My eyes burst open, and I shot into a sitting position as Sandy Paws, my muted calico cat, pounced onto my bladder. I shambled naked to the bathroom, and Sandy followed me. She jumped on my lap as I sat on the toilet and shoved her face into mine, purring loudly. I laughed and scratched her eyebrows, which was her favorite place to receive affection. When she allowed me to return to bed, my phone lit up from a call as I sank into my pillow top mattress.
“What the fuck do you want, Donal?” I mumbled as I checked my phone, “It’s four in the goddamned fucking morning.”
“That’s an impolite way to address your father, Samantha,” he replied.
I grumbled as I stretched, saying, “I forgot that providing one half of my genetic makeup entitles you to a perpetual place in my life, given that you had no desire to be there until after Mom’s accident…”
“Samantha Blake Hain.” I winced when he used his lawyer voice. “What happened to your mother was…”
“Don’t fucking start with me!” I growled into my phone, sitting up. I winced as I ran my fingers through my tangled hair before I continued, “Just tell me what you want.”
He sighed into the phone. I imagined him pinching the bridge of his nose as he said, “Can’t I just call you to discuss visiting you next week to discuss your joining the Astrum Argent…”
“No! Look, Donal, er, dad,” I interrupted. Rubbing my face with my hand and yawning. I sighed and said, “We’ve discussed this. Yes, I appreciate Mr. Fingal’s teaching me a few basic protection rites to help with the special cases, but we both know I wouldn’t fit in your former heteronormative and hierarchical boys’ club for misogynistic, emotionless wizards.”
“That’s an unfair characterization of the Astrum Argentum,” he said flatly. “The Council did not expel you from the temple after you told Magus Chesterfield to, if memory serves, ‘Fuck off with his shit-spewing fuck hole.’”
“Yeah, not sorry, Donal,” I said as my eyes narrowed. “I don’t take kindly to old men saying that a woman’s place is kneeling at men’s side while serving them food. And I’m not the asshole who ignored the time difference between Dublin, Ireland, and South Carolina. So, you go back to your midmorning tea, and I’m going to go back to sleep. Ta ta.”
He sputtered something, but I ended the call. My heart pounded, and my mind raced. I barely saw him growing up, and his assholery and infidelity led Mom to divorce him when I was six. He stopped talking to me or sending me birthday cards when I turned thirteen. Then, after mom’s fatal accident, he waltzed into my life and acted like he hadn’t missed a single fucking day. Mom was always there for me, sharing in my joys and comforting me in my sorrows. Tears soaked my pillow as my thoughts turned to her.
After almost an hour of mourning, my enraged mind refused to let me sleep. I wanted my mom. Necromancy was off the table. When someone died in the way my mom did, divine law forbid any form of magical communication short of visiting them in the place where they spent eternity. It was a long shot, but I knew one person who might be able to help me. For a price. I ran my fingers through my hair and sighed. Since I couldn’t sleep, I got dressed.
I entered the larger of the two bedrooms in my apartment. I used this for the rare magical ritual I performed when the case demanded it. My old mahogany writing desk, buried under a pile of unread books, rested in the corner. Four large, white candles stood atop black marble pillars at the center of each wall. I had drawn a large ritual circle in white chalk on the vinyl faux-wood floor in the room’s center. Just east of the circle’s center, stood my altar, dressed in a black cloth, and topped with my ritual tools and a leather-bound book my father gave me when I started learning from him and Mr. Fingal.
I lit the candles on the table and cleansed the area. With the ritual dagger in hand, I knocked thrice on the altar and forcefully pronounced a string of divine names. Then I opened the book to the fourth incantation and chanted, “Per obscurum noctis, per clara die, ego tibi aperire viam praecipio,” six times.
A wind blew through the chamber, snuffing the candles. After the wind stopped, a tiny point of silver light appeared on the eastern wall. The point drifted, leaving a light trail that outlined the shape of a door. I heard the click of the locking mechanism’s release as the line completed tracing the shape. I closed the book on the table and stepped through the door.
I emerged inside a bar filled with black leather and steel furnishings. Blue flames danced atop golden candelabra, providing soft illumination. Lilith, a divinely gorgeous woman with black hair, dark caramel skin, and two elegantly curved horns, sang “Nights in White Satin” in a sultry, husky voice as a horned man with a Van Dyke goatee conducted a chamber ensemble. The bar wasn’t as packed as it was the last time I entered. The first time, I entered with Mr. Fingal, who thought this trans-dimensional speakeasy was a place I should know. A table of magi whose robes marked them as members of the Hermetic Order of the Eastern Sun chatted animatedly. A handful of red-furred kitsune sipped sake in a corner booth. At the far end of the bar itself, I saw a woman in a burgundy dress with black hair cascading down her back. She sipped a burgundy liquid from a wineglass as her hand moved across a notebook.
