This story takes place shortly before Sweet Sixteen, because that story takes place on Halloween, and I almost forgot while writing this one.
It was nearly Halloween, the most peaceful time of the year. It wasn’t that nothing supernatural ever happened then, it was just harder to wade through all the false alarms. Usually I gave up looking for important work and just took whatever job came through my door first.
I looked at my new client and immediately understood who she was. Jocelyn Evers was the type of person who would swear up and down that she wasn’t a gossip before shit-talking the entire neighborhood. The kind of lady who brags about being polite and kind but is rude to the waiter. Someone who will lecture you about manners before using a racial slur. And who, in this particular situation, wouldn’t dare say anything outwardly antisemitic, but kept looking at the little bits of Jewish paraphernalia in my office with barely-disguised suspicion and disapproval.
“What’s that?” she asked, gesturing to the nameplate on my desk.
“That’s my name written in Hebrew,” I explained.
She looked very confused for a moment, as if trying to understand why somebody would own something like that. So she deflected by glancing at the framed black-and-white photo near the nameplate. “Oh, is that your father?”
Tough luck, lady. My father predated photography by about six hundred years, give or take a few decades.
“That’s a signed photo of David Ben-Gurion,” I said. “He was the first prime minister of Israel.”
“Oh, I don’t get involved in politics,” she said dismissively.
“I don’t see how that’s political seventy years after the fact,” I said (muttered). “But back to the subject at hand. You came here all the way from Pleasant Hill?”
“Yes, I said that on the phone,” she said. “Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, you spoke with my secretary,” I said. “She’s the one right over–”
Wait, where did she go? At the small desk and computer where Sarah Fielding normally sat, there was nothing but an empty coffee mug and an ‘Out to Lunch’ sign. This was nine at night.
“–There,” I finished. “Huh, that’s weird.”
The woman cleared her throat. “Miss December, we need to discuss the business at hand.”
“Right, right,” I said, taking my mind off the disappeared secretary. “So, you came here from Pleasant Hill. Isn’t that a little bit of a drive?”
“It’s only an hour,” she said. “I heard that you were the best, and I only hire the best. Now, are you a supernatural detective or not?”
Technically no. Technically I was just Lucy December, Private Detective. The supernatural part was pure word of mouth.
“Ma’am, I’m a licensed private detective, and I’m willing to hear anyone out on any kind of case. Whether that is ‘supernatural’ or not is up to the client.”
“Well, I have prophetic dreams,” she said. “My dreams come true. They always have, even though people never listen to me. You know, that’s their loss because bad things always happen when they don’t listen – I told Kathy once that I had dreamed she was going to lose everything and she laughed, but wouldn’t you know it her husband was cheating on her and when he got fired from his job she found out!”
I had no clue who Kathy was.
“And I’m telling you, I’ve been dreaming for weeks that something bad is going to happen in my neighborhood.”
“Okay,” I said.
“This one time I dreamed lottery numbers, and if I had played them, I would have won,” she continued to build her case. “And my dreams have helped me predict major world events, too. I predicted that Bill Clinton would cheat on his wife, and I predicted that we would go to war after 9/11, I predicted that Barack Obama would win the election, too. This one time I dreamed that there would be a massive plague, and do you know what happened eleven years later? Coronavirus.”
She had dreamed that there would be a pandemic while California was going through a Swine Flu scare. Totally a psychic.
“And I had another dream,” she said. “Something really bad is going to happen in my neighborhood this Halloween weekend. I can feel it.”
“Okay, what do you feel is about to happen?” I asked. “Tell me about your dream.”
Evers nodded and closed her eyes as if concentrating. “There are three religious people on my block.”
“Okay,” I said, waiting for more. “Yes?”
“Of course, none of them believe me,” she said. “They don’t listen when I tell them about my dreams even though they’re supposed to believe in god or whatever. But they go to war every Halloween.”
“They go to war?” I asked.
“Well, not really,” she explained. “Not with guns or anything like that. One of them is Christian, one of them is Catholic, and one of them is a witch or something, so two of them go all-out for Halloween and the third just gets annoyed and there’s always at least one big argument.”
Christian and Catholic. I was aware of the distinction between sects, but it said a lot about how people saw each other.
“Okay, so all three people fight,” I repeated back to her. “And you’re worried that it could get violent this year?”
“I told you, I have prophetic dreams,” Evers said. “Well, two of them fight every year and the third person is new, but I just know it’ll be trouble.”
I leaned back a bit in my comfy little office chair, idly glancing to the empty seat at the other desk. Just where did Sarah go, anyway?
“The Kilraines – those are the Christians – try to do this big evangelistic outreach or something. Aaron Kilraine sets up a grill and barbecue hot dogs and invite the whole neighborhood over. He does it every Halloween when the kids are trick-or-treating. He’s a preacher or something like that.”
“Okay, that actually sounds kind of nice,” I said. “But go on.”
“And then you have Erin Walsh,” she continued. “She’s the one who I thought would believe me about my dreams because she believes in magic and things like that, but she never listens to me either. I think it’s really stupid not to listen to me, but who am I? Just somebody with prophetic dreams. Anyway, she’s really into ‘traditional’ Samhain, and she doesn’t even like seeing trick-or-treaters or anything like that because she says it ruins the sanctity of her holiday. And since they’re basically neighbors, you can imagine how little she likes the Kilraines.”
“I’m beginning to get an idea,” I said.
“Well, last year the Jensens moved away.”
“Who are the Jensens?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes. “The family that lived in the house between them. Haven’t you been listening? Anyway, the Jensens moved away to Idaho or Texas or Oregon or some other place. I don’t know or care. And the house was sold to a new lady, she’s really sweet and grandmotherly and kind to everybody, but she’s also really Catholic. Her name is Karen Hannock, and I think she’s darling though she’s a little loopy sometimes. She reminds me of some of the ladies I know in my alumni society – you know, we’re the oldest sorority still in oper–”
“Ma’am?” I interrupted.
