(This story take place a few months after the events in Jericho. Ritual Disclaimer applies–this is first draft, and this chapter may not make the final cut as written.)
The facade of the old farmhouse resembled a scream, two upstairs windows forming wide eyes, the red front door, a mouth gaped in silent howl.
Lauren Reardon stood in the gravel driveway and tried to focus on other things. The living room window’s crooked black shutter. The spot under the kitchen sill where the white paint had peeled to reveal the silvery wood beneath. The front yard’s scatter of rose bushes, bloom-heavy branches nodding in the late August sun.
But that mockery of a cry kept drawing her in.
Every so often, someone would appear in one of the upstairs windows and watch her for a few moments, then vanish back into the gloom.
Making sure I’m still here. She turned her back to the house and looked across the dirt road to the vineyards beyond, which filled the rolling countryside as far as she could see. Harvesting season had begun–field hands worked their way down the rows, cutting away the damaged and diseased grapes in preparation for the sweep of the mechanical harvester. Already, there was talk throughout the Willamette Valley of another banner harvest, another vintage year.
Wine. She could have used a glass. Maybe a whole bottle. She paused to listen as a soft tenor drifted to her on the breeze, a sound as warming as the sun on her face. One of the workers, singing. She recognized a few of the words. Amor. Love. La vida. Life. Alma. Soul. Things that made one human, that separated the living from the dead, human from inhuman, Us from Them.
Lauren’s breath caught. She had been born a Reardon, and kept that as her legal name. The Mullin part of her, she had only learned of that past winter; that, she reserved as her work name, her Lady, please get me through this name. Given how her heart pounded and her hands sweated at the sound of it, the strategy needed to be reassessed.
She turned to find one of the neighbors standing in the red-rimmed doorway. Jake, who owned a garage in a nearby town. Grease-stained hands and the faint scent of gasoline, which clung to him no matter how many times he showered.
“We’re ready for you.” He tugged at the front of his work shirt, then shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “As much as we ever will be.”
Lauren nodded. Scuffed her foot across the gravel. Counted the seconds.
Then she started up toward the house as behind her, the song slowed to a few drawn-out words, then faded to silence.
The chill hit Lauren first, damp and stale, like the wash from a walk-in freezer. She hugged herself, and tucked her hands under her armpits.
“Yup. Got colder after you went outside.” Jake’s breath puffed with every word. “Smell got worse, too.” He wrinkled his nose. “Like something crawled under the porch and died.”
Lauren swallowed hard, felt the stench soak into her clothes and coat her hair like a foul mist. Burn it all down. The thought slid in from her back brain, some primal reaction to the assault on her senses, the fear she battled with each step.
“Cath’s been asking for you.” Jake paused at the foot of the stairs, his hand heavy on the bannister. “At least, she says she’s Cath. But is it? Can you tell?”
Lauren stared past him toward the first landing, darkened by shadows despite the light cast by the wall sconce. “I could, at first.” As she watched, the darkness flickered like candle flame, the edges curling, fading, then forming again. “But it’s learned how she talks. Her mannerisms. The words she uses.” She shook her head. “I will admit that sometimes it’s hard.”
“But you’ll be able to tell when you get rid of it?” Jake’s voice came hushed, as though he feared being overheard. “You’ll know when it’s gone?”
I hope so. Lauren forced a nod, then followed him up the stairs. Wood creaked. The air grew thicker. She focused on a spot between his shoulder blades, avoided the framed photographs lining the wall. The images had taken to moving when she looked at them, flitting forward and back, the herky-jerk of actors in old movies. The faces had changed, too, plump roundness and relaxed expressions gone, replaced by hollowed eyes and gaunt faces and smiles like a shark before it strikes.
They reached the first landing, hesitated, then continued up. More shadows, the darkness chilling to the bone. Then came the second floor hallway, worn runners and chipped paint on the doors. Condensation trickling down the walls, the edges of the flowered wallpaper blistering from the damp.
Cath’s husband stood in the nearest doorway. Arthur Tate, dressed in jeans and a mended denim shirt, tanned face shiny from a recent shave. He held a brown paper lunch bag, wrinkled and grease-spotted from use.
“Do you need me in there?” He stood straight, chin high, circles like smears of ash beneath his eyes. “Maybe if she could see me, hear me…” His voice dwindled when Lauren shook her head, and he looked down at the floor. “You asked for, you know, something that means a lot to her. This was all I could find. I mean, there are other things that she likes, but she wrapped ’em up and hid ’em when all this started because she was afraid she’d do something to them, and I didn’t know where to–how to–” He held out the bag, then drew back when Lauren reached for it. “I heard about you. Jerry told me what happened when you went to see his daughter. You can read folks if you touch ’em. Read their minds.”
