A thick cloud of smoke hung in the air, its acridness stinging my eyes. The cellar had no windows, and the single door that opened into the farmhouse pantry was always closed when Bones and I were down here. If I were human, I’d have passed out within the hour, but of course oxygen wasn’t an issue for me. Neither was the darkness. The only light came from the orange halos around the sage as the flames curled the plants into blackened, smoking remains, but Bones and I had no trouble seeing as we pieced together hunks of limestone, quartz, and moissanite into another trap. We’d spent the majority of the past five days down here, working toward that single goal. Good thing we’d helped Chris and the team make the last trap so we knew what we were doing, and if we spent the next week down here, we’d have it done in time.
Then we had to worry about finding a way to force Kramer into it. No matter how I turned the problem around in my mind, it always came back to our best chance being when he was solid. I couldn’t force vapor into the trap. Neither could Bones, even considering that he worked on expanding his telekinetic powers almost as much as on this trap, but those were useless against a disembodied form. Yet waiting until Kramer was solid meant waiting until Halloween night, and we hadn’t found the third woman yet, so her life was at risk. Plus, the Inquisitor might only show up if we used Francine and Lisa as bait to draw him out. All the different things that could go wrong haunted me whenever I considered that option, no pun intended.
A knock sounded on the cellar door. “He’s back,” Tyler called out.
Bones rose, but I waved him back before wiping aside a chunk of hair that had come loose from my ponytail.
“You went the last two times. My turn.”
His lips tightened, yet he made no comment, knowing it would lead to an argument that I’d win. I wasn’t about to let him bear all of Kramer’s loathsome personality, and the ghost only got more pissed when he was ignored. Considering the damage he’d already done to this house, we had to buy it by the time this was over.
I went up the stairs, noting that the wooden steps vibrated from the multiple thuds reverberating through the house. What’s he using now? I wondered. Kramer couldn’t come inside, not with all the sage we kept burning in every room, but he made good use of everything in the near perimeter. The car we’d driven here had been impressively destroyed, its windows and tires not lasting the first night, the rest of it bashed and battered over subsequent days. The old farmhouse lost its windows on that first night, too, plus a section of the front porch. We’d nailed wood over where the glass used to be, which proved far more durable, and spent a few hours watching TV until Kramer ripped off the satellite dish and chucked it through the car windshield.
Thank God there were no neighbors nearby to hear the unbelievable racket, but that was why we’d chosen this property. The surrounding land had once been a soybean field but clearly hadn’t been planted or harvested in a while. I didn’t know what circumstances had led the former owners to leave and, failing the sale of the house, choose to rent it, but it was the perfect place for Bones and me to build the trap without Kramer’s prying eyes seeing what we were doing. All the materials had been delivered and put in the cellar before I got here, so Kramer hadn’t been able to follow us to this place until after they were safely out of sight. I had no doubt the ghost knew Bones and I were busy with something, but he could only guess at what.
Tyler sat in the pantry, my iPad next to him and an open can of SpaghettiOs to the right of that. We’d stocked the refrigerator when we came here, but then Kramer ripped out the electrical lines leading to the house, and that meant no power to keep things fresh. He’d zapped himself in the process, all that electricity coursing through him rendering him solid for about ten minutes, but beating his ass while he was channeling high voltage would have only resulted in Bones or me getting electrocuted, too. Pity the trap wasn’t ready yet. That would have made getting the bejesus shocked out of us worth it.
Tyler had been eating canned goods ever since the food spoiled, and his baleful expression said loud and clear that he hadn’t developed a taste for them in the process. I didn’t remind him that Bones could fly him to Spade’s, where there would be plenty of better food to eat. Tyler was determined to help us catch the ghost, and any mention of his leaving was met with flat refusal.
“Want a bite?” Tyler said, holding up a speared forkful of noodles and meat medley.
I managed not to grimace out of sheer force of will. “Ah, no thanks.”
“Me neither,” he said, coughing a little before he went on. “Have I told you about all the steaks you’re going to buy me when this is over?”