“Oh. Okay.” She gave an exaggerated sigh. “Well, both of her new neighbors – the Kilraines and Walsh – have been going out of their way to be friendly to Mrs. Hannock, and I think they’re trying to convert her.”
I rubbed at my forehead just above the bridge of my nose. This lady drove two hours down the Bay and paid for my time just to dump neighborhood gossip in my lap. And where the hell was Sarah?
“Well, I dreamed that everybody died in a big fire,” she continued. “That as everybody argued the fire just grew bigger and bigger until it burned up all the houses and everybody in it!”
“Do you think that maybe you’ve been thinking about the situation and the arguments, and this influenced your dreams a little?” I asked. “That’s not really an uncommon thing.”
“I told you, I have prophetic dreams, and I’m never wrong!” Evers snapped at me. “And you’re supposed to believe me. You have a reputation. Could you at least come by the neighborhood and check things out?”
I realized that I had an out – my Halloween was already booked solid. “I need to check my schedule,” I said.
“The neighborhood is doing their trick-or-treating on Saturday the 29th this year so it doesn’t fall on a school night,” Jocelyn Evers said. “So you wouldn’t need to be there on Halloween if you’re busy.”
“I suppose I’m free that night,” I said. Sundown meant it was after the Sabbath ended, too. Not that I could really observe Shabbos, being a vampire and all.
“Good. Be there,” Evers said as she stood up. “I’ll pay you, of course. But I want you to talk to the neighbors and find out what’s going on and save them from themselves. You have to do this because I’m never wrong about this sort of thing.”
“Is just after sundown all right?” I asked. It would have to be, because it would ruin everybody’s day if I got out of the car and spontaneously combusted.
“Most of the trick-or-treaters will be gone by then,” she said. “They’re only really allowed to do it while it’s still light, and they can’t even go out without their parents. It’s silly how people overreact these days, isn’t it? Remember when we were kids?”
When I was a kid you had twelve children because five of them might survive and be apprenticed somewhere. I didn’t tell her that. “Oh yeah, people are crazy nowadays. What did you say the address was?”
After she left I leaned back in my chair and rubbed at my eyes hard enough to cause stars. There were always people like this, but usually I could avoid eye contact and not approach. It was like dealing with a bear.
“Want a pretzel?”
I opened my eyes and behold, there was Sarah. Somehow she had gotten pretzels and a boba tea.
“Where did you find pretzels at this hour?” I asked when I meant to ask where she had gone.
“I know a guy,” my secretary said as she handed me a knot of piping-hot cinnamon-sprinkled dough. “I just suddenly felt like it was a great time to take a coffee break and find some snacks.”
“It was a conveniently good time, wasn’t it?” I asked. “But I forgive you because of the pretzel.”
“That’s great!” She sat down in her own chair. “So, what was that job about?”
“You mean the one you screened and passed on to me?” I asked. “That job?”
“Maybe,” she answered.
“I’ve got to drive up to the East Bay on the night before Halloween because a crazy lady thinks her religious neighbors are going to kill each other,” I said. “Whee.”
The good news about the drive was that my car’s windows were specially treated to protect me from the sun. The bad news was that I had to drive all the way up to the East Bay during rush hour. Eight hundred years of life, battle after battle to save the world, and hear I was just inching along in traffic, wasting time and gas. Sure, there was money in it, but that honestly wasn’t the only reason why I was going to Pleasant Hill. What if the crazy lady was right? She wasn’t a prophet, but her dreams did seem to be her subconscious yelling at her about the obvious. I couldn’t ignore a threat like that, not with my conscience.
I found the address, parked at the end of the block, and waited for the sun to go down. All around me children were trick-or-treating, people were walking their dogs, and neighbors went about their business on this pleasant evening that was both a few feet and an entire world away; separated practically by metal and glass but also through centuries of life, death, and blood. My people were outsiders before I was turned, and now I was an outsider to outsiders.
I could see Pastor Kilraine’s house at the end of the cul-de-sac, and saw the silhouette of a man at a barbecue. Just like Evers had said, there was a regular influx of people stopping by, eating, hanging out. Being neighbors. The three houses next to one another told a story: Kilraine’s with orange lights and pumpkins and half of the neighborhood enjoying free food, a second house with old-fashioned turnip jack o’ lanterns and a sign that read ‘Ask me about the REAL Halloween!, And nestled in between the two was a quaint little demilitarized zone of a home with no seasonal decorations whatsoever.
When the sun went down enough for me to leave my little car sanctuary, I got out and chose a house. Erin Walsh’s was closest, and the Kilraines still had people hanging around, anyway. I walked up to her front door and knocked.
Brass witch bells hung from the triple goddess wreath decorating the front door, and turnip jack o’ lanterns – the traditional vegetable used before pumpkins – flanked the porch. The latter gazed balefully, resembling mummified emojis as dim candles flickered inside. It turned out that I had misread the sign, which said, “The REAL Halloween isn’t commercial! Ask me about Samhain!” And of course, there was no candy anywhere in sight.
There was a certain stereotype from the 1970s of how a “witchy woman” would look, and Erin Walsh nailed it. Long, teased red hair, high cheekbones with too much rouge, a glowing gown, and completely indeterminate age. Thirty? Sixty? Who cared!
“Hi,” I said, putting on my best smile. “My name’s Lucy. I was wondering if I could ask you about Samhain, like you have on your sign. And are those turnips?”
She seemed confused for a moment but then brightened considerably. It didn’t hurt that I pronounced Samhain correctly (kind of like ‘Sawinn’). But I didn’t take her so off-guard that she couldn’t put on airs, of course.
“I sense a soul in search of answers,” she said with dramatic flair. “Come, stay a while and listen.”
I ruined the entire good first impression by giggling. I couldn’t help it, really.
“What are you laughing at?” she glared at me, pretention gone from her voice.
“Deckard Cain,” the giggle threatened to turn into a laugh.
“What the hell are you talking about?” she asked again.
