Chapter One

The diner was quiet except for some low chatter from other customers, scratchy sounds of bowls being stacked, and tinkling of glasses being handled. It was the sound of 2 A.M. Gabriel had come to know what that sounded like the past year or so. Ever since the Incident.

He let the hot steam soothe with the tired muscles of his face for a moment before he took a long sip of his black cup of coffee. He didn't used to like it black; before it could never take enough cream and sugar. Now he liked it wonderfully bitter, kind of like how his life had been lately.

Gabriel was living the way some people only dream of. Always traveling, seeing new places, meeting new people. That was the wonderful part. But the bitterness, the tragedy of his purpose, was a thing of nightmares.

"Sizza sad and tragic thing," Gabriel said, almost mumbling to himself in his gravelly voice, but loud enough to where the greasy, middle-aged man wiping the counter could hear.

"Hm?" the counter guy said.

"That family," Gabriel said.

"Oh, where the wife blew up the house, almost killed her entire family?" counter guy replied.

"Yeah," Gabriel said. "Where'd you say that was, exactly?"

"I didn't," the counter guy said, "but that house was on State street. I don't know the exact address, but it shouldn't be hard to spot if you want to go be a lookee-loo. Just look for the blowed up house."

Gabriel quietly scoffed. Those small town folk and their grammar sometimes.

The man sniffed a few times. He wrinkled his nose. He looked at Gabriel, probably trying to decide if the foul odor he was encountering was coming from Gabriel. If he did decide that, then he would be correct. He hoped that the counter guy would be polite and not say anything. The odor that Gabriel had to wear about him like a foul scarf was just one more thing on a long list of things he didn't like about his current occupation.

"Gimme a warm up, please," Gabriel said, sliding his cup away from him. The man grabbed a steaming pot of coffee and filled him up. Fortunately he didn't ask about the odor. Gabriel hated having to explain it, either by lying, or even saying something close to the truth. The truth tended to freak people out more than any lie he could come up with.

"They say that the family, they was pretty happy and all," the counter guy said, still sniffing around, as he returned the pot to its warmer, "and one day a few weeks ago the woman, Mrs. Tarkington, it was like she was a different person."

Gabriel sipped the hot, bitter coffee thoughtfully. That was what he was looking for. He slipped his hand into the side pocket of his frayed and tired jacket and pulled out his phone.

"That's quite a phone," the counter guy said, nodding at it. Gabriel realized that, with his unkempt hair, tattered hat and old jacket, the phone looked like it didn't quite belong. It was one of those with the full keyboard, stylus, and all the latest features. It's true that he would have never owned one of those if it hadn't been given to him. His last phone was beat up little silver one he'd gotten for free in 2002.

Gabriel just shrugged at the man. "I'm gonna go to the john." He got up. The conversation he was about to have couldn't take place near this nosey guy. He picked up his precious brown briefcase from the side of his stool and left.

Once in the empty bathroom, Gabriel placed a call. A dark-skinned face appeared on the screen of his fully video-capable phone. "What do you know, mon?" he said in his familiar Jamaican accent.

"I have a location and a pretty good idea that we're on the right track, Shaman," Gabriel said. "This woman, name's Tarkington, she became a different person before the incident."

"Sounds like one of mine was there," Bastiaan said.

"Do you..." Gabriel hesitated. He sighed and swallowed. "Do you think it could be Michelle?"

"Could be I suppose," Bastiaan said, "since it was a woman that was possessed. But odds are it's not your dead wife. It would be awfully lucky to be running into her so soon, mon."

Gabriel sighed again. There was nothing lucky about his life lately. "If only I'd gotten there in time."

"We'll get her next time, Gabriel," Bastiaan said, "now that we've perfected the system. We prevented that tragedy in Chicago with time to spare. And speaking of time. You have four hours to get to the site of this one if you want to stop it from happening."

"Why can't you use your Shaman magic to actually get me there before the event happens?" Gabriel asked. "This time travel stuff, I don't like it. You think jet lag is bad..."

"The short answer is it doesn't work that way," Bastiaan replied. "And jet lag affects your body, I don't send your body back. That would be impossible. Now, time is short. If twenty-four hours pass after..."

"Yeah, I know, I know," Gabriel cut him off, "if you send me back further than that my soul will get lost or something."

"No, it's just that I cannot guarantee that I can bring you back," Bastiaan said. "Now go. Call me when you're ready."

Then the Shaman's face disappeared from the screen. Gabriel sighed and put the phone back in his jacket pocket. He picked up his briefcase, left the bathroom, and returned to his barstool.

"What's the quickest way to State Street?" Gabriel asked the counter guy.

"Oh well, if ya wanna get there quick, even if ya might have to double back a tad, I'd go right out there back to the interstate and head west and get off on the State Street exit and go right, or east. I believe that house was east of that exit. Might cut a few minutes off the normal way, which would be to take Bell Street down to Hawkins, go left, and head on down that road a few miles..."

"Thanks," Gabriel interrupted, "the interstate sounds fine."

"What's your business there, if I might ask? I mean, that place is still yellow-taped and swarmin' with them cops and reporters..."

"No offense, but it's none of yours," Gabriel said. He dropped some crumpled money on the counter to pay for his coffee and a tip and he left.

It indeed was not difficult to find the place. Gabriel slowly pulled into a parking space a block away, the engine of his 1978 Dodge Charger deeply purring as it slowed down. The scene was not as swarmed as he'd expected. Maybe things were slow because of the time of night. Or maybe most of the media mob hadn't arrived yet because it had only been about four hours since it broke that it wasn't an ordinary house explosion, that it was intentional. Either way, Gabriel felt confident that he could sneak past a half-dozen investigators and two news crews.

Gabriel snuck around the back of the house next door (which had incurred some minor damage itself) and found his way into the back yard, or what was left of it. He stood amidst some of the debris, clutched a golden watch that hung around his neck with one hand, and called Bastiaan with his other. "It's time." The Shaman began chanting in his native language, which Gabriel didn't know a word of, and that uncomfortable began, that feeling of being pulled out of his body like a cork out of a wine bottle.

Within seconds he was standing outside of himself, facing himself. If he had a body he would have shivered, looking into his own eyes, with their blank, eerie stare. Thankfully that moment didn't last long, as the scene began to go backwards, like it was a movie being rewound. At high speed, Gabriel's body left. Other people flashed in and out. The sun rose again. And then, the most bizarre rewind of them all: the explosion imploding, the house coming back together, the pieces being sucked back into it until it was normal again.

When it all began to slow down Gabriel knew he had gone back actually less than 24 hours ago, as the sun was just rising. It was time to get to work.

"They're all sinners," Shannon Tarkington mumbled as she thumbed the pilot lights out on the gas stove, "sinners who should burn. Who will burn. Should burn. Yes. They're all dirty, filthy sinners." The orange light from the sunrise filtering through the window intensified the fiery color of her short hair. At the moment, that color seemed appropriate.

"What'cha doin' mommy?" said six-year-old Trenton, who had walked up next to her. He was still in his red pajamas, the kiddy ones with feet.

"Fixing the stove honey," Shannon said in a trembling voice.

"I'm gonna go outside and play," he said.

"Come back in a few minutes, honey!" Shannon said in almost a growl. She let him go outside in his pajamas?

"...and I heard that Madison totally likes Brent," said Faye as she walked by, from the kitchen into the living room. She was on her cell phone. She, too, had red hair, but it wasn't as intensely-colored as her mother's.

