DEATH, WITH A CHASER OFmagick.
Anya wrinkled her nose as the odors burned into her sinuses. Unmistakable, they awakened a primal fight-or-flight response in the most primitive part of her brain. She forced one foot in front of the other, her fingers tightening in a sweaty grip on the handle of her tool kit. Any ordinary person would have license to flee from those smells, but Anya had no choice. She was not ordinary. And this was her job.
The hoarder’s house smelled like burned bacon, fetid and greasy. The stench clung to the stacks of newspapers littering the kitchen table, the bundles of National Geographic magazines and cardboard boxes stacked along the walls on the scarred black-and-white linoleum. Dishes in the sink were coated with dried lemon dish soap; the garbage reeked of coffee grounds… but all the other odors were overwhelmed by the stink seeping through the peeling wallpaper.
A knot of cops milled at the back kitchen door. As if some invisible ward prevented them from crossing the threshold, the uniforms remained steadfastly outside, their voices kept low, thick with tension. There was none of the wisecracking and bravado gawkers usually brought. Transfixed, they didn’t want to walk away from the scene, but were unwilling to enter the house.
Someone had cracked open the window over the kitchen sink, allowing a breeze to creep through. Anya reached over the dishes to pry it open further, hoping to dispel the odor. A hazy film covering the pane obscured her reflection. Her latex-covered fingers smeared the glass, thick with grease. In spite of her gloves, the slickness of it made her skin crawl.
Anya tipped her head. A fringe of chin-length sable hair curtained her amber-colored eyes. Her hair had burned off six months ago and was now at that annoying stage where it still wasn’t long enough to pull back into a ponytail. She shoved it behind her ear with the back of her clean hand. The motion revealed a copper torque peeking out over the edge of her hazmat suit. The metal salamander curled around her neck, grasping its tail in a deep V above her collarbone. The collar always felt warmer than her skin, pulsing with its own presence. The salamander torque was always most active around death; she was certain it smelled the death as acutely as she did. For the moment, she ignored it.
“Thought you’d enjoy this one, Kalinczyk.”
Captain Marsh dumped a tackle box of tools on the kitchen table. Even in these stiflingly close quarters, her supervisor wore his firefighter’s coat open over an immaculately pressed white shirt and tie.
Anya’s brow arched. “Something stunk, and you automatically thought of me?”
Marsh’s mahogany face creased in a grin. “I thought it might have spooked some of the other fire investigators.” He crossed his arms over his crisp shirt. “But seriously… we need for this to be kept low-key. Quiet.”
She glanced at the cluttered, humble surroundings, brow creasing. There was nothing in the scene that suggested to her a need for secrecy. Sadness, perhaps… but not secrecy. And she was certain none of the others could taste the sharp tang of magick in the air, distinct as ozone. “What’s the backstory?”
“This house belongs to a seventy-two-year-old man, Jasper Bernard. A neighbor called nine-one-one because she saw strange lights and thought burglars might have broken in.”
Anya gestured to the kitchen table with her chin, looking askance. “Does he have anything worth stealing? Anything that could be found in this mess?”
“Yeah, well.” Marsh spread his hands. “I guess she could tell that something was different. Police tried the front door, and no one answered. All the doors and windows were locked. When they peered into the windows with their flashlights, they saw evidence of fire in the living room, and broke in.”
“They saw fire?”
Marsh shook his head. “No. Just char and ash. The fire was long cold. So was Bernard.”
“What did Bernard die of? Smoke inhalation?” Anya envisioned an old man dead on his couch of a fire started by a forgotten lit cigarette. As far as ways to die went, suffocating in one’s sleep was not the worst way to go. Anya had seen much worse. Though she knew the official coroner’s report wouldn’t be available for a few days, a preliminary opinion would help her move forward with the investigation.
Marsh nervously scrubbed his palm over the scar crossing his bald head. Marsh was rarely nervous, but Anya recognized the unconscious gesture. “No.”
“Burns?” Anya winced. There were only two ways to die in a fire: burning or asphyxiation. Burns were the worst.
“You gotta see this for yourself.” He jabbed a thumb at the six-panel door off the kitchen. It stood ajar, and only cool shade stretched beyond. “That way.”
