This story takes place after the events of Silver Cross and before the events of Welsh Witch.
The call came just after sunset, as the night’s cool dimness blanketed the Bay under a haze of streetlights and dusky clouds. At this liminal moment when day turned to darkness and the shadows lengthened, I tried to eat a kosher burrito but only succeeded in making a mess.
“I hate Mexican food,” I muttered.
“Wow, that sounds racist,” Sarah said. Sarah Fielding was my secretary – a perky librarian working on a doctorate.
“What are you talking about?” I asked as I surveyed the pile of beans and hot sauce covering my plate and shirt. “I didn’t say I hate Mexicans, it’s just the food that I don’t like.”
“Still sounds pretty suspect,” she said as she typed away on the computer in my office.
“It’s messy, it’s both too bland and too spicy, and it’s really, really hard to make kosher,” I said. “Maybe that’s why I don’t like the flavor.”
“You cut out both the meat and the cheese to ‘be safe,’” she said. “It’s barely a burrito now, anyway.”
“I ordered it from a real burrito place,” I said.
“You ordered it from an artisanal place that didn’t have a single Mexican in the kitchen,” she held up a finger. “So I guess it’s not real Mexican food. You get a pass this time.”
“It’s just not my favorite flavor profile,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I just don’t understand how you can be a Californian and not like Mexican food,” Sarah added.
“Well, I wasn’t born here.”
“I was born in Idaho, so that’s no excuse,” Sarah said as she continued her work.
“I was born in 1165,” I stated.
“Makes sense, then. Nothing but flavorless stews back in the old days,” she nodded.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Next time, I’m ordering Indian.”
“Not my favorite,” Sarah said.
“Ah-ha!” I pointed at her. “Gotcha!”
“I’m not conceding to you,” Sarah said. “You haven’t won this one yet. You still can’t beat my nitpick.”
“Just wait, I’ll find something,” I said. “Somewhere, somehow.”
She paused for a moment and ceased typing as she lowered her head. “Holy Mother, we’re bored,” she said.
“Ah-ha!” I interjected. “Anti-Catholic rhetoric! Gotcha!”
“I mean it,” she said. “What have we come to, Lucy?”
“Hey, some nights are slow,” I said as I searched around for a fork to try to pick at the remains of my burrito. “We don’t need a crisis every day. Just enjoy the peace and zen.”
“I’ve zenned another dissertation outline this week alone,” Sarah said. “I’m tired of zen.”
“Okay, you have to admit that I’ve got you there,” I said, and then I thought for a moment about the bizarre game we had been playing. “Holy hell, you’re right. We are so bored.”
The office phone rang at that exactly that moment, as if waiting for us both to admit how much we needed it. We both scrambled for the phone, but I accidentally kicked my plate, sending the burrito flying.
“Shit!” I shouted as I dove to catch it. I got the plate all right, but the food bounced off and onto my shirt, splattering me with salsa and not-cheese sauce. Sarah calmly picked up the phone and answered.
“Hello, December Investigation, this is Sarah. How may I direct your call?”
I sat down behind my desk and tried ineffectually to dab at the stains.
“I see,” Sarah said. “Please wait a few moments, and I will transfer your call.” Then she set the phone down quietly and looked at me.
“Transfer the call, Sarah?” I asked. “There’s only one line.”
“She asked to speak to you personally,” she said.
“They all ask to speak to me personally,” I answered. “Because I’m the only detective here. Just hand me the phone, please.”
She put it in my hand, and I was finally able to answer properly.
“Hello, Lucy December speaking.”
“My name is Rosalinde Giancarla,” the woman at the other end of the line said, her voice a smooth high alto with the barest hint of an Italian accent. “That’s Rosalinde with an e, not an a.”
“Thank you,” I said, quickly writing the name down and underlining that e. I had the feeling that I knew that name from somewhere, that I had read or heard it before, but nothing came immediately to mind. “How can I help you?”
“I think I have a stalker,” she said. “I need help identifying him, and I need protection if anything threatening happens.”
“All right,” I said, quickly jotting down what she told me. “Do you have a physical description or pattern of incidents that I can reference? And have you called the police about this?”
“I will give you a description in person,” she said, not answering my second question. “I need your assistance tonight, before my commute home from work. How soon can you be here?”
“That depends,” I said. “Where are you?”
“920 Valencia Avenue,” she answered. “I live within walking distance of my workplace. I’ve been followed almost every evening home for the last two weeks.”
“That is concerning, Ms. Giancarla,” I said. “All right, I can be there in about a half hour. Can you stay someplace visible and around other people? Not alone in a closed-up office?”
“A half hour is fine,” she said. “Don’t be late.”
And then she hung up.