"So that's how her son survived," thought Gabriel as he stood in the house, observing what was happening. Everybody died in the explosion - Shannon, her husband Doug and teenage daughter Faye - except her son.

Faye suddenly put her phone down and looked into the kitchen. "Mom, what the hell are you doing? Did you just put the pilot lights out?"

"I'm just trying something," Shannon said, an evil grin spreading across her face.

"What is wrong with you lately? You're acting all weird and stuff."

Gabriel approached Shannon. Nobody could see him. At least not yet. But that was about to change.

Shannon suddenly looked up as if she'd heard an odd noise. She turned and looked straight at Gabriel.

"Who the fuck are you?!" she yelled.

"Mom, there's nobody there!" Faye said. She turned to the stairs. "Dad, come down here! Mom's talking to invisible people!"

"GET OUT!" Shannon yelled at Gabriel.

"I would say the same thing to you," he said.

Shannon grabbed a kitchen knife from the wooden knife holder nearby and flung it at him. It flew right through him, naturally, but stuck into Faye's right shoulder.

"Oooowwwww!!" screamed Faye as she grabbed at it.

"Crap," said Gabriel. Then he thought: "Mental note: next time, don't stop to crack wise first, just do it!"

So without further hesitation, he lunged for the woman. For a brief instant both his soul and the intruder soul were inside Shannon Tarkington's body. Shannon's soul was missing but he didn't stop to ponder that, as he used all his energy to grab the intruder and drag it out.

When they were both out, on the floor next to Shannon, he realized the troubled soul was indeed female (but unfortunately not his wife). Nine out of ten times the intruder was the same gender as the host. The woman's soul looked thirtyish, long brown hair, wearing a feminine business suit of some sort, but detail was hard to make out, though; she was fuzzy, as if he were looking at a photograph slightly out of focus. She must have been dead for years as she was already experiencing some degradation of her self image.

She lunged to return to Shannon's body but Gabriel cut her off. He grabbed her and tackled her to the floor as he heard Shannon - the real Shannon - yelling something. The thought occurred to him, as the troubled female soul struggled against his grip, that for the moment he'd stopped her from igniting the gas somehow, but it was still leaking from the stove. He had to bring her back to the present but at the same time do what he could to prevent something else from igniting the gas accidentally.

With one hand, Gabriel tried hanging onto the woman’s hair – which was a little slippery because of her self-image degradation – and with the other he tried reaching for the stove. He tried to hold onto the woman as she writhed while trying to turn off the burners at the same time; her screams were so high-pitched that he was sure that if he had ears they’d be hurting. "Shut the fuck up!" he yelled at her.

She continued screaming.

"Dammit!" Gabriel said as his hands swished through the burner knobs on his first few attempts to grab them. The woman’s struggling and screaming was breaking his concentration. For a fleeting second he considered abandoning this effort and hoping for the best, but he was committed, and giving up wasn’t usually in his vocabulary.

He growled as he tried again with all the concentration he could muster and he successfully turned one off. "Three…. to go," he grunted. It wasn’t long before somehow he’d turned them all off. Then he turned his attention back to the woman. He pulled her in for a bear hug. This only made her go more crazy.

"Bastiaan!" Gabriel yelled. "Let’s GO!"

He heard the Shaman’s ethereal voice chanting something in his native tongue. Suddenly the world began to fast forward around him and his very unhappy “friend.” He was glad to see that the zooming events didn’t include any explosions.

"I’ll destroy you!" the woman said, actually yelling real words for once.

"Whatever!" Gabriel said as they returned to the present. Wasting no time, he let go of the woman and lunged back into his body. Once he was settled, he grabbed his briefcase and yanked it open as quickly as he could. A brilliant blue crystal was inside. It was almost knife-shaped - bigger at its top than its pointed bottom - and it was mounted inside, cleanly and snugly in an indentation formed just for its shape. When the case was open it bathed the backyard of the house in its blue light.

For the brief time in between him getting back into his body and opening the case, he could not hear nor see the woman, just like any other person. However, when the crystal began sucking her into it, he could see her writhing body and hear her blood-curdling screams once again. In a few seconds, though, she was gone, trapped inside the Shaman’s special crystal. It ceased glowing and Gabriel snapped the case shut.

"Another one in the bag," he thought as he caught his breath. He felt like he’d just run a mile, even though his physical body hadn’t been exerted at all. He sat down on the ground to rest.

His phone rang. It was Bastiaan.

"Got her," Gabriel said. "I have no idea who she is; not my wife unfortunately."

"Good," Bastiaan said. "That makes five since your last dropoff. You're full. Please return to New Orleans now for a new crystal."

"Like changing vacuum cleaner bags," thought Gabriel. Then he told Bastiaan that he'd be heading home as soon as he got some breakfast. He was stomach-grumble hungry, as he usually was after soul-retrieving. He felt like waffles, which was odd since that was a breakfast item he usually didn't crave. He frowned as he pondered that.

He slowly - and discreetly - made his way back to his Charger, noticing how dead the street was (no blown up house, police tape, reporters, etc). He felt a little satisfied as he opened the old, squeaky, heavy door of his car, crawled into the driver's seat, and shut the door. For a few seconds he rested his head on the steering wheel. He was exhausted. He hadn't slept for fourteen hours and was worn out from the struggle.

After a few moments he started the engine and headed for the interstate, back to the diner.

While scarfing down a plate of waffles, he thought about his wife. He began going over and over in his head, as he often did, what happened with her and the thousands of ways it could have gone down differently if he'd done different things. The little voice in the back of his head that tried to remind him not to blame himself was drowned out by his terrible grief. What if he'd prevented her from ever going to see Bastiaan? Or maybe if he'd been more attentive to her, treated her better perhaps, she'd never even had the need to go to him?

Between those questions, one other kept coming back to him: how the hell much longer was he going to have to do this?

To be continued...


Brought to you by e2collaborators.

Chapter Two

Gabriel slid behind the wheel of his charger on a full stomach of waffles, bacon, runny eggs, and frustration. His mind was clouded but buzzed with fragments of stray thoughts. Nothing really formed coherently in his head anymore; giving his psyche a veneer of emotional grime as malleable as sun fried rubber. He needed sleep.

He pulled out his phone and dialed Bastiaan again. After a few rings the screen lit up with a live video feed of Bastiaan.

“I’m gonna stay here tonight and head out sometime tomorrow.” Gabriel said watching smoke seep out of the shaman’s nostrils. “Should be back in New Orleans by Wednesday.”

“Hurry back, mon. Sooner you get me that crystal, sooner you get paid.”

A smoldering fire at the back of Gabriel’s head belched a lick of flame. “I’m not doing this for the money!”

Bastiaan just grinned two rows of brilliantly white teeth restraining his yellow tongue. “That’s what they all say at first.”

“Sabine’s only been doing this a year longer than me.”

“And she do it for the money now.” Bastiaan retorted.

“Whatever. I’ll get there when I get there.” Gabriel scoffed and hung up the phone.

He knew he couldn’t afford to linger in this city much as his last retainer from Bastiaan was almost gone. So he drove to a drug store to pick up something to help him sleep, and after that he rented a hotel room and collapsed on the bed. Within minutes he was miles and years away, back to when this chapter of his life started.

