fickle Fräulein, Lady Luck, decided to Bobbitt me.
Fido was starting to rouse so I figured everything might look pretty normal by the time his lord and master returned from his presumed pub crawl. I sailed back over the fence and tried to walk unobtrusively back down the alleyway to my car. As far as I could see, no one was out and about.
Maybe I should move back across the river to this neighborhood . . .
I considered a trip to the cemetery next but it was after midnight and I was getting really thirsty now.
That could be problematic. Not because being thirsty makes me dangerous. But because being thirsty makes me stupid.
And that’s dangerous.
I was beginning to realize how much my detecting skills had eroded from lack of use over the past couple of years. Throw an unexpected case into my lap with an unsub that spooks a dead wiccan, a battle-tested voudoun mambo, and makes vampires crap their pants? I was already in over my head so being stupid would make “dangerous” look like a walk in the park.
Exhibit Number One: I returned to my house to discover that Gwen had destroyed half of my den in trying to respond to her latest summons.
She lay on the floor, still bound to the remains of the formerly sturdy chair. It had been snapped in half where the back met the seat and the legs were a bundle of kindling wrapped in the remains of the bungee cord. The curtains next to the sliding back-door to the patio had been torn down and half-shredded. The rocker was overturned and an armrest broken off. The couch was where I’d left it but its cushions were scattered across the room. The wall-mounted flat-screen now hung from its moorings at a canted angle.
As for the person at the center of this wheel of destruction? The T-shirt and sweatpants she wore were now ripped and torn where she had twisted and writhed against the ropes and the material bore additional evidence of dried sweat and not-quite-dry heaves. She was wild-eyed and still panting, though the fury of the compulsion seemed to have left her.
She shrieked and struggled anew when I started to untie her. Then she clung to me like a drowning woman in the middle of the ocean, weeping incoherently until she was exhausted once more.
I held her trembling body next to mine, distracted by her warmth. While not human-normal, she was warmer than me, now. All of my previous encounters with the animated dead were with bodies that retained the cold and lifeless sensations of a corpse, indistinguishable from the bodies down at the morgue save for their ability to move and speak. Maybe I was seeing the difference between an Animate and a truly resurrected human body.
Distracted as I was, I didn’t realize she was pulling my face down to hers until I felt her lips on mine. The kiss was tentative, uncertain, and I started to pull away but then her mouth became insistent. Desperate.
My body wanted to respond. It had been such a long time and my mind was slow to come out of the fog of thirst and need and forgetfulness. She was traumatized. Was it worse to permit a modicum of affection? Or push her away when she had already lost everything. Including her life and the right to her own body after death?
I kissed her back. Tenderly. Resisting the demands that her mouth was making on mine. I thought of my own moral compass and tried to parse the difference between what was being right and what was being kind. Were they incompatible?
And I thought of Lupe. And Deirdre. And how they were not dead and gone like my wife and daughter but were merely out of reach on this plane. For now. When I was finally able to figure out a way to cross the barrier and get to them, I couldn’t in all good conscience treat our forced parting as a “time-out” for seeing others. I owed them everything.
Gwen was just a client.
A frightened and vulnerable woman but I owed her nothing beyond the truth and my best efforts to free her from the malevolence that was stalking her.
As if she were reading my mind, she pulled back and gave me a tremulous smile.
“I think I’m going to need another shower,” she said softly.
While she was in the bathroom, freshening up, I went to the refrigerator inside my safe room and quickly consumed a couple of blood bags, taking the edge off. Then I called Olive back and tasked her with running down the Michael Guidry connection from the library. I wasn’t totally passing the buck. I’d still look into what I could from my end but I felt it best to have two pairs of eyes on this. I still felt off-balance about this whole case and wondered if there wasn’t something to the idea that a necromancer’s power over dead flesh might have some effect on mine, as well.
I felt underslept.
Ever since Hurricane Eibon and the loss of everyone I’d held dear through an interdimensional escape hatch to the Realm of the Fae, I’d been plagued by dreams. Dreams of my extended family. Dreams of the people I loved.
At first, they were nightmarish in that I could see them and hear them but not actually touch them. I would sleep fitfully and rise, physically and emotionally drained, haunted by my inability to cross the divide that separated us. Every plan, every effort since then had been thwarted and I had lived each night since with the taste of ashes in my mouth.
