Hell By Any Other Name CoverHell By Any Other Name is the first short story in the collection The Shredded Veil Mysteries.

Hell By Any Other Name

I woke up from my nightmare sitting straight up in bed.

If I could sweat, I’d be drenched. If I had a heart, it would have been beating hard in my chest. If I could breathe, I would have been gasping.

I’d been dreaming of Hell, of course.

Most ghosts, if they admit to sleeping, dream of Hell. It was why we were ghosts. That door to the Beyond wasn’t full of pearly gates and choirs of angels. No, it was fire, heat, and chaos.

There were a few ghosts who stayed on Earth even though they were promised Heaven. They were all nuts.

I pressed my hands against my eyes, as if I could shut the images out and wipe them away. No luck. I groaned. Quietly. I didn’t want any more complaints from Mrs. H— downstairs about unearthly noises.

I was lucky enough to be able to rent a place outside Ghosttown, to live among the living. Even if it was little more than a glorified closet, with only a skinny, single bed and two stacks of crates holding a door across them that served as my desk. Dark water stains marred the formerly white walls, while mysterious lines crossed the ceiling, shadows of discontent.

The only bright spot was Betsy, my camera, sitting in her corner of the desk. Most of what a ghost sees is muted, grayed, behind the veil still. Betsy always appeared red and glowing, as if a warm heart beat behind her dark lens.

That was all my room contained—one of the advantages of being a ghost. No need to cook or use a bathroom. You couldn’t really change your appearance, and since you didn’t actually have a body, well, nothing in, nothing out. We still needed rest, though. The brain needed time off to process.

I looked at the clock. Two in the afternoon. I caught myself before I groaned again. Flames of Hell still licked behind my eyes if I closed them. There would be no more sleep for me that day, though I didn’t usually rise until sunset.

I slid aside the heavy drape covering the window, exposing an inch of daylight. I was in luck. Another rainy Seattle day greeted me. I decided to go to Volunteer Park. Might even go to Lakewood Cemetery. Not because I wanted to greet the newly dead; there was a committee for that. Or even to look at the portals, to see if they’d changed. I didn’t believe those myths, that I might somehow do enough good that I’d earn Heaven.

No, it was merely a matter of wanting some company of my own kind. I hated to admit it, but sometimes I got lonely. I rose and walked out into the gray haze of the day, the rain sliding through me as if I wasn’t really there.

I tried to think of it as a cleansing, inside and out, but I never really feel clean.

* * *

December 21, 2012 hadn’t been the end of the world, only the Great Unraveling. The veils between the Seen and Unseen worlds shredded.

The living suddenly discovered they weren’t alone.

Luckily for our side, we had a lot of lawyers. The Interspecies Act passed relatively quickly for Congress, guaranteeing the rights of the dead and others.

Of course, law and practice were often worlds apart. Seattle had one of the stronger lobbies, though. I praised their work again as I got on the bus, the new card system beeping when I passed my hand over it, automatically deducting my fare. I’d hated walking everywhere before.

The bus was mostly empty. A homeless man slumped on a seat next to the back door, arms wrapped firmly around his pack; two students sat next to each other madly texting, probably to each other; and a professionally dressed man with round glasses and a briefcase on his lap sat stiffly in his seat. He stared straight ahead, his face frozen.

As if he’d seen a ghost.

I almost sat next to him, but I’m not generally that vengeful. It’s part of what ghosts do, though: scare the living, whether we mean to or not. The ghosts who get off on it were also the ones who, as kids, pulled the wings off flies, and as adults fired people for a living, know what I mean?

Instead, I swayed as the bus turned another corner, making my way to the very last seats in the back, looking out the window and watching the gray day slide by. I could have gone out in the sunshine. Sometimes I enjoyed seeing the world brightly lit, even though it didn’t seem as vivid as when I’d been alive. I missed the feeling of warmth, though. And intense sunlight made ghosts less substantial. People no longer saw me. Instead of trying to avoid me, they stepped through me. There was no feeling more wrenching than your former intestines momentarily misplaced.

The man with the briefcase got off at the same stop I did. I didn’t think anything of it, since he walked straight ahead when I turned left, into the park. I walked up the winding hill, sticking to the sidewalk, not wanting to take a chance on slipping on the wet grass. Red, orange and yellow leaves lay scattered across the green lawn. I remembered, when I was still alive, how colorful the fall leaves were, how a gray day made them seem more vivid. Dying cast a fog on everything. Nothing was as clear as it used to be. The edges weren’t as crisp; the colors, more muted.