Good news travels fast. Lauren suppressed a groan. She had worked for the Council of Endor for only a couple of months, and had already been pegged throughout the Pacific Northwest as the witch version of a sin-eater. She performed a vital service, yes, but one that risked laying people bare. She understood their fear, yes, but they had reached the point of no return. They had no choice. And neither do I. “It’s not an all-the-time thing. Strong emotion drives it–” She caught the flicker in Tate’s eyes, and gave herself a mental kick. Of course he felt strong emotion now. She could sense it from where she stood, like the charge in the air before a storm. “It’s all right.” She raised her hand, waited for him to nod. Then she took hold of the bag with thumb and index finger only, and eased it from his grip. Opened it, and removed a small, heart-shaped silver frame, a shred of newspaper filling the place where a photograph had been.
“There was an old picture of me in there. In my wedding get-up.” Tate smoothed a hand over the front of his shirt. “She took it out and hid it because she was afraid–she would use–“
“She was afraid she would use it to hurt you.” As Lauren watched, the silver grew dull, then blackened, as whatever fouled the air settled over it. “Wait downstairs with the others.” She stuffed the frame in the pocket of her jeans, handed the bag back to Tate, and started down the hall.
“You never done this before, have you?”
Lauren stopped, turned, met Tate’s tired, wary gaze. “I’ve fought demons.”
“But you drove ’em outta houses and things. You never took one out of somebody.” Tate’s voice rose in pitch. “You’re flyin’ blind.” He pointed to the bedroom door with a trembling hand. “That’s my wife in there.”
Lauren shook her head. “No. It’s not.” She patted her pocket, the frame hard as bone. “You may not get this back.”
“Just get her back.” For a moment, Tate’s look chilled like the air. Then the exhaustion returned—-he pressed a hand to his mouth and stared down at the faded rug, then sighed and trudged toward the stairs.
Lauren waited until she heard Tate’s last steps on the stair, the fade of the men’s voices as they adjourned to one of the downstairs sitting rooms. Then she muttered a prayer to the Lady as she put one foot in front of the other and the air grew colder and thicker and the stink settled like oily dew on her skin.
“I can hear you.”
The soft drawl sounded just as Lauren approached the bedroom door. She stopped, took a deep breath, struck her thigh with her fist. Entered.
The thing that had taken over Cathlene Tate’s body regarded her from the four-poster bed. “I wondered when you’d work up the nerve.” No vomiting pea soup. No spinning heads or contorted bodies scuttling across the ceiling. Just a prim sixty-something woman sitting quietly, short silver hair neatly combed, folded hands resting on the patchwork quilt, the lace collar of her pajama top poking out from beneath her powder pink bathrobe. Gray eyes shone clear, their gaze, steady.
Only if you looked closely could you see the waxen cast of Cath’s skin, the yellow-white of congealed fat. Then there was the reek–if Lauren concentrated, she could just make out the source, a haze that enveloped the woman like a fine cloud, wispy tendrils reaching out like crooked fingers, beckoning her to come closer. She looked around for a chair, but the room contained only the bed, a dresser, an armoire for hanging clothes. Damn. She lowered to a corner of the bed, as far away from the foul mist as possible. The springs squeaked. The frame dug into her thigh, the edge sharper than she knew it to be. That meant the thing knew she had it. Breathe. She drew in the foulness, filled herself with it. After all, you couldn’t hit what you couldn’t reach. “I’m here, Cath.”
“Cath? She’s gone. I’m here, now and forever.” The thing cocked Cath’s head. Then it smiled, revealing the flat white of dentures. “I could kill this body now, you know. The heart’s so bad all it would take is one good squeeze.” It leaned forward. “But I’d still be here, in every corner, every shadow. I’d listen as you tried to explain to Arthur how I beat you.” It pointed down, toward the floor, the rooms beneath. “He’s got a shotgun with him. All loaded. He’s sitting in her favorite rocking chair, holding it in his lap. He’ll kill you if she dies. He’ll splatter your brains across the wall–the others know it, and they won’t stop him. But then he’ll reload and turn the gun on himself, and if they try to stop him then, he’ll kill them first. This ends in blood and pain and death, witch, no matter what you do.”
