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I stopped running after the second block. While it was entirely possible that the old sorceress would get off her matronly bottom and chase me through the streets, hurling fireballs and curses, I kinda doubted it. She didn't strike me as the 'giving chase' type.
I ambled along, enjoying the afternoon sunshine and counting backwards under my breath. "Seven, six, five-" there was a bark behind me.
"Fourthreetwoone. Hey, mutt," I said. "Long time no see."
The hellhound sneezed in what I took to be a greeting and hurried along side me.
Together, we walked. I wasn't used to this side of town: the buildings were a little too clean. The grass a little too green. Lawns, trees and hedges were all neatly shorn. It looked so. . . fake. I picked a direction at random and walked, hoping that it would eventually lead me either home, somewhere interesting, or at least some place where the bus shelters had graffiti on them.
We were just leaving the disturbingly quaint residential area and were just coming into the more commercialized- but still unfamiliar- area when I caught the scent. It floated on the air, mingling with the heat and smells of motor oil, hot concrete and sun-dried dust. It was the almost-familiar reek of death. Not the smell of death humans tend to catch on, which is usually just the physical decay, but the semi-spiritual smell being actively in the red as far as vitality is concerned. Its a pungent aroma, like a mix between over ripe fruit, week old garbage, and a swift kick in the gut.
I stopped. The hellhound stopped too, but just for a second. Apparently, whatever trail he was following was more interesting than dead things. Which, when I thought about it, made a kind of sense. After all, where, exactly, had he been living before we'd taken him in? He continued on without me, following the other smell down the street.
You have a job to do, I thought at myself. You have the list of names. You have a favor to pay back. You have a hell of a lot of foot work that’ll need getting to.
Slowly, I strolled into the center, casually dodging the cars pulling in and out, making sure to stick to the sidewalk that connected the fronts of all the buildings.
I’m hungry, I thought back at myself. There’s a store. That’s why I’m here. Then I’ll get right onto Shem’s thing. Really.
I didn't believe me, but I kept my thoughts on the matter to myself.
Everything inside looked normal enough, except for this one spot in the center of the parking lot, three spaces wide, that was completely free of cars. The rest of the place was packed full, with people driving around looking for a spot to snipe, and yet those three places were completely free. Nobody was even looking at them.
I walked across the lot, weaving between parked cars and approached the empty spots. There, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander off.
Two shadowed figures stood before me, both cloaked in darkness despite the strong daylight. Each was sporting a pair of black wings. Between them was the semi-transparent figure of a sharp-featured woman in a dress. The two shadows were obviously arguing.
"Hey," I said, curiosity piqued and eyes still technically closed. "What're you doing?"
All three turned to look at me.
"Malak," said the thick shadow on the right. "Fellow servant. Help me."
"Oh no," said the one on the left. "No outside interference."
The woman just looked groggy. Like she'd just woken up from a particularly strange dream and still wasn't able to think properly.
"What's going on here?" I said, trying to sound authoritative. I drew myself up to my full height, crossed my arms, and gave them a full double barrel glare. You know. Just with my eyes still shut. "Well?"
"Interdepartmental conflict," said the one on the left promptly. The dark blur around him was fading slowly, bringing him into focus and revealing a harried looking man in an ill-fitting, vaguely monk-like black robe. His eyes were solid black and sclera-free. “This- this dummy here keeps following me and trying to take my patrons."
The second figure, apparently taking its cue from the other, began to come into focus as well. While the first one was robed, this one was wearing a black toga clipped at the shoulder with a goldish pin. While the first one’s hair had been thick, curly, and black, this one’s was long, straight and yellow. The first one had sort of stress-induced scrawniness, this one was softer around the edges.
"You," I said to the one on the left. "Who are you?"
His wings fanned out slightly. His voiced changed abruptly, going form reedy and vaguely accented to sounding the way mist would, if it could speak. A slow, gentle, whisper that rolled out quietly, taking no pains to make itself heard, but being heard all the same.
