An Excerpt From Sparks by Laura Bickle
[ Information on Sparks ]
Death, with a chaser of magic.
Anya wrinkled her nose as the odors burned into her sinuses.
Unmistakable, they awakened a primal fight-or-flight response in the most
primitive part of her brain. She forced one foot in front of the other, her
fingers tightening in a sweaty grip on the handle of her the tool kit. Any
ordinary person would have license to flee from those smells, but Anya had no
choice. She was not ordinary. And this was her job.
The hoarder's house smelled like burned bacon, fetid and greasy. It clung
to the stacks of newspapers littering the kitchen table, the bundles of National
Geographic magazines and cardboard boxes stacked along the walls on the scarred
black and white linoleum. Dishes in the sink were coated in dried-on lemon dish
soap; the garbage reeked of coffee grounds...but all the other odors were
overwhelmed by the stink seeping through the peeling wallpaper.
A knot of cops milled at the back kitchen door. As if some invisible ward
prevented them from crossing the threshold, the uniforms remained steadfastly
outside, their voices kept low, thick with tension. There was none of the
wisecracking and bravado gawkers usually brought. Transfixed, they didn't want
to walk away from the scene, but were unwilling to enter the house.
Someone had cracked open the window over the kitchen sink, allowing a
breeze to creep through. Anya reached over the dishes to pry it open further,
hoping to dispel the odor. A hazy film covering the glass obscured her
reflection. Her latex-covered fingers smeared the glass, thick with grease. In
spite of her gloves, the slickness of it made her skin crawl.
Anya tipped her head. A fringe of chin-length sable hair curtained
her amber-colored eyes. Her hair had burned off six months ago, and was now at
that annoying stage where it still wasn't long enough to pull back into a
ponytail. She shoved it behind her ear with the back of her clean hand. The
motion revealed a copper torque peeking out over the edge of her hazmat suit.
The metal salamander curled around her neck, grasping its tail in a deep "V"
above her collarbone. The collar always felt warmer than her skin, pulsing with
its own presence. The salamander torque was always most active around death; she
was certain it smelled the death as acutely as she did. For the moment, she
"Thought you'd enjoy this one, Kalinczyk."
Captain Marsh dumped a tackle box of tools on the kitchen table. Even
in these stiflingly close quarters, her supervisor wore his firefighter's coat
open over an immaculately-pressed white shirt and tie.
Anya's brow arched. "Something stunk, and you automatically thought
Marsh's mahogany face creased in a grin. "I thought it might have
spooked some of the other fire investigators." He crossed his arms over his
crisp shirt. "But seriously...we need for this to be kept low-key. Quiet."
She glanced at the cluttered, humble surroundings, brow creasing. There
was nothing in the scene that suggested to her a need for secrecy. Sadness,
perhaps...but not secrecy. And she was certain none of the others could taste
the sharp tang of magick in the air, distinct as ozone. "What's the back story?"
"This house belongs to a seventy-two-year-old man, Jasper Bernard. A
neighbor called 911 because she saw strange lights and thought burglars might
have broken in."
Anya gestured to the kitchen table with her chin, looking askance.
"Does he have anything worth stealing? Anything that could be found in this
"Yeah, well." Marsh spread his hands. "I guess she could tell that
something was different. Police tried the front door, and no one answered. All
the doors and windows were locked. When they peered into the windows with their
flashlights, they saw evidence of fire in the living room, and broke in."
"They saw fire?"
Marsh shook his head. "No. Just char and ash. The fire was long cold.
So was Bernard."
"What did Bernard die of? Smoke inhalation?" Anya envisioned an old
man dead on his couch of a fire started by a forgotten lit cigarette. As far as
ways to die went, suffocating in one's sleep was not the worst way to go. Anya
had seen much worse. Though she knew the official coroner's report wouldn't be
available for a few days, a preliminary opinion would help her move forward with
Marsh nervously scrubbed his palm over the scar crossing his bald head.
Marsh was rarely nervous, but Anya recognized the unconscious gesture. "No."
"Burns?" Anya winced. There were only two ways to die in a fire:
burning or asphyxiation. Burns were the worst.
