writing as Kate Marsh, |
February 5, 2008
Barnes & Noble
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There are other worlds with mysteries to solve.
Worlds where not all of the suspects are technically alive.
Thatâ€™s when Karma kicks in.
For all those transmortis anomalies that need to be exterminated, thereâ€™s Karma Marxâ€”a woman who exorcises haunted houses, sending troublesome spirits and entities to the ever after. What sheâ€™d really like is to banish Spider, her cheating, sleazy realtor husband, from her life. So, she makes him a deal: sheâ€™ll clean one last home for him if he grants her a divorce.
The only problem is that Adam, the house’s former owner, isn’t happy with Karma’s plan. Using his poltergeist powers, he seals the place, forcing Karma, Spider, and a motley assortment of characters (living and not-so-living) together for a hair-raising twelve hours. But when Spider turns up dead in the basement, itâ€™s a locked house mystery, and Karma’s determined to reveal the truth, even if it means tackling all of the mansionâ€™s inhabitantsâ€”mortal and otherwiseâ€¦
â€śHi there! Youâ€™ve reached Spider and Karmaâ€™s house, but weâ€™re busy showing some lovely homes at affordable prices to charming and attractive people so we canâ€™t come to the phone right now. Ha ha, just kidding. Weâ€™re really having wild monkey sex on the bathroom floor. Since thatâ€™ll keep us busy for a while, go ahead and leave us a message, and weâ€™ll get to you when we can.â€ť
â€śUmâ€¦hi. Iâ€™m looking for Karma? I heard Marcy at the Quick Stop Java Shop talking about you, and I thought Iâ€™d see if you were available to help me. Iâ€™m looking for someone to take care of a problem in my houseâ€”â€ť
The answering machine clicked off in the middle of the message as I grabbed the phone. â€śHi. Sorry about that messageâ€”itâ€™s my husbandâ€™s idea of a joke. Iâ€™m Karma. What did you need?â€ť The groceries made an unpleasant clunking sound as I set the bag down in order to adjust the phone. A splash of latte hit my knuckles from one of the two cups I held in a cardboard drink carrier.
â€śOh, hi. Thatâ€™s OK, my partner has a horrible sense of humor, too. You wouldnâ€™t believe the sort of things she says in front of other people. I was told that youâ€¦umâ€¦clean houses?â€ť
â€śNot in the usual sense,â€ť I said cautiously, setting down the lattes to wrestle a can of soup from the small yellow creature that had grabbed it as it rolled out of the bag. â€śI donâ€™t actually do cleaning per se. My work is a little more specialized than that.â€ť
There was a puzzled pause. I used it to snatch a pint of melting Ben & Jerryâ€™s from two yellow imps that charged out from behind the toaster, stuffing the ice cream into the freezer before shooing the imps back into their home. They eek-eeked at me. I ignored them and used a magazine to push them back into the stainless steel flour drawer, closing the door firmly and securing it with a bungee cord to keep them from pushing it open.
â€śUmâ€¦does that mean you donâ€™t do windows?â€ť
I sighed to myself as I gathered up a carton of juice, a couple of containers of yogurt, and a bag of grapefruit, ferrying them to the refrigerator while clamping the phone between my ear and shoulder. Obviously this caller didnâ€™t know the nature of my cleaning services, which was fine with me. â€śSorry, no windows. And no floors, and no dishes, and no dusting for that matter.â€ť
A domovoi shimmered into view. â€śDid you remember the Quaker Oats?â€ť
I covered the mouthpiece of the phone so the woman on the other end wouldnâ€™t hear me. â€śOn the counter. Did you let the imps out again?â€ť
The domovoi wrinkled his nose. â€śThey got out while I was cleaning their cupboard, but I put them all back.â€ť
â€śI see,â€ť the woman said slowly. I doubted she did, but I wasnâ€™t in the mood to clue her in.
â€śNext time, put the bungee on the door, or theyâ€™ll just push it open again. Have you done the bathroom?â€ť
â€śOn my way.â€ť The domovoi, a Russian house spirit named Sergei who spent his time being helpful, took the carton of oats that was the main source of his food, and disappeared.
â€śWhat exactly do you clean, then?â€ť the woman on the phone asked.
â€śIâ€™m more of an exterminator than a housekeeping service,â€ť I answered, grabbing an armful of canned goods as I headed to the pantry.
â€śGood morning, Karma.â€ť Cardea sat cross-legged in the pantry reading a Cosmo, glancing up at me as I put the cans on the shelf.