"My name is Thanatos."
Tha. . .na. . . tosssss. . .
"Right," I turned to the other. "And you?"
The figure gave a salute. "I am a servant of the lord Azrael."
His voice was considerably more normal, though it did have a hollow, tinny edge to it. Like he was speaking through a metal filter.
"Yeah, but your name? I wanna know who I'm dealing with."
"I am a servant of the lord Azrael."
"I am a servant of the lord Azrael." He pointed to the woman's specter. "I am here to retrieve the wandering spirit."
“Don’t bother,” said Thanatos, dropping the whispy voice. “I told you, it’s a dummy. A golem. Azzy hasn’t been to work in weeks.” He crossed his arms, obviously agitated. To the golem, he said, "Lucifer and lord Hades have made an arrangement. Lost souls are now under lord Hades' dominion. Henceforth, they go to the Plains of Asphodel.
The golem stared at him blankly. "Lord Azrael has decreed it. Wandering spirits go to Purgatory. I am here to retrieve-"
"Yes,” said Thanatos. “We get it. Kindly shut up."
I frowned. "But that's not how it goes. Ghosts don't go to either place until they've either satisfied themselves, or someone kicks them off the planet."
Thanatos scowled and ran a hand through his hair. "I know," he said. "Don't you think I know? Don't you think I've been doing this job long enough to know?"
"It's just now his boss," he pointed an accusatory finger at the golem guy, "is claiming to have made a deal with Lucifer while mine's saying that he made a deal with Lucifer, and now the system's gone to shit and I'm down here trying to do my job while an entire fleet of these have shown up, acting like it's some sort of free for all! Of course He can't be arsed to sort it out, and none of the other department heads want to get involved. Say it's a D.I.E. matter, and- since Azzy’s not returning any of my messages, I can’t sort it out.”
I looked at the other guy. "And you?"
"I am a servant of the lord Azrael!"
"We get it," snarled Thanatos. "I've had to put up with this nonsense all week. You, you're a messenger, right?"
Well, once upon a time. . . "Yes," I lied. Either the smell of hell was finally starting to wear off, or psychopomps just couldn't smell it.
"Go tell Him to step in and sort this all out. I refuse to work under these conditions-"
During the whole conversation, the ghost woman was looking more and more awake. The befuddlement was quickly draining away, leaving behind indignation and refreshingly unadulterated rage.
"Listen, you two," she snapped. "I'm the one who's dead, here, so I think I should get a say in with whom I'm going and where!"
Thanatos scowled at her. "It doesn't work that way, ma'am-"
"As such," she said, plowing right over him. "I refuse to go with anyone until I get this thing sorted out. Not some foul mouthed civil service worker in a cloak, and not some Christmas topper look alike without the sense God gave corn."
"But I am to return you to the lord Azrael!"
"Not yet, you're not."
And with that, she was gone. No puff of smoke, no slow fade out. She was just gone.
"γαμώτο!" said Thanatos. "I hate it when they run." And then he was gone too.
Golem guy looked down at me. I hadn't noticed it before, but his eyes were eerily statuesque: the same uniform almost-tan shade his skin was, with only a darker ring showing where the iris ought to have been and a dot for the pupil.
Carved, I thought. It's darker there because someone carved it out.
“I am a servant of the Lord Azrael?” he said, giving me the same look the dog did whenever it tried to walk through a glass door.
“I know you are, big guy.”
He nodded, apparently satisfied and the reaffirmation. “I must retrieve the spirit!”
He didn’t move his wings, but I heard the sound of them beating. The shadow he’d had on him earlier returned, engulfing him in darkness. Without another word, he, too, was gone, leaving me standing alone in the parking lot. I stood there a few seconds, waiting to see if anything else would happen. Someone honked behind me.
"Move!" shouted some asshats in a Volvo.
I scowled and thought about cursing them on principle, but decided against it. They weren't worth the effort. Instead, I stepped aside and let them in.
