Juno Books

An Excerpt from Embers by Laura Bickle

[ Information on Embers ]

Chapter One

Truth burned.

It always burned, even in the dark, cold hours of the morning when nearly everything slept.

Anya stood on the doorstep of the haunted house, hands jammed into her pockets, stifling a yawn. She'd taken a cab, not wanting her license plates to be seen and recorded in the vicinity. The cab had peeled away, red lights receding down the gray street. The two-story brown brick house before her looked like every other house on the block, windows and doors ribboned in iron bars. Cables from the beat-up panel van parked curbside snaked under the front door, but no light shined inside. Empty plastic bags drifted over the cracked sidewalk until trapped by a low iron fence.

She poked the doorbell. Inside, she heard the echo of the chime, the responding scrape of movement. Anya wiped her feet on the doormat duct-taped to the painted stoop, waiting.

A lamp clicked on inside the house, and the door opened a crack. "Thanks for coming," the masculine voice behind the door said.

"It's not like I could say no."

That was the truth; it was not as if she could turn down what they asked, even if she wanted to. She held back a larger truth that scalded her throat: And I wish you would stop calling. I wish you would stop asking me to do this.

Anya stepped over the cords into the circle of yellow light cast by a lamp with a barrel-shaped shade in the living room. The shade's wire skeleton cast dark spokes on the ceiling, illuminating a water stain that had been carefully painted over. But the water had still seeped through, yellowing the popcorn ceiling. A wooden console television sat dark and silent as a giant bug in the corner, rabbit-ear antennae turned north and east, listening for a dead signal. A shabby plaid couch dominated the room, covered with out-of-place pieces of tech equipment: electromagnetic field readers, digital voice recorders, compact video cameras. Laptop computers were propped up on TV-tray tables, casting rectangles of blue light on the walls.

Anya's gaze drifted to the video cameras, then shied away. "I don't want to be recorded."

"We know."

Jules, the leader of the Detroit Area Ghost Researchers, leaned against the wall, nursing a cup of coffee. No one would ever suspect Jules to be so deeply interested in the paranormal that he would lead a group of ghost hunters. He was the epitome of an ordinary guy: early forties, slight paunch covered by a blue polo shirt, well-worn jeans. A tattoo of a cross peeked out underneath his sleeve. Exhaustion creased the mahogany face underneath the Detroit Tigers baseball cap. Judging by the amount of equipment and the rolled-up sleeping bags in the corners, DAGR had spent a number of nights here.

Anya perched on the edge of the couch, rubbed her amber-colored eyes. "What's the story?"

Jules took a swig of his coffee, creamer clinging to his dark moustache. "We first took the case two weeks ago... the little old lady that lives in the house was convinced that her dead husband was coming back to haunt her. She described lights turning off of their own accord, dark shapes in the mirrors."

"Did she come to you or did you find her?"

"I found her." Jules worked as gas meter reader in his day job. He had a knack for easy conversation, and people instinctively trusted him. Anya suspected he might have some latent psychic talent in getting a feel for places and people. He had an affinity for most people, anyway. Jules seemed wary of Anya. She didn't think he liked her much or thought very highly of her methods. But she got the job done when Jules couldn't.

"She's got a basement meter and was afraid to go down there all by herself. Neighbor lady who used to do her laundry won't do it anymore...said a lightbulb exploded while she was loading the washer." Jules took a sip of his coffee.

"What evidence have you found?" Anya asked.

Brian, DAGR's tech specialist, peered over one of his computer screens and took off a pair of headphones. "Come see."

Anya sat beside him on the sagging couch that smelled like lavender. Brian scrolled through some digital video; she assumed it to hade come from a fixed-camera shot of the basement stairs. A flashlight beam washed down the steps, green in the contrasting false color tones of night-vision footage. The glow from the screen highlighted the planes and angles of Brian's face. Anya noted the circles under his blue eyes and his mussed brown hair. She thought she smelled the mint of the caffeinated shower soap he favored still clinging to him.

Anya never asked where Brian got all his techno-toys. She knew that most of DAGR's clients had little money and donations were few and far between. DAGR was more likely to be paid with an apple pie than cash. She suspected that Brian borrowed much of it from his day job at the university. Apparently, the eggheads in the IT department never seemed to notice that things kept disappearing into Brian's van.

The footage paused, fell dark green once more. In the well of jade darkness under the stairs, something moved. The shape of a hand clawed up over one of the upper steps, then receded.

