Flight from mayhem, p.4
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       Flight from Mayhem, p.4

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  She was in her late sixties, I thought—maybe a little older—wearing a pale blue housedress with a floral apron over it. The apron was full, with a bib. The woman had pale silver hair and a smile on her face, and she was wiping her hands on a dish towel. She was also staring straight at me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on alert. She could see me, and she knew I could see her.

  I cleared my throat. The ghosts on our last big case had been mostly terrifying, but there had also been one ghost—a sad young woman—who I had felt sorry for, more than anything.

  “Well, if you aren’t going to say hello, I will.” The ghost gave me a cheery smile. “Even though you are sitting in my kitchen, unasked.”

  Startled, I jumped to my feet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think anybody lived here.” And then I realized how ridiculous that sounded. Nobody did live here. At least, nobody who was alive.

  She laughed. “Nobody does, not anybody from your side of the veil. And yes, before you ask, I know very well that I’m dead. What’s your name? I’m Mary.”

  I stammered. I’d never met a talkative spirit before. Especially one who realized she was a ghost. “My name’s Shimmer. I’m your neighbor from across the street. I moved in a few months ago.” I paused, then added, “I just noticed this house today . . . really . . . and it . . . for some reason I wanted to come see it.”

  Mary brushed a hand across her forehead, pushing a curl of silver hair out of the way. “Oh, I know why. I was feeling lonely today and wishing I had someone to talk to. And . . . I wanted to meet you. You must have picked up on it.” Her eyes were twinkling. “I never would have thought there were dragons in the world. Not when I was alive. Everything seemed so small . . .” She paused, blinking. “I can’t quite remember it, to be honest. My life, that is.”

  A feeling of wonder and loneliness swept over me. I slowly edged my way back into the chair, still keeping on edge but breathing more slowly after the initial panic. “Why do you stay, then? Why not move on?”

  Once again, the duck of the head and a faint look of confusion. “I don’t rightly . . . I protect this house. It was my house, and there are evil creatures in the world. Evil spirits. I protect this place from the shadows that seek to claim it.”

  I had never thought that ghosts might battle against their own. I nodded slowly. “Not long ago, my friends and I fought against a creature who was holding a number of spirits trapped. It wasn’t a spirit or ghost, but it could control those of your world.”

  “There are those creatures around. They’re dangerous, and they lurk in dark shadows. They haunt abandoned houses and long-forgotten forts. Sometimes, they see beacons that attract them.” She raised her head, giving me a questioning look. “You . . . you and your fiery friend over there . . . you shine like a beacon in the night. I know you’re a sensitive. An empath. So I projected the need for you to come here, and you sensed it.”

  She sat down at the table on the opposite side. “This was my home, you know. I love this house, and I lived here from the time I was a bride . . . My husband, Leroy, passed away. He had . . . he was unwell. We had a passel of children. They were my joy. Especially my baby boy . . .” Again, her voice drifted. “But they didn’t want this house. I don’t know where they are now. I keep hoping they’ll come back so I can say good-bye one last time.”

  I wanted to make her feel better, to give her something to hold on to. “What do you want from me? Is there anything I can do?”

  She set the translucent tea towel to one side, then gently folded her hands on the table. “Yes, there is. Buy this house. Keep it safe. Make it a home again. It may not look like it right now, but this house has a heart. It has my heart in it. I cannot think of seeing it fall to a developer. Or crumble away.”

  I started to protest—I already owned a house and wasn’t really in the market for a new one—but then I stopped. Obviously, she was concerned about the energy in the area. “Why haven’t you nudged anybody else who has looked at this house to buy it? Haven’t you found anybody else you could contact?”

  She let out a long sigh that sounded like wind through dried corn husks. “No, every time someone came in the house who I thought might be able to hear me, something drove them off. Something outside in the backyard—or maybe it’s the neighbor’s yard. I don’t know. I can’t leave the house. When I returned, after . . . I don’t know where I was. But I woke up and found myself here, and I can’t leave. Not even if I wanted to. Some force keeps me here.”

