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  • H.K. Slade

House in the Snow

Note: This story was originally published in Black Cat Weekly #81

Who doesn't love a ghost story?

Akayla Daniels is the protagonist from one of my favorite stories of last year, A New Evil. I liked the world of occult-meets-cop set in the late 21st century so much that I decided to give Akayla her very own book. Before I could dig into the year-long process of writing that book, I needed to figure out who she was. That worked out great, because after the events of A New Evil, so did Akayla.

For a setting, I reached back to the memory of visiting the house my father grew up in. He was born to poor tobacco farmers during the Great Depression. Back in the 1980s, we loaded up the car and went on a pilgrimage to the family farm. The old farmhouse was in ruins, cracked open and deteriorated by decades of harsh weather and neglect. For him, the place had memories of childhood, happy and sad. To me, it was terrifying.

I hope you enjoy this gap-year ghost story with the disgraced detective Akayla Daniels as she tries to find her footing with the mysterious Kinston Collective.

You have arrived at your destination.

Now I just needed to figure out what the hell I was doing at a ShopWright Center in the middle of Nowhere, Tennessee. The obvious answer was that this was where I’d been dispatched by my new employer, the mysterious Kinston Collective, but that didn’t answer the question of how I’d gotten there. I couldn’t seem to remember all the twists and turns the car or my life had taken to put me in the parking lot of a Podunk grocery center.

I should have turned around and cut my losses, except… for all the years I’d spent on the job, I didn’t have a lot to recommend me as a detective other than that I maintained my forward momentum. “Akayla Daniels sees things through,” my old partner Quinton used to tell people. As with most things, he was overly generous but not wrong. Getting out of the car and marching into the grocery center wasn’t an act of bravery for me, or faith. It was just habit.

There was a bitterness to the day. When I coughed, as women of my age are apt to do, the cold burned my lungs. It was busy for a weekday, but that didn’t make it lively. Maybe it was all the gray and concrete, maybe it was the lack of the buzzing drones I’d grown so used to in the city, but the place felt dead.

“Hey, yo!” The voice came from the front of the line of cars waiting to pick up orders where a burly man slinging boxes waved in my direction.

“You can’t just rock up in here and snatch stuff off the shelves,” he said with far more confidence than a thirty-year-old grocery loader should have any right to. “You got to link your order in, then we pack it. You think this is a Veronamart or something, lady?”

Lady? That stung. The man was about half my age and probably couldn’t remember a time when people grocery shopped without having to factor in a tip, but still. I considered making a comment about his sloping forehead or the way his bulbous nose hung on his face like an afterthought, but I decided to play nice. I didn’t have even the dubious authority of a badge anymore.

“I’m here to see Timur Roth,” I told him and tapped the com rig on my wrist.

That made the guy pause, like the very concept of this Roth character having visitors never occurred to him. Shaking his head the entire time, the loader walked me to a steel double door and swiped me in with his own com rig.

A gust of warm air hit my face as the door opened. The inside of the blocky building smelled like cardboard and grease and rotting bananas.

“Down the hall, to the right, then up the stairs. He’s the only one on the floor.” The loader jogged back to the line of cars and started plucking boxes off the feed, just another cog in the machine. I almost didn’t catch the suspicious look he threw my way as the door swung shut. Suspicious… and worried. It was too cold out for the sheen on his Neanderthal’s forehead to be anything other than nervous sweat.

As advertised, there was a single person on the second floor manning a balcony overlooking a massive open grid of shelves and robots. Single as in solitary, though the description probably covered his relationship status, too. He filled every inch of the bucket chair that hovered in front of the control array. Even in the dim lights of an automated warehouse, his scalp shone through his thinning hair. It was an unfortunate look for someone so young. A splotchy beard decorated his round face, just barely thicker than the fuzz on the back of his neck. It was as though the man had been allotted an average amount of hair but had chosen to spread it across entirely too much real-estate.

“Timur Roth, I presume?”

He spun his chair and looked me up and down.

“You’re the new recruit, huh? The detective who stumbled through a Schechter Portal and lived to tell the tale? I thought you’d be younger.”

Jesus. First Gonk the Over-Age Grocery Loader, and now this unwashed nerd. I must have really looked like shit.