Heat had lifted the paint into bubbles that burst like blisters under her fingertips. She pushed the door open, sucked in a breath as her eyes adjusted to the half-darkness.
The living room was a pack rat’s nest. Above, a bare lightbulb had melted in its ceiling socket. Painted-shut windows had been forced open, allowing gray light to ribbon through bent blinds, over pressboard shelves warping under the weight of books. Anya scanned the titles, but most of them were in incomprehensible Latin. Sculpted shag carpeting was mottled under the weight of years of dirt and too few vacuumings. Unopened mail rattled on a dusty credenza, envelopes curling in a breeze that failed to chase out the bitter reek of death.
As disorganized as the room appeared, the scene was surprisingly intact from a forensic viewpoint. No scorch marks blackened the walls. It was unlikely that someone could have actually died of burns or smoke inhalation in a room showing so little damage. Only a swirl of carbon smoke stained the ceiling, surrounding the melted lightbulb over the couch.
Anya frowned. Maybe the old man had had a heart attack. Maybe he’d died of cancer. Or a drug overdose. Surely the autopsy would reveal something other than burns or smoke inhalation. There simply hadn’t been a fire here big enough to traumatize a mobile adult.
The threadbare couch faced away from Anya, toward a fireplace. The fireplace mantel sagged under an odd assortment of objects: a clutch of brass keys dripping over the edge like the limbs of a spider; a Tiki god beaming over his domain of clutter; a tarnished sword with an elaborate gilt hilt. Smoke had stained a collection of bottles in various sizes and shapes. They were now all the color of gray quartz, nearly concealing their contents: gleaming bones suspended in liquid.
Anya’s skin crawled. These things smelled like magick, like rust and salt. Old magick. Not the new, ozone tang of fresh-brewed magick that she had smelled in the kitchen. Anya picked her way around the couch for a better look and nearly stepped into the remains of Jasper Bernard.
Not that there was much of him. A greasy black burn mark spread from the middle couch cushion to the floor, scorching the carpet. A pair of feet in black socks and blue slippers extended from the bottom of the stain. Squinting, she could make out a few finger bones from a right hand at the perimeter of the scorch, but nothing else of Jasper Bernard remained. The burn had chewed through the carpet, leaving white ash on the unmarked hardwood floor. In front of the slippers sat an unharmed TV tray, a micro-waved dinner preserved in its compartmentalized plate. Meat loaf and green beans, from the looks of it.
She rocked back on her heels, breathing: “Holy shit.” This wasn’t a natural fire. It wasn’t even a possible fire. Human bodies didn’t burn like that, not even when they were doused with gasoline and set ablaze in cars. There was always something left behind. Nothing burned like that, even in crematories. Crematoriums had to physically pulverize the remains to get them into a box.… Where the hell had Bernard’s remains disappeared to?
She knelt to stare incredulously at Bernard’s feet. Through a hole in his sock, she could see pink flesh. The intense heat that had reduced his body to ash hadn’t touched the lint underneath his perfectly intact toenail.
Marsh’s steps scuffed up dust from the carpet behind her. “Is this what I think it is?”
If it was, it was the holy grail of fire investigation. She hedged. She hadn’t seen enough of the scene to be positive. “I don’t know for sure. We need to collect more evidence, but it has all the hallmarks of it.”
“Of what?” He pressed harder, leaning forward on his now-dusty spit-shined shoes. He didn’t want to be the first one to say it, the first one to step off the cliff into an irrational explanation.
She swallowed, kept her voice so low that the uniforms eavesdropping past the open door couldn’t hear: “Spontaneous human combustion.”
Silence stretched. She couldn’t believe she’d said it.
Marsh gestured to the open windows. “That’s what the uniforms are saying. That’s what the press would say if they knew.” He looked down at the hole in the carpet where a human had once sat, preparing to eat his TV dinner. “Disprove it. Find the truth.”
She rocked back on her heels, voice dry. It was too soon to even begin conjecture, and she resented being pushed. “Sir. I haven’t even begun to seriously consider any theory.…”
“Find a reasonable explanation for this. Take the time and resources you need, but make this go away.” His gaze drifted out the window to the darkening skyline. Somewhere out there a siren whined. “Detroit doesn’t need any more things that go bump in the night.”