"Weird," Anya breathed, resting her heart-shaped face in her hand. "What else have you got?"

"This." Brian handed her his headphones, still warm from his ears. Anya fitted them over her head, listened to a static hum of low-level white noise that barely vibrated an on-screen noise meter.

"I don't--"

"Wait for it."

There. A hiss shivered the line on the meter. A voice--reedy and snarling--ripped the volume line to the top of the meter: "Mine."

Anya frowned. "Can I hear it again?"

Brian backed the tape up. Static hummed, something hissed, and the voice repeated: "Mine."

Anya pulled the headphones off, disentangling them from her sleep-tousled chestnut hair. Her hair caught on the copper salamander torque she wore around her neck and she gently unsnarled it. The salamander gripped its tail in its front paws, the tail sinuously curling down to disappear between Anya's breasts. The metal, as always, felt warm to the touch. "Did you guys provoke it?"

"Of course. We told it that it was ugly and that its transvestite mama dresses it funny." The youngest member of the group, Max, grinned at her, megawatt smile splitting his brown face. He'd been exiled to the floor, hands wound in his warm-up jacket, his sneakers and long legs tucked under one of Brian's TV tables.

Jules smacked him on the back of the head. "Max got too mouthy with it. Started in on the 'your mama' jokes while I was reading the scriptures to it."

Max ducked. He was still on probation and was very close to getting booted from the group. Anya hoped the kid would stay, that he would eventually fill the spot on DAGR's roster from which she was trying to extricate herself. Though no one could do exactly what she could do, it would be good for them to have someone new to focus on.

"So...what is it, exactly?" Anya asked, redirecting the conversation from Max's punishment to the matter at hand.

"We don't think it's the old lady's husband." Katie's hushed voice came from the darkened kitchen as she pushed Ciro's wheelchair across the wrinkled olive-colored carpet. Katie was DAGR's witch. She was dressed in jeans and a patchwork blouse, her blond hair curled over her back, tied with black velvet ribbons. A silver pentacle hung just below her throat, gleaming in the dim light. "It feels like an impostor, something toying with her."

Ciro folded his gnarled ebony hands over the blanket in his lap. The light from Brian's computers washed over his small-framed glasses, and he smiled at Anya. "Hello, Anya."

"Hi, Ciro." Anya crossed to the old man and gave him a hug. He felt more fragile than the last time she'd seen him. It had to be a serious event for Ciro to be here... he was the group's on-call demonologist. And he was the one who had brought them all together, over Jules's objections. Ciro understood, more than anyone else, what it cost Anya to be here with them.

Anya put her hand on Ciro's thin shoulder. "Is it a demon, then?"

Ciro shook his head. "I don't think so. I think it's one pissed-off malevolent spirit that's moved in. The woman's grief opened the door... but it's a tough bastard."

"You tried to drive it out already?"

Katie nodded. "Salt, bells... we even brought in a priest. It's rooted here and we can't dig it out." From the corner of her eye, Anya watched Jules frown at Katie. He didn't think much of Katie's methods, either. Jules preferred to put the fear of God--or at least his version of it--into ghosts to scare them out the windows, but that seemed to be working less and less. Anya observed the carbon stains worked into Katie's fingernails. The witch had been trying hard, but all her spells and incantations had also failed to drive it away. This had been happening more and more often in recent months: recalcitrant, restless spirits that just wouldn't let go. Once a spirit had chosen to hang on, after all efforts to convince it otherwise, there was no choice but to remove it by force.

"The old lady wants it gone?" Anya asked, just to be certain. There was always the possibility that the old woman's attachment prevented it from leaving. Perhaps, in her loneliness, she'd taken in a spiritual boarder. Anya understood how isolation could cause a person to unwittingly do things contrary to one's best interests. An empty, silent house left a lot of room for ruminations, for regrets. And, sometimes, sinister things could move into those spaces.

"She wants it out. She wants to sell the house and move to Florida." Ciro smiled. "I'm jealous."

"Will you do it?" Jules's expression was pinched. "Will you get rid of it?"

Get rid of it ... that sounded so tidy. So clean. Like taking out the garbage. Ciro glanced sidelong at her, the only one with an inkling of what this cost her, over and over again.

"Okay." Anya shrugged off her coat. "Take me to it."

Anya's step creaked on the basement stairs. Her boots crunched on the eggshell fragments of broken glass... the remains of the overhead lightbulb, she guessed. She smelled the cinnamon tang of Katie's crushed magick, rotting in the dark. Behind her, the basement door closed off the dim light from the kitchen, leaving Anya in darkness.

