Reba shuddered as the emanation in the house prodded at her, a touch on her mind that echoed the cold and greasy feel of the ritual candle in her hand. In the corner of her vision, the home’s owners clung to each other at the open door, their eyes wide with horror. They were helpless bystanders in this mess and she would be better off to get them out before this went much further.
Closing her eyes, she visualised the symbols she’d been taught, keys to the walls around her mind’s senses, each one a powerful yet entirely imaginary defence. Mental tricks, Abraham had called them, laughing but deadly serious at the same time. What belief upheld was as strong on the astral plane as stone and steel here on the physical one. The walls were effective at keeping out inimical influences and took no concentration or energy from her. As she removed them, the prodding grew more agitated and her skin goosefleshed as cold swirled around the room.
She let it come closer, examining the emotions clumsily wielded against her. It held no malice, she realized. There was malice in the house, buried deep, seeping out somehow to kill the lawn outside, sicken the trees and soil, an evil concentrated like she’d never felt before, but this spirit wasn’t a part of that. Unhappiness, yearning and something like shame…or guilt…was what she could separate. Was it Tremalyn?
Taking her lighter from her coat pocket, she flicked the sparker and dipped the wick into the flame. Scent filled the room — oils and dried herbs and powdered bone and wood and stone suspended in the beeswax — along with a sigh of warmth.
Reba opened her eyes. The room was clean, the shade gone. For now, at least, she amended. She turned around.
“Pack up everything you have of value,” she told the frightened man and woman, her gaze on the woman’s face. “This is going to take some time and you and your children will be safer elsewhere.”
Hardwick opened his mouth. With the cessation of the cold spots and the tingling energy gone from the room, his fear seemed to dissipate more rapidly than his wife’s. Angela Hardwick shook her head before he could speak, her hand clamping around his arm as she pushed him out the door. The comment about her children would ensure they left.
Drawing in a deep breath, Reba looked around the living room. With the late afternoon sun slanting in through the windows, it appeared ordinary and welcoming: a family room, toys still scattered across the rug in front of the hearth. But her experiences of this world suggested appearances were deceptive, more often than not.
For a moment, her thoughts returned to her home, a sanctuary of peace and protection on the other side of the country. She shook off the longing to be there.
With the ability to do the job, comes the responsibility to see it gets done, Abraham’s gravelly voice was a reminder she didn’t need.
She dropped to one knee and opened the worn duffel bag at her feet, pulling out the electro-magnetic field gauge and the small silk bag of crystals. She was aware of the crying and arguing several rooms away. It was never easy to leave one’s home in the hands of a stranger, no matter how terrifying it might have become.
The file on the house had been brief but clear. Three people had died violently here, over the course of the past fifty years, not much of a record for an abode a hundred years old. Two had been laid to rest. The last, the previous owner, had been a psychic investigator. Jonathan Tremalyn. That information had come as a surprise.
Getting to her feet, she flicked the EMF on and quickly dialed down the volume when a high-pitched squeal erupted from the small speaker. The gauge’s needle was flat to the right.
— Three that are known —
Her gaze jerked up, knowing what she’d see even before the echo appeared.
Thin and tall, a man materialized in front of her, between the long couch and the doorway. His head was thrown back, tendons in his neck standing out, mouth open in a soundless wail. In his arms, the limp form of a child, skin too pale between the ugly pools and welts of bruising.
He ran for the door and was stopped, with sufficient force for the child to be flung from his arms, through the open doorway and into the hall. Reba watched as he clawed at the air, his head snapping left then right as invisible hands yanked at his hair. His shoes began to smoke, his body to shudder, then his head was twisted around, eyes blank with shocked astonishment before he dropped to the floor and disappeared.
A glance at the EMF showed the needle returning slowing to the center. She set the gauge carefully down on the arm of the couch.
That much strength was rare, and even more rarely capable of direction. The killing had been deliberate, controlled. Freeing the drawstring that held the silk bag closed, she pulled out three of the multifaceted crystals and walked slowly around the room, setting one against the external east wall, a second against the external south wall and the third on the floor, where the man had died.
The crystals sang together, a single high A. None sat in the afternoon light, but light flashed from them, leaving a bright triangle burning against Reba’s retinas even as the light died away.
