We had been in London for a week when my cell phone rang, an early call. My best friend, Shannon, had just talked to her boyfriend, Jesse, the night before, so it probably wasn’t him. It might be Tia, I supposed, concerned that I needed more money, but she had already wired me plenty.
I didn’t blame my teacher for being worried; it wasn’t every day that a pupil went to Sheol to rescue a friend, staged a minor coup, lost her lover, and then returned via demon gate to a different continent. The journey started on a remote mountaintop in Mexico and ended in a London alley. For obvious reasons, I was struggling to find a way for us to get home. Official channels were out, as the U.K. would ask too many questions about how we’d arrived without passports. A fresh headache throbbed, a vise around the back of my skull.
My gifts were complicated. Once, I only had the touch, which permitted me to read charged objects; they could tell me secrets people didn’t want me to know. Then I gained my mother’s witchy skill, but I burned her white magick out in Sheol, channeling demon energy at a ferocious rate. I could probably still read objects, and the demon magick lingered, an echo of the demon queen’s possession in Sheol. If I had any choice, I wouldn’t use that again. To make matters worse, the trouble probably hadn’t ended with my exit. Demons had long memories, and I still owed a debt to Sibella, the Luren Knight. With my luck, she would hunt me down.
The phone rang for the fourth time. My dog, Butch, nudged me. He was curled up on the bed beside me, and he looked worried as only a Chihuahua could.
“Hello.” I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but our friends in Texas were worried, wondering when we’d hop a plane. That depended on a number of factors.
No, I thought. I never will be again.
The love of my life, Chance, was gone; he’d sacrificed himself so Shannon and I could escape Sheol. Shortly after our crossing, we’d raised him on Shan’s spirit radio, which meant his soul hadn’t been destroyed by the demon gate, but . . . Shan’s gift permitted her to talk to the dead. So he wasn’t here anymore.
It was hard for me to think beyond my own pain, imagine what the future might hold. But for Shannon, I had to get things straightened out. Life went on whether I wanted it to or not.
“I’m sorry if this is a bad time.”
“I thought it might be because I haven’t been able to find you. Not online. Not on your cell. Not even in dreams. Where did you go that I couldn’t touch your dreams?” He sounded terse. Worried, even. Which wasn’t like him.
The Booke I knew was an unflappable scholar, better suited for research than human relationships. There was doubtless a reason. Maybe I’d learn why, at long last. Any other time, my curiosity would be piqued beyond bearing.
“I’d rather not talk about it.” My secrets matched his, though I hoped his didn’t come with such awful, aching depth. “You were looking for me, I take it?”
He inhaled sharply, his distress plain. It might be tough for him to ask for a hand, but I needed the distraction, so I waited for Booke’s request.
“I need your help rather desperately, Corine.”
Mentally, I was already packing my bag; I didn’t have as far to go as he imagined. “I’m listening.”
“It’s a bit complex to get into long distance. Can you come? I’ll pay for the ticket. I know it’s asking a lot—”
“I’m in London,” I cut in, hoping that would stem the apologetic tide.
The pause said I’d surprised him. I imagined he was weighing whether to ask what I was doing there, but in the end, he opted not to pry. He had been guarding his own secrets so long that it probably felt awkward to poke at someone else’s. And it wasn’t that I’d refuse to tell him; I just wasn’t ready, particularly over the phone.
“You already know I live in Stoke . . . it’s not far on the train.”
He did, and I scrawled it on the cheap pad of paper provided by the economy hotel where Shannon and I had been staying. I hadn’t been looking forward to living here for an extended period anyway. The amenities were basic, at best.
“I suspect the cottage will strike you as a tad ramshackle, but inside it’s not as bad as it looks. I’ll leave the door unlocked, so just come straight in.”
“I’ll see you later today,” I said, and then rang off.
Maybe it was just as well we had a side trip, as I needed time to pull together our exit strategy. Our cooked passports would pass cursory inspections for national rail travel, but if we tried to leave the country, and they scanned them, well, that would be a problem, one that required a solution, and I was working on it.
Though I tried to stay out of the system, I had no outstanding warrants. I’d been questioned a few times over the course of my work with Chance, but mostly I had enemies I’d pissed off by discovering the very bad thing they’d done. Many of those people were in prison, but caution had become second nature; I worried about people finding me who shouldn’t, flagged by governmental forms.
She straightened from her lounge on the twin bed, covered in a rumpled black and white spread. “What’s going on?”
“You sure you’re up to working?” As she hadn’t put on her Lolita makeup yet, I could see the faint worry creasing her brows.
I thought about that as I packed my few belongings. “No, but the alternative is sitting here, staring at the walls. I don’t think that will help my state of mind.”