  That didn’t sound right. I frowned and leaned back, folding my arms across my chest. “I’ll see what I can find out. Maybe there’s something my friends and I can do to help you. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll look into it. Meanwhile, I have a house, but what about if I can find somebody who would love and take care of the place? Maybe someone who can help to hold the negative spirits at bay?” I had no idea who the hell I was talking about, but it seemed like a possibility that either Bette or Ralph or Alex would know someone who might be in the market for a haunted house.

  Mary regarded me quietly for a moment, then nodded. “It’s worth a try. Follow me.” She stood and led me out of the kitchen. She didn’t seem to be walking so much as floating, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was palling around with a ghost in an abandoned house. Yeah, my life wasn’t exactly turning out to be how I’d expected it to be.

  She led me along the hallway, to the door under the stairs leading into what appeared to be the basement. As she motioned for me to open it, I hesitated.

  “Are you sure you want to go down there?” I stared at the gaping darkness. Once again, the energy unsettled me and I wasn’t sure exactly why.

  “I hid money down there when I was alive.” Mary was right next to me now, urging me on. She was standing to my left, and even though she was insubstantial, I was beginning to feel a little hedged in. I glanced at her. Now that she was up close and personal, something seemed off. Maybe it was the glint in her eyes, maybe it was some sensation that was just beginning to creep through me, but the friendly old grandmother suddenly reminded me of the wolf out of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

  I jerked back, but not before she reached out. Her hand slammed me into the stairwell, though I didn’t feel her actual fingers, just the force behind the shove. I lurched forward and would have fallen down the stairs had I not caught myself on the railing. I whirled around in time to see Mary cringing as a dark shadow loomed up and over her. She looked terrified, trying to shake it off like she might shake off a cloak that had wrapped around her.

  I took that moment to leap back, away from the steps, and though I couldn’t do much, I gathered what water molecules there were in the air around us and solidified them into a thin spate of rain that pelted down into the hallway. While there was no way the water would hurt the creature who was attacking Mary, I did manage to startle it and the shadow let go, vanishing as I stared at it. A very ghostly Mary leaned against the wall, wincing as she rubbed her head.

  “What the hell was that?” I pointed to the basement, yelling.

  She let out a soft moan. “He doesn’t want anybody to buy this house and land. He hounds me, and I run from him. And then I fight back, and he comes back stronger.”

  And right there, I decided enough was enough. I might not be able to clear an entire district, but I wanted my section of the neighborhood back. And if it took working with a brigade of friendly ghosts, so be it—that was what I’d do.

  “I’m going to find help. I’ll be back. And we’ll do our best to get someone in here who knows what they’re doing when it comes to ghosts.”

  And with that, I headed toward the front door, wondering just how I was going to keep my promise. I might not be an exorcist, and I sure as hell wasn’t a miracle worker, but I was stubborn and I was a dragon. It wasn’t in my nature to let anybody else win out over me. Mary laughed behind me, a light, musical note that stuck in my me
mory long after I shut the door behind me and returned to my own house.

  CHAPTER 3

  It occurred to me that Stacy—one of the few friends I had made in Seattle—might want to move in across the street, but then I shut that idea down real fast. For one thing, she already had a house that had been in her family for some time. For another, Stacy lived with her mother, who was disabled and unable to work, and she also helped provide for her little brother. The last thing she needed in her life were spooks and spirits. In fact, we had been supposed to get together for breakfast the next day, but when I got home from Mary’s house, there was a message on my answering machine from her begging off due to a cold.

  I let out a sigh. “Damn it.” I really liked Stacy. She was one of the few humans who knew I was a dragon. After the first “Oh, shit,” she had shrugged it off and that was that.

  I told Chai about what had happened at the house. “You don’t want to live over there, do you?” I leaned forward, a hopeful look plastered on my face.