“Well, that was kind of weird,” I said as I put the phone back in its place. “She’s got a stalker, she won’t give me any details over the phone, she didn’t answer about whether she called the police, and she wants me to go meet her at work right now.”
“Lots of people have reasons not to want to talk to the cops,” Sarah said. “And she’s probably scared.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said as I stood up. “Hey, you’re pretty bored, right? Wanna help out on the field?”
“What?” Sarah asked.
“She said she lives within walking distance of her job,” I explained. “So if I go and walk with the lady, you can follow in the car and keep an eye out. Come on, it beats sitting here in the middle of nothing, right?”
She looked thoughtful for a moment before nodding. “Yeah!” Sarah said. “That’s a great idea! Let’s go.”
“Hold on,” I said. “First I’ve got to get a new shirt. This one’s all covered in burrito.”
My apartment was next door to the office, so I made Sarah wait in the car. I left my gun at home, because California was difficult about weapons sometimes and I had no reason to assume that there was anything tonight that required lethal force. I did bring a small collapsible baton – about the length of a large flashlight when extended and heavier than it looked – just in case I needed to intimidate anybody. It was good enough for a mundane paycheck.
“So, you want me to keep watch, right?” Sarah asked when I got back in the car.
“Yeah, I’ll text you the description as soon as I get it,” I said. “I’ll walk the lady back to her place. You keep an eye out on the outside and let me know if he shows up.”
“Sounds good,” she said.
“Yeah, I’ve done this kind of job before,” I said. “Betcha didn’t think that life with me would be so mundane, right?”
“No, it’s about what I assumed,” Sarah said. “Can’t be demons and monsters every night, right?”
“I guess,” she said. “Even in a world of gods and monsters, normal people have problems, too.”
“Ooh, I like that,” I said. “I should make it my slogan.”
“I think ‘The Only Californian who Hates Mexican Food’ would be a better slogan,” she joked. “More fitting.”
I rolled my eyes. “Let’s focus on the job. Rosalinde Giancarla. I feel like I should have recognized that name.”
“Well, now that you say it like that, sure,” Sarah said. “Now I feel like I know her. But it’s probably something stupid, like she’s a business owner on the news or something. Maybe she manages a coffee bar.”
But 920 Valencia Avenue was not a coffee bar.
“Is that why you recognized the name?” Sarah asked.
Madame Rosa’s, the sign read. Psychic.
“Yeah, it’s ringing a bell,” I nodded as we searched for a parking space. Honestly, I still didn’t recognize her, though now I had a point of reference. Fortune-telling was a licensed and regulated industry in San Francisco, and I sometimes had customers from that business. We intersected less than you’d expect from an occult detective, but it happened from time to time. Maybe a competitor dropped her name or something.
“I can’t find a place to park,” Sarah muttered.
“It’s fine, just drop me off,” I said. “Then double-park somewhere and wait for my text.”
“Gotcha,” Sarah said.
I exited the car and entered the fortune-teller’s parlor. The waiting room was small and cozy, heavily-decorated and with lighting dim enough to cast a specific mood. Nothing looked cheap. But then, she could afford a dedicated office instead of working from home, which spoke volumes. I perused the old copies of Reader’s Digest in the tiny waiting room for a few moments before my attention drifted to the pamphlets on display. The Power of Healing Crystals, one read. Another was titled The Sagittarius Woman. And of course, I couldn’t help but give a chuckle at What Can Kabbalah Do for You? People always had to appropriate, didn’t they? The fortune-telling imagery had been stealing from Romani fashion and Jewish mysticism for centuries, usually before kicking the actual people out of the country. Not that Madame Rosa was personally culpable – I doubted that – but it was amazing how long and pervasive the echo of those times could be. It was older than me, and I was over eight hundred years old. I remembered when the King of England spoke French and soldiers wore full plate in the desert, literally cooking themselves in the hot sun before they switched to scale mail. I remembered when the British attacked and burned and expelled their Jews, and I remembered when Oliver Cromwell let us back in. I remembered so much.
So anyway, I took a look at the Kabbalah pamphlet, snorted laughter at how inaccurate it was, and hid it in the back of the rack so people wouldn’t read it. Had to do my part.
“Detective December, I presume?” Madame Rosa asked as she stepped out from the consultation room.
I turned and looked at one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, and I did not mean that lightly. She carried a striking elegance in her Mediterranean features that could bring to heel kings and princes as easily as the common man. The type of woman who would turn heads whenever she entered a room, yet few would dare approach. Rosalinde dressed impeccably, her clothing suggesting labels like Armani, Givenchy, Balmain, and Balenciaga, and I didn’t have to look closely at her handbag to know that it bore the name of Birkin. All well out of my price range, but it had the desired effect: anybody coming to consult with Madame Rosa could see her success and would want to listen to her mystical advice.