“Diablo,” I said trying to get myself under control. “An old video game. You just quoted two characters. It’s what they said when you went to talk to them.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” she said. “I don’t waste my time with games.”
I really tried to stop laughing, but her response didn’t help.
“If you’re going to mock me, I am closing this door,” she said.
“No, no, sorry,” I gasped, suppressing chuckles to form a coherent sentence. “I really want to talk to you, I mean it. I’ll be good.”
Erin Walsh rolled her eyes and said, “Fine. Come in, but be on your best behavior.”
And with that, I had an invitation.
“So,” I said as I stepped past the threshold. “Deckard Cain was like, this old guy who knew lot of lore, and he’d always ask you to stay a while and listen, but you were just using him for items and stuff so nobody ever stayed a while and listened. And the other one was like this really stereotypical witch, and shed give the soul in search of answers spiel, but you really only went there to buy potions.”
“I didn’t understand a single word that you said,” she said. “By the way, my name is Erin Walsh.”
“Lucy December,” I said. “nNce to meet you.”
I looked around the slightly cluttered but cozy home, noting the minor occult paraphernalia but also the lack of genuine supernatural vibes. Nobody was casting dark curses or summoning evil spirits in here.
“Would you like a soul cake?” she asked as she gestured for me to find a seat. I chose the comfy sofa.
Souling was a Christian practice, but a lot of people thought it was Wiccan or pagan in origin. Between that and the turnips, she had done her homework.
“Sure, thanks,” I said with one of my winning smiles. “So, about the holiday? And the sign, too? I get that Halloween isn’t celebrated like when the druids were alive, but does it really matter much?”
“Doesn’t matter?” Walsh handed me a soul cake. “Of course it matters. These holidays and festivals come from longstanding traditions – centuries of people’s lives, hopes, dreams, and faith. Why shouldn’t it matter?”
“That’s a good point,” I said as I began to nibble on the pastry.
“Of course, for years I thought that very same way – why bother?” she continued. “But then that idiot next door turned Halloween into a cheap barbecue – and he uses it for his religion!”
“But isn’t Halloween kinda sorta Christian?” I asked. “Relatively speaking?”
Erin shrugged. “Samhain is anything but Christian. Of course, the Christians appropriated it just like they do everything else, but the best they can manage is a pale knock-off of the original. Samhain is a sacred festival of the end of the harvest and of summer, and the beginning of the colder half of the year. It celebrates our ancestors by honoring those who have passed on, and it is somber, benevolent, and spiritual. Halloween, on the other hand, is a flippant secular holiday, which twists the important parts of the original festival – the harvest, honoring the dead – and replaces them with empty pageantry and commercialism.”
“So, it’s kind of like how a religious person views Santa Claus?” I asked.
“What?” she asked.
“A lot of hardcore Christians really hate Santa,” I explained. “I don’t know, I don’t celebrate the holiday. Jewish.”
“Oh, of course,” she nodded. “But do you celebrate Hanukkah?”
“Well, yes,” I said. Of course, the answer was sort of. Vampires had to be careful with religious holidays, even though Hanukkah wasn’t exactly very holy to begin with.
“I appreciate and respect all religions and cultures,” she said. “And I am honored that someone of your background came to visit me.”
“Well, thanks,” I said, ignoring how awkward and condescending that was.
“Anyway,” she said. “As I was saying, I can’t stand that man next door. He’s ruining what little sobriety and dignity remains in the season.”
“With hot dogs?” I asked.
“It’s more than just hot dogs,” she said. “He’s using it to evangelize. He calls it ‘outreach.’ That man has taken something sacred to me and twisted it for himself and his own religion.”
“I can see why you’re upset,” I said. “Is he particularly aggressive about it? Has he tried to evangelize you before?”
“Yes, twice,” she said. “I made it very clear that I’m not interested.”
“How did he react?” I asked.
“He waited six months before trying again,” she answered. “And he’ll probably do it again. People like that never listen.”
“He probably means well,” I said. “But sometimes people don’t think before they act. So, what are you going to do?”
“Do?’ she asked, suddenly affronted. “What do you mean, ‘do?’ I’ll do the same as always – but why are we talking about my neighbors? Weren’t you asking me about the season’s traditions?”
Well, you know,” I said as I polished off the soul cake. “A lot of this is kind of new to me, and I’ve never seen such a fierce rivalry over Halloween before.”
She stopped suddenly and gave me a long, appraising look before rolling her eyes. “Oh goddess, this is because of Jocelyn, isn’t it?”
“What?” I choked a bit on the soul cake.
“I can’t believe this!” Erin threw her hands up into the air. “What did she tell you? What did she ask you to do? She’s been egging us on for years. So spill it. Why are you here?”
“Well,” I tried to brush some of the crumbs off my coat. “She came to me and said that she had this dream where you and the Christian guy got in a lot of trouble, so I kind of had to be a good Samaritan, you know?”
“Oh come on, are you serious?” she snapped at me. “She’s crazy. She’s always gossiping and trying to start shit – sorry, I mean start trouble.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Though I guess I’m not surprised after meeting her.”
“So she hired you?” she asked. “What are you, some kind of professional troublemaker?”
“A private detective, actually,” I said. “And I thought it was worth checking up if there was a neighborhood war going on – for what it’s worth, I’m interested in what you have to say about Samhain.”
“She hired a private detective to start a fight?”
“No, no, to keep one from happening,” I said. “You know how she thinks she has prophetic dreams?”
“Don’t tell me that you believed her.”
“I don’t think she’s a psychic or a prophet,” I said. “But maybe her subconscious picks up on stuff and tries to tell her, like it does for a lot of us. It’s worth taking a look if anybody might be in trouble, you know?”
She sighed. “This is dumb. And stupid. I don’t even really hate Kilraine – his wife and I are best friends. He just annoys me every Halloween and I wish he’d stop, but that’s it. What did she think would happen? Some sort of fight? Do I look like the kind of person who would get in a fight with my neighbor?”