Jonathon and Karen Tremalyn. A husband-and-wife team who’d begun investigating paranormal events in college. Reba frowned, dredging the details from her memory of the file, as she picked up the EMF and headed for the door.
The study of the paranormal, the supernatural, the mish-mash of beliefs, faith, wishful thinking, actual phenomena and a slew of quasi-related subjects rose and fell in popularity from the Dark Ages. Magicians and alchemists, sorcerers and mediums, clairvoyants and fakirs and curses. The most recent resurrection in interest had overlapped the sixties and seventies, further entangled in experimentation with mind-altering substances and enthusiasm for meditation and yogic practice. Psychic phenomena had been intertwined with Christian mythology for two thousand years, but demonology wasn’t transferred to laboratory conditions until a best-selling novel suggested the time was right.
At the front door, a small mound of suitcases cluttered the hallway. Ignoring them, Reba turned to the back of the house, her attention darting between the EMF in her hand and her surroundings. Her teeth were aching, an indication of a very low frequency hum. She’d already checked county records and done a walk around. There were no power lines or even underground lines near the house.
She turned back, resisting the desire to grimace as the low frequency hum traveled from jaw into her eye sockets.
“How long — ?” Mr. Hardwick asked.
“I’ll call when it’s over,” she told him.
Mrs. Hardwick held the hands of her two young children. “Come on, Ted.”
Gathering up the suitcases and bags with reluctance, Hardwick shuffled out the door after his wife. Reba waited until she heard the car start and roll down the driveway before she walked to the front door and shut it.
“Just you and me now.”
That Tremalyn had been killed in the living room gave her a place to start.
Pushing the furniture back against the walls, she concentrated on her breathing, working steadily but not fast enough to raise perspiration. The less of her physical presence the house had, the less it had to work on. She walked to her bag and unpacked it, setting out her equipment around her carefully.
Bowls of vinegar, salt, iron filings and powdered quartz went to the corners of the room. She drew two large circles, one within the other on the hardwood floor, with a paste made fresh the day before. Between the circles, the sigils of the protectors were strengthened with candles set next to each one, the flames converting wax and air and heat to energy. In the centre, the pentacle, balanced between elemental and soul, was drawn out with a different paste, one that contained her blood.
All things require connection — of flesh, of mind, of intent.
Reba’s expression softened as she added the symbolic names of the Guardians to the innermost circle in the pentacle.
Magic is belief. Faith so powerful it can change the material.
After so many years of practice, the protections were complete in less than fifteen minutes, cameras, gauges, reactive crystals and liquids arranged in their places, her laptop and remote screens assembled on the coffee table inside the circles.
A flash of a film returned to her, twitching her lips into a reluctant smile. We believe this is the heart of the house, the earnest investigator had said. This house has many hearts, returned the diminutive medium.
Heart was a misnomer. Entry was closer to reality. People opened doors all the time, mostly not even realizing they were doing so and rarely understanding the need for those doors to be closed and sealed shut.
Taking the paste, she dipped her finger and dabbed a spot on her forehead. It wouldn’t afford much protection, perhaps a second or two warning at best. A second or two, however, often meant the difference between living and dying. She picked up the EMF and a thermal gauge, and the silk bag of crystals, pushing them into her coat pockets. To one side of the coffee table pressed into use as a console, a small pile of hand-stitched bags exuded a variety of odors into the air, their dull coverings made gay with complicated knotted strings. Reba gathered them up, her fingertips slipping over the knots, each knot a precise description of what the bags contained.
She paused at the hallway door and pulled out the EMF. The needle hovered midway along its range and she turned up the volume until she could hear a faint tone. As useful as warnings were, they could also be a distraction at the wrong moment. The file had given the blueprints of the house and she turned left, following the hall to the back of the house.
The hallway had three doors. To either side, two were closed, possibly a dining room and den or study. The third, at the end, opened into a large, pleasant kitchen. The EMF, even muted, shrilled in her pocket as she passed through the doorway.
A fast scan of the room presented layout and detail. Stove and sink with cupboards above took up one wall. A fridge and wall-hung cupboards high and low took up another, a door with a small window suggesting rear entrance. In the third, long wall, freestanding cupboards took up most of the space, another door in the corner.