“Kobe, filets, prime ribs, you name it,” I promised him. “Any luck on your research?”
While Bones and I were in the cellar cutting various rocks and minerals to piece together the trap, Tyler had been scouring the Internet for any authentic‑sounding reference to a weapon against ghosts. It burned through a new backup battery a day, damn that lack of electricity, but as the time drew nearer, I was more anxious to find something that might help us prod Kramer into the trap. Yes, we had burning sage, but that made Kramer poof away–helpful when we wanted him gone, but not so much if we wanted to force him into a ghost jail. So far, Tyler hadn’t come up with anything that we could test on Fabian or Elisabeth, but he was determined that the information existed and just had to be found.
“What do you think of this?” Tyler asked, turning the iPad around so I could see the screen.
I stared at the page displayed, wondering why Tyler was showing it to me. He must be starting his Christmas list early because this item had nothing to do with the supernatural. Then I looked at it more closely, thought it through . . . and started to smile.
“I love it,” I said, careful in my reply because I knew Kramer was listening. “I want ten. No, make that two dozen. Bones has his credit card numbers memorized, get them from him later. We’ll ship them to where Spade’s staying.”
Tyler grinned. “Sure will. Say hi to ol’ Michael Myers for me.”
“Huh? Oh, because Kramer’s a Halloween serial killer, I get it. Sure, but you make sure to stay in here and don’t come out.”
He rolled his eyes. “Girlfriend, you might be dead, but I don’t want to be yet. Bet your ass I’m staying in here.”
Another crash sounded near the front of the house, louder than the other ones. My cue that Kramer was getting impatient. I’d love to leave him out there stewing in his own ectoplasm, but we had to keep the house standing for the next week, so we could finish the trap. Getting it out of here without the ghost seeing was going to be tricky enough. We didn’t need to add to that trouble by having to move the trap to a new location just to finish it.
I left the pantry, passing through the kitchen with its bare, open cabinets–those doors made for great window coverings–and the family room where mattresses were the only furniture. When I got to the main entrance of the house, I picked up one of the glass jars filled with burning sage and ducked out of habit as soon as I opened the door.
Sure enough, a hunk of tree branch went whistling over me, followed immediately by two side mirrors from the car. They clanged into the family room, one landing on the mattresses, the others resting by the rest of the items Kramer had chucked at Bones earlier. I made a mental note to carry them out later and reappeared in the doorway.
“Guten Tag, ” I said, hefting the sage jar in salute. “Stay where I can see you, or I go back inside.”
I knew he’d comply because, for some twisted reason, Kramer liked to do his cursing and threats to our faces. Grumbles in German came from the side of the porch that had the worst damage to it. If Kramer kept ripping out porch boards and flinging them at the house, there wouldn’t be any more of it left in the next couple days. But the sage that had Tyler continually coughing kept Kramer from entering the house. All he could do was poltergeist things at it while cursing us in a mixture of German and English, with possibly some Latin thrown in for good measure.
Dark swirls appeared next to the porch, then the familiar white hair sticking out like a stack of bleached hay topped the ghost’s tall, thin frame. I waited, not saying anything, tapping the side of the glass in mute warning.
“Hexe, ” Kramer hissed once he was fully manifested.
“Uh‑huh,” I replied, recognizing the German word for witch and wondering how long he would ramble on this time. “I’m a woman, so that’s how you see me. Watching the feminist movement these past several decades must’ve really burned your toast.”
The Inquisitor didn’t respond with a slew of curses like normal. He just smiled wide enough to reveal teeth that were best kept unseen. Eww didn’t begin to cover my revulsion at those scraggly brown stumps.
“Toast? No, that is not what I burn,” he replied, his expression showing that he savored each word.
