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Coffee: A warm, delicious alternative to hating everyone forever.
Few things in life were more entertaining than haunted houses. The people living in said haunted houses, perhaps. Or the time-honored tradition of watching paint dry because, sadly, most haunted houses were not actually haunted. I sat on a hardwood floor next to a Mrs. Joyce Blomme, a woman who swore her house was inhabited by the dead—her words—and waited with bated breath for a ghost to appear. Egads!
My breath rarely bated. Being the only grim reaper this side of eternity, I didn’t scare easily, especially after getting an inquiry like the one I’d received from Mrs. Blomme. I got a crap ton of the things. People swearing their houses were haunted. Imploring me to cleanse the offending abode of the evil that lurked within. Assuring me I was their only hope.
What can I say? Word gets around.
Mrs. Blomme was everything one would expect a grandmother to be. She had salt-and-pepper hair in rollers, a floral housecoat, ragged slippers with threads poking out around the toes, and reading glasses dangling around her neck. Ink stained her fingers, probably from crosswords, and a pinch of white powder smudged her cheek and the tip of her nose. So, either Mrs. Blomme liked to bake or she was a cokehead. I leaned toward the former.
On any other day, I would have explained the situation more clearly to the elderly woman. Yes, I could see the departed. As the grim reaper, I ferried lost souls—those souls left behind after their initial offer of a one-way trip up—to the other side, when they were ready. Basically, that entailed me standing there while the departed stepped into my light, a light that could be seen by them from anywhere in the world, and crossed over.
So, yes, I could see them. I could also talk to them and arm-wrestle them and style their hair. But seeing the departed and convincing said departed to go into the light were two very different skill sets.
Yet there I sat—in the dark because Mrs. Blomme swore the dead were easier to see that way, and well past my bedtime because Mrs. Blomme said they mostly showed up late at night—listening to a fascinating tale of angels and demons. Of heavens and hells. Of gods and monsters!
Mostly because I was doing all the talking.
Mrs. Blomme, poor thing, was scared speechless. In her defense, and to her credit, the house was indeed haunted. But I was too busy soliloquizing the struggles of the past few days of my life to pay that fact much mind.
“And then,” I said, raising my voice in preparation for the big finale, “he shoved me against the wall and disappeared into a swirling sea of smoke and lightning.”
I moved my hands in a circular motion to demonstrate the aforementioned swirling mass, then turned to Mrs. Blomme to check her reaction. It’d been a hell of a tale.
To my delight, Mrs. Blomme’s eyes were saucers. Her mouth hung open and her breaths came in tiny, sharp pants. Unfortunately, her state of absolute terror had little to do with my harrowing tale and more to do with the twiglike boy standing in the doorway, his mouth full of crackers.
We had already met. His name was Charlie, too, only spelled differently, and he liked riding his tricycle and painting the walls with his mother’s markers. Her permanent markers, if the walls were any indication. Soap and water could only do so much.
“There!” Mrs. Blomme pointed toward him.
He was adorable, all dark hair and skinny limbs.
Mrs. Blomme didn’t agree. She clawed at my arm and shrank in to my side, peering over my shoulder to look at the boy while using my body as a shield. Clearly, if the fecal matter hit the fan, I would be sacrificed.
She whispered into my ear, ever so slowly, enunciating every word. “Do you see him?”
The moonlight shone in his mischievous eyes as he cradled a plastic dinosaur in one arm and a silver gravy boat in the other. No idea. His fists held as many crackers as each could carry, and he had to carefully maneuver his load to stuff another orange square into his mouth. Then he smiled at me with orange-dusted lips.
I smiled back a microsecond before his mother appeared out of nowhere to scoop him up and carry him down the hall, disappearing into the darkness.
Mrs. Blomme squeaked and hid her face. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was her reaction—or lack thereof—to the little girl named Charisma sitting cross-legged in front of us, listening as I regaled the horrors of the past week.
Charisma blinked up at me, sipped the last of her juice through a cup with a twirly straw, then asked, “So, he’s not your husband anymore?”
She was talking about Reyes. Reyes Alexander Farrow. My husband. Or, well, I hoped he was still my husband.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted.
After bringing down a bloodthirsty cult a few days ago, then devouring a malevolent god—’cause apparently that’s what I do—I’d succumbed to drowning my sorrows in a bottle of tequila named Jose. Three innocent people lost their lives that day, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was a bitter pill, one I was having a difficult time swallowing, so I’d been contemplating entering a hell dimension to save a handful of other innocent people who were trapped inside. Reyes convinced me to send him instead.
