“So, are you, like, in trouble again? Are they going to put you in a creepy Otherworld jail and throw away the key? Torture you? Curse you?” Pixie, my sixteen-year-old foster child, eyed me with undisguised interest and, I suspected, a bit of glee. “Will they banish you to the Akasha so that you have to live in perpetual torment, driven mad by the fact you killed people?”
I took a deep, deep breath and gathered up my purse, checking to make sure that my phone had charged up enough to use it in an emergency. Electronic devices, as a rule, didn’t like me. “We are not skipping therapy this week. I don’t care how crampy you are—you clearly need to have time with your therapist if you are imagining that the Akashic League wants to torture and curse me. It’s a meet and greet, Pixie, that’s all. The new head honcho is meeting with all the members, and it’s my turn to go in and hold my tongue while he spouts what is sure to be an inordinate amount of bullcrap. So no, I won’t be banished, although living in perpetual torment is a very real possibility.” I gave her a long look that had her turning away quickly, but not quickly enough that I didn’t see her grin. “Are you OK on your own, or do you want me to call my dad to keep you company?”
“Deus!” she swore, spinning around to glare at me, all four hands on her hips, her hair, which resembled two shiny black porcupines plopped on the top of her head, apparently bristling in response. “Do you think I need a babysitter? I’m sixteen, Karma, not an infant.”
I held up a hand to stop her before she got on a roll. “Right, I’m sorry if I implied you were unable to stay at home by yourself. I just thought you might like the company, but if you don’t, then I’ll go. I should be back by dinnertime. Do you want to cook tonight, or should I?”
Pixie had a volatile personality at best, but given her life before coming to me, it was no surprise that she was touchy about anything regarding what she deemed an insult to her autonomy. However, we’d recently discovered that she greatly enjoyed experimenting with recipes, and had turned out to be a more than competent cook. “What were you going to make?” she asked, her eyes narrowed, hands still on hips.
“Mac and cheese?” I said, racking my brain.
“Dude,” she said, waving that away with a dismissive gesture. “Anyone can make mac and cheese. I’ll do a white cheddar and Gruyère truffle macaroni gratin. I’ve been dying to try that truffle oil you bought.”
“Sounds good. I’ll stop by the store on my way home and pick up some things for a salad,” I said, then paused at the refrigerator, opening the vegetable bin, asking the dada (vegetable spirit) that resided there, “Do you have any preferences for salad fixings?”
He scrunched up his face for a few seconds before snapping his fingers. “I’ve been craving a Greek salad. Can we do that?”
“Of course. Anything else?”
“Arugula,” he said, then sat back and patted a package of baby carrots. “These will hold me over until then. Thanks, Karma.”
“No problem. Right, I’m off, then.” I closed the fridge and went through the living room, Pixie trailing after me, her phone in one hand, obviously looking up recipes. I glanced over at the doggy playpen with zip-on lid that we had set up in front of the TV, which was playing at a low volume. “The imps can have one more hour of that K-pop channel, then turn off the TV, please.”
“They won’t like that,” she answered without looking up. “Their fave telenovela comes on at noon.”
“They can watch it later,” I told her, eyeing the little yellow imps as they eek-eeked in their playpen, obviously mimicking the boy band they were watching. “Wow. They’re getting those moves down pat, aren’t they? We might have to see if they’d like to be entered in The Otherworld’s Got Talent.”
Pixie half snorted a laugh, but said nothing when I told her to call me in case of an emergency, and I set off the seven miles to the town on the Olympic Peninsula where I had lived all my life.
I passed the turn that led out to the coast road where a big old Victorian robber baron’s house sat overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and wondered what Adam was doing.
“Probably busy,” I said out loud.
“I am, but only because you keep letting Pixie drive, and she is forever filling the car with french fries,” a voice answered me. “Do you know how salty those are? It gets everywhere.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror. “She has her license, Ako. She’s allowed to drive by herself, and as unhealthy as her obsession with fries is, it’s really her only food vice, so I’m inclined to see if she grows out of it.”
“Bah. She could at least vacuum the front seat.” The Shinigami whom I’d rescued from a local historical ghost-train tour company settled into the back seat, looking around with pleasure at the passing scenery as we left my relatively rural neighborhood and headed into town. Ako’s kind were normally feared as spirits of death, but he was a devout pacifist and, when I was employed to clear him from the train, told me that he simply wanted a quiet home in a vehicle where he could sleep most of the time, and every now and again help out by keeping said vehicle tidy. It was an arrangement that for the last three months had worked out well. “Where are we going?”