â€śMorning,â€ť I said, putting my hand over the phone again. â€śI donâ€™t suppose youâ€™d like to go for a walk or something? Itâ€™s a nice day out.â€ť
â€śAnd leave the pantry?â€ť she asked, looking a bit wild about the eyes. â€śOh, no, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m ready for that.â€ť
â€śAh. Well, I donâ€™t have any bugs in my house,â€ť the woman on the phone said.
â€śMaybe another day,â€ť I told Cardea, and made a mental note to find someone, anyone, who was willing to work with an ancient Roman goddess of door hinges and thresholds with agoraphobia so intense it kept her locked inside my house.
â€śBut my brother has a rodent problem. What sort of exterminator are you? Do you do rats and mice, or just bugs?â€ť
I dumped a couple of packages of pasta on the shelf and made a face at it. An imp leaped out from behind it, and tried to fling itself upon me. I grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and took it back to the flour drawer where its brethren lived. â€śThe technical name is transmortis anomaly exterminator.â€ť
The silence that followed that announcement wasnâ€™t unusual, or unexpected. â€śOK. That went right over my head.â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t worry, it went over mine the first time I heard it, too,â€ť I said, laughing. â€śItâ€™s just a fancy name, nothing more. Iâ€™m sorry I canâ€™t help clean your house, but I appreciate the call.â€ť
A couple of bags of salad greens were all that remained from the morningâ€™s trip to the store. I stuffed them into the vegetable bin, smiling at the dada (vegetable spirit) as it exclaimed happily, â€śOh, good, you got the kind with arugula. I love arugula!â€ť
â€śIs there something else I can help you with?â€ť I asked when the woman on the phone didnâ€™t make the polite good-bye noises I expected.
â€śMortis means death, doesnâ€™t it?â€ť Her voice was soft and somewhat rushed, as if she was trying to speak without being overheard.
â€śYes, it does.â€ť The fine hairs on my arm stood on end as Sergei drifted through me.
â€śI thought so. Transmortis anomalyâ€”thatâ€™s across death deviation from the norm, isnâ€™t it?â€ť
Damn. She was getting close to the truth. â€śThatâ€™s one interpretation, yes.â€ť
â€śAnd youâ€™re an exterminator, so that means you get rid of something that deviates from whatâ€™s normal, and whatever that is, itâ€™s already dead?â€ť
I folded the cloth carrier bag and stuffed it into a nearby drawer, swearing under my breath at the pair of imps that ran through the kitchen chasing a tennis ball. â€śSomething like that.â€ť
â€śOh!â€ť The woman sucked in a startled gasp. â€śYouâ€™re a ghost buster?â€ť
â€śNo, I am not,â€ť I answered, allowing myself a moment of teeth grinding over the much hated term before deciding it was useless to keep mum about something the woman was so clearly determined to ferret out. â€śI donâ€™t bust anything. I simply clean houses of any unwanted Otherworld spirits, beings, or entities. So unless you have an imp infestation, or are bothered by a troublesome ancestral spirit, Iâ€™m afraid I canâ€™t help you.â€ť
â€śGood lord. People really buy into that hogwash?â€ť the woman asked, her voice rife with dismissal.
I held my tongue. There were two kinds of people in the worldâ€”those who knew about the Otherworld, and those who lived in blissful ignorance of it. I found it was better to leave the latter group alone.
â€śWhat happens to the ghosts you clean? Do you kill them?â€ť asked the woman, a slight mocking note evident.
A small herd of imps thundered in from the dining room, running right over the top of my foot. I caught three by their tails, and another two by a couple of their arms, and hurriedly dropped them into the flour drawer. Annoyed, tired, and with a suspicious notion that another migraine was about to hit, I spoke without thinking. â€śYou canâ€™t kill something thatâ€™s already dead. When spirits are exorcised from a house, they are sent to the Akasha.â€ť
â€śAkasha. The Akashic Plain is the proper name, but around here we just call it Akasha. Basically, itâ€™s limbo. The beings there dwell in perpetual torment until theyâ€™re released.â€ť
â€śAnd you send them there?â€ť the woman asked.
A lone rogue imp scampered toward me from the dining room, raised all four of its arms to me, then swooned in the best dramatic fashion.