“Life’s an unbroken chain of disappointments,” I told the greasy twenty-something.“You’ll find that out. Until then, I’m here for some sort of training.”

That seemed to stump him. “They didn’t tell you why they sent you down?”

“The Collective isn’t exactly expressive. They’ve thrown eight different instructors at me in the three months since I signed on. I’ve learned to just go with the flow.”

Roth’s smile didn’t have the mockery in it I’d been expecting, just a hint of commiseration. “Yeah, they’re like that, aren’t they?” He grabbed the edge of the console and pulled himself out of the chair. “Come on. No time like the present. We’ve got half an hour drive each way and they say it’s going to snow.”

I looked over the balcony railing at the warehouse floor. Wheeled robots zipped along glowing powerlines set in the polycrete floor, plucking items from ten-foot-tall shelves and rolling them into bins.

“What about all this?” I asked and waved at the console and the bustling operation occurring behind it. “Aren’t you working?”

“This?” The weird little man snorted. He slipped on a tufted coat that made him look like an overstuffed couch. “This is all automated,” he explained. “I’m just a system’s manager. They only need me if it breaks down, and if that happens, I’d be out on my ass anyway. Let’s get cracking.”

We exited through the double doors and crossed the parking deck to my rental. The queue of waiting cars had grown like a fat tapeworm, and boxes flew from the conveyer belt as fast as the team of loaders could move them.

“Three months, huh?” Roth said, apropos of nothing. “Did they test you in any aptitudes yet?”

Ah. Shop talk. At some point, Roth must have gone through an orientation with the Collective, too. Aptitudes were all the talk among the few other initiates I’d met.

“Yup,” I told him, trying and almost succeeding at keeping all the bitterness out of my voice. “Every last one they could think of.”


“Not a drop of talent. No arcane sensitivity. No extra-temporal or dimensional perception. I’m not telekinetic or pyrokinetic or the least bit telepathic. Just a plain old, garden-variety woman. Dr. Whitlock said I was so ordinary that it was extraordinary.”

We reached the car, one of the new Subarus with sliding doors. I was about to get in when I noticed Roth had stopped short. He dug his hands into his coat pockets and stared at me over the roof of the car.

“Oh, well, uh,” he said, “don’t take this the wrong way, but why are you here? This work…you need to be special to do it.”

Five minutes in, and he’d hit on the very thing that had been eating at me.

“It’s a mystery to me,” I said as I climbed into the driver’s seat, “and I’m supposed to be the detective.” Roth wasn’t expecting me to keep moving and had to shuffle to get inside the car before I took off.

“What about you?” I asked him. “If you’re so special, what are you doing working at the ShopWright?”

He smiled sheepishly, dimples appearing in the gaps between his wispy mustache and his splotchy sideburns. Maybe it was his childish expression or maybe it was just seeing him outside the unflattering warehouse lights, but my opinion of Roth softened a bit.

“I’m not special,” he said as he typed an address into the autodrive. “Not very special. Just enough to fuck up my life. I’m an empath. Did they go over that with you yet?”

“Yeah. You can read other people’s emotions, right? Tell when they’re upset or lying? I had a partner who could see through a suspect like a low-candela holo. It was eerie.” I hit engage on the system and leaned back as the car took us out of the lot and toward what passed for a highway in those parts.

Roth shrugged and rearranged his bulk in the confines of the vehicle cab.

“Yeah, well, your partner was probably good at reading facial expressions. That’s something different. Empaths pick up emotions whether we want to or not. I hear feelings like noise. Anger sounds like a baby’s scream, anxiety’s like a Doc Sar’va song, fear feels like ASMR to someone with misophonia. It’s okay if everyone’s happy, but how often does that happen nowadays?”

They didn’t tell me about that angle of being an empath, but it made sense.

The car beeped its protest at Roth not being belted in. Reluctantly, he tugged the seatbelt over his shoulder and snapped the buckle into its receiver. “It’s just easier to keep some space between me and crowds,” he said. “Most true empaths—the actives, not just the sensitives—don’t make it through adolescence. I’m one of the lucky few. The Collective plucked me out of a long-term mental support facility and trained me up. They set me up with this job, found me a place without neighbors.”