I looked through the black donut sculpture at downtown and the Space Needle, and then walked around the reservoir—I’d been alive when it had still been full of water, one of the last open reservoirs in all of Washington. Now it was just a thin pond full of fat koi, algae and bird droppings. Finally, I decided to head north to the cemetery. Walking along the avenue of beechnut trees I saw the man from the bus again. This time he stared straight at me. The hand holding his briefcase was clenched tightly, almost white. With a determined stride, he drew closer. “Andrew Collin?”

“How do you know my name?”

“I need your help.”

My mouth must have been gaping because I closed it with a snap. “I only work during business hours,” I told him sharply.

“But—”

“If you know my name you already know the address of my office.”

I turned on my heel and deliberately walked through the nearest tree.

Of course, I appeared on the far side of it. While it was unpleasant for me, I’ve been told it was distinctly unsettling for the living.

I walked without pause to the cemetery. Only paid professionals among the living ever went there anymore. New memorial parks had sprung up, where the living could go to honor their dead. As a result, cemeteries were one of the safest places on earth. I’d heard stories of more than one attempted robbery or rape ending when the victim fled to a graveyard.

Ghosts could be very vengeful.

Most people avoided graveyards, though, because of the portals, the doors to Heaven or Hell that surround the places of the dead.

The living saw them differently, as shadows, or else they felt them when they walked too close, a chill that went through bones and into the soul. The doors weren’t meant for them. Some got glimpses, though, of their afterlife, whether it was angels or seventy-eight virgins or a blessed nothing. The living couldn’t pass through. Whatever they saw was disturbing enough they rarely ventured near.

One of the good things about the portals showing up was that all the mass graves were suddenly findable, even in the middle of the jungle. Murderers now had to be very careful where they stashed a body. Portals stuck around even after a soul went through.

Like all ghosts, I found myself drawn to them frequently. We were meant to go through. But some could ignore the siren’s call better than others.

Flamed licked out of the nearest portal, drawing my attention. A black, churning cloud boiled beyond the burning edges. The only time I felt heat was near that fire. There wasn’t a smell of sulfur, or cries of the damned. Just fire I knew would burn my ectoplasmic flesh, and a chasm that would chew up my soul until there was nothing left.

In an abstract manner I admired the contrast between the comforting trees of the park, the dramatic gray of the clouds, and the shooting flames dancing in the portal. I took another step forward, then another, fascinated against my will.

Maybe if I stared long enough, a pattern would form. Maybe I could find a path through the darkness into the light.

Maybe if I wished hard enough, I, too, could grow wings and fly.

I stopped myself in time, before I stepped through, as I always did.

That Hell was not for me.

* * *

I wasn’t surprised when the guy with the briefcase sat waiting for me in my tiny office in Ghosttown. The door was unlocked, and the living couldn’t or wouldn’t touch most of the artifacts in the room.

Still, I looked around carefully to make sure nothing had been disturbed. Papers and notebooks, Fixed so that both the living and the dead could touch them, sat stacked in neat piles on the rickety desk. The beat-up file cabinet in the corner, which I kept not only locked but charmed, stood untouched.

Natural artifacts that I’d found—rocks, keys, broken rings, dried flowers, and other knick-knacks—covered the shelves of the cinder block-and-board bookcase that ran along the one wall, exactly in the same pattern as I’d left them. Each of them held a spark of something: life, Heaven, energy, I didn’t know. All ghosts collected these things. Some Fixers, those among the living with one foot in the world of the dead, used natural artifacts to create other artifacts, electronics and other useful manufactured items dragged far enough out of the Seen world that ghosts could use them, like Betsy, my camera. Other Fixers said it was a lot of hooey.

Me, I just felt better with the natural artifacts surrounding me.

The guy sat stiffly in the guest chair next to the desk. I had to walk past him to get to my own large captain’s chair. I made sure to walk by closely, so he could feel the chill that all ghosts emanate.

“What can I help you with, Mr….”

“Potter,” he provided. “Harry Potter.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“My parents were—whimsical.”

Though Mr. Potter wore round glasses similar to his namesake, that was where the likeness ended. He looked more like a Danish architect, with perfect blond hair, starched shirt, classic thin blue tie, and charcoal suit.

“So what can I do for you, Mr. Potter?” I picked up the cracked glass fountain pen I kept on the desk and twirled it in my fingers. I’d been a smoker as a young man, and though the ability had disappeared when I’d died, the cravings hadn’t.

“Have you heard of Disruption stones?”