â€śErâ€¦not always. Sometimes I relocate them.â€ť
â€śBusy honey?â€ť My father walked into the room, carefully stepping over the fallen imp. â€śWhatâ€™s wrong with him?â€ť
I covered the phone again. â€śHeâ€™s having a moment. Iâ€™m really going to have to limit their soap opera consumption. Theyâ€™re starting to get out of hand.â€ť
â€śAh, yes. Ooh, two lattes? Is one for me?â€ť
I nodded. He took the cardboard latte cup in both hands, reaching for the cookie jar where I kept his favorite ginger cookies.
â€śPeople like you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Iâ€™ve heard all about your typeâ€”you prey on people whoâ€™ve lost someone, and give them false hope. I do not want you cleaning my house.â€ť
A beep on the phone gave me the perfect excuse to end the conversation. â€śIâ€™m sure itâ€™s better if I donâ€™t. I have another call, so thanks for venting your spleen on me. Bye-bye.â€ť
â€śNot a client?â€ť my dad asked as I pressed the call waiting button.
â€śNo, thank god. Hello?â€ť
â€śKarma Marx, please.â€ť
â€śSpeaking.â€ť I accepted the latte my father handed me.
â€śThis is Carol Beckett, director at the Home for Innocents. I just wanted to let you know that Pixie Oâ€™Hara will be arriving this morning at ten. Please be sure to adhere to the schedule that Pixie will have with herâ€”sheâ€™s notoriously bad about keeping her counseling sessions, and Doctor Wellbottom feels most strongly that Pixie needs a firm hand in her life.â€ť
â€śPixie Oâ€™Hara? Iâ€™m sorry, Ms. Beckett, but I donâ€™t have the slightest idea what youâ€™re talking about.â€ť My father flitted over to the window and began rearranging my collection of ceramic parrots.
â€śYou are Karma Marx?â€ť
â€śYes.â€ť Dad moved on to the dining room, where I could see him moving around straightening chairs.
The sound of papers shuffling could plainly be heard over the phone. â€śIt says here that you were contacted last week about your offer to help with wayward teens.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sorry, but I wasnâ€™t. I donâ€™t know anything about it. And now isnâ€™t really a good timeâ€”â€ť
â€śThe notes say that the case worker spoke withâ€”â€ť More paper shuffling. â€śMr. Marx on Tuesday the seventeenth at 10.23am. Arrangements for the custodial care of Pixie were agreed too then.â€ť
â€śTuesday?â€ť I rubbed my forehead, trying to remember where Spider had been on Tuesday. It didnâ€™t make any sense. Spider would never consent to someone living with us, especially a troubled teen. Weâ€™d had a huge fight when he found out I had signed up as a foster volunteer with the childrenâ€™s home, which ended with him storming out of the house. So for him to be changing his mind without talking to meâ€¦a thought burst into being in my brain. I wrapped my hand around the bottom of the phone and leaned into the dining room. â€śWhy the hell did you tell the local childrenâ€™s home that I would take one of their teens?â€ť
â€śHmm?â€ť Dad was apparently engrossed in re-shelving by height the books in the bookcase. â€śI have no idea what youâ€™re talking about.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m not buying that at all. Youâ€™re in serious trouble, buster,â€ť I said before uncovering the phone and speaking to the woman at the other end. â€śIâ€™m sorry, thereâ€™s been a slight mix-up. My…erâ€¦husband forgot that this is a particularly bad week for visitors, so regrettably, weâ€”â€ť
â€śThe arrangements were made last week,â€ť the woman said brusquely, shoving aside my excuse. â€śPixie will stay with you for a month. During that time you are to see to her general health and well-being, and make sure that she attends her counseling appointments.â€ť
â€śBut you donâ€™t understandâ€”â€ť
â€śNo, you donâ€™t understand!â€ť I held the phone a few inches away from my ear at the outburst. â€śArrangements were made! You cannot simply wait until the last minute and say itâ€™s not convenient! This organization is run on strict rules, and as a volunteer, you have sworn to uphold those rules.â€ť
â€śI need not remind you, Iâ€™m sure, of the importance of steady, reliable volunteers who fulfill the commitments they make. To do otherwise would have grave repercussions.â€ť
My jaw dropped open a smidgen. â€śAre you threatening me?â€ť
â€śOf course not, I wouldnâ€™t dream of doing anything so reprehensible. Iâ€™m simply pointing out that someone who holds the position of responsibility and respect that you hold with the Akashic League should think long and hard before she endangers that position. Especially someone who is working off weregeld.â€ť
â€śSon of aâ€”â€ť I bit off the oath, grinding my teeth. She had me by the short and curlies, and I suspect she knew that very well. My job with the League was not one I held by desire, but it was better than the alternative, something that anyone who knew my history, as this woman did, would know. I was trapped, good and properâ€”I had absolutely no choice to but continue working for the League, but there was going to be hell to pay if Spider discovered weâ€™d taken in a needy teen for a month or more.
