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Chapter One – The Seance
“Things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect.”
Luna Lovegood, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix.
Some say dead men don’t talk, but that’s hogwash. As the night janitor of the haunted teahouse in Sunset Cove, I can tell you many are chatty and some are downright dangerous. That’s why a séance was the last thing I wanted to do in my free time. Unfortunately, I had no choice. My friend Joy blackmailed me into taking part in her version of the ancient ritual. Whether I liked it or not, I had to go.
Joy assured me the evening would be fun, but when she put the words dead and fun in the same sentence I knew it spelled trouble. For the last two months, she practiced what she called her “kinky ability to communicate with the dead.” It was her new “thing.”
“I’m really good at it,” she told me every time we spoke. “I’ll start a business soon.”
I wondered if her logo would include the words kinky and dead.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a bad person. I wanted to be a supportive friend. I hoped her business worked. I wished her well in her newfound “thing,” and in all things kinky or not. I just didn’t want to be part of raising dead spirits. Not any part of it. Living for the last two years in Sunset Cove, the small Pacific Northwest town where everything goes bump in the night, had taught me that most dead things should remain dead and buried, forever. I pleaded with her to leave me out of her plans.
Joy however would not take “no” for an answer. “I need one more warm body at the table. Nothing bad will happen. I promise you’ll have fun,” she told me. “I’ll build a cool reputation as the new medium in town. Everyone will call on me to help them talk to their favorite dead people. I’ll make a killing.”
What could I do? My good friend wanted to open her own séance business, which wasn’t such a bad idea considering the demand for that kind of thing around here and her inherited talent for communicating with dead things. How could I not help her? Would it be that bad to sit and watch a table shake?
Besides, I needed her to keep my secret. I couldn’t have it exposed, at least not until I had figured out how to manage damage control. While Joy never said it out loud, I knew my confidentiality issue was on the negotiating table, another sign of how important this new gig was to her.
Séances are unpredictable at the best of times. I had only been to one in my life and it involved a nasty poltergeist intent on devouring the souls of my children. It had been neither fun or easy.
Joy said this event would be different. I mentally prepared myself for anything the multi-universe, in all its inter-dimensional glory, had stored up to sling at me. I have supernatural savvy, after all. I’ve seen things, heard things, experienced things most mortals find only in their worst nightmares. I should be able to handle “whatever.” That’s what I told myself.
But I was wrong. So wrong. I wasn’t ready for what happened that night. No one was ready for what happened that night.
As we say in the cove: supernatural shit happens.
The evening started out pretty normal, though I have trouble saying that because my life is so-not-normal. As the clock neared midnight, I debated what to wear for the occult soirée.
The weather that week had fluctuated from wet to wetter, with oppressive, dark clouds and a chilly wind flowing from the Arctic, or so said Alfred, the TV weatherman. It was a gumboot-with-wool-socks kind of day, and while I wanted to look nice for the meet-and-greet with the dead guy, I needed to be warm.
I threw on a pair of black leggings, a comfy thrift-shop sweatshirt, and a rain jacket. My three kids were asleep, and my cousin Jill lay curled up under a blanket on the sofa in the living room, reading a JC McKenzie shifter novel. A steaming cup of hot cocoa sat on the table beside her. My home life was momentarily in order, and I had no excuse not to go.
As I headed to my beat-up Mini parked outside, I checked the sky. No lightning or thunder. No visible moon or stars. No drama whatsoever. Just drizzle. The kind that seeps into the marrow of your bones and makes them ache for sunshine. Foghorns sounded in the distance, and the buoy at the entrance of our harbor clanged in the chop of the ocean waves. I could taste the salt in the breeze. The neighbor’s hounds howled. All was as it should be.
I grumbled. I really didn’t need another séance in my life.
“Suck it up, Blondie,” said my feline companion gliding along by my side. I’d like to say she’s a pet cat, but she’s not. She’s a lynx with a nasty mouth and magical inclinations. As frustrating as her charming personality can be at times, I can’t get rid of her. She’s my familiar. Due to an unfortunate series of events I had become a witch a few months ago, and she came as part of the package. The full-witch-deal, you might say. I call her Spark unless I’m mad, and then I call her Sparky just to rankle her.
