All Gran Maggie wanted was a good book, a cup of tea and a quiet retirement.
But between a headache, the screaming baby upstairs, and the young paras that come to her apartment with a demon-tainted boy it doesn’t look like she’s going to get what she wants.
Paranormal powers don’t protect anyone from getting older.
If you enjoy urban fantasy, paranormal stories, check out “The Witch on Floor Six.”
The baby in the apartment upstairs was crying again and the sound of it put me in mind of dentist drills, flashes of things that I don’t like to think about anymore, things that made my vision swim until I shoved the heels of my hands against my eyeballs. My nails scratched against my scalp as I bent over on my worn leather couch, trying as hard as I can to swallow the red rage boiling up inside. I daren’t let it out, knowing what sort of forces might notice. I’ve retired.
I don’t hunt monsters anymore, by daylight or moonlight.
Regardless of all that, the baby on the seventh floor isn’t a monster, although there are times when I’m sure the neighbors on either side of the apartment would disagree. At least I’m beneath the apartment, which muffled the sound most of the time. Given the lack of insulation in the walls of this old tenement I’m sure that the neighbors heard the baby’s cries with the same clarity that I’m privileged to get from the neighbor’s wife’s passionate and enthusiastic cries whenever she has over a visitor. If the sound had me bent over clutching my head, I can’t imagine how the neighbors upstairs suffered.
Usually the baby stops crying quickly, but this time there was a knock on my door before he stopped. I didn’t hesitate. I shoved the pain of the headache and the noise of the baby aside, and rose on my bare feet. Two strides across the room, silent on the hardwood floor, to pick up my Glock loaded with blessed silver safety rounds. I popped the magazine, checked the load and slapped it back into place. I kept the gun pointed at floor. The safety rounds should deform and stop in a wall or floor but in this place I didn’t count on it.
More knocks on the door, fast and sharp, but light too, like someone panicked but not wanting to draw attention to themselves. I didn’t trust it. I don’t trust anyone. In my business — even retired — that meant the difference between living longer, dying or worse.
I padded silently across the room to stand beside the door. “Who is it?”
“Gran Maggie, it’s us! Please, let us in!” A girl’s voice, sweet and high. Starling, and us must mean her friends. It didn’t sound like they’d come for stories this time.
Why can’t they just damn well leave me alone! I gritted my teeth and forced myself to take a breath. It isn’t their fault, and not even surprising given who their parents are, but I’m retired. I should be able to sit on a sunny beach reading instead of sitting here turning into a cobweb.
I flipped the little knob switch, turned the knob for the deadbolt, and pulled the chain back out of the way, but I left my wards in place. The door could open without removing the wards. It didn’t make any sense to blindly trust the voice.
“Go ahead and open the door, I’m not stopping you.”
That was true. I didn’t lie. They wouldn’t have any problem opening the door, but coming inside could be something else.
The door knob turned and the door swung open. I turned sideways, bringing up the gun to point at whoever was outside.
Starling stood in the hallway with fear on her pale face. She looked down the hallway and back, her dozens of beaded braids swung around her head. She still wore the charm I’d carved for her around her neck on the leather string. Starling wore a thin black dress that left her bare arms free and a long rainbow-colored silk scarf looped twice around her neck. She was wearing bright red sneakers on her feet. A pretty girl, she took after her mother, the most powerful necromancer in the city.
With Starling were two other kids. Ricky, with the broad shoulders of a linebacker and the height of a basketball player, and the attitude that so many kids of privilege held, as if the world was created solely for his use. Or he had that attitude but lately I think he had started to figure out that nothing in the world was so simple. The second boy I didn’t recognize and that worried me.
What was Starling playing at, bringing another kid here with her? He was about the same age and height as Starling, thin sinewy muscles and short blond hair. No shirt on that one and angry red welts were raised across his shoulders and what I could see of his chest. He clutched his arms around himself tightly and looked withdrawn into himself. Through it all I got a sense of him. It felt like a power line humming in my head beneath the baby’s cries. In fact, seeing him, it made it sound like the baby was crying in response to him. He breathed in time with the baby’s screams.
I took it all in within a second. The fear in Starling’s eyes didn’t come from my gun. She walked through the wards without a problem, rushing past me in a swirl of black cloth and Kiwi scent. The muscles in my trigger finger fought to fire but I held them in check. She never even realized that her action could have precipitated her own death.
Not Gran Maggie. Starling never imagined that I’d shoot her.