As executor of his newly deceased wife’s estate he now was filing taxes for two. Sifting through her income slips, bill receipts, and processed checks he found a payment of three thousand dollars to someone named Bastiaan LeFeure. If it had been a small amount of money he probably wouldn’t have given the matter much thought, but due to the size of the payment and that Michelle had never discussed it with him he was both curious and angry. After another hour’s search through desk drawers and shoeboxes, he found a coffee-stained business card giving Bastiaan’s address and phone number in New Orleans.

He dialed the number on the card and a young Creole woman’s voice greeted him.

“Yes?” she asked impertinently.

“I’m looking for a Bastan La Foo.” Gabriel said.

“What you want with Bastiaan LeFeure?” she said emphasizing the undertone of “stupid white man” in her voice.

“My wife paid him for something. I want to know what.”

“Maybe you should ask her.”

“I can’t she-”

“She don’t talk to you about it, then mind your own business.”

“Look,” Gabreial shouted, “she’s dead, and now it is my business! I want to know why she paid Bastiaan three thousand dollars.”

“…Just a moment.” the woman said, and then there was a long pause on the line.

“Yes.” eventually came the dark voice of a Jamaican man.

“Is this Bastiaan LeFeure?”

“Who this?”

“My name is Gabriel Whindam. My wife did business with you.”

“What her name?”

“Michelle Whindam.”

“…You say she dead, now?”

“Last week. Look, what’s going on here?”

“You come see me. We sort you out.” Bastiaan said and hung up.

Gabriel’s anger and curiosity got the better of him and he made the long trip from Suffolk, Virginia to New Orleans, Louisiana. When he got to the address on the card he found himself looking at a townhouse on the intersection of three streets populated by some decent looking shops and cafes.

He rang the doorbell and then was looking down into the face of a young mulatto woman in overalls, white linen shirt, red bandana, and rubber gloves. She smelled of disinfectant, but would have been attractive if not for the you-are-wasting-my-time aura radiating off her.

“Yes.”

“I’m Gabriel Whindam. We talked on the phone.”

“Oh?” she said and pursed her lips in thought. Then she stepped back and gestured through the door way. “Come in. He’s in the parlor.”

In the parlor Gabriel met Bastiaan sitting reading the newspaper. Bastiaan was a tall lean Jamaican, with a bald head, wearing a white dress shirt, pleated pinstripe pants held up with suspenders and alligator loafers. This offended Gabriel’s stereotypes of black poverty in general, while Gabriel himself was wearing jeans, T-shirt, and an old White Sox jacket.

Bastiaan put down his newspaper, rose, and extended a hand to Gabriel. Gabriel shook firmly resisting the urge to drive his nails into the back of the other man’s hand.

“Bastiaan LeFeure.” the man said. “How can help you?”

“I’m Gabriel Whindam. We talked on the phone.”

Bastiaan nodded retrieving his hand from Gabriel’s uncomfortable grasp.

“Who’s the girl?” Gabriel asked, noticing the definite lack of the rude girl’s presence.

“My niece, Rachael.”

Gabriel looked around the room. “You do pretty well for yourself here.”

“Yes, I do.” Bastiaan grinned proudly.

“On my wife’s money.”

“…Yes, I do.” Bastiaan sneered defensively. “Money already spent.”

“On a suit?”

“On expenses.”

Gabriel grimaced at Bastiaan for a long moment before either of them spoke. “What is it you do here?” he said.

“I’a Houngan.”

“A what?”

“A Voudoun priest, mon. Twelve years ago Legba came to me and told me to come here and watch over this loa.”

“Wait, what?”

“I protect the spirit of this place.”

“This house?”

“No, mon. The intersection.” Bastiaan said pointing out the window to the street. “Is ripe with the crossing of the lines.”

“Okay, you better start making some sense right now.”

Bastiaan’s brow furled as he took a moment to translate his thoughts into something that Gabriel would be able to understand.

“I’a shaman. I give…spiritual healing and communicate with spirits of the dead.”

Gabriel was unconvinced. “Michelle came here to talk to a dead person?”

“No, mon. She…come to be put right. Her soul were…out of balance.”

“I’m not buying any of your voodoo crap. You just conned my wife into paying you three thousand dollars and I want it back.”

“Whether you believe or no, don’t make it not true.”

Gabriel paused in order to sort out the negatives of the last sentence while fuming anger wafted off him. Bastiaan obviously was hiding something, but right now Gabriel was too angry to think clearly about sorting out what that might be.

“What you do, mon?”

“Huh?”

“You job. What you do?”

“I’m a sanitation engineer.”

“You a garbage man.”

“No, I’m…Yes. I’m a garbage man!”

“You know how things get bad when trash pile on the street. Same thing with Michelle. I clean out the garbage of her soul. Clean her head.”

Gabriel thought about this. Michelle had been feeling depressed in recent years. She had gone to therapists, and then one day about nine months ago she felt happy and lively again. Gabriel had put it down to a break through in her therapy sessions. Michelle was doing well, their marriage was happy, and then out of left field she hung herself in the kitchen.

“How did Michelle die?”

“She killed herself.”

Bastiaan frowned. “I see.”

“Wait a minute.” Gabriel suddenly glared and jabbed Bastiaan in the chest with his finger. “You did something to her. You put this in her head!”

“No, mon. I help her. But a loa—a bad spirit, maybe were watching and got in her.”

“You said the loa was a street.”

“The loa be spirits. All spirits. Places. Good. Bad. In everything.”

“And you exposed her to one of these spirits?”

“No. I clean her up. She become more…receptive.”

“So you’re saying it’s still your fault!”

“No. No, mon. Not what I saying.”

“Yes it is! If she hadn’t come to you, none of this would have happened.”

“Yes. But she come to me. She find me. Her choice.”

Gabriel swung at Bastiaan, but the spry Jamaican dodged back; and with Gabriel off balance, Bastiaan got him in a headlock.

“Fighting me no bring you wife back!”

“Get off me!”

“But I can help you find her.”

Gabriel stopped struggling and listened. He listened to Bastiaan explain about the Spirit Healing, about loa and guedes, about how Bastiaan believed that certain angry dead spirits were the cause of most suicides and mass murders. About how Bastiaan had sent off people to collect these guedes before they caused further harm. He explained the crystals.

“And I pay you five thousand dollars for every crystal you bring back.” Bastiaan said.

Gabriel looked down at the blue crystal in his hand, watching the light refract through it onto the floor in a rainbow of dancing symbols. “So you want to pay me to find these dead spirits for you.”

“No, mon.” Bastiaan grinned. “You want me pay you, so you can be finding you wife.”

To be continued…

Chapter 3

Wake up.

Gabriel had never been a quick waker. It took time to get his brain working, and for a while all he could think about was how foul his mouth tasted.

Wake up.

He tried to keep the dream going, to remember the rest of the conversation that had led to him wandering around the fifty states with a briefcase full of spirits and a James Bond smartphone. He tried to remember everything. It was important.

I said wake up, damn you! We don't have time for snooze buttons right now.

Gabriel woke up, feeling his left cheek burning as if someone had smacked him. Hard.

What the hell was that?

Someone said, oh, I'm sorry, did I wake you up?

But there was no one there.

He rolled over, reaching for the fetish on the night table. God damn it, Bastiaan had told him he had to wear it all the time. But the thing stunk to high heaven, and Gabriel could never sleep with it around his neck. Bad enough having to wear it all day.