She took another step into the room and the temperature dropped sharply, cold prickling on her exposed skin, her breath freezing.
In the drawers of the cupboards along the walls, the contents began to rattle, silverware and utensils jingling together.
She swore under her breath at her failure as energy crackled in the confined space, raising the hairs along her arms and tingling along her scalp, burning her forehead through the dab of paste there.
Not mindless at all. The booby trap tasted like human intelligence, but she couldn’t be sure of that. Under her, there was a power sink and belatedly, she realised what had to be there.
She ran for the basement door, drawers and doors jumping open and crashing behind her, the sinister metallic roar spilling onto the floor. The door burst into flame and she flinched back, registering the lack of heat a second later and reaching for the knob. Across the kitchen, a drawer sprang out, geysering long knives onto the polished boards. From the corner of her eye, she saw a carving knife rise into the air as she twisted the knob and pulled the door open, swinging herself through and yanking the door closed to hear a heavy thunk from the other side while she teetered at the top of the basement stairs. Another horror film scene, one comedic in tone.
Keep your mind clear. Abraham’s voice was suddenly loud in her head. Malignant forces will use whatever they can to shock and terrify. Don’t give them ammunition.
Reba steadied herself on the stair rail, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She had memories of a dozen films that could provide the sort of sideshow that might end up fatal. Focusing on her breathing, she wrapped them up in layers of black and pushed them to the back of her mind.
No more distractions.
In her pocket, both gauges had fallen silent. She felt for a light switch along the door jamb, and swallowed her surprise when she found it, the loud click delivering light from several bulbs strung down the stairs and below. The air smelled clear, free of the usual musty basement smells. It was dry too, she thought, as she descended the stairs.
Unfinished, but with a level concrete floor, the basement took up almost the whole area of the house above. The original joists had been kept clear, wiring stapled neatly along one side, plumbing running on the other. A washing machine and dryer stood against one wall, next to a double metal sink. Deep, commercial-styled metal shelving lined most of the other walls, holding the miscellanea of objects households seemed to acquire without effort. Cans of paint, tool boxes, sporting equipment, moving cartons, storage chests. Nothing looked disturbed and, she realized, on a closer look, nothing was particularly dusty.
Walking slowly around the space, she couldn’t see anything that might account for the activity in the house and the gauges remained almost stubbornly silent. She stopped in the center and closed her eyes, listening.
Her perceptions sharpened, incrementally. There was something there, prickling at the edges of consciousness, but it was muffled. Deadened by layers of protection? Opening her eyes, she stepped closer to the shelving and pushed the boxes it held to either side.
The lines on the wall behind the shelves were continuous but faint and difficult to see. They were not straight, moving up and down the wall by as much as nine or ten inches, and peppered above and below with groupings of dots. It took a minute of studying them to recall why they looked vaguely familiar and where she’d seen them before.
Continuous shapes and lines can be binding. Rare to require that level of protection but if the circumstances allowed for it, it could be an effective way to keep something in — or out.
Reba returned to the stairs. From the doorway above, the lines had been drawn in groups down the walls, from ceiling to floor. Three, six, one, five and seven. Each group had its own pattern of dots, the numbers representing everything from angels to elementals.
It explained the lack of activity in the basement. It didn’t explain the activity in the kitchen, and the rest of the house.
She glanced up. The kitchen was not over the basement area.
They couldn’t have been that stupid, she thought, hurrying around the bottom of the stairs to look at the foundation wall behind them. All that time investigating psychic phenomena, all those demon cases?
Beneath and behind the stairs, the roughly plastered section gave her a location. Even in the shadow, the door wasn’t hard to find. She crossed the basement and pulled a hammer from a toolbox on the shelf, and returned to the wall. Several hard taps cracked the covering plaster.
Reba held her hand out to the thick wooden door. At a distance of an inch from the surface, her fingers tingled then went numb. The flat iron plate of the lock was empty. Something whispered around her, tempting her to lift the small pendulum that hid the keyhole.
She cleared the plaster. Over the length and breadth of the door, sigils and circles were interwoven in a dried, dark liquid. The plaster would have reduced their efficacy as soon as it dried. Staring at the door, she shook her head.
She’d need a trap, big enough to cover the gap of the door, and to continue the lines of protection surrounding the room. She ticked off the needed items, some upstairs, some in the trunk of her car as she studied the door.