“Nobody really does,” I said. “Not that I think there’s any trouble.”
“You know, I would like it if one person – just one person came by and really wanted to believe. But no, I get a private eye.”
“Hey, I really am interested,” I said. “And after I go talk with Kilraine, maybe I’ll come by again. Truce?”
“There’s nothing to make a truce out of,” she muttered. “Just go and do your thing. I’m not going to hurt my neighbor, except maybe Jocelyn.”
“Be careful, she might dream about it,” I quipped before I left, having somehow acquired another soul cake on my way out.
“Happy Samhain, Ms. Walsh.”
Now it was time to meet the hot dog baron of Hillcrest Ct. The neighborhood party seemed to have wound down as the trick-or-treaters went home. Oh, hey. Aaron. Erin. Wonder if they ever thought about that. But anyway, I approached.
Aaron Kilraine was a big man. Very tall, broad-shouldered, and built like a football player who had just begun to go to seed. Probably somewhere in his forties or fifties, though it was hard to tell. The grill was still hot even though he had shut it down, and the scent of barbecued meat hung strongly in the air. Kilraine had begun to clean up, having just wiped down the condiment table. He knelt as he drained water from a cooler full of soda cans.
“Hi,” I said. “Is this still going on, or am I late?”
He looked up at me and smiled warmly before standing. “There’s plenty of food and always time for one more person.”
“That’s great!” I said. “I was just hanging around the neighborhood and I saw that there were a lot of people here. So, what’s up?”
“It’s a thing we do every Halloween to get to know the neighborhood better,” he said as he lit the grill. “Hot dog? How many can I do ya for?”
“I don’t suppose they’re kosher, are they?” I asked.
Kilraine held up a package of Hebrew National hot dogs. Checkmate.
“I ‘ll take two,” I said. “I shouldn’t, though. I already filled up on soul cakes from one of your neighbors.”
“Yeah, those are really good, aren’t they?” he asked as he put a couple of franks on the grill. “Aaron Kilraine, by the way.”
“Lucy December,” I said. “So, why the barbecue? It doesn’t seem very Halloweeny, you know?”
“It’s great outreach,” he said. “Think about it – this is the one night of the year when people actually go and meet their neighbors. We’ve lost that nowadays – you know how it is, where we reach out to people on the other side of the world but ignore the ones in our own backyard. So here we are, blessed enough to live out here with all this opportunity, so why not use it?”
I paid attention to his word choice – things like ‘blessed’ and ‘outreach’ and the context behind them.
“Yeah, I guess we’re a lot more isolated now than we used to be,” I said. “Kind of a shame. I don’t even know half of my neighbors’ names, and we’re all in the same building.”
“You sound like my congregation,” he said. “Half the church showed up for Mission Sunday, but when I asked about their neighbors they just shrugged.”
“Yeah, ‘Love thy neighbor,’ right?” I asked. “So, is this a church thing?”
“Not officially,” he answered as he took the sausages off the grill. Condiments?”
“Mustard and relish,” I said. “Not officially?”
“This is just something I do,” he said. “And anybody in my church is free to do the same, but we’re not officially organizing it. So, where are you from? I haven’t seen you around here.”
“San Francisco,” I said. “And what church?”
“Grace Life in Concord.” He handed me the hot dogs. “That sounds like quite a drive. Are you here just for the hot dogs?”
“Well, I admit I had some other business in town,” I said.
“And you saw the grill and just couldn’t help yourself? He asked. “So, you’re Jewish?”
“Yup,” I said.
And here we go. They either hated us or fetishized us. One or the other. If I had to bet, I’d guess that he was about to say something really tone-deaf about the Nation of Israel or about how Christians were ‘the true Jews’ or something like that..
“That’s cool,” was what he said, instead. “How’s the hot dog?”
“Pretty good,” I said after taking a bite. “So wait, you’re not gonna invite me to your church or anything?”
“Sure, I’d love to see you there,” he said. “But nobody likes being pushy. And let’s get real – I don’t know who you’ve met before or how Christians have treated you, right?”
He had a point there, though he didn’t realize the extent. I remembered when Christians murdered and expelled my people from England, but also when Christians protected us and brought us back. Shit was complicated sometimes. Of course, if I stepped inside his church I might have caught on fire, so there was that.
“So you’re not evangelizing me with your evangelization outreach?” I asked.
“Well, if you open your Scripture to Isaiah 52,” he winked.
“I think I know where this si going,” I said. “Do you give out tracts with the candy?”
“Nope, that’ll drive people away,” he said. “But we give out full bars. Want any?”
“So,” I said as he promptly handed me a few candy bars. Soul cakes, hot dogs, Snickers – this was turning into the best case ever. “Doing something like this, do you think it offends anybody in the neighborhood? Like, if they feel it’s a little too blatant?”
“Sometimes, sure, but it’s not a majority,” he said. “You have a soul cake, so I guess you went to Erin Walsh’s house first?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess she’s not a huge fan of what you’ve got going on here.”
“Yeah, everybody’s a critic,” he shrugged. “But we get along most of the time.”
“But what about this time of year?” I asked.
He paused. “I mean, I’m not just going to pack up and stop doing this because of one complaint. I couldn’t do that, could I?”
“Nah, probably not,” I shrugged. “But maybe talk with her a little bit? See how you could mend a few fences? Love thy neighbor?”
“You’ve got me there,” he grinned. “That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll get Heather to ask her over for dinner.”
“If you do, don’t try to start a theology debate,” I said. “Just be neighborly, all right?”
“It’s kind of funny how you just came out of nowhere with good advice, Ms.,” he said as he began to turn the grill off and brush it down. “Did Ms. Walsh hire you or something?”
“Ha, no,” I said. “Evers, actually. She thinks that you guys are going to kill each other, and asked me to check up on you. Honestly, you all seem fine.”
“Jocelyn,” the pastor muttered under his breath. “That piece of–”
“Hey, dad!” a teenage boy popped out from the front door. “Broncos and Jaguars just started!”