“Of course.” Every ghost had. Supposedly, they were strong enough to disrupt your fate: if you threw one into a portal, it would change from an image of Hell to Heaven.

“Mine was stolen. I want you to get it back,” Mr. Potter said primly.

I couldn’t help it. I had to laugh. “First off, why would I believe you? They’re just myths. Next, even if I did believe you, why would you come to a ghost to retrieve it? Why wouldn’t I just take it for myself?”

“Most of the myths about them aren’t true,” Mr. Potter explained. His voice took on a lecturing tone. “They’re manufactured, not found or mined. They must be Fixed to an individual, like an artifact. They’re horribly expensive, both in time and materials. Like an artifact, only a ghost can touch one. However, only the ghost of the person it’s been made for can use it.”

“So, someone stole something useless from you,” I stated, still not believing him.

For the first time, Mr. Potter showed a streak of anger. “More myths,” he said darkly. “Some people erroneously believe they can re-Fix a stone. That a strong enough Fixer can realign it. They’re wrong, of course. The thief will destroy it by attempting to change the Fixing.”

“Mr. Potter, I investigate missing people, or cheating husbands or wives. I collect evidence for the court. I don’t specialize in artifacts. There are others who do. Let me recommend—”

“I don’t want them. I want you. I investigated you. Thoroughly.”

“Really,” I said in my driest voice. I had practiced the tone, working to keep out the ghostly overtones.

Mr. Potter paled only slightly, so I thought I’d mostly succeeded.

“You were a cop—”

“Detective,” I growled.

Mr. Potter swallowed, then continued. “Detective. With an impressive close rate.”

“Not all of those cases were closed cleanly.” The Interspecies Act had ensured that the dead weren’t necessarily prosecuted for crimes committed while living.

Lots of lawyers on our side.

“You also go that extra mile now,” Mr. Potter added. “A very satisfied client list.”

“A confidential list of clients,” I said, glancing again at my locked file cabinet. Two weeks prior I had noticed something off when I’d come in, as if the locking spell had started to slide. I’d assumed at the time that the spell for shocking anything that physically touched the metal had worn off and I just needed the building Witch to reapply it.

I couldn’t be paranoid enough, it seemed.

“People talk,” Mr. Potter said with a fake smile. “Particularly with the right monetary incentive.”

I bristled. “And you think that will work with me?”

“Triple your normal fee? Yes, I do.”

“I won’t be bought.” Criminals had discovered that early, and I’d carried the habit into the afterlife.

“I’m not asking you to do anything wrong or illegal. Merely to retrieve an artifact that’s mine and has been stolen from me.”

“Why should I take your word that it’s yours?”

“Here’s the name of the ghost who stole it,” Mr. Potter said. “And the man who paid her.” He slid a piece of paper across the desk.

I recognized only the first name. Toni Hermino. Beautiful Italian immigrant. She’d been a thief when she’d been alive, specializing in exotic gems and jewelry. Now that she’d passed over, she focused on artifacts and art.

“Go talk with her. Verify my story. Check me out as well. As an extra incentive, when you return the stone, I’ll share the list of ingredients needed to make a Disruption stone for yourself.”

I scoffed. “Just the cash is fine.”

I didn’t believe in this mythical stone. Mr. Potter did. He was seemed to be an intelligent businessman, not given to flights of fancy. Either someone had snowed him good, or there was actually something to this myth.

“I’ll pay Toni a visit,” I said grudgingly. “But that’s all I’m agreeing to do for now.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Potter said, his smile full of teeth.

Fortunately for me, he wasn’t the only one with a bite.

* * *

The Haunting Hour art gallery didn’t open until midnight, of course. I spent the time at one of the Fixed terminals in the library, cruising the electronic highway that ran easily through the Seen and Unseen worlds, investigating Mr. Potter and his nemesis. The three other terminals were empty, their screens glowing with that odd half-light of the almost there. Though the living still manned the desks, mostly ghosts wandered between the stacks, seeking treasures they’d missed in their youth, answers for their unending existence.

Mr. Potter, I learned, worked as a long-term investment banker for the dead. Believe me, there was no one more committed to long term than a ghost with no fear of dying. He’d done well for himself—nice Craftsman on Queen Anne Hill, second cottage out on the San Juan Islands. Divorced, no kids, mother in a very expensive, private nursing home. No charges, no official investigations, not even a letter of complaint.

Squeaky clean.

Something about him still set my ectoplasm crawling.

I arrived at the gallery soon after it opened. The long windows cast brilliant light out onto the dark street. More people than I’d expected clomped across its hardwood floors: some sort of open house. The living walked in groups of two or three, clutching wine glasses and making hushed commentary.