"You gotta see this for yourself." He jabbed a thumb at the six-panel door off
the kitchen. It stood ajar, and only cool shade stretched beyond. "That way."
Heat had lifted the paint into bubbles that burst like blisters under
her fingertips. She pushed the door open, sucked in a breath as her eyes
adjusted to the half-darkness.
The living room was a packrat's nest. Above, a bare light bulb had
melted in its ceiling socket. Painted-shut windows had been forced open,
allowing gray light to ribbon through bent blinds, over pressboard shelves
warping under the weight of books. Anya scanned the titles, but most of them
were in incomprehensible Latin. Sculpted shag carpeting was mottled under the
weight of years of dirt and too few vacuumings. Unopened mail rattled on a dusty
credenza, envelopes curling in a breeze that failed to chase out the bitter reek
As disorganized as the room appeared, the scene was surprisingly
intact from a forensic viewpoint. No scorch marks blackened the walls. It was
unlikely that someone could have actually died of burns or smoke inhalation in a
room showing so little damage. Only a swirl of carbon smoke stained the ceiling,
surrounding the melted light bulb over the couch.
Anya frowned. Maybe the old man had a heart attack. Maybe he'd died
of cancer. Or drug overdose. Surely, the autopsy would reveal something other
than burns or smoke inhalation...there simply wasn't a big enough fire here to
traumatize a mobile adult.
The threadbare couch faced away from Anya, toward a fireplace. The fireplace
mantel sagged under an odd assortment of objects: a clutch of brass keys
dripping over the edge like the limbs of a spider; a Tiki god beaming over his
domain of clutter; a tarnished sword with an elaborate gilt hilt. Smoke had
stained a collection of bottles in various sizes and shapes. They were now all
the color of gray quartz, nearly concealing their contents: the gleam of bones
suspended in liquid.
Anya's skin crawled. These things smelled like magick, like rust and salt. Old
magick. Not the new, ozone tang of fresh-brewed magick that she had smelled in
the kitchen. Anya picked her way around the couch for a better look, and nearly
stepped into the remains of Jasper Bernard.
Not that there was much of him. A greasy black burn mark spread from the
middle couch cushion to the floor, scorching the carpet. A pair of feet in black
socks and blue slippers extended from the bottom of the stain. Squinting, she
could make out a few finger bones from a right hand at the perimeter of the
scorch, but nothing else of Jasper Bernard remained. The burn had scorched
through the carpet, leaving white ash on the unmarked hardwood floor. In front
of the slippers sat an unharmed TV tray, a microwaved dinner preserved in its
compartmentalized plate. Meatloaf and green beans, from the looks of it.
She rocked back on her heels, breathing: "Holy shit." This wasn't a natural
fire. It wasn't even a possible fire. Human bodies didn't burn like that, not
even when they were doused with gasoline and set ablaze in cars. There was
always something left behind. Nothing burned like that, even in crematories.
Crematories had to physically pulverize the remains to get them into a
box...where the hell had Bernard's remains disappeared to?
She knelt to stare incredulously at Bernard's feet. Through a hole in his
sock, she could see pink flesh. The intense heat that that had reduced his body
to ash hadn't touched the lint underneath his perfectly-intact toenail.
Marsh's steps scuffed up dust from the carpet behind her. "Is this what I
think it is?"
If it was, it was the Holy Grail of fire investigation. She hedged. She
hadn't seen enough of the scene to be positive. "I don't know for sure. We need
to collect more evidence, but it has all the hallmarks of it."
"Of what?" He pressed harder, leaning forward on his now-dusty
spit-shined shoes. He didn't want to be the first one to say it, the first one
to step off the cliff into an irrational explanation.
She swallowed, kept her voice so low that the uniforms eavesdropping past
the open door couldn't hear: "Spontaneous human combustion."
Silence stretched. She couldn't believe she'd said it.
Marsh gestured to the open windows. "That's what the uniforms are
saying. That's what the press would say if they knew." He looked down at the
hole in the carpet where a human had once sat, preparing to eat his TV dinner.
"Find the truth. Disprove it."
She rocked back on her heels, voice dry. It was too soon to even
begin conjecture, and she resented being pushed. "Sir. I haven't even begun to
seriously consider any theory..."