Just another day in the life of Charley Davidson.
That’s me, by the way, Charley Davidson. PI. Grim reaper. Screwup extraordinaire. Oh, and let’s not forget my newest designation: god. Not the God, but a deity nonetheless. A title I never imagined would be thrust upon me and one I never wanted.
Then again, so was my husband. A deity. A celestial being with the power to give life. To create worlds. To convince me that his plan was best when it was anything but.
Thus, I sent my one and only husband into a hell dimension via a pendant that housed a glittering stone called god glass. Probably because God, the God, made it.
I rested my head on the cool wall at my back and thought about that moment. The doubt that’d been roaring in my head. The doubt I should have paid heed. The doubt I ultimately ignored.
The workings of the god glass were quite simple considering its complex nature. It was, after all, a hell dimension of vast proportions set inside a stone set inside a pendant. Something so fragile that housed something so terrible.
To send someone to his doom, one simply placed a drop of the target’s blood on the god glass then said his name.
The pendant, through the machinations of a howling tempest, would reach out and draw the person’s soul inside, locking it there for all eternity. But with Reyes, the storm took every molecule of his being, not just his soul. I assumed it was because of his supernatural status, but now I wondered if there’d been more to it. At the time, however, that fact hadn’t registered.
Reyes’d had a job. One simple job. He would jump in, get the lay of the land, then jump back out when I called his name. A process that was supposed to be easy according to a six-hundred-year-old rumor. It stated that to retrieve a soul from the god glass, the person who originally sent the soul inside need only reopen the pendant, say the target’s name, and the soul would be freed.
Rumor was wrong. I know because that’s exactly what I did.
I called. I screamed. I whispered. I begged. And still no husband.
Distraught and disoriented, I came up with a plan. I would go in after him. I would have Cookie, my best friend and confidante, send me inside.
I would have to trick her, of course. She would never willingly send me to hell. But I would leave her a note explaining how to get me back out. In theory, because I’d apparently stumbled upon a flaw in the process. But I figured go big or go home.
Just as I was about to put my plan into action, the storm erupting out of the pendant changed. It became darker. Smoke swirled around me, and heat saturated every pore, rushing over my skin. Electric. Almost painful.
Then the pendant became too hot for me to hold. I dropped it seconds before an earsplitting explosion rocked the apartment. It slammed me against a wall, causing my vision to darken around the edges and my lungs to burn from lack of oxygen. I fought to stay conscious but didn’t dare move.
The storm shifted. Smoke, thick and black and alive, pooled around me. I’d looked up, tried to focus, but just as I was able to take in air, a dozen souls desperate for escape rushed through me, into my light and, in turn, heaven.
Their stories flashed before my eyes. The souls’. Innocent. Condemned for centuries by a madman.
A priest who’d somehow come into the possession of the pendant was using it for evil. He’d sent soul after soul inside. A widow who’d spurned his advances. A man who’d refused to sign over part of his land to the church. A young boy who’d seen the priest in a compromising position. And on and on. More than a dozen lives destroyed by one man.
The priest had been locked inside as well by a group of monks who took him to task for his evil deeds, but I didn’t feel him cross. Then again, he would’ve gone to hell. This dimension’s hell. Perhaps he already had.
After the souls crossed through me, all from the same time period, the 1400s, I waited. Three more beings were inside the god glass. A demon assassin named Kuur. A malevolent deity named Mae’eldeesahn. And my husband.
I would never forget the vision before me as I waited. The smoke had filled the room and churned like a supercell lit by occasional flashes of lightning.
And then Reyes walked out of it, the billowing smoke falling from his wide shoulders and settling at his feet.
Elation shot through me as I scrambled to my feet and started toward him. But I stopped short almost immediately. Something was wrong. The man before me was not my husband. Not entirely.
Smoke and lightning curled around him. It caressed him like a lover. Obeyed him like a slave. If he shifted, it shifted. If he breathed, it breathed. It flowed and ebbed at his will, the lightning flitting over his skin.
He wasn’t in the storm. He was the storm.
I stood astounded as he walked toward me, taking five ground-eating steps.
I stumbled back, then caught myself before whispering his name.
He narrowed his eyes as though he didn’t recognize me.
I reached up to touch his face. It was the wrong thing to do.
He shoved me against the wall and held me there as his gaze ran down the length of my body. His hand curled around my throat, then my jaw, his fingers cruel.