“I’ll be there in a second,” Aaron said to his son. “Just pause it for me, ‘k?”
“Okay, Dad!” the kid vanished.
“Do you want to come in?” he asked. “We’ve got football, dinner, and a very large family.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I should go have a chat with your other neighbor first, and then maybe Jocelyn Evers. Don’t forget to invite Erin, okay?”
“All right, I will,” he said before another family member came out from the door. A small lady (roughly my size) stepped out and smiled.
“Invite Erin? Okay! I’m going to turn the orange lights off first – is that okay, honey?”
“Yeah, Heather, that’s fine,” he said. “We’ll set a couple of extra places in case our – what was your name again?”
“Lucy December,” I said.
“Our new friend here Miss December wants more than just a couple of hot dogs.”
“All right,” Heather said. “I’ll head over right now. With a gift!”
Somehow she had already gotten a plate of muffins to offer Erin Walsh. Heather Kilraine and Sarah Fielding could take notes from each other.
“I’ll leave you guys to it,” I said. “Just gonna go check on Mrs. Hannock, okay?”
“Have a great Halloween, Miss Lucy,” Aaron Kilraine handed me a few more candy bars before I could leave. Somehow heather added a muffin to the armload, as well. I went back to my car to deposit all the goodies before returning to the third house on my list, the final household that Jocelyn Evers had warned me about. I approached the door of the pleasant little house and knocked.
Karen Hannock. If the other two neighbors were more-or-less at peace, what would I fint at her house? Bomb ingredients and the Anarchist’s Cookbook? A suspicious collection of knives? A carton of Hot Wheels, still in their original packaging?
No, what I encountered was a little old lady. Like, one who actually looked old. Wore-a-shawl-and-sipped-tea old. And as I stood on her front porch and she greeted me, I half-expected her to hand me one of those hard butterscotch candies that nobody liked.
“Hello?” she asked. “You look a little old for a trick-or-treater, dearie.”
I looked her in the eye because we were the exact same height. “Well, I won’t turn down free candy,” I said. “Mrs. Karen Hannock?”
“Yes, ma’am?” she asked with a light Irish accent and the most wonderful smile that made me want to hug her and become an unofficial granddaughter. Even though I was centuries older.
“My name’s Lucy,” I said. “Do you mind if I come in? I have a few questions for you – nobody’s in trouble, I swear.”
“Oh, dear, is everything all right?” she asked.
“Honestly, it’s kind of funny,” I said. “But don’t worry, no one’s hurt.”
“Well, do come in,” Mrs. Hannock said as she stepped inside and away from the door to allow me into her house. I crossed the threshold.
Wham. There was a two-foot-tall bronze crucifix affixed above the doorjamb. Its effect was lessened by my invitation, but it still hit like a sledgehammer. Wow. As for the rest of the house, it was exactly what one would expect from this kind of lady. Lace doilies, comfy furniture, a nice area rug, and even a dining room table fully-set with cloth napkins and all the appropriate forks.
“Are you okay, dearie?” she asked with some concern.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Maybe I had one too many hot dogs at Kilraine’s. Sorry.”
“Well, I suppose that happens,” Mrs. Hannock said. “Would you like some tea, dear?”
“Of course,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
“Please make yourself at home,” she said as she shuffled off to the kitchen. “Now, you made it sound like there’s some trouble – has something been going on?”
“You know, I don’t think there really is a problem,” I said as I settled into a comfy chair. “Just neighbors doing neighbor things. Do you know Jocelyn Evers very well?”
“Oh, Jocelyn?” the old woman said from the kitchen. “She’s a dear heart. A little batty, but who isn’t?”
“I know I’m a little batty,” I said as I inwardly laughed at my own joke. Honestly, Jocelyn was right at least about one thing – Karen Hannock was definitely Catholic. My first hint was the giant crucifix. My second hint was also the giant crucifix. I felt a lot more comfortable now, though – the cross didn’t seem to be harming me too much now that I was inside. Usually it had at least a mild effect, usually more in the home of a faithful person. Perhaps her hospitality had an effect?
“Is she in any trouble?” Karen ask as she returned with two steaming cups of tea. “I do hope she’s all right.”
“Oh no, no trouble,” I said as I accepted the hot mug of hospitality. “But she seems to think that there’s trouble elsewhere. That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh, are you a professional trouble-solver, my dear?” she asked as she took a seat in the comfy chair nearest me.. “Or perhaps a counselor?”
“I’m a detective, actually,” I said.
“Oh dear, a detective? Has somebody committed a crime?” she asked.
I chuckled. “No, I think she just wanted me to poke my nose in and ask around.”
“Well, that’s very silly,” Hannock laughed. “What was the problem, if I may ask?”
“Well, do you know Aaron Kilraine and Erin Walsh?” I asked.
“I should certainly hope so, as they live on both sides of me” she said. “Very nice people, if a little odd.”
“Would you say that they get along?” I asked.
“Oh yes, they get along quite well most of the time,” she said. “Just not on Halloween, or Christmas, or Easter, or Thanksgiving, or New Years, or any of the Solstices, those poor things.”
“Well, I guess that’s a pattern,” I said.
The old lady laughed. “Nobody is in any danger, dearie. Why would they be? They have their silly little rivalry and snipe at each other, but what damage does it do?”
“Well, Jocelyn seems to think it’s a lot of damage,” I said as I sipped at the warm, pleasant tea.
“She thinks that everything is trouble,” Karen said dismissively. “Sometimes it’s best to ignore, do you know?”
“Oh, I understand,” I said, looking around the living room again. This really was nice – and you know, the massive crucifix wasn’t bothering me so much now. I could almost ignore it.
“This is a very pleasant neighborhood,” Karen said.
“I’m a little curious,” I asked. “And I know it’s probably a coincidence, but is this an entirely Irish neighborhood?”
“Dear, I’m the only Irish person on this block,” Karen said with a pleasant laugh. “Well, the only Irish-born. The others are all second or third generation. But I’ve been here for a long time, so I suppose it’s moot.”