To my mind, his unique sensitivity only made him more valuable in the Collective’s “War with the Dark.” He was basically a human polygraph, and the mad bastards trying to poke holes in reality for profit and fun would be a lot easier to pick out if they couldn’t lie to us. Why would they waste someone like Roth with a nine-to-five? From what I’d seen, the group had plenty of funding. Over the last few weeks, I had visited various mansions, labs, and even a ski lodge owned by the Kinson Collective. The phrase “copious wealth” came to my mind.

“I thought someone like you’d be too busy running around busting ghosts,” I suggested. “I was led to believe there is a flat-out staffing shortage.”

Roth crossed and uncrossed his hands like he was waving off a delivery drone. “Yeah, that’s not me. I’m more of a part-timer.”

Again, my annoyance melted into pity for the guy. It must have been a hard life growing up that way, like walking through a briar patch with an exposed wound. Guilt crept up on my hardened heart, guilt for the way I’d treated him initially. None of this was his fault. And the facial hair wasn’t that bad. In a certain light, it looked almost attractive.

At that point, a thought occurred to me, sprouting from a kernel of information I’d been given by June, the mousy instructor at the Collective who’d taught me what little I knew about empaths.

“I seem to remember hearing that empaths didn’t just pick up on emotion,” I said pointedly. “Sometimes they can influence other people’s moods.”

Roth’s reply came out a murmur. “Sometimes some of us can.”

“Timur, is that you in the back of my head making me think you’re not a complete piece of shit?”

“Maybe,” he said even quieter than before.

Roth’s left hand was resting on the center console. I patted it softly. “Okay. ‘A’ for effort. Now, can your special powers pick up on how I feel about you tinkering in my brain?”

He cleared his throat, but his voice still cracked when he spoke. “I’m picking up on some anger.”

“Very good. The lesson here is that if you go mucking around with my emotions again, you will live long enough to regret it. I was a homicide detective. I survived the Fayetteville Street Riots of ’61. I have seen violence on a scale that’s never crossed your mind, and I took notes. Are we clear?”

Roth gulped and nodded. The soft, warm feelings that had been building in the back of my head dispersed like ash in a strong wind.

The rest of the half-hour ride was a thing of quiet. The autodrive took us off the highway and down a flat county road that didn’t even have a name, just a state road number that superimposed itself on the car’s windshield display. Around us, fresh snow frosted the tall grasses on the fallow fields. The charcoal clouds sent intermittent bursts of snow, but not in the volume or intensity it would take to make driving dangerous. Fat, wet flakes splattered on the windshield. The car glided over the salted asphalt as smooth and silent as if on magnetic rails.

I was about twenty seconds away from laying my head back in the cradle and drifting off when the car decelerated and a tone like a cardinal’s tweet warned me that the autodrive was relinquishing control.

Roth, who had fallen asleep, straightened in his seat and wiped the drool from his lip with the back of his coat sleeve. “Turn down there, just past that patch of scrub oak.”

I did as instructed. The rental car was rated for off road. I’d thought the upgrade was a bit of an extravagance when I signed for the car, but it wasn’t my money, so I didn’t make a stink. As we rolled over the frosty gravel and bounced through a rut so deep you could have dumped a body in, I had to concede that the powers that be had made a good call.

“There,” Roth said and pointed toward an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a flat field.

I couldn’t say how big or prosperous the farm had been. I’m a city girl, born and raised; I think in blocks, not acres. The house, though, told a story.

It was just a single-story cube, big enough for the standard three-point-two-member family, but not much more than a step above a trailer. Old fiberglass shingles molted off the pitched roof. There were only two windows in the whole place, and that detail told me it must have been built around 2043 or early ’44. The brief glass shortage at the time had ground vehicle production to a halt and left whole neighborhoods looking like rows of tract bunkers.

When I pulled around to the far side of the house, I saw that a tree or something massive had all but bisected the master bedroom. The roof on that corner of the little house had been shattered to splinters, and snow fell unhindered on a four-poster bed.

With its two evenly spaced windows facing the road and the ruin of the master bedroom around back, the house reminded me of an old homicide I’d never managed to solve. The victim in that case had the back of her skull caved in with a single blow from an aluminum field hockey stick. It’s the type of image that sticks with you.