“I have an appointment at the Akashic League.”
His eyes grew big. “Are you—you’re not—”
“I’m not sending you anywhere, Ako,” I reassured him. “I told you that I would move you somewhere if you wanted, but you were welcome to stay here if you so desired.”
“Whew,” he said, and faded into nothing, having obviously used up his corporeal energy. I wasn’t sure how much energy Shinigami could access, but the other spirits I’d known could become corporeal for a varying amount of time, depending on what type of being they were, whether they were on land considered sanctuary, or if they were wearing a powerful glamour. Only the strongest spirits could manifest in the last case, and I’d only ever seen one pull off a glamour successfully.
The rest of the drive was conducted in silence. I alternated between wondering why I hadn’t heard from Adam and what I was going to do if the new head of the Akashic League insisted that I clean against my wishes.
A half hour later I was called in to meet the new head. “Karma Marx? Name’s Job. Job Andrews.” The man who offered me his hand looked like every other middle-aged white man: graying hair, a face that showed little expression, and a nondescript suit the color of old mud. “I expect you have a bunch of questions, am I right? Well, sit yourself down, and we’ll have a little chat, you and I.”
He indicated a chair as he perched on a corner of the desk, adopting a jovial attitude that for some reason gave me a case of the fidgets.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said politely, glancing around the office. The decor had been changed from mildly reminiscent of an Edwardian gentleman’s library, to an expensive Italian-racing-car dealership. Glossy posters depicting attractive people in sunny landscapes dotted the walls, while chrome and white leather chairs sat in a semicircle around a minimalist glass desk. “Carole had nothing but good things to say about you, and how we would be in excellent hands now that she’s retired.”
Job clearly didn’t miss the fact that I referred to my former boss—who had been in charge of the Pacific Northwest office of the Akashic League (the Otherworld organization that controlled Summoners, necromancers, vespillos, liches, revenants, poltergeists, Alastors, and all flavors of spirits, ghosts, and ethereal beings)—because he gave me what I thought of as an ingratiating smile.
“I appreciate your concern, but I assure you that everything is going well. Very well, in fact. Now, let me see, you are a …” He hesitated, tapping his forefinger on his temple, as if he was thinking. “Transmortis Anomaly Exterminator, yes? You banish troublesome spirits.”
“That’s me,” I said, trying hard to quell the need to get up and move around the room. Although I was half-human, the poltergeist in me made it difficult to control the need to be moving when I was nervous.
“And you have …” He squinted at nothing in particular. “I seem to recall something being mentioned about you having run into some sort of trouble recently. …”
I forced a smile to my lips, not liking the deception he seemed to feel was necessary. It was a power play, and we both knew it. “Wergeld was bound to me when I was a child. No doubt that is what you were thinking of.”
“Wergeld, yes, yes, that’s it.” He smiled at me, a smile that showed way too many teeth. “Although I could have sworn that the wergeld was applied more recently than … what, thirty years ago?”
“About that,” I said, not wanting to talk about the tragedies of my past with him. I felt like he was smirking at me even though he kept his expression pleasant. “And yes, a second wergeld was bound six months ago.”
He reached behind him and pulled out a file folder, flipping through it. “It says here that you have an unexplained ability to destroy people. The experts who examined you as a child referred to it as you ‘exploding’ power upon others. And evidently that trait continues to this day, since two mortals are dead by your hand.” His gaze grew shrewd and very pointed. I fought to keep my fingers from twitching.
“There’s been no real explanation of what happens to me when I’m attacked, no, but I’ve lived with my ability for more than thirty years without it harming anyone—”
“The incident earlier this year says otherwise. No.” He set down the folder and rose, moving around to the back of the desk. “No, we cannot have this. We can’t have loaded guns like you putting others at risk, mortals at risk. It will not be allowed.”
“I assure you that I’m—”
He sat and spoke over me. “For that reason, I am revoking your TAE status. You are simply too dangerous to be allowed out amongst mortals while interacting with spirits. In fact, I’m going to order a monitoring device be bound to you, so that we can make sure that you are not put in a position where you can ‘explode’ on any other innocent mortal beings.”