“I understand that,” I said. I thought of myself as American, after all, despite predating that country.
“I would love to go back someday,” she said wistfully. “But it’s just changed so much. Even before the Troubles, you know. People are always fighting, always in strife. It’s like they’ve forgotten their roots.
“Isn’t that the same everywhere?” I asked.
“But we were more accepting in the past, dearie,” she said. “Did you know that when the rest of the world was oppressing and expelling the Jews, it was the Irish who took them in and gave them sanctuary?”
“You know, I had heard that,” I said. I had actually lived it. A little odd that Karen had brought up something so on the nose like that.
“In fact, and few people know this, but Ireland was once a truly open land. A great people of culture, of kindness, of oneness with the world around them. I do suppose my old home still has a large piece of my heart, though I also love this little street as well.”
“I guess we all leave little pieces of ourselves wherever we go,” I agreed with her. “And we pick up little things from everywhere we call home.”
“Oh yes, of course,” she smiled to me. “But it’s important to have strong ties to your home and your faith, wouldn’t you agree?”
Something about what she said got me to look at that crucifix again. I wasn’t feeling any pain or even a little bit of heat. This wasn’t right. No matter how warm the invitation, a holy symbol like that would always cause a little discomfort. And yet there was none aside from that initial shock I felt coming in.
“Oh, I agree,” I said. “And the Irish really have always been the kindest – unless you’re a snake, of course.”
She recognized the joke and laughed along with me. “There never were any snakes on the Emerald Isle,” Karen said. “That was just a metaphor.”
“For the Druids, right?” I asked.
“For the Druids, pagans,” she answered me. “Fair Folk, Fomors, demons, and whatever else the Christians wanted to get rid of. You know how it is.”
“Oh yeah, I do,” I said. If the statement about the Jews was odd, this one was even weirder.
“Of course, of course.” She laughed and it was so infectious that I almost joined in, but this whole situation was getting to me. Her choice of words, the crucifix – a different feeling was forming in the back of my mind. I realized that there was no faith attached to that crucifix. None at all. What I had felt when I entered Karen Hannock’s home wasn’t based on her faith at all. It was because I had entered the domain of a great supernatural power. Even with the invitation, there I had been invited, but power was power.
“It sounds like you know a lot about your homeland,” I said. Did she know that I knew? Did she know what I was? “It sounds like you really love Ireland a lot.”
“Oh, I do,” she said with a wistful sigh. “But I love my home here, too. I love it so very much on this little street. I may not have been here long, but I feel ownership and comfort with this tiny little street. I’d do anything to keep it safe.”
“That’s the way it should be,” I said as warning bells went off in my head.
“In fact,” Karen set her tea mug down on an end table. “I’m going to kill both of my neighbors so they stop disturbing the peace.”
I stood to my feet – after carefully setting my own mug down, of course.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised,” Karen Hannock said as she also stood, the little old lady now taller than myself. “I knew what you were as soon as you parked your car down the street. I’m sure you’ve figured out what I am, as well.”
“Honestly, I have no idea who you are,” I said. I was unarmed and in her lair. This wasn’t my best moment.
“My name is Caorthannach,” she said. “And I hate to do this, but I need to hear you say my name out loud. Most everybody mispronounces it.”
“Queer-hannock?” I tried.
“Close enough,” she said.
Oh. Karen Hannock. Very witty.
“That’s right, dearie,” she said, and gave me a sweet, friendly, old-lady smile that didn’t touch her now-fiery eyes. “Before mankind set foot on the island, I was there. I am Fire-Spitter, Mother of Devils, Queen of Ash and Smoke.”
“Mother of devils?” I asked. Maybe I could throw a mug at her head if she got distracted. Maybe she had knives in the kitchen.
“Well, that’s what they called me,” she said with a wry chuckle. “Monsters, demons, fomors – all called me mother at one time or another. Long, long ago before that son of a Roman slave came.”
“St. Patrick?” I asked. There was an umbrella way off in the corner. Maybe I could use that as a weapon. Sure.
“If he had been no more than a missionary, I would not have minded,” she said wistfully as she began to take steps toward the front door. “If he had brought only his faith, I would have allowed him to make a few converts here and there. If he had bowed and shown proper fealty, of course. But he did not. He disrespected me and my kingdom. And do you know what I did?”
“I honestly don’t know much about St. Patrick,” I said as I began to inch my way towards the kitchen.
Caorthannach spat a ball of fire at me. I jumped out of the way with a shout of “Eek!” as it splattered against the wall, spraying burning poison sludge everywhere.
“Don’t try it, dear,” Caorthannach said. “I challenged Patrick and he fought me. We battled for days from one end of the island to the other, from the highest mountains to the deepest valleys. I spat my burning venom into the wells of the land to kill him with thirst, but he prayed to his god and found the strength to cleanse them all. That man was given the strength to defeat me, to seal me in the deepest caverns beneath Ireland, where I slept for untold centuries. The unity of the land was the lock to my prison, but when the Troubles came, they weakened my bonds enough to set me free.”
“Cool story,” I said. “And thanks for the tea. Fun time was had by all. So let’s cap off a pleasant evening by not murdering your neighbors, all right? Sound cool?”
“But when I awoke, the land was no longer my home,” she completely ignored me. Caorthannach’s form began to shift and change, her mouth growing too wide for her face as her skin crackled and darkened to charred meat. “I felt myself drawn here, halfway across the world, for reasons I could not understand. There is something in the air, a sort of concentration of power – surely you have sensed it, as well? But now that I live here, I know what I need to do.”
Claws. She had grown burning claws. Kind of clashed with the sweet granny look.
“And what do you need to do now?’ I asked. Maybe I could punch her. She looked old. She could be frail.
“Retake Halloween,” Caorthannach said. “Or Samhain, or whatever people want to call it. It really doesn’t matter. I will begin with this neighborhood, this small community. These people claim to be Irish, but look at them. The Walsh woman plays at deep magic, but knows nothing.”