What had they been trying to keep in? And why had they trapped whatever it was under their own home?
Reba knelt on the floor, careful to remain completely within the gold wire circle at the left of the trap and checked off her precautionary measures. Plumes of smoke curled up from the braziers, scenting the basement in an unbreathable miasma. Scratched into the stone and cement wall surrounding the doorway and the doorjambs themselves, binding seals connected the trap to the existing protection. It wasn’t perfect, she knew. How well it held would depend on what was in the room behind the door.
She got to her feet and drew in a breath, almost stumbling as she registered the long, ornate key now sticking out of the lock.
It hadn’t been there before. The slender pendulum that had covered the keyhole was raised now, resting against the side of the key.
Illusion? Possibly, she decided. But it didn’t matter. Either the trap would hold, in which case she still needed to get into the room…or it wouldn’t, likely resulting in her immediate and painful death. Hesitating wasn’t going to improve the odds either way.
The key was cold, the metal clinging to her skin as she gripped it and turned.
Boom. Boom. BOOM. BOOM!
The lock’s tumblers rolled, the noise shaking dust from the stair treads above her. Letting go of the key, Reba raised her chin and stepped back as the door swung toward her, into the room, the light from the candles and braziers creeping a little past the threshold, illuminating nothing.
A second later, the flames bowed as a rush of cold air blew past her and hit the wall of the trap. The smoke thickened, its upward rise slowing, her eyes stinging as it enveloped her. She felt the brush of malevolence, like the sinewy touch of a snake against her skin, then it was gone. The curling tendrils of smoke thinned out, the candle flames stood tall and steady again.
In the center of the trap, three crystals flared briefly, the light dying in the quartz and topaz, remaining in the third. The obsidian burned, casting oddly-shaped shadows on the concrete. Reba’s gaze flicked up.
The room held only normal darkness now. She straightened and stepped out of the protective circle with care, leaning on the doorjamb to reach for the light switch.
Ordinary incandescent light filled the room, several high wattage bulbs set neatly against the ceiling. The height and even coverage illuminated everything, even in the densely packed space.
Reba let out a slow breath as she looked into and around the room.
Along every wall and in two rows down the centre, seven foot high shelving was filled to overflowing with items. Objects, both ostensibly ordinary and clearly extraordinary: musical instruments and paintings, clothing and steamer trunks, books stacked and piled, giving off both the desiccated scent of old paper and a prickling sense of unease. She wrinkled her nose at the sight of the dolls, propped against each other: ceramic, glass, wooden and fabric, brightly painted eyes gazing blankly at her. Beside them, a number of innocuous-looking toys, teddies and trains and windups, none of which looked quite right.
The room crackled with restrained and bound power. It was a power sink, though she thought the Tremalyns hadn’t realized the danger they’d created by gathering so many imbued objects together here. From the barely noxious to items that almost pulsed with evil, their conjoined energies were poisoning the air, the earth, everything around them.
Sometimes we can’t destroy them, Abraham whispered to her. Then we have to isolate, wrap and muffle and bind those energies to prevent them being able to call out to the weak, or seep through to the world. No such precautions had been taken here.
Taking the step through the open doorway, a chill rippled down her spine when she saw the boxes.
In every size and shape, they were stacked three and four deep on the wide shelves, painted and carved and inlaid with the sigils and runes of protection, some chained, all locked, iron clasps and elaborate old padlocks, many woven through with the bright ribbons of spell-craft. On the lowest shelf, one stood open. And empty.
Hurrying toward it, Reba stopped dead as she saw the doll lying in the aisle near the shelf. Beautiful chestnut curls framed a rounded face, the delicate porcelain cracked in half. Kneeling, she studied the doll’s position. The last she wanted was to touch it, but she needed the confirmation, both of the identity of the malevolence caught in the crystal and the events the echo had shown.
The porcelain was cold. Far colder than the room’s temperature could account. Reba saw the doll, sitting on a high shelf on its own, watching the room. Vertigo hit her as perspective changed and now she was looking through those glass eyes, the view distorted and blurry, painful hunger roiling in her abdomen. The little girl had slipped in when her father had brought the curse box, hiding from him when he’d left.