Lilith’s husband, Nick Scratch, owned and tended the bar. Tall and classically handsome, he slicked his black hair and kept a three-day growth of stubble on his chin. He wore white dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, black vests, fitted trousers, and black Chelsea boots. Tonight, his black horns were visible. As I entered, he knowingly turned toward the door and, in an aristocratic Londoner’s accent, said, “Welcome to the Four Winds, where all are welcome to sit, tell their tales, and have a drink.”
Few of the patrons looked toward me as I approached the bar and took a seat. That’s what made the Four Winds special for people like me who knew about the Veil and crossed the Veil, interacting with supernatural beings. His speakeasy provided a neutral ground where all could interact and be themselves. He sauntered over to me and flashed his charming but devilish smile.
“Hello again, Miss Hain,” he said. “What brings you back at so late an hour?”
“You remembered me?” I asked, taken aback.
He chuckled. “I never forget a face. So, where are we headed this time to face a creature against which you need information? And what are we drinking tonight?”
“Just a bourbon on the rocks,” I said. “And I’m not traveling right now. My current case is local.”
Nick Scratch nodded and poured a drink into a crystal glass. He swirled the translucent amber liquid in front of a candle, noted a bit of cork in the glass, discarded it, and poured me another. He slid the glass toward me and leaned forward, saying, “The Maker’s Mark. To what do I owe the pleasure of this social call?”
I sipped the smooth liquid, hoping that its warmth would give me courage. I took a deep breath and said, “I did come to ask for something. Information, maybe. Or maybe a favor of sorts.”
He set a white cloth on the bar to rest his elbows on as he leaned closer, smirked, and asked, “What sort of information or favor?”
Biting my lip and closing my eyes, I held my breath for a moment. I exhaled and said, “Look, I’ve really missed my mom lately, and I know that there are rules limiting how the living can access the spirits of those who died as she did. I… I wondered if, maybe, you knew a loophole or something that could let me contact her. I just want to talk to her.”
Nick Scratch stroked his chin as he thought. After what felt like an eternity of silence, he sighed. “The divine law regarding mortal communication with those who died in accidents similar to that of your mother’s is clear and final. If you return to your training, you would easily master the rite that would allow you to visit her. Is that not acceptable?”
My shoulders slumped. “So there’s nothing then? Nothing you can do?”
“Not without compensation for the difficulty of dealing with the divine courts.” His smile grew lean and hungry. “Do you have anything of equal worth to this request?”
I stared into my bourbon and watched the swirling patterns of the melting ice. I shook my head. It’s not like I had a lot to offer in trade. Money was slim. I didn’t have any important information, which was his preferred payment. My soul was always an option. I doubt the soul of a college dropout was worth much, though.
I sighed. “I don’t have much right now. And I’m not asking for her to be resurrected or anything. Just maybe an hour or so on my birthday. Name your price, Mr. Scratch. I will offer you a service of your choice, and if I can’t complete your chosen service, my soul.”
I waited as he nodded while mulling over my offer. “Am I correct,” he asked, “in understanding that you are offering to perform a service of my choice in the future in exchange for a small annual conversation with your mother? And if you fail to complete my task, then your soul is forfeit?”
I nodded. I swallowed hard and said, “Yeah.”
“Well then, let us draw up the contract.”
He snapped his fingers, and a parchment scroll appeared in a burst of blue and white flame. To his credit, he read through the contract with me and explained the terms. In exchange for a future service of his choice, Mr. Scratch would permit me to have a private conversation with my mother’s spirit here on the last hour of my birthday. If I failed to complete this task, whatever it would be, I forfeited my soul to him. Nick Scratch asked me twice more if I wanted this, and I agreed both times. He pulled a black fountain pen from his pocket and showed me the six places I needed to sign. The pen produced a red ink that glowed like flowing lava. I signed, and then he signed. He sealed the contract with crimson wax, and it disappeared in another burst of flame.
As the contract disappeared, Lilith called out, “Samael, that is enough business for the evening. I have need of you in your office immediately.”
The First of the Fallen winked at me and, with that devilish smile, said, “So sorry to cut this short, but duty calls.” He nodded and turned his attention to his wife, adding, “Coming, darling.”
He walked away and left me to my drink. I sank into my chair. What had I just done? This was dangerous. This was stupid. But, at least, I would get to see my mom again. That was something.