"Find a reasonable explanation for this. Take the time and resources
you need, but make this go away." His gaze drifted out the window to the
darkening skyline. Somewhere out there a siren whined. "Detroit doesn't need any
more things that go bump in the night."
Marsh was right. Anya stared down at the cinders, thinking that Marsh
didn't know half the things that wandered unseen in the city. If anyone else
really knew what she knew...she smothered a shudder. Ordinary people had no idea
of what lay underneath the skin of Detroit's sad normalcy.
Anya wasn't ordinary, much as she wished she were.
Her attention wandered over Bernard's collection of bottles. By the
look of things, Bernard hadn't been ordinary, either.
Voices rattled from the kitchen door in argument. Marsh peered
through the bent blinds, muttered: "The press is here."
"News van just pulled up outside beside the squad cars. Someone must
have tipped them off," Marsh growled, heading for the door. "Work the scene.
I'll handle the press."
The wooden door clicked shut behind him, leaving Anya alone with
She pulled her camera from her kit, aimed it toward the door. In the snap
of the shutter and the bleed of light through the blinds, she gathered her
thoughts as she circled the scene. She blotted out the voices filtering into the
room, listening to the creak of heat-warped floorboards underfoot as she minced
through Jasper's clutter. Making sure each frame of the last shot overlapped
with the next, her camera lens devoured the images of a sad, ordinary life:
bills stacked in piles; a wall clock with glow-in-the-dark numerals tapping out
the time; a roll of curling stamps; a cardboard box full of record albums, the
vinyl curled from the heat.
To say nothing of the extraordinary things...augmented through the
camera lens, Anya's eyes swept over an elaborately-enameled terra cotta figure
of a Fu Dog with a broken paw; a plastic zipper bag full of antique coins that
seethed like scales when she shook it. A wand of selenite crystal, long as her
forearm and slender as her finger, rested on a battered desk, shimmering in the
sunlight. A filigreed silver bottle the size of her hand was attached to a
stopper on a tarnished chain. To Anya's sensitive eye, these things swirled
under a layer of dust, pulsing of mysteries of the ages and magick.
Anya peered through the gap in the blinds. On the street, she could
see Marsh looming over a man with a minicam, while cops were stringing yellow
tape. The man with a minicam looked persistent, beads of sweat from his
well-gelled hair dripping down his neck and onto his expensive jacket. Anya
thought she recognized him as one of the evening newscasters.
The reporter looked at the blinds, like a bloodhound sensing
movement. Anya retreated into the shade of the room, but not before the blinds
scraped the bottom of the windowsill.
In an old house of this era, marble window sills were common, white
stone skin crossed by black veins. But something about the pattern caught her
eye, and she gently tugged up the blind cord.
A fine line of salt had been sprinkled on the window ledge, where it
had barely been disturbed by breeze.
Anya frowned. She was no witch or magick-worker, but Anya knew a ward
when she saw it. Bernard had been afraid of something magickal, of something
magickal getting into his house...though there were plenty of magickal things
already in his house.
It would take forever to process this scene, and to guess at which of
those things might have gotten out of his control...enough to kill him.
Aiming the lens at the ceiling, Anya shot a picture of the light bulb
over the couch. The bulb troubled her. In any normal fire, the heat would cause
the glass to break or warp. If it warped, it would twist toward the source of
the greatest heat, the ignition point of the fire.
But this bulb dripped straight down over the couch. Like a bead of
sweat on a runner's nose, a piece of glass had frozen in mid-dribble, pointing
to Bernard's remains.
The fire could not have started there. Could not.
Anya's finger cramped on the shutter switch as she snapped the greasy
black stain from every angle. The ceiling had a sheen, as if it had been freshly
painted, and she squinted at it. Nothing in this house had been painted in
years. Could it be the trace of an accelerant, an exotic chemical trace that
hadn't burned cleanly away, as gasoline or propane might?
The same gleam glistened on the underside of the TV tray table,
snagging her attention. Anya squinted at the sheen, touched it. It was still
warm, smelling like candle wax and raw meat. Startled, she realized that it was
the source of the unusual smell she'd discovered when she'd entered the house.
This residue was what covered the kitchen windows, filmed over the plaster
walls. It wasn't an accelerant, at least, not in the conventional sense.