Before he could grab it, the little bag leapt into the air, dangling by its long leather thong and dancing across the room.

Ah-ah, said the voice. You don't want to get rid of me. You need to listen.

"Listen to what? Who are you?" Wrong question. "What are you?" None of the spirits had ever talked to him in his earthly body.

The voice sounded like a teenager's. A girl. But there was a buzz to it that he didn't like.

He put one foot down on the cold floor and sat on the side of the bed, watching the fetish hover over the chair by the mini-bar. He could see nothing holding it. What were his options? The cellphone was still on the night-table. Bastiaan was, of course, on speed dial. Could he get through to the shaman before whatever it was got him? Maybe if he ran out of the room. Good thing he had fallen asleep wearing his clothes.

Too bad his Sox jacket was draped over the chair that whatever-it-was was occupying. If he could get to his jacket pocket the thing might get a little surprise.

Stop doing that. I don't want to hurt you. I'm going to tell you what I am, but I want you to think about some things first. Ask yourself some questions.

"Is this where you tell me I'm fighting for the wrong side? I already saw that movie." Keep the thing talking. Get its guard down.

He wasn't trained for this kind of shit. He was a garbage man, not Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But working for Bastiaan had, overall, been pretty easy so far. He had imagined hellfire and dark magic, battles with the supernatural raging across city blocks. None of that had materialized. Fighting the spirits Bastiaan sent him after was pretty much like fighting drunks in a bar. And that was something he knew about.

No, the thing said, and the buzz was stronger this time. You're on the right side. Bastiaan is what you probably think of as a Good Guy. But he isn't telling you everything he knows. And you haven't asked him any of the questions you should have.

"Like what?" He readied himself to run for the door. Was that smoke he smelled?

Like why so many of Bastiaan's "patients" are committing suicide. He is not an incompetent healer, you know. He's probably the second best shaman in the South today.

It was smoke, all right. Getting stronger, too. He wondered if there was a fire in the building. A fire alarm would make a handy diversion.

"Yeah? Who's Number One?" Keep talking, spook girl.

Number One would be the sorcerer who's sabotaging Bastiaan. His old teacher. The same one who's looking for you now, by the way.

"Me? What did I -" he glanced at the chair, and realised that the smell of smoke wasn't coming from a distant fire, but from his room. So much for the fire alarm.

Wisps of dark smoke curled in the air around the chair, intensifying while he watched. At the center of this hazy cloud a shape was forming - something like a human figure made of shadow and smoke, with flickers of firelight illuminating random features here and there. A human girl's figure. With what looked like wings of smoke.

He had just started to move off the bed when his cellphone started playing Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man". That was his ringtone for Bastiaan. He faltered in his leap and turned, fumbling for the phone.

Don't tell him! the girl's voice yelled, but she couldn't stop him.

Swiping the phone off the night table, he ran for the door and punched what he hoped was the Talk button. "Bastiaan!" He called. "There's some kind of devil woman in my room!" He was at the door.

He was fumbling with the lock, unfortunately with his left hand.

He was too late.

I'm not a devil, said that musical voice right behind his ear. A delicate, dusky hand wearing fuschia nail polish immobilized his left wrist, feeling like a band of iron. Another slim, irresistable hand plucked the cellphone from his and made it disappear. I'm a jinn.

Don't even think about asking me if I live in a lamp. I'm not anyone's servant, and that lamp stuff is bullshit anyway. Name's Suriya. Don't call me Sue, or Susie, or Suri. Suriya. Get your jacket, we have to get to New Orleans before all hell breaks loose, and I mean that literally.

She was bossy as hell, thought Gabriel. And stunning, he saw when he turned around.

Don't do anything stupid, she hissed. She was small, slender and dark, with long black hair and eyes that seemed to have flames inside them. It's bad enough you just told ________ I'm here. He didn't catch the name, only a burst of noise like blatting radio static.

"What are you talking about?" He walked to the chair and slipped the jacket on, feeling the reassuring weight of the talisman in the inner pocket. Now he had a chance, if he had to fight her. But he was confused as hell. Was she an enemy or not? What had he gotten himself into?

All he ever wanted was to get his wife back, damnit. He hadn't signed up for any kind of wizards' war. And so far Bastiaan hadn't mentioned anything of the sort.

Bastiaan would have to answer for that, regardless of what happened tonight.

_______. That burst of static again. My former master, and Bastiaan's teacher. He's got Bastiaan's house magically bugged. So now he knows I'm here, and he's going to try and speed up his plans.

"And what are his plans?" He picked up the briefcase, and to his surprise the girl gave him the cellphone, too.

Tell you on the way. We've got to get moving.

Chapter 4

It was sultry, hot and humid down in New Orleans. Gabriel took a drink of sweet tea to wash down the greasy catfish he was eating. Michelle would have been proud of him for trying something new.

“You’re thinking of your wife aren’t you?”

Gabriel nodded as he wiped his mouth on a soiled napkin. “Yeah, how’d you know?”

“I can feel it.” Suriya smiled at him the way a teacher smiles at a slow student. “All matter is really energy condensed to a slow vibration Gabriel. If you are in tune to the vibrations you can tell what people are thinking or feeling. Your wife was exceptionally good at feeling the vibrations. She was a very sensitive woman.”

“Yeah, she was always helping other people out.”

“No." Suriya shook her head. "You misunderstand me. She was sensitive to the vibrations. Bastiaan had big plans for Michelle. She was one of his most promising and successful students. You should be very proud of her.”

Gabriel threw the remains of his meal in the trash. It landed with a dull thud. “I still don’t get it. How’d she get mixed up with someone like him?”

A pert nose wrinkled as Suriya examined her fuschia fingernails. “This isn't easy to explain Gabriel. Michelle was..., your wife was searching. She was searching for answers and meaning."

The wall behind the woman was as blank as Gabriel's mind. More and more he was regretting his impromptu trip to this battered and forlorn city. "She never told me any of this. I still find it hard to believe that she could have kept something like this from me." He sighed and leaned against the stack of impersonal hotel pillows. Seated across from him Suriya felt a wave of empathy run through her. Her voice was soft when she spoke. "You must understand Gabriel. Life is as you know it but it operates on many levels above and beyond what you would call your consciousness. Certain people are able to travel in between these levels. Essentially time becomes a loop. At your level very little energy is needed to exist but at Bastiaan's level..., the higher up you go the more energy you need. Energy is all around but it is not always readily available. People like Bastiaan collect people like Michelle to help them find objects that give off higher levels of energy. My previous master does not agree with the practice of using others. To your people Bastiaan is a very powerful healer but to us he is not playing the game by the rules. Right now, you think of your wife as dead but in reality she exists on a lower energy level than your own.”

Sitting across from Suriya Gabriel felt more confused than ever. None of this made any sense to him. “Can I see her or talk to her somehow?”

Suriya held his fetish up. The thin strip of leather fell across her delicate hand. “Not right now. I would like to help but you must trust me. Bastiaan…”

"Fuck Bastiaan. How could my wife have been a student of his?"

Delicate hands started massaging his shoulders. Against his will Gabriel let Suriya's unfamiliar fingers work their individual magic. It was almost as if he couldn't move. There was something hypnotic about this woman and her words. "Try and understand Gabriel. Your wife was very troubled. I'm not trying to pick a fight but after you bought that car..., Michelle was worried about you and the way you spend money. She didn't understand why that car was so important to you. You spent more time out in the garage fixing things on the car than you did with her. Michelle went to Bastiaan because she was depressed and traditional methods of fixing things had failed. Drugs aren't always the answer you know."