“An open favor as part of a bargain with Samael,” a voice that sounded German and came from behind me said, “You have courage. I like that.”
Sam spun on the bar stool to see the woman she noticed at the corner of the bar. She gasped and bit her lip. Her lips matched her burgundy dress with its delicate sweetheart neckline that hinted at her cleavage while revealing the elegant curve of her pale shoulders. The lace half sleeves accentuated her toned arms. Her long black hair swayed behind her. Sam’s eyes focused on the simple crescent curve in her smile.
Sam blinked and then said, “Oh, well, I guess that’s what you could call it.”
The woman laughed, and her smile widened enough to allow Sam to see the tips of her fangs. “I do indeed. Others may call it reckless or desperate. I, however, find it intriguing.”
The woman sat beside Sam. Her movements flowed with a supernatural grace. Sam’s eyes flashed down to her golden ankle strap stilettos. Sam fidgeted with her cobalt chiffon blouse, painfully aware of her body’s imperfections. This was not in her plan for the evening. She should have worn Spanx. A green blouse would have made the gold flecks in her eyes shine. She should have styled her warm mahogany hair instead of throwing it into a ponytail. Her goldenrod swing skirt was too long. Or was it too short?
The scent of the woman’s rose and violet perfume intoxicated Sam. She snapped out of her thoughts and blushed. “Um, I guess. Oh! I think I saw you as I walked to the bar. What were you writing in your book? If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”
“I was merely sketching.” The woman chuckled and leaned forward. “Here, I may find a variety of subjects to sketch. Perhaps, when time permits, I will paint them.”
“Oils? Acrylics? Digital art?” Sam’s eyes flashed with excitement as she leaned forward, sipping her bourbon.
“Watercolor. Something I learned a few years ago.” The woman’s head tilted upward thoughtfully. She shook her head and sighed. “That was over a century ago. How the decades blur.”
The woman sipped the plum-hued liquid from her glass. Sam blinked. This woman appeared to be her age, but she had more confidence than Sam could fake. Sam giggled. That had to be a joke, right? What if she told the truth? Sam swallowed as her heart raced in her chest.
The woman licked her smiling lips and chuckled again. “Where are my manners?” My name is Carmilla.”
She extended a hand. A chill raced up Sam’s hand as she shook Carmilla’s soft, pale, manicured hand. “I’m Samantha, but most people just call me ‘Sam.’ Is that a Merlot you’re drinking? Or a Pinot Noir?”
“Charmed,” Carmilla replied. “And no, it is a Sanguinovese. And that amber drink you have is a whiskey of some kind, is it not?”
Sanguinovese. Blood wine. That fact, combined with the cold, pale skin and the centuries-long life, suggested that Carmilla was a vampire. A gorgeous, confident vampire, in Sam’s estimation. Carmilla cocked an eyebrow as Sam’s gaze drifted to her manicured nails.
“Oh, sorry, It’s really late for me.” Sam yawned. “Yeah, I’m drinking a bourbon. Wait, I may be wrong, but your accent sounds German. How are you still awake?”
Carmilla closed her eyes as she contained a yawn. She nodded and sipped her wine. “I am Austrian. And yes, it is early in the morning for me. I had thought to retire for the day when I overheard your conversation with our charming devil of a host. And so, I had to come and speak to you.”
“You were listening?” Sam sipped her bourbon. The last remnant of the ice clinked against the glass.
“Not actively, no.” Carmilla sipped her wine as her eyes roamed Sam’s figure. She returned her gaze to Sam’s eyes. “I heard your final offering, and, as I said, you intrigued me. The courage to make such a deal with him is something I have not seen in all of my life.”
Sam felt her breathing grow faster. Everything in her vision blurred except for Carmilla. Conversations around her fell quiet. She drained the rest of her bourbon and asked, “You’re not using any type of mind control on me right now, are you?”
“Astute of you.” Carmilla leaned back and smiled. “It appears you have discerned what I am. To answer your question, no I have not. While we vampires have a long history of such tactics, I made a promise to myself that I would never violate the will of another for personal gain. Not all of us are like Dracula.”
She spat that last word with such venom that Sam recoiled. “That’s good. I mean, I’ve always believed that NHMs, that’s what our government calls individuals like you—Non-Human Mythics—are people just like us. Only a bit different.”
Sam drank from her empty glass and then silently cursed herself. Carmilla tilted her head and smiled. She leaned forward, brushed Sam’s arm with her fingertips, and whispered into Sam’s ear. Sam’s eyes shot wide, and she inhaled sharply. Sam brushed her hair behind her ear as they locked eyes. Carmilla pulled away and smiled.