“I never—” I started to protest, ire riding me until I stood up to make my point.
“You will be required to wear the monitoring device—I believe we have them available in watches now—at all times. The device will report back your activities to your supervisor.”
“My supervisor?” I had a hard time picking out what outrageous thing I needed to address first.
“You will be reporting to me personally,” he said, pulling out another file folder, and pretended to study something in it. “Naturally, someone as volatile as you must have the highest level of supervision. Now, since you have been demoted from TAE status, you will have to help out the pest crew.”
“Pest?” I repeated, disbelief momentarily depriving me of the ability to reason with him. “But that’s—”
“Kobolds, imps, skrats, and boggarts, yes.” Job looked over the folder at me, his once-jovial expression now tight with irritation. I wondered why he had even bothered to put on a nice first impression when he knew all along he was going to kick me down to the lowest rung of the Akashic League. “You can’t get into much trouble there.”
“I trained for thirteen years to be a TAE,” I said after counting to eight. “I have served the League for more than twenty-five years without incident—excluding the one earlier this year, of which there were extenuating circumstances—so to punish me by kicking me down to the status of a rat catcher is not only insulting on a personal level, but idiotic. There are no other TAEs in this region of the country. I’m the only one who has the ability to deal with troubled spirits, and—”
“You are uncontrolled, violent, and irresponsible,” he thundered, taking me by surprise. I stepped back, bumping up against the chair, my hands shaking with the need to control myself. “And if I had my way, I’d have you banished right now. Hear me, and hear me well, Karma Marx, if you step one foot out of line, if you forget to dot an i or cross a t, I will see to it that you find your ass tossed into the Akasha without any hope of recall. Do I make myself clear?”
“You can’t do that,” I protested, shocked to the tips of my toes at his threat. What would happen to my spirits? Who would take care of gentle Cardea, goddess of my pantry, of the dada, of the imps, and Ako? What would Pixie do? She’d been through so much in her short life, and although she was as snarky as the day was long, I knew she preferred to live with me.
“I can, and I will.” He looked down at his papers, his frown prodigious. “You are dismissed. Pick up your monitoring device from security before you leave. If it’s not activated within twenty minutes, I will consider you in breach of your contract with the League, and will begin banishment proceedings.”
I fumed silently for a few seconds before realizing it would do no good. Job had me by the short and curlies—so to speak—and there was nothing I could do. I left his office without saying a word, still shaking from the effect of the verbal attack.
It took me a minute to realize someone was saying my name. A woman stood in the doorway next to me, gesturing me in while casting furtive glances toward Job’s closed door.
“Er …” I hesitated, recognizing her as Lori, my former boss’s secretary. “What’s up?”
“You,” she said, then with a tsk grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into her small office, peering up and down the hallway before quietly closing her door and turning to face me. “I wanted to catch you before you left. You just met Job, right?”
“If you could consider being yelled at, called uncontrolled and violent, as a meeting, then yes,” I said, and, given the residual shakiness of my knees, sat when she waved me to a chair next to her desk. “I assume he inherited you when he took over from Carole?”
A spasm of distaste crossed her face as she took her seat, turning to face me. “No. I was demoted to secretary for all the management. He brought in his own assistant, a two-faced bastard named Neal. But that’s neither here nor there—I didn’t bring you in here for gossip. I know what Job did to you—Neal came in demanding your contract, and told me that Job was looking for grounds to break it and kick you out of the Akashic League.”
“They can’t do that,” I said, worry gripping my gut with iron fingers. “For one thing, there are two cases of wergeld that bind me to the League. And for another … well, I haven’t done anything else wrong that they could take action.”
“I know that, and you know that, but Job was determined to clean house, as he called it. Obviously, that didn’t work.” She scooted her chair a smidgen closer, her volume dropping to that of a near whisper. “I was picking up some invoices I printed for accounting, and saw Neal shredding some notes. Normally, I wouldn’t pay attention to that, but he got impatient with the shredder and jammed a whole bunch of pages in and left before it finished chewing them up. Our shredder is ancient, and it doesn’t do more than three sheets, so I just happened to pull out the wad of papers that Neal was trying to get rid of.”
I could picture the scene pretty well, and was confident that Lori had taken the opportunity to do a little snooping on what her new boss and his assistant were up to. “And what did you find?” I asked, skating over any comment about the ethics of reading documents that were clearly not for her eyes.