Anya clicked on her flashlight, swept it down the stairs. Shadows shrank, pulling back behind the washer and dryer. She smelled moldering potatoes and onions, dampness on the dirt floor... and pickles. Her brow wrinkled. Dozens of canning jars were arranged on a wooden shelf, most of them shattered, some cracked and still drizzling glass and vinegar to the now-filthy concrete floor. A waste of perfectly good pickles, Anya thought, stomach grumbling.

Overhead, a flexible dryer duct threaded through the unfinished ceiling. Boxes of Christmas decorations lined the walls. Old dresses, carefully encased in plastic bags, were neatly hung from lengths of overhead pipe. A scarred workbench, which must have belonged to the old man, stood in the corner, its tools stilled. This place was the vault of the old woman's memories; no wonder the malevolent spirit had found a home here, in all the dust and emotion of years. Fertile ground for a wandering spirit.

"Another witch?" Something giggled from beneath the stairs.

"No, not another witch." Anya's salamander torque burned her neck causing prickling sweat. The heat uncurled from the torque around her neck, spiraled down her arm, and leaped lightly to the steps. A fire spirit, a salamander, was unleashed from the necklace. He shimmered with semi-transparent amber light, large as a Rottweiler. Sparky took the shape of the massive speckled salamanders found in mountain streams, the monsters that mountain folks called hellbenders. His size and shape were as mutable as flame, but the hellbender was one of his favorite forms, although Sparky modified even that shape to suit his needs or fancy. Head as large as a shovel, body as thick as a tree, Sparky's tail sizzled around Anya's knee, his tongue flicking into the darkness. Sparky was invisible to most people, although Katie could sense him and Brian could read the temperature changes he invoked on his instruments. But Sparky was not invisible to the thing under the stairs.

The spirit hissed. "Elemental."

"This is your last chance," Anya said. "Get out, now. Or I will destroy you."

The spirit snarled: "Mine."

Anya sighed. Just once, she wanted one to go out easy. One spirit that hadn't been aggravated and goaded beyond all reason, one spirit to just go away when she told it to. Nice and quiet, for a change.

She strode down the steps, Sparky flowing before her. Under the steps, the spirit thumped against the risers as she walked, trying to intimidate her. Anya ignored it, descending with an even stride. She would not give it the satisfaction of rattling her.

A board splintered, then broke. Anya stumbled, tripping over the shards of wood. Sparky flung himself across the foot of the stairs, breaking her fall. Her flashlight bounced down the stairs, went dark, and rolled away in the darkness. She landed in a tangle of hot salamander skin and her own boots on the cold concrete floor, unhurt in the glass and pickle juice, but irritated. The only light remaining was Sparky's glow, dimmer and more diffuse than the flashlight.

The thing under the stairs snickered.

The doorknob at the top of the stairs rattled, wouldn't open. The sound of something heavy striking the door echoed like a gunshot. Jules' voice filtered down through the door: "Anya? You okay?"

"I'm fine," she answered, picking herself off the floor and brushing glass from her hands and jeans. "Leave us be."

Sparky orbited around her, a curling mass of light. He hissed, a sound that rolled the loose, mottled skin on his body. Fernlike gills on the sides of his head fanned out, primitive and fearsome. He cast enough light for her to see by, a soft gold light of distant fire.

The basement spirit was stronger than she'd thought. She imagined the owner of the house facing this thing alone, and bristled at its arrogance. Power like that could have crippled or killed the old woman.

As for what it had done to the pickles... blasphemy.

Anya rounded the corner to peer under the stairs and her breath snagged in her throat. The knot of darkness under the steps radiated cold, smacking her as if she'd just opened a door and stepped outside into winter. Her warm breath steamed as she exhaled, hands on her hips, staring at the old-fashioned soda pop machine underneath the stairs. It was scarred and dented, painted with a picture of a perky woman in sunglasses and a headscarf holding a glass bottle. Flowing white script exhorted customers to "Drink up!" The coin slot stated that pop was ten cents. This forgotten antique would have been worth a fortune at auction, but it also made a very nice home for a malevolent spirit.

Anya kicked the picture of the smiling woman. "You. Get the hell out of there." She was tired, smelled like pickles, and was beginning to get pissed. She had an early shift in the morning and should be safely in dreamland, not beating up on a pop machine.

The machine spat out a glass soda bottle. It exploded against the floor like a small grenade. Anya jumped back. Cold, sticky fluid splashed over her boot.