I wrapped my hands around his and pushed, but he didn’t budge. If anything, he squeezed tighter, so I relaxed. Or tried to.
When he spoke, his voice was low and husky and resolved. “Elle-Ryn-Ahleethia.”
That was my celestial name. My godly one. Why would he use it here? Now?
He seemed surprised to find me there. Astonished. Then he gave me another once-over. His expression filled with a disturbing mix of lust and contempt.
It sparked a memory. Kuur, an evil supernatural assassin I’d banished into the very same hell dimension, told me that when Reyes had been a deity himself, he’d had only contempt for humans. The same humans his godly Brother—yes, that godly Brother—loved so much.
And I was human. At least a part of me was.
I studied Reyes as he studied me, wondering what came out of the god glass. It may have looked like my husband. It may have smelled like him and felt like him and sounded like him, but the sentient being standing in a pool of billowing black smoke in front of me was not the man I married.
Was I meeting the god Rey’azikeen at last?
And, more important, had I just unleashed hell on earth?
“Will he ever be your husband again?” Charisma asked, snapping me back to the present.
I released the air from my lungs slowly. “I wish I knew.”
She sucked on the straw again, siphoning every last drop.
I did the same, upending my coffee cup and letting the last precious molecules slide onto my tongue.
Then I returned to her. “He’s very powerful, and I don’t know what that hell dimension did to him. How much of him is still my husband and how much is ‘angry god guy.’ I mean, he could destroy the world if he put his mind to it. That would suck.”
The girl’s gaze slid past me, her mind clearly pondering everything I’d just told her. Good and evil. Dark and light. It was a lot to take in.
“I’m not allowed to say hell.”
“That’s probably best. Stay as far away from that place as you can. Don’t even think about it.”
A part of me did wonder if I should be telling such a young child about hell dimensions and demons and world-destroying gods. At least I didn’t tell her about the little girl who was killed by one such god just the other day. Surely my omitting that part of the story would warrant a checkmark in the “pro” column.
“Or butt crack.”
“I think I hear something,” Mrs. Blomme said.
“So, anyway,” I continued, “that was three days ago, and I haven’t seen my husband since.”
“He just disappeared?”
And he had. He’d kept one powerful hand locked around my throat and jaw, his other hand braced on the wall behind me, and the fire that perpetually consumed him licked over his skin when he stepped closer. When he pressed into me.
I lowered a hand to his rib cage, encouraging him to close the distance between us. Praying he’d remember.
“Reyes?” I whispered, testing.
Then he did close the distance. He bent his head, buried his face in my hair, and brushed his sensual mouth across my ear. When he spoke, his voice was thick and breathy. “Reyes has left the building,” he said, a microsecond before shoving off me and vanishing into a sea of roiling smoke and crackling lightning.
And he was gone. Just like that.
I’d stood there for what seemed like hours until the sun came up, watching the smoke slowly clear from my apartment. And for the first time in a long time, I had absolutely no idea what to do. Until I did. Until I’d been given a new case.
Before receiving the summons from the frazzled Mrs. Blomme, I’d been hunting.
Charisma jumped to her feet. “I have to pee.”
“Okay, have fun,” I said to her back as she rushed out of the room.
I still wondered why Mrs. Blomme couldn’t see her. Not for long. Maybe, like, seven seconds. I had too many other things on my plate to wonder overly long, but it did tickle the back of my brain.
“I told you,” Mrs. Blomme said. She was still using my shoulder as a protective shield. “My house is haunted. You saw them, right? The woman and the boy?”
“I did. But, Mrs. Blomme—”
Before I could continue with the bad news, my phone dinged. I dug it out of my back pocket. My uncle Bob, a detective for the Albuquerque Police Department, had texted me about a case we were working together. I sometimes consulted for APD, mostly because my uncle knew what I could do, and solving cases was a thousand times easier when the murdered victim could tell the police whodunit. This case, however, was far more disturbing than I’d led my uncle to believe.
Two bodies had been found mutilated and burned. But mutilated in a very unusual way and scorched in random spots. The burns didn’t kill them. Internal damage and blood loss from the mutilations did them in. It was as though they’d been beaten and clawed to death, but the ME said the attacks were not from an animal. He said they were human.
Or, I had to wonder in the back of my mind, perhaps they were made by a god inhabiting a human body. An angry god made of lightning and fire and all things combustible. His temper, for example.
A pang of anxiety caused my stomach to clench and my cheeks to warm.