Scenes from movies flashed in Lauren’s mind, writhing bodies wailing as priests pressed crosses to their flesh. Such unthinking hate would’ve been simple compared to the focused malevolence that spoke now. “What’s your name?”
The thing rolled Cath’s eyes a little too far back, so for an instant they glittered liquid white. “Cathlene Tate. With an ‘e-n-e’ at the end because no one in that stupid family could spell.”
“What’s your name?”
“Do you really think that if you keep asking–“
“What’s your name?” As Lauren gave voice to the third intonation, she gripped a handful of quilt as that fragment of demon within her bucked and shuddered, cramping her gut and pushing the air from her lungs.
The thing on the bed stiffened, jaw flexing as it tried to hold back the one word it could not afford to utter. “Day–day–day–” The look it fixed on Lauren held hatred beyond human, older than time. It coughed, a wet, sucking sound. Then it slumped back against the pillows, chest heaving, its breathing one rattle after another.
Not its breathing. Cath Tate’s breathing. Cath Tate, with her bad heart.
One good squeeze….
Memories flooded Lauren’s mind. The scent of roses. Her mother, sprawled on the backyard lawn. Her cold skin, and the crack of ribs and the pushing pushing of the CPR that did no good didn’t help–
I couldn’t help her–I can’t help– She fought the demon’s influence and braced for the pound of boots up the stairs, Arthur Tate’s white-knuckled grip on the shotgun as he demanded to know why his wife had cried out.
But the seconds passed. Cath’s breathing slowed, quieted.
Then the demon raised its head, and fixed on Lauren. “You are strong.” A bare hint of a smile. “That’s why he sent you here alone to face me. Your dear Master Augustin. You scare him. He wants you to die. He thinks you want his place as head of the Council.”
“He knows better.” Lauren’s voice shook, and she waited for the tightness in her throat to ease. Fear, ambition, distrust–the most common weapons, all deployed. Just one more left. “Answer the question as you’ve been bidden.”
The demon must have taken the hesitation for weakness. Its smile widened. “Daygah. I am called Daygah.”
“Daygah?” Lauren ran through the names she recalled from the Book of the Lady of Endor, the Testament of Solomon, and other compendia that listed the names of demons and, more importantly, how to bind them. Not that her knowledge of demonic names was encyclopedic. Let’s just say it’s been a busy summer. “I do not recognize that name. Who were you before that?”
“I have always been called so.”
“Who sent you?”
“My lord and mas–“
“Not who made you. Who called you here?”
Neckbones crackled as the demon shook its head. “What does it matter? You don’t believe in the old books. You don’t believe in your Lady, no matter how hard you pray to her when you’re in the shit.” It sat upright. “What do you believe in, Lauren, daughter of Matthew?”
Lauren flinched as faint buzzing filled her head, a soft click like fingers flicking through note cards. Yes, having that fragment of the demon within her allowed her to sense it. Problem was, it could sense her as well.
Daygah laughed. “I see your beliefs. Nicholas Blaine is dead as dead can be, and the memory of his power still haunts you. Fernanda Carmody. The children of the forest and the Lord of the Flies. The strength that comes from darkness.” It reached for her with Cath’s veined hand, as the sheets fell away and Cath’s body slithered toward her with boneless ease. “You believe in power. So I will show you power.”
Lauren jerked back at first as the hand closed over hers and the chill filled her, but this was her opening and she had to take it. She dug her nails into Cath’s palm, then pulled the frame from her pocket with her other hand and opened the path to her own power. Reader of emotions, yes, but a conductor as well. A passageway. A conduit.
Daygah’s smile wavered. Then eyes widened as the realization hit. It tried to release her, hard shakes that grew more and more violent, sending Cath’s body rippling and bucking like a banner in a windstorm. The force dragged Lauren to her feet, then sent her sprawling across the bed. The quilt half-covered her face, then shuddered as though muscles moved under skin. It wrapped around her head, tightened around her neck, and twisted.
Death. The final weapon.
Lauren fought to remain calm even as stars flashed before her eyes and the breath stopped in her throat and her lungs seared. She couldn’t drop the frame or release Cath’s hand–if she broke contact now, Daygah would never let her near its host again. She had to see this through to the end, whatever it turned out to be.
Loosen–loosen–loosen– She fixed on the power controlling the quilt, sensed it as a length of rope, willed it to steer out of the cloth and back into her body, a psychic shepherd driving a stray back to the herd. The fragment fought her, whipping and twisting like a wounded snake.