So, I thought, slinking towards the store entrance. There's something you don't see every day.
* * * * *
Lunch was composed of a roughly two pound bag of candy and eaten on a bench at a park two blocks away. Scenic suburbia. A man-made lake surrounded by carefully cultivated greenery, jogging paths, and complete with wildlife.
"Get," I said, trying to shoo away the horde of geese surrounding me. "Go away. You're geese, you don't even like chocolate."
The geese didn't believe me. I was just wondering if it was time to head home and begin the long and arduous process of tracking down my missing-presumably-disagreeable brethren or finding something else to do- some excuse to help me procrastinate when a loaf of bread came flying over head and landed several feet in front of the bench. The geese immediately forgot bout my candy and went after easier prey. Someone behind and vaguely above me coughed politely.
"Excuse me?" said the voice.
I craned my neck around and looked.
The voice belonged to a hirsute scrap of human was a head shorter than Bossman's six five, had mouse brown hair that would've been unkempt if it ever managed to escape the rubber band holding it back in a ponytail. His face was narrow and blotchy in places from dirt, scars and sun. The nose had been broken once before- at least once, and there was the makings of a scruffy beard setting in along the jaw line. All of which was topped on a rail thin body that looked like it had fallen into, been attacked by, and then subsequently escaped the dumpster behind a second hand clothes shop. The whole tatty mess was engulfed inside a faded green coat with way too many pockets. The mess in question was looking at me politely. I sniffed the air.
"Excuse me," he said. "Pardon the interruption, but I was wondering if I could ask you a question."
"You smell like death," I said.
A faint twitch of the lips. "Yes, I get that a lot."
I sniffed again. "No, really. You smell like death."
"Again, I get that a lot, thanks."
"You're not a psychopomp, are you? 'Cause if you are, I've got a few complaints-"
"No, sorry. Human. Though that is what I came to ask you about. If you could point me in the direction of those psychopomps you mentioned, I'd be much obliged." He smiled.
I scowled to try and counteract it. "They ran off when the ghost they were after bolted. Why? What d'you want with them?"
The smile subtly shifted from generically pleasant to suspiciously innocent. "I'm interested in the work they do."
I snorted. "Yeah, I bet you are.” I said, crumpling up my food wrapper. “I can't help you. All that happened earlier. They’re probably all long gone by now.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” he said.
"Because the specter of a rather disgruntled looking woman has been hovering over your shoulder for the past fifteen minutes."
I shot up off the bench and closed my eyes to take a look for myself. A cold chill crept up my spine, and I felt the faintest touch of Something brush my shoulder. Sure enough, the ghost lady from before was standing by me, looking suspiciously at the stranger.
"Hello, madam," he said with a polite nod. "I've heard you've been having a bit of trouble as of late."
"You can see me," she said. "Are you one of them?"
"No," he said. "And I'd like to help you."
I stepped to the side. "Hey, lady," I said. "What're you doing here? Shouldn't you be fleeing the icy grips of death?"
"I followed you," she said. "I wanted your help. Those things. They said you were a messenger. Said you worked for Him. That means angel, yes? So that means you'll help me finish my business."
"Angel?" said the stranger. He gave me an odd look. "What, really?"
"I may have exaggerated at the interview. Look, lady, I don't know if I'm really the one you should be asking for help here. . ."
"You have to help me," she said. "I'm not leaving you until you do."
Well, I'd wanted a distraction. I got one. The universe seemed to be in an obliging mood, maybe if I thought hard enough, I'd get little taller and gold would fall from the sky.
"I'm not promising anything," I said. "But tell me, how'd you die?"
The necromancer choked.
"Oh come off it," I said. "Dead is dead, no use beating around the bush."
"There's such a thing as class," he said. "Discretion. Maybe you've heard of them."
"I was murdered," she said. "Poisoned."
"Poisoned?" he said, suddenly looking a lot more interested. "How?"