More recently my dreams had become increasingly disturbing. Not in their frequency or intensity but for the very opposite reasons.
They were starting to fade.
Not just my psychic connection to the others. But, in those declining phantasms between sleep and wakefulness, I could sense their withdrawal, as well. Human memory, it is said, retreats as one dwells among the Faerie. Trapped by forces beyond their powers to overcome, they were starting to forget me.
And absence—as the old saying doesn’t go, but maybe should—makes the heart go wander.
I shook off my woolgathering and tried to think back to my activities around midnight. Had I noticed any odd sensations or thoughts while Gwen was under tonight’s compulsory attack? I didn’t think so. But, again, I had underslept.
Case in point: I hadn’t heard the shower turn off and wasn’t aware that Gwen had entered the bedroom until I looked up and saw her standing in front of me. I was sitting on the bed, next to a pile of T-shirts and an assortment of old running shorts. I didn’t get out much these days and couldn’t remember the last time I had bothered to do a load of laundry. I had recently discovered that it was actually easier to order new clothes over the internet rather than go to all of the trouble to separate my hot and cold cycle fabrics. I had just picked up one of the shirts to give it the sniff test and there she was standing in front of me.
She dropped the towel she was using to dry her hair. Blonde tendrils brushed her still damp shoulders, wicking moisture back up into her expanding mane that fairly crackled with static electricity. Her blue eyes seemed to glow in the dimness of the room, as if lit by arcane energies from within. She stared down at me. Glanced at the shirt in my hands. Then looked back at me.
She dropped the other towel.
I almost laughed.
“This is a cliché,” I said. “Nearly every P.I. book and all of the movies . . .”
“I don’t care,” she said.
I broke her gaze, glancing again at her autopsy scars. They were nearly gone now!
“What—” I said.
“I don’t care,” she repeated.
“You’re . . . becoming human . . .” I said.
Her breath caught in her throat. That was another thing: the dead don’t draw breath except to talk. But she had been breathing for a while now.
“I haven’t felt human for a long time now,” she said. “Since long before I took all of those pills.”
She waited for me to do something. I didn’t.
She fell against me, riding me back down to the mattress. I caught her upper arms and created space between us, holding her above me as if she were hovering.
“I have someone,” I said. Someones? “This isn’t going to happen.”
She wept again, another storm of tears and fear. This was different, though. Instead of the terror of what was stalking her, she cried, feeling the dread of her loneliness. “What will I do?” she sobbed. “Where can I go?”
And the unspoken: Who will have me?
“One thing at a time,” I told her, lifting her so I could sit up. “We’ll figure the rest out later.”
She shook her head sadly, retreating back into her frightened little girl persona. “Tired . . .” she said. “I’m just so tired . . .”
Perhaps she had come out of the ground like most revenants, her dead flesh proof against the weaknesses of the living. But her body was transitioning back to the biological infirmities that plague the human condition. Her previous terror and thrashing about had doubtless released the metabolites—chloride, potassium, lactic acid, ADP—that interfered with her awakening body’s release of calcium in the muscle fibers. Plus, there was only so much stress the mind, itself, could take without a little timeout.
I handed her the T-shirt. “I’m going to put you to bed.”
If I hadn’t visited the laundry room in recent memory, the guest bedroom was closer to an archeological site untouched by eons of time. The bedding hadn’t been changed in at least a couple of years and a thick coating of dust was everywhere. Just fluffing a pillow produced a cirrocumulus formation of particulates that hovered over a quarter of the room like an ominous weather system.
So, I tucked her into my bed.
It was after one in the morning—closer to two a.m., actually. I wanted to go out to the cemetery to perform a cursory canvass of the area. There wasn’t anything human-related that I could do at this time of the night so I figured that I might as well get the lay of the land in planning tomorrow night’s stake-out.
She nearly freaked out again.
Didn’t want to be left alone.
Didn’t want to be tied to my bed. (Boy, if I had a quarter for every girl who . . . never mind.)
I pulled the Glock back out of the drawer in the nightstand and placed it next to the bedside lamp. I kicked off my shoes and slid under the sheets beside her. Promised to stay with her until she woke again. Told her to go to sleep and I would watch over her.
She snuggled up against me wearing nothing but the frayed, cotton top. Her body was still a little damp and offered a veritable peep-show where the fabric made sustained contact with her contours.
On the other hand, I remained dry and fully clothed so there was that as she nestled against me and breathed heavily on my throat. But she behaved herself and slowly began to relax.
