I was getting home on a Monday--technically a Tuesday--in that part of the night between late and early, when the night just is. I parked the Mustang in the driveway. The Porsche was still up on blocks in the garage. I had my keys out in hand when I got out of the car and headed towards the house. The air was unseasonably warm for a mid autumn night, and the somber twilight silence was interrupted only by my faint footsteps.
Someone knocking on a front door echoed out over the cul-de-sac.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice echoed out. “Let me in,” she said and knocked again. I could hear her turning the door handle and pushing against the locked door.
The voice was coming from the front door two houses down from mine. The street was lined with lights, but the one in front of this particular house was out. In the light of this house’s front porch, I could make out a woman standing huddled against the door, knocking with one hand, and futilely twisting the knob with the other. I could see she was wearing pajamas, bundled up for the cold of winter. She was young, in her early twenties. Around my age.
“Are you alright?” I called out to her. Her head snapped around to face me so quickly I didn’t see it move. One instant she was looking at the door; the next she was staring at me directly across the darkened lawns separating us. The light of the night left her face in complete shadow. Somehow, I knew she wasn’t blinking.
“No, I’m fine,” she called back faintly. She sounded as if she was standing a hundred yards further away than she was. She turned back and knocked again at the door. “Please, let me back in.”
“Jean, that’s the Carter’s house,” Damien said to me. “Didn’t Mrs. Carter leave him a few months ago?”
“Tom seems to have bounced back pretty quick.” I said back as I continued towards my front door. Damien was the Dragon that lived in my head. It’s actually an interesting story, but it’s a different story--a different time. The important takeaway is the commentary came with an upside-- Dragonfire at my fingertips.
I’d met the Carters a few times over the year or two since they’d moved in. He was a professor of some sort at the local university. She was a real estate agent. She’d been much younger than him but not so much that it was too out of the ordinary. Neither was the fact that she’d left him and moved across the country to “find herself.” I still kept up with her on Facebook.
“Keep up with her beach pics is more like it.”
The only sound in the night was Mr. Carter’s new squeeze trying to get in the house.
“Hello?” she called out against the door. Still no answer. My hand rested on my own door knob. Finally, I shrugged my shoulders. Not my girl, not my problem.
“And who says chivalry is dead?”
“Me,” I replied.
I opened the three locks on my door in the proper sequence fast enough to keep the anti-personnel mines and det-cord packed in it from blowing me up. I took one last look over my shoulder at the woman across the way before I let the door close.
The power had evidently gone out at some point. All of my clocks were blinking midnight. I took a few minutes to resync all of them. I set the oven clock last, checking out the window on the cul-de-sac for the lone woman. She was nowhere to be seen.
I grabbed a beer from the fridge and headed upstairs for a shower. Melanie was gone for a few more nights to the West Coast on a job. I finished the beer fairly quickly and hopped out of the shower. I wound down, and soon enough, I was prone in bed, lights out and eyes closed with my bedroom window slightly cracked.
“Hello?” echoed faintly through the night. “I’m so cold…”
My eyes shot open--the hairs on my arms and legs were standing straight up.
“Maybe she got locked out again?”
I got out of bed and tugged my jeans back on. I placed my fingers against the readers on the rear side of my dresser and pulled out the 1911 that popped out of a hidden compartment. It was all black except for a blue tongue of flame on either side of the slide. I threw it in a shoulder rig hanging from my door and threw a windbreaker over my bare torso.
I unlocked the door and stepped out into the night. I closed the door behind me.
“Do you want to use my phone so you can--” I started to call out. Her sudden stare cut me off. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. There were pools of shadow hiding her eyes. From twenty yards away, I could see how blue her lips were.
“It’s so cold,” she said. Without seeming to have moved through the space in between, her arms were crossed in front of her chest, and she shuddered. A blink later and she was back to knocking on the door and twisting futilely at the handle. It was weird, but on my outta-ten-scale, it was barely topping out at a two.
“This used to be a nice neighborhood,” Damien said.
“Yeah, then we moved in,” I replied before calling out, “Ma’am? Are you alright?”
I cut across the lawn between us and walked towards her. As soon as I crossed the property line, she did another one of those zero frame turns so she was facing me directly. The air felt wrong--thicker, more viscous. This close, I could see that the woman’s eyes weren’t hidden in pools of shadows. They were pools of shadow.