Her eyes half-closed and she stared at a spot on the ground, like she was trying to remember. "I had my usual glass of wine. I fell asleep. The next thing I know, a man in a black robe was jostling me awake while Robert was consulting someone on the phone about what to do with the body."
"Alrighty then. Easy enough." I pointed at the necromancer. "You. Corpse poker. Call the cops and get them to look into a Robert whatever-the-last-name is. Problem solved."
"That won't be enough,” she said. “They didn’t catch him the first time around, did they?” Her face went hard. The air around us suddenly got very cold, and for a split second, she looked a lot more tangible than she had any right to. “We need a confession. I need a confession, and I intend to be the one to get it from him.”
There was an awkward five seconds of absolute silence.
"So vengeance, then.” I said. “Okay, cool. I can get behind that."
The necromancer straightened up. "Well there's only one thing to do then, isn't there?" He gave a theatrical half-bow to the woman's specter. "Madam, we are going to help you reach eternal peace the proper way."
"Oh!" she said eagerly. "By murdering my killer?"
"Ah," he said. "Uh. No. I was actually thinking something more judicially-friendly, but yes. We're going to help you catch your killer."
"Oi! What's all this 'we' business?" I said.
"Well you're an angel, aren't you? Aren't you supposed to be about helping people?"
"No, angels are about burning down cities and choral singing. Nothing in there about helping blood thirsty ghosts."
"But certainly helping Mrs.- er. What was your name?"
"Alizabeth,” she said. “And I’m not a Mrs. Anything.”
"Right, beg pardon. Helping Ms. Eliza-"
"No, Aliza. Alizabeth Archer."
"Whatever. Why should I help?” I said, mostly to test the waters. If I played it right, this could probably be enough of a legitimate distraction to put off having to do Shem's grunt work until tomorrow. “What's in it for me?”
“The satisfaction of helping good Christian woman who's lived her life well into the open embrace of our heavenly father.”
I thought she might've been joking, but her face was dead serious. “Alright,” I said. “What else you got?”
The ghost of Aliza Archer peered down at me over her half-moon glasses. “I don't think you've quite grasped the situation at hand.” She loomed in a little closer. “I am dead. I have been murdered. From what I’ve gathered, the only way for me to reach my rightful place- not some useless limbo or purgatory, but the proper afterlife is for me to adequately resolve said murder. You are the only contact to the almighty I have that isn’t trying to drag me away. I am not leaving your side. Whatever prior obligations you have planned, whatever duties you must see to, I will be there too, unless you help me come to terms with my death."
The whole time she'd been talking, she had slowly been moving her face closer and closer to mine, until at the end, her pointed spectral nose was almost brushing against mine. I hurriedly stepped back.
“Fine.” I said. “Yeesh. I’ll help. One condition. You, corpse poker-"
“Jazz,” he said.
He shrugged. “My name is Jasper. Call me either that, or Jazz. And your name is. . .?”
"None of your business," I said cheerfully. “Okay then, Jazz. Do you have a car?”
“Is it parked nearby?”
He looked at me suspiciously. “Ye-es. . .“ He pointed to a broken down rust-red nag resting by the curb.
“Good!” I opened my eyes, causing Aliza to disappear. I sighed and closed them again, and she reappeared. "Aliza? D'you mind joining us in the visible spectrum? Switching back and forth is gonna be a hassle."
She frowned. "I don't know if I can," she admitted. "I haven't been dead all that long. I haven't quite gotten all the tricks of it down. . . "
"Oh," said Jasper. "I can help with that."
He reached into Aliza's chest and wrapped his hands around something I couldn't see. Then tugged. The ghost broke into ten thousand ectoplasmic flecks of light before pulling herself together. I opened my eyes and saw her still standing there, hovering a few inches off the ground, giving the corpse poker a literal death-glare and looking about as solid as a cobweb.
"Young man!" she said. "That was highly inappropriate."
He ducked his head slightly. "You have my sincerest apologies," he said insincerely.
"Great." I strode past them both. “Toss me the keys.”
