“Hi there! You’ve reached Spider and Karma’s house, but we’re busy showing some lovely homes at affordable prices to charming and attractive people so we can’t come to the phone right now. Ha ha, just kidding. We’re really having wild monkey sex on the bathroom floor. Since that’ll keep us busy for a while, go ahead and leave us a message, and we’ll get to you when we can.”
“Um…hi. I’m looking for Karma? I heard Marcy at the Quick Stop Java Shop talking about you, and I thought I’d see if you were available to help me. I’m looking for someone to take care of a problem in my house—”
The answering machine clicked off in the middle of the message as I grabbed the phone. “Hi. Sorry about that message—it’s my husband’s idea of a joke. I’m Karma. What did you need?” 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.
“Oh, hi. That’s OK, my partner has a horrible sense of humor, too. You wouldn’t believe the sort of things she says in front of other people. I was told that you…um…clean houses?”
“Not in the usual sense,” 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. “I don’t actually do cleaning per se. My work is a little more specialized than that.”
There was a puzzled pause. I used it to snatch a pint of melting Ben & Jerry’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.
“Um…does that mean you don’t do windows?”
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 didn’t know the nature of my cleaning services, which was fine with me. “Sorry, no windows. And no floors, and no dishes, and no dusting for that matter.”
A domovoi shimmered into view. “Did you remember the Quaker Oats?”
I covered the mouthpiece of the phone so the woman on the other end wouldn’t hear me. “On the counter. Did you let the imps out again?”
The domovoi wrinkled his nose. “They got out while I was cleaning their cupboard, but I put them all back.”
“I see,” the woman said slowly. I doubted she did, but I wasn’t in the mood to clue her in.
“Next time, put the bungee on the door, or they’ll just push it open again. Have you done the bathroom?”
“On my way.” 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.
“What exactly do you clean, then?” the woman on the phone asked.
“I’m more of an exterminator than a housekeeping service,” I answered, grabbing an armful of canned goods as I headed to the pantry.
“Good morning, Karma.” Cardea sat cross-legged in the pantry reading a Cosmo, glancing up at me as I put the cans on the shelf.
“Morning,” I said, putting my hand over the phone again. “I don’t suppose you’d like to go for a walk or something? It’s a nice day out.”
“And leave the pantry?” she asked, looking a bit wild about the eyes. “Oh, no, I don’t think I’m ready for that.”
“Ah. Well, I don’t have any bugs in my house,” the woman on the phone said.
“Maybe another day,” 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.
“But my brother has a rodent problem. What sort of exterminator are you? Do you do rats and mice, or just bugs?”
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. “The technical name is transmortis anomaly exterminator.”
The silence that followed that announcement wasn’t unusual, or unexpected. “OK. That went right over my head.”
“Don’t worry, it went over mine the first time I heard it, too,” I said, laughing. “It’s just a fancy name, nothing more. I’m sorry I can’t help clean your house, but I appreciate the call.”
A couple of bags of salad greens were all that remained from the morning’s trip to the store. I stuffed them into the vegetable bin, smiling at the dada (vegetable spirit) as it exclaimed happily, “Oh, good, you got the kind with arugula. I love arugula!”
“Is there something else I can help you with?” I asked when the woman on the phone didn’t make the polite good-bye noises I expected.
“Mortis means death, doesn’t it?” Her voice was soft and somewhat rushed, as if she was trying to speak without being overheard.
“Yes, it does.” The fine hairs on my arm stood on end as Sergei drifted through me.
“I thought so. Transmortis anomaly—that’s across death deviation from the norm, isn’t it?”
Damn. She was getting close to the truth. “That’s one interpretation, yes.”
“And you’re an exterminator, so that means you get rid of something that deviates from what’s normal, and whatever that is, it’s already dead?”
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. “Something like that.”
“Oh!” The woman sucked in a startled gasp. “You’re a ghost buster?”
“No, I am not,” 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. “I don’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, I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“Good lord. People really buy into that hogwash?” the woman asked, her voice rife with dismissal.
I held my tongue. There were two kinds of people in the world—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.
“What happens to the ghosts you clean? Do you kill them?” 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. “You can’t kill something that’s already dead. When spirits are exorcised from a house, they are sent to the Akasha.”
“Akasha. The Akashic Plain is the proper name, but around here we just call it Akasha. Basically, it’s limbo. The beings there dwell in perpetual torment until they’re released.”
“And you send them there?” 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.
“Er…not always. Sometimes I relocate them.”
“Busy honey?” My father walked into the room, carefully stepping over the fallen imp. “What’s wrong with him?”
I covered the phone again. “He’s having a moment. I’m really going to have to limit their soap opera consumption. They’re starting to get out of hand.”
“Ah, yes. Ooh, two lattes? Is one for me?”
I nodded. He took the cardboard latte cup in both hands, reaching for the cookie jar where I kept his favorite ginger cookies.
“People like you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. I’ve heard all about your type—you prey on people who’ve lost someone, and give them false hope. I do not want you cleaning my house.”