“So,” Carmilla asked, “you have had dealings or relations with us? That is good to hear.”
Sam closed her eyes and nodded. After a silent minute, Sam said, “Yeah. Wait, no. I mean, professionally, yes. I’m a private investigator, and sometimes faeries, vampires, werewolves, and others come to me for help. Usually on the full moon. What about you? Are you a professional artist?”
“Nothing so interesting or deviant.” Carmilla laughed. “I own an investment brokerage firm. I believe that is how you say it in your language.”
They talked for hours about their passions and their goals. They laughed and smiled, each cautiously inching their barstool closer to the other. As their conversation continued, they paid no heed to Nick Scratch’s return to his station behind the bar. He refilled their drinks. After the third round, Sam let down her hair and twirled it around her finger. Neither heard the clock chime on several hours until Sam noticed it was seven in the morning.
Carmilla bowed her head and smiled. “I have enjoyed the evening. I will see you here in one week.”
They rose and embraced. Sam inhaled the floral scent of Carmilla’s Victorian-inspired perfume. Carmilla’s chest jerked in a manner suggesting to Sam that she tried to remember how to breathe. Both sighed as they broke the embrace. Carmilla turned and glided through the door on the eastern wall.
Destiny and Cassie greeted Sam as she entered her office the next morning, cat’s eye sunglasses covering her eyes and an extra-large coffee cup in her left hand. Cassie’s disheveled hair and the dark circles under her eyes suggested she slept horribly. Wearing a cobalt blouse that made her blue eyes shine, Destiny cocked an eyebrow and asked, “Rough night?”
“Sorry, I’m late.” Sam refilled her coffee at the percolator. “I received an undesired call after Sandy pounced on my bladder at four, couldn’t sleep, and ended up at the Four Winds. I’ll explain later, Des.” Sam offered Cassie a sympathetic smile and added, “Seems you had the worse night.”
“Yeah.” She tried to detangle and smooth her hair with her hands. She yawned, causing both Destiny and Sam to yawn responsively. “Sorry about that. I didn’t sleep much last night. It attacked me, gave me nightmares, and now… now I’m seeing its face when I look into a mirror. Please, Miss Hain, please tell me you know what to do.”
“I was hoping it would fuck with me last night,” Sam said flatly, “since it doesn’t seem very talkative, and I wanted to gain a better understanding of your experiences. But it’s not attracted to this wax… wait a minute…”
Sam rifled through her purse to find the wax disc Cassie brought her. She paid little heed to it last night, thinking it may have been the remains of a candle used in some magical working that was stored in this bottle, but now she wondered if she had missed something important. The disc had a smooth black side and a green side that had something carved into it. Sam examined the carvings to find two concentric circles with Hebraic writing in between them. The inner circle had been quartered. She nodded, counting three names for the Jewish god, written with four characters, as well as a linear sigil in the quartered circle. She cocked an eyebrow and grunted.
As Sam slid onto the corner of Destiny’s desk, she placed the wax disc in front of her, saying, “Tell me if that’s what I think that is, Des, and tell me what’s off about it.”
Destiny flipped the disc over in her hand before bringing it close to her eyes. She squinted, tilted her head, and clicked her tongue as she thought. Her eyes shot wide, and she said, “Oh! That’s it! Well, it’s basically the Third Pentacle of Jupiter. I’m sure you knew that, but yeah, this Jupiterian sigil here should be a hexagram.”
Sam nodded. “So that bottle was a witch’s bottle. Now we just need to figure out why.”
“A witch’s bottle? So, I’ve been cursed?” Cassie asked, her eyes shooting wide and blinking.
Destiny shook her head and offered a comforting smile. “No, sweetie. A witch’s bottle is a countermagical device once common amongst folk, or low, magic practitioners in England the Appalachian region of the United States. They stopped being common magical practice at the end of the 18th century, but they often contained nails, wine, urine, rosemary, and incantations in order to protect a person or a house from harmful spirits. So, the TL;DR is that this bottle was meant to protect against evil spirits and magic.”
“So, by destroying the bottle,” Sam interjected while sipping her coffee, “your father unintentionally removed the protection. That does present an issue, Cassie. Have you experienced any touches, sounds, or nightmares when you’re sleeping at someone else’s place? Like your parents? Or maybe your boyfriend’s?”
She shook her head and scratched the back of her neck. “I’ve been staying with Andrew more lately, but his landlord is really strict with guests staying more than a week being on the lease or he’ll start eviction proceedings. Why?”