I wouldn’t call the images on the walls “art.” The drive to create such things, that passion, belonged solely with the living. This was a façade. To me, every piece looked the same, like chalkboards badly cleaned, with squiggling green, glowing lines drifting across them. As a line crossed a boundary of a piece, it turned into smoke and dissipated.

There were very few ghosts who were once artists: no matter their destination, anything was better than a pale existence.

Toni chatted with two guests, accepting their studied praise for the show and the artist. I waited patiently as Toni drew pledges of donations from them for a dubious charity.

I didn’t say anything or try to warn them away. I wasn’t a detective anymore, and as ghost, it was hard to make a living.

“So, paisano, what can I do for you this wicked evening?” Toni smiled like she meant it. She’d probably been stunning when she’d been alive. Now, she was as pale as all of us, her beautiful dress just a shade different than her skin, still clinging to nice curves and shapely calves accentuated with high heels.

“Just checking on a rumor,” I told her. “A myth.”

“Myth? You? I thought polizia were only concerned with facts. “

I didn’t bother to correct her assumption. Once a cop, always a cop. “Sometimes disproving something is as important,” I said smoothly.

Toni cocked an eyebrow at me.

Maybe not that smooth.

“I’ve heard…rumors that maybe a precious stone was removed from a magician’s house. Care to comment?”

“Ah. If, perhaps, I knew of the possibility of such a thing, how would you show your appreciation?”

I pressed my lips together and rocked back on my heels. I’d expected Toni to deny everything.

It meant she wanted to tell me something.

A too-human laugh interrupted my thoughts. We both looked at the source then looked away.

The dead rarely laughed.

“A favor,” I said, rolling the dice. “Big or small. Some future claim.”

“Interesting,” Toni said, but she was already nodding. “Yes. A future favor it is.”

Toni grew pensive and stepped forward, her voice a hitching whisper. I easily caught it, whereas anyone living would draw away from the sibilant, haunting tones.

“A precious stone, such as what you’re asking about, if it exists, would be cold, so cold. A little piece, like that,” she said, holding up her fingers and indicating a mere inch. “Very heavy.” Her eyes took on a distant look. “It was—it would not—be right. Not natural. Not good.”

Toni glanced up at me out of the corner of her eye. “Removing such a thing from its owner might not be bad, no?” She ended with a shrug.

I shrugged back. “Depends on who got it next. What they plan to do with it.”

At that, Toni smiled. “Such a person might be very arrogant. They might think they can change the nature of the thing. They’ll just destroy it. No harm done.”

“What if someone was hired to bring the stone back to the magician?”

“I would call him a fool,” Toni said coldly.

When I said nothing, Toni nodded her head once, sharply. “I have guests waiting,” she told me, looking away.

“Thank you.” I turned and headed toward the door, ignoring the whispering humans.

“The magician’s castle—” Toni called from behind me.

I paused.

“It’s more dangerous than the rest.”

When nothing else seemed to be forth-coming, I nodded my thanks and left, walking out of the brightly lit gallery and into the dark of the street. Of course the night didn’t hide me—no, here I was more visible. I had my own glow, like all ghosts after midnight.

I wished I could change my clothes, somehow. Pull up my collar. Tug on my sleeves. Something to give myself a sense of protection.

I didn’t want to go through with this job. Mr. Potter was a snake. I knew I should walk away before he stuck his fangs in me.

However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was going on. A bigger game.

This part of the magician’s story had checked out. Now it was time to go see the arrogant man.

* * *

Mr. A—, short for arrogant, as Toni had so aptly named him, lived only a few blocks away from Mr. Potter, even higher on Queen Anne Hill. A quaint, brick wall separated the yard from the sidewalk, while the yard’s sloping incline separated the house from its neighbors, giving it the impression of a feudal castle snubbing those beneath it. It was done in pseudo-Tudor style, with wide, dark planks separating the white stucco. More than one gable peered darkly over the expanse, sticking out from the steeply slanted roof.

The garden was immaculate, of course, the hedges trimmed with tweezers and the grass probably not merely cut, but each blade filed to a precise angle.

Ghosts generally hung out in one or two places in a house like Mr. A—’s: up in the attic, snuggled into the rafters and listening to the rain, or deep in the cellars.

I’d brought Betsy with me on this trip. Generally, I used her only for photographing cheating husbands or stealthy wives, but Betsy had other talents as well.