Marsh was right. Anya stared down at the cinders, thinking that Marsh didn’t know half the things that wandered unseen in the city. If anyone else really knew what she knew… She smothered a shudder. Ordinary people had no idea of what lay underneath the skin of Detroit’s sad normalcy.
Anya wasn’t ordinary, much as she wished she were.
Her attention wandered over Bernard’s collection of bottles. By the look of things, Bernard hadn’t been ordinary, either.
Voices rattled from the kitchen door in argument. Marsh peered through the bent blinds, muttered, “The press is here.”
“News van just pulled up outside beside the squad cars. Someone must have tipped them off,” Marsh growled, heading for the door. “Work the scene. I’ll handle the press.”
The wooden door clicked shut behind him, leaving Anya alone with Jasper’s ashes.
She pulled her camera from her kit, aimed it toward the door. In the snap of the shutter and the bleed of light through the blinds, she gathered her thoughts as she circled the scene. She blotted out the voices filtering into the room, listening to the creak of heat-warped floorboards underfoot as she minced through Jasper’s clutter. Making sure each frame of the last shot overlapped with the next, she let her camera lens devour the images of a sad, ordinary life: bills stacked in piles; a wall clock with glow-in-the-dark numerals tapping out the time; a roll of yellowed stamps; a cardboard box full of record albums, the vinyl curled from the heat.
To say nothing of the extraordinary things augmented through the camera lens. Anya’s eyes swept over an elaborately enameled terra-cotta figure of a Foo dog with a broken paw; a plastic zipper bag full of antique coins that seethed like scales when she shook it. A wand of selenite crystal, long as her forearm and slender as her finger, rested on a battered desk, shimmering in the sunlight. A filigreed silver bottle the size of her hand was attached to a stopper on a tarnished chain. To Anya’s sensitive eye, these things swirled under a layer of dust, pulsing of mysteries of the ages and magick.
Anya peered through the gap in the blinds. On the street, she could see Marsh looming over a man with a minicam, while cops were stringing yellow tape. The man with the minicam looked persistent, beads of sweat from his well-gelled hair dripping down his neck and onto his expensive jacket. Anya thought she recognized him as one of the evening newscasters.
The reporter looked at the blinds, like a bloodhound sensing movement. Anya retreated into the shade of the room, but not before the blinds scraped the bottom of the windowsill.
In an old house of this era, marble windowsills were common, white stone skin crossed by black veins. But something about the pattern caught her eye, and she gently tugged up the blind cord.
A fine line of salt had been sprinkled on the window ledge, where it had barely been disturbed by breeze.
Anya frowned. She was no witch or magick-worker, but she knew a ward when she saw it. Bernard had been afraid of something magickal, of something magickal getting into his house… though there were plenty of magickal things already in his house.
It would take forever to process this scene, and to guess at which of those things might have gotten out of his control… enough to kill him.
Aiming the lens at the ceiling, Anya shot a picture of the lightbulb over the couch. The bulb troubled her. In any normal fire, the heat would cause the glass to break or warp. If it warped, it would twist toward the source of the greatest heat, the ignition point of the fire.
But this bulb dripped straight down over the couch. Like a bead of sweat on a runner’s nose, a piece of glass had frozen in mid-dribble, pointing to Bernard’s remains.
The fire could not have started there. Could not.
Anya’s finger cramped on the shutter switch as she snapped the greasy black stain from every angle. The ceiling had a sheen, as if it had been freshly painted, and she squinted at it. Nothing in this house had been painted in years. Could it be the residue of an accelerant, an exotic chemical trace that hadn’t burned cleanly away, as gasoline or propane might?
The same gleam glistened on the underside of the TV tray table, snagging her attention. Anya squinted at the sheen, touched it. It was still warm, smelling like candle wax and raw meat. Startled, she realized that it was the source of the unusual smell she’d discovered when she’d entered the house. This residue was what covered the kitchen windows, filmed over the plaster walls. It wasn’t an accelerant, at least, not in the conventional sense.
Fat. It was Bernard’s burned body fat, evaporated and settled onto his surroundings.