“I don’t know, she seemed nice,” I said. Maybe I could throw a chair at her. Yeah, sure.
“They all seem very ‘nice,’” Caorthannach said. “But they are nothing. And the Kilraines don’t even have the decency to be Catholic! What sort of irish Christian does he think he is? He has no idea of the heritage of his own homeland! Tonight, I will end them while they dine under the same roof. From here, my terror shall grow like the roots of a strong tree, and it will bring burning flames as it spreads.”
Caorthannach shed the rest of her human form, letting it burn and flake away. Standing before me was a gaunt and skeletal figure, flames licking the charred flesh wrapped tightly around her bones. A pair of tattered and ashy wings unfolded, streaked through with a magma glow. Her fangs dripped the same burning toxicity which she had just spat moments before.
“Cool plan, but I like mine better,” I said. “We go and try some of Aaron’s hot dogs, maybe debate Erin on religion, and ignore Jocelyn for a bit. I bet you could barbecue one of 8those sausages all by yourself!”
The flaming skeleton monster laughed. Genuinely, even.
“I like you,” Caorthannach said. “I don’t want to kill you, but I need to get you out of the way.”
“Well,” I said, and took a careful step forward, focusing on the situation, waiting for her to lower her guard. “Like I said, we could just call the whole thing off. Love thy neighbor and everything.”
Caorthannach spat fire at my feet, forcing me to leap back as it burst on the floor, lighting the area rug ablaze.
“That was a nice rug!” I shouted.
“I can get another one.” Caorthannach reached above her door and removed the bronze crucifix, then drove it into the floor right at the threshold. I could feel the power of her domain settle around the borders of the house, now infused with an extra layer of holiness from the formerly-dormant artifact..
“Stay put,” she said, opening her front door. “Make yourself at home, dearie.”
I jumped over the fire and tried to run after Caorthannach as she left the building, only to hit an invisible barrier that felt like an electric shock and knocked me on my ass. The bronze crucifix gleamed at me mockingly.
Outside, the fiery demon approached Aaron Kilraine’s house.
“Kilraine! Walsh!” she shouted. “I have come for you! Face your deaths without fear!”
I threw my coat over the burning rug to smother the fire before it could spread. And then I scrambled, running around the house to look for another exit. Caorthannach’s voice echoed as I searched.
“I am Caorthannach! Mother of Devils! Firespitter! I am your doom!”
The crucifix powering the house’s threshold was too strong. Even the windows kept me out, trapped inside this house by raw supernatural energy mixed with untyped holiness. I went into the kitchen next, looking for anything I could use in a counter-ritual – salt, powdered silver, candles, whatever I could get.
“Your deaths shall be just the beginning! Fire and blood will rain from the heavens!”
Screw that. Even if I had the ingredients, there was no time to do more than draw a circle. I could feel time running out as Caorthannach made her speech, but that crucifix stood strong. I couldn’t even hope to touch it without burning myself to a crisp. So what choice did I have?
“The police will not help you! Your god will not save you! You and your children will burn!”
Caorthannach was still visible out the window, tantalizingly close yet out of reach. I had to find a way out. Had to think of something. That damned crucifix, gleaming at me. There had to be a way to move it. I threw a handful of salt at it out of frustration, but nothing happened.
“Your corpses shall burn like incense!”
Aaron Kilraine’s front door opened as he and Erin Walsh stepped out into the driveway. He stood in front, as if attempting to shield her.
I looked away from the crucifix, coincidentally toward Caorthannach’s dining room table. Wait. The place settings. More importantly, the napkins. I ran to the table and wrapped my hands in cloth, padding them as much as I could. Then I dashed back to the crucifix planted into the floor. The heat of its holiness powering the threshold felt like a blast furnace, but I was able to grab it with my hands. Pain coursed even through the wrapped napkins, but I was able to stand it enough to wrench the object free, the wooden floor splintering underneath. I felt the magical barrier fizzle.
Although the pain was blinding, I spun around, swinging the massive crucifix in my arms as I gained momentum to hammer-throw it through Caorthannach’s front window directly at the monster on the lawn.
“Tonight you die, mortals!” she said. “Now you will taste the wrath of Caor-”
The flying cross beaned her in the head and she fell over with a squawk. I ran and hurled myself through the window, crashing through the glass and tumbling onto the ground. I rolled, using my momentum to gather my legs underneath myself and spring, aiming to tackle Caorthannach. She had just begun to get up when I landed on her, sending us both down into the lawn. I used my moment of surprise to try to pin her arm behind her back, stressing the shoulder while crushing one of her wings to the ground.
Caorthannach regained her bearings and twisted to free her arm from my grasp. She backhanded me in the face before I could react and stood, spewing flaming venom from her mouth. I nearly lost my entire grip on her but held on the only way that a tiny person like myself could: By becoming a spider monkey. I wrapped both legs around Caorthannach’s waist and shifted my weight, forcing her down to her knees. She tried to buck me off, but I threw my arms around her neck and forced her in a sleeper hold.
Caorthannach threw herself back against the ground hard enough to jar me and allow her to elbow me in the gut, knocking me off. I hooked a foot around her ankle as she tried to scramble away and forced her to stumble. She landed hard, but turned and sat up to glare at me.
“How did you get free?” she asked.
I leapt onto Caorthannach pinned her to the ground, and started punching her in the face.
“You underestimated the power of napkin hands!” I declared, the cloth protecting my knuckles as I pummeled her.
“What’s happening?” Erin Walsh asked. I had almost forgotten that they were our audience.
“Can’t talk!” I said. “Busy punching!”
Caorthannach began to spew flaming venom again, spraying fiery ooze that lit my napkin-padded hands on fire. I squeaked and pulled back, hastily stripping off the napkins and trying to smother the fire in my coat, which gave her the chance to kick me off from her. I landed on the ground just as Caorthannach stood.
“What are you?” Aaron Kilraine asked.
