Home » , , , , , , » Oracle of Spirits #1 (Werewolf Shifter Romance) by Mac Flynn

Oracle of Spirits #1 (Werewolf Shifter Romance) by Mac Flynn

I wasn’t abnormal, but I wasn’t normal. I was who I was, and that’s what made me fall into the paranormal world, and into his strong arms.

It all started that night when I went to get a carton of eggs after work. I walked into the small corner grocery and picked up a carton of eighteen from the milk aisle. The small store had a dozen aisles and a freezer section against the back wall. The two cash registers were at the front near the sole sliding doors that led out onto the dimly lit streets.
Oracle of Spirits #1 (Werewolf Shifter Romance)
Oracle of Spirits #1 (Werewolf Shifter Romance) by Mac Flynn
I paused and glanced up. The eggs were in a corner of the store, and above me hung a large curved mirror that hid a camera. The mirror reflected my ample frame and distorted it so I looked even heftier than I was. My normally-becoming long brown hair hung about my widened shoulders like snakes and my wide hips looked like I wore riding britches. I sighed and turned away. The mirror was an exaggerated truth that I wasn’t as thin as I wanted to be, but not as fat as I feared. I walked up to the only manned register and set my eggs down. The cashier was a man of forty-five I’d known since I moved to the area two years before. He was an easy-going guy with short hair and a smile that disarmed even robbers. If that didn’t work then the bat and pistol beneath the register belt would. “Good evening, Enid,” he greeted me. “Good evening, Mr. Bellamy,” I returned. He raised an eyebrow. “That wasn’t your usual greeting. Something got you down?” I shrugged. “Just the usual.” “Again?” a high-pitched voice piped up behind me. I turned to find an old woman who looked ninety shuffle into line behind me. She was bent from a long life and wore a flowered dress with a shawl over her shoulders. The old woman had a woven basket swung over one arm and a scolding look on her tight lips. Mr. Bellamy leaned over his checkout and smiled at the old woman. “Good evening, Mrs. Shannon.” Mrs. Shannon waved away his greeting and kept her attention on me. “What’s happened now?” she asked me. “It’s really nothing,” I insisted. She snorted. “If it was nothing it wouldn’t be bothering you so much that you’d show it, so out with it. It’ll make you feel better talking about it.” Mrs. Shannon had a way of giving out nuggets of kind words among her brisk commands. She was a staple of the neighborhood, the local busybody with the heart of gold. A strange combination, but it suited her feisty demeanor. Mr. Bellamy looked expectantly at me, and I saw I was trapped. “I. . .well, I kind of startled a patient today,” I admitted. “The higher-ups didn’t like that, so I got a stern warning.” “You startled another patient?” Mrs. Shannon asked me. I shrugged and sheepishly smiled. “I didn’t mean to. I just forgot to ask for the name of a new schizophrenic patient and wrote it down on the paper anyway. She-well, she thought maybe I’d stolen her soul or something, and started shrieking about it. It took two orderlies and a doctor with a sedative to calm her down.” Mrs. Shannon clicked her tongue and shook her head. “In my day that gift would’ve been praised, not tamped down as they do these days.” “In your day they might have burned her as the witch,” the cashier teased. The woman shook a stick of celery at him. “You’re getting mighty fresh there, Tom Bellamy. I remember when I could whip you over my knee, and don’t stop believing I won’t try it right now.” He furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin as his eyes took on a faraway look. “When I was young. When the dinosaurs were just extinct.” “Could you ring up my eggs before they become fossilized?” I spoke up. “What? Oh, sure thing,” he agreed. He rang up my eggs, bagged them in a plastic bag, and handed it to me. “Now don’t go eating them in one night like usual,” he scolded me. “They’re cheap, and I’ve got a craving,” I defended myself. “You’ll make yourself sick on them. There’s enough salmonella deaths in the world without you getting it,” Mrs. Shannon advised. “I’ll be sure not to complain too much as I lay dying,” I promised as I walked away from the cash register. “And don’t you be ashamed of your gift!” Mrs. Shannon shouted at me as I walked through the sliding doors. I raised my hand that held the grocery bag and waved at her without turning around. “I know,” I called over my shoulder. I stepped out into the cool night air and took a deep breath. It was hard not to be ashamed of my weirdness when everyone at my office looked at me funny, and some even tried to avoid me. I didn’t give off any creepy vibes, but even the new people knew the stories about me. How I couldn’t need to ask people their names, or how I’d just know someone had been waiting in a room for a little too long and was about to explode in a fit of temper. It was just intuitive stuff, stuff that a really observant person would notice, but it wasn’t ‘just’ to anybody else. Nobody else did these things, or at least nobody I knew. That is, until I met him. But first I had to get to my house. My shoes clacked down the cracked sidewalks as shadows loomed out of the alleys I passed. Alley cats prowled the large trash bins and glared at me with their yellow eyes. I gripped tighter the grocery bag and my purse. The neighborhood wasn’t particularly dangerous, but it wasn’t safe. Fortunately, if trouble came I carried a small can of pepper spray in my purse, and I could always use the eggs as a messy distraction until I dug the weapon out of the dungeons of my deep bag. I walked past a particularly dark alley and a chilly breeze wafted over me. A strange and uneasy feeling followed on its wind. I stopped in my tracks and turned my head to the depths of the alley. The light from the lamp posts only penetrated the first five feet of the alley and left the rest to darkness. Nothing stirred, not even the scraps of paper trash on the ground. I shuddered and hurried on my way. My home was an old single-bedroom Victorian-style townhouse on the outskirts of the small neighborhood. The area was a good fifty minute bus ride from my work, but it was worth the ride to have a little plot of land to myself. 2 I had to walk two blocks to the store, but that was the closest one if I didn’t want to hail a taxi. My block was one long row of houses with connected walls, all in various states of decay. There were broken windows, patched roofs, and the lingering smell of marijuana smoke that wafted through the open front windows and doors. Most of my neighbors were one step away from being the clinic’s patients, and I swore a few of them catered to other mental health centers. With neighbors like those, my house was one of the better homes. There was a small stoop with a long, weed-choked flower bed outside the single front window. There were various stains on the steps that I tried to bleach off without success. Everyone had a dog, and no one’s dog had a leash or fence to keep them in. An old wooden fence that surrounded the miniature back yard defied gravity with how far it leaned, and was supported by the ancient gate at the rear that led to the alley behind the row of houses. The whole place was in need of a renovation, or a demolition, but it was home. I walked up the concrete steps to the ancient, weathered door. “Hi ya,” a voice called to me. I stopped and sighed. “Hi, Fred,” I replied. Fred was my neighbor and a thorn in my side. He was a slum lord in the literal sense and owned most of the homes on the block. I refused to sell my home to him, and he took that as a challenge to consolidate our holdings through a matrimonial alliance. He resided in the house next to mine and leaned on the railing of his stoop to grin at me across the all-too-short distance between our homes. “So how was work with the psychos?” he asked me. I shrugged. “Same old. I’m always surrounded by crazies so I never know when I’m off work.” His face fell and a frown slipped onto his lips. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means I’m tired and I’ll see you later,” I quipped. I hurried into my house and leaned against the closed front door. A sigh escaped my lips and I ran a hand through my long brown hair. “I didn’t think he’d be smart enough to see that one. . .” I mumbled as I looked over my home. The townhouse was built with the bedroom and bath on the upper floor, and the living areas in a long row straight to the back of the house. A small wall separated the kitchen from a winding metal staircase with wooden steps on the right wall. That led upstairs to my bedroom, and traveled downstairs to the old earthen basement where I kept my mold and cobweb collections. The living room was at the back of the house with a sliding glass door to the small backyard. The backyard was half bricked over and had only a small patch of tired grass. Then there was the kitchen in the center of the ground floor and finally a small dining area to my immediate left I wandered through the dining area, pulled the eggs from the bag and set the carton on the kitchen counter while I put the plastic bag in the hanger by the fridge for future use. My back was to the counter as I faced the rear of the house. I froze when a cold breeze wafted over me. It felt like the same cold wind from the alley, but this time the chill sank into my bones and sent a shiver down my spine. I wrapped my arms around myself and breathed out. A small puff of air escaped my lips and dissipated. The temperature of the house felt like two degrees lower than Hell frozen over. “What the hell?” I murmured. A popping sound behind me made me jump. I spun around and looked for the source. My eyes fell on the open carton of eggs. I hadn’t opened the carton lid. One of the eggs was cracked and its remains were splattered over its brethren, the carton, and even the counter. I frowned and took a step towards the eggs. I jumped when another egg exploded. The yolk flew farther and dotted the floor. My eyes widened and I stumbled backwards into the fridge as more of the eggs popped like fireworks. Their shells exploded and sent yolk flying in every direction. I turned tail and ran into the living room out of range of the demonic dead chickens. I stopped in the middle of the room between the couch and the TV and turned towards the kitchen. The sliding glass door stood behind me with the TV on my right. All was silent in the kitchen, and all the eggs were exploded. I let out a piercing shriek when the TV switched on to a classic movie channel. An old black-and-white horror movie played on the screen. It wouldn’t have been so horrifying if I didn’t know I didn’t have cable, or any other working channels. I stumbled backwards away from the TV until the back of my knees hit the front of the couch and I collapsed onto the cushions. The horror movie played to the part where a victim meets the hideous phantom monster. She held her hands in front of her face and screamed. The TV volume was cranked up to impossibly loud. I clapped my hands over my ears and shut my eyes. This time the cool breeze sliced through me. It made me feel like I’d plunged into a deep, dark pool of chilling water. I opened my eyes and my mouth dropped to the floor. On the wall opposite me stood a tall, dark shadow completely enveloped in a black cloak. The only clear features were its burning red eyes beneath the hood and its pale-as-death hands that stuck out from the billowing sleeves. The cold air was calm, but its cloak whipped to and fro as though it stood in a strong, swirling wind. It floated towards me. Not even the coffee table slowed it down as it went through it. It reached out one of its pale hands. I screamed and dodged around the phantom to the sliding glass door on my right. My hands fumbled for the slick handle as the cool breeze struck my back. I glanced over my shoulder to see the cloaked figure turn and float towards me again. Both hands were stretched out. I caught the handle and flung open the door. My body fell forward, and I stumbled into the yard and fell onto the yellow, dry grass. I rolled around to face the house and the phantom. Nothing. There was no one there. The door was open, but the dark shadow had vanished. I clutched my beating heart and sat there for a few minutes to try to catch my breath. Finally I struggled to my feet and shuffled forward until I reached the open door. The air from the house was as warm and dry as ever, and the TV was off. I leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the kitchen. The eggs were still exploded. I swallowed my fear and crept into the house. I eyed the staircase to the upstairs with suspicion. Nothing flew down the steps like I expected, and the TV remained off. I reached the shattered eggs. The entire carton of eighteen was broken and their guts strewn about the counter. I screamed when a knock came from the front door. “It’s the police. Is everything all right in there?” a stern voice called out. I rushed to the door and fumbled for the lock before I flung open the entrance. Two uniformed cops, one white and one black, stood on my small stoop and behind them was their patrol car. “Good evening, miss,” the white cop greeted me. “We were called about a disturbance and-” I rushed into the arms of the front one and clutched his uniform in my hands. “T-there’s something in my house!” I sobbed. He wrapped his arms around me and patted me on the back. “It’s going to be all right, miss. Now did you mean someone was in your house?” he corrected me. I shut my eyes and nodded. “I-I think so. They were covered in a black cloak and tried to grab me.” He pulled us to the side and his partner entered with his gun in his hands. “You stay here,” the first cop advised me as he followed his partner. I watched the two men sweep my small home. One of them paused at the eggs and turned to me. “What’s this?” I shook my head. “I-I don’t know. They started popping and then the person came after me.” “And did you see if the person left?” he asked me. “No. I fell into the backyard, and when I looked back they were gone,” I told him. They finished their scouring of the ground floor and moved over to the closed basement door. The pair pulled out their bright flashlights and moved downstairs. I inched inside and listened to their feet creak down the stairs. A crack followed by a thud echoed up the stairs, and one of them swore. “What happened?” the lead cop asked his companion. “The step broke beneath me,” came the reply. “Stay there and let me shine my light around,” the lead cop told his partner. There was a few tense moments before I heard his voice. “Nope. Nothing here. Let’s get upstairs.” They shuffled up the stairs and one of the limped into the living room. The officer leaned against the wall and rubbed his ankle. “You might want to get those stairs checked out,” he advised me. “I’ll go check the upstairs,” the white officer volunteered as he turned to me. “Could you tell me what’s up there?” “Just my bedroom and the bathroom,” I told him. He nodded. “All right. Both of you stay here and wait until I return.” “You know the rules. Don’t go alone,” his partner scolded him. “I won’t be long,” he promised. He walked upstairs and we listened to his footsteps. They traversed the entire upper floor and he returned in five minutes with his gun holstered. “If there was somebody they’re gone now,” he informed us. “But there was somebody. I saw them,” I insisted. The officer pulled out his notepad and a pen. “Did you see anything to identify the intruder?” he asked me. “They’re hands were really pale, and they had red eyes,” I told him. His pen paused over the paper and he raised an eyebrow. “Red eyes?” I nodded. “Yeah, like glowing coals, and he seemed to float across the floor.” “So you think it’s a man?” he wondered. I shook my head. “I don’t know. They were covered in a cloak from head to foot, but they were so tall I just kind of figured that’s what they were.” He scribbled a few notes and pocketed the pad. “There doesn’t seem to be any sign of a forced entry. Do you regularly keep your doors and windows locked?” “All the time,” I confirmed. “Did you lock it tonight?” he persisted. I opened my mouth, but paused. “I. . .I don’t know.” “We’ll dust for prints and see what we can find. Do you mind coming with us to the station so we can get a match for your prints and a written statement?” he requested. “Sure, no problem,” I agreed. There was no way in hell I was going to stay alone in my house. 