Cassie Waters lived in her great grandmother’s house in the Veiled Heights district of Butcher’s Bend. That surprised me, as few humans lived there. Most cited the high prices of the housing market or a vague feeling of discomfort. That said, the Heights was where most of the NHMs chose to live. The Veil’s heightened presence produced a strange feeling of agitation in humans that, if someone weren’t accustomed to its energies, manifested in nausea, nightmares, dizziness, and feelings of being watched. The scratches and groping she mentioned suggested that something beyond Veil Sensitivity may have been present, but I’ve learned that a poor investigator dismisses the simplest solution before investigating.
As the setting sun painted the sky with shades of purple, orange, and red, I arrived at Cassie’s house on the corner of Garnier and Shipton. The three-story, lavender Victorian with abalone trim shared a white and yellow picket fence with the Johnsons’ massive, natural oak, ranch-style home. The burgundy Forester in the driveway told me Maria was home. Across Garnier from both their houses sat the playground and youth soccer complex, collectively known as Joan d’Parc. This park’s name caused me to consider apologizing to Donal for how much shit I’ve given him for convincing my mother to let him call me Sam.
Passing through the yellow door and into the foyer with its photograph-lined walls, I noticed the unexpected stale, rotted moth ball stench in the house. The wallpaper samples on the granite counter told me that Cassie planned to cover at least part of the yellow paint on the kitchen walls. I grew up in a house like this, and I remember how much renovating I did after mom’s accident before I sold it. Donal did not approve, and after the last few years, maybe he was right. The catalogs on the table in the breakfast nook suggested she also planned to update the furnishings.
Leaving the wax disc in my purse, I set my purse on the counter by the stove and texted Destiny a few pictures of the house. Aside from the strange stench, nothing appeared out of place in the house. I plopped onto the bed in the guest room alongside my blue and orange canvas weekender. After I changed from my blouse, skirt, and heels into a white blouse with a necktie, black double-button cigarette pants, and black sneakers, I grabbed the small backpack that held my ritual gear, such as it was, and holstered my Walther P-38 on my hip. I knew enough magic to perform a few basic spells for protection and information, but not enough to claim the title of magician or witch. Destiny always said my favorite magical spell to cast was “Bang.”
I finished my uneventful initial walkthrough about ten minutes before Jordan Washington, a regular delivery driver for Sal’s Pastas and Pies, called to confirm the address before he left. Sal always hired the best drivers, and Jordan was both good at his job and a good kid. Thirteen minutes later, Jordan delivered the Book Club Special, a small prosciutto and marinated bell pepper pizza, half an order of garlic knots, and a soda. Sal’s monthly book club, which he dubbed ‘Book It for Adults,’ tapped into that nostalgia for the old Pizza Hut program that fed my love for reading with a monthly book that we all got together to discuss on the 28th with pizza, cake, and cocktails served in textured red plastic glasses. I spent the evening reading this month’s book, Jabberwock in the Jungle, while waiting for this entity to manifest itself.
The charcoal tab in my bronze censor sparked and hissed as I sprinkled the incense I prepared earlier atop its smoldering coal. My nose wrinkled at the incense’s stench, which was not the smell I thought that blend of herbs and oil would possess. If the theory my father and his pretentious wizard friends taught me proved accurate, then this stench would either attract this entity so I could figure out what the fuck it is or repel it. I hoped for the former because the latter may cause more trouble that would alert the S-T’s. I placed my censor atop a wooden disc and set it on the nightstand as I drifted to sleep in the guest bedroom.
I dreamed frequently, but I rarely remembered any details from my dreams. Tonight, however, I remembered my dream with cinematic clarity. The rain of an early afternoon shower drummed upon the roof of the Victorian house where I grew up. I was an adult, but I awoke under the Little Mermaid bedsheets that were my favorite until I was nine. A thin haze of perfumed smoke hung in the air. With excited trepidation, my bare feet walked across the familiar, lightly varnished oak floorboards, down the stairs, and into the kitchen with its yellow wallpaper and lavender countertops. A simple blue mug containing black coffee sat near the stove. I held my breath as I saw a shadowed figure sitting in the breakfast nook where my mom always sat. I watched as an olive hand raised a mug of some steaming beverage to the figure’s lips as they sat with their face angled toward the window. With the mug in hand, I walked toward the figure.
As I reached her, I saw the long gray curls peppered with black streaks. My hand trembled as I raised the black coffee to my lips before whispering, “Mom?”
The figure extended a hand, inviting me to sit opposite them at the nook. As I did, I saw the unfamiliar, wrinkled, olive face of an elderly woman with deep eyes of sparkling tiger’s eye. Reading the confusion on my face, she smiled gently. “Welcome to my home, dear.”
“Your home?” I sipped my coffee as I looked around the kitchen. “This looks like my home. Well, the home I grew up in.”