And she was right. She was past me, safe inside my wards, and my attention was still mostly on the stranger boy that she had brought to my door. Ricky eased himself toward the door, palms facing me at his side, showing a lot more sense and respect than I’d expected. I didn’t look away from the other boy and that was enough for Ricky to slip through the wards too.
That just left the other one. He didn’t show any inclination to approach the doorway. It wasn’t good sense. He’d withdrawn somewhere else.
“Gran Maggie,” Starling said urgently, from behind me. “You have to invite him in.”
Invite him? My breathing slowed. The gun held steady right at his heart. I’d take it with the first two shots and then the next two would go for his head. Assuming that I had a chance to get off that many, probably a big assumption.
Then Starling was right there beside my arms. She didn’t touch me, smart enough for that at least.
“Gran Maggie, Justin isn’t any danger to you but we need to get him inside your wards. Please, trust me.”
Trust me. Trust a girl her age? If I hadn’t had my gun trained on Justin I might have laughed.
“What is he?”
“My friend,” she said softly. “Please.”
If I had to invite him that suggested something demonic. Possibly a vampire but it was daytime. No matter what he was tainted, and something had caused those welts. You don’t invite the demonic into your lives. I’ve been down that road before when I was younger and imagined that I was somehow in control.
Starling didn’t understand what it took. I knew that if I lowered the gun and invited her friend in that we might all die. And for that risk I was supposed to trust this girl?
Fuck it all. I lowered the gun. Screw me if I made the wrong decision, I didn’t get this old making wrong decisions or without taking risks.
“Come in, Justin.”
He still didn’t look at me. His closed in posture didn’t change. He came in through the doors and the wards flared as he entered like a line of fire through my chest that stole my breath away. I snapped the gun up, knowing I was too slow. He’d be on me before I could get the gun up in position and there wasn’t time to do any spooky stuff either.
Then I had the gun up and pointed at the back of his head. He kept walking, past me, past Ricky and I rotated to keep the gun pointed at his head. He went to the couch, turned and sat down. He bent forward holding himself in an echo of my posture when they knocked. Starling went behind me to the door, closed it and I heard the snick of the locks sliding into place. Ricky stood off to my right, hands still visible, but looking more relaxed. Starling showed up on my left and I took a step back. Justin still hadn’t moved.
Ah Hells, he was already inside and he hadn’t killed anyone yet. Maybe I’d have to listen to what they wanted.
I took two more steps back and lowered the gun. In the small apartment the distance probably didn’t give me enough room to get off a shot, but it was the best I could do at the moment.
“Someone better start talking.”
“My mother’s after him,” Starling said.
“Ah Hells, girl!”
Claire Byrd, called a zombie queen by those reckless enough to use the term, was the most powerful necromancer in the city right now. She started out like so many paras did, with the best of intentions, but over time I think she had spent so much time with monsters that she was in danger of becoming one. It wasn’t like when I was young and paras remained secretive about their abilities and the Fog kept people from noticing. The last thing I needed was someone like Byrd coming after me. I looked at Justin.
“Someone had better tell me what he is and why I’ve got someone demon tainted in my apartment.”
Starling pressed her hands together. “You created the Council —”
“Don’t remind me.”
“You ended the Fog —”
“Something else that probably wasn’t a good idea.”
“Not a good idea!” Ricky blurted.
I raised an eyebrow and he blushed. Then he shrugged. “I mean, paras lived in secret and people didn’t know about the dangers out there. Isn’t it better now that people know?”
“Better? Better now that everyone is trying to find their own paranormal abilities? People who can’t be trusted to drive without drinking are out there right now trying to unlock their hidden potential for causing all sorts of crap! Hells! Haven’t you kids learned anything coming here, bothering me? Asking to hear stories? You think I did that to entertain you? Shit! Fuck! This is the crap that you’re picking up, I’ve been trying to teach you about my mistakes and you think those were good times I was telling you about?”
“Sorry,” Ricky muttered.
Justin hadn’t so much as twitched during my rant. Starling took a deep breath.
“Gran Maggie, I’m sorry. That’s not what we meant. It’s just that we didn’t think anyone would look for Justin here. He didn’t do anything. The taint that you’re sensing, that’s just because of his grandmother.”
I knew the name on her lips. I heard the name in my nightmares.
Demonologist. Not a story I wanted to relive right now. I looked at Justin and my stomach hurt all the more. Upstairs that baby kept crying and my head hurt. I wanted nothing more than quiet, a glass of hot chocolate and a soft pillow. Instead I had a gun in my hand and Renate Colburn’s grandson sitting on my couch.