If I hadn’t known that Bones was in the cellar working on this murdering prick’s trap as we spoke, I’d have turned around and gone right back inside. But that would only mean more damage to the house that we’d have to take time away from the trap to repair; plus it would let Kramer know that he’d gotten to me. My biggest motivator for staying, however, was simple: Every second that Kramer was out here pissing me off meant he wasn’t tormenting the last woman he’d picked out. Elisabeth still hadn’t found her, and our research efforts hadn’t turned her up yet, either. I wasn’t alone, with no one believing me about the torment the ghost dished out, like she was. I could stand here and deal with him because it was all I could do for that woman until we found out who she was and brought her to Spade and Denise.
“You’re going to have a lonely Halloween this year, what with Francine and Lisa being out of reach,” I noted coolly. “And what will you do when we find the last woman–and we will, my snaggle‑toothed friend. Then the only things you’ll be toasting with your temporarily fleshy paws are marshmallows.”
That got me the curses I’d expected earlier. Some of it was in English, some in German, but I was getting pretty well versed at recognizing certain words, so I got the gist of it.
“Blah blah blah, I’m a slutty witch, and the fires of hell await me, blah. You really need some new material. My mother can curse me out better than that.”
A porch board went sailing at me. I knocked it aside with one hand, the other still wrapped around the sage jar. Kramer wouldn’t dare to attempt one of those energy punches at me as long as I had that close by, and those punches hurt a lot more than random objects if he got lucky and the next one he threw landed on me.
“I’ve been thinking of what I’m going to wear this Halloween,” I said, as if a board being chucked at me wasn’t worth interrupting my train of thought. “I haven’t dressed up for it in ages, but you’ve inspired me. I think I’ll go as Elphaba from Wicked. She was a misunderstood witch who had a mob after her, but she tricked them and won in the end. Heartwarming, right?”
More curses, this time insulting not only me, but the womb that bore me and the dark lord who fathered me. That part, at least, Kramer got right. My father was a Class A asshole. He and Kramer had that in common. They’d have everything in common soon if I got my way. My dad was currently serving a life sentence consisting of truly cruel and unusual punishments, from what I’d heard.
“I just love our talks,” I went on, avoiding the three new boards that he hurtled at me. “I’m not really sure what you get out of them, but they’re good for me. Why, last night, I took some curtain scraps and a few slivers of board pieces and made a little Kramer doll. Then I ripped its arms and legs off before driving a nail up its ass. I mean, if you hadn’t come by yesterday, I wouldn’t have thought to do that–”
“You will die in flames!” Kramer roared, zooming up so close to me that the smoke from my jar of sage brushed him before he caught himself and pulled back. I didn’t move, not wanting to give Kramer the satisfaction of even a flinch. His gaze bored into mine with cruelty too deep to be madness, and when he bared those repellant teeth at me, I couldn’t help but think that when he was alive, his breath would’ve stunk enough for me to smell it from a dozen feet away.
“I don’t think so.”
My voice was steady, and I didn’t blink as I stared back at him. “I’m a vampire, so it’s possible for me to die by fire if it’s big enough, and I can’t get away, but I’m guessing I’ll die one day at the hands of some Master vampire who’s stronger, faster, and just plain luckier with a silver knife. You, on the other hand, won’t ever die, will you? You’ll stay stuck in that air cloud you call a body, watching the world pass you by while you can’t do anything except rage at it, and most of the time, no one in it can hear you. Me? I’d rather be dead than that.”
Kramer didn’t move, but I felt his fury in the coldness that rolled across my skin, as if the air had dipped ten degrees in the past few seconds. Then, a ripple flowed across his body like a rock skipped across a pond, making him hazy for the barest moment before he flared into full living color. His tunic wasn’t brown, it was gray with mud splatters all over it, and his eyes were deeper green than the pale color they’d looked before. He had pockmarks in his skin that the haziness and his stubbly white beard had concealed, and his silvery hair still held faint streaks of blond.
Without reaching out my hand, I knew he was now as solid as I was. Elisabeth had looked much more vivid when she’d been flesh, and so did her murderer.
“Is that mud from the old misguided idea that putrefied flesh equated to holiness, or from you landing in a big puddle when Elisabeth incited your horse to throw you and break your neck?” I asked softly. “I wonder how long you can hold on to that flesh before it’s gone. Two minutes, maybe three?”