A beep on the phone gave me the perfect excuse to end the conversation. “I’m sure it’s better if I don’t. I have another call, so thanks for venting your spleen on me. Bye-bye.”
“Not a client?” my dad asked as I pressed the call waiting button.
“No, thank god. Hello?”
“Karma Marx, please.”
“Speaking.” I accepted the latte my father handed me.
“This is Carol Beckett, director at the Home for Innocents. I just wanted to let you know that Pixie O’Hara will be arriving this morning at ten. Please be sure to adhere to the schedule that Pixie will have with her—she’s notoriously bad about keeping her counseling sessions, and Doctor Wellbottom feels most strongly that Pixie needs a firm hand in her life.”
“Pixie O’Hara? I’m sorry, Ms. Beckett, but I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.” My father flitted over to the window and began rearranging my collection of ceramic parrots.
“You are Karma Marx?”
“Yes.” 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. “It says here that you were contacted last week about your offer to help with wayward teens.”
“I’m sorry, but I wasn’t. I don’t know anything about it. And now isn’t really a good time—”
“The notes say that the case worker spoke with—” More paper shuffling. “Mr. Marx on Tuesday the seventeenth at 10.23am. Arrangements for the custodial care of Pixie were agreed too then.”
“Tuesday?” I rubbed my forehead, trying to remember where Spider had been on Tuesday. It didn’t make any sense. Spider would never consent to someone living with us, especially a troubled teen. We’d had a huge fight when he found out I had signed up as a foster volunteer with the children’s home, which ended with him storming out of the house. So for him to be changing his mind without talking to me…a thought burst into being in my brain. I wrapped my hand around the bottom of the phone and leaned into the dining room. “Why the hell did you tell the local children’s home that I would take one of their teens?”
“Hmm?” Dad was apparently engrossed in re-shelving by height the books in the bookcase. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not buying that at all. You’re in serious trouble, buster,” I said before uncovering the phone and speaking to the woman at the other end. “I’m sorry, there’s been a slight mix-up. My…er…husband forgot that this is a particularly bad week for visitors, so regrettably, we—”
“The arrangements were made last week,” the woman said brusquely, shoving aside my excuse. “Pixie 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.”
“But you don’t understand—”
“No, you don’t understand!” I held the phone a few inches away from my ear at the outburst. “Arrangements were made! You cannot simply wait until the last minute and say it’s not convenient! This organization is run on strict rules, and as a volunteer, you have sworn to uphold those rules.”
“I need not remind you, I’m sure, of the importance of steady, reliable volunteers who fulfill the commitments they make. To do otherwise would have grave repercussions.”
My jaw dropped open a smidgen. “Are you threatening me?”
“Of course not, I wouldn’t dream of doing anything so reprehensible. I’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.”
“Son of a—” 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 proper—I had absolutely no choice to but continue working for the League, but there was going to be hell to pay if Spider discovered we’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. “Fine. I’ll take the girl.”
“I knew you’d see reason,” she said with smug amusement. “Pixie will be there shortly. At the end of the month, your fitness as a foster parent will be reevaluated. Until then, good luck.”
“Problems?” Dad asked as I hung up the phone.
“Just an insurmountable one, thanks to you.” 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.
“Imp,” Dad said helpfully.
“Don’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 I’ve taken in a teenager for a month.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” 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.
“Well, the damage is done,” I said, slumping against the counter. “The girl is on her way. I have no idea what I’m going to say to Spider, though.”
“You’re a smart girl, you’ll think of something. There’s another imp,” he pointed out. “You seem to have a problem with them.”
I savored a sip of latte. “That’s the understatement of the day. They think I’m their mother. They’re like a plague—I can’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 Rainforest…and the next day the whole troop of them showed up wet and covered in moss. Whoever heard of homing imps?”
He gave me a sour look. “If you wouldn’t mess with powers beyond your abilities, you wouldn’t have such strife.”
“Not again, please Dad, not today.” 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 I’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 I’d have to go in for the hard-core migraine meds.
“You wouldn’t get those headaches if you left well enough alone,” he said, gesturing toward my head. “What you’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.”
“You didn’t raise me at all,” I pointed out, deciding ibu wasn’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.
“Now you’re being pedantic,” he answered, taking a stance at the head of the table, his hands on his hips. “Just 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.”
“It may be wrong, but someone has to do it. Would you rather it be someone who doesn’t rescue as many beings as she can? Someone who doesn’t care about them at all?” I rubbed my forehead again, tired even though it was early morning.
“I’d rather no one exterminated beings at all,” he said.
“Tell that to the Akashic League—they’re the ones who insisted I do this job.”
He was silent for a moment, his eyes sad. “How much longer until you’ve worked off the weregeld?”
“I told you before—I don’t know. It’s up to the League. And you can stop looking at me like that!”
“Like I just killed your best friend.”
I shoved myself to my feet, my head swimming. “You think I don’t recognize that look? You’re wrong there, Dad, dead wrong. I’m the one who killed her best friend, remember?”