“What is it that you think I can do here?”
“Help him. Mom’s sent a wraith after to find him, I need you to protect him until I can talk to her. He hasn’t done anything wrong. It isn’t his fault that the demon came.”
It just got better and better. “So there’s a demon out there?”
Starling shook her head. “No. Justin banished it, but not before the Council detected its presence. They think he’s a new demonologist experimenting in the demonic arts.”
I lifted the gun and pointed it right at Justin. My wards had flared when he came in, he was tainted. “Are they right, Justin?”
“No. You want to help, Starling girl? Go get your mother. Tell them that Justin is here.”
“But they’ll kill him! It isn’t his fault that he’s tainted. You know what Renate did! The taint was passed on down to his mother and she killed herself!”
“Go,” I told her. I glanced at Ricky. “You go with her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything except go get her mother. Understand me?”
“Wait.” Justin’s voice came out soft but it rang as clear as a bell and sent shivers into my soul. He looked up at me then and on one level his eyes were nothing special, normal hazel eyes, but on another level I saw embers glowing dully in the dark inside. Justin straightened up on the couch. “There’s no need to send them anywhere. She’s already here.”
I knew this building. I mostly counted on my wards to shield me from the racket of the humanity around me as well as protect me from the things that go bump in the night. That didn’t mean I couldn’t reach out now, and I did. A deathly cold blew across my skin and my breath frosted for a second.
“He’s right, Starling girl. Your mother is already here.”
Starling’s eyes flared. “We have to get him out of here. Is there a way out?”
Of course there was, did she really think that I’d live some place without any escape routes. These young paras had a lot to learn if they were going to survive. As bad as things were in my days, in some ways it was worse today.
I didn’t tell them about any of the routes away. Justin stayed on the couch. Smart boy.
“Starling, you and Ricky still need to go. Your mother’s more likely to talk if she knows you aren’t in danger of becoming a hostage.”
Starling looked to Justin. I snapped my fingers and the candles in the room flared. She jumped a bit. I gave her a grin. “Do as I say.”
“She won’t listen to me.”
“Fine. Don’t worry about it. You brought him to me. If he’s worth saving I’ll talk to your mother.”
“Go,” Justin said in that soft, but commanding voice. It wasn’t magic, he had the gift that some leaders had, to command without shouting.
Starling bit her lip but she and Ricky went to the door without any more arguing. They opened the locks and passed through the wards into the hall. I didn’t reach out for Byrd. She’d get up to us sooner rather than later. I also didn’t bother locking the door again. The things around Byrd mostly didn’t care about locks and those that did could batter the door down. I dug a finger into a pouch hanging at my waist and took out a pinch of salt. Salt’s good for so many things. I cast it at the door with a word of undoing on my lips. The wards around the apartment melted away like a salted slug. I felt the energy of all of the humanity around us pound against my headache. From another pouch I took out an ibuprofen and dry swallowed it. Hey, willow bark has its uses but that doesn’t mean science is useless either.
Justin hadn’t moved but he was watching me. I looked straight back at him and raised the gun. I felt the inner stillness that came with shooting. One twitch of my finger and he’d die. This young man with welts across his bare chest and a demon taint on his soul.
“Okay, Justin. What makes a smart girl like Starling try to protect you from her own mother?”
“She’s a friend.” Justin’s gaze fell down to his hands. “I didn’t even know about my grandmother. Not until the demon showed up and explained it all to me. She offered to unlock my paranormal abilities.”
“And you agreed?” Sold his soul that easily? My finger tightened on the trigger.
“No.” Justin shook his head hard. “She decided to show me what I could do anyway. I guess she figured that I couldn’t resist her. “
Upstairs the baby’s cries cut off as if someone had turned it off. I heard whispering and caught glimpses of dark shapes moving in the corners of my eyes. My breath frosted again. Justin noticed our visitors too and kept looking quickly around.
“You won’t see them that way. Hold still and look without looking. Then you’ll see them.”
As I saw them now. I kept my eyes locked on Justin. I still had the gun ready, but at the edges of my vision I saw the dark forms of the ghosts like vaguely human-shaped patches of darkness. Goosebumps rose on my arms. I heard the door open behind me and I felt her presence.
“Hello, Byrd.” I didn’t look away from Justin.
“Gran Maggie, it looks like you’ve caught our young man for us.”
Byrd walked around me, giving me space and stopped when she stood equal distance between Justin and I, but not in my line of fire. The three of us formed a triangle and around the edges skittered Byrd’s ghosts. Since she had come into her power I’d never seen her without the ghosts.