“Oh, hi,” I said. “Rosalinde Giancarla, right? “Do you prefer Ms. Giancarla? Madame Rosa?”
“Rosa is fine,” she said with a brief nod of acknowledgement. “Thank you for coming here on such short notice.”
“I did the best I can,” I said. “Okay, so you said you have a stalker, right?”
“Come into my office,” she said as she led me into the back, past her consultation room. It had many of the expected comforts – warm lightning, an emphasis on cozy purples and reds, crystals and cards and such – but the room carried an atmosphere of professionalism that set it apart from a stereotypical fortune-teller’s office. No kitsch, only class. Adjust a few things and it could have belonged to a fashion consultant instead.
Her actual office was different. It wasn’t messy, not remotely, but there was far less of an emphasis on style. A secondhand desk, utilitarian but not pretty. Well-organized paperwork, including a framed fortune-telling license.
“The same man has followed me home from work every day for the last week,” she brushed her long hair back as she looked down at her desk. “Two weeks,” she corrected herself.
“So you said over the phone,” I said. “Do you have anything concrete to give me? Like a description?”
“He’s tall, about six feet,” Rosalinde said. “Skinny build, blonde hair. No distinguishing marks.”
“Uh-huh,” I said as I texted the generic description to Sarah.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I have a partner keeping watch outside,” I explained. “So I’m sending everything you’re telling me. Do you have anything more than that?”
“You brought someone else,” she said with a shake of her head. “I took a picture of him last night as I walked home. I had to do it surreptitiously, so it’s a little blurry.”
“Send, send,” I said. “Blurry is better than nothing.”
She looked at me blankly for a moment. I realized what I had left out and told her my cell number. She was right that the photo wasn’t very good, but it was worth sending to Sarah regardless.
“Okay, we’ll be on the lookout for this guy. If he shows his face, I’ll try to intimidate him into staying away from you.”
Rosalinde looked at me. At me, who was five-foot-nuthin’ on a good day, just a tiny little brunette stuffed into a trench coat. Technically, I had absolutely nothing on her supermodel grandeur, but I did have a nightstick in my coat.
“Trust me,” I said.
She picked up a piece of paper from her desk and handed it to me. “Last night, I found this note slipped under my front door.”
It was a folded torn-off piece of notebook paper with a very simple message written in pen.
I’ll see you tomorrow night, babe. Look sexy for me 🙂
“Ew,” I said. “Threatening and gross. Do you have any idea who he is?”
“I think I do,” Rosalinde said as she began to move a few more things around her desk. “I realized this morning that I saw him once in my office. He came in, signed the guestbook, but balked at my rates and left. I don’t normally think about non-customers like that, so it took me a moment to remember him.”
I looked at the paperwork on her desk until she guided my attention to the guestbook. I hadn’t noticed that it was missing from the front lobby, though now I felt that I should have realized it. It was open to the entries from a few days ago, and Rosalinde Giancarla had highlighted one name.
“John Smith,” I said.
“That might not be his real name,” she said.
“I see that,” I nodded as I sent Sarah the information, anyway. I included a photo of the note as well. “So, in this kind of a situation, I’d still suggest calling the police, especially if he shows his face. But I’m happy to walk you home and keep watch, and like I said I’ll do what I can to scare him off if I see him.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate it.”
I looked again at “John Smith’s” guestbook entry. “Yeah, there are some really sick people in the world. So, is there anything else you need to do before going home?”
“I just need to lock up,” she said.
I texted Sarah while I waited for her.
Follow about a block or two behind us. I’ll ask for her address before we leave. Let me know if you see anything suspicious. Not just the blonde guy.
“I’m ready,” Rosalinde said as she turned off the lights.
“All right,” I said. “By the way, what’s your address? I’m having my associate follow a couple of blocks behind us, and I’d rather they not get lost.”
She rolled her eyes – sort of. She didn’t actually roll her eyes, but I could feel the eye-roll. It was there. On the inside. She rolled her inside eyes.
“1172 Lexington,” she said. “Walk two blocks down, then turn left, then right after another block. Let’s go.”
“All right,” I sent the info to Sarah. “Thanks.”
It was a pleasant evening, the air a brisk and cold San Francisco standard, heightened by a light breeze that wove along the streets and between buildings. I adjusted my coat, feeling the weight of the collapsible baton stored inside, and walked with Rosa. Sarah followed behind us, and I couldn’t pick the car out on the street, although I mainly kept an eye out for the stalker.
Damn, even the way she walked was measured and precise. It wasn’t a full strut, but she exuded just enough confidence that she may as well have been the only person on the street. It was weird, realizing how little I knew about professional psychics. Most of them were frauds who performed a service – cold-reading counselors, basically. There were a few genuine practitioners who sold their craft, but they were very rare. That sort of thing attracted the wrong attention.