  He stared at me for a moment. “Seriously? You are seriously asking me that?” With a snort, he added, “Thank you very much, but I’m not interested in fending off nasty spirits. Although I admit, living in this area, we’re bound to run into them.” He paused, then softly said, “You know who would be perfect for the house? Tonya.”

  Tonya Harris was a witch we had met while up in Port Townsend on a case. But she had a shop up there, and that was her home. “I doubt she’s going to move down here to set up business.” But the thought had lodged itself in the back of my mind and I found myself turning it over as I showered again before getting dressed for my lunch with Bette and Marlene.

  I glanced out the window. The sky was overcast and it looked like rain. Which meant something that wouldn’t plaster itself to my body if I got caught in a sudden downpour. I picked a simple V-neck sweater and a pair of black jeans, then slid a pale blue Windbreaker over the top. As I zipped it up and grabbed my purse, Chai cocked his head to one side.

  “Have fun. I might meander across the street and meet Mary myself.”

  I paused. He sounded like a man with a plan. Or should I say, a djinn with a plan? “Just don’t be rude. She’s perfectly nice and I don’t want her run out of here. Not that I think you could—she seems to be trapped. I think that whoever . . . whatever . . . that shadow was has her pinned in there.”

  Chai squinted, shading his eyes with his hands as he stared at the house across the street. “I’m not fond of those who imprison others.” The cryptic note in his voice made me leery, but I decided to leave well enough alone. Bette would be by in a few minutes to pick me up for the lunch with Marlene. I headed out on the porch to wait.

  As I stood there, staring quietly at Mary’s house, I found myself thinking about Chai’s idea. True, Tonya did have a home and a life in Port Townsend, but I could easily see her in this house, bringing it back to life with her witchy ways.

  At that moment, Bette pulled up in her 1967 Chevy Impala. She had tricked it out as a lowrider, and I half expected the cops to stop us every time I rode with her. I dashed down the steps as a flurry of raindrops let loose, spattering against the sidewalk. I darted between them, yanking open the passenger door as I slipped inside the car.

  Bette was chain-smoking, as usual, and she winked at me. “How’s it hanging, girl?”

  I fastened my seat belt—no sane person rode anywhere with Bette without a seat belt—and let out a long sigh. “Weird. That’s how it’s going.” As we headed toward the restaurant, I told her what had happened in Mary’s house.

  She snorted. “You have to be careful with ghosts. Never can tell what they’re up to, and half the time they aren’t what you think they are. My bets are on Mary to be in cahoots with the shadow creature. Then again, I could be wrong. I knew a wonderful spirit years back—named Connie. She had been killed in a car wreck back in New York, when Alex and I first came to America. That was when cars weren’t as safe as they are now.”

  As she spoke, she swerved to miss a garbage truck backing out of an alley. I grimaced, clutching the door handle, but she didn’t seem to notice.

  “Oh yeah, what happened?”

  “She went off the road and plowed into a brick wall. She’d been at a speakeasy. We arrived the year that Prohibition ended, but we were here for a few heated months before the law was repealed. Anyway, she had enough bathtub gin in her to drown a sailor. Connie was our neighbor. I remember going outside that night—it was sweltering in the city during the summer. No A/C back then. Anyway, so she came lurching up the sidewalk, bloody and roughed up. I ran out to help her, only to realize she was already dead. Her spirit hung around for quite a while after that, but her ghost always seemed a bit giddy, like the gin had never quite worn off.”

  I stared at Bette. A drunk ghost? “You have some of the weirdest stories, woman.”

  “You haven’t heard the half of them. Not yet.”

  “Why don’t you buy the house across the street? You’d be a fun neighbor and I can’t see any ghost getting one up on you.” I was only half-joking. Bette would make an awesome neighbor.

  But she shook her head. “No, girl. I love my houseboat and there’s no way in hell you’re getting me to live on dry land. I tried that with Alex and it never worked. We were roommates when we first arrived over here on the West Coast, though our relationship was dead and over in terms of any hanky-panky.”