“He was lucky it only cost him his life,” she murmured softly, the words directed to her dead partner and mentor. The doll had been too irresistible for the little girl, and the protections that should have rendered it inert had failed.
Laughter echoed through the touch as the little girl reached up. The energy in the living had fed the dead thing inside the porcelain until it was strong enough to break through to another, altogether more deadly power source. Reba turned to look at the curse box. It had been built to hold a loa, a vodou spirit, but the bindings were incorrect.
Possession was horrifying to see in anyone. To see malice and evil looking out through the eyes of a loved child was a kind of torture reserved for the damned.
“Tremalyn got the spirit out of the girl, but he left it here, Abraham,” Reba said, straightening. “Why did he build it here? Under his house?”
Familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps he thought he was sufficiently skilled to keep the dangers locked away.
The suggestion, even heard internally in Abraham’s deep voice, was unsatisfying.
Ignorance was no excuse. And there had been a lot of ignorance here, in this place where there should have been none. Ignorance of the correct bindings. Ignorance of the cumulative and massed effects of evil. Ignorance in allowing these objects close proximity to the energy of the living. The Egyptians and Incans, the Mayans and old Celts and Gauls and Kurgans had kept their dead and the weapons of the dead far from anyone to avoid that mistake.
Lock them away, Reba.
She didn’t need the advice. It would take a couple of days to move the collection elsewhere, and clean the house of the residues of infection. The Hardwicks could return, and the house would be just a house, a safe, family home.
But she’d have to go see Tremalyn’s widow.
“She doesn’t remember any of it,” Karen Tremalyn said, watching her daughter drawing at the table. “And I want to keep it that way.”
The small house was full of light, hanging crystals refracting sunshine into rainbow colors on the white walls and tiled floor of the sitting room. Against the brightness, Karen’s hair was a uniform red, without the variation of copper and gold the family photographs showed, her face lined, her eyes haunted. Her daughter’s hair was a deeper shade, auburn into mahogany. At the front, the same uniformity caught the eye.
Reba waited. Most of the time, there was no need for questions.
“I told Jon it was a bad idea.” Karen said, her hands twisting around each other. “I told him…”
There was little point to the visit, Reba realized. The fissures in Karen Tremalyn were deep and visible. The file said she’d once been a powerful psychic. Reba didn’t think Karen would seek out the shadows again.
“The objects have been removed from the house,” Reba said, keeping her voice low as she glanced at the little girl. She looked more like her father than her mother, but the perversions of the doll’s perspective kept overlaying reality. “Most were destroyed. What could not be has been isolated, bound and hidden.”
“He thought he could make it into a museum.” Karen’s hands stopped wrestling each other for a moment, knuckles white and tendons standing out.
“I’m glad he didn’t try.” Reba rose to her feet, her gaze drawn back to the child. She doubted very much that Alice remembered nothing. Her memories might have been suppressed, but they would return, eventually. “She inherited your gift, didn’t she?”
Karen tore her gaze from her daughter, her expression tense as she nodded.
“Train her,” Reba advised. “Before it hits her. Train her to understand and to be able to protect herself.”
Karen’s mouth turned down. “I never could.”
“In this life, ignorance kills quickly and painfully,” Reba said. “She might lose her innocence more swiftly than her friends, but she did that when she saw that room. You lost your husband to that ignorance, and nearly lost your child as well, and she might be marked in ways you can’t yet see.”
For a moment she thought the other woman would argue. Karen’s mouth thinned. Then her shoulders dropped as if she’d given up the pretence of anger and debate.
“I shut them all out,” Karen said, her hand fluttering in a directionless gesture. “I tried to hide.”
Reba nodded. “They’ll understand, those who can help. And those who don’t, won’t be any use.”
“Can you see?”
Shaking her head, Reba sent a silent prayer of thanks for that. “No, but I know it will be easier on you both to deal with it, than not.”
Leaving the house a few minutes later, she hoped leaving her card with the woman had been a good idea. So few lived where they did, in this world behind the world, it felt important to make and keep connections. Abraham would have disagreed. He’d believed that their business was a necessary evil, shameful and dirty. It was too late to try to argue with him. She’d missed that chance but remained convinced that nothing that could bring light into darkness, could banish wrong and cleanse the past in some way could be all that bad.