I parked the car and turned to my passenger. “Are you going to tell me what I’m doing here?”

Roth closed his puffy coat, pushing the antiquated Corian buttons through their holes. His stubby fingers were surprisingly dexterous. “I’m supposed to acclimate you to the supernatural. You asked what I do for the Collective? This is one of the places I look after. We don’t know the history, not exactly, but something fucked up happened here. There’s a spirit bound to this house, a weak one, but there is a darkness… Anyway, I’m going to take you in so you can learn about ghosts.”

My molars ground together. I’d driven six-plus hours for nothing more than a meet and greet? “I’ve already spent three months getting lectured about spirits and dimensions and occult sewing circles. I’m read-in on the topic.”

Roth winced. “That’s the problem, I think. It’s one thing to read about it, but the first time you run across something ripped from the other side of the veil, you don’t want it to be when there’s a chance it can crack into your mind. I’m here to put this thing on safe-mode and let you dip your toe in the dark water.”

I was too tired to suppress the smirk brought about by thinking of the soft young man making anything safe for me. “Well, thank sweet Jesus you’re here to protect me.”

“That thing I do where I can affect emotions?” he said, and I could hear the hurt in his tone. “I’m not doing anything physiological. I’m influencing the part of you that has emotions. The incorporeal things we find have that part, too, which means I can sense them. Sometimes, if I don’t mind the headache, I can push them one way or another emotionally.”

That was news to me. Mousy June hadn’t brought it up in my initial briefing on empaths, but I was beginning to suspect the Collective didn’t have their shit together as much as I’d hoped.

Joining the Collective hadn’t been an entirely unforced move. I’d unloaded my service weapon at some blubbery tentacled abomination lurking in an off-grid rooming house. We were a long way from the Police Reduction Act of ’56, but not so far that a detective could turn in her gun without explaining in detail where every bullet went. The out-of-the-blue solicitation from the Kinston Collective had given me an option that didn’t involve spending time in prison.

For better or worse, I was committed to this course of action. I slid the car door open and motioned for Roth to do the same. “Okay. Let’s get this done and get you back to work. I don’t want to be the reason you lose your job.”

Other than a little water damage and a thick layer of dust, the house was well preserved. I looked to Roth to see where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do, but he swept his hand in a semi-circle, palm up, like a vidhost inviting me to explore. I used the XED light I habitually wore on my belt to get a look around the dark building.

It didn’t take an ounce of the extrasensory perception I didn’t have to know that it had not been a happy home. The den walls were decorated with dents and food stains that told of dinners thrown in fits of rage. All the interior doors showed signs of being forced at one time or another, and one still bore a fist-sized hole that had yet to be patched.

I went to the master bedroom to get my bearings. The whole house was cold, but when I opened that door, an icy wind caught me full in the face and momentarily blurred my vision. The cloud-dimmed sunlight shining through the broken roof revealed a room hardly changed since it had been abandoned.

The nightstand held a framed wedding photo, a physical print, not a resin cast. Moisture had long since obscured some of the lighter areas, but I didn’t need to see their faces to know the couple in the picture were as different from each other as a pair could be. The young woman wore an old-fashioned wedding dress, her posture so straight she practically floated, as though bouncing on the tips of her toes. Despite that, her partner loomed over her. The giant man’s big shoulders barely fit within the confines of the picture frame, and his rented tuxedo jacket looked fit to burst at the seams. He’d starched and pressed his jeans to within an inch of their life, though. The crease, running from his cummerbund to the top of his boots, was crisp enough to sharpen a stick on.

I moved on to the next room, sweeping my light inside, checking my corners out of training and habit. The posters on the walls gave the impression of a sixteen-year-old’s tastes: all generic fitness models in various states of exercise/undress. The lamp on the nightstand was kids’ stuff, a cheap Amazon knockoff of a Disney “Diver Dan” fish light. The bed that huddled in the far corner of the windowless cave was barely five feet long, obviously meant for a child.

It read like a room that had been simple to begin with and then hadn’t grown with its occupant. My suspicions were confirmed when I found a pair of size-eleven Devin McCoy high-tops on the stained and threadbare rug that took up most of the floor space. I shone my light back on the tiny bed. The kid must have slept curled into a ball every night.