“You’re not driving,” he said, hurrying to catch up. Aliza floated after us. “You can’t.”
“Oh yes I am. That’s why it’s called a condition, see?”
“You’re three feet tall. You can't even reach the brakes.”
“Three and a half feet, thank-you-very-much." I peeked in through the passenger side window. Lots of fast food wrappers, old clothes, and a box that, when I looked properly at, fizzed and burned with inky black magic. The urge to break into the car and start rooting around hit me with all the force of an unusually large sack of doorknobs. "And why in the world would I need to use brakes? Brakes are for people who want to stop." I glanced back. "Come on, Alizabeth. Let's go find your Robert."
An evil grin crept out across her face, neatly splitting it in half. "Oh, let's!"
"Keys," I said, sticking out a hand.
"I'm a celestial being running on God-spit, lightning, and about forty pixie sticks. I'm older than the planet itself by about three weeks, and I was on the first ride of Amédée Bollée's little steam toy. I was there when Henry Ford pulled a Faust, and I think I've been walking around on the planet long enough to know how to work a big metal box with wheels on it."
"It's really not that far," said Aliza. "Only a few blocks. . . "
"No, dammit! We can still drive!"
"Walking is healthy," he said, starting off in another direction. "Come along, Ms. Archer."
Aliza didn't come along. She watched me coolly, waiting to see whether or not I'd go.
I saw a one hundred and sommat horsepower wrecking machine slip through my fingers and seriously considered ditching them both. Just to prove a point. But then, no. If I gave up on this, then I actually had to get to real work. Namely hunting down a slew of mythical creatures who'd hidden themselves away with nothing to help me but a hellhound, an incomplete list of personal sigils, and a half-assed tracking spell I'd have to actually go and make when I got home. And if Aliza wasn't just blowing smoke, then I'd be stuck with her, as well.
"Fine," I said. "But after, I get to drive to my place, got it?"
"Sorry," he called, several yards away and still moving. "Can't hear you."
* * * * *
We were, according to the late Ms. Aliza, almost there when the necromancer stopped us.
"Wait," he said, digging through his bag. "Hang on a second."
We watched as he produced a pair of old sneakers, the laces tied together. I peeked into the bag, and found it full of odds and ends, not the least of which were several more pairs of shoes.
"How come you've got a bag full of old sneakers?"
He tugged the laces, making sure they were tied securely. "Because newer ones are expensive."
"Why do you need sneakers at all?"
"To throw them." He demonstrated by swinging the pair around over his head, then hurling them onto the telephone wires.
"Why are you throwing them?"
"Spell," he said. He looked around when he was done, as though he were waiting for something.
I waited for more. When it became apparent I wasn't going to get it without help, I said, "That does. . . ?"
"You're incredibly unhelpful."
He brought out another pair and tossed them up to join their fellows. "You're incredibly nosy."
"Only when it comes to necromancers. Listen-"
"Dammit!" said Aliza. She was staring at the road behind us. The necromancer looked sharply at the road behind us, and his entire face lit up.
"Oh good," he breathed. He started fumbling through his bag.
That can't be a good sign. I closed my eyes and saw a shadow popup in the middle fo the street. The shadow melted away, revealing a very pissed off looking psychopomp heading straight for us.
Hold it right there! he shouted.
"Shit! How'd he find us?" I glanced suspiciously up at the shoes hanging over our heads. "What did that spell do?"
The corpse poker ignored me. "Sir," he said, moving towards the psychopomp I recognized as Thanatos. "If I could just have a moment of your time-"
"I'm not going anywhere!" shouted Aliza. "You can't make me!" she vanished.
"Nuh-uh," said Thanatos. He made a pulling gesture, like he was tugging an invisible rope. "Not this time!"
Aliza jerked back into the world a few feet away. She tried to run, but whatever Thanatos had done had anchored her down. She beat against an invisible wall, trying to get away. "No, dammit! I'm not ready!"