3 They took me to the police station and set me down on a bench in front of the main desk. It was a Friday night and the place was a little crowded with all walks of city life. Some officers brought in a couple of transvestites from a rowdy party downtown, another cop had a punk who had sprayed graffiti on the mayor’s office, and then there were the clowns. A long line of them marched past me for fingerprinting and a short lockup. What I gathered from the clowns and cops was that a convention had gotten out of hand when someone made an unfunny joke. I sighed and leaned back against the bench. What a day. First I get that scolding from my boss, and now I get an unexpected and unwanted guest. Someone plopped down so close beside me that our arms nearly brushed against each other. I frowned and looked at the stranger. It was a handsome man with short spiked hair that poked out at all angles. His autumn-colored eyes were as sharp as his hair. The guy had a crooked smile and wore a tan overcoat with heavy black boots. He looked to be about twenty-five and had a cigarette dangling out of one corner of his mouth. “You’re Enid Runa, aren’t you?” he asked me. “Who wants to know?” I returned. He looked at me out of the corners of his eyes and studied my face and body. “I heard about your case, and I thought I could help you.” “So are you a detective or something?” I asked him. The man chuckled. “Or something,” he replied. He pulled a card from his overcoat and handed it to me. I read the contents out-loud. “Paranormal Detective Ian Osman.” There was a phone number at the bottom. I looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?” “Very serious, and I’d like to help you with your problem,” he told me. “How are you going to help me?” I asked him. “I heard the details of your case from a friend and thought you had a good chance of being haunted by a malevolent spirit,” he explained. I scoffed. “I don’t think there’s any way a spirit would suddenly haunt the house I’ve been in for two years unless it’s the ghost of a chicken, and that definitely didn’t look like a chicken,” I assured him. I held out his card and he took it back. “Thanks for the help, but no thanks.” He pocketed the card and studied my face. “It gave you a chill before you saw it, didn’t it?” he guessed. I frowned. “How’d you know that?” “And you could see your breath, couldn’t you?” he persisted. I stood and glared down at him. “Now you’re just guessing.” He looked up at me and took the cigarette out of his mouth. “But I’m guessing right, aren’t I?” I sighed and grudgingly nodded. “Yeah.” He stood and placed the cigarette back in his mouth. “Then I can help you because these guys are just going to look at you like you’re nuts.” I snorted and turned away from him. “Welcome to the story of my life.” “Pardon?” he asked. I shook my head and waved my hand in front of me. “It’s nothing. Anyway, thanks for the offer, but-” He held up his hand. “I’ve heard all the usual reasons for brushing me off,” he interrupted me. “And I’m going to tell you I get calls back from ninety-five percent of people telling me to come over after they’ve had another paranormal experience. Do you really want to go through that, or can we cut it out and let me get my job done?” “Only ninety-five?” I mused. He grinned and shrugged. “Nobody’s perfect.” I sighed and looked him over. He didn’t have the appearance of a psychopath, or at least the usual tell-tale signs I got from the patients. There was consistent eye contact, a clean appearance, no fidgeting, and no aura around him like he had a god complex. An ego, but no complex. I crossed my arms over my chest and shrugged. “All right, I’ll let you come home with me, but you do anything funny and the cops will need a real detective to find your body.” “Then let’s go,” he suggested. He walked past me and towards the doors. I reached out my hand. “Wait a sec. I still need to fill out my report.” He paused at the doors and turned to me with a strange half-smile. “Believe me, you don’t want to waste time filling anything out here, and if we hurry I can have your ghost exorcised before the night is out or your money back.” He didn’t wait for me to reply but walked through the doors. “Hey! Wait a minute!” I yelled as I raced after him. I caught up to him on the sidewalk just outside the police station. He walked fast and his overcoat billowed behind him. It made it hard not to get whacked by the thing. “You never said anything about payment,” I reminded him. He chuckled. “Don’t worry, I won’t charge you anything for my services.” I frowned at him. “Then what’s in it for you?” The smile slid off his lips and his cigarette hung low. “Let’s just say I have a score to settle with someone, and each destroyed poltergeist and spirit put to rest is a win for me.” “So it’s personal?” I guessed. “Very,” he assured me. He stopped in front of a red convertible with the top down and hopped over the door and into the driver’s seat. “Get in,” he told me. I looked over the car. “You sure this job isn’t going to cost me an arm and a leg?” He smiled and the end of the cigarette that dangled from his lips glowed red in the dim light. “Positive, now get in.” I slid into the passenger seat and he pulled out. We sped through the heavy traffic of the Friday night, and I clung to my door handle as we zipped through and between cars. “Mind slowing down? I’d like to live to see another day,” I called to him. He ignored my question, but slowed from break-neck speed to break-arm. “So I’m guessing this is your first haunting?” he asked me without looking at me. “Yeah, I’m practically a virgin,” I quipped. A grin slid onto his lips and his eyes flickered to me. “I could do something about that.” I felt my cheeks redden and I glared at him. “This is a business deal, Mr. Osman, and my occupation isn’t prostitute.” He looked away from me, but the smile didn’t fade. “What is your occupation, Miss Runa?” I crossed my arms over my chest and glanced at my side of the street. “I’m a secretary for a mental health clinic.” “The pay any good?” he wondered. “It keeps me fed,” I replied. “Well fed, by the looks,” he commented. I whipped my head to him and ground my teeth together. “I’m not fat! I’m just big-boned!” He held up his hands and the car steered on its own. “No complaints here. I happen to like shapely women.” I sank into my chair and glared at the windshield. I was inwardly flattered, and outwardly disgusted. “Let’s just get home.” “As you wish.” He drove me to my townhouse and we parked out front. Fred sat on his stoop in an old broken lawn chair. He jumped to his feet and moved over to the railing closest to us. “Who’s that guy?” Fred snapped at me as he jerked his head towards the detective. “A-” “An old friend,” Osman spoke up. I gave him a glare and unlocked the door to my house. Fred’s eyes swept over Osman and his look got uglier. He showed off what was left of his yellow teeth with a sneer. “Never seen you before.” “I don’t get out much,” the detective replied. Fred glared at him and turned to me. “So what’s going on around here? I thought I heard a TV blaring and saw the cops come.” “I accidentally turned my TV up too high and got called on by someone,” I lied. “They took me to the station for a statement.” Fred’s eyes flickered to Osman. “Are you a cop?” Osman smiled and shook his head. “I don’t have that pleasure.” Fred snorted. “Ain’t no pleasure around here. It’s liable to get you shot at, if you know what I mean.” “Perfectly,” Osman assured him. I noticed the detective’s indifferent attitude irked my creep of a neighbor. Fred wasn’t my favorite human, but I didn’t want him to hate me. It would make him that much more difficult to deal with. I pushed open the door and wrapped my arm around one that belonged to the detective. “Well, it’s always nice talking to you, Fred, but we really need to get inside and-um, reminisce about old times,” I told him. Fred leaned on the railing and pursed his lips. “If you’ve been at the station then who was turning the TV up all those times for the last half hour?” he asked us. I froze and felt my blood run cold, but I managed an unconvincing chuckle. “Guess I’ll have to scold my dog for watching TV while I’m out. Anyway, we’ll see you later.” I shoved the detective inside and shut the door hard behind us. I leaned against the door and shuddered. The detective turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “I’m guessing you don’t have a dog who likes to watch TV,” he commented. I shook my head. “Not even a cat,” I assured him. “I see.” The detective strode forward and swept the room with his eyes. I noticed his eyes had a strange tint to them, almost like they reflected light really well. His teasing demeanor was dropped for a serious look. He wandered through the dining room and into the kitchen to the hanging grocery bags, and back to the burst eggs where he paused. “And you’re sure you’ve never experienced anything like this before?” he asked me. I snorted. “I think I’d-” A memory hit my brain like a punch to the chin. The alley. That cold feeling. The detective looked up at me and frowned. “What is it?” he questioned me. I bit my lip. “I. . .well, I might have felt something tonight when I was walking home from the grocery store.” “What did you feel?” he persisted. I shrugged. “I don’t know. Some sort of a chill, I guess. Kind of like-” “Someone walked over your grave?” he guessed. I blinked at him, but gave a nod. “Yeah, how’d you know?” He turned away and walked through the kitchen to the living room. “So you suspect that the spirit followed you?” he asked me. I followed him and shrugged. “How should I know? But if it did I don’t want to keep it.” The detective stepped between the TV and the couch, and he turned to TV. My eyes widened as I was struck with the realization that he was replaying what had happened earlier step for step. The pause at the grocery bags, my going up to the eggs, then into the living room where the TV clicked on. He was playing me. That is, he was following my steps exactly. I stepped into the living room, but made sure I had easy access to the front door through either the kitchen or the hall. “How are you replaying my steps?” I questioned him. “I didn’t fill out a police report, and I didn’t give the cops this much info.” He faced the TV and his tense face reflected in the dark glass. “Let’s just say I have a keen smell for these things,” he admitted. I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “Let’s not, and say I’d like to know who the hell you really are. Are you in on this? Is this some sort of joke by Fred or-” I jumped when there came a heavy thud from directly above us. The detective rushed up to me and pulled me behind him. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the stairs. “Do you have a roommate?” he asked me. My heart thumped loudly as I shook my head. “No.” “Then stay here. I’ll go see what that was,” he told me. “Like hell I am,” I retorted. “All right, but stay behind me,” he ordered me. 4 He led the way up the stairs to the hallway on the second floor. The doors to the two rooms lay on our left. The closest to the stairs was the large bedroom, and the second one was the small bathroom. The noise had come from the bedroom, and he moved over to that door. I remained attached to his back and was right behind him when he grabbed the knob. He reached into his coat with his other hand and looked over his shoulder at me. “Move back down the hall,” he ordered me. “And get ready.” “For what?” I whispered. “We’ll see,” he replied. I pursed my lips, but stepped down the hall closer to the bathroom. My heart thumped so loud in its chest I wondered how it didn’t alert the intruder to our presence. He flung the door into the room and jumped back. His hidden hand pulled out a slip of rectangular paper with some thick black writing on one side and he held it out in front of him like a small dagger he meant to throw. I held my breath waiting for the dark shadow to fly out and attack the detective. Good thing I breathed out because nothing happened. The detective relaxed his stance and frowned. He disappeared into the room and I heard his feet clack along the old wood floor. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “I guess we imagined it,” I spoke up. The bathroom door behind me flew open. I spun around in time to see the dark shadow from earlier leap out and fly towards me. Its pale white hands reached for my neck and its burning eyes froze me in place. My eyes widened and I raised my arms to protect myself. The detective slid out of my room and sprinted towards me. He wrapped his arm around my waist and pressed me against his side as he held up the slip of paper. The black creature stopped so suddenly that its cloak billowed out in front of itself. The thing dropped its hands to its sides and glared at us from two yards away. “This is none of your concern,” the creature hissed. “Humanity is my concern,” Osman shot back. “Now what do you want with the girl?” I whipped my head to the detective and glared at him. “I’m not that young!” I snapped. The creature in front of us let out a raspy chuckle. “You foolish mortal. You believe a protection talisman can prevent me from my prey?” “It can do more than that,” the detective countered. “It can destroy you.” The creature hissed and tensed. “Nothing you hold can destroy me.” The black thing sprang at us with its long hands outstretched. Its fingers lengthened into claws that would have skewered us clear through. The detective tossed the paper like a ninja tosses a star, and the slip of parchment cut through the air and stabbed itself into the creature’s chest over the heart. The thing let out a blood-curdling scream and fell face-first onto the floor a foot short of where we stood. Its body twitched for a short while before it stilled. I clutched onto the detective’s shirt and shuddered. It was a close call. Unfortunately, it wasn’t done. The thing shuddered and raised itself onto its arms. I saw black blood ooze from around the stiff paper. It clutched its chest with one pale hand as its eyes glared at us as though we looked into the fires of hell. “You. . .who are you?” it gasped. The detective slipped out of my grasp and knelt down in front of the black thing. “Someone who doesn’t like you,” he quipped. Osman reached out and yanked the paper from the creature’s chest. The paper left a slit that widened. The hole spread over the creature’s body, and caused its black body parts to crumble into small specks that disappeared before they reached the floor. The thing tilted back its head and let out a long wail. I clapped my hands over my ears and cringed at the terrible, echoing sound. The rest of its body was consumed and transformed into the vanishing specks until nothing remained. The detective stood and pocketed the clean piece of paper. He turned to me with a smile. “You won’t have any more trouble with that thing,” he assured me. I realized my mouth was open and my ears were still clapped over my ears. I snapped my mouth shut and pointed at the empty floor. “W-what the hell was that?” I questioned him. “A dark spirit. One of the worst in the paranormal world,” he explained. He studied me and his smile slipped off his lips. “Do you have any idea why it would have followed you home, and what it wanted with you?” I partially turned away from him and threw my arms up. “How am I supposed to know? I just walked home form the store and it was here!” “They’re usually attracted to others like them, or to humans who have a certain aura around them,” he told me. Osman’s eyes narrowed and they took on a strange, terrifying hue. Their autumn depths changed to a distinct bright yellow that made me stumble back. They had the look of a predator, and I had no doubt of where I stood on the food chain. He reached into his overcoat at the same place where he’d taken out the sharp-as-a-dagger piece of paper. “Do any of those descriptions fit you?” he questioned me. I stepped back way from him and held my hands in front of me. “Wait a minute. I’m the victim here, remember? The haunted one. Scared out of her mind. That ring a bell?” He took a step towards me. “Paranormal creatures have been known to masquerade as humans,” he countered. I rolled my eyes and gestured down at myself. “If I was a paranormal creature would I really take this chubby a form?” “They’ve been known to take worse,” he told me. I sighed and crossed my arms over my chest. “Listen, I don’t know why it followed me or why it stuck around, okay? I just want you, your piece of paper, and this night to just go away. I’m really grateful for your help, and I’ll be really glad to pay you for your trouble, but this has kind of taken a couple of years off my life and I’d like to keep what’s left of them, so could you please stop scaring the shit out of me and leave?” The detective scrutinized me for a few seconds before he dropped his hand. He rummaged in his pocket before he held out another one of his cards. “All right, I’ll believe you, but keep my card. Just in case.” I furrowed my brow, but took the card. “Why? The thing’s gone, isn’t it?” “Until we can figure out why it followed you home others may do the same,” he pointed out. “‘We?’ I want nothing to do with this,” I told him. “I’m afraid it can’t be helped. You’re who it wanted,” he reminded me. I pinched the bridge of my nose and groaned. “Wonderful. . .” I muttered. I sighed and dropped my hand. “Anything else I should know before you disappear into the darkness?” Osman walked up to me so we stood shoulder to shoulder and faced different directions. There was a mischievous smile on his lips that made me frown. “Only that it was a pleasure to work for such a beautiful woman.” I blushed and turned away from him. “Yeah, well, nice to meet you, too,” I returned. “Well, good evening, and-” He paused and frowned. “Hold still for a minute. There’s a spider in your hair.” “What? Where?” I yelped. I reached up to brush my hair through my fingers, but he captured my wrists in one of his hands and pressed his other hand against my scalp. “There. Got it,” he told me. The detective released my hands and bowed of his head. “Goodnight.” My shoulders drooped and I sighed. “Goodnight, and I hope goodbye.” A sly smile slipped onto his lips. “Only Cronus will tell.” I blinked at him. “Cronus?” I repeated. He bowed his head, and strode past me and down the winding staircase. I heard his feet clomp across the floor, and soon after the door opened and shut. I leaned against the closest wall and ran a hand through my hair. “Thank god it’s over. . .” I mumbled. How wrong I was, and how tired I felt from all the harrowing excitement. I shuffled into my bedroom and flicked on the light. My shoulders drooped and I rolled my eyes. “Really? You just had to do this?” I asked aloud, and was glad there wasn’t a reply. The room was a mess. The bed was completely flipped upside down, the two nightstands were toppled onto the floor, and my only lamp was broken. The drawers to my dresser were on the floor and all my clothes were scattered across the room. I picked up a lone piece of underwear and sighed. “Why can’t terrifying phantoms be a little cleaner. . .” I muttered as I got to work cleaning up the mess. I finished the folding, flipping, and cursing a half hour later, and was left with another mystery. There was one piece of underwear missing, and it was one of my skimpier articles. My eyes narrowed and I ground my teeth together as a thought hit me. “Osman,” I growled. He’d been in here for a few seconds snooping around. The flatterer probably took the underwear as his payment. I grumbled the entire time I slipped into my nightshirt and shorts, got into bed, and rolled over. My curses upon his bloodline were still on my lips as I drifted into sleep. 5 Beep. Beep. Beep. My eyes creaked open and I glared at the alarm clock on the nightstand. It showed the time as six-o-freakin-clock in the morning. Time to get up and hate the world. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Why can’t I have a normal schedule?” I muttered. The health clinic ran seven days a week because insanity didn’t take a break, or that’s how we joked in the office. I worked the Tuesday through Saturday shift, so that morning was my Friday morning. The end of my work week. The long waking hours. The big day. I got dressed and trampled down my wooden staircase to the ground floor. There was no sign of any more boiling eggs, no newly connected cable TV, and definitely no phantom menace. There was the annoyance of not having my favorite breakfast, scrambled eggs, for the start of my day, but another trip to the grocery store after work would solve that problem. Well, provided another one of those things didn’t follow me. I grabbed some toast and walked the two blocks to the bus stop. It stood on the corner near Bellamy’s Grocery. The crowd at the stop wasn’t as big on the weekends as the weekdays, and I got a nice seat in the middle of the bus. I put my purse in my lap and looked out the window at the passing city. The ancient townhouses gave way to new residential apartments that towered over the streets. There was a Starbucks on every corner, an internet cafe close by, and a bagel shop in-between. I happened to glance at one of the corners as we sailed through a green light and something caught my attention. Or rather, someone. It was a man of thirty-five with skin as pale as a sheet. He wore a simple black polo shirt with dark blue jeans. He stood against the corner building with his arms at his sides and watched my bus drive by with a glare on his face. I swear his crystal-blue eyes were even on me, but it was hard to tell because the whole moment was over in a flash. The bus moved on, but I had a harder time. I turned away from the window and shuddered. Something about him gave me the creeps, and I was reminded of Osman’s accusation against me. That any one of those things could look like a human. That guy looked only mildly human, and the way he looked at me was definitely not normal. I was still unsettled when the bus came to my stop a half hour later. The bus had traversed the commercial district with its high-risers and mega-corporation office buildings, and entered a part of the city with some greenery. My workplace was built on a newer section of the city where there were still parks every few blocks, trees on the sidewalks, and the houses were a picture of suburbia. The mental health center sat between the new and the old, and catered to both. I stepped off the bus and looked over my workplace. It was a three-floor white-colored office building with a long-term residential wing to the left. The parking lot was filled with a mix of cars that were owned by the patients, families of the patients, and the employees. You could tell which ones were the doctors by the year of the vehicles. The newer the year the more likely it belonged to a doctor, especially one who’d just finished paying off their medical school student loans after twenty years. Two pairs of sliding doors that opened to a sort of chamber made up the entrance, but they didn’t wouldn’t work until the place opened in a few minutes. I used my key to open one of the doors and locked it on my way into the front room area. The front desk lay on my right with a sitting area to my left. The wall in front of me had a single door that led into the rest of the building, including the residential wing. The doctors liked to have control over who could come and, more especially, who could leave. It was ten minutes till eight when I slid behind my desk at the front counter. My coworker already sat at her desk to my right. We were the first line of defense for angry phone calls, angry visitors, and angry patients. The second line was the orderlies and the doctor with the sedative. “Rough night?” my coworker asked me. Vera Stevens was a woman of forty-five with the patience of a saint and the anger of a woman scorned. Her fuse was slow to light, but when it did you prayed you weren’t on the receiving end. She’d worked as a nurse and office manager for twenty years and knew her business. She also made it her business to learn everyone else’s business, at least as far as it concerned the clinic. A tired or agitated employee had a high likelihood of transferring those vibes to patients, and once the snowball got rolling there was no way to stop it except with a cabinet full of sedatives and a lot of apologies to family members. That was definitely not something Vera wanted to deal with. Ever. I smiled at her and shook my head. “I just had a bit of a scare, that’s all.” She raised an eyebrow. “What kind of scare?” If I told her the truth I’d exchange my comfortable seat at the front desk for a padded room behind that door. “With a-um, a barking dog. It just wouldn’t shut up.” “And that scared you?” she wondered. I shrugged. “I’m not really a fan of dogs.” That part was true. We had a mutual hate-hate relationship where a dog would growl at me and I would snarl in return. “A bad experience?” she guessed. “Lots of bad experiences, but it’s no big deal, really,” I insisted. “Besides, it’s just one more day until my weekend and then I promise I’ll get a long, peaceful, rejuvenating rest.” Vera opened her mouth to reply, bu a swoosh in front of us caught our attention. We looked to the sliding doors and watched the one on the right closest to us slide shut behind a man of about thirty. He wore a white suit with a blood-red tie and black dress shoes. His hair was a dazzling red color, his skin was ghastly pale, and his eyes were a dark blue. He turned to the front desk and flashed a bright smile. “Good morning, ladies,” he greeted us as he walked over to the desk. Vera stood and smiled at him. “I’m afraid we’re not quite open, sir, but if you’d like to wait a few minutes we would be glad to help you.” “Actually, I’m just a little lost,” he admitted as he leaned on the raised counter. “I had planned to meet a friend last night, but he never showed up.” Vera pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. “Where did you plan to meet?” she asked him. “Over on two-hundred and seventh street a few blocks from the small grocery store on the corner,” he replied. I jerked back and my eyes widened. That was my street, and the grocery store he talked about could only have been the one owned by Bellamy. The man turned his dark eyes on me and suddenly his bright smile wasn’t so bright. “What’s wrong?” he asked me as he leaned over the counter. There was only a very short foot and a half between us. His dark eyes studied me like Osman had studied me during his fit of paranoia, and his words made my blood run cold. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” My shaking hands gripped the edge of the desk and I leaned away from him. “I-I wouldn’t know,” I answered. His smile widened into a grin. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” “Really, sir, this is most unusual,” Vera spoke up. The man pushed off from the desk and stepped back towards the doors. “Sorry about that. I really thought one of you could help me. Thanks for your time, and have a good day.” He swept his arm over his chest and bowed his head towards us. I noticed his eyes fell on me for a long second before he turned away and left. “You should be more careful with the door,” Vera scolded me as she walked around the desk to the door. “But I didn’t unlock it,” I swore. Vera grabbed the handle and pulled. The locked door didn’t open. She blinked before she furrowed her brow. “How strange. It is locked,” she concurred. She shrugged and unlocked the door. “Well, I suppose it was open just a bit. Anyway, it’s time for us to open.” Vera brushed off the incident like it was an accident, but I’d had too many strange accidents lately to take it as a glitch in my life. I sat down to a long, tense day of waiting for the next trouble. The day didn’t disappoint. 6 The clinic closed at the usual five o’clock, and by that time the sun was low in the eastern sky. Other then some of the residential staff who rotated out of their shifts at odd hours, the office staff was always the last to leave. I shut down my computer and pulled on my coat. The unsettling feeling I’d had all day was still in the back of my mind as I grabbed my purse and slung the strap over my shoulder. Vera flipped off the lights and cast the room in dark shadows. Only a few emergency lights and a single bulb over the doors prevented us from stumbling into the furniture and over the rugs. Vera and I met at the doors and, as usual, she appointed herself the last to leave and shut the doors behind us. She locked the door and it rattled when she tested it. “Nice and firm,” she approved. She pocketed her key and turned to me. “I hope you enjoy your weekend, Miss Runa.” “I’m sure I will,” I replied. We went our separate ways, Vera to her car and me to the nearest bus stop. My feet clacked against the sidewalk as I walked the half block to the bus sign. A small glass shelter with a few metal benches stood on the sidewalk in front of the bus stop. It was dinner time on a Saturday night so the area was empty. I sat down on a bench and looked up in time to see the street lights flicker on. A cool breeze blew some leaves past the open front of the shelter. I shuddered and gripped the collar of my coat tighter around my throat. “Nothing scary about this place, Enid. You’ve sat here a hundred times without anything going wrong. . .” I murmured to myself. Those hundred times weren’t the day after a hair-raising close encounter of the paranormal kind. A noise behind me made me swivel around. There was an alley behind and to the right of the shelter. A can rolled out of its dark depths and onto the sidewalk. It came to a stop when it clinked lightly against the side of the shelter. I stared between the can and the darkness, and it stared back. The darkness, that is, not the can. I jumped to my feet and stepped back towards the road. The darkness really did stare back. A familiar pair of red eyes peered from the black depths of the alley. A figure floated from the side street and the closest street light illuminated its shadowy cloak. The phantom from last night. Osman hadn’t destroyed it. My heart picked up the tempo to a roaring flamenco as I stumbled away from the tall, cloaked figure. Its eyes narrowed, and as it floated towards me it stretched out one of its pale hands. I retreated a few more steps and one of my heels slipped over the edge of the sidewalk. A horn blared, and the phantom and I whipped our heads down the road. The bus barreled towards me and the driver honked their horn. I stepped out of the way and narrowly avoided becoming an integral part of the grill. The bus screeched to a stop and the door opened. The lady bus driver glared down at me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she snapped. I looked towards the alley. The phantom was gone, but I still felt the chill down my spine. I jumped onto the nearly-empty bus and took a seat in the back. My window faced the sidewalk, and I peered into the side street. I swear a pair of red eyes glared back at me, but the bus pulled out before I could, or wanted to, confirm it. I slid down in my seat and sighed. I was safe, at least for now, but I wanted my underwear back from Osman. His destruction of that phantom had lasted less time than a politician’s promise. I pulled my purse onto my lap and opened it too look for his card, but the bus gave a sudden jerk as the driver made a quick brake. “What the hell?” she growled. She swung open the door and scowled at someone at the bottom of the steps. My heart quickened as I wondered if that person wore a cloak. “What the hell do you want?” she snapped at the invisible person. A tall, familiar figure appeared over the front seats and stepped into the walkway between the seats. It was the pale, unsmiling man from earlier that morning. He didn’t reply to the bus driver’s angry question, but placed a few coins in the box beside her and took a seat in the middle of the bus. I sank down in my seat and peeked around the side of the one in front of me. The man stared straight ahead, but at my peeking he turned his head just a smidge in my direction. It was enough for one of his bright blue eyes to stare at me. The color drained from my face and I pulled back out of sight. I bit my lower lip and tried to think of a plan. Calling the police wouldn’t have worked. I didn’t have any concrete evidence against my pale stalker. Getting off at a different stop was a no-go because he’d follow me, and if he caught me I’d be farther from my home. That left only one, regrettable, choice. I rummaged through my purse and found Osman’s number. I dialed the digits and pressed the receiver against my ear. The line on the other end rang. “Come on. Answer it,” I hissed after the second ring. After the fifth ring Osman’s voice came over the speaker. “Good day, you’ve reached my phone. I can’t come to the phone right now, but if you’d leave your name and number after the beep then I’ll try to get back to you. Maybe.” Beep. “Osman?” I hissed. “This is Enid Runa. I met the phantom again, and now this pale guy’s been following me all day and he’s on the bus. If you could get your butt to the Bellamy Grocery store two blocks from my house I’d really appreciate it.” I hung up and peeked around the seat in front of me. The man stared straight ahead, but I couldn’t ditch the feeling that he was staring at me. It felt kind of like the third eye on a mom. I pulled back and glanced out the window. I had a long thirty minutes left before my stop, and I hoped Osman was waiting for me there. My heart beat a loud, quick tune the entire time, but somehow I got to my stop without having a heart attack. The bus slowed down and I jumped to my feet. The pale man was already on his feet and halfway down the aisle. He stepped off the bus, and for a second I pondered staying on the bus until the next stop. “You getting off or what?” the bus driver growled. ‘Or what’ was an option, but the bright lights of Bellamy’s Grocery signaled to me a safe-haven, and definitely some help. I hurried down the aisle and onto the dark sidewalk. The pale man was nowhere in sight. The bus pulled away, leaving me with little choice but to hurry to the sliding door of the grocery store. I grasped my purse and rushed down the sidewalk. The area was completely deserted, and several of the street lights flickered overhead. Others were completely dead, and the long shadows of night leaned out from around the corners of the block and behind every garbage can and stack of broken crates. My eyes flitted to and fro in search of danger, but the pale man had completely vanished. I hoped I’d find Osman out front, but he was also a no-show. Still, my heart beat a little slower when I stepped into the warm glow of the store. Mr. Bellamy stood at his cash register and smiled at me. “I told you not to eat all those eggs,” he scolded me. I hurried up to him and glanced over my shoulder. “I think I might have a bigger problem than a stomach ache,” I told him. He frowned. “Why? What’s wrong?” He looked past me at the door. “Is someone following you?” he guessed. “I don’t know, but-” I froze when the pale man strode through the door. He looked around and his gaze fell on me. My eyes widened when he turned and walked towards us. I slipped behind Bellamy and peeked around him. “That guy’s following me,” I whispered to him. Bellamy frowned. “Why?” I shook my head. “I don’t know.” The man reached us and looked at me with his cold eyes. “Come with me,” he commanded me. Bellamy crossed his arms over his chest. “I think you need to leave, sir,” he ordered the newcomer. “Please don’t interfere. I don’t want to hurt you,” the stranger warned him. “I think that’s enough. You get out-” Bellamy drew out his bat and took a step towards the stranger. The stranger ducked and sprang forward. He grabbed onto Bellamy’s arm in two places and tossed the grocery store owner over his shoulder. Bellamy flew a few yards and skidded that many until he crashed into a display of oranges near the door. My old friend groaned, but didn’t get up. The man turned to me and reached out for me. “Come with me now or-” ‘Or’ came sooner than he expected as I noticed a black shadow fly through the crack in the closed sliding door. The shadow turned to the stranger and me, and its thin body bloated until it resumed its wide cloaked form. The phantom. Its burning red eyes glared at me. It flew over Bellamy and reached out with both its clawed, pale hands. The stranger spun around and pushed me behind him. He pulled two familiar scraps of paper from his jeans pocket and clasped them between his fingers. The man threw one at the creature and it sliced through the air like a dagger. The phantom dodged the dagger-like paper and crashed into the stranger. The stranger pushed me aside and they tumbled past me, a mess of dark blue and midnight black. The stranger ended up on the bottom with the phantom’s cold claws wrapped around his neck. I didn’t know the guy but I knew the phantom, and I knew I definitely didn’t like him. I looked around for something to use against the dark creature, and my eyes spotted the other scrap of paper with the writing. I snatched the paper from the floor and raced over to the pair. The phantom’s cloaked back was turned towards me, but it paused in its murder attempt and glanced over its shoulder at me. “Get off him,” I growled as I slammed the paper into his forehead. The paper seared a nice hole between his eyes and smoke rose from beneath the paper. My eyes widened and I stumbled back as the creature screamed in agony and clawed at the paper. Bits of the ink rubbed off on its fingers, and more smoke appeared from that contact. The phantom stood and swayed back and forth as its body was consumed by the paper. This wasn’t the clean disappearing act of yesterday. This time the phantom melted out of existence. Its body oozed to the floor and it let out a last, long wail before its head dropped onto the puddle that was all that remained of its body. The man sat up and rubbed his neck. There were nice bruises on his skin. He studied the pile of ooze, and then his cold eyes turned to me. They narrowed and he set his lips in a firm line. “You must come with me,” he hoarsely ordered me. “Heck no,” was my response. I turned and got the hell out of there. 7 I raced past the unconscious Mr. Bellamy and through the doors, but stumbled to a stop outside. The cold night air greeted me, and so did a familiar figure from the shadows. “Where’s the fire?” Osman spoke up as he walked up to the door. He wore the same overcoat as last night, and I swear he had the same cigarette between his lips. I jumped back and stumbled into a trash can. I would’ve fallen, but Osman leapt forward and caught my hand. He righted me and chuckled. “I always seem to be saving the day for you,” he commented. I glared at him and pushed him away. “Well, you’re a little late tonight. I saved myself from the phantom that you were supposed to have killed-” “Destroy,” he corrected me. “That you were supposed to take care of last night, and there’s still this pale guy following me!” I snapped. He smiled and folded his arms across the front of his overcoat. “I know. I told him to follow you.” My mouth dropped open. “You WHAT?” “The pale man you mentioned in your phone message is my-well, you can call him my assistant,” Osman admitted. “I told him to keep an eye on you during the day.” I narrowed my eyes and took a step backwards and away from him. “What the hell for?” I growled. “To see if you were really a Phantom Whisperer,” he told me. My face twisted into disbelief. “A what?” “A person who’s capable of controlling phantoms,” he explained. “But I was attacked by one last night, and tonight,” I reminded him. He shrugged. “I thought perhaps our friend from last night was one of your toys who’d gotten out of hand. It’s been known to happen.” Our conversation was interrupted when the door to the store swung open and the pale man stumbled out. He rubbed his neck one last time and dropped his arm when he sidled up to Osman. “We have a problem,” I heard him whisper to Osman. His voice was deep and tense. Osman raised an eyebrow and his cigarette hung limp in his mouth. “How so?” The pale man turned his eyes on me. “She destroyed a phantom with one of my spells.” Osman frowned. “That’s not possible. Even with a spell a human can’t destroy a phantom.” The stranger continued to look at me without blinking. “This one can.” Osman turned his gaze on me so they both stared at me. I raised my hands in front of me and took a few steps back. “Listen, this was all an accident. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to touch that guy’s thing,” I defended myself. “You’re not supposed to be able to use it,” Osman commented. “Well, whatever I did wrong, I didn’t mean to do it,” I insisted. I made a bit more distance between me and their serious stares. “So now that the phantom’s gone and you know I’m not its master or anything, we’re cool, right?” Osman dropped his arms to his side and shook his head. “We’re far from cool. You need to come with us.” I rolled my eyes and gestured to the pale guy. “Like I told that guy, I’m not going anywhere with anybody. I’m going home, to bed, for a nice, long weekend break.” “You don’t understand,” Osman protested. “You’re a threat to them, and they don’t like threats.” “A threat to who? I made that phantom into ooze! He isn’t coming back this time!” I pointed out. Osman closed his eyes and shook his head. “That wasn’t the same phantom.” My mouth dropped open. “But it-” “All Black Phantoms look alike,” he told me. He held out his hand to me. “Now you have to come with us.” I’d had enough. Enough phantoms. Enough orders. Enough freaky fun. I clenched my hands into fists at my sides and glared at the pair. “I’m not going to repeat myself,” I warned him as I dug into my purse. I pulled out my phone and hovered my fingers over the numbers. “I’m going to give you guys a ten second head start, and then I’m going to call the cops. Deal?” “You don’t understand what’s happened,” Osman insisted. “This Phantom won’t be the last. The Whisperer who controls them will wonder why they haven’t returned, and they will find you themselves if they have to.” A brief, uncomfortable memory came to mind. The man from that morning, the one who’d gotten into the clinic through the locked doors. His missing friend. Another attack by a phantom. The Whisper had already found me himself. My eyes widened and I lowered my phone. “Oh shit. . .” I whispered. Osman frowned and took a step towards me. “What’s-” He didn’t get a chance to finish his question before a blast of wind blew over us from the street. I was knocked off my feet and onto my butt. The two men planted their feet against the ground and threw their arms over their faces. The gale dropped as quickly as it came and I looked in the direction of the wind. The man in the white suit stood in the middle of the street opposite the grocery store. He had a wide smile on his lips and his hands were tucked into the pockets of his suit pants. “Well, well. I’m no longer surprised my little pet didn’t make it home last night,” the man in white commented. Osman lowered his arm and frowned. “You’re the Whisperer,” he guessed. The new stranger shrugged. “I prefer the term master, but that will do.” “I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” Osman commented. The man in white’s smile widened. “Oh, but I know you, former Detective Osman. You’ve given yourself quite a name in the paranormal world.” “I don’t think I have the pleasure of your name,” Osman returned. I noticed his hand slipped into his overcoat. The man shook his head. “Your little toys won’t help you hear, detective.” “I’m willing to try,” Osman retorted as he pulled out two of the scraps of paper. The detective’s partner grabbed Osman’s arm and shook his head. “You can’t,” the man warned him. Osman wrenched his arm free and glared at his companion. “Why the hell not?” His companion looked past him at the man in white and pursed his pale lips together. “Because this one is different.” Osman frowned and cast his eyes in the direction of the new stranger. “How different?” “You can’t defeat him,” the man replied. Osman sighed and tucked the scraps of paper into his overcoat. He flicked his cigarette onto the ground and shrugged. “Then we’ll have to make a break for it.” “I feel very left out of your conversation,” the man in white called to us. He opened his arms and strode towards us. “And why did you put your toys away? I would have enjoyed watching your look of disappointments as they failed to save you.” He was only ten feet from us. “Because we’re playing a new game. Tag,” Osman quipped. Osman turned away from the man in white and sprinted towards me. He leaned down and scooped me into his arms. I gasped and clung to him as we sped down the sidewalk at a speed that made everything look like a blur. The wind and night air whipped my long hair into my face and chilled my cheeks. I looked up into Osman’s face and noticed his eyes had that strange orange color to them. “How are you doing this?” I yelled at him. “Hold on,” he ordered me. He took a sharp turn into a nearby alley and leapt into the air. A large dumpster stood against the right-hand wall of the building, and his feet slammed onto the lid before he pushed off higher into the air. I looked down and my eyes bulged out of my head as I watched us sail twenty feet above the ground. We landed halfway up a fire escape. The metal grates rattled beneath Osman’s feet, but the vibrations didn’t slow him down as he zig-zagged his way up the rickety stairs and onto the roof. We were in the jungle of flat roofs with their stairwell entrances, cooling and heating systems, and tall walls to keep people from taking a slow drop to a quick stop. He sprinted across the black tar-papered roof and raced through its jungle of air vents and tar. “What the hell are you? Superman?” I yelled. “Hold on and prepare to fly,” he called back. I looked ahead at where he faced and gasped. He ran past a stairwell entrance and towards the two-foot tall ledge. Another building stood beyond the one we were on, but the alleyway criss-crossed the block and cut between the buildings. That meant there was a twelve-foot gap to cross. “Stop!” I screamed. “Hold on!” he commanded me. I clutched onto him and turned away from my fate as a splatter on the crumbling alley pavement. Osman sailed onto the ledge and jumped into the air. I watched in slow motion as we sailed over the fifty-foot deep chasm beneath us. An alley cat looked up and blinked at us. Osman’s feet skidded onto the opposite roof with a yard to spare, and he hit the ground running. This time he took a sharp right and raced towards the adjoining building. Again, the alleyway cut us off from a safe transfer of roofs. “Let’s have an encore!” he shouted. “Let’s not!” I yelped. Osman didn’t listen to me, and we sailed over another death-promising gap and landed cleanly on the next building. The he-man didn’t take a breather, or even slow down, as he sprinted towards the next, connected building. I whipped my head up and glared at him. “Are you trying to get us killed?” I growled at him. “No, but that thing might if it catches us,” he countered. “Only a madman would follow us,” I argued. Something over his shoulder caught my eye and I looked behind us. My eyes widened and I choked on a yelp. “Run faster!” I ordered him. “Why?” he asked me. “Because that phantom’s back!” I told him. The cloaked figure had appeared over the far edge of the roof we just left and floated towards us. Its cloak billowed behind it and it stretched its pale, clawed hands towards us. The red lights of its eyes blazed like the coals of hell. My heart quickened its tempo when the phantom floated over the chasm between the roofs without losing any altitude or speed. “That isn’t the same phantom,” he corrected me. “You have witnessed three separate phantoms.” “Well, how do I un-witness this one?” I shouted. Osman skidded to a stop just short of hopping onto the connected roof next door. He set me down and turned us so we stood beside each other and faced the dark menace that flew towards us. The detective reached into his overcoat and pulled out another of those scraps of paper. He held up the paper between us and looked to me. “This is how you un-witness phantoms. It’s the only thing that works,” he told me. “Now make it work for us.” Osman stuffed the paper into my hands and pushed me forward. I clutched the paper in both hands against my chest and looked over my shoulder. “Are you nuts?” I snapped at him. “Slightly, but I suggest you throw the spell to destroy the phantom right now,” he suggested. “But I didn’t throw it last time! I slapped it on his forehead!” I revealed. His eyes widened. “That would be a problem,” he agreed. I heard an ungodly screech and returned my attention to the problem that raced towards us. The phantom crossed the long roof and was within a yard of us. I shrank from its awful scream and cowered behind the talisman paper. Osman rushed forward, snatched the paper from me, and threw it like a dagger at the phantom. The distance was too close for the dark creature to dodge, and the talisman lodged itself between its red eyes. The phantom slid to a stop and clawed at the paper, but like last night that only accelerated its disappearance in a slow snowfall of specks, and even those disappeared into the roof. We were safe, but still on a roof in the middle of a cold, dark, long night. 8 I clutched at my fast-beating heart and glared at Osman. “You really are trying to get us killed, aren’t you?” I growled. A crooked grin graced his lips and he shrugged. “It was an honest mistake,” he protested. “Honest, my ass!” I snapped at him. He leaned to one side and looked down at my mentioned spot. “And as nice an ass as it is, we really should get going.” I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “I’m not going anywhere except home alone.” “I told you that wasn’t an option, and I mean that in the most persuasive way,” he insisted. I held up my hands in front of me. “Listen. Whatever the hell’s going on, I don’t want to be a part of it,” I countered. “I’ve got no car, a crappy apartment, and a difficult job, but I sure as hell am not trading it in for the shit you’ve thrown at me.” “I haven’t thrown anything at you. This trouble is centered around you,” he argued. I threw my arms in the air and paced a spot in front of him. “There’s no way anybody’s after me. I’m not special enough to have a stalker, much less a phantom stalker.” “The Phantom Whisperer we met disagrees, and all that matters is his opinion,” Osman persisted. “And since you insist on being difficult, then I have no choice.” “I’m not being-hey!” Osman picked me up and swung me over one shoulder so my stomach lay over his bony shoulder and I had a great view of his back. “Let me down! This is kidnapping!” “You’ll thank me later,” he told me as he sprinted off across the roofs. I had a front-row seat to the long drops beneath us as we jumped and sprinted over the remainder of the block’s roofs. Osman took the last fire escape to street level and I was dropped into the front passenger seat of his car. I tried to jump to the driver’s side and out of the vehicle, but he wrestled me into the seat and grabbed the seatbelt. He pulled the strap across me and tied the belt to its buckle. Osman stepped back and admired his handiwork as I writhed and squirmed in the tight strap. “Let me go!” I demanded. He shook his head and walked around the car to slip into his seat. “I’m really sorry about this-” “If you’re sorry then let me go!” I snapped. “Sorry doesn’t mean I’m stupid,” he argued as he started the car. He pulled out onto the deserted street and we drove in the opposite direction of my home, and at a speed that definitely wasn’t legal. “If I let you go then that guy and his phantoms will kill you, or worse.” He looked over to me and studied me. “You sure you don’t know why he wants you?” I rolled my eyes. “I’m pretty sure. The only thing I’ve got is a creepiness factor that scares people.” He raised an eyebrow. “I’m not getting that.” I squirmed in my seat. “Damn, because if you were you’d probably not be doing this to me.” “What sort of creepiness?” he wondered. I shrugged as much as I could in my bindings. “I-” I didn’t get to finish before a dark shadow landed in the backseat. “Phantom!” I screamed. Osman yanked the steering wheel and we veered onto the sidewalk. He whipped his head back and his tense face softened. He also got us back on the road and chuckled. “That’s just Cronus,” he told me. I tilted my head back and saw it was indeed an upside-down pale stranger, the one who’d stalked me on the bus. “How the hell did you get back there?” I asked him. We must’ve been going fifty down the streets, and I didn’t see any flight suit or strings to slide him into the seat. That crooked smile graced Osman’s lips and he shook his head. “Don’t expect too many answers from him. He likes to play it cool.” Cronus glared at the back of Osman’s head, but didn’t reply. I slumped down in my seat prison and frowned. “So what are you going to do with me, anyway?” Osman wagged a finger at me. “No changing the subject. We were talking about you and your weirdness. You were going to explain to me your strange vibe.” I turned away from him. “It’s not a vibe, it’s just what I do sometimes.” “And what’s that?” he persisted. I shrugged. “I know people’s names when I don’t remember hearing them, and sometimes I know there’s a problem somewhere nearby, and it turns out there was.” The car slowed down. I looked ahead for an obstruction, but there was nothing there, so I glanced at Osman. He had his full attention on me and there was a contemplative, serious look on his face. “What? Okay, fine, it’s not that weird, but it gets the patients riled up.” Osman faced ahead and pursed his lips. “I guess that explains it. . .” he muttered. I frowned. “Explains what?” “Why those guys were after you, or maybe it doesn’t. We’ll find out,” he replied. I tilted my head and my face twisted into confusion. “What’s that mean?” I asked him. “It means hold on,” he told me. “I’m kind of strapped-what the hell!” Osman punched on the gas and we flew down the road at top speed. Now I prayed the belt would hold as we sped through the streets of the dark city. Osman kept to the back roads to avoid traffic, pedestrians, and cops. I watched the blur of a city change from my residential area, through the older commercial district, and to an old part of town I’ll kindly refer to as ‘slummy.’ The houses were older than my grandparents and in worse health. Most of them were small bungalow-types with roofs that sagged and yards that looked like they’d never met a sprinkler they liked. The windows were covered in plastic for the coming winter and the weathered doors saw better days decades ago. There were a few exceptions. Among the bungalows were a few old Victorian mansions with sagging porches and yards that looked like they’d never seen a sprinkler, much less hated one. The peeked roofs stabbed the sky and a few worn decorations shaped as faces glared down at us from their high perches. “We looking for a vampire to stake now?” I quipped. Osman smiled. “Not quite.” He drove us around a corner of a block and took a right into a narrow, dirty, garbage-filled alley. Both sides were lined with leaning wooden fences and the occasional ancient, leaning garage. I got a whiff of the place and wished I had my hand to plug my nose. “Putting me through this stench is against the Geneva Convention,” I warned him. “You have no idea,” he returned. We soon arrived at a garage that didn’t lean. One of the two-floor, full-attic Victorian houses graced the front part of the lot like a sore on the end of a witch’s nose. Osman stopped the car and pressed a button on the dash. The garage door raised and we drove into a relatively clean space. The door shut behind us and enveloped us in pitch-black darkness. I saw Osman’s shadowy form hop out of the car and soon his hands were at my seat belt. “Now don’t get any ideas about screaming or trying to run,” he warned me as he untied me. He opened my car door and helped me out. “It wouldn’t do you any good. My neighbors are rather used to screams and gunshots, and a woman running down the street screaming about kidnapping won’t get you much attention, or attention you’d want.” “You ever heard of the old saying ‘birds of a feather flock together?’” I asked him. “Yes, but I haven’t had my wings plucked like some of my neighbors,” he quipped. Osman guided me around the front of the car and to the front of the garage. Cronus opened the door that led to the backyard, and we passed by his frowning face and onto the wet dirt of a yard. The back of the house had a single door in the center of the rear wall that was protected by the wrap-around porch. A tall wooden fence without breaks or cracks surrounded the entire backyard. Above us was the dark, clear sky of an autumn night, and far-off came the sounds of shouting and yelling, followed by a gunshot that made me cringe. Someone just lost an argument. Osman had a firm grip on my arm and led me across the lawn. We walked up the few short, broken steps onto the porch and Osman let me go to unlock the door. I bolted. I spun around and avoided Cronus with a quick hop over the railing that surrounded the porch. My feet hit the weed-choked ground running and I covered five yards pretty fast, but I didn’t stand a chance. Someone grabbed my wrist and pulled me off my feet. A foot off my feet. I dangled in the air and tried to free myself, but the person had a vice-like grip. I twisted around to find myself staring into the disinterested face of Cronus. Osman walked up behind Cronus and lit a cigarette. “I told you not to go anywhere,” he reminded me. I grabbed onto Cronus’ hand and tried to rip it off me, but his fingers didn’t even twitch. “What the hell are you guys?” I questioned them. Osman jerked his head over his shoulder at the house. “Come inside, willingly, and I’ll give you some answers.” I frowned, but being a foot of the ground meant I didn’t have much of a choice, so I nodded. “Fine, you win. For now.” Cronus set me down. I rubbed my wrist and cast a side-glance at him. “Ate your Wheaties today, huh?” He just frowned at me. Osman slipped past him and set his hand on the lower part of my back. “This way, beautiful,” he instructed me. I rolled my eyes and shrugged off his hand. “I’m going to be expecting the truth from you, not a bunch of lies I might want to hear.” He held up his hands and the cigarette dangled from his lips. “All right. A guy can get a hint. Follow me.” Osman led me back to the door and this time we went through it. The house was built in two halves with the hallway in the middle. I could see all the way down to the front door and a banister in front of that and to the right told me where the stairs to the second floor stood. There were some open doorways on the left leading to a study and at the front was a living room. The right side led to the kitchen and dining room. The whole place was freshly painted, and the old wood floor was sanded and polished. The light fixtures above us were dusted and shone with modern light bulbs. I didn’t catch a whiff of decay or even dust. I followed Osman down the hall while Cronus followed behind me like a creeping shadow. I glanced over my shoulder and glared at his stoic face. He didn’t blink and his movements were so fluid that I was reminded of a well-oiled clock or some other punctual machine. “You mind not creeping me out?” I requested. “Yes,” was his bland reply. I was in one of the circles of Hell, but at least I was about to find out which one. 9 Osman led us into the front living room. The room was an old-fashioned parlor type with new wallpaper and a large fireplace opposite the door. He took a seat in a chair angled towards the door that sat near the cold hearth. There was an end table beside him with an ashtray overloaded with cigarettes. He gestured to a couch to my left and his right. “Have a seat,” he offered. I sat down and my eyes flitted to the doorway where Cronus took up residence against the frame. He still hadn’t blinked. “So what do you want to know first?” he asked me. “First, I want to know who the hell you guys are,” I told them. “A pair of concerned citizens who rescue damsels in distress,” Osman teased. “Cut the bull crap and fork over the info,” I snapped. Osman shrugged and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. He dangled it over the arm of his chair and studied the small red warmth at its end. He didn’t look at me when he spoke. “I’m-well, let’s just say I have an uncanny ability to perceive the paranormal through my sense of sight, hearing and smell,” he revealed. “That’s left me in the perfect position to be a detective of the paranormal and help out those who aren’t as ‘lucky’ as I am.” The word ‘lucky’ was spoken with a heavy dose of bitterness. “So you two are like phantom hunters?” I guessed. “Among others,” Osman confirmed. I leaned forward and looked him over. “You said something about this being personal. Why?” A small smile slipped onto his lips and he closed his eyes. “I hoped you’d forgotten about that minor detail.” “So it’s true?” I questioned him. Osman opened his eyes and crunched the half-used cigarette into the full ashtray. He lit another cigarette and placed it into the corner of his mouth. “You know, those aren’t exactly healthy for you,” I informed him. His trademark crooked grin slipped onto his lips. “Believe me, if anything’s going to kill me it isn’t going to be a cigarette or two.” “You mean like that guy in the white suit?” I guessed. “Him, or any of the other Phantom Whisperers,” he agreed. “So where do I fit into all of this?” I asked him. Osman leaned back in his chair and took a long drag on his cigarette. He let out a puff of smoke and studied me. “That’s an interesting question. Where do you fit into all of this?” “I’m the one asking the questions,” I reminded him. “To be honest I’m not entirely sure, but I’d like to do a test.” He rummaged in his overcoat and pulled out a small wooden box with a face on the curved lid. I noticed Cronus pushed off from the doorway and stood at attention. Osman set the box on the table beside him and grasped the lid in one hand. “Care to try out my theory?” he asked me. I sat straight and glared at him. “That depends on what-” Osman opened the lid and a rush of darkness flew out from its depths. The shadow arched high into the air and plummeted back down to earth straight at me. I turned my face away and raised my arms over my head, but the shadow flew straight through my arms and hit me in the temple. A freezing cold pierced my brain like a bad ice cream brain freeze. I clenched my teeth together and grabbed my temple. “What the hell was that thing?” I snapped at Osman. “It’s a small Shadow that has attached to your mind,” Osman explained to me. “It will prove my theory right, or kill you.” I dropped my hand and whipped my head to him. “What?” “Kill you. Shadows burrow deep into a person’s personality, their soul, so-to-speak, and consume everything,” he told me. “How the hell am I supposed to stop it?” I yelled at him. He shrugged. “You figure it out.” I would’ve jumped him and strangled him right then and there, but I had a creature of darkness burrowing into my soul. I stumbled to my feet and clutched my freezing head between my hands. The cold changed to a dull pain that had aspirations for something much stronger as the ache changed to a roaring fire. I shut my eyes and clenched my teeth together. All I could think about was exorcising that Shadow from my mind. I barely noticed when a bright light penetrated my eyelids. My eyes flew open and I saw the glow came from either side of my head. The pain faded and I pulled my hands away to see they were the source of the glow. My hands were illuminated like the lighting section in a national hardware store. Two snake-like shadows writhed in my palms. Osman stood and slipped his hands underneath mine so mine were held in his palms. He furrowed his brow and bit the end of his cigarette. “Clap,” he ordered me. I blinked at him. “What?” “Trust me. Just clap,” he repeated. I leaned away from my own hands and clapped my hands. The ensuing explosion of light flooded the room for one brilliant moment, and then nothing. No more light in my hands, no more headache, no more writhing shadows. I looked at my palms with wide, blinking eyes. Osman turned away from me and settled himself back in his chair. He shoved the bit cigarette into the ashtray and pulled out another one. “Very interesting,” he commented. I looked away from my hands and at him. “What the hell just happened?” I whispered. “You destroyed my Shadow,” he told me. “It was going to kill me!” I defended myself. I let that thought sink in for just a moment before anger swept aside my uncertainty, and I glared at Osman. “You were going to kill me!” That crooked smile returned and he shook his head. “You weren’t going to die.” “But you said it was going to kill me!” I reminded him. He shrugged. “I lied.” I threw myself across the short distance between us and reached for his eyes to claw them out. Osman grabbed my wrists and kept my hands a safe six inches from his face. He chuckled. “You’re even prettier when you’re angry,” he complimented me. “And you’re going to be a dead man when I get a hold of you!” I growled. The smile slipped off his lips and his eyebrows crashed down. “You’ll have to get in line, so sit down.” He shoved me backwards and I fell back into onto the couch. “Besides, you should be thanking me. I’ve solved some of your mystery.” “And what the hell is that supposed to mean?” I snapped at him. “It means I know why the Phantom Whisperer chose to sic his pet on you,” he told me. “You’re a Mystic.” I blinked at him. “I’m a what?” “A Mystic,” he repeated. “One who, through practice or natural ability, is capable of destroying the lower level creatures of the paranormal world.” “A Mystic?” I repeated. “Yes,” he confirmed. “Isn’t that some sort of class in an MMO?” I asked him. “Yes, but it has practical applications outside the world of make-believe,” he assured me. I leaned back against the rear of the couch and raised an eyebrow. “Like what? Being able to heal people when they call me over?” “There are minor healing powers, but your greatest asset is your ability to destroy weak paranormal creatures with your touch, and stronger ones with a talisman,” he explained. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees and looked him in the eye. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?” “Very serious,” he assured me. “So what do I do now?” I questioned him. “Change my name and move to another city?” A teasing smile played across his lips. “Bertha Summers would suit you,” he suggested. I frowned and stood. “And you and your creepy friend don’t suit me. I’d rather face a hundred phantoms then-” “And you might, though probably not at the same time,” he warned me. The serious tone and look had returned to him, and he leaned forward with his cigarette clenched tightly at the corner of his mouth. “Besides, I can’t let you leave here. You know where I live.” “Then why did you bring me here if you didn’t want me to know that?” I snapped at him. “It’s the safest place I know, and I didn’t think you’d be this difficult after I saved your life,” he replied. I snorted and waved my hand at the men and the house. “Saved my life so I could be what? Trapped in this fun house with you two creepy clowns and a couple of black phantoms and white-suited guys outside ready to do God-knows-what with me?” He stood and put his hands in the pockets of his overcoat. His keen eyes looked me over and he shrugged. “Or you could stop being so difficult and help us to find out why the Whisperer told his little pet to try to kidnap you rather than just outright kill you, especially as you’re a threat to his little Whisperings.” I folded my arms across my chest and pursed my lips. “How about you just get him off my back?” I suggested. “You’ve got those magic things. Make that Whisperer crumble or blow away or something.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can’t do that.” “Why not?” I snapped at him. He nodded past me at Cronus. “If he says we can’t destroy him then I’m not going to argue.” I threw up my hands. “Then the only choice I have is ‘stay here for the rest of my life?’” Osman’s crooked grin returned. “I have a very large bed that fits two very comfortably.” “And I’m sure you say that to all the girls you kidnap,” I quipped. “I must admit you’re the first, and I hope the last,” he replied. “I’m flattered,” I retorted. I sighed and leaned back against the couch. “Fine. I’ll stay here until, or if, this phantom wind ever blows over. But don’t expect me to like it.” Osman stood and gestured to the doorway. “Then let me show you to your bedroom.” I stood and glared at me. “It better be just my bedroom.” “If that’s what you want,” he answered. “Definitely.” 10 Cronus stepped aside and let Osman lead me into the hall. I followed Osman to the stairs and we walked up, but I paused before my head peeked into the second floor and looked down. Cronus stood at the bottom of the stairs by the banister. The creepy pale partner had a dark look in his eyes. I frowned back at him and hurried to where Osman waited. The upstairs had a single wide hall with three doors on either side and a window at the end. Towards the front of the house the hallway wrapped around the stairs and ended at the front wall with a large window that matched the other one. “I get the feeling your partner doesn’t like me,” I commented. “He doesn’t really like anyone,” Osman told me as he turned to the rooms on the left. He nodded at the one which was at the front of the house . “That one’s yours, and mine’s the last door on the same wall. There’s a bathroom between us.” I moved to the middle door and opened it. The bathroom was large with a wide, long tub opposite the door and with a toilet on the left and the sink on the right. On either side of the long walls was another door. I glanced over my shoulder and jerked my head towards the doors. “Why are there two of them?” I asked him. “It’s a shared bathroom,” he explained. I turned to him and crossed my arms over my chest. “Not happening.” “You could take the other side, but it hasn’t been refurbished yet and not all the rats are out,” he warned me. I pursed my lips and narrowed my eyes. “Then you’d better not leave hair in the tub.” “I try not to.” “Any other surprises I need to know about?” I wondered. “Just a rule. Don’t go into the basement,” he told me. I raised an eyebrow. “Why not?” He turned away from me towards the stairs and lowered his voice so I could barely catch the words. “Let’s just say it isn’t pleasant. Oh, and try not to go outside at night alone. The phantoms are strongest then,” he added. “I’ll be a good girl,” I promised. He slyly smiled at me. “I hope not, but I’ll see you later.” He headed down the stairs. I frowned and rushed to the banister that wrapped around the hole in the floor where the stairs sat. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” I asked him. Osman paused at the bottom of the stairs and stood beside Cronus. They both faced me, one with a grin and the other with a scowl. “You’ll be fine here. We’ll be back before sunrise,” he promised. “And if you’re not?” I wondered. “Then wait some more. We’ll be back,” he swore. Osman waved to me, and the pair walked around the stairs and down the hall to the rear of the house. I flew down the steps and was in time to watch their backs disappear through the back door. I leaned against the staircase and ran a hand through my hair. My mind had a hard time wrapping itself around the idea of phantoms, Whisperers, and whatever the hell Osman thought I was. “Mystic. . .” I murmured. Seriously? A mystic? All I could imagine was me in flowing robes chanting spells and watching as everyone around me stepped in fire traps. I snorted and pushed off the wall. “Well, Enid, you may as well look around the place,” I told myself. “And that means starting in the basement.” I was one of those people who believed you didn’t have to keep your word if it was made against your will, and since I sure as hell didn’t want to be in the position I was in then that meant everything I’d promised Osman was null and void. Now that I had made up my mind to be disobedient, I had to figure out how to get into the basement. I crept through the house and looked in every closet, cupboard, nook and cranny for an entrance. All I found was that Osman had some nice tastes in cupboards, closets, nooks and crannies, and a really large library on the occult, paranormal, and some interesting illustrated copies of the Karma Sutra. Also, he’d lied when he told me the right side of the upper floor wasn’t finished. Those bedrooms were as finished as the others. Well, as finished as the ones I could get into. Osman’s bedroom and bathroom door were locked tight, and not even a hard pound of my shoulder made the door rattle. I stepped into the upper hall and rubbed my sore shoulder. My mind went over the possibilities and found only one: the entrance to the basement was outside. In the night. Alone. I walked downstairs and glanced out the front window in the living room. The neighborhood was dark and quiet. Too dark and quiet. Still, what did I have to- “Going somewhere?” I yelped and spun around to find Osman in the doorway to the living room. He leaned against the door frame with his arms folded over his chest and that crooked grin on his face. “Don’t you know how to knock?” I snapped at him. “I forget the skill when it’s my house,” he told me as he pushed off from the frame. Osman moved to stand in front of me, and he looked over my shoulder at the front yard. “Thinking about doing more exploring?” My eyebrows crashed down. “What do you mean more?” “You searched all the house and stopped at the front window. I assumed cabin fever had set in already and you were thinking about getting some fresh air,” he commented. I backed away from him and looked up at the ceiling corners. “You’ve got cameras around here, don’t you? You’ve been watching me through some TV, haven’t you?” I accused him. Osman chuckled. “Nothing so mundane.” The man reached out for me, but I slipped past him and ended up near the fireplace. He turned to face me. “Hold still and I’ll show you how it was done.” I frowned. “You bugged me, didn’t you?” “Not exactly, but I can show you if you’d just hold still,” he requested. I pursed my lips, but held still. Osman stepped in front of me and pulled something from my hair. He moved back and held out a thin, tiny black speck pinched between two fingers. “This is what helped Cronus and me track you, this night and all of today,” he informed me. Osman held it out to me and dropped it into my open palm. I lifted the speck to my eyes and studied the black thing. It was a thick strand of hair with a black tar-like substance wrapped around it that gave it a sticky exterior. I pinched and rolled it between my fingers and didn’t feel a thing. It also stuck really well. “What the hell is it?” I asked him. “My hair.” I cringed and pulled my face away. “And how the hell did you track me with this?” He smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “My super sniffer, remember? It works on more than just phantoms, and to be honest my intention when I planted my hair was to make sure you told me the truth about your relationship with the phantoms.” My eyes widened as a memory popped into my mind. I furrowed my brow and glared at him. “There wasn’t any spider! You lied to me!” He shrugged. “It was a white lie.” “Here’s what I think of your lies!” I yelled. I tried to throw down the hair, but it clung to me. Tight. I cringed and flailed my hand, but the goop stuck. “How the hell do you get it off?” Osman grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eyes with an amused smile. “Very carefully,” he told me. He removed one hand from me and pinched his fingers on the strand, and pulled. The hair slipped off my skin and he pocketed the strange trinket into his overcoat. I shrugged out of his grasp and turned away to face the window. One of my hands reached up and I cradled my head in my palm. “This is. . .this is just too much. . .” I murmured. I felt hot tears slide down my cheeks and a strangled laugh escaped my lips. “Phantoms, ghosts, weird controllers, mystics.” “And werewolves,” he added. My shoulders drooped and I half-turned to him. His smile was gone and replaced with pursed lips and troubled eyes. “Seriously?” I asked him. “Unfortunately, I’m very serious,” he told me. Osman ran a hand through his hair and strode towards me. I stiffened, but he stopped short when he plopped himself into his chair. He lit a cigarette and tossed the match into the overstuffed ashtray. “But I’m not telling you this to scare you.” I snorted. “Pity. You’re doing a damn good job.” He managed a small, bitter smile. “It’s a bunch of stuff to take in at once, I’ll admit, but as I see it you’ve got two choices. Either accept it, or go mad, and I don’t think you’re the type of girl to go mad. Be mad, maybe, but not go mad.” I frowned at him and crossed my arms over my chest. “How do you know what kind of girl I am?” Now he showed off that crooked smile. “I followed you all day with Cronus, remember? I got to see a lot of you.” “Should I be flattered that you stalked me?” I quipped. He shook his head. “No, and I wouldn’t be flattered, either, but you’ve got your choices.” He stood and extinguished his barely-used cigarette in the tray. His eyes turned to me. “Which one are you going to take?” I pursed my lips and dropped my arms to my sides. “I’ll take what’s behind the front door.” He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t follow.” I sighed and gestured to the doorway. “I want you to take me with you tonight.” 11 Osman furrowed his brow. “You want to come with me?” he wondered. “Why not?” I retorted. “Because you were just about to have a breakdown here a few seconds ago,” he pointed out. “You watched me all day. You’ve seen what I put up with,” I reminded him. “If I can deal with that day in and day out for two years then I can deal with going with you for one night.” Osman studied my face. “You sure? There could be trouble,” he warned me. I snorted and gestured to the room. “You want me to stay here and get into trouble, or go with you and get into trouble?” He smiled and jerked his head towards the doorway. “Come on.” Osman led me into the hall and to the front door. He opened it to reveal his red car on the curb with an unhappy Cronus in the front passenger seat. Then again, when was that guy ever happy? Osman opened the rear door and I slipped into the back seat. Cronus half-turned his head to the rear seat and one eye glared at me. “What is she doing here?” he asked Osman as the detective slipped into the driver’s seat. “She needed some fresh air,” Osman replied as he started the car. We spun out of the parking spot and onto the road. Osman drove like a phantom was behind us as we sped through the back roads like a red blur. The detective glanced over his shoulder at me. “You ever been to the river?” he asked me. “Yeah, lots of times,” I told him. He smiled and shook his head. “Not the parks, but the river’s edge.” “Like the old river road?” I guessed. “Yeah, that’s the one,” he replied. I shook my head. “It’s not exactly a good place for a midnight jog.” “Or a midday, but that’s where we’re going,” he told me. “There’s been some police reports about some strange sightings around there at night, so I thought I’d go sniff it out.” I nodded at Cronus. “And what’s he do?” Osman gave me his crooked grin. “You’ll see. Or rather, I hope you don’t.” I was a little tense as we passed through the slummy part of town and hit the old industrial zone along the river ten miles north of its mouth. The road was a mud hole with potholes the size of semi trucks. The right side slipped down a steep decline of mud and ran into the meandering river. The left side showed off all the abandoned paper mills and chemical plants that once dumped their garbage into the brown waters. Chain-link fences topped with razor wire surrounded the decayed, multi-floored buildings with their broken glass and graffiti-covered walls. Osman parked the car in the middle of the dirt road and hopped out. Cronus stepped out and I followed his example. My shoes sank into the muck and slid towards the embankment. I caught the edge of the car and kept myself from slipping down the decline into the brackish water. “Lovely spots you guys go to,” I quipped. “This is lovely compared to chasing sewer monsters,” Osman returned. “Remind me to stay at home for that one,” I replied. He chuckled. “I’m glad to see you’re already feeling yourself at home.” I glared at him and nearly lost my footing in the muck. “Don’t get any ideas. I-” “Quiet,” Osman hissed. He lifted his nose and sniffed the air. His eyes had a strange golden hue to them as they flickered to Cronus. “Hags.” Cronus pursed his lips. “How many?” “Enough.” “Are old women that dangerous?” I whispered. “Very dangerous when they can tear you to shreds,” Osman replied. “With their scathing remarks?” “With their teeth.” “Ouch.” “You stay by the car, and whatever you do do not let an old woman near you,” Osman instructed me. My face twisted into disbelief. “Wait, so you’re leaving me to guard the car?” “Unless you want to risk getting into a fight with a monster that can tear your face off,” he pointed out. “Point taken, but don’t take all night,” I told him. “We promise to be home soon,” Osman teased. The pair turned away from me and down the road. I leaned against the hood of the car and folded my arms across my chest as I watched them aim for the left side of the road. A group of metal and wooden shacks sat off the road down a short decline. The shacks were wedged between an old chain link fence and the short hill, and were accessed via a muddy path fifty yards from the car. The men slid down the path and made their way to the nearest shack. Osman raised his hand and knocked on the door made of metal roofing. I heard the rap from where I stood. That’s when I heard the voice. “Were you wanting something?” a voice barked. I sprang off the car and spun around. My feet slipped on the mud, but I caught myself on the car. I looked up to find myself face-to-face with a short woman of fifty. Her face was wrinkled and dirty, and she scowled at me from behind a beaked nose. She wore over-sized, patched clothes and her long hair was in a mess of tangles that would’ve taken garden shears to straighten. There was a dirty recyclable bag in each of her hands that pressed against her hips. Her shoes were covered in mud as was the bottom of her worn jeans. “Um-” I glanced over my shoulder at the men. They were preoccupied by the open doorway. “I was just-um-just watching the river.” Her eyes narrowed and her jaw jutted out. “Just watching the river? That scum pond?” I sheepishly grinned and shrugged. “It-um-it looked better a few minutes ago,” I assured her. A strange purplish hue slipped over her eyes and she dropped the bags onto the ground. “You’d better tell me what you’re doing here, girl, or you’re in for a world of hurt.” I held my hands in front of me and backed up. “I’m just cruising around here with some friends.” My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open as the woman stretched her height by two feet. Her hands lengthened into long claws and her baggy clothes whipped around her as a sudden wind came up around us. She snapped her jaws and her sharp teeth gnashed together like metal bars. Her eyes glowed a bright violet purple and a shadow surrounded her body. “Liars! Intruders! I will have the truth from you!” she shrieked. “Enid!” I heard Osman shout. I looked over my shoulder and saw him abandon the shack. An old woman stepped out of the doorway and glared at us. She, too, stretched into a demon-like hag and from her lips came a loud, screeching wail. The doors to the other huts burst open and a half dozen hags flew out. Their baggy clothes fluttered behind them as they rushed Cronus and Osman’s back. Cronus stepped into the center of their warpath and pulled talismans from his coat while Osman raced up the slope and onto the road. I heard a hiss from in front of me and turned in time to see and feel the wizened, clawed hand of the hag rap around my throat. My air supply was cut off as she lifted me a foot off the ground and stuck my face into hers. I gasped and pawed at her hand, but I couldn’t pry her strong fingers loose. “Filthy little human!” she hissed at me. Her breath wreaked like a charnel house. “I will have your soul.” The hag leaned back and opened her mouth wide enough to fit a bowling ball. She breathed in and a golden glow appeared around my body. I felt a wrenching pain inside me as she made good on her promise to take my soul. It was as though she took a large chunk of my skin