Fat. It was Bernard's burned body fat, evaporated and settled onto
Anya's stomach churned. She'd only read about this kind of thing in
textbooks. Called the "wick effect," a human body theoretically could smolder
for hours, feeding on its own fat. Theoretically.
But where was the original spark? What could have ignited the man in
the first place?
Her gaze passed over the untouched dinner in its tray, moved to the
fireplace. That would be the obvious place to look. On her hands and knees, she
shone a flashlight up into the firebox. Through her gloved hands, the hearth
felt cool as stone, colder than the TV table closer to the body.
This wasn't the source. But she smelled the bitter tang of magick
here, more strongly. After carefully recording the condition of the firebox and
hearth with her camera, Anya pulled a pair of stainless-steel barbecue tongs
from her kit and dug into the blackened ashes of the hearth.
A lot of paper had been burned here. Fragments flaked away,
irretrievable. Anya was amazed that Bernard ever disposed of anything. Whatever
this was, it must have been important for him to destroy. From the grate, she
plucked a corner of an envelope, frowned. Bernard seemed to have stockpiled all
of his junk mail. With tweezers, she pulled a scrap of green paper from
A check. The watermark was unmistakable. In the upper left hand
corner, a name was legible: Miracles for the Masses. The address was for a
location in Detroit's warehouse district.
She placed the scraps into an empty paint can to go to the lab for
analysis and continued her poking around in the ash. Her tongs rang against
something with a note like a bell: glass.
From the grate, Anya pulled the neck of a shattered bottle, charred
black. It was smaller than a wine bottle, stoppered with an ornamental silver
seal. Whatever it contained was obscured by the carbon black skin coating it.
She turned the broken edge toward the light.
Around her throat, something fluttered. Anya's hand slipped up to the
metal collar around her neck. A warm shape inside the metal shifted, peeled away
from her neck. Delicate salamander toes unfurled and marched down her shoulder,
as the metal hissed and released a living creature. Taking the shape of a
hellbender, a fire elemental salamander leapt to the hearth, growling at the
magick-soaked bottle in the grate. His tongue flickered into the black of the
firebox, and he incandesced with an amber glow.
"Sparky," she hissed. She had no fear that Marsh or any other living
creature could see him; Sparky was invisible to ordinary humans. But Sparky only
bothered to wake himself up under three conditions: when it suited his
preternatural whims, when ghosts were around, and when danger was near.
Anya swallowed. As if handling a piece of radioactive debris, Anya
placed the fragment of the bottle on the hearth. Sparky stalked toward it, his
feathery gill-fronds flaring. His tongue flickered over the carbon on its
Anya held her breath, watching for Sparky's reaction. She knew he
smelled the magick on it, too. But she had no way of knowing how dangerous that
broken bottle really was. For all she knew, it could be a magickal time bomb...a
bomb that blew up Jasper Bernard. A bomb that could still be active.
Sparky turned around, presented his speckled rump to the artifact. He
scraped his back feet at the ash disdainfully, as if he were a cat burying a
turd in a litter box.
Anya rolled her eyes. The salamander couldn't speak, but he managed
to be expressive, just the same. Perhaps the bottle wasn't a source of danger;
perhaps the elemental was busy expressing himself and being a pain in the ass.
Or...Anya looked around the room, back at the grease stain that had
once been Jasper Bernard.
Anya whispered at the stain: "You still here, Bernard?"
Perhaps Sparky was picking up on something else that had disturbed
his nap. Perhaps Jasper Bernard hadn't gone peacefully to the afterworld, and
was still hanging around. If so, she could talk to him, get the real story of
how he'd managed to dissolve himself from this plane of existence and leave just
his foot and slipper behind.
A translucent orb welled up in the grease stain: a balding head and
bespectacled eyes. Anya noted that a piece of electrical tape held one side of
the glasses together.
"Jasper Bernard?" Anya asked quietly. She didn't want to startle him.
The freshly-dead were always skittish as feral cats, and she expected Bernard to
be no different. She could feel Sparky slithering behind her legs, and she stood
on his tail to keep him from crawling forward and scaring the ghost off.
"Everyone calls me Bernie. You...you can see me?"
