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"Hey," my dead uncle said. "You've got a call."
I rolled over in bed, disoriented. A dream about meeting Leonard Cohen in a perfume factory was still about as immediate as reality. My previous day's clothes were piled in the corner of the tile floor along with the leather backpack I used as a purse. The pack's side pocket was open and glowing. My uncle Eric's voice came again.
"Hey. You've got a call."
I untangled myself from the sheets and stumbled over, promising myself for the thousandth time that I would change the ringtone. The bedroom was still unfamiliar. The cell phone flashed a number I didn't recognize, but there was a name Karen Black associated with it, so she must have been in his contacts list someplace. I accepted the call.
"Unh?" I grunted into the receiver.
"Eric, it's Karen. I've found it!" a woman said. "It's in New Orleans, and I know where it's going next. There's a little girl with Sight, and she says her sister is the next target. I don't know how long I've got. I need you."
It was a lot to take in. I hesitated, and the woman misinterpreted my silence.
"Okay, what's it going to take?" she demanded. "Name your price, Heller."
"Actually," I said. "That's complicated. I'm Jayné. Eric's niece. He's...um...he passed on last year."
It was Karen Black's turn to be silent. I gave her a moment to let it sink in. I skipped the parts about how he'd been murdered by an evil wizard and how several of Eric's old friends, along with a policeman who owed me a favor and a vampire with a grudge against the same wizard, had teamed up to mete out summary roadside justice. I could get back to that later if I needed to.
"Oh," she said.
"Yeah. He left me pretty much everything. Including the cell phone. So...hi. Jayné here. Anything I can do to help out?"
The pause was longer this time. I could guess pretty well at the debate she was going through. I gave her a hand.
"This is about riders, isn't it?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "So you know about them?"
"Abstract spiritual parasites. Come in from Next Door or the Pleroma or whatever you want to call it," I said as I walked carefully back to the bed. "Take over people's bodies. Have weird-ass magical powers, kind of like the magic humans can do, but way more effective. Yeah, I've got the For Dummies book, at least."
"All right," she said. "Did Eric...did he even mention me?"
"No," I said. "Sorry."
The woman on the other end of the line took a breath as I got back under the covers and pulled the pillow behind my back. I heard Aubrey cough from one of the bedrooms down the hall.
"All right," she said. "My name is Karen Black. I used to be a special agent for the FBI. About ten years ago, I started tracking down what I thought was a fairly standard serial killer. It turned out to be a rider. We caught the horse, a man named Joseph Mfume, but the rider switched bodies."
"So not so easy to track," I said.
"No," she agreed. "My supervisors wanted me to stop. They didn't believe there was anything to it. And...well, X-Files was still popular back then. There were jokes. I was referred for psychiatric counseling and taken off active duty. I resigned and went on with the investigation myself. Eric and I crossed paths a few times over the years, and I was impressed with his efficiency. I've found where the rider is going to strike next, and I need help to stop it. I thought of Eric."
"Okay," I said.
"Can you help me?"
I rubbed my eyes with my free hand until little ghosts of false light danced in my vision.
"Hell if I know," I said. "Let me talk to my guys and call you back."
"I kind of have a staff," I said. "Experts."
I could hear her turning that over too. I wondered how much she'd known about Eric's financial situation. For a man with enough money to buy a small third-world nation, he hadn't flaunted it; I hadn't even known until he left me the whole thing. My guess was Karen hadn't expected Eric to have a staff.
"I don't know how much time I have," she said.
"I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Promise. We're in Athens right now, so it may take me a few days to get to New Orleans."
"I don't mean to be rude, but it's not that long a flight," Karen said, impatience in her tone. "You could drive it in eight hours or so."
It took me a second to process that.
"Not Georgia Athens," I said. "Athens Athens. Cradle of civilization."
"Oh," she said, and then, "Oh fuck. What time is it there?"
I snuggled down under my covers and looked at the bedside clock.
"One in the morning," I said.
"I woke you up," she said. "I am so sorry..."
Amid a flurry of apologies and promises to return calls, Karen and I let each other go. I dropped the phone next to the clock and stared at the ceiling.
The last six months had offered me a wide variety of bedroom ceilings. The first at Eric's house in Denver when I was first thrown into the world of riders and possession and magic. Then the dark wood and vigas of an old ranch outside Santa Fe, then a place in New Haven with honest-to-God mirrors over the bed and red silk sheets, followed by a gray-green retro-seventies number in a rentcontrolled apartment building in Manhattan that was so small I got hotel rooms for the guys. There had been a much more civilized beige with a little unprofessional plaster repair near the corner in a townhouse in London, and now the bare white with deep blue notes that said this Greek villa had been a full-on tourist trap rental before Eric bought it.