I sighed. When it came down to a choice between Spider and the League, there was only one choice. â€śFine. Iâ€™ll take the girl.â€ť
â€śI knew youâ€™d see reason,â€ť she said with smug amusement. â€śPixie will be there shortly. At the end of the month, your fitness as a foster parent will be reevaluated. Until then, good luck.â€ť
â€śProblems?â€ť Dad asked as I hung up the phone.
â€śJust an insurmountable one, thanks to you.â€ť A little burble of frothed milk poked out the top of the latte lid. I licked it off, ignoring the patter of little feet as a flash of yellow eek-eeked across the kitchen floor.
â€śImp,â€ť Dad said helpfully.
â€śDonâ€™t you imp me! How dare you pretend to be Spider on the phone! What on earth were you thinking? Spider is going to have a cow when he finds outs Iâ€™ve taken in a teenager for a month.â€ť
â€śI wouldnâ€™t be so sure of that,â€ť Dad said softly, avoiding my gaze.
I took a deep breath, ignored the headache that threatened to blossom, and chewed my father up one side and down the other. By the time I was done, he was positively dancing with the need to get out of the room.
â€śWell, the damage is done,â€ť I said, slumping against the counter. â€śThe girl is on her way. I have no idea what Iâ€™m going to say to Spider, though.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re a smart girl, youâ€™ll think of something. Thereâ€™s another imp,â€ť he pointed out. â€śYou seem to have a problem with them.â€ť
I savored a sip of latte. â€śThatâ€™s the understatement of the day. They think Iâ€™m their mother. Theyâ€™re like a plagueâ€”I canâ€™t seem to get rid of them. I drop them off in the woods, and they find their way back here. I take them to the beach, and they come back. I even left them in the Hoh Rainforestâ€¦and the next day the whole troop of them showed up wet and covered in moss. Whoever heard of homing imps?â€ť
He gave me a sour look. â€śIf you wouldnâ€™t mess with powers beyond your abilities, you wouldnâ€™t have such strife.â€ť
â€śNot again, please Dad, not today.â€ť I took my latte with me to the tiny dining room that looked out on a mundane bit of back yard. The headache that had been threatening me since Iâ€™d woke up burst into glorious being. I rubbed my forehead and wondered if a handful of ibuprofen would be enough to take care of it, or if Iâ€™d have to go in for the hard-core migraine meds.
â€śYou wouldnâ€™t get those headaches if you left well enough alone,â€ť he said, gesturing toward my head. â€śWhat youâ€™re doing is wrong, Karma. Taking spirits from their natural habitat and banishing them to the Akasha is cruel. I raised you better than that.â€ť
â€śYou didnâ€™t raise me at all,â€ť I pointed out, deciding ibu wasnâ€™t going to cut it. I snagged my purse and dug around in it until I found a prescription bottle, washing down a couple of pills with a swig of latte.
â€śNow youâ€™re being pedantic,â€ť he answered, taking a stance at the head of the table, his hands on his hips. â€śJust because I had the foresight to realize you would be better living with your mother while you grew up is no reason to be snarky. Besides, it has nothing to do with the fact that you are doing is wrong on many, many levels. As you well know.â€ť
â€śIt may be wrong, but someone has to do it. Would you rather it be someone who doesnâ€™t rescue as many beings as she can? Someone who doesnâ€™t care about them at all?â€ť I rubbed my forehead again, tired even though it was early morning.
â€śIâ€™d rather no one exterminated beings at all,â€ť he said.
â€śTell that to the Akashic Leagueâ€”theyâ€™re the ones who insisted I do this job.â€ť
He was silent for a moment, his eyes sad. â€śHow much longer until youâ€™ve worked off the weregeld?â€ť
â€śI told you beforeâ€”I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s up to the League. And you can stop looking at me like that!â€ť
â€śLike I just killed your best friend.â€ť
I shoved myself to my feet, my head swimming. â€śYou think I donâ€™t recognize that look? Youâ€™re wrong there, Dad, dead wrong. Iâ€™m the one who killed her best friend, remember?â€ť