“I’m so cold,” her lips moved, but the sound seemed to come from miles behind her. Behind her lips was the same black darkness: not a mouth but a void. Her long blonde hair, translucently pale in the low light, floated about her head as if floating in water. I could make out some sort of pendant hanging around her neck. “Please let me in,” she said towards me.
It was Mrs. Stephanie Carter.
“Or at least her Revenant,” Damien suggested.
“Stephanie isn’t dead. Or, wasn’t.”
“Could be her fetch, but have you ever heard of a lost fetch? Besides, she is--or was--a non-practitioner.”
Revenants, commonly called ghosts, are the incorporeal remains of a person wandering this plane after death. A fetch is the still living soul of a practitioner gone for a stroll. Think astral-projection but with a semi-physical manifestation. Either way, Stephanie Carter shouldn’t have one. But she did. It was “standing” fifteen feet away from me. And I had a decision to make.
“What happened to ‘Not my girl, not my problem?’” Damien asked.
“Knowing Melanie would do something,” I replied.
“Sweet, Flying Spaghetti Monster. Jean, are you growing as a person?”
“Shut the fuck up, Damien.”
The revenant moved without moving. It was a being of pure energy not slowed down by a true physical form. Knowing that didn’t make the effect any less creepy. Revenants can’t harm the living. Well, besides scaring them to death. At least, it’s uncomfortable for people and ghosts to stand in the same place for both parties--or so I’ve heard. That and the fact that it was damn near four a.m. ruled out the front door.
“I like how deciding to do something--for you--means breaking and entering immediately”
“It’s either that, or go home and smoke ‘til we fall asleep.”
I went around the back. It was a two story house with a garage on the side, brick front. Wooden sides and rear. The Carters didn’t have a fence or boundary hedge around their yard like most of the houses in the neighborhood. This meant visibility would be an issue if it wasn’t so late at night.
The French doors at the back were locked but not bolted. I held my thumb a hair’s breadth away from the lock and channeled a jet of flame into the delicate machinery inside. Dragonfire is hot enough to melt anything. After a few seconds, the door handle opened with a hard pull and a small “pop.” No security system beep to alert anyone inside.
Inside was a typical home, no blood dripping from the walls or other clues to the mystery ghost outside. Leather sofas, wooden furniture, big TV, inexplicably expensive knick knacks, and decorations hung from the walls. All in all, the typical accoutrements of an upper middle class couple with no kids.
I made my way through the house quickly but silently. I’m no ninja assassin, but I’ve played hide and seek for keeps with Army Rangers. And won. Upstairs was more of the same as below, nice things but no real soul. There wasn’t a single picture hanging on the wall that I could see. I made my way back down and then went into the basement. Things got weird once I rounded the corner at the bottom of the steps.
The basement was the size of the living room upstairs. It was set up like a man cave or lounge with a futon, desk, bookshelves, and a comfy looking reading chair with a lamp directly behind it. There was a morgue freezer built against the back wall of the basement. The drawer itself was a standard single body telescoping freezer. The drawer’s rack could be pulled out all of the way for the body to be viewed head to toe. Which was obviously the next step.
“You ever think we maybe spend too much time in morgues?”
“Let’s be honest, any time in a morgue is too much time.”
The refrigeration unit on top of the freezer hummed. The door opened silently. As it swung all the way open, a light inside switched on. On the body rack lay a completely naked man in his mid forties. He had a bit of a gut and cushion, grey hair, and something sunken into his chest. He was still breathing.
“It’s so cold…” a voice said from behind me. I could have jumped out of my own skin. I was turned around and pointing a gun at the voice before whose it was had registered. The room was suddenly filled with the energy of Stephanie Carter’s revenant, sad, somber, and brimming with mournful longing.
“Clever girl,” I muttered. I’d broken the house’s hearthold when I broke in. The revenant had found her own way in after that. Even up close, her eyes and mouth were liquid shadow. She was staring at the body below her. I could make out the faintest expression of recognition on her face.
I pulled Thomas Carter and the rack out of the freezer. I couldn’t tell if the thing pressed into Thomas’ chest was made of metal or clay. It rose and fell with his breathing and was carved with a series of incredibly complex and advanced runes. Whatever it was it was the size of a small book. I’d never seen runework like this before. It made my work look like a child’s coloring book belonging to a kid that couldn't grasp coloring in the lines.