“I wouldn’t say that,” I told her. “Starling brought him to me. Seems she thinks that he is innocent.”
“Yes,” Byrd said, her voice tightening. “I know. My daughter told me the same.”
I dared a glance at her. Still straight and tall, with long white hair falling neatly down her back over what had to be an expensive black coat. She looked very stylish, I don’t follow fashion, but even I could see that her outfit must have cost more than I pay in rent for the year. Her face looked like porcelain, too pale if anyone asked me. But then she rarely came out during the day like this anymore.
“What are you planning to do with the boy?” So far Justin just stood there hugging his bare chest.
“That’s a concern of the council.”
“Starling said that you sent a wraith after the boy. Sounds like you’ve already judged him and found him guilty.”
“We know he consorted with a demon. Are your senses failing you, that you don’t recognize the taint he bears? This is Renate Colburn’s grandson.”
“I know that. He claims a demon came and unlocked his abilities to tempt him. I’d like to hear the rest of the story.” I looked hard at Justin. “Well?”
Justin looked right back at me with eyes I recognized. I hadn’t noticed it before but he did have his grandmother’s eyes. Except there was something sad in his eyes, as if he was feeling guilty —
I fired first and then dove to the side. Too slow. I couldn’t possibly move fast enough. That first shot clipped his shoulder and spun him partway around but he wasn’t the real threat. I’d dropped my wards to make Byrd feel better. Stupid. Stupid.
The demon had materialized behind where I had been and only my sudden action had saved me from having my throat ripped out. I saw her going for Byrd as I fell. Byrd never moved but smoothly drew two pistols, hands inhumanly fast but not quick enough. The demon was on her before she got off a shot. They fell together, the demon held Byrd’s arms and tried to bite out her throat.
Justin recovered from the gunshot enough to come for me with a silver knife in his hands. I didn’t know where he had hidden that, I didn’t see him draw it. I hit the floor on my side.
I still had the gun pointed at him and as fast as he was I managed to pull the trigger. The shot took him in the throat, blew out his spine and stopped him in his tracks. He dropped heavily onto his knees. His head fell forward onto his chest. I brought up my arm and fired again into the top of his head. He toppled as my ears rang from the shot.
The demon exploded into a cloud of flies and then faded away like rain on sunny sidewalk.
Byrd picked herself up, one arm scored by the demon’s claws. The blood glistened against the dark fabric of her coat while scarlet drops dripped and ran slowly down her hand.
I got up too. All my bones ached. My head still hurt but at least the baby upstairs wasn’t crying.
Byrd looked at me with narrowed eyes as she put away her weapons. “How did you know?”
I still didn’t put away my gun. Supposedly we’re on the same side. I wasn’t sure of that. “That he was lying?”
“It was too convenient. Why would Starling bring him here? How could I protect him against the council? It had to be about something else.”
“Yes.” I shook my head. “Now, if you don’t mind? Take him and your ghosts and go. I’ve got to put my wards back up and I could use a nap. You’ll want to go easy on Starling.”
“Why?” Byrd cocked her head. “She needs to learn from her mistakes.”
“Do what you want.”
I felt Byrd’s power, that cold wind that filled the apartment. If I didn’t look too closely I could see the ghosts gathering around Justin’s body. Then he jerked, his feet kicked against the floor and he rose to his feet again. A low moan escaped from his bloodied lips. Byrd’s power swirled around him like a wind that didn’t disturb anything in the apartment except Justin’s blood rose up in a fine mist that swirled around him and then flowed back into his wounds. His flesh knitted itself back together and I heard the snapping sounds of his vertebrae moving into place again. Justin’s head came up but his eyes were empty. He wasn’t anything more than a quality zombie. Byrd couldn’t bring the dead back to life. At least not yet.
After she left, trailed by her new zombie and ghosts, I restored my wards and made some tea. I sank down into my favorite chair and pulled the afghan I had knitted last summer across my lap. Outside there are all kinds of paras struggling for positions and power. Not me.
This story is the 31st weekly short story release, finished in January 2011. I originally released this in May 2011 as an e-book under my “Tennessee Hicks” pen name. I loved this idea of exploring what happens to these paranormal folks as they age. I read a lot of urban fantasy with tough, young protagonists who often acquire more power as the series progresses. What happens when that power is lost? If they survive, what happens as they age. Yet another world I plan to return to one day.
Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, Future Wasn’t.