“Couldn’t you just stay home and let me do this on my own?” I said.
“And miss all the fun? Not a chance.” Her low, throaty voice sounded like Mae West and played my nerves like a possessed violin. I considered my options for a moment. I had none. Maybe someday I would find a magic potion to rid myself of her companionship. “At least behave,” I said.
“I always behave,” she said with squinty eyes.
“Uh-huh, like this morning when you jumped the postman?”
“He came to the door.”
“That’s what postmen do.”
Her tail rose.
“He needed stitches.”
Spark strutted past me as if I had said nothing, closing the conversation with her elegant feline derriere. “Dear Abby, stop whining and get in the car.”
Joy chose to hold her event at her aunt’s teahouse, a hangout for the local ghosts. I should know. I work there as the night janitor. While its decidedly wicked reputation scared some, to me it was a second home.
I walked up the creaky, wooden steps to the front door of the gingerbread Victorian, determined to make the best of the evening. The house sat on top of a portal linked to other realms. The front door opened on its own and I entered.
The reception area smelled of today’s blackberry scones, with a side of spirits. The eau de ghost is a distinct smell: one part dust, one part mildew, and one part death. I made a mental note to use more Lysol on my next cleaning shift. Fighting the ghoulish smell had become an ongoing issue in my life.
A grand chandelier, missing more than a few crystals, hung in the main room of the first floor. Faded floral wallpaper covered the walls. Worn furniture filled the space. The haunted-chic ambiance was so intense, the teahouse could be featured on the Better Haunted Homes blog, but the locals, both live and dead, would not like the attention.
There was no sign of my boyfriend Eric, so I had no excuse to dally in the front foyer. Taking a deep breath, I followed the sound of voices to the second tearoom.
Five people—for lack of a better word—sat around a long, oval, oak table. “Hi,” I said as I took an empty chair at the far end. Spark curled up at my feet. The smell of incense burning on a side table nauseated me, but I smiled as amiably as I could.
Joy looked around at the gathering. “Good. We’re all here now. Well, all except my client.” Dressed from head to foot in black, she looked her normal Goth-Goddess self. Long black hair spilled over her shoulders, and black makeup made her look ghoulish.
To her right sat Elif, her current lover. I didn’t fully approve of him as he was a vintage vampire from the twentieth century, but I liked him better than her last beau, a grim mortician with bad breath. We gave each other a nod. He had the whitest of skins, as in dead white, and it always gave me pause. He stood about five-ten, an inch taller than me, had a lithe Nordic build and dressed like a well-heeled, west-coast hipster complete with a man-bun.
To his right sat Kumar, his day butler, a “go-for” guy who handled all his business during the day. “Hi,” Kumar said in a rich baritone voice. Had he been forced into being here too? He had a stocky build and South-Asian features. A party guy who liked his beer cold, weed strong and women willing, he had a reputation as a player. His black hair had that messed-up-morning-after look, and his mesmerizing, dark-brown eyes made me want to take a second, heck a third, look. But, of course, I wasn’t looking.
Next to him sat Ophelia Maserati, looking as pretentious as her name sounded, with a black, sequined evening gown, weighted down with expensive-looking jewelry. With a perfectly coifed blond mane, Sephora makeup, and a set of perky boobs I would die for, she left me not at all jealous. Had Joy had blackmailed as well? She had to be hiding a few scandals behind her pouty lips. Okay, her lips could be natural, but that just proved the unfairness of life. Not homegrown, Ophelia had arrived in town six months ago, saying she needed a quiet place to practice her singing. But I never heard her sing.
On my right sat the woman rumored to be Kumar’s current lady-love, Ming Chan, an extraordinarily beautiful woman in her twenties with ebony hair that cascaded to her waist, perfect porcelain skin and a petite figure. She wore skinny jeans with a red silk blouse. Rows of pearls hung around her long, swan-like neck. Her stilettos would cost more than three months of my salary. Her beauty made her stand out in Sunset Cove, but the truth is she would stand out anywhere.