What was the old saying? Lie back and think of England? I lay there and thought of Lupe.
Then, at some remove, I saw my wife and daughter, who died with me the first time and were now beyond any hope of my ever seeing again . . .
I awoke to a sense of wrongness.
It was the wrong time of the solar cycle for me to be in bed. To be sleeping.
I was still dressed, tangled in sheets.
My head was muddy.
I was alone.
I sat up so quickly my head began to spin.
I closed my eyes until the vertigo subsided. Opened them and looked around the room.
She was gone.
Fighting free of the bedding, I put my shoes back on and reached for the Glock on the nightstand.
It wasn’t there.
There was a gun safe in the safe room but I suddenly couldn’t remember the combination. Probably a short-time memory lapse induced by the stress of the past few hours. I’d probably remember it in a few minutes.
But the cemetery was within walking distance and I didn’t know how much of a head start the summoning had given her.
Screw it: I grabbed my car keys and the Louisville Slugger and headed out the door.
Beausoleil Cemetery was just a ten-minute drive. It would have been less if I could have driven in a straight line and avoided all the intersections and sheriff patrols who were undistracted by the paucity of early morning traffic.
I looked at my Fitbit and saw that I still had a couple of hours to go before sunrise.
I felt a ribbon of rage rise from my stomach and spread through my chest as I drove. I wasn’t absolutely sure that the cemetery was where she was headed but where else could she go? Her husband’s house was across the river and miles away. She had no home now, outside of a box-sized basement under a two-and-a-half by eight-foot plot of ground.
My hands clenched the steering wheel impotently. This poor, tormented woman had been stripped of everything—her marriage, her friends, her job, and then her life, itself. Now she couldn’t even be afforded the final dignity of death. A monster had ripped her from her eternal sleep. Forced her up out of the resting place for her remains.
The “why” seemed increasingly obvious.
She was pretty.
And whatever sorceries the necromancer had employed, her flesh had been restored to near perfection. No hint of corruption remained. By now her flawless skin would be unmarred by even the hint of a scar. And that flesh would be his . . .
. . . or hers . . . no need to be unconsciously sexist, Cséjthe . . .
. . . to do with whatever he/she wanted. Gwen had already proved that she was powerless to resist. She would be nothing more than a meat puppet for her new master’s unholy lusts.
The fury continued to build in me, the hot flush suffusing every muscle fiber as it spread through my extremities. At the same time, my mind was going cold. Clear. And I considered my options as I killed my headlights rolling up through the cemetery gates.
I parked the car and grabbed the bat.
I didn’t have a ranged weapon. I would have to close with my target before he (or she) could do something to me. That meant the element of surprise. So, I hunched over, presenting a low profile as I worked my way through a maze of monuments, toward the far end of the graveyard.
My sneakiness was suddenly derailed as my cell phone buzzed. Fortunately, the only sound it made was from the “vibrate” setting: the ringtone was still switched off from my previous reconnoitering. Still, the damn thing was buzzing rather robustly. I turned the volume down as I crouched behind a mausoleum.
“Hello?” I whispered.
“Mister Chris? Is that you?” Olive Perdue’s voice answered faintly.
“Kind of busy right now,” I said softly. “Can this wait?”
“Sure,” she said. “I just got that divorce information you were asking about.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I’ve already seen the paperwork.”
“Then you know . . .” she said quietly.
“No Fault Divorce. Not much there.”
“No fault . . .” she sounded bemused. “Huh. I can see why she didn’t fight it . . .”
Something in her voice and words stopped me from hanging up. “Sounds like there’s more to the story,” I said.
“Well, there was something about the name that nagged at me. I couldn’t remember until you called back with that second name . . .”
“Yes. And even then, it took me awhile to put the two together.”
“Harold Hahn and Michael Guidry.”
“No. Gwendolyn Hahn and Michael Guidry. He was her student.”
“Her student,” I repeated dumbly, a sick feeling starting to flush the heat out of my system.
“She was his ninth grade Biology teacher. Taught him a lot, according to all the news stories about a year back. It was in all of the papers. Local channels. Even went national for a week or so.”
“Yuh,” I said, feeling gut-punched. “I gotta go. I’ll call you soon.” I dropped the call and began to run now, all stealth forgotten.
I tripped twice, went down once.