"Sir," said Jasper. If you could just hold still . . ." He pulled something out from the bag. It was a bottle. The glass had an iridescent, purple-blue-red-then-purple-again sheen to it that seemed to melt in the light. He tucked the bottle under his arm and brought out a silver-ish penknife and rolled up the overlong sleeve of his jacket, revealing an arm that was a mess of crisscrossed scars and cuts, which he then started to add to.
"Madam," said Thanatos in the barely restrained voice of someone a hair's breadth away from the edge sanity and seriously considering jumping off. His left eye twitched, ever so slightly. "It's over. Enough is enough. We're running late, and I'm going to have to insist you come along quietly-"
There was the sound of beating wings.
"We are the servants of the lord Azrael!"
Two of Azrael's golems materialized between Thanatos and us. They were carbon copies of the golem from earlier. I wondered briefly if one of them was the same, or if they were just other members of the litter. When they spoke, they spoke in mechanical unison.
"We are here to retrieve the wandering spirit."
"No you don't!"
A brief look of surprise crossed one of the golems' face before it went sprawling into the pavement in a flurry of black feathers. A sword stuck out of his chest, but there was no blood. Thanatos drew the sword out of the golem and launched himself at the other one, not bothering with the weapon and settling for a clean uppercut.
"I am sick of you lot, you hear me? Sick!" He delivered a swift kick in the ribs of the one he'd just downed. The first was getting to its feet. Neither of the golems looked particularly bothered, just slightly confused. The one being kicked frowned, as though taking a sandaled foot to the gut was a puzzling inconvenience.
"I am a servant of the lord-"
"Gah!" He stomped on its belly while the other one came up behind him.
"We are the servants of the lord Azr-"
It was interrupted by a fist to the face.
"I am the lord Thanatos!" he bellowed. "Guide to the dead, lord or the wandering souls, son of the night, associate of the lord Hades and am pretty fucking pissed off right now!"
The corpse poker was watching the whole spectacle, delighted. "This is magnificent!" he said, taking the stopper out of the bottle. Aliza was clawing madly at the air behind us, still trying to get away and muttering to herself about unfinished business.
"Come on," I said. "We've got to-"
One of the golems, apparently bored of getting knocked down over and over again, clocked the lord of lost souls. Aliza immediately vanished, then reappeared a few yards away. I opened my eyes, causing the psychopomps to drop out of sight.
"Come on," she said. "While they're distracted!"
‘Hang on,” said the necromancer. “I won’t get another chance-“
“We have to go!” screeched Aliza. There was a gust of cold wind, strong enough to knock us both down. After which, there was the delicate sound of glass breaking. The pretty bottle was now in a hundred little pieces all over the sidewalk.
The necromancer cursed. Loudly, fluently, and in several different languages, and tried picking them all up. I grabbed his arm and tried dragging him away.
“Leave it, we have to go.”
The psychopomps were still fighting. Thanatos was going mad with the sword, now, hacking and slashing and not drawing any blood at all despite the large gashes being carved into the golems.
We both bolted. Aliza didn't have to run, she just kept materializing a few yards ahead of us, making sure we passed before moving ahead again.
We just turned down a small street when heard the noise of wings beating air and the rustling of feathers. Behind us, about fifty more clones of golem guy were blockading the street. They weren’t even trying to hide anymore: I could see and hear them perfectly, even without the Sight.
"Stop," they said as one. "We are the servants of the Lord Azrael! We have come to retrieve the spirit-"
"Not until I'm ready!" shouted Aliza before disappearing again.
"This way!" she said. "The house is up ahead!"
We tore through the yard and up the porch steps. Aliza just ran straight through the wall while the corpse poker and myself had to stop and settle for hammering on the door.
"What?" said a timid voice from inside. "What is it?" A small, balding man opened the door a crack. "Hello?'
"Hello, sir," Jasper said brightly, if somewhat breathlessly. "Do you happen to have any jam jars?"
I muscled my way between them. "Jam jars!" I roared. "Jam jars, man! Do you have any?"