Clang. Clang. Clang. Joy clashed Tibetan symbols to get our attention. “Before my first client arrives I want to thank you all for your help. It means a lot to me that you’re all here.”
A lick of self-loathing for the nasty thoughts that I’d been nurturing all day curled around my heart and I put on my best smile.
Joy continued, “I promise this evening will be exciting.”
The entrance to the room darkened, and we turned to look at the guest of honor, Margaret Gallagher. The cook and owner of Margaret’s cafe, the main meeting place of the entire town. Despite having enough menopausal snark to curdle your coffee cream, it was hard not to like the woman. She worked day and night keeping the town’s coffee pot hot and when the power went out during the winter storms, she always had hot java and refused payment for it.
I sat back and folded my arms across my chest. I had expected the séance client to be a recent widow with money, or a love-sick widower with unresolved issues, not Margaret. Why would anyone so connected with the living want to talk with the dead?
With an anxious smile, she sat to the left of Joy. Her “Lily of the Valley” perfume tickled my nose. Wearing green polyester pants and a matching floral blouse, reminiscent of Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote, she cultivated a sturdy look. Short, brown hair streaked with gray framed her round face. Her emerald-green eyes darted around the room as if she suspected spirits lurked between us.
We were all ready. A shiver stole up my spine as a graveyard silence fell among us. A sense of foreboding settled on my shoulders, weighing me down, but I refused to think it anything more than a wee bit of anxiety.
Spark sat on my feet as if she needed protection.
“Can we get this over with,” I said, unable to contain myself any longer. I had a long list of things I would rather be doing, including watching the latest episode of Riverdale.
Joy glared at me.
Ouch. I winced at her over the white roses and gothic candelabra placed in the center of the table, but she didn’t soften her stance.
Joy lit the candles and Elif turned off the lights.
After a moment, Joy began, “We have gathered tonight to reach the spirit of …”
Thunder cracked outside, followed by lightning. The windows rattled, and the candle flames danced. Geez Louise, Alfred the weatherman was wrong again. We had thunder. The hair on the nape of my neck stood at attention.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” said Margaret.
Elif the vampire groaned. If you’ve never heard a vampire groan, trust me, you don’t want to. It’s a low, guttural sound, a cross between creaking coffin hinges and an exquisitely satisfied lover.
“Well it’s been fun,” I said as I stood to leave. I’m not a fan of unexpected thunder. It usually means …
“Sit down,” commanded Joy. “Everyone hold hands with the people on both sides of you.”
Candlelight flickered in the darkness.
“Who are we hunting?” I asked before I locked my fingers in the mystical circus ring. I really, really didn’t agree with the whole séance thing. There were lots of dead people around who wanted to talk. You only had to listen. If you needed all this hocus-pocus stuff to reach them, it meant they didn’t want to chat with you. I’m not a fan of forcing the dead to come alive in any form. Bad things happen when you disturb the dead. Really bad things.
The door slammed shut. Oh great, now the house was taking sides. Spark rubbed her dry nose on my leg. She didn’t have to tell me: magic was afoot.
“My former lover, Nelson,” said Margaret.
The others murmured, but the name was lost on me.
I offered up my hands and we locked ourselves in a séance circle. Joy spoke in a solemn voice. “Our beloved Nelson, we call you to our circle.”
“Close your eyes, everyone,” Joy said. “And silently call his name.”
I swallowed. Maybe I could go home soon.
“Nelson. We call on you,” said Joy.
Ugh. This could take all night. Words I did not intend to speak flowed out of my mouth. “I call on the four elements to assist our quest. Bring forth the spirit of Nelson.” Sometimes the witch in me takes over.
A breeze rustled through the room. Everything went black. An icy coldness swept through my body, robbing me of air. The people whose hands I held let go.
The sound of gurgling jarred me. I opened my eyes. The candles were all out, but the gurgling continued. A horrible sound of struggle and death. I smelled blood.
The overhead light flicked on. Elif stood by the switch.
Kumar lay back in his chair with a knife in his throat. Blood gushed from his wound.