The wall in front of him made Gabriel want to smash his hand into it. "She should have told me. Her brother's a mechanic. He does a lot of custom body work. Before Michelle and I started going out she used to help her brother tinker with things. That's how we met. I took my car in to get it fixed. That was the same car I had back then. Michelle and I used to drive around together." There was a lost look in the back of his eyes. "I just don't get it. I don't understand any of this shit going down here."

The hands on his back were calming. Long fingers dug into tight muscles. "Bastiaan is trying to help reconnect you with Michelle."

"How do I know I can trust him? Michelle trusted him to help her out and now she's dead."

Suriya's fingers moved to the side of his neck. The energy transfer required a tremendous amount of effort but the man in front of her needed it more than she did. Warmth that had nothing to do with the massage flowed through Gabriel. Suriya swayed slightly before regaining her equilibrium. "My former master sent me to guide you Gabriel. He and Bastiaan had a falling out. My previous master does not believe that Michelle should have been made an acolyte but Bastiaan disagreed with him. I'm sorry for your loss. We'll do everything we can to help you."

"Like what?"

Despite the heat of the room Suriya was chilled. She knew she couldn't last much longer but she forced herself to remain calm for Gabriel's sake. He had been through a lot in the past couple of days. "We are also on a mission Gabriel. The wise man uses his enemies to further his knowledge but know this; knowledge is not power; it is power's prelude. Self-knowledge is what you seek Gabriel. When you know yourself your mission will be clear."

Gabriel felt a headache developing behind his right eye. The pain made it hard to concentrate. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“I told you to go to New Orleans and you went. When you had questions I told you what I was able to. Crossing the levels requires a tremendous amount of energy. My reserves have been depleted by all the transfers I have undergone recently. I have been freed by my master but my freedom has come at a price. Now I must seek out my own energy sources. Previously we shared. You must choose Gabriel. If you choose Bastiaan..., I am not denying that he can help you. But the help may come at a price that you are unwilling to pay. Keep that in mind. There are questions to ask yourself on the way to self discovery. Ask yourself. Ask others. That is my counsel. Never stop asking. I believe that you can see Michelle but it will come at a great cost to yourself and others. It may be best to let her energy remain undisturbed. I am sorry but I must leave now.”

“But…”

Even as he spoke a tiny wisp of smoke wrapped around his hand. Before her grip had been iron. Now it was barely discernable. Her face was serene and calm although she was rapidly disintegrating. Condensation dripped down Gabriel's glass. He took another drink and swore as her image faded leaving him alone with his phone and Bastiaan's number.

To be continued...

Chapter 5

The afternoon sun had completely chased the damp springtime cold from the antique storefronts and alleyways along Decatur Street. A humid breeze across the Mississippi carried with it a heavy, unclean scent wafting over the Charger as Gabriel picked his way through the traffic, cursing yet another suicidal driver whose car flashed between the tightly-packed vehicles.

He glanced at his battered jacket, sitting in the passenger seat, and thought how glad he was that had decided to take it off before he got in the car. Jesus, if it’s this hot and humid here in April, how do people stand it in July? It must be like breathing through wet cotton. With that he rolled his window up and turned on the air conditioning inside the old car.

At a stoplight, he glanced at his map. He had carefully drawn it on the back of his pay statement before the first time he’d come here. That seemed so long ago. He was good at drawing maps and navigating streets—always had been, but this place was making him mad. He scrutinized his squiggles, cursing whatever insane city planners had thrown these haphazard pick-up sticks onto a table and called it a road plan. It seemed he never took the same route twice in this strange town.

“If I can just find St. Charles. That’s the street,” he said aloud.

He turned on Canal Street and a moment later, he was on St. Charles, breathing a sigh of relief. Now, if the drivers don’t kill me, or I don’t get creamed by one of those trolleys, I should be able to make it to Bastiaan’s place so he can finish me off. Gallows humor.

It was so confusing. Reading people, understanding their motivations, that sort of intellectual stuff had never been his forte. Hell, up until the first time he’d spoken to Bastiaan on the phone, or at least until that day when the love of his life had been lost forever to him, he thought of himself as a pretty normal guy—drinking a few cold ones with his buddies and watching a game on the television, or going to Cypress Park and walking along the water with Michelle on weekends—nice quiet stuff like that. But that normal life seemed so far away, as if it had happened to another person, in a movie he watched a long time ago.

His mind returned to Bastiaan. Did Suriya tell me not to trust him? Or was she talking about that guy with the non-name…the dark wizard dude? Or maybe she was saying not to trust either of them. She had been strangely evasive on the trip down, switching subjects from one to another and back. Irritating little thing. He felt a cold hollow just below his ribcage and suddenly realized that he was missing her.

He thought about the drive to New Orleans, and how Suriya and he had enjoyed a laughing conversation about that old 1960s TV show, I Dream of Jeannie. "It’s way too silly to get mad at. Besides Barbara Eden looked SOOO great in those outfits." She had grinned, warming up the inside of the car with her mirth. "But yeah, it would be a little like if…I dunno, it would be like if you had a show about chimps in costumes and claimed they were humans or something. Not that you guys are like chimps to us..." He found himself laughing despite everything. She couldn’t have known how appropriate that analogy was. Michelle had always gotten mad when she saw monkeys dressed up like people on television. She thought it was undignified and cruel to do that to the animals.

As the car approached the Garden District, the houses became older and larger—massive, stately things that brought the mind to the days of the antebellum South a time of slavery and malaria, wealth and poverty. A time gone by, maybe not by as much as some people seemed to think, or hope. He looked at a huge mansion with somber white columns in the front, imagining French-speaking men dressed in old-fashioned linen suits enjoying expensive brandy and cigars on the porch—or gallery, as they seemed to call them here. Overhanging trees turned the street into a tunnel, trailers of Spanish moss swaying in the late afternoon breeze like the skirts of a dancer.

He swung the Charger onto Napoleon Avenue. Nothing for it now. I’ll face him. See what he has to say for himself. Worst comes to worst, I’m dead and I’ll find out about this psycho-energy levels-babble sooner instead of later.

He parked his car on the street, stepping out into the muggy afternoon.

“Here goes nothing.” His mind rolled miserably back to how Michelle used to tease him when he used that phrase. She would always grin broadly—that huge smile that lit up the entire room, and she would say "Don’t be so pessimistic! Here goes something!"

The young woman, Rachael, opened the door as he stepped onto the neat, white porch of the tidy townhome. She nodded and Gabriel entered the dim of the house. The cool air felt good on his skin, there was a vague smell of cigar smoke and music came from somewhere down the hall—accordion playing a jaunty tune while a man’s huge voice sang "yeaaaah," followed by what might be French...or that odd language Bastiaan spoke.

Bastiaan stood at the window in the parlor, like a statue in a room full of light and air. The music came from a stereo system built into a highly polished armoire. He did not turn his eyes from the window for a moment, then, slowly turned to Gabriel. "Well?" His voice betrayed no emotion.

Gabriel felt his hands growing cold, an artery was banging unpleasantly in the left side of his neck. He tried to keep his voice level, "Well what?"

Bastiaan turned, a slight smile, disarming, "The crystal." The sun’s dying rays turned his eyes into glittering gems.