The temperature differential between the headstones and the terrain was still sufficient for me to see in the infrared spectrum and navigate safely. But I wasn’t being careful now. I was running toward Gwen Hahn’s gravesite, hoping I wasn’t too late.
“But I love you!” the tenth grader said.
Dressed in black with pale skin, eye-shadow, and emo haircut, he was kneeling inside a circle of white residue. The ring also encompassed the churned earth above Gwen’s grave site. A shovel lay by her headstone and a scattering of votive candles guttered around the perimeter. Some sat on symbols placed at the cardinal, compass points of the summoning area, others had a more random arrangement. A few cast their uncertain light on a spread of what appeared to be ancient library reference books.
Gwen stood a few feet away, across the circle from him. Her blonde hair and white T-shirt a dramatic contrast to her summoner in his black shirt and dark jeans: opposing forces of light and darkness.
An illusion of facades.
She clutched my gun in a two-handed shooter’s stance. It might have lent her some stability but she was trembling like a leaf.
“You can’t do this!” she hissed at him through clenched teeth.
“But I brought you back!” he whinged in a voice that set even my teeth on edge.
“We can’t be together!” she insisted, using the Glock to draw an exclamation point. “Let me go!”
“Why?” he pleaded. “I don’t care what my parents say. I’ll get a job. Join the army if I have to. We can run away. Start over. You’re not married anymore . . .” A flicker of doubt crossed his adolescent features. “ . . . are you?”
“It won’t work!” she said.
And the disdain in her voice should have been withering but the kid was having trouble hearing it.
“Why not? I have power now.” He gestured at the scatter of arcana all around them. “I researched this all summer. With a little more time and study, I—I could probably make money from this. People might pay for me to bring other people back!”
His expression shifted. Maybe it was the flicker of the candles at his knees. Maybe it was a branch of rustling leaves filtering the soft play of moonlight on his face.
Maybe it was the blowback of arcane energies that had touched corruption and were a conduit for the darkness it sought to excavate.
“I—I could bring back rich people. Make them tell me their passwords and bank account numbers . . .”
“And then what, Michael?” she asked in a voice she had probably used in countless classroom lectures for young, impressionable minds. “Maybe some sex slaves? Watch the obituaries for hot, young women? Cheerleaders? Beauty pageant queens?”
“I only want you!” But there was something in his face, now, that suggested the thought was not entirely alien to him.
“But I don’t want you,” she bit back. “Let me go.”
“I won’t,” he said stubbornly. “I love you and I worked too hard for this. You don’t know what I had to do to make this happen. What I—” He broke off as if he were about to share a shameful or possibly terrifying secret. His face closed down. “I’ll make you love me.”
“You’ll make me?” her voice went up to a notch below the hysterical register. The gun was moving around a bit now and I didn’t know who was the greater threat here. I clutched the bat, looking back and forth, trying to think of a way to resolve this where one or more of us didn’t end up dead or magically enslaved.
“I just want what we had before,” he said softly. “Before it all got crazy and turned to shit.”
Hahn dropped her head. “I can’t go back. I destroyed my marriage. My poor, sweet husband—I ruined him!” Her eyes began to overflow again. Whatever the necromantic energies had been doing to her body, they hadn’t stinted on her lacrimal glands and ducts. “My education degree, my career as a teacher—no school system will ever hire me again. I might as well be a sex slave, I’m no good for anything else!”
I saw the hope flare in his eyes.
She saw it, too. And brought the gun up.
Before I could take two steps, she placed the muzzle under her own jaw and pulled the trigger.
He screamed. It was raw and primal, full of horror and heartbreak and loss. He half rose from the ground and then collapsed back into himself. And began to dry heave.
I stared at the newly minted corpse of the child molester I had sought to defend. Gazed at the plump, pink lips that had kissed mine just hours ago. I did not look at her eyes. The Glock had made a mess of everything above the nose.
Not . . . her . . . nose . . .
Impersonal now. Death had returned and was in charge once more. She was gone. And by her own hand for the second time. Maybe she wasn’t completely a monster.
I walked toward the kid. Saw his hand reach blindly for one of the books at his side. I put my foot on the page.
He looked up.
“No,” I said implacably. And: “Go home.”
He had trouble getting to his feet and I reached down to pull him up.
“Go home,” I said again. “Don’t look back. Put this behind you.”
“We’re supposed to be together,” he said in a shaky voice.