The guys had been with me the whole time, apart from a couple weeks when Aubrey had gone back to his former job at the University of Colorado to tie up some loose ends on his research. In the long, complex process of inventorying the property and resources Eric had left behind, we hadn't stayed anyplace more than two months running, and most considerably less. None of it seemed like home to me, and from experience, I knew I could stare at the dim white above me for hours and still not sleep.
With a sigh, I got up, pulled on my robe, and made my way downstairs to the kitchen. A newspaper on the cheap yellow Formica table yelled out headlines in an alphabet I didn't understand. I poured myself a bowl of cereal with little bits of dried fruit and added milk that tasted subtly different from the 2% I'd grown up with.
I heard the door of one of the other bedrooms open and soft footsteps come down the stairs. After so many months together, I could differentiate Aubrey from Ex from Chogyi Jake without looking.
"Why do you think it is," I asked, "that someone can on the one hand be talking you into a fight against evil spirits and semi-demonic serial killers, but then on the other get embarrassed when they figure out they woke you up to do it?"
"I don't know," Aubrey said as he sat down across from me. "Maybe he just didn't want to be rude."
"She didn't want to be rude," I said. "Sexist."
Aubrey smiled and shrugged. Aubrey was beautiful the way a familiar leather jacket is beautiful. He wasn't all muscles and vanity, he didn't spend hours on his wardrobe and hair. His smile looked lived-in, and his body was comfortable and reassuring and solid. He always reminded me of Sunday mornings and tangled sheets.
We'd been lovers once for about a day before I found out that point one he was married and point two I have a real hangup about sleeping with married men. I still had uncomfortably pleasant erotic dreams about him sometimes. I also had divorce paperwork in my backpack, filled out by his wife with her signature and everything. I hadn't told him about that. It was one of those things that was so important and central to my life that putting it off had been very easy. Every time a chance came up to talk about it, I'd been able to find a reason not to.
"What's the issue?" he asked, and I startled a little, my still-exhausted mind interpreting the question as being about the divorce papers. I pulled myself together.
"There's an ex-FBI agent in New Orleans. She's on the trail of a rider that's a serial killer," I said, and yawned. "Are there a lot of those?"
"Depends on who you ask," he said. "There are a lot of serial killers who claim to be demons or victims of demonic possession. You remember the BTK killer? His pastor said right through the end that the voice coming out of the guy wasn't the man he knew. There are some people who think that all serial killers are possessed. Serial arsonists, too. Is that the last of the milk?"
"No, there's another whole bottle in the fridge," I said around my spoon. "So is it true? Are they all riders?"
"Probably not," Aubrey said. "I mean some serial killers blame porn or bad parenting or whatever. And you can be mentally ill without there being a rider in your head. But by the same token, I'd bet that some are."
"You'd buy it? This FBI lady has been tracking down a body-hopping serial killer, she's managed to get one step ahead of it, and needs help. Sounds plausible?"
"We've all seen weirder," Aubrey said as he measured out enough coffee for three of us. Chogyi Jake always opted for tea. "Do you have any reason to think it's not on the level?"
"You mean is it the bad guys setting a trap? I don't have any reason to think so," I said. "Also no reason not to, though. I could get a background check on her, I guess."
"Might be wise."
I didn't hear Ex coming. He just breezed in from the hallway. Even the T-shirt and sweats he slept in were black. His hair was loose, a pale blond flow that softened his features. Usually he wore it back.
"Since we apparently aren't sleeping tonight, what are we talking about?" he asked as he pulled out a chair and sat at the table.
"Serial killers, demonic possession," I said. "Same as always."
"Jayné got us a job," Aubrey said.
I ran down the basics again while I finished eating and Ex and Aubrey started. The coffee smelled good rich and reassuringly heavy so I had a mug myself. I had to give it to Greece, the coffee was great. Ex pulled back his hair into a severe ponytail, tying it with a length of leather cord while I talked. The softness left his face.
"Officially, it's one out of seven," Ex said when I finished. "Or that's what Brother Ignatius said back when I was in seminary. A little under fifteen percent of serial killings are the result of possession."
"Creepy," I said.
Aubrey and Ex looked at each other across the table. I could tell there was some kind of subterranean masculine conversation going on, and it annoyed me that I was being left out.
"What?" I said. "It's creepy. What?"
"How are you feeling, Jayné?" Aubrey asked.
"Tired. It's..." I checked my watch. "Two in the morning."
"Three weeks ago in London, it would have been midnight," Ex said.
"True," I said. "Point being?"
Aubrey held up his hand.
"We've all been busting hump for...well, for months now. We've got six hundred books in the wiki and at least that many artifacts and items, most of which we don't have any kind of provenance for. And we're not a fifth of the way through the list of properties that Eric owned."