I reached the kitchen last. I recognized the layout from my childhood as I’d seen it often enough bouncing between my grandmothers’ equally humble apartments; everything that could be covered in tinfoil was. There was a flyleaf kitchen table pushed against the wall that made a crowded dining nook. Four ladder-back chairs circled the table on three sides, the last tucked in the corner opposite the stove and sink.

I dialed my light in to focus on the wall behind that seat. At first, I thought I’d just found more food stains, but the rusty horizontal streaks in the wallpaper couldn’t have been anything other than blood.

Someone had taken a beating in that corner.

A chill gradually inched its way up my neck like a spider climbing a sleeping man’s leg. My skin, wrinkled as it is, tightened with goosebumps, and my heart hammered in my ears. I caught something out of the corner of my eye, a pale shape in the darkness. When I spun to catch it though, all I found was a sad, empty kitchen.

Just an animal, I told myself.

I reached out an admittedly unsteady hand to open the cabinet doors, fully expecting to find a rat or raccoon waiting to hiss at me. I swung the door open and…nothing. Cleaning supplies and brushes.

Just as soon as my attention locked onto the cabinet, the pale shape reappeared in my peripheral vision. My hand drifted to my hip, feeling for the gun I’d had to leave behind with my career. I made myself turn slowly, intending to creep up on whatever was stalking me. I gritted my teeth to keep them from chattering.

As my light gradually swept around, I found Timur Roth and his stupid poofy coat standing in the doorway to the den.

“That’s a ghost you’re feeling,” he said. “Or spirit or soul or however you want to think of it.”

“Where is it?” I asked and was ashamed by my breathlessness.

Timur raised a hand to shield his eyes from my light. “It’s a little bit everywhere in the house. Think of it like a smell. It can permeate a whole area or concentrate in a space. Right now, it’s agitated by us being here and trying to manifest. Your brain is trying to block it out, make you not see it, but if you relax, you can catch a glimpse in the doorway there.”

I sucked in enough of the cold, dry air to sting my nose, then slowly released it in a stream that formed a cloud in front of my face. And again. And again. After the third breath, my shoulders settled, and I felt some of the tension in my neck unwind. I slowly turned to the doorway, my flashlight pointed to the floor.

It wasn’t a person, or even a solid form. There was a white haziness in the dark that only became perceptible after a few moments staring unfocused into the shadows. If my eyes moved, even a bit, I lost it, but it was easier to find the second and third time. Without being able to explain why, it felt childlike to me.

“Who is it?” I asked, afraid to turn my head and lose track of the apparition.

“I can’t tell. Something weak, or it would be tougher to handle. It’s a good thing, too, because this thing is chock full of anger. Feels a bit like an animal, to be honest, like a dog who wants to bite everybody.”

I took one last look at the ghost, and then squared up to Roth. “What am I supposed to do now?”

“You don’t have to do anything. You’re just here to get some exposure.”

“Fine. I’m exposed. Speaking of animals, why are there none around here?” I lit up the cabinet under the sink. This deep in the country, an abandoned house should have been crawling with all manner of wildlife, but there wasn’t even a single mouse turd.

Roth was having trouble following my change in focus. I think he wanted me to be more impressed by the ghost. “Uhm, it’s the spirit, probably. I’m calming it pretty hard, but once I let go it will snap back into a state of rage. Animals don’t like that.”

My light made a weird shadow on the cabinet base. I knelt to really look under the sink. The lap flooring creaked slightly louder than my knees. “What’s the history of this house? What happened to the people who lived here?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice rising with his annoyance. “I don’t know if anyone does. It’s been abandoned since I moved here ten years ago. The Collective bought it from the county for the back taxes and put it on my list. I’ve got like, half-a-dozen places like this I check on once a year. What are you doing?”

I ignored him and felt the edges of the cabinet base. “No one’s looked it up?”

“Why? It’s not a danger. Or not much of one. And no one really comes out here. Do you have any questions about the ghost, maybe?”

“Not really.” The base, just a warped sheet of melamine, rocked under my hand. “Hand me a fork or knife or something.”