Shan made an openhanded gesture that I took for agreement; then she gathered up her stuff too. Neither of us had much, so it didn’t take long. I shouldered my purse with Butch inside it, then picked up my backpack. Booke needed my help, and as many times as he’d saved my ass, I owed him.
It didn’t take long to check out, as we had been renting day by day; fortunately the hotel was booked light enough to accommodate this laissez-faire strategy. On the street, it was cool and damp, not quite raining.
I liked the ready access to public transportation here, however. We made our way to the tube, and with minimal effort got a train to Stoke. They ran regularly, faster than driving, according to Shan’s Internet search. In short order, we settled into the car along with the other passengers. Some looked like commuters; others were sightseeing, based on their luggage and camera addiction. Shan settled in the window seat, which left me on the aisle. The car was three-quarters full. I said little as we pulled out of the station. Butch stayed hidden in my bag as we hadn’t checked the pet policy before we traveled. But it was a short trip, so he could nap for that long.
“You want me to find somebody to pick us up?” She pulled up Booke’s address on her smart phone, mapping it online.
I leaned over to scrutinize the distance. “That would be good. Looks like it’s not in town.”
Shan was already searching. “So a car service, not a taxi.”
The girl was remarkably efficient at finding information on her cell, and after a few moments of clicking, then one call, she arranged a ride for us. “See, Corine, technology is your friend.”
Because it was Shan, I dredged up a smile, even though my throat was always, always tight, as if the tears could start up at any minute. Sometimes it was hard to look at her, knowing I’d brought Chance with me, then he died saving her. It was supposed to be me, I thought in the heaviest despair. The sensation didn’t dissipate. Instead with it rose a profound nausea, possibly caused by the movement of the train.
I barely made it to the lavatory before emptying my stomach. Three more heaves and I had nothing left. Great. Though I’d never heard of grief making somebody physically ill, there was a first time for everything, right? Unsteadily, I pushed upright, then rinsed my mouth repeatedly. Washing my face and hands didn’t seem like enough so I used antibacterial gel when I got back to my seat.
“Everything all right?” Shan asked, her gaze skimming my face.
“Just not feeling well.” In so many ways. “I’ll get over it.”
“Do you want something to eat or drink?”
“God, no. After I catch a nap, I’ll be fine.” Listless, I turned my head against the window, saw nothing of the countryside, and willed myself to sleep.
I woke to Shan’s hand on my shoulder. “We’re here. Feeling any better?”
“I think so.” Blearily, I followed her to disembark.
We had no baggage to collect, so we moved quickly through the crowd of milling passengers. The train station was busy with people collecting friends and relatives, tourists poring over maps to figure out the way to their hotels, commuters striding with bold confidence.
A few paces on, the driver was waiting for us with a small sign. He was around forty with a crop of ginger hair and a generous sprinkling of freckles.
Shan nudged me. “Is it weird that I feel shiny over that placard?”
“No. It’s a first for me too. Very VIP.” I managed a smile.
He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but there was no question we were the Cheney party. At our approach, the driver reached for my backpack, but I shook my head. “I’m fine, thanks. Just lead the way.”
“As you like, miss. The car’s parked over here.” He led us out to a gray sedan and opened the door for us.
I climbed in, Shannon after me. As we settled, he checked the address. “You’ve rented the ghost cottage, then? I didn’t know it was to let.”
Raising a brow, I exchanged a silent look with Shan, before replying cautiously, “It should be an adventure.”
The driver cast us a look as he pulled into the stream of traffic. I’d never get used to driving on that side. “The place is quite isolated. Are you sure it’s habitable?”
“We’re used to roughing it,” Shan said, hefting her backpack.
“Are you ghost hunters? Will you be doing EVPs?” It seemed like an odd logical leap until I remembered the reality shows devoted to that pursuit. Maybe it was mainstream enough these days that this became the natural assumption.
It seemed safer to play along. “Strictly on an amateur basis.”
He turned down a busy street with the confidence of one who had lived someplace his whole life. “Have you ever found anything spooky?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Shannon’s grin took the sting out of the rebuff.
“What’s the legend behind the ghost cottage?” I asked.
“You didn’t research it before coming all this way?” He sounded surprised.
A valid question, but I covered. “Of course. But I’d like to hear how local stories differ from what’s online.”
“Oh, good point. The story starts back in the early nineteen hundreds. The man who lived there was odd. Reclusive. People whispered all kinds of things about him . . . that he was a murderer, a wizard who practiced the dark arts.” The driver’s tone became self-deprecating, as if he was embarrassed to repeat such rubbish.