But I couldn’t get a read on her like I could with most clients. Her air of professionalism was like a barrier, and something about the situation seemed off. I decided to break the ice by asking her about business, and to try to get on more normal terms. Getting her mind off the stalker would be a good thing – it would allow her to behave normally, casually. Being too rigid, suspicious, or obviously with a bodyguard might scare him off for now, only to return later. Getting him where we could properly intimidate or ID him for the police would be much better. So, a simple question about the fortune-telling business seemed like a great idea.
“So, how’s business? Get a lot of stalkers?” I asked, and then slapped my own forehead. “Customers. I meant to say customers. How-is-business-do-you-get-a-lot-of-customers, I meant. Dammit.”
She stared at me the whole time that I rambled.
“Business is fine,” she said. “I rarely see new customers, but I don’t need them. My regulars consult with me often enough.”
“You mostly work with regulars?” I asked. “And you said that the Smith guy got scared off by your price. So, how much does it cost to get my fortune read by Madame Rosa?”
“I charge twelve hundred an hour,” she said in a tone that didn’t need to add Worth Every Penny.
“Yeah, I can see why that turns some people off,” I said. “But I can also see why your customers stay around. It’s hard to back out of something when you’ve paid in so much.”
She gave me a look that was almost a glare.
“I’m sure the service you provide is worth every penny or more,” I said, trying to salvage the small talk. “You wouldn’t get many repeat customers if you were just a cold-reader with a nice purse, right?”
“Focus on looking for the stalker,” Rosalinde said. “Do your job.”
For what it was worth, I had been paying attention. I made more of a show of it, though it made no difference – there was no sign of “John Smith” anywhere.
“I’m not knocking the price or anything, but that’s like, three lawyers,” I said. “You’re charging three lawyers. Honestly, it’s pretty impressive – it says a lot about you if you can attract customers when it costs that much, it means you give really good advice.”
“I don’t see him anywhere near us,” I said. “No blonde men at all. There are fifteen other people within reasonable distance either on our sidewalk or the other side of the street. Six men, nine women. Two blonde women, four Caucasian men. I am doing my job.”
Okay, I said that last part just to flex.
“And where is your partner?” she asked.
“I can’t see the car, but I told her to stay about a block behind us. Here, I’ll text her.”
How are things? See anything weird? I sent just as we turned down the side street.
“Remember, we cross the street and turn right,” Rosalinde said.
I nodded in acknowledgement and looked up from my phone, scanning the street ahead of us.
“Okay, that car turned on as soon as we came within view,” I said. “Dunno if it’s him, but I’ll watch it.”
I slowed my pace, walking just a little bit behind Rosa as I checked out the other passers by. Still nobody who fit “John Smith’s” profile, but the lights were a little less bright on the residential street, and I couldn’t see facial features quite as clearly at a distance. The car had driven onward and away, clearly not following us, but I began to feel a little nervous, and the feeling was clearly shared. Rosalinde picked up her pace, and I had to shuffle to match her long-legged stride. Damn, but that woman looked good even when she was in a hurry.
She led me to a small apartment building, the kind that might have been a two-story house in a past life, but now contained four homes. Two on the ground floor and two above, with an interior hallway separating their front doors from the outside. She unlocked the main entrance and opened it.
As Rosa stepped inside, I approached the threshold and then turned, looking back over the street for any sign of the stalker. “May I come in?” I asked, the vampire request for permission easily blended into the situation.
“Of course,” Rosa said.
I stepped inside. The threshold of a home was always tricky. Its exact strength depended on who lived there and how they felt, but even the barest of homes was enough to keep out an uninvited vampire. My own home had an exceptionally strong threshold, reinforced with a silver latticework built into the walls. It didn’t affect me because I lived there, but my place was basically demon-proof. As for this apartment building, Rosalinde’s invitation was at the front hall, but it should have been enough to let me into her home as well – and in fact, I could feel that it was indeed open to me. I wasn’t terribly magically-sensitive, but a threshold was something that any vampire could detect. SO when Rosalinde unlocked her front door, I stepped through without a second thought.
The change in atmosphere took me off-guard. Rosalinde Giancarla’s home was nothing like her office. This place had magic. Real magic. At her day job she may have been just another cold-reading counselor, albeit an expensive one, but the aura of latent power was as evident as the scent of old cigarettes in the home of a smoker. Her home was just as protected as mine, if not more – whatever spells had been woven into the threshold were more than enough to keep supernatural evil away. I was impressed without saying anything.
“This may take a while, so can offer you tea or coffee. Is there something on your mind?” Rosa asked, her perceptive gaze falling on me, analyzing me. Did she know that I knew? Did she know what I was?