Uncle Bob’s text asked simply, “Any luck?”
I texted back. “Not yet.”
It would not be the answer he wanted, but it was the only one I had to give. I’d been using all my resources on the case, and no one, dead or alive, knew anything about the murders.
I turned back to Mrs. Blomme. One of her curlers had worked loose and hung lackadaisically over an ear. “Mrs. Blomme,” I said, softening my voice.
She glanced up at me from behind my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry to tell you this, but you’re right. Your house is haunted.”
She swallowed hard and nodded, taking the news well.
“But, hon, it’s haunted by you.”
Straightening a little, she leveled a curious stare on me. “I don’t understand.”
“You died thirty-eight years ago.”
She blinked, and I gave her a moment before continuing. To absorb. To process.
After another couple of minutes where she stared at the floor, trying to remember, I said, “It took me a while to find your death certificate. Your husband found you unresponsive on the floor in your kitchen. Massive stroke. He was devastated. He died a year later, almost to the day.”
“No. That’s not right. I live here.”
“You did, yes. I’m sorry.”
She leaned back against the wall, sorrow consuming her.
My chest squeezed tight. I took her hand into mine. “But the mother and son you’ve been seeing?”
Without looking up, she nodded.
“That’s your granddaughter and your great-grandson. See?” I pointed to a wall where Mrs. Blomme’s picture hung, a faded color photo of her and her husband.
She stood slowly and walked to the massive mantel that displayed generations of Blommes and, now, Newells. They’d kept the house in the family. Updated it over the years. And allowed one branch of the Blommes’ children’s children to grow up here.
She turned back to me, her eyes wet with emotion. “I had no idea.”
“I know.” I stood and walked to her. “It happens more often than you think.”
A soft laugh accompanied a melancholy smile.
“You can cross through me. I’m sure you have tons of family waiting for you, including your husband.”
“He didn’t remarry, did he? He was always threatening to marry Sally Danforth if I died first. He knew I detested that woman. She stole my pickle recipe and won a blue ribbon at the state fair with it.”
“She didn’t,” I whispered, scandalized.
“I wouldn’t lie about pickles, Miss Davidson. Serious business, that.”
I grinned. “No, he didn’t marry anyone else, Mrs. Blomme. He died miserable and alone.”
“Oh, well, good. He deserved it. Man was horrible.” She turned when emotion slipped through her lashes and slid down a weathered cheek.
“I’m sure he was wretched.”
As her reality sank in, her physical state became an issue. She smoothed her housecoat and patted the curlers in her hair.
“Good heavens, I can’t go nowhere looking like this.”
“What do you mean? You’re perfect.”
“Nonsense,” she said, smoothing her housecoat once more. But something captured her attention, and her gaze flitted back to the door leading to the hall.
I turned to see that Charlie was back. Arms full. Fists restocked.
Leaning over, I whispered in Mrs. Blomme’s ear. “That’s Charlie Newell, your great-grandson.”
A hand flew to her mouth as a new moisture threatened to push past her lashes to follow the first. “My goodness, isn’t he beautiful.”
“He’s gorgeous. And you have a great-granddaughter here, too. Charisma.”
Mrs. Blomme found a chair and sank into it, and I knew I’d lost her. No way would she leave these children to their own devices. They needed order and discipline. But mostly they needed spoiling.
“Can I stay just a little while longer? Can I watch over them?”
I knelt beside her. “Of course you can.”
I said my thanks to Mrs. Newell, a single mom with two inquisitive children on her hands.
“Did you, um, make contact?”
She was gracious enough to let me in to do my thing, an openness I found surprising, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t a tad sensitive herself.
“I did. And you were right. It’s your grandmother Blomme.”
She smiled to herself in thought, wiping her hands absently on a dish towel.
“I just have one question,” I continued. I gestured toward the hall. “What’s with the gravy boat?”
She giggled and shrugged. “Some kids have security blankets; some kids have gravy boats.”
I laughed with her. “That needs to be a T-shirt.”
I still couldn’t help but wonder why Mrs. Blomme could see her granddaughter and great-grandson but not her great-granddaughter.
Ah, well. A mystery for another day.
After explaining to Mrs. Newell that her grandmother was going to be hanging out for a while, a fact she took with no small amount of enthusiasm, I left. I had much to do, including solve a couple of murders and hunt down a recalcitrant deity. But first, I had a skip tracer to harass.
Copyright © 2017 by Darynda Jones