“A whole lot of information about you.” She nodded when I jerked back in my seat, not expecting to hear that. “Names and dates, details of your jobs for the League, your history … everything. And some handwritten notes about possible situations they could set up to force you to break terms of your contract.”
“Why on earth does Job have it in for me?” I asked, confused.
“I have no idea. I just knew when I saw those half-shredded notes that I had to warn you. And as it happens, I have a situation that will get you out of the area for a few weeks, if you’re open to that.”
“I don’t know what going away for a few weeks will do if Job has a target on my back,” I said, my mind squirreling around with combined panic and disbelief. What had I done to bring down the wrath of the Akashic League on my head? The situation of a few months past had been dealt with, so for Job to be picking me out for such treatment indicated a grudge on a personal level.
“Normally, I would agree, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last two months of working with Job, it’s that he has a very short attention span. If something—or someone—he is fixating on is out of the range of his ability to interact, then he focuses elsewhere. I think it has to do with his personality type—he has to see the results of his actions in order to receive gratification. That’s why I thought of you when it came to my little project.”
“What project is that?” I asked almost absently, still puzzling over why the new regional director would have it in for me.
“I have a friend named Rennie Taylor. We went to college together, and were … well, we were close. Very close.” She glanced at me to see if I picked up on the inflection of the last few words.
I nodded, my mind still partially worried about what was going on with Job.
“Well, that lasted a few years after college, but then it just kind of fizzled away. You know how these things go.” She made a vague gesture that I assumed was intended to convey the frivolity of some romantic relationships. “We remained friends, despite that. She always had my back when my first job … well, we won’t go into that. It doesn’t matter. And I had Rennie’s back, which means when she met and married a man named Alan, I was supportive and happy for her. I won’t say it wasn’t hard seeing her fall for a man who had more money than common sense, but that’s so often how life is, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely,” I told her, wondering now where this was going.
“Rennie took up a position with the League as a vespillo—”
“Hold up,” I told her, raising my hand and already shaking my head. “I can see where this is going, and I’m afraid it’s going to be impossible. Our new overlord just informed me that I am to limit myself to ridding the world of imps, kobolds, and their ilk. I can’t clean anything else, let alone the spirit essences that vespillos use.”
“Luckily, that’s not what I need for you to do.” She scooted forward a second time, making me feel a tad uneasy. “I should have said that Rennie used to be a vespillo. Her husband, Alan, put a stop to her practicing her art because … well, who knows exactly what reason he gave her. I just know he’s controlling, domineering, and doesn’t like her having a job, especially one that concerns the Otherworld. He hates anything to do with it, which naturally means things are awkward whenever I try to see her. But that’s not the worst of it. Rennie hasn’t said as much, but I suspect he’s abusive to her, both physically and emotionally.”
“Poor woman,” I said, my sympathy now engaged. “I don’t know what I can do to help her personally, although I do have a friend who’s a member of the Watch, and I’m sure he can take action if her husband is abusing her—”
“Alan is mortal, unfortunately, and without Rennie willing to testify against him …” Lori let the sentence trail off with a grim twist of her lips. We both knew that the Watch was not allowed to police mortals unless their actions constituted a serious crime against a denizen of the Otherworld.
“So where do I come in?” I asked, intrigued despite my desire to run away and hide from the world. I had too many responsibilities to do that, but oh, how I wanted to.
“I want you to find Rennie. I want you to contact her and make sure she’s OK. I haven’t heard from her in six weeks. She’s not answering her phone, texts, or emails.”
“Naturally, I’ll do what I can, but surely you would be in a better position to get her into a safe place? She won’t know who I am even if I did get in contact.”
Lori took a deep breath, her fingers white where she gripped the chair arms. “That’s part of why I want someone else to look for her. Alan knows about us, about our past, and because I still work for the League, he has insisted she go no contact with me. And there are things he’s doing—things Rennie hinted at before she went radio silence—that make me very worried, indeed.”
“If it’s something illegal, we can call in the mortal police,” I told her.