"I don't- who-?"
The necromancer tried pushing past him. The little man pushed back.
"Sir," said Jasper. "This is a matter of the utmost importance. A matter of afterlife and death. The late Alizabeth Archer is here now, and she requires your assistance."
"It's the least you can do since you murdered me." said Aliza from somewhere inside.
The little man- Robert- didn’t hear her. "You can't just-"
I squeezed in the barely open door and found myself in the livingroom. If the bottles around the sofa and the flower arrangements around the room were any indication, we had apparently interrupted either some post-funeral mourning or celebrating.
“Where’s the kitchen?”
Aliza lead the way while Robert and the necromancer kept up their door shoving match. In the back of my head, the small bit of me that paid attention to things was surprised. The little guy must have been stronger than he looked.
The kitchen was small and clean and stank of lemony-fresh cleaners.
“Jam jars,” I said. Aliza nodded and materialized in the adjacent pantry. Then I realized what I’d said. I raised my voice. “Jam jars? Why jam jars?”
“Just do it!” he shouted from the next room over.
“Why are you people in my house?” shouted the homeowner.
“None in the pantry,” said Aliza. “I’ll check the recycling.” She disappeared.
I ran back into the livingroom. “What if there aren’t any?” I said.
“We need jars, dammit!”
”Why are you people in my house?”
I went back into the kitchen, crawled onto the countertop and started digging through the cabinets. They were almost all empty. Old bread, cans of chili, a box of stale cereal, but nothing remotely jar-like.
“Nothing in the recycling,” Aliza reported. “Those things," she said. "How do we keep them away?"
"Well I dunno, It's kinda hard to keep something like death at bay, but he seems to think jars’ll do it.”
I slid off the counter and started going through the fridge. “Will pickle jars work?” I shouted.
There was a crash, some swearing, and a loud thump from the next room over. The necromancer appeared in the doorway. “I guess they’ll have to, won’t they?” Something moved behind him. There was a loud thunk, and his eyes rolled up in the back of his head. He fell forward, revealing Mr. Archer standing behind him, wielding a lamp.
“What’s going on here? Who are you?” His eyes shot to the phone hanging on the wall.
“Whoa now,” I said, placing the jar on the counter. “No need for the cops to get involved.”
“Robert, you scum sucking sack of sophomoric stupid!” The lights flickered. “Don’t pretend you don’t see me!” The phone flew off the wall, scattering plaster and dust everywhere.
“How did you do that?” he said.
“I didn’t,” I said. The necromancer groaned, swore, and wriggled a bit on the floor, so I figured he’d be fine. “Aliza did.”
“Shut up,” said Robert. “Don’t you dare bring her into this.”
“Listen, there’s a whole horde of possibly invisible psychopomps heading straight for your house to take the soul of the dearly departed Alizabeth Archer, and she’s not happy about it. Depending on who catches her first, she’s stuck either going to Limbo or Purgatory, and it’s all your fault, got it?”
“My fault? Why would it be my fault?”
“Because you murdered me!” she shrieked. There was a sudden drop in temperature. All the furniture in the room began to rattle. There was a shatter as a vase in the corner toppled off its end table and onto the floor.
“She thinks you murdered her,” I said.
The corpse poker managed to get to his feet. “The jar,” he slurred. He staggered over to the counter and grabbed the pickle jar. A silly grin sprouted across his face. “’Scuse me,” he said, shoving his way past Robert and heading outside.
Robert stared. “Why did that man take my jar of pickles?”
“No idea,” I said.
“Can we please get back to important matters?” said Aliza.
“Right. Aliza’s ticked off you killed her and wants revenge. After that, she’ll be free to go to one of the other, more respectable afterlives.”
“Heaven,” she said. “I’m going to heaven.”
“Whatever you say, toots.”
“But why would she think I killed her? Her death was an accident.”
She materialized right in front of his nose. “You lying bastard! You poisoned me! You put something in my drink!”
“She says you poisoned her drink.”