Anya’s stomach churned. She’d only read about this kind of thing in textbooks. It was called the “wick effect,” the idea that a human body theoretically could smolder for hours, feeding on its own fat. Theoretically.
But where was the original spark? What could have ignited the man in the first place?
Her gaze passed over the untouched dinner in its tray, moved to the fireplace. That would be the obvious place to look. On her hands and knees, she shone a flashlight up into the firebox. Through her gloved hands, the hearth felt cool as stone, colder than the TV table closer to the body.
This wasn’t the source. But she smelled the bitter tang of magick here, more strongly. After carefully recording the condition of the firebox and hearth with her camera, Anya pulled a pair of stainless-steel barbecue tongs from her kit and dug into the blackened ashes of the hearth.
A lot of paper had been burned here. Fragments flaked away, irretrievable. Anya was amazed that Bernard had ever disposed of anything. Whatever this was, it must have been important for him to destroy. From the grate, she plucked a corner of an envelope, frowned. Bernard seemed to have stockpiled all of his junk mail. With tweezers, she pulled a scrap of green paper from the envelope’s remains.
A check. The watermark was unmistakable. In the upper left-hand corner, a name was legible: Miracles for the Masses. The address was for a location in Detroit’s warehouse district.
She placed the scraps into an empty paint can to go to the lab for analysis and continued her poking around in the ash. Her tongs rang against something with a note like a bell: glass.
From the grate, Anya pulled the neck of a shattered bottle, charred black. It was smaller than a wine bottle, stoppered with an ornamental silver seal. Whatever it contained was obscured by the carbon black skin coating it. She turned the broken edge toward the light.
She’d expected it to be an empty vessel, for water or wine. Or perhaps a glass prison like the ones on the mantel, holding preserved fragments of bones. But looking into the darkness of the bottle was like looking into a geode: Shining, rock-crystal teeth glinted back at her, seared obsidian-black from the fire.
Around her throat, something fluttered. Anya’s hand slipped up to the metal collar around her neck. A warm shape inside the metal shifted, peeled away from her skin. Delicate salamander toes unfurled and marched down her shoulder as the metal sizzled and released a living creature. Taking the shape of a hellbender, a fire elemental salamander leapt to the hearth, growling at the magick-soaked bottle in the grate. His tongue flickered into the black of the firebox, and he incandesced with an amber glow.
“Sparky,” she hissed. She had no fear that Marsh or any other living creature could see him; Sparky was invisible to ordinary humans. But Sparky only bothered to wake himself up under three conditions: when it suited his preternatural whims, when ghosts were around, or when danger was near.
Anya swallowed. As if handling a piece of radioactive debris, she placed the fragment of the bottle on the hearth. Sparky stalked toward it, his feathery gill-fronds flaring. His tongue flickered over the carbon on its surface.
Anya held her breath, watching for Sparky’s reaction. She knew he smelled the magick on it, too. But she had no way of knowing how dangerous that broken bottle really was. For all she knew, it could be a magickal time bomb… a bomb that blew up Jasper Bernard. A bomb that could still be active.
Sparky turned around, presented his speckled rump to the artifact. He scraped his back feet at the ash disdainfully, as if he were a cat burying a turd in a litter box.
Anya rolled her eyes. The salamander couldn’t speak, but he managed to be expressive, just the same. Perhaps the bottle wasn’t a source of danger; perhaps the elemental was busy expressing himself and being a pain in the ass.
Or… Anya looked around the room, back at the grease stain that had once been Jasper Bernard.
Anya whispered at the stain, “You still here, Bernard?”
Perhaps Sparky was picking up on something else that had disturbed his nap. Perhaps Jasper Bernard hadn’t gone peacefully to the Afterworld, and was still hanging around. If so, she could talk to him, get the real story of how he’d managed to dissolve himself from this plane of existence and leave just his foot and slipper behind.
A translucent orb welled up in the grease stain: a balding head and bespectacled eyes. Anya noted that a piece of electrical tape held one side of the glasses together.
“Jasper Bernard?” Anya asked quietly. She didn’t want to startle him. The freshly dead were always skittish as feral cats, and she expected Bernard to be no different. She could feel Sparky slithering behind her legs, and she stood on his tail to keep him from crawling forward and scaring the ghost off.
“Everyone calls me Bernie. You… you can see me?”