Then, finally, just as Lauren felt herself go under, it straightened and slithered from around her neck through her skin and into her body. She felt the cold, dead length of it curl around her stomach and squeeze even as the quilt loosened and fell away and she wheezed in air through an aching throat and her blood roared in her ears.
She fixed on the face an arm’s length from her own, cheek pressed to the quilt, the rest a tangle of limbs and bedclothes. Daygah struggled–she could tell from the way Cath’s body shuddered, lumps rippling beneath her skin, turning her head into a bulbous monstrosity, then flattening, over and over.
Then Lauren caught it, a shadow in the shining eyes as lips twisted to form words.
“Help. Me.” Cathlene Tate, still hanging on, aware of what had taken over her body, struggling to fight it in any way she could.
Lauren gripped the woman’s hand harder, felt a fleeting return of pressure that said human. “Push it towards me.” Her voice rasped. “I’ll catch it. I’ll hold it. I promise.”
Cath’s head twitched, the barest of nods. Then she closed her eyes.
At first, nothing.
Then the wave struck, washed over Lauren, through her, then trapped her in its undertow. It filled her like sickness, every hatred, fear, bastard memory. Her father’s final days, his grey gauntness and whispered last words. Her mother’s death. Winter snows and the dull pain of stones bruising flesh and bone. The stench of burning pine.
Then came images she didn’t recognize, had never seen before. Springs of lavender tied with white ribbon. Clear liquid poured into a glass from a Mason jar. A baseball cap resting on a chair.
A small bundle wrapped in a quilt, and lowered into a hole in the ground.
Voices followed, some soft and muffled, some loud and battering.
I never said–
It all faded, eventually, like a receding tide. Lauren opened her eyes, blinked, then jerked upright as pain shot up her left arm. She slid off the bed onto her feet, but her legs crumpled beneath her and she collapsed.
She rolled over until she could see her left hand. Yes, she still held the frame, now so cold that rime frosted the surface. She opened her fingers and tried to let go of the thing, but it stuck to her skin. She brought her hand to her mouth and blew gently, one warm breath after another. Once she had warmed the silver surface enough that some of the rime evaporated, she wrapped the hem of her t-shirt around her free hand, took hold of the frame, and pried it away as gently as she could. Swallowed a cry as pain sang, like razors slicing her skin. Worked the thing loose to reveal the blistered, reddened half-heart curved across her palm.
Then she heard the voice, as soft as one that had sounded in her head.
“No, no, no…” Cathlene Tate, the real Cathlene, lay half-in, half-out of the bed, one arm flung wide, head rocking back and forth. Her face appeared pale, but her lips were still pink.
A good sign, isn’t it? Lauren gripped the bedpost for support and struggled to her feet. Pink is good–blue is bad. Her mother’s lips had been blue. She squinted as she searched for any sign of the haze, but the air around the woman had cleared. So had the stink of rot–now the room just smelled stale, a combination of some flowery perfume and human sweat.
A racket sounded, up the stairs, then down the hall. The thud of heavy-soled shoes on hardwood. The rumble of male voices.
Then Arthur Tate burst into the room. “Cath! Cath!” He ran to the bed, swept his wife in his arms, lifted her into a sitting position. “Honey?” He wedged beside her on the bed, alternating between hugging her and patting her cheeks. “You’re okay now–it’s going to be–okay.” He fixed on Lauren, and his eyes narrowed. “She’s going to be okay, right?”
Lauren pointed to the frame, still bound up in the hem of her t-shirt. “It’s trapped here. I’ll take it back to Council offices, and we’ll deal with it.” She nodded toward Cath, who stared off into some middle distance. “You should take her to the hospital.”
“What do we tell them?” Tate grunted. “What can we tell them?”
“Chest pains. She has a heart condition.”
Tate stilled. “I never said–” The wariness returned. “Can’t you do something?”
Lauren shook her head. “It’s not demonic, it’s an actual physical problem, and I am not a doctor.” The room rocked, and she leaned against the bedpost to steady herself. Felt something trickle down a nostril and out her nose. Pressed a finger to her upper lip and wiped, then drew back her hand and studied the smear of blood.
“You look like you could use one.” Jake looked her up and down, and winced. “A doctor.”
“I’ll be okay.” Lauren looked toward the bed at Cath, who met her eyes for a bare moment, then buried her face in her husband’s shirt. “Burn the sheets. The curtains. Get rid of the furniture. If you have a spell for cleansing, use it more than once. Move into a different room, at least for a while.” She straightened, tested her balance. “I asked you before, and you declined to answer. That’s your right, of course, but unless you deal with the cause, you could face this again. Any idea why this happened?” She expected the stillness that settled over the room, the rise in tension. One thing she had learned that summer was that demonic assaults were seldom unexpected. There was always a reason. The difficulty came in getting the host and their family to admit it.