The Fixer I’d used for Betsy had been new to the business. She’d had to try more than once to bring Betsy “over” so that I could use the camera. The Fixer had spent a lot of energy, and hadn’t charged me much money, because neither of us had realized what she’d done until much later.

She’d made Betsy into a spectralgraph.

As easily as I took pictures of humans, I could also take pictures of things such as houses or cars—anything manufactured—and see any residual spectral effect.

I took pictures of the houses next to Mr. A—’s first. I needed to make sure there wasn’t any environmental influence. I seemed to be in luck. This part of the hill hadn’t been declared holy, nor did it contain an ancient burial mound. If it had, every house in the vicinity would have a low-level spectral reading.

Then I took a picture of Mr. A—’s place.

It was lit up like the Castro District on Halloween.

Which meant either it was ghost central, or it housed not just a few, but an entire museum’s worth of powerful artifacts. As I hadn’t seen another ghost anywhere on the street, I had to assume the latter.

Caution told me to wait until broad daylight, when I could approach the house unseen, hidden by the sun.

I told caution where to stick it and climbed the stairs up to the house. That was when I had my first big shock.

The house was Sealed.

Not just the doors and windows locked, no. Every bit of folklore, both the things that did and didn’t work, were employed around the perimeter. A band of salt, at least half a foot wide, had been drawn in a circle around the property. Rowan branches rested on every windowsill. Ba Gua mirrors hung over the door. Bottle trees flush with blessings and curses were planted every few feet.

Why the Hell hadn’t Toni warned me about this place?

I slowly circled the house, counter clockwise, seeking a crack in its protection.

Nada.

In the back, where the neighbors couldn’t see, additional protections had been laid: a sticky rope web that had been Fixed. Dancing spectral lights guaranteed to confuse the more weak-willed. Running water from a fountain rolled past half the house like an old fashioned moat.

I had no idea if the house held just as much protection against the living as well. I had to assume it did. I also had to assume that the security cameras mounted every few feet had also been Fixed and were now tracking me.

I had to get out of there before they released their equivalent of Hell hounds.

The moat drew me back. The flowing water had to come from somewhere; a pump, deep inside. It wasn’t a naturally flowing spring. Down, underground, it was being recycled. The circle would be broken there.

A light came on, shining out a second story window above me.

Without thinking, I sank down, into the ground.

* * *

Scientists who have studied the phenomenon have reported that ghosts take on different shapes underground. Some become snakelike; others, more of an amorphous blob.

Me, I’ve always felt as though I grew round, with a hard skin, like a ping-pong ball. I didn’t lose myself or any consciousness, but I know I was very different underground than above it.

Black dirt slid easily around my compact form. Roots parted before me like a tangled curtain. An earthworm blindly kept pace with me as I burrowed through the rich loam.

I couldn’t see anything—at least, not in a human sense, with eyes. I was as sightless as the worm. But I sensed that sliver of a crack before me, like a door just barely ajar, its light spilling out into the darkness. It drew me like the sun draws a seedling, that single bright spot in the unending night.

Coldness bracketed me as I eased inside, my natural form tumbling into shape. I stood, stretched, imagining my vertebrae cracking in relief, though I didn’t feel anything, actually. I almost groaned, but stopped myself just in time.

The room I’d landed in had piles of boxes against the walls. One of the bottom ones had broken open, crushed by the weight of the boxes on top of it. Its spilled contents had disturbed the delicate chalk lines drawn across the floor, a gypsy sigil to keep out the undead.

I skirted the edges of the drawing, pressed up next to the boxes. Whoever had drawn this had known what they were doing. When I reached the door, I snapped a couple of pictures of it with Betsy. Someone, somewhere, probably knew how to break this one from our side.

The hall I stepped into was as plain as the room I’d just come from. It had been recently painted, with a yellowed linoleum floor and doorways lining the walls. If I’d been thorough, I would have looked in each room, taken pictures of the spells I was sure I’d find there.

But the room at the end hummed with power. I didn’t need Betsy’s eye to tell me powerful artifacts lay behind it.

Ghosts looked the same, felt the same, every damn day of their existence.

As I drew closer to this room, the hairs on the back of my neck rose up. An actual shiver went down my spine.

It was too seductive for words.

I walked straight through the door into the room without another thought.

Of course, a sigil lay just on the other side. I’d blundered right into it. Caught like an ant in amber, I couldn’t move, couldn’t sink into the ground or mist away. I was held right there until someone came and freed me.