It was an old cop’s trick: unambiguous directions delivered with confidence. Give people something to do and they’ll do it, if for nothing else than to abdicate responsibility. Roth handed me a knife without further comment. I dug the cheap, stamped metal utensil into a crack in the corner and pried up the melamine.

“Well, this wasn’t what I was expecting.” I set the board to the side and brushed the dust off one of the plastic bottles packed into the hidden space beneath the cabinet. Old Hobson’s Genuine Whiskey. I handed the half-full bottle to Roth and climbed to my feet.

He unscrewed the cap and sniffed the contents. “Looks like someone was squirreling away booze by the crate. And not the good stuff, either.”

I didn’t know the local brand, but I knew the type. Cheap liquor, the kind you could buy at charging stations for a few bucks. Why hide it, though? It didn’t make a lot of sense. Roth’s hypothesis wasn’t absurd, but it also wasn’t right.

“I don’t think the monster that used to live here was too worried about someone stealing his hooch,” I mused aloud. “The guy in the wedding photo was a slab of muscle, and nothing I’ve seen in the house leads me to believe he got stood up to a lot.”

No, whoever hid the alcohol was keeping it from the man of the house, not for him.

I looked at the kitchen again. I’d been too dismissive on my first pass, allowing my own standard of living, the amenities I’d grown inured to, to tint my vision. Judgmental, that’s me. It had been one of my shortcomings.

At least I was self-aware about it.

The appliances were all old and cheap to begin with, but they looked to be in good working order. The tinfoil on the stove was dusty with age, but it had been fresh when the house was abandoned, the creases still crisp. I opened the pantry and found it stocked to bursting with freeze-dried produce, the vacpacks labeled with cartoon images of fruits and vegetables. Of all the places in the house, the kitchen showed the husband’s touch the least. This was the wife’s domain, her stronghold, her sanctuary.

On an impulse, I opened the deep drawer to the left of the stove, the one where Grandma had kept the Dutch oven in her kitchen. My light glinted off what looked to be a pure copper skillet, the kind that had to be hand polished every week. For a rural housewife like that, it would be an heirloom, as sacred as a family bible. That fit the bill, all right.

But something was wrong. I reached in and lifted the heavy cooking utensil out.

Someone had folded the soft metal in on itself, deforming the pan. It had been inexpertly hammered back out, the strike marks from the round head of a common ball-peen hammer like fingerprints at a murder scene. Worse, the copper had split, torn from the stress of the process.

With purpose and malice, someone had ruined the beautiful antique skillet. Even after all that I’d seen in a long, hard life, the cruelty of it struck me.

Roth moaned. I turned to see what he was whining about and caught a glow of red out of the corner of my eye.

“What the actual hell?” Roth sputtered. Beads of sweat swelled on his scalp and poured down his face. He braced himself against the doorframe. Absent other factors, I would have assumed heart attack, but even I, with all my notable lack of extra sensory perception, felt the growing menace in the house.

“What’s wrong?” I still held my light in one hand and the skillet in the other. Lifting both, bracing for an attack, I scanned left and right. Despite the months of intense training with the Collective, my brain thought in terms of physical threats.

“Fuuuuck!” Roth gurgled and dropped to one knee so hard it echoed through the house. “So much…anger,” he gasped, and clutched his head like he was holding together a split cantaloupe.

I dropped the pan and hooked him under the armpit. The pan bounced on the floor, clanging and ringing loud enough that I winced. Mine wasn’t the only reaction.

The room seemed to bow, flexing as though it were sucking in a breath. The shadows crowded my tiny light, and the darkness took on a terrifying depth that I can only relate to suddenly looking into the coldest, darkest part of the ocean from the bow of a very small boat. The inky blackness had contours etched in a sanguinary red so dark that it was barely discernible from the shadows.

Roth, though clearly still in pain, moved with a purpose. He drew a stone from somewhere in his ridiculous coat and set about scratching a design into the cheap vinyl flooring. The stone had a rough edge, but he put his not-inconsiderable weight behind it, gouging thick lines all the way down to the subfloor.

“What can I do?” I asked. I recognized his attempt at a casting but that’s as far as my knowledge took me. My eyes darted about, vainly chasing the crimson form that lurked always just at the edge of my vision.