“That’s our business.” Tate looked not at her, but at the other men, each in turn, a series of unspoken warnings. “You got rid of it, and we thank you, Mistress. We’ll take it from here.”
Lauren nodded, accepting her dismissal because what else could she do? She brushed past the other men into the hallway, the soles of her feet tingling as though compressed nerves awakened, and headed for the stairs. Along the way, she stopped by the bathroom and rummaged under the sink until she found a rag, which she used to wrap the frame. Even though she held it by the edges, she still felt the chill of the metal through the rough cloth.
Then she looked at herself in the mirror, and assessed the damage. A bloody nose, yes, but also a black eye in the first stages of bloom. A necklace of reddened bruises. Then there was her hand, which felt as though she had pressed it to a hot burner. All in all, pretty much business as usual.
No one followed as she made her way down the stairs. Once there, she paused and checked out the sitting rooms on either side, but if Tate had indeed been nursing his shotgun in preparation for murder, he had taken time to hide it before running upstairs.
Once outside, Lauren lowered to the front steps and let the sun wash over her. The heat made her injured hand hurt even more, but it soaked into her muscles, warmed away the tension. No sounds of machinery or voices raised in song drifted from across the road–the grape pickers had moved on to another part of the field, leaving quiet behind. So peaceful. So deceptive.
She stood, eventually. Walked slowly down the driveway. Heard the front door open, and stopped.
“I remember when it was farmland.”
She turned to find Jake regarding her from the top step. Then he clumped down, stopped on the sparse lawn near the edge of the driveway.
“That was the Gibbs place.” He pointed across the dirt road. “Marv and Joanne. They grew hay. Little wheat. Sold out about–must be ten years. One morning, they’re gone. Hour or so later, the machinery showed up. Bulldozed the house. Plowed the rows. Seemed like the vines went in overnight. Now? Hard to recall a time they weren’t there.” He made a sweeping motion with his hand. “Wellington Brothers Winery. All this, far as you can see.” He shrugged. “‘Cept fer here. They keep makin’ offers, but Art don’t want to sell.” After a few moments, he sighed. “Maybe now, though, who knows? Things change. Places. Ain’t no going back.” He scrabbled through his pockets, finally freeing a wrinkled envelope of the kind you got at a bank drive-through. “Art wanted me to give you this.”
Lauren hesitated, then took the envelope, caught a glimpse of the few wrinkled bills it contained. “It’s not necessary.”
“Well, he won’t take it back.” Jake edged away, gaze shifting from the ground to the sky, the scene across the road. Everywhere but at her. “Give it to someone needs it more.” He stilled, one arm half-raised, frozen in movement, as through unsure what to do next. Then he exhaled with a huff, and nodded in her general direction. “Mistress.”
Lauren watched him reenter the house. A few moments later, the front room curtains swept closed, followed soon by those in the kitchen, the upstairs. The walking wounded closing ranks. Shutting out the world. Shutting out her.
Stop it, Reardon. Those people don’t owe you a damned thing. Magic had slipped into their lives in small ways, a few poor hedge witches who just wanted the jam to set and the crops to grow and the truck to run for one more year.
But then it got out of hand. A plea had gone unanswered, or answered all too well. That was part of the deal. You didn’t get to choose, and payback was always a bitch.
Lauren got into the small SUV, an Escape leased by the Council. They couldn’t afford it any more than Tate could afford to pay for the exorcism, but Peter Augustin maintained that it was in the interest of safety. Better to not use one’s personal vehicle in their line of work. You never knew what might hitch along for the ride.
She set the frame on the passenger seat, tucking the rag so it wouldn’t work loose. Then she rummaged through the glovebox for the first aid kit, a gift from a prescient friend. Slathered burn ointment over her frostbitten palm, then covered the mess with a gauze bandage.
Driving one-handed, she pulled out of the driveway and started down the road, dirt billowing behind her, gravel pinging the vehicle’s underside. Steered with her knees and fiddled with the radio until she found a soft ambient channel, something to settle her nerves. But even the waft of strings and gentle piano grated, and after a few minutes she shut it off, concentrated on driving, struggled to ignore her sore neck, her hand, the bundle resting on the seat next to her. It remained quiet, for the most part. But every so often a sound emerged, a screechy scrape like claws across glass.