She nodded and chuckled. I detected a slight accent that I didn’t recognize. “I would like to thank you for helping my great-granddaughter. She does not know what her father has done.”
I gazed at the rain as it tapped against the window. I always loved rainy days at home. As a girl, I would curl up in this breakfast nook with a good book and hot cocoa–-until I started drinking coffee. Mom flitted about the kitchen, humming Kate Wolf songs, while she baked bread and made soup. I smiled through teary eyes as these memories emerged and sighed. “That seems to be par for a dad’s course. So, Mrs.… Waters?”
“Walser,” she interjected with a smile, “Masilda Walser.”
She smiled and turned to the window. Nodding, she chuckled nostalgically. “For a season. We were a traveling people.”
Ah, Romani. I nodded. “So the bottle that was shattered… your doing?”
She nodded and sipped from her mug. Sadness darkened her face. She sighed and pleaded, “I hope you have not forgotten the way of your ancestors as my family has.”
Thunder rolled through the sky. The rains picked up. An icy breeze blew through the house, and the lights flickered. The perfumed smoke thinned. The rain clouds thickened and darkened, casting heavy shadows across the yard as the door behind me slammed closed. I turned around, and the lights went dark. Footsteps echoed from the wooden floor, and as I turned to follow their sound, my nose wrinkled from the musty staleness rising in the air.
I jerked my head toward the old woman when I heard the shattering of a ceramic mug. The lights in the kitchen shattered, darkening the room. My eyes shot wide as I stared at the dark figure I could only vaguely perceive through the corners of my eyes. Vaguely human and seated, the figure loomed over me, staring through eyeless sockets. I gasped. Its taloned hand thrust into my chest, piercing and stopping my heart. His lipless mouth contorted into a hungering grin of bile-dripping, yellowed fangs.
“Remember,” his voice rasped as his hand ripped my heart from my chest.
I screamed, slamming my eyes shut as the pain tore through my body. When my eyes opened, I stood before the Barrowman Family Mortuary and Crematorium. It was sunny and humid. A heavy lump blocked my throat, and my eyes refused to blink. I took a deep breath as I touched the iron doorknob, hoping that I would get a call saying there was a mistake. I closed my eyes, tensed my muscles, and turned the knob to walk through the door. Then I shot awake in the guest bedroom in Cassie Waters’ home. Cold sweat covered my body. I grabbed my cell phone, and that little wax disc with the Third Pentacle of Jupiter fell onto the floor.
Sam fired a quick text to Cassie as she unlocked the door to her apartment. As Sam switched on the den’s light, Sandy Paws meowed plaintively. Sam scooped up her cat, knowing that Sandy’s fur would cover the sleeveless, orange and blue paisley swing dress she wore. Sam glanced at the food and water bowls. She set Sandy on the floor and ducked into the kitchen to refill the bowls.
“Mommy’s sorry, baby. You don’t have to look so pitiful. Oh, don’t meow like that. I’ll only be gone for two more nights. At least it’s a local case, so both Auntie Des and I can spend time with you. Okay, come on.”
Sam sank into her tattered tan couch she had owned since college. Sandy Paws leaped into Sam’s lap. Sam scratched her cat’s eyebrows, causing Sandy to purr loudly. She lowered her head, smiling, and Sandy rubbed her forehead against Sam’s. She kissed her cat’s forehead.
When Sandy Paws left the snuggle session to drink water, Sam prepared her second French press of coffee. She smiled as she inhaled its rich hazelnut aroma. As she sipped the black coffee from her mug that read “Despite the look on my face, you’re still talking,” the lock on her front door clicked. Sam poked her head through the archway separating the kitchen from the den and saw Destiny enter.
“Oh, hey, I thought you’d still be at Cassie Waters’ place.”
Sam yawned and shook her head. “Fucked up dream woke me up. Figured I’d see if I had anything in my books here that might shed light on things. And I missed Sandy.”
“Well, tell me about this dream, and let’s get to work.”
Destiny popped the tab on her energy drink as Sam recounted her dream. Sandy Paws flitted between laps, earning praise and snuggles from both women. As Sam described the creature that ripped her heart out, Destiny took notes on the small pad she kept in her purse. Tears welled in Sam’s eyes, and her voice cracked as she narrated the ending scene. Destiny, knowing this was the memory of when she learned of her mother’s death, rushed to Sam’s side and held her.
Destiny exhaled slowly. “That’s heavy. Let me go slip the ‘Out of Office on a Case’ sign on the office door, and I’ll be back.”
Sam nodded and continued drinking her coffee and snuggling her cat. She sighed and shook her head. I’ve fucking done it now, she thought. I’ve got no clue what this thing is, but I don’t think Cassie cares what it is so long as it’s gone. That bottle seemed to be a binding spell. I don’t want to leave her safety to chance like that again. We don’t have the money for me to take this on pro bono. And then I went and made a stupid deal with the devil. Fuck. I should’ve finished school and become a teacher.”