“Go,” he snarled, but didn’t look up from the task at hand.

“Okay, we’re out of here.” I grabbed the collar of his jacket, intending to back him out of the house. He didn’t budge.

Instead, he slapped my hand away. “I have to stay, try and bind it.”

The full weight of the entity was on us now, pressing down with slow, inevitable menace. It was like being crushed under a mudslide. I was familiar with the feeling. I’d been there once before, flailing in a panic against a despair so profound that it alone was enough to squeeze the memory of hope from my mind. The night my career ended. I’d barely escaped with my sanity, and I didn’t care to roll the dice again.

Roth was too big and I was too old to drag him, so I tried reasoning. “It’s been here a while, right? Then it can hang out here a while longer. If we can get out of the house, we can call in Dr. Whitlock or somebody and let them deal with it.”

The rock slipped and skittered on the floor. Roth picked it up with a trembling hand. “No,” he said, almost whimpering. “We disturbed something, messed up. It’s not a spirit, it’s a marker. There is something driving it and it’s coming through now. If it isn’t held here, it’ll take form. It’ll kill. And worse. Can’t let that happen.”

Time for hard truths. “You told me you’re a part-timer, Roth. Isn’t this a little out of your league?”

He went back to marking the floor. “I’m who’s here.”

Goddamn it. The way he said it…just a statement of fact. Quinton had been like that. Not fearless, just brave. It’s what killed him.

Instinct told me to get the hell out of there, but for all my faults, abandoning brave idiots was not one of them.

The fine folks at the Collective kept telling me they brought me in for a reason. There had to be some value I added to the equation. I set my brain to picking at the knot.

Roth had called the apparition a marker, but that meant nothing to me. I was sent here to get some face time with a simple spirit, the echo of a person bound to a location by trauma. What had set this thing off? The bottles? The pan?

I’d no more than thought the thought when my light hit the copper skillet on the floor, and the story suddenly came into focus. The spirit didn’t belong to the big man in the photo; it didn’t have that feel, that sense of entitlement that was almost always present in such men. It wasn't the wife, either. She’d spent most of her adult life learning to cope, to suppress.

That left the son.

Patricide had to be sufficient trauma to bind a spirit. It was a leap, but it felt right. But what could the boy have done against such a monster as his father? He’d need a tool. A gun? A knife?

Roth was on both knees now, clawing at the ground with his little stone and mumbling a chant that half sounded like a sob. Tears joined the sweat dripping from his face.

The lumpy grocery store worker might have been a lightweight in the grand scheme of things, but from what they’d taught me over the last few months, anything that could hurt him like that across the planar barrier would take at least a mid-strength warlock’s spirit. As I understood things, a teenager’s soul wouldn’t have the required energy, let alone the concentration of will.

What had happened in this awful house?

As much as I hated to, I left Roth in the kitchen and ran to the back of the house. A quarter of a century of experience investigating domestic homicide told me the answer was in the boy’s room.

The door was still open, the brass plate on the door flashing in my light. I burst into the room only to find it completely unchanged. I couldn’t say what I’d been expecting to find, but whatever it was, I didn’t find it. In frustration and desperation, I flung back the covers on the bed, ripped open the drawers, clawed through the piles of second-hand clothes shoved beneath the tiny bed. No gun, no knife, no nothing. I dumped a stack of books from a box in the closet, swept the desk clear, then, for no reason I could articulate, tried to power up the twenty-year-old com rig I found hanging from the headboard. Nothing. Of course not. In frustration, I tossed it on the pile of books.

Books. What teenager of that generation in this part of the country had books?

I picked up one book at random, then another. The first couple were cheap fantasy paperbacks. One was a hardcover with foxed pages so thin they tore as I flipped them. Most of the books, however, were worn, moleskin journals.

Tucking my flashlight under my armpit, I clawed open the first journal with clumsy fingers. The band that held it closed snapped in my hand. The book was filled cover to cover with lines of text so narrow they looked like computer code. I stared at it. Each letter was clear and legible and as familiar as… well, as the letters of the alphabet. They spelled out words that I knew and sentences beyond that. Try as I might, though, I could not grasp what they meant. I’d start reading a line and by the end I couldn’t remember what the first word had been. I brushed through the pages looking for anything that made sense.