Within the machine, she could hear more glass bottles ratcheting into position. Sparky shoved her behind the workbench as a volley of glass shattered against the cinder-block wall and the raw wood surface of the bench. Bolts and screws clattered off the table in a metallic rain, plinking as they dripped to the floor. Sparky's head peeped over a drill press, tail lashing.

Anya growled. "Enough of these tantrums."

When the machine clicked empty, Anya and Sparky leaped from behind the workbench to charge the machine. The machine rattled, rocking back and forth. From the corner of her eye, Anya could see that it wasn't plugged in... the cord lay coiled on the floor. Sparky snapped at the cord that slithered to life, curling across the cement.

Anya slapped her left hand to the cold surface of the machine, pressed her right to her heart. She felt a familiar heat in her chest, felt it burn in her throat. She breathed it in, allowing it to rise and suffuse her, feeling it crackle in her hands as the unearthly glow washed over her. Her amber aura expanded, winged out like a cloak, and a hole opened above her heart. The flame inside her roared, reaching for the pathetic, pickle-smashing ghost.

She could feel the cold spirit in the soda machine, cool and slippery as liquid. Ghost-fire flickered at her fingertips and she could feel the small, petulant shape of the spirit in the dark. Anya drew the ghost into her chest with an inhalation, feeling it icy against her throat. Like swallowing an ice cube whole, she felt it stick, melt, and glide down into her empty chest. Devouring it, she allowed the fire in her heart to immolate it, burning it to ash.

She stepped back, breathing deep. Her body steamed in the chill, and she smelled burnt things. Her incandescing aura settled around her like a second skin, then dwindled. Sparky, victorious over the limp electrical cord on the floor, slithered to Anya's side. He faded to a fine golden mist, curling up over her arm and solidifying around her neck once again. Shivering, Anya was grateful for his warmth.

Anya was the rarest type of medium: a Lantern. Spirits were inexorably drawn to her, moths to the flame. That was common enough among most types of mediums. Ordinary mediums could allow spirits to wear their skins at will, to use their voices, their hands; to surrender their bodies to another spirit. Anya shuddered to imagine allowing a spirit that kind of control.

But Lanterns were unusual. She had never met another Lantern. She only knew the term from her conversations with Ciro. It was not a role she relished playing. Katie had said that Anya had the blessing of fire upon her. Like a human bug zapper, she took spirits into her inner elemental light and devoured them, incinerating them. She hated the cold touch of spirits in her throat; they tasted hard and metallic, like water with too much iron. After devouring one, it seemed that days would pass before she could feel truly warm again.

"Couldn't go easy, could you?" Anya bent to retrieve her flashlight, then viciously kicked the winking woman on the soda machine. Her boot left a scuff mark on the woman's chin.

The front of the machine sprang open like a refrigerator door, startling her. Skin prickling, she shined her flashlight into the metal void, swallowing hard.

At first, she thought it was a doll stuffed inside the machine, curled in the fetal position. But she was not to be that lucky tonight. Blood pounded in her ears. Closer inspection showed the desiccated corpse of a child, dry as a milkweed husk. Tattered lace at the hem of a dress moved, disturbed by Anya's breath. Plastic barrettes clasped braids in the child's black hair. Leather sneakers the size of Anya's hand were curled up against the wall of the machine. The girl had clearly been here for decades, missing and forgotten. Perhaps a game of hide-and-seek gone wrong. Perhaps a homicide. There was no way to know, now.

Anya wiped her fingerprints from the front of the door with her sleeve, watching her arm shake. She didn't want the police to know she'd been here. It would raise too many questions. DAGR would have to notify the police. They had better cover for her, not reveal that she had been here. She worried about what the shock of this discovery would do to the old pickle woman who was afraid to do her laundry in the basement... if she was innocent of putting the girl in the pop machine.

Dimly, she still heard pounding on the door above. Finally, it splintered away, and footsteps thundered down the broken stairs.

"Watch the step!" she called, too late. Max jammed his foot in the breach and fell half through the stairs. Jules tried to reel him in, reaming him out for going first.

Anya stared at her feet. She reeked of pickles. Her hands were sticky with decades-old cola, and her hair was peppered with glass.

And now, a dead child. Not a good night.

She stared, blinking at the ceiling, vowing to stop answering DAGR's calls. DAGR's calls always led to strange truths, and she was tired of digging for them.

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Copyright © 2010, Laura Bickle. All Rights Reserved.

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