I tried to compose myself. A security camera had turned deliberately toward me and held me in its sight. Might as well see what was here. Shelves held row after row of artifacts and Fixed items. I didn’t recognize any of them, just felt their power. I looked for a stone, anything that might have felt “heavy” or “cold,” but nothing struck me that way. Or rather, no stone did. There was a doll’s hand that felt “off” to me, and some brown, curled leaves that shifted as if unseen bugs crawled over and under them.

I ignored the first twinge I felt in the center of my back. I was still too busy gawking like some damn tourist.

The second one came with the wonderment of pain.

How was that happening to me? I looked down at the lines drawn in raised chalk. The design appeared to be a standard Chinese holding spell.

Another pain wracked me, this time starting in my gut.

Only then did I really notice the second artifact that had swung in my direction when I’d stumbled in. At first I mistook it for a camera, but no, it was actually some kind of gun.

Like the Disruption stones, rumors of these sorts of things had been around forever, some sort of technology that could be used to banish a ghost.

I struggled wildly then, trying to get free. I’d been banished before. It wasn’t fun.

This time it wasn’t the abrupt pain of being shoved from the world. No. This was a pulling, like being quartered with Clydesdales, slowly but inevitably tearing each limb off and away.

I bellowed, shrieked, and moaned, causing the very foundation of the house to shake, but to no avail.

I was torn asunder.

* * *

I became corporeal—or at least, a ghost again—in the graveyard where my bones lay buried.

Betsy, of course, was gone.

All the portals sprang up, showing images of flame and chaos as I rose. I ignored them and the false comfort of light they provided in the darkness. They looked less out of place than the sign for the cemetery itself. Who puts a flashing neon time-and-date sign at the entrance of a graveyard?

Buses had long stopped running, and no cab would ever pick up a ghost. I started the long walk back downtown. I longed for a cigarette, anything to break the monotony of walking. Though I could move more quickly than the living, it was still going to take a damn long time.

I thought about my options as I trudged back to the city.

Go back to Mr. A—’s and retrieve Betsy. Not practical. Probably not possible. But I’d miss her. She’d been my only touchstone in this existence.

Find Mr. Potter and tell him I’d failed. Then I’d be out my fee as well as my camera.

I couldn’t think how Toni might be able to help. She’d already warned me. I didn’t have a thing she wanted, I was certain. And I already owed her a debt. I certainly couldn’t pay her to go steal Betsy back for me.

With the sun rising, Hell’s bells sounding in the blazing light, I was too tired to think anymore. I went back to my room instead, collapsing on my bed and hoping that something besides nightmares would come in my sleep.

This time I dreamed of being banished and never able to come back, floating amorphous above the graveyard like a lonely cloud.

I can’t say it was an improvement over dreaming about Hell.

* * *

By midafternoon I finally decided I’d had enough of pretending to sleep. I was still no closer to a plan of action. Mr. A—, of the impenetrable house, still had the Disruption stone, and given the number and strength of the other artifacts he had, I was almost ready to believe that myth.

And now he had Betsy. Her usual seat on my desk looked naked without her. This place was still a dump, barely room to walk, a mere mattress on a rusted iron frame, but it was where I hung my hat, and Betsy made it, if not home, at least mine.

I knew Mr. A— would have either fixed the crack in his defenses or he would have widened it, placing a trap on the other side.

That didn’t stop me from going back there when I realized that the clouds had burned away, leaving miles of blue sky and bright light.

After a bus ride of being trampled on and brushed through, I felt exhausted and out of place. I didn’t stop my groan when I looked up that steep hill I was going to have to climb. It wouldn’t be physically tiring, not as it might have been when I’d been alive. It took will, though, and I’d been pushing myself for a while.

The Puget Sound shone blue beneath the hill, boats and ships, large and small, skimming across it. Wind I couldn’t feel swirled the dried leaves on the sidewalk. I couldn’t smell the air, but I knew it would be crisp and clean.

The fake Tudor house looked the same as the night before: dark windows, perfect lawn, graceful walk—

—that led to a gaping-open front door.

I told myself it was my former detective instincts kicking in. Mr. A— was far too paranoid to leave his front door open. Something had to be wrong.

Honestly, though, I just wanted a way into that house.

I raced up the path, flowing as fast as the wind, when Mr. Potter stepped across the threshold. He shook hands with Mr. A—, the pair of them laughing.

I couldn’t help my low growl. They appeared to be on very cordial terms.

I pushed myself into bush next to the walk. Twigs rammed through my gut and lungs, branches pinned my arms. Though I didn’t need to breath, my lungs felt constricted, as if there weren’t enough air. If I could sweat, despite the cool day I would have felt it trickling down my forehead and back. I made myself stand very still, blending into the bush, fading with the light.