And then I found it.

It was a careful, almost beautiful design. A year ago, I would have dismissed it as abstract art or a reproduction of something from a neural-net game, but one of the first things the Collective had taught me was how to recognize a summoning circle.

The story of the doomed house came together in that moment.

Terrified of the beast that was his father and powerless to do anything about it, the young son had tried to pull a creature through from the other side, something powerful enough to fight his battles. He’d made an imperfect binding, which was almost a forgone conclusion, apparently. Dr. Whitlock had not failed to impress upon me how much preparation was needed to bind a demon.

My mind raced. The diagram in the book was just a sketch, a model for something bigger. I needed to find the real circle. It had to be in the room. There was nowhere else in the house where he’d have enough privacy to cast a summoning. It would be big, though, big enough for a man to stand on.


I grabbed the edge of the rug and yanked. The books I’d just dumped on it kept me from gracefully sweeping it back like a tablecloth, and I stumbled back, dropping my flashlight.

“Son of a—” I yelled as I flailed in the darkness. I keyed the screen light on my com rig and looked down. There it was, carved into the floor planks with a soldering iron or something similar: a true summoning circle.

A plan formed in my head, a simple one. I had neither the time, the education, nor the power for anything fancy. I ran from the room, retrieving my errant flashlight on the way and bouncing off the doorframe. I winced and cradled my shoulder. There’d be a hell of a bruise if I made it to the next morning.

I found Roth face down in his own binding circle. Frothy vomit pooled around him. I leapt over him. There was no time to see if he was okay. That would come later. Maybe.

The kitchen felt like a blast freezer. Or a furnace. My skin went brittle, and my eyes instantly dried out. I snatched up the copper pan and, before I could think too much about what I was doing, ran back to the boy’s bedroom. A wave of pressure rolled behind me so closely I was afraid it would knock me off my feet.

I reached the edge of the summoning circle just as the red haze began to overtake my peripheral vision. Too close. If I’d had time to think about it, I might have panicked, but I had a goal. I needed bait.

I ripped my hand across the jagged tear in the copper pan. Hot blood ran down my wrist. A grunt of pain escaped through my clenched teeth. I dropped the pan into the circle and dove to the side.

My light rolled from my hands. The room, windowless as it was, should have gone pitch black, but a shape in red burned in the center of the circle. For a second, I mistook it for an aura centered around the old copper skillet. Then it unfolded, rising and swelling until I could see the demon for what it really was. Webbed wings unfurled, clawed fingers peeled back from fists in unsettling angles, and long eyes, like vertical gashes in the thing’s face, turned towards me. As alien as the demon was, there was no mistaking its look of hunger.

I slapped my torn palm down, and blood poured into the gouged pattern in the floor, breaking the circle.

The demon shrieked so loud I thought my eyes would burst from the pressure. I turned away, covering my ears and curling into the fetal position against the wall.

When I awoke, the room was dark. Dark and still. The tinny taste in my mouth told me I was bleeding from somewhere inside. I tried to sit up, but a migraine-level headache hit me like a tidal wave, and I sank back down into the darkness.

The next time I opened my eyes, I was laying in the snow. The clouds were gone, as was the day, but a fat yellow moon threw out so much bright light that I had to squint.

“Easy,” Timur said as he helped lean me up against the car. He collapsed beside me. Somehow, he’d managed to drag me out of the house.

“You’re full of surprises, Tim,” I said. My voice sounded like I’d been gargling sand.

“Me?” he laughed. “Without a single drop of arcane aptitude, you managed to banish a third-order demon with a bridgehead on this plane. You’re old enough to be my grandmother—no offense. I thought you said you weren’t anything special?”

I wasn’t. Or at least I hadn’t been. In all my years as a cop, then as a detective, I’d never had such a clarity of thought and purpose. Quinton had been like that while working cases. Anyone who knew him, really knew him like I did, said he was made for the work. Maybe Dr. Whitlock and Mousy June and all the educated idiots in the Collective had been right. More than half a century into this life, maybe I’d finally found what I was supposed to be doing.


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