and tried to peel it from me. I screamed out in pain and fear as my golden glow floated into her mouth. A large, husky shadow tackled the hag on her side and the pair tumbled away. I dropped to the ground and felt my soul snap back into me. The glow faded but didn’t vanish. I grabbed my throat as I choked on sweet air. I raised myself onto my arms and turned around. My eyes widened when I beheld Osman lift the hag over his head and toss her down the road. The only problem was it wasn’t the same Osman as before. Large tufts of thick fur peeked out from beneath his overcoat, and clawed toes poked through his shoes. His face was elongated into a snout, and he curled his lips back in a snarl that revealed two rows of sharp teeth. He flexed his clawed hands by his side and growled at the hag. The hag landed on her feet and turned to face us. She screeched and rushed Osman, who followed suit. They collided in a mass of claws and gnashing teeth. I struggled to my feet and watched the fight until I felt a wind pass over me from behind. I turned and ducked as a clawed hand tried to decapitate me. The new hag snarled and lunged at me. She grasped my shoulders and threw me on my back onto the ground. The hag opened her mouth and the glow around me brightened. The intense pain returned as the golden glow of my soul stretched into her mouth. The pain was like a hot branding iron pressed against my entire body. I writhed and screamed, but the hag didn’t budge. My body weakened with my soul light and I had trouble keeping my eyes shut. I clenched my teeth and looked behind me at Osman. He glanced over his shoulder and his golden eyes widened as he beheld my predicament. Osman turned and rushed towards me, but the hag flew onto his back. She buried her teeth into his neck and clawed at his chest. What remained of his shirt was torn to pieces. Osman howled and reached back to grab her shoulders. He tossed her over his head, and she sailed across the ground and into the hag over me. It was a perfect strike as the pair tumbled down the muddy embankment and made a big splash in the river. Cronus walked up to the edge of the road and tossed the talismans like daggers. They stabbed into the foreheads of the hags, and the creatures dissolved into dust that floated away on the current. I tried to sit up, but my arms failed me and I fell back into the mud. Feet pounded the ground and a pair of clawed hands lifted me into strong arms. “Enid? Come on, Enid, talk to me,” Osman pleaded in a deep, guttural voice. My eyes fluttered open and I saw Osman’s furry, worried face. Behind him stood Cronus a few feet off with his face especially unhappy. “What. . .what are you?” I whispered. Osman sighed and his shoulders relaxed. “Cursed,” he answered. I managed a smile. “Then that makes two of us.” That was all the strength I had left. My head dropped back and I lost consciousness. 12 The next thing I knew after the hag incident was waking up in my new bedroom at the house with the sun rising outside. I opened my eyes and found Osman seated in a chair beside the bed. He was back to normal, or as normal as he ever was, except for the serious air around him and his lack of an overcoat. His arms were crossed over his chest and his legs were crossed as he leaned back in the chair. He stared unblinkingly at me, and it was for the first time that I noticed his eyes weren’t quite right. There was a sharpness to them that bespoke of a predator. I just hoped I wasn’t the prey. “What?” I croaked out. He sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let you come with us.” I snorted. “I kind of wanted it myself,” I reminded him. “Yeah, but you didn’t know what you were getting into. I did,” he pointed out. “Listen, don’t beat yourself up over this,” I insisted. I shifted beneath the covers and winced when my battered body reminded me I was the one who’d been beaten up. The hags had really pulled my muscles apart with their attempted soul-stealing. I tried to sit up, but all I could manage was to climb higher on the fluffy pillow at my back. “Besides, it’s not me I want to talk about,” I added. He closed his eyes and gave a single nod. “My curse.” “Yeah, that little secret. That’s why you were so sure werewolves existed?” I guessed. “Yes. It wasn’t something I meant to show you, but the cards were stacked against us,” he revealed. “So when were you going to tell me?” I asked him. “That depended on when, or if, you ever went back to your normal life,” he answered. “But until, or if, that happens, you’re staying in the house.” I frowned and crossed my arms across my chest. “Like hell I am.” Osman raised an eyebrow. “You almost got killed-” “Twice,” I added. “-and you still want to go out with us?” he wondered. “I don’t like that whole death thing, but I’m not going to be cooped up inside this old place,” I insisted. “Besides, if I come with you I’ll know if you’re dead or not, and if you’re coming back to pay the electric bill.” He grinned at me. “Are you asking for a job?” he teased. I shrugged. “Do I have a choice? That Phantom Whisperer kind of knows where I used to work.” “And live, and shop,” he added. My shoulders drooped and I scowled at him. “You have to rub it in?” “I’m just painting the full picture of your predicament,” he pointed out. “Paint somebody else’s portrait. I already know my life’s a mess, and even if I did go back that wouldn’t make my mystic powers go away, would it?” I pointed out. He shook his head. “No, it wouldn’t. You’d still be a target for Whisperers and rogue undead.” “See? So I need a job, and you’ve got a business that I might want to join,” I told him. Osman leaned back in his chair and cupped his cheek between a few fingers. He studied me with that strange half grin on his face. “You’re sure?” he asked me. “Do I have a choice?” Osman pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit it. I knew now why he didn’t think those things would kill him. He took a puff and studied me for a long, tense moment before he smiled and shrugged. “Why not? You’ve got yourself a job.” A note from Mac Thanks for downloading my book! Your support means a lot to me, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to entertain you with my stories. If you’d like to continue reading the series, or wonder what else I might have up my writer’s sleeve, feel free to check out my website, or contact me at mac@macflynn.com. Want to get an email when the next book is released? Sign up here for the Wolf Den, the online newsletter with a bite! Continue the adventure Now that you’ve finished the book, feel free to check out my website for the rest of the exciting series. Here’s also a little sneak-peek at the next book: * * * Oracle of Spirits #2: I’d gone far down the rabbit hole, and I wondered how deep I had to go to hit the bottom. It was the same harrowing night of the hags, and I still sat in my bed with Osman seated opposite me in the wooden chair. “Let’s just cut to the chase and you tell me the details about this paranormal mess,” I commanded him. Osman took a puff on his cigarette before he stuck it in the corner of his mouth. “All right. Cronus and I help people who have paranormal problems, especially ones who might not know they have them.” “You mean people like me?” I guessed. “You, and others who are a little harder to convince that they’re being haunted,” he told me. “Skeptics,” I commented. “Exactly,” he confirmed. “So how can a novice mystic like me fit into your agency?” I wondered. “That depends on your abilities,” he replied. “And those might be what?” I asked him. “Destroying phantoms with talismans, for one,” he reminded me. “And with some training you can probably sense their presence.” “And what’s the pay?” I inquired. “Sometimes there’s pay, and sometimes there’s not,” he replied. I gestured to the room around us. “It can’t be that bad if you can afford this place.” He turned his head left and right and let his eyes wander over the room. “This was financed by my past life.” I raised an eyebrow. “So you haven’t always been a werewolf?” He shook his head. “No, only ten years.” “I’m guessing the change wasn’t exactly your choice,” I mused. “Not exactly, but that’s in the past and you don’t want to hear about old stories,” he commented. I snorted and gestured down at my bruised body beneath the sheets. “I think I’ve got some time on my hands.” Osman shrugged and leaned back in the chair. He lit a cigarette and tucked it into the corner of his mouth as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. “What I’m about to tell you took place ten years ago. I was a lot younger then. Had a job as a cop with a girlfriend I thought I might marry. Anyway, I was out on a beat with my partner when we got a call about a robbery. The suspect was near us, so we went after him,” he told me. He leaned back and shook his head. “If we would’ve known it was a werewolf we would’ve waited for backup, but as it was we caught the suspect in the alley near the jewelry store. The thing came at us so fast we barely had time to fire off a few shots before it charged into us. It went for my partner first. His throat was sliced open. He was dead in seconds.” I winced. “I’m sorry.” He took a puff of his cigarette and shrugged. “It was a long time ago. Anyway, I shot at the beast, but the bullets didn’t even slow it down as it jumped me and bit my shoulder trying to get at my throat. I managed to pry it off my shoulder and shoved the butt of my gun into its mouth. Steam rose up out of its mouth and I smelled burnt flesh.” “Silver,” I mused. He nodded. “Silver. Well, the thing screamed and stumbled back. I stood up and looked at my dead partner, and something inside me snapped.” He ran a hand through his hair and bit down hard on his cigarette. “The next thing I knew the creature was dead, and it didn’t stick in that form for long. Killing a werewolf means it reverts back to its human forms, and this one was no exception. There I was standing over the dead body of the suspect with a deep gash in my shoulder and my partner nearby with his throat torn open.” I cringed. “That doesn’t sound good.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t the greatest predicament I’d been in. Backup decided to come, and that’s how they found me. I still had the murder weapon, my gun, in my hand.” He leaned back and shook his head. “They had a hell of a time snapping me out of it enough to pry it from my tight fingers.” “So did they charge you with murder?” I wondered. “No. There was enough evidence on me to justify self-defense, and my partner being dead helped my case,” he explained. “I was taken to the hospital where I recuperated, but I was discharged from force for mental health issues because nobody would believe what I saw, and the only witness was my dead partner” “So they thought you were nuts?” I guessed. Osman nodded. “Pretty much. I went to counseling for a few weeks, but the doctors there were all quacks. Besides, I knew what I saw, and what made things worse was the stuff I started seeing and smelling.” “Werewolf perception?” I guessed. He shook his head. “No, this was different. I started seeing shadows where there wasn’t anybody, and I could smell death everything.” He tamped out the short cigarette and his eyes flickered up to me. “You have any idea how many people die in a city every day?” “A lot?” I guessed. “Yeah, and some of those people don’t go to the other side. They linger here and stink up the place with their rotting souls,” he told me. I wrinkled my nose. “Sounds delicious.” “It smells like a charnel house,” he told me. He leaned back and furrowed his brow. “I found that I could see and smell these dead people, and I saw what happened when spirits stayed on earth a little too long. They’d start to change.” “Change into what?” I asked him. “Into monsters,” he explained. “Some would start off slow, and others would be quick, but they’d all change. Some turned into hags and poltergeists, and others got the pleasure of being the creature you saw, a phantom. Others got worse.” “Worse?” I repeated. He nodded. “Yeah. They’re called wraiths, and if you think those phantoms are terrifying just try meeting a wraith in an alley on a moonless night. It’ll age you.” “So other than strange company, what’s the catch?” I wondered. “The catch was they could see me, too, and some of them weren’t too keen on that,” he revealed. “Did you try telling anybody about this?” I wondered. He pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah, my girlfriend, Tiffany, but she didn’t want to hear about it, not after I’d already lost my job and quit my counseling. I tried to get my act straight, go normal, but once you go into the paranormal world you never come out.” I cringed. “Comforting.” He sighed and shrugged. “That’s the way it is for both of us. Like you said, we’re both cursed. Yours is just natural.” “Doesn’t exactly give me comfort,” I retorted. “Sometimes the cards we’re dealt aren’t that great, but we’ve got to make the most of it,” he commented. He stood and half-turned away from me. “But I think that’s enough of my story. You’ve got enough on your plate without hearing about my mess.” Wait.” I reached out my hand towards him. “You can’t leave in the middle of a story.” His eyes studied me. “You sure you want to hear the rest?” “Why not? Is there that much left?” I returned. He shook his head and turned to face me. “No. I came home from a job interview one night and found Tiffany dead on the living room floor with a wraith over her.” I felt the color drain from my face. “I’m. . .I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Osman managed a bitter smile. “It’s fine. It’s in the past, remember? Anyway, it’d taken her soul and all I could think about was destroying it with this curse I had. Maybe go out with a bang. Let’s just say that even with my powers the fight was short, and I would’ve joined Tiffany if Cronus hadn’t come out of nowhere and destroyed it.” I wrinkled my nose. “So he’s like your guardian angel or something?” Osman gave me that strange crooked grin of his. “Something like that. He’s the one who taught me about the different kinds of dead and paranormal people like mystics and whispers. He also told me I was different from other werewolves. Very few can actually sense the dead.” “How’d you get stuck with that?” I wondered. He shrugged. “Just the way the ball bounced for me. Now I’m stuck as a werewolf with this unusual job and a rather unusual partner. All because I wouldn’t wait in the car for backup.”


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