I looked around Rosalinde’s apartment, trying to find something – anything – to comment on, to bring up some small talk and distract myself from the fact that this was obviously the home of an arcane practitioner. It was a nice enough place, albeit small – there was very little delineation between the living room and kitchen, to be honest. I noticed a tiny food dish on the floor in the threshold of her kitchen.
“Oh, you have a cat?” I asked, giving her a smile.
“My cat died last week,” Rosalinde said bluntly. “I haven’t had the heart to put her things away.”
Ouch. Swing and a miss.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She waved it off dismissively, sparing me from further embarrassment. I let out the breath I hadn’t been aware I was holding. My phone buzzed, taking me further out of my shame.
Parked out front. No sign of stalker. Feeling pretty weird rn. Something up?
I frowned as I read Sarah’s text, and things began to come together in my mind as I remembered where I had heard her name before.
“There is no ‘John Smith,’ is there?” I asked.
Rosalinde locked her gaze with mine. “What?”
“You heard what I said,” I said. “The guestbook entry wasn’t signed, it was printed. It matched the note, but I bet if we went back to your office, that handwriting would match a lot of other things on your desk. So what did you do, take a picture of a random guy on the street? So you made up the story and called me. Personally.”
She frowned. I spoke up again before she could respond.
“You’re not just a ‘psychic,’ you’re the real deal,” I said. “Rosalinde Giancarla, a verified, known witch operating out of San Francisco. I’ve heard your name once or twice in conversation, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. What coven are you with?”
“I’m not with a coven,” she said. “I’m independent.”
“Why did you call me?” I asked. “You know what I am, don’t you?”
“Of course I know what you are,” she snapped. “You have a reputation.”
“Then what the hell did you call me about?” I asked. “For real.”
She folded her arms. “I didn’t lie. I am being stalked.”
“Stalked by what?”
“You wouldn’t believe it.”
“Oh, come on. Seriously?” I threw my hands in the air. “You, a witch, are telling me, a vampire, that I wouldn’t believe you. I’ve fought demons. Come on.”
She shook her head. “This is not something you’re used to. And not something that can be talked about.”
“Oh hey, look, we’re talking about it,” I said. “Come on, Rosa. What’s going on?”
She looked at me again, her gaze piercing with its intensity. “There are things,” she stated. “That can never be named. Never be spoken about, or it gives them power. It calls them. I don’t care who you’ve talked to or what you’ve read. No one talks about this, and it isn’t in a book. You wouldn’t believe it.”
“You’d be surprised what I can believe,” I glared back at her. My phone buzzed again.
Still got that weird feeling. Everything ok?”
I looked at Rosalinde. “Is my partner in any dangers?” I asked.
She tried to wave it off.
“Rosa,” I repeated. “My friend is out there. How much danger is she in?”
We stood there in a tense moment, but I held my gaze on her, not letting her move on.
“There are protections in this apartment,” she said. “Opening the door again, much less bringing in another outsider, would weaken them.”
“And? So what?” I asked. “Are you thinking about a living, breathing person as collateral damage? Acceptable losses?”
She said something very rude in Italian, in a near-whisper that I could barely h ear.
“I understood that,” I said. “I can curse in sixteen languages.”
Rosalinde pursed her lips in a near-scowl, but then grabbed my hand. “Come on,” she said. “We have to hurry before it arrives.”
“Before what arrives?” I asked.
“Shut up,” she chided as she opened the door and we both went outside.
Rosalinde was taller and had longer legs, so she outpaced me in the hallway despite my best efforts to hustle. The change in atmosphere was palpable as soon as I left the safety of her apartment’s threshold, only growing worse as I exited the building. An inherent nervousness and oppression, like the feeling of being watched. It was something that ordinary people could sense, though they rarely knew why. But there was a reason why most monster attacks happened in conveniently empty locations. People stayed away when they felt uncomfortable.
But even then, this was a different situation. What I felt was abnormal – stronger, colder, as if the temperature had dropped even more than it usually did in the Bay. The feeling of oppression heightened to the point that it nearly knocked me off-balance, and it took me a second to spot the familiar shape of my car parked by the curb, and Sarah seated in the driver’s seat.
I gave a brief glance back to Rosa and noted her stony expression and reserved, defensive posture within the threshold of the building, but turned my attention back to Sarah as I dashed for the car.
Sarah opened the door and stepped out. “Hey, Lucy, is something up?” she asked. “I can’t get that feeling out of my head.”
I saw it across the street from the corner of my peripheral vision, indistinct in the shadows away from street lamps. Much like a human shape, only too tall, he proportions stretched, its ragged and torn silhouette strangely wrong in every way. The glint of teeth in a too-large and too-wide smile shone even in the lack of light, and I felt something – no, I knew something. I heard a name, or a moniker, or a title, or whatever it was, echoing through my mind.