As she refilled her mug, Cassie returned her text. “Yeah. We put it in a box to send to storage. Do you need it?”
“Not sure. I think it might have some information I need. Can you find it?”
“Yeah. I’ll bring it to you tonight. Okay?”
They set a meeting time. Sam took her coffee mug and walked into her office. Sandy followed her. Sam moved the pile of books on her desk to the floor, freeing her laptop for use. As she powered on her laptop, Sandy jumped onto the desk and curled up beside the computer. As the machine that still ran Windows 7 booted, Sam rifled through the unorganized pile of books, cursing herself for procrastinating on cleaning and organizing her office. After an hour of searching, she slammed a book onto the pile, causing it to collapse and Sandy Paws’s left ear to twitch.
An hour into Sam’s internet searching, Destiny returned. “Sorry I took so long. I had an idea and did a little digging in the books there.”
Destiny shrugged. “Groome didn’t have much that fit that description. Closest I found was a Mullo, but that’s more of a physical creature. This thing doesn’t have a body, does it?”
“Don’t know, Des. I haven’t seen it other than in that dream, but it can physically harm people. I’ve been scouring Hungarian lore, and Ive found two possibilities—the guta and the liderc. The guta is a demonic spirit that rips out hearts, like it did in my dream. The liderc takes the form of a family member or lover, comes in the night, and drinks someone’s blood. What do you think?”
Destiny moved behind Sam and read the text on the screen. She sighed. “Both could work, Sam. But my instincts tell me we’re missing something. Got any other clues?”
Sam checked her phone. “Not yet. Cassie is searching for her great grandma’s diary. I’ve got a hunch we’ll get our best answer from that.”
Destiny nodded. “I doubt this means anything, but all of the stuff we found feeds into the modern conception of the vampire in different ways.”
Sam swiveled in her chair and faced Destiny. “Vampire? Do you think I’ll end up facing one? Because I don’t sense that.”
Destiny blinked and then giggled. “Isn’t that going to happen on your date Friday night?”
Sam rolled her eyes. “It’s not a date. It’s just drinks.”
Destiny raised her right eyebrow. “So you assume. It may start as ‘just drinks,’ but it could end up something else.”
“It won’t.” Sam shook her head. “I won’t let it. I’ve got too much going on to have that distract me.”
Destiny tapped her chin with her left index finger, her eyes looking toward the ceiling. “Like what? You’ve got the Waters case, and all the mundanes are on hold until the end of the month or later due to court date scheduling.”
Sam picked up the pile of books on the floor. Choosing three, she arranged them between the bookends on the left side of her desk. “I’ve got to remain focused. A lawyer might call with further questions.”
“And that might take an hour of your time.” Destiny kneeled and helped collect the books.
“What if we take on a new case? I’ll need time for that.”
“Then we’ll work out a schedule.” Destiny placed her hand on Sam’s shoulder. “What’s going on? You got so animated talking about this woman. I haven’t seen you that happy since your mom passed. So, what’s up?”
Sam sighed. She leaned onto the desk and bit her lip. Instinctively, Sandy Paws walked across the laptop’s keyboard and nuzzled her mom. Sam stroked Sandy with one hand while massaging her temples with the other. “It’s just that. It’s just that thanks to this deal I made with Nick Scratch, I’ll be able to talk to Mom again. What if Mom doesn’t like her? What if I fall in love, but Nick calls in that favor? What if it’s something I fail at?”
Destiny hugged her friend and business partner. Sam trembled. Destiny whispered that she could cry if she needed. Sandy Paws meowed in support. Sam shook her head, mumbling about not wanting to ruin her makeup.
“No one’s going to see it but me if you do.” Destiny smiled as she looked into Sam’s glassy brown eyes. “We can play the What If Game all day, but you need to know a few things first. Your mom would want you to be happy. She’d support your happiness. You know that. As far as this deal goes, well, at least Carmilla knows about it. And perhaps she could help. She’s obviously older than you, and she may have connections. No one’s asking you to rush off, rent a U-Haul, and get married after a few drinks. Go, have fun, and be open to what happens. If things turn to shit, then know you have the support of the Veiled Knights of Wilhelm and Jakob to avenge you. Hell, I might even go back into the field for that one.”
Tears flowed from Sam’s eyes. She smiled at Destiny. “You’d do that for me? I know how you swore off field assignments and walked away after that one in Berlin. That means a lot.”
They hugged. “Of course, I would. I’ve got your back, and I know you’ve got mine. Let’s finish this case so we can make some money and you can enjoy your date. I promise I won’t use it as the basis for any fanfiction this time.”