His jaw dropped. He closed it, opened it again like he was going to say something, closed it again, closed his eyes as though he had suddenly developed a headache, and finally said, “Aliza. I love you. I do. But sometimes you can be the most stubborn, self important idiot on this side of the planet.”
He looked straight at her, though I doubt he could see her. “I did not poison you, nor did you have ‘a’ drink, remember? You had a cold. You took twice the recommended dosage because you always do that when you’re ill, and then you had several drinks. Large ones. You emptied half the bottle, remember?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t remember any of that.”
“That’s probably because of the cold medicine,” I said helpfully.
“Aliza,” he said. “I’m your brother. How could you think I’d poison you? How could you think-?”
“Shut up!” she said. Glass sounding things broke in the other rooms. “Shut up shut up shut up! It can’t be my fault. If it’s my fault, then that means- that means. . .“ She went quiet. The air itself seemed to still.
“Aliza?” he said softly.
“I’m sorry.” she said.
And then she was gone. It wasn’t the same vanishing trick she’d been doing all day, but a soft, final evaporation. The air was quiet.
“I think she’s done now,” I said, scootching past him.
“Yeah,” he said. He sounded very tired. “Yeah.”
I left him standing in the doorway and went to check on the necromancer.
He was outside, surrounded by a flock of golems, pickle jar open in front of him. His sleeves were rolled up, and the cuts he’d made earlier shone bright red.
“Mors tua vita mea!” he shouted. “Vade mecum!” The golem who’d been in front of the jar dematerialized. “Vade mecum!” he said again. Another golem was suddenly gone. He did this to another three golems before those remaining suddenly looked up, as though hearing something.
“Our lord calls us!” they said together. As one, they spread out their wings, and vanished in a gust of wind.
The corpse poker slammed the jar onto the lid and grinned like a loon. “Twelve,” he said, holding up the jar. “I got twelve of them in here.”
I crept down the porch for closer inspection.
Inside the jar, above the pickle juice pooled at the bottom, black and gold mist stirred and whorled. Occasionally, I thought I could see the vague shape of a face before it faded back into mist.
“Nice,” I said. “Will that one pickle in there change anything?”
“Doubt it,” he said, tucking the jar into the bag. “Do you know how many shoes I went through, trying to get that summoning spell to work? Do you see the cuts on my arms? And all it took was a ghost. Incredible.” He looked at me, still grinning mad. “This was an incredibly fruitful afternoon. You have my sincerest thanks.
“Why?" I said. “Why d'you want a bunch of death’s doormen?
He shrugged. "To harvest them to increase my own hold on life and death. To help me make and break the boundaries between this world and the next. To help me create a zombie army. To fight off any other deathlings that might come after me- that sort of thing.
“So the usual necromancer gig. I get you. You were planning for this to happen, then.” It wasn’t a question.
"Well I was hoping to use my nice bottle, but yes."
"And the helping Aliza thing? She’s fine now. I think. She’s finished her business, anyways."
"I'm glad it worked out for her," he said primly. He slung the bag over his shoulder.
"Bait. You used some woman's immortal soul as bait so you could pull a genie-trap on a horde of deathlings."
I grinned right back at him. "A meatsack after my own metaphorical heart."
"What happened to the real one?" We started off down the street together before Mr. Archer decided to change his mind and call the cops after all.
"I dunno. Probably got cut out like a zillion years ago."
“You’re not an angel, are you.” This, also, wasn’t a question.
“I refuse to answer that on the grounds it may incriminate me.”
“It’s alright,” he said. We turned back to where Thanatos and the other golems had been fighting. They, too, were gone. Nothing was left but a few black feathers, completely visible to the untrained eye. He stopped to pick them up. “You got anyplace you need to be?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” I said.
“Come on, then.” he said. “I’ll give you a ride.”
“Can I drive?”
“Sorry,” he said, picking up the pace. “Can’t hear you. Speak a little louder.”
I groaned and hurried after.
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