The Devil’s Smile, that little voice said inside my head. A fact that I now knew uncontrovertibly, understood on a deep, foundational level. As the name echoed within my head, I could feel its attention turning to me – could feel it gaining power and presence and even sheer existence just from my knowledge and attention.
I ran faster.
“We’ve got to get inside!” I reached Sarah immediately, grabbing her hand.
“What?” she asked but was savvy enough not to protest. She moved with me, letting me usher her past and toward the building. I spared a glance back across the street, but there was nothing there now. The patch of shadows had even gone, leaving the street bathed in dim lights.
As Sarah reached the door, Rosa stepped aside to allow her in.
“Rosalinde Giancarla,” she said.
“Sarah Fielding, nice to meet you,” Sarah nodded just as I came barreling past, nearly crashing into them as I ran into the hall.
“She’s a real witch, and her apartment is protected like mine. Come on,” I said quickly to Sarah as I tried to usher her down the hall.
“Wait, what’s going on?” she asked. “What’s out there?”
Rosalinde stepped past us both and opened the door. I shoved Sarah in front of me and into the apartment first, sending her to safety. But then Rosa stepped in front of me, blocking me from the door.
“You saw it,” she said.
I just gave her a nod. “It’s safe inside? Let’s go inside.”
“Did it tell you its name?” she asked.
I hesitated for a moment before choosing honesty. “I think so,” I said.
Her entire body tensed for a moment.
“Ms. Giancarla, are you thinking of leaving me outside?”
She hesitated. “Did it see you?” she asked. “Did it mark you?”
“Look, I really don’t care what Slenderman out there did,” I said. “If we’re safer in there than here, we can talk about it inside.”
“Guys?” Sarah asked. “You’re arguing in the hall. Can we finish our strange and fascinating discussion inside, perhaps?”
Rosa looked again like she was about to slam the door in my face, but Sarah’s interjection really left her with no choice. “Shut up and get in,” she said, and I obliged.
The protection of Rosalinde’s home was different in nature from mine – I could have bet money that there was no silver, nothing physical in the construction – but whatever charms and enchantments she had set in her threshold were powerful, protecting it just the same. Now in comparison with the oppressive cold and darkness of whatever that thing was outside.
No, not just “that thing.” The Devil’s Smile. Its name rang like a bell in my head. But the “devil” was just a title given to demons, and that thing outside was no demon. I didn’t know what it was, but I was sure of that much. And I didn’t want to think about its name, but there it was.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked. “You meant to use me as bait, didn’t you?”
“Honestly, I’ve got a million things I’d like to ask,” Sarah said. “This seems like it’s escalated a little bit. Who’s the stalker?”
“Sarah, there is no stalker,” I said. “Just some kind of monster that the lady here is being tight-lipped about.”
“You’re a monster,” she said to me. “A vampire, at least. And you have a reputation for fighting other supernatural creatures. So yes, I called you here because I knew you could fight if I attracted it. But ow you’ve brought a helpless civilian, and that makes the situation worse.”
“Helpless civilian?” Sarah asked. “What is this, the army? Ma’am, no disrespect, but I’m not helpless.”
“Remember when you threw a paperweight at a vampire’s head?” I chuckled.
“Yeah, the guy was huge,” she said. “But he was messing up my library!”
“Seriously, he had me on the floor,” I explained. “Like, stomping me to the ground and everything. And then Sarah comes in and just beans him with a paperweight.”
“Ooh! Tell him about the demon you took out with a fire extinguisher!”
“Ha,” I said. “Well, you see, it was all about science and chemistry, you know? Fire demon, so what would extinguish it?”
“Shut up,” Rosalinde said. “This is serious. There are too many variables with a third party involved. We should send her home – if you give me time, I can devise a way to get her out of here safely, and then you can help deal with this crisis.”
I folded my arms. “You’re going to have to tell me what the hell the ‘Devil’s Smile’ is, first.”
“Stop naming it!” she snapped at me. “Stop thinking about its name! You were supposed to be a fresh ally, someone who could fight the horror outside my door without drawing it in. But instead you brought an innocent bystander, and you insist on saying its name!”
“Because I need you to explain what that thing is outside your door!” I countered.
“I don’t think the arguing is helping,” Sarah interjected from where she stood halfway in Rosa’s kitchen. “Ma’am, thank you for inviting us inside, but I kind of agree that we need a little more background about this.”
“There is a monster,” Rosalinde stated. “When you see it, attack it.”
“Well, I kind of need more information than that,” I said. “Like, how did it just tell me its name like that? And why ‘Devil’s Smile’ when it probably isn’t a devil?”
“Stop it!” she shouted.
“Look, you’re safe in here,” I said. “I can feel how strong you’ve made your threshold. This place is like a fortress.”