"Yes, I can see you."
The phosphorescent eyes shifted right and left, and panic twitched
through his voice. "The cops didn't see me. The firemen didn't see me. How can
you see me?"
Anya crouched beside the stain in the floor, conscious of Sparky
straining beside her. "I'm a medium...of sorts. I can see spirits and talk with
Bernard's eyes narrowed in assessment. "I've met mediums. You're more
Anya chewed on her lower lip. She didn't want to panic Bernie, but
she didn't have time to construct a plausible lie. "I'm a Lantern. Ghosts are
drawn to me." Anya deliberately left the other part out, the part about how she
could destroy what remained of his spirit with little more than a breath.
Spirits came to her, moths to the flame, and--if needed--she incinerated them.
The frightened eyes peered over a bifocal glass line at the
salamander. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Um. This is Sparky. He's my friend." My friend who would also like
to have you for lunch.
Sparky growled at him.
"A salamander? How did you ever tame one of those?" Curiosity and a note
of avarice lit in the ghost's voice.
"I, uh, have had him since I was a child." Again, not the whole
truth, but Bernard didn't need to know the whole truth. Nor could Sparky be
really considered "tame." Anya eyed him suspiciously. "What do you know about
Bernie's fingertips steepled above the oily black pool. "I'm a
collector, of sorts."
Anya glanced at the bottles over the fireplace. "A collector?"
"A purveyor of magickal artifacts."
Anya protectively angled her hip before Sparky. "That's why this
place stinks of magick."
Haughty eyebrows wrinkled over the glasses. "My house does not
"Bernie." Anya crouched before the spirit, mindful not to disturb the
grease stain with her knees. Bernie might not have fully digested the knowledge
that he was dead, and she didn't want to send what was left of his personality
into a tailspin before she could extract some useful information. "Is that what
happened to you? Bad magick?"
"I remember...the fire." Bernard's lower lip turned down and began to
dribble off the side of his face. The force of the recollection was beginning to
She'd have to work quickly. "Do you remember what started it?" Anya
pressed him. "Were you burning something in the grate? Smoking?"
Despite Bernie's magickal surroundings, experience had taught Anya to
seek the most mundane explanations first.
The ghost shook his head. "It wasn't me. It was her." The eyes behind
the glasses rolled upward. "Wait. If you can see me, can she see me?"
"Can who see you?"
Ghostly fingers gnawed at the edge of the stain. Bernard's eyes
flicked to the ceiling. "Oh, shit..."
The ceiling opened up, a vortex of wind reaching toward the floor,
cold as the breath of winter. The vortex didn't disturb any of the physical
surroundings, but it reached for Bernie as surely as a child rooted through a
toy box for a favorite plaything. Like a marionette jerked on its strings,
Bernie's ghostly body was yanked out of the floor. His body, clad in pajamas and
a chenille robe, flailed in resistance to the invisible force.
Anya lunged forward, instinctively reaching for the ghost. Sparky
grasped Bernie's pant leg with his teeth, growling. The salamander pulled back
with all his might, struggling to ground Bernie to the ruined floor. But the old
man was rising like a helium balloon, and Anya didn't know how much longer they
could hold him. The reek of sour magick, like expired milk, made her gag.
Bernie pedaled in the air, his fingers beginning to char. Ghostly
flames licked under the collar of his robe, and the chenille burst into flame.
"Don't let her find the vessel!" Bernie shouted.
The artifacts dealer was yanked from Sparky's grip and fizzled away
into the ether. The hole in the ceiling closed up, leaving the room ringing in
Anya landed on her butt on the stained carpet, slack-jawed. Frigid
air steamed from her mouth. She'd seen ghosts disincorporate as the result of
exorcisms, or willingly, when they chose to walk into the afterlife. But she'd
never seen anything like this, nothing so violent. The ghost had been sucked up
like an ant in a vacuum cleaner, but...to where?
"Bernie?" she called, into the half-light of the room.
No one answered her.
Sparky waddled to the stain covering Bernie's ruined carpet. He
circled it twice, and began scratching it with his back feet, as if he were
burying another dead thing.
[ Top ]
[ Information on Sparks ]
Copyright © 2010, Laura Bickle.
All Rights Reserved.