“No,” I said. “No, you’re not. You never were.”
He reached down for something and I placed the Louisville Slugger in his way.
“Leave it,” I said. “Go home. You’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you. You’ll find someone who is right for you and they’ll love you and you’ll love them. And it will be right. This . . .” I gestured with the bat. “ . . . wasn’t right. It couldn’t ever be right.”
“We’re supposed to be together,” he mumbled.
I hoped it was the rambling of a shock-numbed mind.
Not the promise of a Resurrection 2.0.
“Go home,” I told him again. “I’ll clean up here.”
He didn’t so much leave as drift away among the tombstones. For one crazy moment I wondered if he was already a ghost, doomed to haunt this graveyard as if his body was already entombed here, too.
Then I picked up the shovel and began to excavate the earth above her coffin.
Whatever spells had been at work over the past two nights had loosed the ground so that the work was surprisingly easy.
Or maybe it was just nice to do something that allowed me to turn my brain off for a little while.
I made it back home with time to spare before the murderous sun could peek back over the horizon.
The candles and paraphernalia joined Gwen’s remains back in her coffin. I tucked her in as best I could given the time constraints.
The books and more than a little cemetery earth came home with me.
I took three blood bags into the shower with me and stood there until the hot water ran out and the tub filled up past my ankles. As I dried off with the last clean towel in the cupboard, I stared at the standing water and wondered whether Drano or Liquid Plumr was better at dissolving stubborn cemetery dirt clogs.
I stripped my bed of its sheets. I started to carry them toward the laundry room then detoured up the stairs to the fireplace in the living room. I pulled the library books up off of the grate and folded the sheets to form a compressed base for tonight’s funeral pyre. The library books went back on top. Maybe Guidry was a victim but, considering the chaos he’d caused, some overdue book fines were a small price to pay. And there was no way I was putting these volumes back in local circulation. I could only hope that he would come to his senses before taking that left-hand path again.
I went back downstairs and rummaged around for a pair of clean sheets. There weren’t any. I opened the Amazon app on my phone and ordered more. Extra towels, too. Paid the extra costs for one-day shipping.
Then I crawled onto the bare mattress. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d slept like this.
A former therapist once told me that I presented clear signs of major depressive disorder. He had written out the signs and symptoms for me. Feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness. Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports. Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort. Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements. Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things.
There are other things but these were the things he said that I ticked on the list. He didn’t believe in a pharmaceutical solution. He suggested cognitive therapy.
I didn’t tell him that I see dead people.
I tried to think of how cognitive therapy could have been applied over the past eleven hours of my life but I drifted off into a disturbingly dreamless sleep, first.
When I awoke, it was after sunset once more. My clock radio was still unplugged but I could sense the change in the upper atmosphere as the ionization activity in the mesosphere layer had calmed down.
It was increasingly scary as I discovered new and disturbing ways in which my body and my extended senses were continuing to mutate.
When I was a child, I thought monsters were birthed in mad scientists’ labs, cursed Egyptian tombs, Transylvanian castles and black lagoons. They lumbered in the night, along lonely roads and deserted crypts. You were supposed to be safe in the daylight. And, aside from the occasional bully looking to nick your lunch money, you were supposed to be safe in your school.
Now the monsters might be your classmate with access to their parent’s gun cabinet.
Now the monster might be the attractive adult at the front of the classroom who wants you to stay after school.
It used to be easy. You kept an eye out for the bolts in their neck, the fangs, the ancient funeral bindings, the claws and gills . . .
As I sat up, my phone buzzed indicating a waiting text.
I picked it up and opened the message queue.
It was from Olive.
Michael Guidry had gone home like I told him to.
And then he had gotten ahold of his father’s gun and used it to take his own life.
True horror takes many forms.
Copyright © 2019 Wm. Mark Simmons
This story is set in the world of Wm. Mark Simmons’s Halflife Chronicles dealing with the adventures and misadventures of semi-vampire private eye Christopher Cséjthe. The latest entry in that series is April’s A Witch in Time. Before he turned his attention to science fiction, Simmons was winning awards for his writing, first as a newspaper journalist and later as a broadcast copywriter. His first book was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award and made the Locus Magazine Best List in 1991. When he isn't writing, Mark is in front of the camera or microphone, having worked in television and now radio where his is the morning voice for Radio Kansas and can be heard throughout half of the Sunflower State.