“I am–” Caorthannach began to say before I tackled her again, sending us both to the ground. She tried to spit another ball of fire point-blank, but I headbutted her in the chin.
“Come on, Caorthannach,” I said as I tried to grapple her again. “You don’t have to do this. Let’s go b ack inside. Get another cup of tea.”
“Are you always so polite to monsters?” she asked and swiped at me with her claws, slicing up my temple. It hurt, but I was a vampire.
“So what? We’re all monsters here,” I shoved my elbow down on her throat and tried to choke her out again.
Jocelyn Evers approached, pointing as she wandered toward us down the street.
“Do you see?” she shouted. “I knew it! I told you I have prophetic dreams! Do you believe me now?”
“Shut up!” Caorthannach shouted as she shoved my elbow from her throat.
“Not the time! Read the room!” I shouted as I tried to get a grip on Caorthannach again.
“Do something!” Erin said to Aaron. “We have to help!”
“I’m fine!” I said. “I’ve got the situation under control!”
Caorthannach raked her claws across my back, tearing into my coat. She rolled and slammed me to the ground, pinning me as she prepared to spew fire into my face. I let go with my arms to punch her in the chin, snapping her head back as burning venom spewed from her now-closed mouth. She staggered back and off me, on her feet but stunned. This gave me the time to leap, wrap my arms around her waist, and suplex her back and down, slamming the Mother of Devils headfirst into the ground. Nobody expected the suplex.
So I sat on her, and the fight lost all its momentum.
“Why are you doing this?” Caorthannach asked. “Why are you fighting for them?”
“The real question is, why are you trying to kill them?” I asked.
“Do not try to turn the subject on me,” she said. “And I told you. Their petty squabbling destroys the unity of this neighborhood and disrespects the festival of spirits. Their shed blood will begin a new age, and I will regain my former glory and establish a new reign of terror!”
I patted her gently on the forehead. “There, there.”
“I am Caorthannach,” she hissed. “None shall forget my name.”
“Meh,” I said. “People and places change. You said so yourself. Murdering a few innocent human beings isn’t going to get you anything, Caorthannach. You don’t rule anymore, and there’s no way you ever will again. So you have to look at yourself and ask what else you’ve got.”
She snarled, but she didn’t spit flames or try to claw me. I wiped the blood from my face with my sleeve, and kept talking.
“Because I’m seeing something else,” I said. “When I met you a few minutes ago, you wore a mask. How long have you been wearing it? How long have you been pretending to be a sweet, generous old lady? I know you haven’t been on this street for long, but you’ve been wandering for a while. You said yourself that this community has a piece of your heart – why here, why now?”
She tried to struggle to throw me off, but it was a half-hearted effort and I had no trouble staying put.
“Well?” I asked. “You’re supposed to be this horrible, vicious fiery devil, but you’ve been holding back the whole fight. In fact, you could’ve killed those two at any moment, but you sat there being theatrical for so long I had to wonder. Did you really want to do it?”
She thrashed once underneath me, but the effort was half-hearted again.
“You didn’t even take a pot shot at those two after the fight started,” I said. “Kind of curious, don’t you think?”
“What is that monster?” Jocelyn Evers pipped in. “Quick! Kill it before it gets back up!”
“Shut up, Jocelyn,” I said. “I’m doing what you paid me to do.”
“So why aren’t you?” Caorthannach asked.
“Wait, is that Karen?” Kilraine asked.
I nodded to him but then answered Caorthannach.
“Because I don’t think you really want to kill anybody,” I said to her. “How did you lock me in your house? You used a crucifix. That wouldn’t have been effective at all without a little bit of faith behind it.”
She finally pushed hard enough to dislodge me, though I just hopped up to my feet instead of falling off. I offered my hand to help Caorthannach up, who gave it a very confused look.
“The thing is, Caorthannach,” I said. “I don’t think your human disguise is just a disguise anymore. I think you’ve become the mask. Now come on, let’s get back up and put this all behind us.”
“You know I can’t,” she said.
“Actually, I think you can,” I countered.
The Queen of Ash took my hand and let me help her to her feet. She shrank suddenly, wings vanishing and eyes dimming as the horrific burning skeleton monster became a little old lady again.
“What am I now?” she asked me. “I’m so lost.”
“You’re Caorthannach,” I said. “You’re also Karen Hannock. You’re part of this community, remember? And now that your secret’s out, I guess your neighbors have some motivation to get to know you better.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Aaron said. “What are we looking at? What are you?”
“Is that dinner invitation still open?” I asked. “Because I think there’s a lot that needs to be discussed tonight.”
“I don’t know,” he said, and I didn’t blame him for the fear.
“Just do it,” Erin Walsh said. “I don’t understand what’s going on, either.”
“What matters now is community,” I said. “Erin, for you Samhain is a solemn celebration of your roots. Aaron, for you it’s a chance to reach out to the community and get to know your neighbors. And Caorthannach – Karen – it’s up to you to decide what this season is for you. But you said that this street has a piece of your heart, so maybe it’s time to truly get to know your neighbors. You can figure out how you’ll celebrate this season without arguing, can’t you? Just communicate a little bit? Now come on, let’s go inside. All of us.”
I looked to Karen Hannock again, and the old lady finally smiled. “I think a shared dinner among neighbors sounds wonderful, dears.”
As I began to lead them back to the Kilraine house, Jocelyn Evers approached.
“Did you just talk a monster down?” she asked. “See, I knew you were the right person to hire. I told you that I have dreams about this kind of thing! People really need to listen to me, you know? They never listen. Now, if people would only listen to me, they’d just–”
“Jocelyn,” Kilraine said. “Come on, you’re invited too.”
“Oh!” she looked shocked. “Oh, thank you.”
I accompanied all of them back to the house where we had the strangest Halloween dinner that anybody, much less this neighborhood, had ever seen. But it was nice, really. Nice to see that family and community were still the strongest forces on Earth. Even ancient monsters like us had to agree.