“Yes, I can see you.”
The phosphorescent eyes shifted right and left, and panic twitched through his voice. “The cops didn’t see me. The firemen didn’t see me. How can you see me?”
Anya crouched beside the stain in the floor, conscious of Sparky straining beside her. “I’m a medium… of sorts. I can see spirits and talk with them.”
Bernie’s eyes narrowed in assessment . “I’ve met mediums. You’re more than that.”
Anya chewed on her lower lip. She didn’t want to panic Bernie, but she didn’t have time to construct a plausible lie. “I’m a Lantern. Ghosts are drawn to me.” Anya deliberately left the other part out, the part about how she could destroy what remained of his spirit with little more than a breath. Spirits came to her, moths to the flame, and—if needed—she incinerated them.
The frightened eyes peered over a bifocal glass line at the salamander. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Um… This is Sparky. He’s my friend.” My friend who would also like to have you for lunch.
Sparky growled at him.
“A salamander? How did you ever tame one of those?” Curiosity and a note of avarice resonated in the ghost’s voice.
“I, uh, have had him since I was a child.” Again, not the whole truth, but Bernard didn’t need to know the whole truth. Nor could Sparky be really considered “tame.” Anya eyed him suspiciously. “What do you know about salamanders?”
Bernie’s fingertips steepled above the oily black pool. “I’m a collector, of sorts.”
Anya glanced at the bottles over the fireplace. “A collector?”
“A purveyor of magickal artifacts.”
Anya protectively angled her hip before Sparky. “That’s why this place stinks of magick.”
Haughty eyebrows wrinkled over the glasses. “My house does not stink.”
“Bernie.” Anya crouched before the spirit, mindful not to disturb the grease stain with her knees. Bernie might not have fully digested the knowledge that he was dead, and she didn’t want to send what was left of his personality into a tailspin before she could extract some useful information. “Is that what happened to you? Bad magick?”
“I remember… the fire.” Bernie’s lower lip turned down and began to dribble off the side of his face. The force of the recollection was beginning to disincorporate him.
She’d have to work quickly. “Do you remember what started it?” Anya pressed him. “Were you burning something in the grate? Smoking?”
Despite Bernie’s magickal surroundings, experience had taught Anya to seek the most mundane explanations first.
The ghost shook his head. “It wasn’t me. It was her.”The eyes behind the glasses rolled upward. “Wait. If you can see me, can she see me?”
“Can who see you?”
Ghostly fingers gnawed at the edge of the stain. Bernard’s eyes flicked to the ceiling. “Oh, shit…”
The ceiling opened, a vortex of wind reaching toward the floor, cold as the breath of winter. The vortex didn’t disturb any of the physical surroundings, but it reached for Bernie as surely as a child rooting through a toy box for a favorite plaything. Like a marionette jerked on its strings, Bernie’s ghostly body was yanked out of the floor. His body, clad in pajamas and a chenille robe, flailed in resistance to the invisible force.
Anya lunged forward, instinctively reaching for the ghost. Sparky grasped Bernie’s pant leg with his teeth, growling. The salamander pulled back with all his might, struggling to ground Bernie to the ruined floor. But the old man was rising like a helium balloon, and Anya didn’t know how much longer they could hold him. The reek of sour magick, like expired milk, made her gag.
Bernie pedaled in the air, his fingers beginning to char. Ghostly flames licked under the collar of his robe, and the chenille burst into flame.
“Don’t let her find the vessel!” Bernie shouted.
The artifacts dealer was yanked from Sparky’s grip and fizzled away into the ether. The hole in the ceiling closed up, leaving the room ringing in silence.
Anya landed on her butt on the stained carpet, slack-jawed. Frigid air steamed from her mouth. She’d seen ghosts disincorporate as the result of exorcisms, or willingly, when they chose to walk into the afterlife. But she’d never seen anything like this, nothing so violent. The ghost had been sucked up like an ant in a vacuum cleaner, but… to where?
“Bernie?” she called, into the half-light of the room.
No one answered her.
Sparky waddled to the stain covering Bernie’s ruined carpet. He circled it twice and began scratching it with his back feet, as if he were burying another dead thing.
© 2010 Laura Mailloux