As I asked the question, I silently dared him to make a move. Please, oh please, try to hit me. I so want to show you what I can do against an opponent who isn’t made of air!
Kramer smiled. Those teeth were more vivid, too, and that wasn’t a good thing.
“What you should wonder is how many more witches I must burn before I am powerful enough to wear flesh every day instead of merely one,” he drew out, each word falling like a drop of poison. “I think not many.”
“You think burning women alive will turn you back into a real boy?” God, was he a sick bastard!
That nauseating smile widened. “Fear strengthens me just as blood feeds your miserable kind. I drew strength from sighted mortals until I was able to appear to whomever I chose. It took centuries of that before I could wear flesh again, and it lasted only minutes. Yet after I burned my first trio of witches on Samhain, I was whole for an hour. Now each witch I send to the flames provides me with such a feast of terror that it strengthens me like nothing you could imagine. In time, I will not be limited to walking the earth only on Samhain but will reside in flesh whenever I choose.”
Even though I knew that Bones would chew me out for leaving the smoke‑filled safety of the house behind me, I couldn’t resist lunging forward and whipping my fist across Kramer’s jaw as hard and fast as I could. It connected with a crunch that was so satisfying, I’d swung another one before I could think, breaking the sage jar across his face because I still had it gripped in my other hand.
Kramer disappeared before the glass shards fell to the porch. Pain blasted in my gut, though, letting me know he hadn’t gone far. I backed up, hitting the doorframe in my haste, grabbing a handful of the smoking sage before Kramer could go in for another blow. Or before the porch caught fire, which would be even worse.
“If you’re done playing with that sod, care to move away from the door? Or will you make me knock you over?” an English voice drawled.
I’d been so concentrated on Kramer, waiting for a glimpse of those telltale dark swirls or–even better–another chance to connect a blow to his temporarily solid flesh, that I’d let my other senses become lax. Ian strolled across the remains of the bean field, one hand grasped tight on my mother’s upper arm and the other holding a large wad of smoldering sage. He must’ve flown them both in. Good thing, because if he’d driven, Kramer would have another car to trash before the night was through.
“Kramer’s out here,” I warned them, glancing around but still not seeing where the ghost had gone off to.
Ian snorted. “That’s why I said you need to move.” Then he picked my mother up, flying toward the door like they’d been fired out of a gun. I moved out of the way just in time to avoid being barreled over.
“Take your hands off me,” my mother snapped once she was vertical instead of horizontal.
“Now that we’re here, I will,” Ian replied, letting her go. She stepped back several paces, but Ian just brushed off some lint from his clothes as if he couldn’t care less. Then he looked around at what used to be the family room but now looked more like a junkyard from the mattresses, boards, tree limbs, and car parts haphazardly littering the floor.
“I say, Reaper, this place looks almost as dreadful as the one I grew up in. Is all this from that pesky ghost?”
“The very same,” I said dryly. Kramer started up a whole new batch of curses at this interruption, revealing that he was still on the porch, but Ian and my mother weren’t here because they’d missed us, so something must be going on. “Let’s go into the cellar where the three of us can have a little more . . . privacy.”
The grin Ian flashed me made me relieved to see white, even teeth again, but I should’ve noticed that it was steeped in wickedness.
“I’ve had mothers and daughters at the same time before, but you’re Crispin’s wife, so I must regretfully decline.”
“You are such a pig !” my mother exclaimed, saving me the trouble of saying it.
Another spate of English and German came from the porch. Looked like Kramer thought Ian was a pig, too. In this one and only one thing, we were in agreement.
“Buh‑bye, asshole,” I told the ghost. Then I shut the front door, Kramer still bitching on the other side of it, and swept out a hand to Ian. “Follow me. Once we’re downstairs, you can tell me and Bones the real reason you’re here, aside from amusing yourself with sleazy remarks.”
“Oh, I’ll tell you right now,” he replied smoothly. “Your dear mum tried to eat one of the women you’re attempting to save.”