Though Mr. Potter wore different glasses that day—white rimmed, very European—they didn’t help him see me.

Or he never would have brought Betsy out of his bag.

* * *

I waited until full night before I went to beard the magician in his own den. I wanted him to see me this time. I’d wasted away the rest of the afternoon in a park, sitting on an isolated bench facing the trees. No other ghost came by, just a wind that made the living shiver and the trees dance. I had no arguments planned. I just wanted to finish this. Get Betsy and run.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy.

The windows of Mr. Potter’s house that looked out over the street were leaded in the upper part: old glass that ran with time, looking heavier than it ought to. When I drew near, I figured out why. Mr. Potter’s house had protections similar to Mr. A—’s. Someone had drawn lines of protection around every gray shingle on the walls as well as on the lead of the windows. Knotted rope lay against the foundation, salt infused to its core.

I walked around the house, keeping to the stone walkway, not daring to step off it in case there were other traps I didn’t see.

The crack in the house’s protection was deliberate. The door to the root cellar had been left bare.

No choice but to go in that way. I flowed through the door but didn’t step onto the floor. Who knew what kind of sigils had been engraved there?

However, I was overly cautious. The neat tile floor of the laundry room held no chalk, paint, or dried chicken blood. A navy blue washer and dryer sat in one corner and Mr. Potter sat in a chair next to them, reading something on a tablet. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said, putting his reading material down and standing. “I need to pay you the rest of your fee.”

“You lied to me,” I told Mr. Potter’s retreating back.

“Not a big lie. Not really. Toni did steal the stone from me, to help me shore up my defenses. Mr. A— had bet me that no one could beat his, which more than made up the fee I’m paying you.”

Only then did Mr. Potter realize I hadn’t followed him. I’d seen too many sigils and curses in his buddy’s house. I wasn’t going to be caught again.

“Don’t you trust me?” Mr. Potter said, seemingly aggrieved.

“No, I don’t. Now give me Bet—my camera. And never contact me again.”

A loud, human groan came from behind the door Mr. Potter had opened. He gave me an odd half-smile. “That might be someone hurt. You should go see.”

I stayed where I was. If there was a person in there, I couldn’t do anything for them. I couldn’t touch them. Chances were the presence of a ghost wouldn’t comfort them, either.

Another groan slithered through the air.

“Damn it. Potter, what are you playing at?”

“Come see,” he said, beckoning.

I should have left. Hell, I should have run as quickly and as far away as I could.

The third groan ended with a pained whimper.

Obviously, I had more humanity left in me than Mr. Potter because I flowed into the room.

A skinny, bearded man lay on a long table pushed against the far wall. His clothes were mismatched and filthy; he was probably homeless. He’d been stabbed in the gut. Blood pooled over the hands he had clenched to his abdomen. From my years on the force I knew it was already too late. He was bleeding out.

The door behind me slammed shut. Of course, the room was Sealed. Not a single crack that I could escape through.

“Hey, buddy,” I said to the homeless man. His eyes were glazed over and he couldn’t see me. Couldn’t hear me. I reached out my hand, but I knew if I tried to touch him with it, it would just sink through him.

“What now, Potter?” I asked, looking around. A single window sat high above me, with an ancient shoot underneath it. This used to be the coal room, I realized. More recently, it had held the firewood for the house. Split logs lay in neat piles across the other wall. A handy ax leaned against them.

I couldn’t touch or manipulate anything in the room.

“Now, you leave.” Mr. Potter’s voice came in clear over hidden speakers.

“Afraid you’re going to have to open the door,” I told him. The floor was cement, but had been reinforced with lead and was impossible to sink into.

“I don’t have to. He will.”

The homeless man coughed once, a death rattle. Hollywood has tried to emulate that sound for decades, but they’d never come close to the real thing. It was enough to give a ghost chills.

“Your kind is wrong,” Mr. Potter continued. “You should all be forced to go Beyond, where you belong.”

I hadn’t taken Potter for a bigot. He worked for the dead.

No—he worked for their money.

“You don’t really care about us, ghosts or the dead,” I told him. “You just want to keep everything you’ve stolen from them. That’s why your house is so protected, as well as Mr. A—’s. Your pious act is justification for your petty crimes.”

Mr. Potter chuckled. “Very astute. However, my crimes are far from petty. You’ve seen my accounts?”

I had, as well as the contracts that signed everything over to his firm once the dead did pass Beyond. Shaking my head, I replied, “Petty.” Ghosts never trusted the living completely. “None of them have given you full access to their resources.”