"Oh yeah." Gabriel was uncomfortable. He opened the briefcase and set the big crystal on a small round table, steadying his hands by force of will. The evening sun and its inner light turned the air around it into a kaleidoscope of spectral colours.

"Good job, mon." The big man crossed to a desk at the far end of the parlour. A moment later he placed 50 crisp hundred-dollar bills on the table and picked the crystal up, contemplating it dreamily in the light from the window. He turned to Gabriel, there was mildness in his demeanor, "Sit down, noble mon. You look like hell. You want a beer? Bourbon?"

Gabriel thought for a moment, then, sinking into a soft, deep red chair, "Beer. I guess. I’ve had to do some thinking."

"Something the Brat said, no doubt." Bastiaan flashed a strangely affectionate smile, producing a couple of amber bottles from a small fridge. He set a glass mug and the bottle on the table, next to Gabriel, then he sat nearby, opening his own beer and pouring it lovingly into a glass. The brand was something Gabriel had never seen—maybe a local brew—it had a ram on the label. "Go on, what did that Brat say? Probably that I’m someone you shouldn’t be listening to so much, heh?"

Gabriel watched the bubbles as he poured the beer into his own glass. "She said you were bugged. That this guy...That...man, whose name sounds like white noise. She said he’s listening in."

The man on the stereo was singing about a girl named Marie playing guitar. Bastiaan smiled, "We safe in here. He can’t listen in. But he want to." He snapped his fingers, remembering something. "Oh, but I need to see your mobile phone."

Gabriel took the phone out of his pocket and passed it to the big man without a thought. Bastiaan’s eyes were fixed on the slim telephone as his big fingers worked on the case. "Where the Brat go, she not want to see me?"

"Nah. She had to leave. It was something like…she had to refresh her power. Some damn thing." Gabriel looked distracted.

"Yes, that make sense. She have to go to the source of her power from time to time. She be back in no time, mon. You see. Think of it like filling up your car." The back of the phone came off and Bastiaan laid it aside gently. Grabbing a long pair of tweezers, he removed a small piece of paper from the telephone. "Oh, here is your problem." He laid the little slip on the table.

Gabriel regarded it: almost blank, about an inch on each side…it looked slightly browned, as if it had been heated, there appeared to have been writing once. "What the hell is this, and why is it in my phone?"

"I put it there, mon. It supposed to look like this." He placed a similarly-sized piece of paper down next to it. This one was fresh, white and had a circle drawn and quartered off with tiny squiggles that Gabriel thought might be some kind of foreign writing. "It is a seal of Jupiter. No one listen in while this in your phone. Someone seem very interested in hearing what you have to say."

"So why does this not fill me with happiness?" Gabriel smirked, he sipped his beer, ice-cold and rich. "So who the hell is this guy?"

Bastiaan narrowed his dark eyes. "No one know for sure. There are hundreds of stories about him—no one know what his name is or where he come from. Some people say he is Hasan, master of the Ismaili a thousand years ago."

"Hasan? Never heard of him," Gabriel smirked.

"The Ismailis got called the Assassins. It was said that they had magical powers, and they had a leader named Hasan, supposed to be a great sorcerer." His eyes widened on that last word.

"Okay, so what’s with that radio static sound that Suriya makes when she says his name?"

Bastiaan smiled slightly, "That is the Brat’s way of showing respect to her old master." There was a brief silence. "Names have great power, mon. To name a thing, you can control it. That why a poppet gets a name first thing. A poppet what you would maybe call a 'voodoo doll.'"

Gabriel made a face, "Voodoo doll? You’re serious? I thought that stuff was just in the movies."

Bastiaan straightened somewhat, "Voodoo serious stuff. Not movie stuff, mon." His tone was slightly warning.

"Oh no no no! I know I know. It's a religion and everything. Sure. I know that." Despite the headache and the beer, and the assorted uncertainties, he had no intention of alienating the one person who might be an ally in this freaky adventure. "It’s just...voodoo dolls?"

Bastiaan was calm, "They make it into a joke in the cartoons and teevee. It is horse shit. But poppets are serious business. You use them to..." he had to think for a moment, to select the right words, "You have to use a poppet to re-direct sick energy inside a person. They messed up, you name the poppet as them and fix them. Specially important if they a danger to themselves or to other people." He took a sip of his beer, sighed lightly then met Gabriel’s eyes, "The Old Man, he guard his name very close. To some he is Hasan, some people—in the Caribbean, and maybe in..." the big man sipped his beer, "...South America, not sure. They call him Santiago, or Mister Santiago." Bastiaan grinned with his straight, white teeth, "The people in China, or maybe India, I forget which, call him some name that mean 'Old Mister No-Name.'"

Gabriel snorted, "And he’s some kind of dark wizard?"

Bastiaan kept eye contact and spoke in slow, measured tones, "Yes. Sort of…But don’t allow yourself the mistake of thinking he some cartoon character with a pointy hat and a long beard, mon." The big man gestured with a charming grin, "You know—a hooky nose, like in the movies. He is a very charming and brilliant fellow. Smart, handsome...debonair. Got that English accent like from Oxford. You know."

"Yeah." For some reason, that description made Gabriel feel even more miserable. "So, what’s his deal? What does he want?"

"I wish I could tell you, mon."

Gabriel felt his head beginning to ache slightly, or perhaps it had been doing so for awhile and he’d not gotten to notice it. He finished his beer in a wide draught.

"His usual goal is knowledge, but he and I ..." Bastiaan paused, formulating how to say it, "We at cross purposes. I am trying to heal and he don’t care about that. Just knowledge, power." He stared at Gabriel for a moment. "Look, mon, it is good you got that Brat. She can help. She help you stay of of harm’s way and we do some good in the meantime."

Gabriel rubbed at the back of his neck and stared at the patterns in the expensive rug on the floor, "I don’t even know who I can trust anymore."

"You can trust her. Listen to the Brat, she won’t steer you wrong."

Gabriel met his eyes, "She says not to trust you."

Bastiaan laughed loudly, a rich booming sound, full of mirth. It was the laugh of a generous man. "She not like me so much, that Brat." He grinned, "Listen to her. She do not like me too much, but she be a very good friend for you to have."

Gabriel sensed their meeting was drawing to a close, "And you?"

"No one is as good as he thinks he is, mon. I got agenda, you got one, she got one, Old Man got one too. I’m not…what would you say? I’m no holier than thou. I don't pretend I'm a saint." Bastiaan rose, straightened the pleats on his trousers. "One thing, noble mon. I never lie to you. I tell you what I can. I don’t know if you say you can trust me, but I never will lie."

Gabriel got up, feeling mildly bewildered, "Where do I go from here?"

"Who can say? We got business...lots of it. Make sure you take the new crystal, mon." He gestured to a small table near the door. On it was a crystal, sitting between an old skull and a half bottle of Bacardi rum. He picked up the crystal, "Booze for me too?" He managed a smile despite the intense weirdness.

"Nope. An offering." Bastiaan regarded him, "Go where your heart leads. Go where the Brat say. Watch the news. You will do right. I have confidence in you."

Gabriel shook his head, shook hands with the big man and walked out into the balmy night. The yard swam in unearthly colors from the streetlight. He looked up at the light, gigantic insects were circling it in a cloud. He felt a chill of disgust. He’d never much cared for insects, especially big swamp bugs like New Orleans has. While he had been walking back to has car earlier he’d seen a cockroach, or something very much like one, as long as his thumb running along the top of a brick wall. Damned thing just flew away. Roaches aren’t supposed to fly like that. Nearly made him jump out of his skin.