The monster emerged from out of nowhere and lunged for Sarah before I had finished that sentence. Nothing about it seemed real – just slightly blurry and indistinct around the edges, as if out of sync with the world. Its spindly body was covered in ragged bandages that barely concealed dried, cracked skin the color of a blood bruise. There were no eyes that I could see, though its grinning mouth, filled with teeth, stretched nearly all the way to where its ears should have been.
“Nope!” Sarah squeaked as she darted back and grabbed a kitchen chair, shoving it between herself and the Devil’s Smile.
“Leave this place!” Rosalinde commanded, her words carrying the reverberation of an arcane command. A ripple traveled through the air as it emanated from her, jolting the apartment like a brief tremor. The wave washed over the creature and it disappeared, vanishing so quickly that there was a muffled pop as air filled the spot where it had been.
“Yo, what in holy hell?” I asked.
“Shut up,” Rosa said. “It’s coming back.”
“Then how do I fight it?”
The Devil’s Smile reappeared just as I asked the question and zeroed in on Sarah again. She dodged around the chair again just as I lunged for the creature, pulling the collapsible baton from my coat pocket. I snapped my wrist to extend it, but it didn’t open up. Wait, it was the spring-loaded rod. Silly me.
Using the collapsed rod in my hand for extra weight, I tried to bludgeon the monster. The Devil’s Smile turned its head in my direction and seemed to grin even wider before vanishing, my attack swinging past in thin air. I turned back around with the same momentum, trying to anticipate where the creature would appear next.
“Sarah!” I shouted. “Duck!”
Sarah got down to the ground just as the Devil’s Smile appeared behind her, its too-long fingers groping past where her head had just been, missing her ponytail by mere inches as she scampered away. I reached over her head and thrust the shortened rod at its face. I couldn’t get much momentum, and basically just tapped it on the chin with the end of the rod. It grinned at me, its attention turning completely from Sarah Fielding to myself.
Something flashed through my mind. Not words, not pictures, but an indescribable vision of fear, a mental splatter of raw untamed primal emotion. The sheer unspeakable nature of this bandage-wrapped monstrosity, the sheer wrongness of its existence, went further than its inhuman proportions or its liminal existence on the borders of reality.
“Right,” I said and pushed the button on the handle of my rod, activating the spring mechanism. It extended suddenly, driving itself into the teeth of the creature. I was satisfied to see the Devil’s Smile recoil from the impact with a mouthful of blood. It was a physical being, no matter how blurry it appeared to be.
I reached and grabbed the creature by its ragged head and slammed it down on the edge of the chair, shattering its teeth against the wood. Its hands lashed out, spindly claw-like fingers wrapping around my wrists. I felt a chill colder than ice jolt through my arms accompanied by a feeling of draining, my vision spinning as the vitality was sucked out of me through its touch.
That shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have been possible. The weakening rot and decay I was now feeling through touch was a completely new feeling. Vampires were immune to disease and poison, and whatever this was should have fit into that same category. We didn’t have the kind of life force that could be drained or feasted on. A soul that had been rejected by death was not edible. I was so shocked at the draining feeling that I was momentarily stunned, unable to let go or push the bleeding, bandaged abomination away from me.
Rosalinde stepped in at that moment, moving her hands near the monster but not touching it directly.
“Incendiare!” she shouted a word of Italian before a flash of blinding, blazing heat burned in the air between her hands and the body of the Devil’s Smile. The ragged bandages covering its body lit on fire, blazing like dried leaves as it let go of me, shrieking and staggering back. The rush of arcane energy that coursed from Rosalinde’s hands startle me even though I had seen her perform magic. It was the sheer amount of power radiating from her, more evident at this close range. The spoken words of her spell were immaterial, she had mastered her craft to the point where she could cast merely through intent, scorching the unspeakable monster by simply telling it to burn.
The creature vanished again, leaving only a few floating ashes and the stench of burnt flesh. But it was not gone, I could still feel its presence. Gone, but not for long. Watching. Waiting. The numbness from its touch began to abate as my vampire body healed itself, and I turned to look at Rosalinde again.
“Are you sure you’re not part of a coven?” I asked.
“Focus,” she said, already looking around the room. “Concentrate. It’s going to strike again.”
Sarah, all the way across the room, began to relax her posture slightly, getting her panicked breathing under control. “Okay, that was weird,” Sarah said. “I swear, Lucy, it’s something new every day with you.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, catching my breath. “It’s like Lovecraft and the Bogeyman. So where did this thing come from, again?”
“Stop talking about it!” Rosalinde insisted again. “Why are you being so insistently stupid? Why are you giving it even more power?”