“But the promise of a Disruption stone makes them much more amenable,” Mr. Potter said smugly.

I scoffed. “Still a myth.”

“No, I have—ah.”

The homeless guy on the table had finally died.

I’d never seen a spirit rise before. This, I learned, Hollywood had gotten right. A younger, better-dressed version of the man sat up, pale and, well, ghostly, while his body stayed on the table.

A portal to Heaven sprang up instantly. All bright blue sky and endless green fields—some kind of pastoral afterlife.

Would have bored me to tears. Still. Lucky bastard.

Without even a glance in my direction, he swung his legs down and walked straight through.

As soon as he’d passed, the portal turned black. Flames lined the arch and clouds gathered.

I finally realized I was doomed.

Mr. Potter had laid a clever trap. My only way out of this room was through that. Eventually I’d crack. Potter knew it. I couldn’t resist forever, not in a locked room, not with that constant siren’s call.

“Let me out, Potter,” I told him one last time, unable to tear my eyes from the flames now licking outside the doorway.

“Go back where you belong,” Potter hissed.

“See you in Hell,” I said.

Then I moaned.

I closed my eyes and put everything into it, giving voice to my unearthly displeasure.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Potter said.

He didn’t sound panicked. Not yet.

I moaned, repeatedly, louder and louder, sending waves of sound through the foundation of the house, through the walls, shaking the core of all who heard.

“Stop!” Potter screamed.

I didn’t.

Mr. Potter had forgotten that ghosts are creatures of the dead.

Though we prided ourselves on adjusting to modern life, at our core, we still did one thing best: haunting the living—terrifying them.

Sometimes to death.

* * *

A ringing knock on the door finally made me scale back my yowling. I didn’t know how long I’d been there, singing the songs of the dead. The flames of the portal danced in time with me, cackling hellfire, pleased, I think, with the terror I’d rained down.

An officer whom I’d met when I’d been alive stuck his head in the door. “Hey, Andy.”

“Ed.”

He took out his earplugs, then led the way out of the room and upstairs. He spoke as he walked. “Potter ran into the street and directly into an oncoming car. He’s at the hospital now. Unconscious. They don’t know if he’ll regain consciousness.” Ed didn’t look at me.

I hoped the bastard died while dreaming of my haunting.

“The whole thing is taped here,” Ed told me, leading me into Mr. Potter’s study and showing me the four large plasma screens on the desk. “We know it was self-defense. You’ll still have to come down to the station and give a statement.”

“Fine by me.” Potter’s study didn’t hold as many artifacts as I thought it might. The only one I wanted to see was Betsy, and there she was, waiting for me.

Ed didn’t say anything as I scooped her up.

He couldn’t see the small, heavy rock sitting next to her, or how I picked it up as well.

* * *

By the time I finished at the station, late afternoon had come again with familiar clouds and rain. I had the officer drop me off at Volunteer Park and made my way directly back to Lakewood Cemetery. I walked through the wet grass, remembering its former brilliant green. More trees stood bare now—must have been a storm the previous night. I nodded to a few of my fellow ghosts, whispering to each other near a grave, then made my way alone to a bench where I could watch the flickering portals.

The stone weighed heavily in my pocket. Cold, too, like a frozen piece of night.

Or maybe not night, but nightmare.

Pious didn’t buy you Heaven. Being a bastard didn’t necessarily mean Hell, either. You had to believe in good, as well as do it, was the theory of the day.

Me, I’d been a pessimistic bastard all my life, as well as far into my death.

I don’t know why I tried to change my luck. When I walked to the nearest portal it flickered, growing dark. I watched the unending flames, the hungry clouds, then finally tossed the stone inside.

Unlike a real stone, it didn’t land on the other side, but stayed somewhere Beyond.

Nothing changed until I turned to go.

Suddenly, sunlight shone through the gateway. My beloved city of Seattle lay stretched out on the other side. My heart ached to be there, to go home. Even without stepping through, I knew it would be perfect. I would know everyone I met, and if I didn’t, they’d still be friends. There would be good food and wine, endless talk and laughter interspersed with quiet time in the hills and on the water. There would be books and time to read them, music and dance whenever I wanted.

I still walked away.

It wasn’t mine. I hadn’t earned it. I couldn’t be bought. Not then, not now.

I turned back to the gray Seattle day, knowing I’d never win that clean, beautiful city…but that I still had to try.

For more stories about Andy and Toni, see the collection The Shredded Veil Mysteries.

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