“What the fuck does it even do?” I asked Damien. In the spiraling lines, I could make out familiar shapes and patterns. There were at least half a dozen transfer symbols worked into the rune and just as many symbols that I’d come to associate with life support. Whatever it was, it was using and moving a lot of energy. A pulsing red light spread from the center of the rune outwards with each rise and fall of Thomas’ chest. Looking at the runestone made the air feel slimy against my skin.
I glanced over at Stephanie who had remained quiet since her arrival. Having her behind me like that made me nervous, but ghosts can’t hurt the living. Knowing that didn’t make the spot between my shoulder blades itch any less. She was still “standing” there silently. The shadows where her eyes should have been locked onto her comatose husband. My eyes locked onto the amulet the ghost was wearing. This close to her, I could make out the details of the intricate line work covering it. Line work that matched the runes in Thomas’ chest. The inkling of an awful suspicion made my stomach roll.
“Oh what a twisted fuck,” Damien said. “He stole her body.”
The two amulets matched, and seeing them in such close proximity filled in the rest of the pieces. Somehow Thomas had gotten his hands on some serious dark mojo and was now playing walk about with his young wife’s body somewhere on the other side of the country. Thomas was still wearing his wedding ring: a little ring of gold that said this man would love and protect, have, and hold. It looked a lot like the one I wore myself. I felt my jaw clench.
“Is there anyway we can save her?” I asked Damien. Part of me knew the answer already.
“The world’s best necromancer would be hard pressed at this point. And even then, do you really think it would be a kindness?”
He was right. Her soul had been out of her body for so long that coming back mentally would be damn near impossible. Even if she was put back together, she’d be a wreck with little to no chance of recovery. I was no necromancer, and as skilled with runes as I was, this was beyond me. The only sort of help I could offer Stephanie was mercy.
I drew the knife at my side, a drop point with a slight hook on the end. I pried the knife point up under the lip of the strange tablet, twisted the knife around so that the hook of the blade was caught on the edge. With one rapid jerking motion, I ripped the thing out of Thomas’ chest.
It made a wet ripping sound as I pried it loose. High pressure blood shot out from the new wound like I’d severed an artery. As the runestone was pried loose, what looked like sticky black tar stretched from the opening wound to the runes. I pulled it further out of his chest, and the tar ripped through the middle, withdrawing into the runestone and the new hole in Thomas’ chest.
He gasped and screamed in pain as he came awake, writhing on the table and clutching the wound in his chest. I could see the white of ribs and the pulsing of his pericardium between his fingers. I put the knife away as he convulsed and redrew my handgun. There was blood everywhere. Thomas’ screaming continued unabated, long continuous howls of pain. His breath came in ragged gasps between howls. He threw his head back to suck in air and instead got the barrel of a 1911 shoved into his uvula.
“So this is how this is going to work. I’m going to ask you a few questions. You’re going to answer them. I’ve already threatened you.”
He whimpered for air around the barrel, and his eyes were rolled to the back of his head. Tears rolled down his face, but he finally nodded. I felt fragments of his teeth scraping against the metal of the gun.
“I’m impressed with his gag reflex. Or, lack thereof.”
I pulled the gun out of his mouth. He looked like a hockey player that never learned how to duck.
“Who the fuck are you?” he managed to gasp out.
I pressed the gun against the side of his knee and pulled the trigger. The .45 ACP round smashed apart his patella and ripped through tendons and ligaments. It made a fucking mess. He screamed and screamed.
“I’m the one asking questions here,” I told him once he’d calmed down a bit. “Why?” I asked him. It came out more as a growl than actual words. He gasped and sputtered for a few seconds. I sighed dramatically.
“I’m sick,” he finally whimpered out. “Trying to buy time.” He was in severe shock, body spasming, and his eyes were somewhere far away. I lightly pistol whipped him until I had his complete attention.
“Who gave you the runes?” I asked him.
“I can’t,” he said. I blew out his other knee. I was getting really tired of the soundtrack. I forced the gun back in his mouth and gave him the quiet signal. I ignited the hand in front of my face for emphasis, and let it flicker out. It took Thomas a little longer to calm down this time, but when he finally did I took the gun out of his mouth.
“He’ll kill me,” he said. I almost died laughing. I had to wipe a tear from my eye, and it took a few seconds before I could say, “You really don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
Thomas was staring at a spot just above and behind my shoulder, mouth open and eyes wide. I stepped aside so he could see his wife’s shade completely. She floated silently, a few inches off of the ground. Her hair drifted about her head like seaweed in the ocean. They were silent. Thomas began weeping openly.