It was then that he realised that the swarm of insects circling the streetlight were all those giant, flying roaches. He mouthed the words "Motherfucker!" and got into the car fast. As he started the engine, the huge, ugly bugs started bouncing against the roof and rear windshield of the Charger.

Chapter 6


While the airconditioner moved the air around inside the car trying to convince him it was actually cooling it down, Gabriel turned on the radio. The sight of those bugs outside made his skin crawl. Some music would be nice. Something quiet to soothe his tired head. Instead a news reporter's dry voice caught his attention.

"...after killing five and seriously injuring eight innocent shoppers this afternoon, the madman subsequently leapt from the roof of the mall. He was pronounced dead on the spot by the paramedics..."

"Interesting." Gabriel turned up the sound to drown out the noise from the bugs attacking his car, but the news flash was over, and he got treated to a dose of Snoop Dogg or someone who sounded very much like him. He swore and hit "Off".

"Hmmm... Okay. I think need to look into that. Tomorrow. Now I need to find a motel. Bug free!"

Gabriel peered through the windshield, trying to assess the size of the bug swarm.

"Damn... They are everywhere!" He swore under his breath. Bugs were landing on the car, crashing against the windows like little kamikaze planes, crawling around the windshield wipers making him want to switch them on and dislocate them. He decided against it, though, as it would most probably just result in squashed bugs being smeared across the windshield.

The streets were deserted - a rare enough occurrence in these parts - and Gabriel had a strong feeling that the flying cockroaches had a lot to do with that. This was no natural phenomenon.

He put the car in gear and moved it away from the kerb. The bugs trailed after him as he made his way towards the nearest intersection. They kept following him for five or six minutes, but then they left him to buzz busily around a streetlamp for a few seconds before taking off down a narrow road to his right. Gabriel halted the car and looked down the road. It was dark. Not many streetlamps that way down, but somewhere in the distance warm light spilled from the windows of what looked to be a large house.

Gabriel rolled down the window and listened. The way the house was illuminated he expected to hear merry music being blown about by the nightly breeze, but the night was dead quiet. The only sound came from the gravel under the tires as he slowly turned down the road and drove towards the house.


It turned out to be a large house, probably part of a larger estate at one point, but now reduced to the one house, sitting close to the road, backed by a large, overgrown garden. In the dark the cracked paint and the broken windowframes didn't show as clearly, but the general air of death and decay was almost palpable. The many big and expensive cars parked in the road and in the driveway accentuated the dilapidated state of the once great mansion. Gabriel drove past the house and parked under some large trees and spent a few moment putting the crystal into its slot in the briefcase. There was no telling what he'd encounter so he might as well be prepared as best he could.

When he got out of the car he heard odd clicking noises, and it took him a few seconds to discover that it was the sound of cockroaches landing on his car. On his car, in the trees, and on the ground around him.

"Damn!" he said softly. The bugs shuffled out from under his feet as he slowly walked towards the house. Why had he come here? He had no idea. But it had seemed like the right thing to do. Someone or something had wanted him to come, he was sure of that much. Someone who seemed to be able to command bugs in great quantities. "Lord of the Flies" kept popping up in his mind, but he tried to shrug it off. That was not a happy thought.

Walking up to the large front porch Gabriel could hear the sound of many voices talking softly inside the house. Through a window he saw people dressed in black sitting or standing around a parlour, glasses in hand and solemn expressions on their faces. Nobody stopped him as he entered through one of the open glass doors, but a few of the assembled glanced at him and nodded as if they were not surprised to see him. Gabriel felt uncomfortably out of place in his everyday clothes.

"This way, sir."

A maid lead him through a hallway towards a room at the back of the house, where, as he had already begun to suspect, a casket stood alone in a pool of warm light. He had arrived at a wake.

"Well...", he thought. "This is odd. I wonder if I should call Bastiaan and ask..."

Then he thought: "No need for that. I'll explain."

Gabriel stopped dead in his tracks. "Oh, don't be silly," his thoughts continued, with a distinct female flavour to them. "Come forward and sit down and I'll explain!"

Gabriel walked to the front of the rows of chairs facing the open casket. But instead of sitting down he went forward and looked.

"That's Miss Roberta Summersville," his thoughts told him. "Incidentally I'm in there. I need you to get me out."





Sitting at a chair in the front row Gabriel got the story. And it wasn't a story he necessarily liked, for a number of reasons.

"I am trapped in here. In her. A very powerful... enchanter took a disliking to me and bound me to this body. She was his friend and she wanted eternal youth, or, failing that, eternal life. Turns out it didn't work. Neither did."

Gabriel looked at the hooked nose and very pale, very wrinkled face of the late Miss Roberta Summersville, and nodded.

"Mind you she is almost 167. She was in her forties when I got put here so I did extend her life quite a bit. Most of it she spent confined to her rooms, though, harrassing the maids. And now she is dead. And I am trapped."

"This very powerful enchanter..." said Gabriel under his breath. "What is his name?"

"I can't tell you that."

"If you won't tell me I can't help you."

"You misunderstand. I am not able to say his name. I am not without powers myself, and being able to pronounce his name would also enable me to break free from this prison. So he made sure of that."

Gabriel nodded to himself and sat still for a while. This had to be him, the one whose name kept eluding him. And he had had this lady friend here, a mere ten minutes drive from Bastiaan's house... There was no way Bastiaan hadn't known. So odd. And how did this... spirit know about him, Gabriel? Did this mean he had caught the eye of the Big Guy? That was not a comforting thought at all.

"What's in this for me?" he said finally. "I'm not running a charity after all."

"I'll make it worth your while," said the spirit. "Trust me on this. I have already seen to it."

Gabriel sighed. "You say you have some powers. I am searching for a certain person. Or a soul, rather.."

"That I cannot help you with." The answer came promptly and had a very final ring to it. He sighed again.

"Okay. I'll help you."

"I know," said the spirit, and the tone in his mind suggested it was laughing. "You were already here."





Gabriel took out his phone and called Bastiaan. He had to call twice before getting a sleepy answer, but once he did he didn't beat around the bush.

"I need you to send me back. I am at the house of Miss Roberta Summersville, and I seem to have a job to do."

"Ah... yes. The old lady up and died now. I saw. What she wanting from you?"

"There's a spirit here wanting to get out. I bet you knew. But let's not go into that now. Bring me back to yesterday. Please. And don't fall asleep before I need to go forward again!"

"But yesterday she was already dead, mon. What you be wanting there?"

"She said she'd tell me then. I am in no danger, I think. Time travelling always confuses me, but if I did come to harm yesterday I wouldn't be here now. So..."

Bastiaan chuckled. "You may be right. Well... Ready then?"

Gabriel looked down at the briefcase sitting between his feet, and sighed. "Yes. I am ready."




The room was bustling with people in the process of setting up the lit de parade, arranging chairs and flowers, hanging huge dark drapes in front of the windows. Gabriel looked around. The casket was not yet there, but he felt the sound of the spirit's voice in the air. After a few seconds it seemed to find him, and manifested itself in his mind as before.

"Ah. Mr. Gabriel. Come with me."