In an entry from 1968, Sam found a list of ingredients for a protective bottle, used to bind what Masilda Walser called a “nuisance of a little pecking hen.” In earlier entries, she praised this hen for bringing financial security to the family—a family who had escaped Sachsenhausen, fled to the United States with only a fistful of Marks and a black hen, and then built their fortune through handmade furniture construction and sales. This little black hen lived in the family home, which they renovated upon moving in, for almost a decade before trouble began.
The little hen began smothering Masilda at night, riding her while pressing on her throat until she collapsed, unconscious. Subsequent entries suggested this hen changed shapes into a caramel-skinned woman with flowing red hair and attempted to take her husband, Leander. Was this sexual? Was the hen after his soul? A liderc might have either motive—or both. Confident that she knew the cause, Sam mentally rehearsed the one banishing ritual she had learned from Ronan Fingal.
As the perfumed steam filled her nostrils, Sam’s thoughts drifted from the case to Carmilla. I wonder what color her eyes were before she became a vampire. I bet they were a gold-flecked emerald. That would be so pretty against her hair and skin. And with her burgundy lips. Her skin was so soft. And she smelled amazing, so fresh and floral but elegant and poised.
Sam bit her lip as her hands slid and cupped her breasts. She arched her back as she kneaded them, gently flicking her fingers over her nipples as her mind envisioned Carmilla’s soft, burgundy lips kissing their way from the nape of her neck to the curve of her shoulder. Soft moans escaped her lips as her right hand slowly slid between her legs. Her breathing became rougher and shallower as her hips rocked from the gentle, loving touch of her mental lover. An electric warmth shot through her body, flushing her alabaster skin. She panted and moaned. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head. Her lips parted as a scream burst from her lungs.
Footsteps rapped on the hardwood floor. Sam continued pleasuring herself. She moaned again. The footsteps echoed as they moved closer. Sam’s head jerked up as her eyes turned toward the sound.
Sam wrapped a lavender towel around her body and crept toward the bedroom. She wrapped her blue satin robe around her body and fished her Walther P38 from her weekender. It was loaded. She breathed deeply as she crept along the bedroom wall. After three loud footsteps, the sound stopped. Sam’s muscles tensed. Her heart quickened. She held her breath and then poked her head into the hall.
Nothing. Sam blinked. After a few minutes, Sam retreated into the bedroom. She placed her handgun on the nightstand, grabbed the towel, and returned to the bathroom. She drained the tub and then tossed the towel into the white wicker hamper. When Sam reached the bathroom door, she screamed, arched her back, and fell to her knees. A burning sensation caused her to lift her robe. She winced as electric heat shot through her body from the three jagged scratches just above her left hip.
Sam’s gaze searched the room. Her breath came fast and shallow. She shook her head. Nothing. Fuck. It wants to play rough. We’ll play rough.
As sunrise neared, Sam drifted to sleep. She found herself in the emerald fields atop a cliff overlooking a river. As she turned her back to the blazing morning sun, she saw sheep and cattle grazing freely. A kerry cow mooed plaintively. The air smelled like a freshly cut lawn, but Sam saw no people other than herself. As an eastern wind blew, she shrugged her shoulders and walked westward.
The grass felt soft beneath her boots as Sam walked through what felt like an endless field. Birds chirped as they perched on branches in the scattered trees. A silent shadow drifted over her as a lone raven followed her trajectory. After an hour or more of walking, Sam noticed a dolmen of soot-darkened gray stone. She shrugged her shoulders and walked toward this portal.
As she neared the stone, the raven cawed and changed its path. She saw a figure leaning against one of the support stones. She paused. This figure, a man, appeared shorter than her, had a tangled mess of red hair that fell to his armpits, and wore a bloodstained and tattered tunic and trousers. He staggered—no; he limped—toward her. His speed exceeded hers. When he stood before her, he presented Sam with a wooden bowl with a knife inside of it. Sam took a single step back.
“I am so thirsty. I just need your blood.” A thick Irish brogue colored his voice.
Sam shook her head. The wind blew her hair into her lips. “I’m sorry. I need my blood inside me.”
She stepped back. This small man closed the distance. His voice grew impatient. “I am thirsty. I need your blood.”
“My blood is not for drinking. I will not give you my blood.”
Sam turned to run. The little man outpaced her. He leaped upon her and pinned her to the ground. Sam kicked and clawed, but he proved strong for someone of his size. Yellow saliva dripped from his rotten teeth onto Sam’s skin. Her heart thundered in her ears. Her breathing matched the rhythm. He growled.
“If you will not give it freely, then I shall take what I am owed.” His words echoed like a wolf’s roar in a canyon as he plunged his hand into Sam’s chest. Her ribs snapped from his powerful thrust as he ripped her heart from her body. Sam screamed and slammed her eyes shut. When her eyes opened, she found herself in the guest bedroom at Cassie Waters’ home.