“I didn’t mean for--” he started, but I cut him off with a slap.
“Shut the fuck up. You don’t get to say anything. There are no excuses, worm. Who gave you the runes?”
He hung his head, sighed once, and then looked back up at me and said “His name is--” He was cut off once again, but this time by his tongue suddenly swelling up to spill out of his mouth like some massive worm. It kept growing and growing out of his mouth, a dripping pink mass of flesh and muscle choking the breath out of the man. A circular mouth with razor sharp teeth opened at the end as it touched the floor. Then hundreds of spiky black legs burst out of each side of the bottom. The meat and flesh segmented itself off then turned gangrenous black and engorged.
I took a step back from the Necronomicon illustration come to life. The giant centipede slithered out of Thomas’ mouth with a sticky pop. It turned and jumped at his face, making mouth to mouth contact with its giant whirring row of razor teeth. There was a spray of blood, bone, teeth, and lips. The monster consumed Thomas like a wood chipper before my very eyes. It bore back into Thomas’ mouth and down his throat. Two centipede monsters burst out of the hole I’d opened in his chest. They arced back into his groin and up through his body out his back. Over and over again; multiplying each time.
They slithered through, in and out and over the corpse until there was nothing left of Thomas Carter but a writhing black mass of centipedes. They tore through flesh and bone indiscriminately, and finally each other, until there was just one left on the table. It whirled around then ate itself from the tail up. When it got to its own head, it melted into a sticky lump of black ichor in the middle of the sloppy red stain on the table. The whole process took twenty seconds, max.
“Huh,” Damien said.
“I really don’t know how I feel about what just happened,” I replied.
I still had questions, but mostly, I wanted to shower for a few hours and drink myself to sleep after that. I walked over to the runestone where it lay on the floor and picked it up. I’ve only felt a few things in my life that permeated evil to the touch. This was one of them. My skin crawled holding the thing, and an icy knife of cold cut into my belly. I forced myself to study the it, but it was no use. I was going to need time and peace to glean any useful knowledge from the stone. Which meant I would need containment for it too. I took off my shirt and wrapped the runestone.
I looked around the basement and saw Stephanie standing there again, looking at me. With the death of her husband her eyes had turned back to normal instead of pools of shadow. She was silent, but there was a look of understanding that I recognized. She was still stuck, but she was no longer the mad half-soul-half-ghost wandering lost.
She was just dead.
I held out my hand to her. She took it, and we both shuddered. My entire body felt clammy. Stephanie didn’t look too comfortable either.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more,” I said to her.
She nodded to me, and I ignited my hand again. Dragonfire is hot enough to melt anything. Even ghosts. The flame shot up and through her arm, into her chest, and then spread out from there in a fiery web. They grew from her core to her ethereal skin all over in thin, red and orange veins until her entire body was filled with the blazing light.
She smiled, and her smile burst into flame. She burnt out in a flash.
I set fire to the basement and made my way out of the house. By the time I’d made it back to my own, the first story was on fire. By the time I got out of the shower, the whole house had burnt to the ground in spite of all of the firefighters’ best efforts.
It was raining lightly during a gray noon when they buried Stephanie Carter a few days later. We were in a small cemetery in a private lot just north of Charlotte. There was a small group of people in attendance. She’d died of a sudden aneurysm while clubbing in LA. Her parents had had her body flown home to be buried where they could visit their daughter. The pastor’s eulogy blended with the falling of the rain and the gentle gusts of the wind. It was a cold October day
The grave was a fresh scar in the earth, six feet deep and four across. I couldn’t help but see the resemblance between the grave and Stephanie’s eyes the night before. A void without an escape. The coffin was being lowered slowly into the earth. Her father threw the first shovel of dirt. Every person in attendance threw a token amount before the earthmover set to work interring Stephanie for eternity. I stepped away from the shovel and pile of dirt before making my way through the line of congregants and past the deceased parents.
“How did you know our daughter?” they asked me.
“She was a good neighbor,” I replied. I told a few gentle lies and left the funeral quietly. I slipped onto the highway back towards Charlotte to pick Melanie up from the airport.
“Anything exciting happen while I was gone?” she asked me after she’d slid into the passenger seat and kissed me deeply.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” I told her. I took her hand in mine and we drove away from the curb.