“If only it was that easy. Alan is clever, so very clever. Rennie told me that just two months ago, they were in the car together, and they nearly had an accident.” She leaned forward, her voice dropped to a near whisper, the intensity in it sending a little ripple of goose bumps down my arms. “He swore that he had it in his power to kill her by disabling her airbag, ensuring that he’d survive while she wouldn’t. He told her that unless she stopped talking to me, he’d go through with his plan. And two weeks later, she stopped answering my attempts to reach her. Karma, I’m worried. Her husband has isolated her from everyone, and she can’t get the help she needs to break away from him before he carries out his horrible threat.”
“Are you sure she hasn’t been harmed yet?” I asked, my fingers itching to call Adam with a demand he help.
“Yes, thankfully. Alan and Rennie were planning on taking a trip to Europe next week, and from what his travel agent says—I was supposed to go on the trip, as well, until two weeks ago when Alan had a meltdown and insisted I cancel—they are still both booked on the train and flights to France and back.”
“That’s reassuring, but I’m not sure what you expect me to do if they are going to be out of the country,” I said slowly. “For one, I’ll be here, and for another, I’m not a tracker or even skilled at locating people.”
“You don’t need to be,” Lori said, brightening, then spun around and pulled open the nearest drawer, extracting a glossy pamphlet before dropping it on my lap. “You just need to have a free seven days.”
“The Byzantine Express,” I read, then looked up. “She’s going to be on a fancy European train?”
“Yes. It’s the one featured in that movie,” she said, pointing at a line on the pamphlet that talked about the train’s connection to one of my favorite authors, Agatha Christie. “They normally run between Paris and Venice, but a couple of times a year, the train holds a murder-mystery event, and it goes from Paris to Istanbul. Originally, just Rennie and I were going to go, but then Alan decided I wasn’t to be trusted anymore, and he insisted that he’d go, saying he loves murder dinner-theater events, and trains, and … oh, everything. Which is odd, because he never mentioned any of that before, but there we are. It doesn’t sound like fun to me; I was only doing it because Rennie always had a flair for that sort of thing—she has a drama degree—but now the point is moot.”
Personally, I thought it sounded like fun, but I kept my opinion to myself. “The fact remains that I’ll be limited to contacting her via phone if she’s in Europe, and I’m not sure how you expect me to talk to her and see if she’s OK if she’s not answering her phone.”
“That’s the brilliant thing,” she said, tapping the pamphlet. “You are going to be right there on the train with her.”
I may have gawked at her for a second or two—I was so surprised by that statement that I felt like my jaw sagged a little. “I what? Lori, much though I’d like to help you and provide support for your friend, that train trip has to cost a small fortune. Not to mention I’m sure it’s booked way in advance—”
“Yes, yes, but that’s all taken care of, don’t you see? I used a little windfall I got from my grandmother, and splurged on an expensive suite cabin. I can’t get a refund on it, and the train people say that unless I transfer ownership of the suite to someone else who will use it on that trip, then it’ll just be empty. And in a way, this is better than my original plan, because Alan doesn’t know you, and he won’t be suspicious that you’re there to help Rennie get away from him. Please, Karma, please say you’ll do it. It’ll help both of us—it’ll save Rennie from her abusive husband, and will get you out of Job’s eyeline for a while.”
I won’t go over the next fifteen minutes, since it consisted of me repeatedly trying to point out that I couldn’t pay for such a trip, and her insisting that she didn’t expect me to contribute anything toward the trip, since I was doing her a favor.
In the end, I told her I’d think about it.
“I understand your hesitation,” she told me as I got to my feet, her expression filled with mingled hope and despair. “But please, please think of Rennie. She’s my oldest and dearest friend, and the fact that I can’t be there for her is killing me. You can do what I can’t, though, and I would be eternally grateful to you if you could see your way clear to helping her.”
“Let me think about it,” I repeated as I opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. Job was standing with a tall, ginger-haired man, both of whom turned to look at me as I emerged from Lori’s office.
“What are you doing?” Job snarled at me, his face turning red. “And why haven’t you picked up your monitoring device? I see what it is you’re doing—you’re trying to set the staff against me. I won’t have it! Insubordination is grounds for corrective action, and if you think you can get away with that sort of crap, you can think again. Neal, this is the one I told you about. Since she is clearly refusing to get fitted with the monitoring device—”
“I’m on my way right now,” I interrupted, biting back a few comments of my own, but, as I turned to head down the hallway, said in an undertone to Lori, “Send me the ticket information. I may do something I regret if I stay here.”