Sam looked at Destiny and nodded. Turning back to Cassie whose left leg twitched nervously, she said, “That’s a good thing. It means this thing – whatever it is – isn’t attached to you but to the house or, maybe, the property.” Cassie sighed in relief and smiled as Sam continued, “So, here’s my plan. You go stay with your parents for the weekend. I’d ask the Johnsons to let you stay with them, but with eight kids, it gets loud and frantic. Lend me a spare key to your place, and when you come home after work on Monday, it should be gone. If I can’t get rid of it by Thursday, I work for free.”
After Cassie left, Sam walked to the investigation supply closet she kept in her office. She grabbed the white marble mortar and pestle, a small amber vial of frankincense oil, dried basil, dried rosemary, and dried white sage.Sam placed them on her desk, returned to the closet, and picked up a crystal vial of holy water and a magazine filled with blessed ammunition. As she ground the herbs, Destiny sat on her desk.
“You don’t have a clue what’s going on, do you?”
“That’s why I need a couple of days to fix it,” Sam said as she ground the herbs into a powder. “I’ll gather evidence tonight, formulate a plan, and then fix things tomorrow.”
Destiny furrowed her brow and pursed her lips. Shaking her head, Destiny’s feet kicked the faded desk that saw Sam through high school and her three years of college. “I know you won’t like this, but you may want to ask your father for…”
“Fuck no!” Sam increased the force with which she twisted the pestle to grind the herbs. Glaring into them, she continued, “If I need help, Rayna Rosenthorn is two doors down. She’ll tell the whole damned neighborhood, but she’s not going to walk out and ghost me for eight fucking years.”
Destiny growled a sigh and shook her head. “Stubborn as an Irish mule.”
Sam pushed my falling bangs from her eyes, smiled, and said, “Well, you have met my father.”
Sam mixed the three herbs together and used a medicine dropper to add three drops of frankincense oil to the herbal blend. She heard Destiny slam her right hand onto her face as an all-too-familiar, exasperated sigh pushed through her lips.
“Sam,” she said, “I love you dearly, but you are a stubborn bitch. And I know what’s been on your mind lately, so I’m worried that you’re being reckless so you can…”
“I’m fine.” Sam spoke in a flat voice as she set the concoction aside to dry. She sighed and softened her face. “Destiny, I’m fine. Look, Cassie’s young and scared. I don’t think she realizes everything going on around her, but she knows something bad is happening. She wants help, and I don’t think this will be that dangerous. Hell, it could be nothing more than Veil Sensitivity. If you wanted to jump back into the mix, I’d love to have you join me on this.”
“Nope, I’ll help with research and office work and research, but I’m not going back into the field,” She said.
Sam knew her response before she asked. Sam nodded in response, but she wished her best friend would reconsider. It had been eight years since her first, and last, field case as part of the Grimms, the Veil Watchers based in Germany and Austria, and her father hoped that working with Sam would nudge her to return to the family business. Even if she refused to join her in the field, Sam was proud to have Destiny Grimm on her team and as her friend.
“And to your other concern, Des, I’ve worked it out another way. I’ll be seeing Mom on my birthday.”
Destiny Grimm slid from the desk and into one of the mismatched brown and gray corduroy chairs. She blinked. Destiny stared in silence as Sam continued working. Destiny blinked again. She felt her breathing stop. Thoughts and images raced through her mind. There were only two ways for Sam to see her mother, and neither promised a safe and happy conclusion. Her heart thundered, and then her breathing returned.
“What do you mean? What did you—The Four Winds—What did you do at the Four Winds?”
Without raising her head, Sam offered an answer. “I met someone. I’ll be seeing her next week. Also, I made a deal with Mr. Scratch that lets me see my mom for an hour on my birthday.”
Destiny perked at Sam’s initial reply, but dread darkened her excitement. “The fuck, Sam? Okay, you’re going to have to tell me everything, but start from the deal and work your way back to the woman.”
Sam told Destiny almost everything. She detailed her father’s unexpected and unwanted phone call, her conversation with Nick Scratch, and the terms of the contract she signed. Destiny buried her face in her hands as she reminded Sam of how dangerous the path she chose was. Sam ducked the issue and changed the topic to her conversation with Carmilla. She grew animated as she spoke. Her eyes sparkled, and her smile beamed.
“So you want to wrap this case up quickly so you can focus on your date?” Destiny asked when Sam finished.
Sam nodded. “That’s my hope. And it’s not a date. We’re just meeting for drinks. I doubt it’ll go beyond that.”