Without a second warning he felt his mental image dissolve into tiny little specks that immediately got sucked through the vastness of time and space. He felt himself screaming, but no sound was heard. It was like exploding into a bloom of intense light - and maybe pain, he wasn't sure. All he knew, when he reassembled eons or seconds later, was that he never, ever wished to go through that again.

He found himself staggering to a halt in a dark room, beside a large bed. His one flailing arm tried to find a bedpost to hold on to, but until he calmed down and concentrated that wasn't going to happen. He forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly, and eventually his heart stopped racing madly, slowing to a mere purr.

"Good evening, young man."

From the bed, propped up on numerous large pillows, an old, wrinkled, deadly pale woman looked at him. She looked like the epitome of a Lady, and she looked like she wasn't so much alive as embalmed and resurrected. Gabriel recalled that she was close to 167.

"You can see me?" he said, dumbly. The voice in his head laughed. "Yes she can see you.

The old lady echoed the voice: "Yes, I can see you. And who might you be? Did my Rapunzel bring you here as a last desperate bid for freedom?"

"She calls me Rapunzel," said the voice. "She calls herself my Ivory Tower."

"Ah, yes," said Miss Roberta. "I am weak now, so she roams. Trying to find a way out. Well I'm not letting you go, Rapunzel. Not while I still breathe. You know this."

Gabriel decided to get a word in. "But when you stop breathing, Miss Summersville. Then what?"

Miss Roberta laughed a wheezing, unhealthy laughter. "He promised me you'd keep me alive, Rapunzel. So chances are I never stop."

Gabriel looked at her with disbelief. She was so obviously at death's door that he almost laughed at her.

"Well," he said. "Wouldn't you dying set Rapunzel free anyway?"

"No. She needs to be freed with a spell. And it's written down in my notebook in my chest of drawers in the study. And it's protected with a spell too, so noone can touch it while I am alive. And also... oh..." Her voice trailed off, and she stared at him.

"And also," Rapunzel's voice in his mind said, "she had made sure I couldn't tell anyone how to free me. Thank you, Gabriel. Now you know what to do. Now you go back!"




Once more Gabriel exploded, and arrived, screaming, back in the busy parlour where they were still getting ready for the wake.

"FUCK!" he yelled. "Don't DO that! Ever. Again."

"Well, you are in my world more than in your own now. I can do a lot of interesting things with you. Nice things too..."

"Don't even think about it! Or I am not helping you."

Rapunzel laughed. "Oh well. Anyway: this is her study. And the chest of drawers is the one over there between the windows. Her notebook is in the second drawer from the top, left side. Go back to your time, and do what you need to do."

The voice - and the feeling of not being alone in his head - disappeared. He felt oddly empty and deserted for a few seconds, and made ready to call out to Bastiaan. But before he got that far he felt the tug of Bastiaan's magic, and soon he was back in his body in the dark and quiet room by the casket. His phone was ringing in his pocket.

"I thought I lost you, mon!" Bastiaan was genuinely upset, something that didn't happen very often. "I lost your touch. And then I felt it and bring you back. Where was you taken?"

"Further back in time. And I am not doing that again!" snapped Gabriel. "Ah, never mind. I'll call you later. And... thank you," he added, as he hung up. Bastiaan had been worried, and he hadn't been able to trace him. He had effectively been lost in time and at the mercy of Rapunzel. He shivered, and looked down at his trembling hands.

"Are you there, Rapunzel? That was a pretty dirty trick you pulled."

No reply, though he did sense a tone in the air, like a faint voice giggling. He rose and looked around. The study was still empty apart from himself and the late Miss Roberta, so he walked quickly to the chest of drawers by the windows. Second from the top on his left. A notebook, bound in leather so old and worn it was as brittle and shiny as thin glass. It crackled as he opened it and leafed through the pages. Bits of corners dissolved into dust but it held together at the spine. He brought it with him to the casket, using Miss Roberta's wake-light to read by.

Most of the pages were covered with notes about people, snippets of poems, here and there a recipe for punch or drinks, or the names of flowers. But at the last page, surrounded by odd, curly signs - probably signs of warding - were three words. Gabriel stared at them.

"No way!"

"Say the words..." The voice was a mere whisper on a non existant breeze. Gabriel shrugged and, a bit reluctantly said the words. Nothing happened at first, but then the wrinkled old body in the casket seemed to deflate a little, and before Gabriel's eyes it started to disintegrate, slowly but inexorably. He took a step back.

"She should have died long ago," said Rapunzel's voice behind him. Gabriel's eyes went to the briefcase on the floor by the chairs as he turned around, and he cursed under his breath. Rapunzel laughed softly. She was a shimmering form in the air, only vaguely recognisable as a woman.

"The crystal won't do you any good. On the other hand I won't do you any harm either. I owe you one. Now I suggest you leave before the mourning friends see what you have done to Miss Roberta. Good bye, Gabriel."

With that she just disappeared. Gabriel swore. He had thousands of questions he wanted answers to. And only Bastiaan to ask.

He took one last look into the casket and wished he hadn't. Clutching the notebook he walked quickly from the dark room out into the hall, aiming for the large front doors. A maid stood ready to open them for him.

"Mr. Gabriel?" she said. He stopped, almost tripping over his own legs. "Yes..."

The maid handed him an envelope. It had his name on it, written in spindly, perfectly formed flowing script. "Miss Roberta said to give you this today, Mr. Gabriel. Good evening Mr. Gabriel."




He didn't open the envelope until he had left the house behind, driving in a daze through the night and finding himself near a motel on the outskirts of town. He pulled in to the parking lot and stopped the engine. The envelope weighed in his hand when he took it from the passenger's seat. On opening it he found 20 100 dollar bills, a small piece of leather, folded and stitched shut, and a letter, written in the same spidery hand.

"Dear Mr. Gabriel," it said. "If all went well I am free now, and you have made one friend and one enemy. I am the friend. I am writing this while she is dozing. She knows I am up to something but she doesn't know what. Sad to say she is not very bright, but she had other things to offer men in her youth. Hence her powerful friends. One last word for you: keep the little charm with you. It'll do you some good, I promise."

The letter was signed with a name that looked like "Ishmianthe", but Gabriel was not sure. He found his telephone and called Bastiaan. The shaman picked up almost immediately, and Gabriel gave him an account of the evening in detail. Now and then Bastiaan made a sound of encouragement.

"But the most stupid about the whole thing is the spell words that I needed to say!"

"What were they?" asked Bastiaan, and Gabriel told him. But instead of laughing Bastiaan just sounded very serious.

"That just means that he is no fool, him. He knows things. He put that spell long before it was made."

Gabriel nodded to himself. "True. He must have done."

"Get some sleep now, mon, and let's talk in the morning. Good night and take care."

Gabriel put down the phone, and found the notebook under the envelope where he had dropped it. Tilting it towards the sheen from the cabin light, the words "Klaatu barada nikto" mocked him from the withered old paper, put there maybe some 120 years ago by an enchanter with a weird sense of humour.




To be continued

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Briefcase Full of Souls - Part II will be coming shortly to a node in your neighbourhood. Stay tuned for your favourite Friday entertainment.




Credits:
Base Concept: artman2003
Title idea: Dejamorgana
Contributors (so far): artman2003, Uberbanana, Dejamorgana, jessicaj, Junkill, Dimview
Plot Developed by: Above-mentioned contributors, with some suggestions by non-contributing members of e2collaborators
Directed by: artman2003

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