“And we can punch it, right?” I asked, indicating my baton, which was still stained with its blood. “So the moment it comes back, I’m beating the hell out of it, okay?”
It came back at that moment. Seriously. From behind me. Ice-cold fingers wrapped around my shoulders and a grinning mouth full of broken teeth settled next to my face, its rotten breath against my cheek. I strained against its touch and attempted to flip it over, but its hold on me was like iron and the Devil’s Smile remained rooted in place, keeping me from throwing it or taking a swing. The intense sensation of it draining my life force was a vicious shock, like being submerged in ice water.
Sarah came in wielding Rosalinde’s kitchen chair like a pro wrestler and smashed it over the monster’s head, hitting hard enough to knock the Devil’s Smile off-balance. I was able to slip from its grip and twist, using my leverage to flip the monster over my shoulder and toss it to the ground. It landed on its back with a frustrated and surprised shriek, taking a swipe at me as I backpedaled away.
“Now! Before it gets up again!” I turned to Rosalinde. “Don’t let it touch you!”
Rosa ducked in and spoke another word of fiery, violent anger as more flame erupted from the palms of her hands to engulf the Devil’s Smile. The creature grinned and the flames neared and vanished again, instantly reappearing behind Rosalinde and reaching to grab her with its draining grasp.
Rosa turned and lifted her hands as she twirled around in a single, graceful motion to face the Devil’s Smile. The fire of her spell twisted like a whip in the air as it redirected from the floor to the creature’s new location, suddenly wrapping around its body and binding it before it could reach to touch her. The Devil’s Smile shrieked in shock and pain, the mental echo striking deeper in my mind than what my ears had heard. It struggled and strained against its new bonds, the fire burning its dry flesh as the ropes tightened around its body. It began to blur in and out of reality, straining ephemerally as it tried in vain to escape.
“I don’t know who opened the door for you,” Rosalinde said in the affected and formal tone that came part and parcel with spell work and banishment. “But you will leave this world now. May your name be forgotten, your nature less than a whispered image. Your face is nothing to us, and you are powerless now to stay in this world. Begone!”
The creature made one more attempt to escape, its body blurring briefly in and out of reality before new wounds tore open under its bonds, the sizzling stench of burning blood permeating the apartment. The shriek that came from its mouth was inhuman, twin twisting tones bursting from strained lungs, the sounds of agony reverberating through to the core of the listener’s mind. The whole room warped, the air rippling like under a steam effect as the Devil’s Smile ripped itself apart under the burning force of Rosalinde’s spell.
Soon, even the ashes went up in a blaze. I couldn’t tell if it had the kind of body that would vanish on its own, or if it was entirely the force of Rosa’s magic banishing the unspeakable creature’s remains. An ominous silence fell on the apartment, only broken by the sounds of our heavy, exhausted breathing.
That is, until I opened my mouth.
“So, uh, that was weird,” I said. “Is everybody okay?”
Rosalinde sat down on one of the chairs and put her head in her hands.
“Are you okay?” Sarah asked her.
“I’ll Venmo you the money,” she said to me. “Just get out.”
“I still have questions,” I said. “And you hired me under false pretenses. So I’d appreciate if–”
“Talking about it can give it the power to return,” she said flatly. “So I will only say this once. Faith has power. Belief has power. And the formless fears of those who cannot put words to their emotions also have power. That belief has to go somewhere. The things it fuels are outside this world, and they need to stay there, but sometimes they come through. Because they are made of nightmares and belief, they can latch onto things like their names being spoken or even thought of. And because they aren’t as ‘real’ as other supernatural creatures, they can break the rules of magic and perform impossible feats. Someone tapped into their power recently, and that is how one of the Unspeakable Things came through.”
“So like, if H. P. Lovecraft and the Bogeyman had a kid,” Sarah mused, repeating what I had observed earlier.
“Wow,” I shook my head. “I honestly haven’t heard about that before.”
“And you won’t again,” Rosa said as she stood to her feet. “We’re done. Get out.”
“But–” I started to say.
And so, we were out.
The sense of foreboding had lifted with the destruction of the creature. I couldn’t even sense a lingering aftereffect of its presence – all the supernatural danger was gone, as if it had never been. I let my thoughts wander as we approached the car.
“Wow,” Sarah said with a shake of her head. She opened the passenger-side door and got in. “What do you think of all that?”
I paused for a moment as I stood next to my car. Impossible magic? I recalled a very recent, very difficult, nearly disastrous case. The kind filled with carnage and melodrama that ended with a lot of questions. Someone had tried to resurrect something that couldn’t return to life. Could it be? Should I look into it?
I had a moment of clarity and made a decision.
“I think I know a bakery nearby that makes cream puffs the size of softballs,” I said to Sarah. “Wanna go get dessert?”
Some things were better left unsaid. Or unthought.