  I smiled softly. The pair were the best of friends. That was one reason Glenda had broken up with Alex. She insisted he give up his friendship with Bette and there was no way in hell that would ever happen. I was glad that he had stood his ground. Anybody who would give up a friendship that had lasted over a hundred years for a bitchy girlfriend—or boyfriend—wasn’t the kind of lover I wanted to be involved with.

  “I’m not Glenda. You don’t ever have to reassure me, Bette.” I spoke softly, but she caught the nuance.

  She gave me a sideways glance as we turned into a parking lot by a Bonnie’s—a chain diner endemic to the Pacific Northwest that had recently sprung up everywhere. The cigarette was ready to fall off her lip, but she somehow managed to keep hold of it for a final puff before stabbing it out in the ashtray. “Shimmer, you’re a good girl. Don’t even start with the ‘I’m a dragon’ bit. I’m older than you are, so don’t even go there.”

  I wasn’t sure how old I was. Dragons had long, long lives—well longer than the Fae, for the most part, but she was right in that I was young for my kind. I had probably wandered the Dragon Reaches for a couple of thousands of years, Earthside years that is, but I was still new to the world in comparison to most of my Dragonkin brethren.

  “I just never want you to worry. I have no idea what will happen with Alex and me—we’re still testing the waters in our relationship, and frankly, I’m skittish enough to want to take it slow. Hell, if Glenda weren’t such a bitch and she wanted to still be friends with him, I wouldn’t care.”

  I pushed open my door and swung out into what was now a downpour. As Bette and I hustled inside, I noticed she was wearing a new zebra-print pair of stretch pants, along with a sparkling black sequined top. Her leather jacket hung open over the top, and her hobo bag was as big as a backpack. Given I knew she never traveled without her iPad, two packs of cigarettes, a notepad, a water bottle, and a small box of cookies, as well as makeup and every other necessity to womankind, the size of her purse made sense. She was wearing sunglasses and a sheer pink scarf tied under her chin to protect the ever-present bouffant from the rain.

  When we were inside, she pulled off her sunglasses and glanced around, frowning. “I don’t see Marlene, but that doesn’t mean she’s not here.” As a waitress came up, Bette told her we were meeting a friend and the girl let us meander around, looking for her. After a few minutes, Bette was satisfied Marlene hadn’t arrived yet and so we took a booth near the door so she could easily find us when she arrived
.

  I opened the menu, though every diner I had been in seemed to serve the same variations in food—Americana spread across the nation. Food guaranteed to be the same wherever you went, so you never had to worry about what you were getting.

  “I’ll start with a chocolate shake, please. With whipped cream on top?” I had developed a love for the frothy drinks. It didn’t matter to me what flavor they were; as long as it was liquid ice cream with whipped cream and a cherry on top, I was happy.

  Bette grinned. “You just can’t get enough of those, can you?”

  I shook my head. In the past week, during our lunch break—which would be a late-night snack for most people—I had ordered a shake with my delivery of whatever else I might want. “You’ve got me there.”

  She ordered coffee and a large cola.

  I glanced around. The diner was filled with the lunch crowd. It had been a while since I had eaten out at this time. Usually, by now I was curled up on the sofa, watching TV while I waited to doze off for the few hours I needed to sleep. After the waitress brought our drinks, I frowned and glanced at the clock.

  “She knows where to meet us, right?”

  “Right. I think I’ll give her a call. She might be stuck in traffic.” Bette pulled out her phone and dialed while I sucked down my milkshake. A moment later, she set down her phone, frowning at it. “She’s not answering. That’s strange. As old world as she can be, Marlene never goes anywhere without her phone.”

  “Maybe she’s driving and can’t answer?” I motioned to the waitress. “Another?”

  “No, I think something’s wrong.” Bette was usually pretty laid-back, so the frantic tone in her voice set me on alert. She wasn’t prone to hysterics.

 
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