I knew all of that, but hearing it said out loud made me want to hang my head.
"I know it's a big project," I said. "But it's necessary. If we don't know what we have to work with..."
"I agree completely," Ex said. "The thing is, someone's come to you with a problem. Sounds like it might be a little hairy. Are you...are we in any condition to take it on? Or do you want to finish the full inventory before we dive back into fieldwork?"
What I wanted was firmly none of the above. I wanted to stop for a while. I wanted to find a lovely alpine village, read trashy romances, play video games, and watch the glaciers melt. And there was nothing to stop me from doing it. I had the money, I had the power.
But this was what Eric did, and he left it to me, and walking away from it meant walking away from him too. I sighed and finished my coffee.
"If this lady's on the level, she needs us. And if we wait until we're totally ready, we'll never do anything," I said. "And I think we could all use a break. So here's the plan. I'll get us tickets to New Orleans, we'll go save the world from abstract evil, and afterward we'll hang out in the French Quarter for a couple of weeks and blow off steam."
"If we've defeated abstract evil, I'm not sure how much of the French Quarter will still be there," Ex said.
"First things first, padre," I said, standing up and heading for the main rooms. In fairness, the padre part wasn't entirely true. Ex had, in fact, quit being a priest long before I met him. Thus the Ex. Padre was what a vampire we both knew had called him, and sometimes the nickname still stuck.
The main room of the villa looked like a dorm room a week before final exams. Books filled cheap metal shelves and covered the tables. Ancient texts with splitting leather bindings, paperbacks from the 1960s with bright colors and psychedelic designs, medical papers, collections of theological essays, books on game theory, chaos theory. Grimoires of all arcane subjects waiting to be examined, categorized, and entered in the wiki that the four of us were building to support our work as magical problem solvers. Our laptop computers were all closed, but plugged in and glowing.
I sat at mine and opened it. It took me about three minutes to dig up an old e-mail from my lawyer listing all the addresses of Eric's properties, and about thirty seconds from there to confirm that I did indeed own a house in New Orleans listed as being in the Lakeview neighborhood, and valued at eight hundred thousand dollars, so it probably had enough bedrooms for all of us. I wondered what it would look like.
I smiled to myself as I got on the travel site and started shopping for the most convenient and comfortable flights back to the States. The truth was, even as tired as I was, the prospect of going somewhere new, opening a new house or storage unit without having the first clue what we'd find gave me a covert thrill. Yes, it all flowed from the death of my beloved uncle, so there was an aspect of the macabre, but it was also a little like a permanent occult Christmas.
Well, except when evil spirits tried to kill me. I had some scars from those that kept me in onepiece bathing suits. But nothing like that had happened for months, and by the time I had four flights booked from Athens International to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, I was feeling more awake and alive than I had in days. Probably the coffee was kicking in too.
It was four in the morning and still a long way from dawn when I called Karen Black.
"Black here," she said instead of hello.
"Hey. It's Jayné Heller here. We talked a few hours ago?"
"Yes," Karen said.
"I've talked to most of the guys, and it looks like we can get there in about two days. So Thursday, middle of the morning, but I'll call you as soon as we're in and settled. That sound okay?"
"That's great," she said. I could hear the smile in her tone, and I smiled back. Always good to save the day. Her next words were more sober. "We should talk about the price."
"We can do that once we get there," I said.
"I can do that," she said, and paused. "I don't mean to.... When I called before, I was a little scattered. I didn't say how sorry I am to hear about Eric. It was rude of me."
"Don't sweat it," I said. "And thanks. I was...I was sorry to lose him. I'm a little thin on family generally speaking, and he was pretty much the good one."
"He was a good man," she said, her voice as soft as flannel. To my surprise, I found myself tearing up a little. We said our good-byes and I killed the connection.
I spent the next hour with the fine folks at Google, reading up on serial killers who had claimed to be demons. I got a little sidetracked on a guy called the Axeman of New Orleans who'd slaughtered a bunch of people almost a century ago. In addition to claiming to be from hell, he said he'd pass by any house where jazz music was playing, which seemed a lot more New Orleans than lamb's blood on the lintel.
Chogyi Jake woke at six, a habit that he maintained in any time zone. His head hadn't been shaved in a few days, and the black halo of stubble was just starting to form around his scalp. He smiled and bowed to me, the movement half joking and half sincere.
"Getting an early start?" he asked, nodding at the dun-colored landscape drawing itself out of darkness outside our windows. The Aegean glowed turquoise and gold in the light of the rising sun.
"More like an early finish," I said. "There's been a change of plans."
Copyright © 2009 by M.L.N. Hanover